Roots and Fruits

If the roots are bad, so is the fruit, or so the saying goes. I have been thinking about that as I listen to two things: (1) the evangelical infighting going on about homosexual relationships and (2) the Catholic teaching on marriage and its purpose.

As I watch the evangelical world, I think that what we are seeing is a rearguard action. The argument for accepting homosexual relationships is compelling: we shifted on slavery, which the NT accepts, we shifted on women, which the NT does not allow to lead churches, and we shifted on divorce, where Jesus clearly teaches something that we do not practice. So it is time in the name of love to shift our view based on those few obscure verses on homosexuality. The structure for preventing the shift is not existent. The relative independence of the local church has been championed in most evangelical churches for some time. There is also a strong belief in democracy, so if one can shift the people one can shift the local church. There is no central authority that all recognize, and even denominational authorities often cannot intervene in a local church. There will be more blood spilled, more people kicked out of this or that organization, but in the end only a minority will hold that homosexual relations are always sinful. That is what Vineyard is struggling with right now.
Now I think that the “compelling” line of argument is bogus to a degree in that the NT does come to terms with slavery in a world in which they had no say so anyway, but it never approves of it. It is just there, like taxes, and needs to be dealt with. More could be said, but I will just note that Wilberforce and the like came at a time when there was democracy in places like England. 
The women’s issue is also different, for a woman is not a defective person, an abnormality, but a fully functioning half of the human race. What women may or may not do in church will depend on how one defines ministry, and that is another big issue. The Catholic Church, for instance, has many female charismatic leaders, even ones who traveled around preaching. Many of them were later canonized as saints. But it defines the hierarchal ministry differently. Still, it never says that it is sinful for a woman to be a woman and express that within the proper structures of society and the church.
The divorce issue does get more to the point. The evangelical world by and large has given up the ship on the divorce issue. Even a promiscuous pastor can be restored to ministry, let alone a divorced one. Some very strong words of Jesus (and Paul) are rationalized. That is in part because the evangelical world does not get it with regard to sex and marriage. Sex is for procreation. Marriage is a (socially sanctioned sexual) joining of a man and a woman with an openness to having children. The pleasure of sex is secondary – it makes procreation more than a duty, and it helps join the couple so that they are together to raise the children. If what one wants is relationship, then form a different type of community. One can have communities of men and women living together without getting married and without having sex.
This is where Catholic doctrine comes in. They are very clear about the purpose of marriage and that marriage is characterized by unity and indissolubility. Except for the Pauline privilege (1 Cor 7, where an unbeliever departs from a marriage leaving the other person free), no divorce is possible. (And to use the Pauline privilege, one applies to Rome and that takes time.) A marriage can be annulled (which also takes time, but is handled more locally), but that is because there never was a real marriage in the first place: one partner was too young, too related, too coerced, or did not reveal that they were divorced or was not open to having children, etc. This does not have to do with something that happened after a valid marriage, but with something that meant that the marriage was never valid from the start. Divorce for a Catholic is a civil law issue that the Church does not recognize as ending the marriage. In other words, the Church holds to Jesus’ teaching. 
That is where the homosexual issue comes in. While same-sex attraction is just another temptation, the sexual act is “inherently disordered,” for, not only does the Bible forbid it, but it cannot lead to procreation. (Of course sexual relations of any type outside of marriage are sinful in Catholic – and most evangelical – thought). One cannot have a valid marriage between homosexual persons. So the Catholic Church follows the logic of its position on the purpose of sex and on the nature of marriage into rejecting divorce (as Jesus did) and also rejecting the possibility of marriage (in the Catholic sense) of same-sex individuals.
Furthermore, the Catholic Church is not a democracy, so it has the ability to buck the culture and hold its line. There is authority, and while some people are given long leashes, eventually if they go to far they are called on the carpet.
Now I have been very popular and brief in my reflections. I have not done justice to the subtleties of Catholic teaching, nor to a number of other points that I have let drop along the way. But my point is simple. Evangelicals by and large have not had a solid theology of sex and marriage, but have bought into the culture’s concept of marriage being mainly for fulfillment and love. They also lack a theology of the cross, of believers bearing the cross and being conformed to Christ. This bore fruit in their not being able to hold to Jesus’ teaching on divorce. And eventually the crumbling on divorce will lead to crumbling on homosexual marriage as well. Even when they do reject a pastor’s teaching on the topic, they cannot enforce their rejection, for there is a weak authority structure, not enough to hold the group together on such ethical issues. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has a strong teaching on sex and marriage based on both natural theology and Scripture, as well as tradition. It has remained consistent on that teaching for 2000 years. Because of it, the Church has not backed down on the divorce issue (and loses people because of this). Nor will it change on the homosexual issue.
If the theological roots are weak, eventually poor fruit will develop. If they are strong, the fruit will be good.
Time will tell if these observations are in fact borne out, but I am fairly sure that they will be.
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About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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