The Vatican has suspended its dialogue with the Anglican Church, following the decision of its American branch to consecrate as a bishop a man who left his wife to enter a relationship with another man. The Russian Orthodox Church had already ended the dialogue for the same reason.

One of the very few blessings of this sad debate is that it forces a serious look at what we mean by tradition, and at how binding a force tradition is, or should be. For Catholics, and perhaps even more for Orthodox, tradition has an authority that it does not for most Protestants. Before we can get a sense about the right claims being made by the traditionalist and modernist sides here, it is important to see what is wrong with both of them.

Some defenders of the traditional understanding of marriage as limited to male and female partners use the Bible to make their case, and it is a strong one. I agree that this is a necessary sacramental symbol. To lean too much on a scriptural defense, however, or upon a continuous church tradition, could lead us to ignore or to downplay those situations in which we have in fact decided, not only as individuals but over time as a community, to ignore passages of Scripture or areas of tradition that we do not accept the way our ancestors did.

At the same time, tradition is an important voice-or better, a harmony of voices, a consensus-that should make us critical of merely contemporary understandings. Its strength is that it is, as Chesterton said, “the democracy of the dead.” To think that the common opinion of people whose perspective is blinkered by the zeitgeist of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is wiser than the agreed wisdom of the previous two thousand years is, maybe, a little arrogant. Still, for many contemporary Christians, when traditional understanding meets the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist wins. It is assumed to be the correct, enlightened view.

The fact is that even the most traditionalist believers among us have changed our collective understanding, and interpret Scripture accordingly. Slavery was once considered not only a normal part of life; slaves were called, in the Bible, their masters’ income. We do not now follow the advice on mildew or skin diseases that take up a great part of the Torah. And then there is Deuteronomy 25: 11-12: “When men fight with one another, and the wife of one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand; your eye shall have no pity.”

The Torah also tells us to be good to the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Does Leviticus 18:22-“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”-fall into the category of the sort of thing we have come to ignore, or the sort of thing we cannot? Taking the same question into the New Testament, when in Romans 1 Paul speaks of homosexuality, his assumption is that it is a choice, a perverse abandonment of something natural in favor of some new sexual flavor of the month. If it were that, I would agree that it is an evil, an objective disorder; but no homosexual person I know has experienced it that way.

These are especially difficult areas because sex is always fraught, given its connection with reproduction and the family. In point of fact, though, we no longer believe that monks who have nocturnal emissions are victims of demonic succubae, nor are they morally culpable; yet this was a common belief once. We know, as our forefathers did not, that this is simple physiology. The most ardent defenders of John Paul II’s conservative but appreciative approach to the body have moved far beyond the idea-once quite common, even among some authoritative church fathers-that to take pleasure in sex is wrong, and that marriage is, to use Jacques Maritain’s ironic phrase, a form of “holy imperfection.”

So it really is important to see tradition in a more nuanced way. In most approaches to homosexual activity, the emphasis-as elsewhere in moral theology manuals-was on the act itself, and never on a larger moral or psychological context. Gore Vidal has said that there are no homosexuals, only homosexual acts, and it is a lovely irony that this committed loather of the Judaeo-Christian tradition finds himself in bed (as it were) with the most conservative ancient Catholic moral theologians. To make no distinction between a committed homosexual couple and someone who is promiscuous is morally obtuse.

On the other hand, a lot of us now assume that because we know a bit more than our ancestors did about a few things, they knew nothing. There is little attempt to see what may be wise in a tradition we are tempted to abandon. The contempt many liberals feel for those who oppose abortion is a case in point. Although I am not at all persuaded by the ban on contraception urged by Humanae vitae, it voiced some sound worries. There is, in fact, something dangerous in the attempt to control all aspects of our life; and to regard an “unplanned” or “unwanted” child as a mistake is a terrible thing. The separation of sex from reproduction has not been an unmixed blessing for our culture, to say the very least. While many of our ancestors had ideas about sexuality that we now appropriately reject, the common approach to sex in contemporary culture is unlikely to inspire the great reverence for the body, and the joy of deep and faithful commitment, that a truly healthy attitude toward sex would exhibit. Yet the attitude of many liberals toward conservative Christians who even try to raise such questions is often dismissive, and it should not be.

The issue of how we regard homosexuality and the ordination of actively homosexual clergy is going to remain a divisive and difficult one for years to come. On the conservative side it has blossomed at times into a kind of witch hunt, which could threaten even the celibate homosexuals who provide the church with so much dedicated service. On the liberal side, anyone who questions the wisdom of ordaining an openly gay bishop is regarded as a troglodyte. As this issue continues to divide Christians, it will be essential for parties on both sides to listen deeply and respectfully to one another, understanding the limitations, as well as the strengths, of their own perspectives as they do so.

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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Published in the 2004-01-16 issue: View Contents
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