Homosexuality, Scripture, & tradition


With so much to read and so little time, I recently decided Commonweal was an enjoyable but not essential part of my routine and intended to let my subscription lapse. Then the June 15 issue arrived. Luke Timothy Johnson and Eve Tushnet’s exchange, “Homosexuality & the Church: Two Views,” changed my mind.

Both authors contributed intelligent, challenging examinations of a difficult issue-precisely the kind of respectful, thoughtful discussion we so badly need and so rarely have. Neither viewpoint can (or should) be easily dismissed, and I admire Commonweal for consistently recognizing that this is the case in nearly every issue that divides us. I’m renewing my subscription now: any magazine that prioritizes careful intellectual discernment over strident dogmatism is essential.


New York, N.Y.


In her response to Luke Timothy Johnson, Eve Tushnet misconstrues Johnson’s argument and in the process offers a false choice. According to Tushnet, Johnson argues that personal experience, which affirms the goodness of homosexual romantic love, trumps church teaching, which forbids such love. Tushnet disagrees. If one must choose, Tushnet chooses long-standing church teaching over personal experience, which is ephemeral and culture-bound. Luke Timothy Johnson, however, is not asking us to choose between church teaching (including the authority of Scripture) and personal experience. It is true, as Tushnet notes, that Johnson does argue we may need to “reject the straightforward commands of Scripture” regarding homosexual relations and appeal to the authority of “our own experience and the experience of thousands of others.” But he goes on to say, “To justify this trust, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills.” Johnson is rejecting the “letter” regarding homosexuality, but not the larger biblical tradition that “gives life.” Johnson is not ultimately choosing experience over Scripture. Rather, he is bringing experience into dialogue with the larger scriptural tradition, which presumably informs the value he places on personal experience in the first place. Jesus was doing the same thing as he constantly refashioned the Torah.

Ultimately, this is how we “do” theology. Tradition is constantly being reinterpreted; it develops through the dialogical incorporation of new experience. If we are forced to choose between experience and tradition, our tradition will cease to be a living one that can speak to reality.


Minneapolis, Minn.


Reading Eve Tushnet was a great breath of fresh air. Her reflection was humble, empathetic, smart, honest, and searching. But at a crucial point, my own Christian experience parts ways with hers. As an ex-priest now partnered with a man, I meet the Cross every day in the relationship I have chosen. I lived the Cross, too, in my former priestly celibacy. But the cross I presently carry-of sacrifice, wrenching compromise, daily choices to put another first-brings richness and joy. There was little redemption for me in my previous celibacy. I can only hope that Tushnet’s choice to sacrifice a partnered life brings her joy. After all, sacrifice and joy live together in the home we call the Christian mystery.


Minneapolis, Minn.


Thorough or thoroughly confusing? “Homosexuality & the Church” was wonderfully challenging, but not as anthropologically grounded a treatment as the topic deserves. It merits more careful re-reading and conversation.

Tushnet’s arguments, though very articulate, sound to me like those of someone still enamored with the panoply of a Catholic culture that may or may not sustain her in the willing “sacrifice” of sexual expression. The cost of Tushnet’s celibacy may be as rewarding to her as Dorothy Day’s conversion and subsequent celibacy were for her. But I am not ready to accept celibacy as the most human and Christian choice for the majority of believers.


Fayetteville, N.Y.


I am a gay, cradle Catholic who has tried to reconcile the church’s teachings on homosexuality with the way God made me. My homosexuality is intrinsic to me; it is there whether it is expressed sexually or not.

As both the Johnson and the Tushnet articles show, responding to homosexuality in ourselves and others is a spiritual process. My spiritual journey has been powered by a life-long attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. The church’s labeling of me as host to an “intrinsic moral disorder,” as someone who must live by the rule “thou shalt not have sex,” is inadequate guidance in discerning what love of God and love of others demand of me under the circumstances. The church’s teachings and scriptural exegesis on this topic seem to me to be singularly deficient in love. They may be spun with the “tongues of men and angels” but they strike my ear as “resounding gongs and clanking cymbals.”


Arlington, Va.


Eve Tushnet correctly reminds us that Catholic moral teaching deserves great consideration. Like Luke Timothy Johnson, she examines experience concluding, “But our human experience, including our erotic experience, cannot be a replacement for the divine revelation preserved by the church.” We respect this, and we are further moved by Tushnet’s newfound love of the church, but we find Johnson’s analysis more compelling.

In our own consideration of the church’s stance, we found the teaching on homosexuality wrongheaded long ago. As with Johnson, however, none of our considerations has affected our consciences and minds the way the lives of our homosexual family members have. We will not “love the sinner and hate the sin” the way some have suggested. To the best of our abilities, we will love each family member unconditionally.

If not for our loved ones, we might have thought we should, as Tushnet says, “accept the sacrifices of Catholic life” and not try to “wriggle” out of them. We are convinced the church has been not only wrong, but sinful. The U.S. bishops’ letter on ministering to homosexuals is a case in point. Wrapped in a gossamer of platitudes, it is a teaching that gives support to the injury, or even death, of homosexuals. In our long and painful grappling with the church’s teaching on homosexuality, we have expressed much of what Johnson wrote. But he summarizes the case against any religious condemnation of homosexuality based upon Scripture or tradition better than anything we have ever heard or read elsewhere. We especially appreciate his case for judging homosexuals according to the same standards we apply to heterosexual morality.


Knoxville, Tenn.


I find Luke Timothy Johnson’s thoughts on the scriptural basis of church homophobia particularly illuminating and useful. One does not have to be a biblical scholar to recognize that the vilification of the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community is just the latest example of Bible-based appeals to fear, ignorance, and bigotry; just ask the Jews, heretics, “heathens,” Muslims, “witches,” slaves, blacks, or mixed-race couples persecuted over the years in the name of Christianity. This sordid history should give any thinking Christian pause before adding one more group to the list of the scorned.

While I agree with Johnson that the scriptural issue has to be addressed, I believe that it really is about sex. Tushnet hits the nail on the head when she says, “any discussion of homosexuality taps into deep-seated fears about what it means to be a man, and whether differences between men and women are created by the culture to keep women subordinate.” One might reasonably ask if this could help explain the celibate Catholic hierarchy’s preoccupation with homosexuality and other aspects of human sexuality, to the detriment of its leadership on other moral issues such as war and poverty.

One more observation: It seems to me that Johnson’s approach should apply in spades to the issue of birth control. Surely the overwhelming acceptance of contraception by both Catholics and Protestants has made clear that people do not find the church’s teaching in this area to be credible. Couldn’t a similar case be made that this voice of human experience also dictates a change?


Wayne, Pa.


As a gay Catholic, I found myself agreeing with Luke Timothy Johnson’s view. Scripture is vitally important in helping us know the will of God, but a literal reading misses the spirit of its larger message. To read Scripture literally is to follow all the Scriptures, including those about not lending money with interest, not eating shellfish, not having intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period, and not allowing divorce and remarriage.


Hilliard, Ohio


Commonweal’s recent attempt to address homosexuality and Catholicism suffers from a kind of provincialism. Luke Timothy Johnson writes as if the whole of Catholicism were limited to the Europeanized north. But to Christians of Asia and Africa, the assertion that a family with two mothers and no father or two fathers and no mother is superior to a family with two mothers and one father can appear arrogant and hypocritical. The prohibitions against both polygamy and homosexuality have their roots in longstanding Christian practice. A truly universal church must provide some rationale if it is now to abolish the prohibition of homosexual activity while continuing to forbid the practice of polygamy.


Loveland, Colo.

Published in the 2007-08-17 issue: 
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