Thursday, October 30, 2014

How the Pope's Recent Remarks on Evolution Highlight a Major Discrepancy in Church Teaching

There's been a lot of media attention focused on Pope Francis' recent comments about evolution.

Reports the Washington Post:

Delivering an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Francis continued his habit of making provocative, seemingly progressive statements. The pontiff appeared to endorse the theory of the Big Bang and told the gathering at the Vatican that there was no contradiction between believing in God as well as the prevailing scientific theories regarding the expansion of our universe.

The way some news outlets are reporting it, Francis has made a groundbreaking declaration. In reality, he's simply reiterating what's been official Catholic thinking on the matter for the past six decades, i.e., belief in God is not incompatible with the acceptance of evolution. During his papacy, Benedict XVI espoused the same view. Indeed, ever since the reforms of Pope Pius XII, the Vatican has espoused belief in theistic evolution, meaning the Divine Presence which we commonly refer to as God, set in motion and infuses the creative process known as evolution.

I welcome Francis reminding us of this, and intend using some of his recent statements in "Companions on a Sacred Journey," the workshop on evolutionary spirituality that I'm currently conducting with groups of local Catholics. Yet the Pope's statements also serve to highlight a major discrepancy in the Vatican's thinking and teaching.

Two different worldviews

This discrepancy stems from two very different worldviews that are employed when dealing with different areas of human inquiry and experience. When it comes to the evolution of the universe, the planet, and humanity, the Vatican is open to what is known as the historically conscious worldview. According to this worldview, reality is dynamic, evolving, and ever-changing. The findings of science are valued and readily integrated into theological understandings and formulations. We see all of this with the Vatican's stance on evolution. Yet when it comes to the reality of human sexuality the Vatican chooses to employ a very different worldview, one that's known as the classicist worldview. Unlike the historical conscious worldview, the classicist worldview sees reality as static, fixed, and always and everywhere the same.

So here's the interesting thing: in important areas such as biblical scholarship and the study of the cosmos, the Vatican has, over time, shifted from the classicist worldview to the historical conscious worldview. Yet in the fields of gender and sexuality, it remains firmly entrenched in the classicist worldview.

In other words, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church now accepts science when it comes to thinking and talking about astronomy and the evolution of the planet (including the evolution of humanity), but it doesn't accept science when it comes to thinking and talking about the complex reality of sexuality. This discrepancy has been described by some as a glaring and untenable example of intellectual dishonesty. (For more about the classicist and historical conscious worldviews, click here).

A certain mindset

Why are the members of Roman Catholicism's clerical caste so reluctant to embrace the historical conscious worldview when dealing with issues of sexuality? The answer, I believe, is, in part, rooted in a certain mindset that formed in the Middle Ages and lives on in the church's clerical caste. In his authoritative work The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies, James Neil clearly and succinctly identifies and discusses this mindset, one that is vividly illustrated by the writings of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, included in Neil's book.

There is one evil, an evil above all other evils, that I am aware is always within me, that grievously and piteously lacerates and afflicts my soul. It was with me from the cradle, it grew with me in childhood, in adolescence, in my youth it always stuck to me, and it does not desert me even now that my limbs are failing because of my old age. This evil is sexual desire, carnal delight, the storm of lust that has smashed and battered my unhappy soul, emptied it of all strength, and left it weak and empty.

It's a rather negative view of sexuality, wouldn't you say?

Personally, I prefer the more poetic and thus, I believe, more honest and truthful musings offered by author Winston Graham who, in the eighth Poldark novel, The Stranger from the Sea, has the character of Demelza imagining sexual desire as "a sea dragon of an emotion . . . causing half the trouble of the world, and half the joy."

Perhaps poor Anselm only ever experienced the trouble and never the joy. It's just a pity that his subjective experience of sexuality become codified as objective truth for a good number of centuries. But that's the danger of the classicist worldview: it can turn the particular into the universal and immutable.

Here's what James Neil writes in The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies about Anselm's situation and its consequences for Christianity:

Late in [his] life, Saint Anselm of Canterbury anguished over the sexual drive that, despite a lifetime of devotion to God, stubbornly refused to release him even in old age. In writing these words, Anselm could have been speaking for many other Medieval clergymen who devoted themselves to the church's strict anti-sexual moral teachings – a moral code that demonized their own sexual natures. The roots of the psychological disturbance or neurosis are easy to see in the sincere dedication of these devout clergymen to the ascetic sexual ideal that not only required them to suppress a fundamental human instinct, but taught them that their innermost self was evil. The conflict between their beliefs, on the one hand, and the urges of their bodies on the other, set in motion a psychological struggle that was, in fact, a classic example of neurosis as defined in standard psychoanalytic reference work.

. . . Such a conflict would appear to be particularly acute in the case of a person conditioned by religious indoctrination to be repelled by sex, one of the most basic instinctual drives. If the urges were homosexual, the psychological stress would be even greater. The "neurotic symptoms" produced in individuals with such an internal conflict typically take the form of reaction formation, a psychological defense in which the negativity they feel toward the intolerable characteristic is directed to others who display the same loathed characteristics. . . . The level of hostility they displayed to homosexuality was directly proportional to the strength of homosexual responsiveness recorded within each of them.

Putting it another way, because of the distorted lens through which such clergymen perceived sex, and because of his own emotional discomfort with it, [Anselm] could never deal with the subject truly rationally or dispassionately. Hence the references we see to sexual behavior in the morally conservative clergy of the Middle Ages are in almost all cases couched in histrionic and super-heated hyperbole. Likewise the visceral disgust conservative clergy felt for those practicing homosexuality.

