'Duck Dynasty,' Meet Pope Francis

Battles Over What God Demands

If any given religion and its holy writings can be used to support diametrically opposed conclusions about how to live life and how to approach politics, why should religious faith be taken seriously?

Please forgive such a stark question on Christmas week, a time when we tend to file away hard issues in the name of joy, warmth, family and, yes, commerce. And let's stipulate that this is a healthy impulse in light of the meanness that characterizes so many of our debates.

But the defrocking of a Methodist minister for performing a gay wedding service and the "Duck Dynasty" controversy remind us that the appearance of a Savior whose ministry led to the creation of one of the world's most durable religions did not end our battles with each other over what God demands.

Last week, the Rev. Frank Schaefer lost his status as a United Methodist clergyman because he officiated at his gay son's wedding. Both Schafer and the church officials who disciplined him argued, passionately, that they were upholding Christian principles. Schaefer saw himself acting under the obligation of universal love that was at the heart of Jesus' teaching. His opponents cited Methodist doctrine that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

My own sympathies are with Schaefer, since I see our attitudes toward gays and lesbians as being shaped by culture, which is a human product, not by divine command. Jesus, most orthodox believers would agree, set aside the law when he saw it as violating our primary duty to love God and neighbor. Pope Francis did not change the Catholic position on gay marriage, yet he has won accolades from the gay community for his simple (and very Christian) declaration, "Who am I to judge them if they're seeking the Lord in good faith?"

Still, the social conservatives have a point when they say that those of us with more liberal views on homosexuality are, in fact, asking the Christian tradition to break with its own past. That would certainly be Phil Robertson's view. He was suspended from A&E's hit show "Duck Dynasty" for telling GQ that "homosexual behavior" could "just morph out" into "bestiality."

"We're Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television," he explained. "You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off."

The odd thing is that many who have condemned Robertson would share his take on loving each other, and they'd cite it as a reason for condemning personal hostility based on someone's sexual preference. Thus did Wilson Cruz, a spokesman for the gay rights group GLAAD, declare that "Phil's lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe."

Yet when even the pope wonders aloud as to whether it's appropriate for him to judge, you begin to see the difficulty of deciding what "true Christians" ought to believe. This raises the question of whether the religiously based principles are merely cultural artifacts that we bend to our own immediate purposes.

The answer lies in embracing a humility about how imperfectly human beings understand the divine, which is quite different from rejecting God or faith. This humility defines the chasm between a living religious tradition and a dead traditionalism. We need to admit how tempted we are to deify whatever commitments we have at a given moment. And those of us who are Christian need to acknowledge that over the history of the faith, there have been occasions when "a supposedly changeless truth has changed," as the great church historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan put it.

What distinguishes this view from pure relativism is the insistence that truth itself exists. The Christian's obligation is to engage in an ongoing quest for a clearer understanding of what it is. Robertson would disagree with me, but I'd say that we are going through precisely such an effort when it comes to how we think about homosexuality, much as Christians have done before on such matters as slavery, the role of women, and the Earth's place in the universe.

Pope Francis, for one, has warned against the pursuit of "an exaggerated doctrinal 'security,'" and criticized "those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists."

"I have a dogmatic certainty," he said. "God is in every person's life." That's one dogma worthy of Christmas, and it might offer Phil Robertson and Frank Schaefer the foundation for a fruitful conversation.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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EJ Dionne answers his question on how to avoid or overcome the "Battles Over What God Demands"

as follows:

"The answer lies in embracing a humility about how imperfectly human beings understand the divine, which is quite different from rejecting God or faith. This humility defines the chasm between a living religious tradition and a dead traditionalism. We need to admit how tempted we are to deify whatever commitments we have at a given moment. And those of us who are Christian need to acknowledge that over the history of the faith, there have been occasions when "a supposedly changeless truth has changed," as the great church historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan put it."

