Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Homosexuality, Culture Wars, and the Orthodox Church


A friend of mine saw a play that portrayed a fifteen year-old apparently gay girl bullied and eventually expelled from her Catholic school.  The play disturbed him, and he wanted to discuss some issues related to culture, homosexuality and the Church's response.  Here is a modified version of what I wrote him.

Let me begin by saying that you should read Fr. Thomas Hopko's book Christian Faith and Same Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections (published by Conciliar Press).  I think he does a good job of setting up what probably are and probably are not the issues. "Probably" is an excellent word here.

We must be careful not to be drawn into the cultural war surrounding homosexuality.  Like all wars, the first casualty is reason.  And this can happen both by leaning to the right or the left.  There may be several truths and several realities that need to be held in tension and which cannot be immediately or universally resolved.  That is, it may be impossible to come up with a universally applicable policy on this matter, though it may be possible to discern appropriate responses in specific situations.  This is true for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that homosexuality is defined so broadly.  The human sexual passion ranges over a large territory.  There is no single definition of homo vs. hetero sexual.  It is a more or less sort of thing. Extremes and hypothetical cases are easier to deal with, but the lived reality of most is not so clear. 

I (personally) know people who spent years in homosexual relationships only to crossover into a (satisfying) heterosexual relationship later. Similarly, I've seen it go the other way too.  I've also known people who have had homosexual experiences in their youth who then assumed (because it was an enjoyable experience—orgasm generally is no matter how one comes to it) that this must mean they are gay. They then spent their teens and twenties secretly or openly cultivating same-sex arousal.  Then around midlife, they realized that they really wanted to have a family, but because they had trained themselves to be aroused by same-sex fantasy, pornography and short-term relationships, they fear that they will not be able to perform in a heterosexual relationship.  And they may be right, but not necessarily. Some do make the crossover.  I know some.  But again, that crossover happens both ways. I even read of a man who in his seventies "realized" that he was homosexual.

So what's my point?  

First, that what sexually arouses a person does not define a person—unless he or she wants to be defined by it.

Second, the church is very clear that all sexual arousal leading to orgasm outside of marriage is less than what God has intended for human beings (i.e. sin).  The Church affirms that celibacy is good, even a higher path than marriage--though not necessarily a better path, each has his or her calling.  But that calling, as far as the Church is concerned, does not include the option of same-sex monogamy or any of thousands of other conceivable arrangements.

Third, human beings are sick, and many may indeed be born with same-sex tendencies just as some people are born with alcoholic tendencies.  But this tendency, which may be very strong in some, can be overcome given healthy spiritual care—which, unfortunately, is not common even in the Church.  Some of the Fathers (Sts. Barsanuphius and John come to mind) speak explicitly about overcoming "love for boys." Which, by the way, is one of the reasons why boys and men without beards were not traditionally allowed to enter many monasteries.  Certainly a healthy monastery under a healthy spiritual father is one place where people who struggle with sexual passions of any kind can work our their salvation.  Unfortunately, however, a quick look around will confirm that the Church is rather short on healthy monasteries and trustworthy elders (especially in North America).

Fourth, the response to those who struggle with sexual matters (of all sorts) needs to be one of compassion.  It is a pastoral issue, not a political one. 

Finally, the cultural polemic surrounding this matter has made it almost impossible to discuss this matter peacefully. Politically correct and incorrect speech-monitors lurk around every corner (in all camps of the culture war). Words are construed as political symbols, as litmus tests. Thus, to say anything apart from the party line of any particular camp only alienates those in the camp (and may get you crucified by the camp you actually most agree with).  Therefore, great caution should be used in saying anything.  As I said earlier, this is a matter that probably cannot be neatly defined and solved in the current context.

Case in point: it is known (as well as such things can be known—it is suspected by many) that a few higher clergy and monks in the world-wide Orthodox Church do or have had male lovers. That is, there have been (sometimes) multiple accusations that were consequently dismissed as "misunderstandings."  This does not mean that the Church condones this behaviour any more than she condones gluttony or avarice because some clergy are fat or greedy. However, the Orthodox Church (unlike the western tradition) shies away from witch hunts. God will judge. Each must work out his or her own salvation. If, however, someone wants to challenge the Church's teaching publicly, then the Church will have to respond—but even then often reluctantly.  Our goal is to save, not to condemn, even if sometimes that is required.

It's not unlike fasting.  The Church has rules on fasting, tithing and usury but it does not go around checking up on people's dinners, bank statements or investments. So too the Church has rules about sex. These rules exist to help people become more like Jesus Christ, which is an inner change. But the outer is connected to the inner. We are embodied souls, and what we do with our bodies matters. But it does not matter in some sort of mathematical, political or legalistic way. It matters in a moral, spiritual way. It matters in creating healthy human beings with healthy relationships with God and one another.

1 comment:

Just Me said...

Not sure what the point was of those two comments.... Weird.
Anyway, I wanted to say thankyou for this article. I am preparing to join the Orthodox Church here in the US, and I finally decided it was time to broach the subject of homosexuality with the priest. I am not ready to say that I believe it to be a sin, for various reasons I don't have time to get into. But he printed out some papers for me, and I was very happy to see that the Church's approach is at least far less condemning than the general attitude of the Protestants. One more reason why I believe the Orthodox to be the true Church at this point. I am very glad you published this.