Friday, May 12, 2006

The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex

– Artwork by Juliusz Lewandowski

Yesterday when writing about the Catholic hierarchy's sexual theology, I shared insights from biblical scholar and theologian Daniel Helminiak which critique and challenge the Vatican's limited understanding of human sexuality.

Earlier this year I interviewed Daniel for the Spring 2006 issue of The Rainbow Spirit, the journal publication of the Twin Cities-based Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM).

Following are excerpts from this interview.


The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Excerpts from "A New Way of Envisioning Wholeness:
A Conversation with Daniel Helminiak"

By Michael J. Bayly

Rainbow Spirit
Spring 2006

Michael Bayly: In Roman Catholicism, it’s not so much biblical fundamentalism that is used against gay people but doctrinal fundamentalism. The orthodox view is that the Church’s moral teaching is unchanged and unchangeable. Accordingly, homosexual relationships have always been condemned and can never be viewed as morally acceptable. Author Mark Jordan has expressed the view that “any real change in the ‘magisterial’ pronouncements [regarding issues such as homosexuality] would require not just revision of conclusions in moral theology but renunciation of the methods of authoritative teaching.” What are your thoughts on this matter?

Daniel Helminiak: It is important to remember that no Catholic ethical teaching is defined infallibly. Certain beliefs have been proclaimed infallibly, but never an ethical teaching. The Catholic mind is smart enough to know that right and wrong often depend on concrete circumstances and limited human understanding.

As circumstances and understanding change, it is fully to be expected that ethical teaching will have to change. The long-standing Christian condemnation of usury – taking interest on money – is a blatant case in point; so is the practice of slavery. What was forbidden in one case is now fully allowed, and what was allowed and defended is now condemned. A similar change can and will happen with sexual ethics.

Of course, the Catholic Church is highly invested in its sexual ethics. In some ways, its whole system – the celibate all-male priesthood and hierarchy, for example – depends on that ethics. So political forces come into play; change will not be easy. And the more the Vatican insists on its current sexual teaching, the deeper it paints itself into a corner and the harder the time it will have extricating itself. The crisis is inevitable.

Infallibly defined Catholic teaching – such as the impossibility of real conflict between the truths of faith and science – will force the question. As in the case of biblical interpretation, so will be the case of sexuality. As more and more is understood about human sexuality, a field of research barely a century old, the more surely the current Catholic teaching will have to change.

When that change occurs, Church leaders may well attempt their standard maneuver and claim that “this is what we really always meant.” But such a fiction can no longer stand. Our current knowledge of history is too sophisticated. Such pretense is impossible. Thus, it remains to be seen what will become of Church authority when in the postmodern world, so well informed by communications media, all the world will plainly know the facts of the matter and the Vatican will have to admit that its teaching on this point was wrong. It remains to be seen what that new era of Catholicism will look like. However, the Church did not collapse when banks started paying interest and the Church itself started taking advantage; nor did the Church collapse when slavery was finally outlawed or democracy approved or women given the vote or Galileo pardoned. Somehow the Church will survive. But this time, it seems, the Church will have to have learned a lesson and go on more openly, honestly, and wisely – less authoritatively, less autocratically.

Michael Bayly: “Relativism” has become somewhat of a dirty word in Catholic theology as it’s often contrasted with “biblical truth” and/or “sacred tradition.” Can you talk about this hostility to the concept of relativism? In your view, how is the term “relativism” understood (or misunderstood) by its critics?

Daniel Helminiak: What does relativism mean? The term itself is relative. If it means that there is no objective truth, that one opinion is as valid as any other, then, yes, it is, indeed, a dirty word, and relativism needs to be discredited. Such radical relativism is the challenge of the postmodern world, no doubt about it. And almost no one has a solution to the current philosophical crisis – except, I think, my mentor Bernard Lonergan, but his solution is subtle and profound, deeply dependent on honesty and good will, commodities that are in short supply in our day and its public life.

There is good reason to be concerned about relativism. However, the answer to it is not the assertion of supposedly revealed truth, whether biblical or doctrinal. By insisting on doctrinal teaching – about things of this world but not, certainly, about the things of heaven, about which no one has certain knowledge in any case – the Church makes a grave mistake. It simply buys into the very relativism it attempts to combat. Merely to insist dogmatically that something is true (“Take it on faith,” “Yield to authority”) is to insist that whatever can be insistently affirmed is somehow ipso facto true. But saying so does not make things so, even when it is the Vatican who does the saying. And more and more, we all know this fact.

