Monday, November 06, 2006

On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition

Catholic theologian and former CPCSM president William Hunt, has shed much needed light on the same-sex marriage issue in a recent Pioneer Press guest editorial.

As you’ll see, William is an astute thinker and gifted writer. Not surprisingly, he has a contribution in the book I’ve recently completed editing, Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Perspective (Haworth Press), due out in December.


On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
Wisconsin’s Marriage Amendment

By William C. Hunt
Pioneer Press
October 31, 2006

Christians concerned about the so-called marriage amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution would do well to examine our own religious tradition, in particular a centuries-old condemnation of an “unnatural” practice.

This practice is mentioned more than 15 times in the Hebrew Bible — always in the negative sense of a serious offense. Christian leaders condemned it as an unnatural vice for more than 1,500 years. In 1312 an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church condemned as heretics all those who argued that this practice was not sinful. Dante places people guilty of this vice in the seventh ring of hell. Martin Luther equated this sin with theft and murder and insisted that anyone who engaged in this activity should not be buried in consecrated ground.

What was this sin? Homosexual activity? No, it was taking interest on loans, a practice called usury.

How did church leaders go from universal condemnation of interest-taking to the situation today, where Thrivent Financial for Lutherans sings the praises of compound interest and the Vatican runs a bank?

Part of the explanation comes from a radical change in our understanding of money. Ancient peoples thought of money as merely a medium of exchange. If you loaned your neighbor a cow, you could expect some payment for it because the cow was useful. It produced milk and pulled your plow and might even bear a calf. Coins, on the other hand, just lay in a bag and didn't produce anything. Charging interest was seen as contrary to the very nature of money. Treating something sterile as though it were productive was going against nature.

Also, lending money was closely associated with oppression of the poor, especially when interest rates were often 50 percent per year or higher. At the time of Jesus, high interest rates were driving more and more peasants off their land and into the ranks of day laborers and beggars who could not make enough to feed themselves and their families. Usury imposed a death sentence of slow starvation on its victims.

Over time, our understanding of money has become much more nuanced. For us, money is a human invention, not something with natural value. In addition to being a medium of exchange, we see money as equivalent to productive resources, an abstract measure of purchasing power (as opposed to bartering), and something that stores value.

Likewise, our understanding of interest has become more discriminating. Not all interest-taking is bad. Usury laws still prohibit unreasonable rates of interest that prey on the poor, but low-interest loans actually help poor people lift themselves out of poverty.

In the biblical period and for much of Christian history, homosexual activity was condemned for many of the same reasons as usury. Ancient peoples had no concept of homosexual orientation as a natural phenomenon. In a male-dominated patriarchal society homosexual activity among men was seen as degrading to the passive partner. It was unnatural because he allowed himself to be reduced to the essentially lower status of a woman. Also, biblical authors and church leaders commonly understood homosexual activity only in the context of idol worship, promiscuity and violence.

The 20th century witnessed a revolution in our understanding of sexuality, something comparable to the scientific revolution in Galileo's time. Today we hold to the natural equality of the sexes, and we are aware that committed, loving sexual relationships between persons of the same gender are possible. True, we continue to condemn promiscuity and rape in homosexual as well as in heterosexual relationships, but it flies in the face of facts to consider homosexual relationships only in that light.

To sum up, because we understand the nature of money differently, we are not opposed to all interest-taking. Now that we understand homosexuality differently, need we be opposed to all homosexual activity? Could it be that we are in the midst of a development of social consciousness and even of church teaching on this subject?

If so, just as now is not the time to reinstate laws that prohibit all interest on loans, so also now is not the time for a constitutional amendment that prohibits committed sexual unions between gay and lesbian persons.

William C. Hunt holds a doctorate in theology from the Catholic University of America. He writes from his home in rural Somerset, Wisconsin.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
This “Militant Secularist” Wants to Marry a Man
“Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality is Complex and Nuanced”, says Theologian
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
Good News from Minnesota
The Non-negotiables of Human Sex
The Sexuality of Jesus

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