Two biblical condemnations of same-sex unions

Cardinal Ratzinger uses arguments largely drawn from reason.  Other opponents of gays and lesbians, however, give much greater attention to those critical texts in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures that explicitly condemn men having sex with other men.  In fact, the terms “sodomy” and “sodomize” came into the English language due to the biblical narrative (Gen 19:1-15) that describes how God’s wrath fell on the city of Sodom precisely because its male citizenry took delight in humiliating outsiders by raping them anally.

This biblical text and others as well never speak of men having sex with other men as a sign and symbol of the love bond that binds them together.[i] God’s wrath fell on the city of Sodom because of detestable “acts of hate” being inflicted upon strangers.  There is no biblical text that either approves or disapproves of “acts of love” between committed same-sex partners.   

The condemnation of Paul in Rom 1:24-26

St. Paul in his letter to the Romans condemns idolatry for it leads to homosexuality.  Idolatry, in Paul’s mind, leaves aside worship of the Creator and, in its place, “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals.” In parallel fashion, idolatry leads a man to exchange the sexual use of his wife and to seek sexual satisfaction[ii] with another man: “men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another.”

Paul, in his letters, condemns shameful acts of sex.  He condemns the man sleeping with his step-mother (1 Cor 5:1).  He condemns “male prostitutes”[iii] and “sodomites” (1 Cor 6:9).  Most scholars[iv] remind us that Corinth was famously dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) and that temple prostitution was the standard way for religious devotees, both men and women, to worship the goddess and to maintain the temple staff at the same time.   The fact that Paul condemns “idolaters” first and then goes on to immediately name “adulterers, male prostitutes, and sodomites” (1 Cor 6:9 NRSV) may signal that, here also, Paul names the immoral offshoots of temple worship.

Paul is quite possibly aware that cultic prostitution was commonly practiced by the ancient Near Eastern fertility religions and that, from the moment the Israelites entered into the Promised Land, they struggled to avoid such practices (Num 25:1-9, Jdg 2:17-19). This became especially prevalent beginning with the monarchy of Rehoboam (1 Kgs 14:24) and extending to the monarchy of Josiah (2 Kgs 23:7).  According to Exod 34:11-16 the practice of exterminating conquered tribes was necessitated in order to wipe out cultic prostitution.  During the Deteronomic reform, the Law of Moses was expanded specifically to forbid cultic prostitution for Israelites (Deut 23:16-17, Amos 2:7).  Thus, to the degree that Paul was aware of these aspects of his Jewish historical background, he would have had a predisposition to seeing a causal link between idolatry and cultic prostitution.

In the Letter to the Romans, Paul expressly condemns “homosexuality.”  Why so?  Here is the progression in his argument.

First, men exchanged “the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature [idols] rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25).  Next, as a result, “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (1:24).   “Their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another” (1:26).

The link that Paul draws between idolatry and homosexuality[v] may appear obscure to modern thinkers.  This link, however, is very clear and dear to Paul.  The implied logic is this: Make the mistake of exchanging worship of the true God for idol worship and, in the next moment, you will make the mistake of exchanging natural sex for unnatural sex.

Think now with me about Martha and Mary, two lesbian lay-ministers in my parish who asked me to join with a dozen others to witness their “vows of perpetual fidelity.”  Is this anything like what Paul was encountering?  Let’s explore this:

  1. Martha and Mary worship exclusively with me at Annunciation Catholic Church.  Paul is condemning devotees of the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) in Corinth.
  2. Martha and Mary have been living in an exclusive relationship, sharing their daily lives, for over a dozen years.  Paul is condemning female devotees who exchange sex with female prostitutes (probably slaves).  This is decidedly not an exclusive relationship and does not imply an abiding emotional bond together.
  3. Martha and Mary have chosen a same-sex union because their Creator designed them to have an innate sexual attraction to their own kind.  Union with a man would be “unnatural” for them and contrary to God design for them.  Paul, on the other hand, condemns temple prostitution because (a) it is a form of idolatry and (b) it requires an “unnatural” act of sex.

