Disagreement Between Friends, I

An Orthodox reader of this blog has asked me about the “problem” of tradition, as it pertains to the queer question.  How do I reconcile my contention that homosexual unions may be ethical and holy, with the Tradition and traditions of the Church, seemingly so hostile?  This “problematization” of tradition arises in other contexts, too: in plans for reunion with the Oriental (Monophysitic) Orthodox churches, stalled over the thorny problem that their saints are our heretics, and our saints their heretics; likewise in dialogue with the Roman church, which recognizes, and is not about to stop recognizing, a full fourteen additional post-Schism councils, as ecumenical in status.  What, then, is to be done?

One approach has been for the “conservative” and “liberal” parties in the Church to throw caution to the winds, and to assert themselves in despite both of each other and of whatever elements within the Tradition (in the broadest sense) which might challenge them.  That seems to be pretty much what is now going on in the Anglican Communion; and the best conciliating efforts of Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury aside, the Communion’s dissolution is to be expected.  At one extreme, the Anglican bishop of Karamoja in Uganda supports the death penalty bill for homosexuals.  At the other, the dean of the Anglican seminary in Cambridge, Mass., calls abortion a “blessing” and an “holy work.”  Violence proliferates.

Some of that violence is committed in the context of the Church’s pastoral and penitential disciplines.  I myself have, on more than one occasion, been threatened by an (Orthodox) priest with refusal of communion—for no other reason than that I happen both to be openly gay and also happen to disagree with a traditional but non-infallible moral teaching of the Church.  I expect that this may happen many times in my life.  Fr. Hopko says that a person in my condition may not receive the sacraments; Metropolitan Jonas (Paffhausen), archbishop of Washington, DC, and primate of the Orthodox Church in America, the night of his election to the primacy declared that if an ecclesial body “endorses gay marriage” (amongst other controversial political questions), it “abandon[s] … Jesus Christ and the Gospel.”

Never mind that the Gospel says not one word about gay marriage: many ordinarily faithful people are, almost without discussion, to be treated in the same way as would heretics and unbelievers.

And yet, Christ calls us “friends” (Jo. xv. 15).   And “by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (Jo. xiii. 35).

One of the most politically resonant icons in the Church’s iconography is that of SS. Peter and Paul embracing.  They may have disagreed about important doctrinal questions, as the apostles and fathers generally have disagreed: “And some coming down from Judea, taught the brethren: That except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.  And when Paul and Barnabas had no small contest with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of the other side, should go up to the apostles and priests to Jerusalem about this question” (Act. xv. 1-2).  Therefore the apostles are depicted as friends.

Disagreement Between Friends

If we (Orthodox and Roman Catholics) are to avoid some of the snares into which the Anglican Communion has fallen, we must take care to imitate Peter and Paul, preserving our unity where the dogmas of the Church are concerned, but permitting a legitimate diversity of theological opinion elsewhere.  We must take care to remember that we are friends.

This essay will constitute the first part of a series, “Disagreement Between Friends,” proposing some initial ideas for how to manage the problematization of tradition and, no less important, how to continue living in catholic love and reconciliation.

Part I: The Necessity of Dogma

When reasonable people call the Church “dogmatic,” they are not, usually, being complimentary.  As the Slovak church historian and Orthodox convert Jaroslav Pelikan noted shortly before his death in an NPR segment “The Need for Creeds,” this perception, right or wrong, can pose a tremendous obstacle to the Church’s evangelism.  Queers especially are often suspicious (and understandably so) of the Church’s dogmatic system.  I can well remember my feeing, just for example, on a certain winter night some years ago, listening to an outwardly very pious layman—oblivious of his audience, and alas only half in jest—as he expressed his wish he had a faggot to burn.  That is the sort of obviously negative encounter which does lead reasonable people to hold a negative assessment of dogma.  A fine example occurred recently in Andy Sullivan’s exchange with Ross Douthat about Judge Walker’s ruling on Proposition 8 in California:

[Ross] is not a homophobe as I can personally attest.  But if he cannot offer something for this part of our society except a sad lament that they are forever uniquely excluded, by their nature, from being a “microcosm of civilization” [and thus from participating in the institution of marriage], then this is not a serious contribution to the question at hand.  It is merely a restatement of abstract dogma….

When dogmas are reduced to the level of mere abstractions, they die, and those who cling to them are justly censured for their “dogmatism.”  On the other hand, as V.S. Soloviev wrote in an essay on “The Significance of Dogma”:

When Christian dogmas were taking shape at the general church councils, for the true representatives of the church they were neither that mind-game by which the last Byzantines were carried away nor that alien and forgotten word, which they pronounce for present-day hearing.  True dogma is the word of the church responding to the word of God when such a response is required by course of history and the development of religious consciousness. [1]

Dogma correctly understood is not abstract and dead, but historical and living.

Just as a philosopher might proceed by asking what must be true of the mind such that we are able to interpret the realities we experience, in the same way a theologian proceeds by asking what must be true of God (dogmatically speaking) such that we are able to interpret our experience of eternal salvation.