Our age is so formed by critical thinking and scientific method and conflicted by an array of competing claims that assertions that lack grounding in defensible evidence cannot be taken seriously. Truth is what can be shown to be reasonable in light of the available evidence, and the only semblance of “truth” that we have is the proverbial “best available opinion of the day” – which tomorrow might be upgraded, nuanced, or refined. To conclude that this set of affairs, the human situation, implies that there is no truth to be known or that human knowing does not really know is to doom ourselves. Real relativism is dangerous.

But if relativism simply means that we all have different perspectives and no one person has the whole picture, then, yes, such relativism is acceptable; it is needed. But call it perspectivism (à la Lonergan), not relativism and avoid ambiguous terminology in this matter. Of course, what I say here depends on the supposition that we are able to know correctly and able to approach the truth and often to capture it. If you protest that this is just my opinion, then I will protest that your opinion is also just your opinion. Then, neither is valid. Discussion goes nowhere. Then the whole enterprise of growth and learning appears to be a farce.

Michael Bayly: For many GLBT Catholics the theory of natural law is something used to denounce and condemn their sexual orientation and relationships. Yet you maintain that in reality such a theory supports and affirms homosexuality. Can you talk about your recent work in linking science to natural law theory?

Daniel Helminiak: The Catholic Church has commandeered the notion of natural law and made it a synonym for the supposition that the purpose of sex is procreation. Then, some other use of sex is supposedly a “violation of natural law.”

But natural law has been around much longer than the Catholic Church. Its roots are in the deepest strata of Western civilization. Its real meaning is simply this: We are capable of understanding how things function, and ethical living is simply to follow those ways. To follow natural law is, as it were, to follow the directions that came with the item. Now, when it comes to sex, the question of the day is this: What is the nature of sex? What is the purpose and function of sex?

To be sure, procreation is an inherent aspect of sexuality. But there is more to sex than that, especially when we look at sex in human beings. Procreation is an animal function. In humans sex is taken up into a new array of purposes. Human sex involves emotional bonding and the dreams and promises of lovers. That is to say, beyond the physical, human sex also involves the psychological and the spiritual. (I see “dreams and promises,” or ideals, and beliefs and ethics – all ways of suggesting meaning and value – as spiritual matters.) So having sex (physical) seduces lovers (emotional) into dreaming dreams and making promises (spiritual). The trend of sex is toward higher things. And since the spiritual dimension of human sexual sharing is the highest and most significant, it is what determines the unique nature of human sexuality, so it is what must be preserved in every case. Not procreation, but genuine care and loving are the non-negotiables of human sex.

Contemporary social science suggests and supports the interpretation of sex that I have just sketched. Science is the method of our age for discovering the nature of things. This point is obvious in the physical sciences. Physics and chemistry have opened undreamed-of possibility for us – because we have come to understand the true nature of things. Francis Bacon pointed out that nature can only be controlled by being obeyed. The same applies to the social sciences although in their case the questions are much more difficult and finding consensus takes more effort. Even so, it is science that will tell us the nature of things, and science is not whimsical. Its conclusions do not depend on inspiration or supposed revelation. Science depends on demonstrable evidence; it is a self-correcting enterprise. Our best bet today is to rely on science to discern “the nature of things.”

Thus, I say that natural law is the best way to go when debate about sexual ethics arises. What is the “best available opinion of the day” about sex? Invoke it when you want to know how one should use sex. The ethical way is to use sex as it was made to be used, and we know how it was made to be used by studying it. All the studies, for example, support homosexuality as a widespread normal variation in God’s creation. In this sense, homosexuality is natural. It is part of the nature of things. In humans in a novel way, it expresses the essential of sex: interpersonal bonding. So engaging in it could hardly be wrong per se.


CPCSM's inaugural Bill Kummer Forum on April 28-29, 2006 in Minneapolis, featured renowned theologian and author Daniel Helminiak, who offered a two-part presentation entitled “Gay Body, Gay Soul: A Catholic LGBTI Perspective on Sexuality, Spirituality and Marriage.”

Pictured from left: Rev. Paul Tucker (All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church), Daniel Helminiak, Paul Fleege (CPCSM treasurer), David McCaffrey (CPCSM co-founder), and Michael Bayly (CPCSM executive coordinator).


Anonymous said...

Wow, that's a powerful (and short) piece. It still doesn't affirm a specific ethic related to monogamy but that must be in the books yo refer to.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Winnipeg Catholic,

I must have loaned out my copy of Helminiak's Sex and the Sacred, as I can't seem to locate it here at my house. Once I find it I'll share with you the relevant parts. You might also want to visit Daniel Helminiak's own website, located here.