In conclusion, Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in Rom 1:24-26 can have no application to the same-sex union of Martha and Mary as it exists today.  Paul was condemning homosexuality as he knew it in his day, namely, as an offshoot of temple prostitution.

In Ohio, most Catholic churches have a summer festival in order to raise a major portion of their operating expenses.  At these festivals, Catholics get an opportunity “to have some good, clean fun together” and “to meet their neighbors” as well.  From time to time, some unsavory practices do creep into these fairs.  Some would be shocked to find black-jack-poker tables and belly dancing at a few of these fairs.  I myself was especially disappointed to find cruelty to animals–baby ducks being forced to take part in betting races and baby fish slowly suffocating in plastic bags being offered as prizes.   At some Protestant churches in the remote hills of Kentucky, worshipers routinely reach into cages and pick up rattle snakes with their bare hands.  They do this in order to testify to the power of God to overcome serpents.  In none of these cases, however, I have yet to find a Christian congregation sponsoring “sacred prostitution” by way of funding the work of the Christian ministry.  Should any church ever encourage such a practice, Paul’s condemnation would surely apply.  That is for sure.

But it is equally certain that the case of Martha and Mary has nothing to do with prostitution and idolatry.[vi]

Anyone who says that it does has never properly done their homework.  Thus, I challenge Cardinal Ratzinger and his supporters to cease and desist from calling upon Rom 1:24-26 by way of passing judgment as to whether God loves same-sex marriages.

Listen to the words of a prominent supporter of Cardinal Ratzinger: Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Archbishop Emeritus of Guadalajara, Mexico:

“There are many people who have the misfortune of being homosexual but who live chastely,” said Sandoval. “Those, yes, [who live chastely] are going to enter into the kingdom of God. But those who practice it [homosexually] will not enter the kingdom of God. St. Paul says that. And homosexuality is condemned, totally condemned, in the Old Testament, in Genesis, and by St. Paul in the New Testament.”

“So just as those who have normal tendencies, and aren’t married, have to abstain [from sex], so those who have abnormal tendencies must also abstain,” said Sandoval, adding, “Even more so, knowing that homosexuality is a psychological illness which can be cured. Let them seek a cure, because homosexuality is never permitted.”

Cardinal Sandoval finds support from Cardinal Ratzinger’s when it comes time to using Rom 1:24-26 to condemn contemporary same-sex marriages.  But not even Ratzinger maintains the dubious notion that “homosexuality is a psychological illness” that might someday find a “cure.”  Thus, Cardinal Sandoval has not only failed to do his homework on Rom 1:24-26, he has also failed to keep up with advances in the field of psychology.  Being a cardinal in the Catholic Church, truth to say, offers him no protection from making errors in either the field of psychology or in the field of biblical studies.

When it comes to biblical studies, make no mistake about it.  This is not Cardinal Ratzinger’s specialization.  He has neither the training nor the interest in keeping abreast with contemporary biblical studies.  This being the case, then I must ask the Cardinal:

“Why did you not get the outside help you needed in biblical studies?”

“How could you have possibly imagined that homosexual couples today were doing the same sort of things described in Gen 19:1-15 and Rom 1:24-26?”

Those who want to interact with this blog are invited to “Leave a Reply” below.  A solid way to begin doing this is to offer “readback lines.”  To do this, quickly glace back over the entire blog and pick out the one or two lines that have made a deep impression upon you.  Copy them [CTRL-C] and then paste them [CTRL-V] into an empty comment box below.  If you wish, signal the emotion that you feel when reading your readback lines.  The primary emotions are anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise.   No need to further explain yourself.  It is enough to identify the text important to you and to name the emotion(s) that it evokes.  All of this normally takes less than a few minutes.