I cannot agree more with the call for humility expressed in the first line. The rest, I find problematic. What "dead religious traditionalism" is being referred to in the second line? Catholic tradition? Of course, we have to "admit how tempted we are to deify whatever commitments we have at a given moment." These are un-Dionne-like weasel words with little or no real meaning or force. Or does Dionne  mean a Catholic's commitment to follow the teachings of the Church are to be viewed as "a commitment we have at a given moment?"  As for those "'supposedly changless truths [that] have changed," what were they? I am not aware of any, at least not in the Catholic faith tradition. Perhaps, with humility, I will turn to the writings of Pelikan to find out.

The Methodist ministers have a right to discipline their clergy as they see fit. I'm not sure as Catholics we should be questioning the propriety of their actions. It certainly doesn't seem like a very "humble" response.

I find myself usually in agreement with EJ's opinion pieces and analysis. Here, however, I am puzzled as to what he is really trying to say and why he is saying it.





Mr. Sheridan --

The official Roman Catholic Church has changed its teachings about the supposed guilt of all Jews for the death of Christ, the impossibility of a non-Catholic to go to Heaven, the permissibility of charging interest.   

Ann O.

can I add that slavery was OK, and Jews should not be prosetylized.. 'left alone to follow their covenant'

non violence of early Christians was abandoned to allow fighting against pagans and then extended to allow  fighting with Christians too? and BC is now being put on the table of change?

 the Methodist minister/father's bigger  'sin' would be to refuse to  preside at a civil wedding that his state gives him the power to do.  Some would post that it would be a 'sin' to even attend.the ceremony.

The oath...  'your dead to me' has not yet been abandoned by some. . .

Homosexuality in the ancient world was condemned because the norm of human nature at that time was thought to be heterosexual. Any homosexual acts were committed by deviate heterosexuals, and many times this was forced upon young boys by dominant adult men. It was also thought that homosexual acts were freely and voluntarily chosen by heterosexual men and were consider unnatural and immoral sexual behavior. There was no understanding of human sexual orientation that people are born with. Nor was there any thought that homosexual acts could be morally acceptable between people with a same-sex attraction in a committed, faithful, loving, long term relationship.

The ancient culture influenced beliefs and norms and behavior that were thought to be unchanging and universal. Thanks to our progress in the sciences, what is meant to be human, the interpretation of Scripture, and our knowledge of theology, philosophy, anthropology, et al, our understanding of truth is more enlightened but still limited.



"Homosexuality in the ancient world was condemned because the norm of human nature at that time was thought to be heterosexual."

Writing in Salon Magazine in 2001, Camille Paglia, a gay woman, stated that "heterosexuality is nature's norm".  


I don't believe any of those were official Catholic teaching.


In all do respect, Jaraslov Pelikan was not even a Catholic historian. He was also very prolific. I would welcome the opportunity to find in his large volume of work where the claim that official Catholic teaching on major moral issues changed. Could anyone point to one or two of his works which I may consult?

I apologize if my remarks were not completely clear.

In ancient times all humans were thought to be heterosexual. Everyone believed that homosexuality was not a sexual orientation, but rather it was a deviant choosen act by heterosexuals. In truth, for homosexuals, homosexual acts are natural, reasonable and in accordance with their human nature and what facilitates human flourishing, and heterosexual acts are not. For heterosexuals, homosexual acts are not natural or reasonable and not in accordance with their human nature and what facilitates human flourishing, and heterosexual acts are not. 



I'm not quite sure how Jaroslav Pelikan got into this, and I certainly can't quote any of his books that claim changes in the "major moral teachings" of the Catholic Church. But others have certainly done so. John Noonan's A Church That Can Change and Cannot Change is one of them, in which you can find pretty full discussions of changes in, for instance, a) the moral licitness of charging interest; and b) slavery. And it doesn't take long to think up others yourself (the proper way to treat heretics, for example).

Television shows are commercial products.  If a performer in one offends too many viewers, the commercial value of the product plummets.  So long as the performer doesn't have tenure, he can expect to go to the end of the unemployment line.

Methodist ministers are bound, so far as I know, by similar restraints.  The minister presumably knew he was sacrificing himself.

