Marriage equality is now legal in all 50 states. People once thought to be a threat to the moral order can now commit to monogamous relationships.
A majority of Americans are throwing rice. But not most conservative Christians. Evangelicals are determined to hold the line because six ambiguous Bible verses appear to condemn homosexuality, and every literal word comes from the mouth of God.
But Martin Luther advised Bible readers to let the clear passages illuminate the dark ones. So “God was in Christ making friends with the world” takes precedence over every other context.
The problem is different in Catholicism. While a majority of Catholics support gay marriage, the Catholic hierarchy is manning the barricades. Almost all bishops and very many priests make homosexuality the rock on which the church stands or falls.
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Why? Catholic objections are rooted not in biblical proof-texting but in the concept of natural law that Thomas Aquinas baptized into Catholic Christianity from Aristotle. A carefully reasoning person, even apart from Christian revelation, would deduct the rules of moral behavior from an objectified natural order.
This legacy still runs deep in Catholic moral theology. Hence the Catholic objection to birth control because it interferes with the purpose of every sexual act: conception. Hence the argument that the male anatomy is clearly not shaped for male-on-male sex, and this renders homosexuality a grave disorder of nature.
Hence all marital sex is about procreation. Hence hemming in religious ethics from contemporary views of human nature as an ongoing cultural construction.
As a religious studies professor and a Lutheran minister, I watch with great anguish as evangelical and Catholic leaders seem determined to go down with the ship on the issue of homosexuality. It’s a lost cause, they know, above all among young people. But this is their chosen way of being faithful to God.
Evangelicals swear by their literal readings of the Bible, and the Catholic bishops, shaped by the natural law reasoning they internalized when they were young and by a very long history of getting sex wrong, stick by their guns.
If the many people who describe their religious preferences as “none” stopped by the ghettoized campfires where conservative Christians gather round, they’d hear them singing, “They’ll know we are Christians … by our rejection of homosexuals.”
If such passers-by wanted to hear good news, they could hardly do better than listening to the closing paragraph of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Friday’s historic decision:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were … It would misunderstand these men and women (before us) to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to becondemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.”
Donald Heinz is a Lutheran minister and professor of religious studies at California State University, Chico. He lives in Gig Harbor.