I and others will “thank you” for your contribution.  If you are tempted to say more, I urge you to hold back.  Your sense of safety and the safety of others is best protected by not getting overly wordy in the beginning.  This will come after a few days or weeks.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Endnotes and Leave a Reply~~~~~~~~

 

[i] Matthew Vines discovery that the biblical texts commonly used to condemn homosexuality do not address the morality of committed homosexual unions has been noted by Roman Catholic biblical scholars:

The 1986 Letter set to the bishops by Cardinal Ratzinger cites six scriptural passages that demonstrate that “homosexual behavior” is immoral (Gen. 19:1-11; Lev. 18:22, 20:13; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:9-10; Rom. 1:26-27). The Catechism of the Catholic Church enforces this position as well: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (§2378).  But this is disputed by a number of biblical scholars and theologians.

Key points made by biblical scholars such as Derrick Bailey, Victor Paul Furnish, James P. Hanigan, Daniel Helminiak, H. Darrell Lance, and Robin Scroggs include:

  1. There are translation difficulties. For example, it was 1946 before the term “homosexual” first appeared in an English translation (1946 Revised Standard Version). Homosexuality is not a prominent biblical concern. The prophets, the gospels, and Jesus say nothing about homosexuality as a “same-sex attraction.”
  2. These six scriptural texts are not in passages dealing with moral principles but appear in contexts where the focus is something else. For example, most biblical scholars believe the primary sin of Sodom is inhospitality. Jesus implies that in Luke 10:8-12 (If not welcomed in town, wipe dust of feet in protest. “I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.”). None of the 21 later Hebrew Scripture references to Sodom even mention homosexual acts.
  3. The biblical writers had no concept of homosexual orientation. Scientists first began to understand homosexuality as an orientation in the mid-to-late 1800s.

The Bible takes no direct stand on the morality of homogenital acts as such nor on the morality of gay and lesbian relationships as we conceive them today. . . . That is all that can be said about biblical teaching on homosexuality. If people would still seek to know if gay and lesbian sex in itself is good or evil, if homogenital acts per se are right or wrong, they will have to look elsewhere for an answer. For the fact of the matter is simple enough. The Bible never addresses that question. More than that, the Bible seems deliberately unconcerned about it.  (Theologian Daniel Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, April 2000, p.132-133)

[ii] Notice that in this text Paul expresses a patriarchal point of view.  The issue is “the sexual satisfaction of men.”  Men decide.  Love has nothing to do with it.  Exclusive commitment has nothing to do with it.  Men get their sexual needs met as best pleases them.

[iii] The NRSV translates the Greek as “male prostitutes and sodomites.” The KJV has “nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind”—quite a different translation.   The NIV translates: “nor men who have sex with men” and the footnotes says, “The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.”

What one discovers here is that the Greek text is very difficult to translate and that none of the English translations can be seen as definitive.  Consider, for example, the first Greek word=malakoi:

This common Greek word had different connotations depending on the context in which it was used. In terms of morality, it generally referred to something like laziness, degeneracy, decadence, or lack of courage. The connotation was of being “soft like a woman” or like the delicate expensive fabrics worn by rich men.

In the patriarchal culture of the time, women were thought to be weaker than men, more fearful, more vulnerable, and more vain. Thus, men who ate too much, liked expensive things, were lazy, or liked to dress well were considered “soft like a woman.” Although this type of misogynistic thinking is intolerable in our modern society, it was common in ancient times and explains why the King James Version translated malakoi as “effeminate.”

But it is important to understand the difference between ancient and modern notions of what makes one effeminate. Paul wasn’t condemning men who swish and carry purses; he was condemning a type of moral weakness. The ancient Roman and Greek understanding of what it meant to be manly or womanly was quite different from today. First-century Romans didn’t think of effeminacy as merely a homosexual trait. In that culture, any man who was more interested in pleasure than in duty was considered to be woman-like [i.e.“soft”].