All's well, I'd think.  The television personality got a much wider audience for his ideas than he'd likely have had had he not become a television personality.  He made money, he used his fame to make a principled but unpopular statement, he bowed off the stage.  The minister probably earned little money, but he did get a big audience for his principled statement.

Two protestors.  Two martyrs.  Martyrdom is good for the soul and, sometimes, good for the soul of others.

The only problem in these cases is that they violate modern Westerners' sense that they have a God-given right to have their cake and eat it, too.



Michael Barbieri, in his clarification above, has given the best and most concise reasoning I have seen for the "naturalness" of homosexual activity. In a sense he turns the natural law objection to homosexuality to a support for it, as being acutally natural. I'm not sure I agree with it, but it is worth pondering carefully. If there was a change in the Church's moral stance on homosexuality, this reasoning could possibly be key to understanding that change. However, this reasoning, even if sound, is not a basis for declaring that gay unions are the same as marriage, or that either secular or Church law need to affirm that they are.

Nicholas Clifford, Pelikan was cited by Dionne in the article. Thank you for your other reading suggestions.








Wayne Sheridan....thanks for your comments. This blog is not a good medium for a heavy discussion about homosexuality. My remarks are not my own but of two promenient theologians that are doing ground-breaking scholarship (see Salzman and Lawler, Sexual Ethics: A Theological Tradition). Permit me some latitude here and some additional comments. The Church condmens homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered based on 3 primary arguments:

1. They are contrary to the natural law, the prinicples of which are reflected in human nature itself.

2. They close the sexual act to the procreation of life, and

3. They don't proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.

The issue of nature and natural law is not to argue that homosexual activity is moral because it is natural for those with a homosexual orientation, for that would be to treat natural facts as moral justification. To be moral, any sexual act, whether homosexual or heterosexual, must be not only natural but also just, loving and in accord with holitistic complemenatarity of which sexual orientation is included. 

Consider the second point, that the sexual act must be open to procreation. Clearly, infertile married couples and their sexual acts are not open to procreation. Infertile married couples adopt children often as do some homosexual couples. As to the claim that same-sex marriages destroy the very fabric of heterosexual marriages and the well being and upbringing of children, recent research disagrees. There is no significant difference in the emotional, cognitive, social and sexual functioning of children whose parents are hetereosexual or homosexual (American Pychological Association, 2004).

As to the third point about sexual complementarity, the Church does not believe that sexual orientation should not be a factor when considering sexual complementarity. 

While the Church may not changes its teaching on homosexuality, I hope their pastoral theology and practices do change. I continue to believe that imposing a life time of sexual abstinence on people with a same-sex attraction is not only cruel and unreasonable, but the gift of celibacy (or sexual abstinence) is a gift from God given to the very few. It must be voluntarily chosen, and not forced or imposed on them who want to enter into a life-long, loving, faithful and committed relationship under the same obligations and responsibiities of heterosexual married couples. I believe the Church should be open to a re-thinking on this issue.



Thank you, Michael Barberi, for stating so simply and succinctly what real life is for those of us who are gay.

It may take a century or more, but some day the Church WILL change its teaching about sexual orientation and its expression in a loving relationship.

Then we'll get one of those well-worded apologies the Vatican is so good at.

infertile married couples and their sexual acts are not open to procreation


This statement is only partially true.  The controllable act (intercourse) of the couple is open to procreation, the uncontrollable after effects is where the problem lies.  In the case of same-sex coupling, even the controllable act is closed.  A same-sex coupling is better described as mutual masterbation.

Mr. Sheridan,

    The Roman Catholic Church changed its teaching on whether it is permissible to own human beings as slaves, or at least, one may hope it did.

Mary O'Grady...where and when in Church teaching was human slavery explicitly condoned?


Michael Barberi...there are other studies in the US and Europe that are not as sanguine about the effects on children who are raised by same sex couples. I would, for the sake of children, urge caution here. The phenomena of same sex couples raising children is so new that a definitive study may be years away.

