People in Los Angeles dance at the first Eastside LGBTQ+ Pride Orgullo Fest, June 27, 2021 (CNS photo/Aude Guerrucci, Reuters).

I agree with a lot of what Paul Baumann says in his rebuke of Margaret Rankl for being too liberal (“From the Church to the Woods,” March 23, 2022). First and foremost is his challenge to her decision to leave behind a community of faith she liked and a pastor who preached fine homilies in favor of a walk in the woods. There is nothing wrong with communing with nature, but it misses the Catholic point that from the first moment of creation of humanity we are beings-in-relation. Hence, we encounter God as members of a community, not as individuals, disgruntled or otherwise. Catholics gain what spiritual strength they have from their local parish community much more than from the global Church. Even John Paul II thought that the hope of the Church lay in the best of U.S. Catholic parishes, though the International Commission on English in the Liturgy of some years ago threw out the tradition by returning to the Credo of “I believe,” abandoning the much more theologically solid “we.”

Baumann is also right that it is just too easy to dismiss difficult or sensitive and also probably conflicted issues because they do not fit some time-conditioned version of liberalism. There is something to be said for Johann Baptist Metz’s insistence that the genius of the Catholic view of things lies in its “productive non-contemporaneity.”

I am not so sure, however, that Baumann gets it right when he asks, “How is one to make sense of Catholicism’s traditional anthropology and sexual ethics if marriage, long solemnized as an act performed by ‘a man and a woman’ before God, is no longer defined by such God-given identities?” Phrasing his question this way might seem eminently sensible until we recognize that it is the wrong question. Let me rephrase it: “How is one to make sense of Catholicism’s traditional anthropology and sexual ethics if marriage, long solemnized as an act performed by ‘a man and a woman’ before God, is no longer defined by the biological distinctions found in the creation story of Genesis?”

It seems to me a mistake to assume that sexual ethics can be tied to an “unchanging” anthropology.

I am afraid that the short answer is that we cannot, not because we are liberals but because we respect the advance of scientific understanding. When we ask the question this way, we are forced to ask about the valence of “traditional anthropology.” Is anthropology impervious to or absolved from the historical process? If not, should the male/female identities as Baumann here seems to understand them be so confidently described as “God-given”? It seems to me a mistake to assume that sexual ethics can be tied to an “unchanging” anthropology. Sexual ethics depends upon anthropology, for sure, on our understanding of what it is to be a human being. Philosophical or theological anthropology is no more immune to changing historical understanding than was geocentrism, or indeed than was the heliocentrism that replaced it for a time. What is unchanging in the vision of Genesis is to be found in the theological truth that human beings are dependent upon a creator God, who chose to make them in the divine image and likeness. The rest of the story, the details, are what the author of Genesis lays upon the Creator, extrapolating from what the author or authors knew to be the case in their own times to the origins of life billions of years before. When science comes to understand more fully what it is to be human, science is not disproving our dependence on a creator God; rather, it is advancing our knowledge of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.

Among the salient historical facts of our present moment that seem to require an adjustment to Christian anthropology are two of great importance. First, men and women who have same-sex sexual attraction are following their natural inclinations, and seem in all or almost all respects to live and function in our modern world in precisely the same way as do their heterosexual fellow citizens. A corollary to this is the fact that sexual activity has been decoupled from procreation. The instinct-driven sex drive of the animal world has now found its way to the opportunity for truly human responsible sexual choices. Biology says that sexual intercourse between men and women tends towards procreation. Catholic theology has said for a very long time that sexual intercourse that is not open to the possibility of procreation is objectively sinful. Common sense says that human beings know how to employ sexual relations responsibly, whether in the service of procreation or in that of loving intimacy and mutual sexual pleasure.

Second, it is beyond dispute that same-sex relationships, whether blessed by ritual or not, are marked by loving mutuality just about as much as heterosexual relationships are. One of the most momentous changes in our world today is that there is what is still a relatively new openness about sexual identity, in consequence of which we all know men and women who are gay or lesbian or transgender, and we can see that they are not better or worse than anyone else, and that they succeed or fail in life in about the same percentages. In other words, they are normal in all the important ways. And nothing is more normal than the wish to love and to be loved.

When we bring these two thoughts together, and we insist on the Creator’s intent to make human beings in the divine image and likeness of God—an image that is neither gendered nor sexualized—and on the impossibility of frustrating that divine will, it is surely clear that to be made in the divine image is to be created to love. Wherever there is genuine love, there is God. When we step away from outdated anthropology and trust our God-given eyes, there is no rational way to deny that genuine love is not confined to heterosexual relationships. If the Church were to reflect on these facts, both the biological and the theological, it might find its way to celebrating loving unions wherever it is fortunate enough to find them.

Paul Lakeland is emeritus professor of religious studies at Fairfield University.

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