To examine the remainder of this article, go to Jeff Minor, The Children are Free, pp. 16-18.  (http://wouldjesusdiscriminate.org/biblical_evidence/no_fems_no_fairies.html)

[iv] Most biblical scholars are persuaded that Paul was a witness to the temple prostitution in Corinth.  More recently, however, scholars have questioned this assumption.  Why so?  (a) Only a few ancient sources speak of how sacred prostitution functioned in the cult of Aphrodite.  (b) Corinth as a Greek city-state was completely destroyed by the Romans, and it was restored in 44 BCE by Julius Caesar as a Roman colony.  (c) Paul never once mentions the Temple of Aphrodite (compare with Acts 19).  Thus Paul’s tirade against idolatry as inevitably leading to shameful “unnatural” sex may have been a standard line of argumentation learned during his Pharisaical training and have nothing to do with the decadence he observed among the worshippers of Aphrodite in Corinth.  See Tony Perrottet, “Ancient Greek Temples of Sex” (https://thesmartset.com/article11210701/) & “Holy Hookers and Historical Myths” (http://thethirstygargoyle.blogspot.com/2011/07/holy-hookers-and-historical-myths.html).

One must also remember that cultic prostitution was commonly practiced by the ancient Near Eastern fertility religions and that, from the moment they entered into the Promised Land, the Israelites struggled to avoid such practices (Num 25:1-9, Jdg 2:17-19). This became especially prevalent beginning with the monarchy of Rehoboam (1 Kgs 14:24) and extending to the monarchy of Josiah (2 Kgs 23:7).  According to Exod 34:11-16 the practice of exterminating conquered tribes was necessitated in order to wipe out cultic prostitution.  During the Deteronomic reform, the Law of Moses was expanded specifically to forbid cultic prostitution for Israelites (Deut 23:16-17, Amos 2:7).

Jeffrey H. Tigay, Emeritus A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, disagrees: “It is questionable whether cultic prostitution existed at all in the ancient Near East” (http://www.kjvtoday.com/home/sodomite-or-cult-prostitute-deuteronomy-2317-et-al).

[v] In today’s society, Christians have the nasty habit of linking atheism with the absence of moral norms.  This is a stereotype, to be sure.  I am currently living in Shanghai, China.  The Chinese are 98% atheists, yet, in day to day contacts, they practice an exemplary morality.  We never lock our doors here.  In the marketplace, I often pay for groceries by extending my hand filled with a bunch of coins and allow the merchant to select the correct amount.  I feel secure when travelling in dark alleys in the middle of the night.  When I tripped and fell on my face, complete strangers immediately came to my assistance.

Paul, in his day, was operating out of Jewish stereotypes that linked idolatry with homosexuality.  For a study of these Jewish stereotypes and for an understanding of how name-calling was used in rhetorical arguments, see Jeremy Punt, “Religion, sex and politics: Scripting connections in Romans 1:18-32 and Wisdom 14:12-14,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 73 (2017) n.4 (http://www.scielo.org.za/
scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222017000400021).

[vi] Dale B. Martin, “Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32,”  Biblical Interpretation, 3/3 (1995)  332 – 355.

Modern interpreters, influenced more by particularly modern forms of heterosexism and its construction of homosexuality, desire, and “nature” than by a straightforward historical-critical reading of Paul’s letter, portray Paul as referring to the “Fall” of Genesis 1-3 in Romans 1. Paul, it is assumed, takes homosexuality to be a sign of “humanity’s fallen state.” These interpreters, therefore, inscribe homosexual desire into universal fallen humanity in a way that Paul does not do. For one thing, Paul is referring not to the Fall in Romans 1 but to the invention of idolatry and polytheism by the Gentiles; homosexual intercourse is therefore not a symptom of “the Fall” but of Gentile polytheism.

“When seeking a biblical justification for opposing homosexual behavior, many people turn to Romans 1:26-27, but John Piper argues that one cannot separate these verses from Paul’s argument about idolatry in verses 18-25” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2012/september-online-only/ur-video-piper-homosexuality-and-idolatry.html). “Idolatry and shrine prostitution, not homosexuality and lesbianism, are primarily what Paul addressed in Romans 1” (http://www.gaychristian101.com/Romans-1-And-Homosexuality.html).  See also n. 36.

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