. . . and Hopefully Part of the Change That Must Come.
A Conversation with Simon Rosser
As an internationally renowned researcher on sexuality and sexual health, and a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, Simon Rosser, Ph.D (pictured at right) believes that the Roman Catholic Church’s policies on human sexuality must be reality-based and healthy. As a gay man, he expects these same policies to be fair – including being non-homophobic – and to speak from the whole of Catholic tradition, not just one extreme part of it. CPCSM coordinator and Rainbow Spirit editor, Michael Bayly, recently spoke with Simon about same-sex marriage and the Catholic tradition.
Michael Bayly: In talking about same-sex marriage and Roman Catholicism, you advance a “pro-equality position.” What exactly do you mean by this term?
Simon Rosser: In Gaudiem et Spes the bishops at Vatican II declared that the Church is committed to the essential dignity and free will of all human beings, including those it disagrees with. Vatican II did not say everyone but homosexuals. Equality, respect for conscience, and dignity are core values inherent in Church teaching (at least from Thomas Aquinas to Vatican II). When new challenges such as civil marriage for same-sex couples arise, the true Catholic response can never be to simply quote scripture or denounce something because it looks different. Bigotry can never be authentic Catholic teaching. The richness of our Catholic heritage lies in carefully thinking through and discerning what theologians call tradition – with a small t (what has always been done) – from Tradition – with a capital T – which is that core of Catholic theology which discerns the authentic Catholic response in each new situation.
Michael Bayly: Many people who oppose same-sex marriage point to scripture to support their stance. Yet you maintain that scripture actually supports same-sex marriage. How is this so?
Simon Rosser: The opponents of same-sex marriage selectively point to some rather minor passages in scripture to say that scripture is against same-sex marriage, while ignoring the central Gospel call to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Do good to those who hate you,” and “If your brother has something against you, stop what you are doing and go and be reconciled.” Selective quoting of scripture to suit one’s own politics is a common rhetorical device used by zealots. I think the richness of Catholicism includes placing scripture in context and then balancing scripture in light of tradition, science, and real life. That’s what keeps Catholicism from becoming extremist or over-identified with one political stance.
Michael Bayly: A growing number of people – yourself included – contend that the dominant Catholic tradition regarding homosexuality is flawed. Can you talk about how the tradition became flawed and what we can do as Catholics to rectify this situation?
Simon Rosser: The Church is in a tough place right now. On the one hand, the Church teaches that science and theology can never be truly in conflict since Catholicism teaches they are reflections of the same God. On the other hand, Catholic sexual theology is about 150 years behind science in some fundamental assumptions about sex and sexuality.
The theology of human sexuality that the Church is teaching is seriously disturbed, so science/medicine and theology appear at times diametrically opposed. Part of the problem is that as the scientific world advanced, the Church first didn’t keep pace with change, and then became a refuge for those frightened of change, including the psychosexually underdeveloped. I don’t think it’s fair to expect the Church to be ahead of science, but when it lags so far behind, it loses credibility and starts becoming extremist.
Michael Bayly: Why do you view the Church’s teaching on the “objectively disordered” nature of homosexuality to be “anti-Catholic”?
Simon Rosser: I’m neither a theologian nor a member of the clergy, but my understanding is that in promoting the doctrine of free will, the Church rejected as heresy the notion that some people are intrinsically ordered towards evil. To argue otherwise is to get into notions of predestination that the Church has consistently condemned for centuries.
Just how extreme is the current Vatican administration’s position? Prior to John Paul II, the official Vatican position regarding homosexuality was “love the sinner, hate the sin.” The documents authored by Cardinal Ratzinger [now Pope Benedict XVI] were the first to label a homosexual orientation (not behavior) as “objectively disordered.” These documents thus represent a fundamental shift in Catholic theology. In my opinion, that shift goes against centuries of Catholic tradition as promoting hatred is incompatible with basic Christianity; and the predestination of orientation violates Catholic teaching on free will.
Michael Bayly: What role do you see science playing in the formulation of Church teaching on topics such as same-sex marriage?
Simon Rosser: I think Church teaching is at its most progressive when it engages in genuine dialog, especially with experts and those most affected, to advance its theology. In turn, theology is like life – it’s liberating when it is healthy, challenging, and based in reality.
The last 50 years have been ones of enormous increase in scientific understanding of sexual orientation and identity. Science also made some major mistakes along the way that the Church can learn from and hopefully avoid repeating. So I think the Church has everything to gain and nothing to lose by engaging in genuine dialog with scientists on this issue.
Michael Bayly: As a gay man, a Catholic, and a researcher in multiple fields of science and public health, what do you believe the Church’s policy should be toward homosexuality and, by extension, same-sex marriage?
Simon Rosser: As a Catholic, I am mindful of the Church’s fundamental mission to preach good news, to bring liberty, and to heal. There’s also some rather strong statements in the Gospel about taking the plank out of one’s own eye before examining splinters in others’. If the Church’s teaching is not good news, liberating, or healing, then something’s fundamentally wrong. When the Church is supporting oppression and advocating denial of human rights, we know our leadership is in trouble. As a researcher on sexuality and sexual health, I think the most important priorities are for the Church’s policies to become reality-based and healthy.