In assessing the impact of the anti-sexual thinking and writings of Anselm, Augustine, William of Auxerre, and others, theologian Daniel Maguire insists that we must be candid in acknowledging that "Catholics and other Christians pumped a lot of bad notions of sex and sexual pleasure into Western culture."

Maguire also makes this interesting observation:

One might think that the puritanical horror of sex has been dissipated in a culture where sex is used ubiquitously in the marketplace to promote sales, and frenzied pornography abounds. However, as theologian Grace Jantzen observes, this obsession reflects the historical Christian obsession and is really “the same preoccupation, turned inside out.” The addiction to pornography is fueled by discomfort with sex. It has been suggested that pornography might dull our feeling for the other – in effect, killing love.

Signs of hope

It seems sadly obvious that when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, the Roman Catholic clerical caste, including the Pope, remain entrenched in the classicist worldview, one still tied in many ways to the anti-sexual moral teachings of Medieval thinking. Yet there are signs of hope in our church for a renewed understanding of sexuality, an understanding firmly grounded in the historical conscious worldview.

Earlier this month in the Twin Cities, Fr. John Heagle and Sister Fran Ferder, longtime educators and authors in the field of human sexuality, spoke at Call to Action MN's Fall Conference. The title and focus of their presentation was "Where Love and Justice Meet: An Emerging Sexual Ethic for Our Time."

This focus was consciously chosen by the conference's organizers because of the strong believe held by many local Catholics that our church is facing a crucial turning point in its understanding of sexuality. Indeed, for many Catholic worldwide, it has become clear that the lived experience of ordinary people differs significantly from official church teaching. The "traditional" Catholic ethic that most grew up with, an ethic grounded in Medieval philosophy and natural law theory, is simply no longer adequate in addressing contemporary issues of human sexuality.

Throughout their October 18 presentation, Heagle and Ferder explored a biblically-based understanding of the gift of sexuality and the responsibility of faithful loving. Such an exploration involved making the connections between relationships and biblical justice, sexuality, and systems of power. At one point they noted that Jesus had little to say about the biology of sex, but spoke decisively about the qualities of authentic loving: respect, responsibility, covenantal faithfulness, and mutuality.

Overall, it was a very helpful and hopeful presentation, one that explored issues of gender, sexuality, and intimacy in much more meaningful ways then those offered by the hierarchy. This is because Heagle and Ferder are operating within a historical conscious worldview, one that is open to the collective wisdom of humanity.

I would contend that the majority of Catholics are operating within this worldview. In her latest National Catholic Reporter column, Jamie L. Manson offers support to this contention when she compellingly writes:

Many bishops have spent the last three decades remaining silent on issues related to the family or silencing those who dared to question the institutional church's teachings on sexuality. In the meantime, Catholic theologians, ethicists and laypeople have been pursuing deeper inquiries, listening to concrete human experiences, and developing contemporary moral frameworks grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Many laypeople have already cultivated their own capacity for moral discernment; they have exercised their God-given gift of conscience; they have managed to grow spiritually without institutional church's constant instruction; they have found that their relationships, which the bishops would label "irregular," are, in fact, deeply sacramental.

Another sign of hope is the recent position paper written and published by the Twin Cities-based Council of the Baptized, a 21-member panel of Catholics chartered in 2012 to be a "collegial voice for a growing community of Catholics in honoring their baptismal responsibility for their local church." The council's latest position paper is entitled "Toward a Healthy Christian Theology of Sexuality," and I'll close with an excerpt from its introduction. (The full paper can be read by clicking here.)

The Council of the Baptized of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is concerned about developing a healthy Christian theology of sexuality. We know that sexuality is with us from conception to death, and that any knowledge and understandings we can gain about it will be self-enhancing and result in improved personal and interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, the Church's theology of sexuality often comes across to many people as basically negative – a series of no's and prohibitions. We believe a more positive and nourishing theological approach to human sexuality would better serve as a basis for addressing contemporary questions and for dialoguing with other Catholics, other Christians, our Jewish sisters and brothers, and all who are genuinely interested in dialogue.

As faithful Catholics we have heeded the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and informed our consciences on Church teachings. The proposal [contained in this paper] will show that the Church teachings on sexual ethics are reformable. We ask that the entire People of God – hierarchy, theologians, and laity – be consulted and their voices respected on sexual topics. We urge the Church to take into account the findings of contemporary biological research and the policies of professional health associations and world organizations dedicated to improving health. We ask that men who have taken the vows of celibacy no longer be the sole arbiters of official teaching on Christian sexual morality. Only when the voices and lived experience of the whole "People of God," especially those of women and all those who are sexually active, are taken into account will a sexual ethic be credible and faithful.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Beyond the Hierarchy: The Blossoming of Liberating Catholic Insights on Sexuality
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Same-Sex Desires: "Immanent and Essential Traits Transcending Time and Culture"
A Church That Can and Cannot Change
Johnson and Tushnet Debate is as Much About Revelation as it is Homosexuality
Sister Teresa Forcades on Queer Theology
Quote of the Day – May 31, 2014
Jesus, Sex, and Power
Daniel Maguire on the Wedding of Sexuality and Spirituality
Getting It Right

Related Off-site Links:
Five Facts About Evolution and Religion – David Masci (Pew Research Center, October 30, 2014).
Conservatives Will Take Their Ball and Go Home if Francis Changes “Their” Church – Patricia Miller (Religion Dispatches, October 28, 2014).
Homosexual Relationships: Another Look – Bill Hunt (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 8, 2012).
Creating a Liberating Church – Rosemary Radford Ruether (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 15, 2010).

1 comment:

Paula Ruddy said...

Would it be a good thing if all the gay priests and bishops came out, either singly or together? What about a National Clergy Come Out Day? What would be the effect?