The point made by Robert Mooneyhan that the Church may change its teaching about homosexuality over a long period of time is probably true, and rightly so. Much is at stake and the Church must take into account the teachings gleaned from the Bible and tradition, the wisdom of our ancestors, as well as more modern discoveries on the nature of homosexuality.

Would that the secular government were as wise! We are heading pell mell to" the establishment of gay marriage as equal to and the same as traditional marriage" by judicial fiat. This is unwise, illogical and unnecessary; because, gay rights, including the rights of gay couples, can be secured without changing the definition of marriage, private contracts or the establishment of government recognized gay unions, similar to, but quite distinct from marriage.



Thanks, Bruce, for calling sex with the love of my life "mutual masterbation" (sic).


Ah, the sweet savor of denigration of people unlike ourselves, right?

Ah, but,  Mr. Sheridan, as an eighth-generation South Carolinian, I would like to point out that separate is never really equal.

Robert Mooneyhan...one can have civil rights for traditional marriage and gay unions without having to assert the absurdity that they are the same institution or reality. The pigment of ones skin is not a basis for separation; the profoud differences between gay unions and marriage are.

We now have marital advice from Dr. Phil:  marry 'em when they're 15 or 16, and they can help you "pick your ducks."  "Now that's a woman," Dr. Phil opines:


Can't wait to hear what he thinks about stoning gays and unruly children.  It's right there in the Good Book.


Wayne Sheridan...They're definitely similar enough to go under the same name.

And I've had extensive, intimate observation of both.

I seriously doubt that you have had a same-sex life partner.

Robert -- it is more than just a name, it is the foundation of any civil society. I am glad you are blessed with a life long partner same sex partner as you seem to indicate. But the differences with marriage are obvious and profound, which certainly your "intimate observation of both" must have revealed.

Is there a limited number of marriages available?

Will there be less heterosexual marriages when gay men and lesbians can marry?

Will marriage not be MORE of a "foundation of any civil society" when more people can be married?

What I've seen more and more, especially where I live in the Bible Belt, is people who seem to think that if you make gay people's lives as difficult as possible, we will somehow disappear.

Robert, that attitude towards gays is reprehensible. Connection is tenuous; I will try  to address your questions later.




Robert, your first question is absurd and meaningless, as you surely should recognize.

Unfortunately, marriage has been on a decline for some time; uncertain of the future, or any effect "gay marriage" will have on traditional marriage numbers.

Traditional marriage, that is one man and one woman and their children, has been the foundation of society for millenia atttested to by nature, God and the wisdom of our forebearers. Trying to redefine marriage can only do harm. We do not support traditional marriage and the families they produce enough already.

Most troubling to me is that the State has already decided it has the power to redefine who is human, excluding the conceived yet unborn as not human already, and now the same State is trying to redefine marriage. This is giving power to the State that it should not have. It approaches the tyrannical.



That didn't answer my questions at all.

Your basic answer is fear of what might happen, with no evidence to back up your position.

There are quite a few countries that are ahead of us on this issue, and, of course, there has been NO deleterious effect on heterosexual marriage in those countries. How could there be? We are talking about two different groups of people altogether.

I have YET to see ANY logical argument from your side against same-sex marriage. It always seems to boil down to fear of people unlike yourselves, and some vague fear for the future of heterosexual partnering. You'll have to work on the latter amongst yourselves.

But it's like talking to a brick wall, so, as far as I'm concerned, our conversation is at an end.

As one brick wall to another, it is probably right to stop here. You obviously do not understand my arguments, and perhaps I do not your's.

Robert, by the way I have no fear of "people unlike myself.' I have many gay friends and gay couple friends. My arguments are not anti-gay in anyway. I am for gay rights and would support gay unions. I speak from a civil point of view, not religious. The Church will probably reexamine its position of gay sex and, like Pope Francis, as a "loyal son of the Church," I will accept the Church's teaching, revised or not.

The following article may be helpful to those who are trying to discern any change in the Church's position:




God is in every person's life. We just have to discover him. Be it matrimony or any other event in life, ask God for his opinion and he will answer you.

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