As a gay man, I expect the Church’s policies to be fair, including being non-homophobic, and to speak from the whole of Catholic tradition, not just one extreme part of it. The ultra-conservatives are fond of saying that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Well that’s not reality. Based on science’s current understanding of the origins and stability of sexual orientation, God made Adam, Eve, and Steve; and until we have a theology that can deal with that complexity the Church is neither healthy nor living in reality.
Pope John Paul I had an interesting perspective on sex. He argued that since in most cases it was an attempt to love, if it was sinful, then perhaps it was the least sinful of human failings. Similarly, St. Paul at the Council of Jerusalem argued against requiring all Christian men to be circumcised, saying that in that sexual issue, there needed to be room for development and respect for diversity. Such insights seem a lot closer to what scientists are calling sexual health – an approach to sex which neither minimizes the serious problems that can happen, nor breeds an unhealthy preoccupation, sense of guilt and shame, or reduces sex to a biological evolutionary drive.
I believe that any Catholic who believes that Christ died for all of us, who believes that God is love, and who is convinced by the scientific evidence that homosexuality is not a choice but a loving orientation towards the same gender, must ultimately come to the conclusion that homosexuality is as much God’s will as heterosexuality, and that marriage is ultimately more about witnessing the sacredness of love as a sign of God, and less about blessing reproduction.
Michael Bayly: If this policy that you and others advocate is not realized within the Church, what can we reasonably expect to see in the years ahead?
Simon Rosser: In my experience, fundamentalists of various varieties – Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Christian – appear to perceive science and medicine as a threat, and seem to confuse their particular brand of God’s Revelation with ultra-conservatism. They all interpret their special brand of ‘truth’ to condemn homosexuality. Curiously, all of them are simultaneously displaying the scandals you get when ultra-orthodoxy runs amok – scandals of power, pedophilia, and abuse. What do the Taliban, Catholic clergy, and the ex-gay movement have in common? All of them are mired in sex abuse scandals – the Taliban in gang rape of Afghani boys, Catholic priests in child molestation of boys, and the ex-gay ministers in orgies and abuse of clients. Clearly, we Catholic don’t have a monopoly on abuse, but sadly, our sexual theology is very impoverished.
In my opinion, several of the Church’s recent statements on sexuality read as if they were written by a 12-year-old, or someone attracted to 12-year-olds. This places bishops like Archbishop Flynn, who has one of the deepest commitments to addressing the problem of pedophilia in the priesthood, in an untenable position. He has publicly declared he will do whatever it takes to address the sexual abuse in our clergy; yet he is ordered to defend a sexual theology that experts predict will perpetuate another generation of abuse.
I think the first step is for the scientists and the bishops to sit down at the same table and talk. I spent over ten years treating pedophiles and incest families. Watching the Church is like watching a giant incest family play out its dynamics. It’s deeply dysfunctional, it’s really sad, but it’s also fascinating. And it probably has to fall apart some more before real reform can be initiated.
Signs of real reform, as opposed to cosmetic cover-up, include reform of the Vatican level – holding the Congregation of the Faith responsible for overseeing both the sexual abuse by clergy and the promotion of pedophilic theology, “mainstreaming” of Catholicism from ultra-conservative positions to more moderate ones, and the establishment of genuine dialog between scientists and bishops on this issue.
Michael Bayly: What keeps you hopeful and committed to facilitating positive transformation within the Church? What message can you impart to those who feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the hierarchical Church’s seemingly intractable position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage?
Simon Rosser: The same people who attempted to cover up clergy sex abuse are the one’s formulating the church’s current sexual theology condemning homosexuality and same-sex marriage. This isn’t a coincidence. The homophobia inherent in the current articulation of church policy mirrors the homophobia in pedophilic clients, pre-treatment.
I have a lot of hope because I think the situation is so bad that American Catholics will be forced to think for themselves. And that’s a good thing. Whether it’s homosexuality, contraception, premarital sex, divorce, masturbation, or HIV prevention, the official Church position is now so extreme, so negative, so ultra-conservative, and ill-informed, that I’m confident that less than 5 percent of Catholics actually believe or follow Catholic sexual teaching.
In this situation either the church reforms or it dies. Given the ability of the Catholic Church to survive, I’m confident it will reform. But we have to do our part. American Catholics need to think for ourselves, to distinguish pedophilic propaganda from Catholic teaching, to support bishops and specifically to demand they reform or close down the Congregation of the Faith, and to commit to prioritizing a healthy adult-focused sexual theology. It has to happen. So, it’s a great time to be Catholic and, hopefully, to be part of the change that must come.
* This interview was first published in the Fall 2004 issue of the Rainbow Spirit, the journal of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, ahead of Simon Rosser’s keynote address at the October 25, 2004 CPCSM-sponsored event, “Reflections on Same-sex Marriage from a Catholic Perspective.” This event was part of a series of three presentations collectively entitled “Encountering God at the Crossroads of Marriage, Catholicism, and the GLBT Experience.” Other presentations in the series included Kathleen Hull on “The Evolving Nature of Marriage,” and “Sharing Our Lives,” a panel presentation by GLBT Catholics.
For other Rainbow Spirit interviews, see the previous Wild Reed posts:
Kathy Itzin: The Voice of a Good Heart
Keeping the Spark Alive: A Conversation with Chuck Lofy
The Other Side of the Closet: An Interview with Déadra Aalgaard
The Power of Our Stories: An Interview with Mary Bednarowski
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex: A Conversation with Daniel Helminiak
Sharing Their Story: An Interview with Carol Curoe