So it is that what the Church claims to teach dogmatically, infallibly, turns out to be relatively little.  There are the declarative, frequently paradoxical theses of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, in the East, and those of the Apostles’ and Athanasian creeds, in the West, mostly having to do with the relations which subsist between the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  In the East in the eighth century, the appropriateness of venerating icons was made into dogma; so too, in the West, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were the Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.   But to venture much beyond these few items with any certainty one would be hard-pressed.  Good reason for such dogmatic reticence was given first of all by S. Vincent of Lérins: “… all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.  For that is truly and in the strictest sense ‘Catholic,’ which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universality.” [2]

The theological opinions which can meet this test are not numerous.  The theological opinions which, in course of time, have indeed met this test, then act as a groundwork on the basis of which all further inquiry is made possible.  They are, in other words, the indispensible core.  As the Apostle reasons: “For if the dead rise not again, neither is Christ risen again.  And if Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain, and you are yet in your sins” (I Cor. xv. 16-17).  For such reason is belief in the resurrection, as set forth in the Creed, properly called “dogmatic.”

Granted that, I cannot conceive how homosexual love or unions do any injury to dogmatic theology; nor can I conceive why the queer community need be suspicious of dogmatic theology.

On the contrary, the most striking political consequence of dogma is to set limits to all earthly authority.  An authentic dogmatism is thus also the aboriginal classical form of liberalism.  The Christian does not deny the dogmatic definitions of faith, even on pain of death; the sovereign conscience of the individual martyr in the arena is to be obeyed before corporation, class, or committee of public safety, is to be obeyed.  The Byzantine basileus or Russian tsar might aspire to reign together with Christ, but could never replace Christ, and buried in the recesses of the Church’s pre-imperial memory lies Tertullian’s old dictum about the blood of the martyrs.  As Jaroslav Pelikan states bluntly on the first page of the first volume of The Christian Tradition, “polity transcends organization because of the way the church defines itself and its structure in its dogma.” [3]

This is a justification of dogma, at once as deeply conservative as the early African church in which the likes of Tertullian could flourish, which can at the same time be embraced by the queer community, and likewise by any persecuted or marginalized group suffering at the hands of Pharisees and Caesars.  I have written about Orthodox seminarian Eric Iliff here, but the names and stories are without end.  The martyrial witness of the Church’s queers does not threaten the Church’s dogmatic system; it helps, like all martyrial witness, to support and explain it.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Politics, Law, Morality: Essays by V.S. Soloviev, trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 108-09.


[2] Commonitory ii. 6.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 1.

Published in: on August 20, 2010 at 7:45 pm  Comments (8)  
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  1. I might take issue with you singling out the Anglican Communion, my brother, except that I think you are absolutely right – many Anglicans at the polarities of the crisis have forgotten that we are friends.

    The issue becomes, of course, that for many conservatives the “gay marriage issue” is the thin end of a wedge that will force the Church to “drop” classic creedal dogmas in the name of “relevance” and “good science.” So I have met many clergy who agree with me on the welcome of queer folks but not on the Trinity or the resurrection of Christ.

    For example, some conservative Anglicans believe that gay marriage violates the dogma of the Incarnation. If liberals are opposing scripture, they are in effect declaring that Jesus may have had “disordered affections.” To a conservative, then, this effectively negates the sinlessness of Christ, which in turn violates “for us and for our salvation” because an imperfect human being cannot be God’s agent of reconciliation. And if Jesus cannot be God’s agent, then you’ve gutted the Creed.

    Of course, you and I agree that gay people and our lives do not compromise dogmatic theology. But we live in an age where it seems one of the “make-or-break” issues for the Church is our doctrine of anthropology and sexuality. Just as we’ve managed (mostly) to “get over” the polarization about Communion enshrined in the Protestant and Catholic Reformations (while the East looked on and shook their heads, I’m sure!), I’m sure we’ll find a way to get around these questions, as well. But it’s hard to say how, since we’re right in the middle of the throes.

    Can you say more about your belief in the infallibility of the Church? I believe that the Church is indeflectable but not infallible (at least according to my understanding of these terms).

  2. Dear Rob,

    Thanks for this. You’re on to something when you say, ” … for many conservatives the ‘gay marriage issue’ is the thin end of a wedge that will force the Church to ‘drop’ classic creedal dogmas….” Since I used to be an extreme conservative, and surrounded myself with people who were like-minded, I can say that this is true to a very considerable extent. Most “conservatives,” assuming they are of good-will, continue to regard homosexual behavior (if not homosexuality) as sinful, because they are afraid of what ceasing to regard it as sinful might imply about the Church’s authority. If the Church has been wrong about this, then what else has it been wrong about … ? And soon the whole system totters. That is pretty much what Fr. Hopko’s position (amongst the Orthodox) boils down to.

    Now, it seems to me that that mentality (fear) betokens a weak, not to say over-intellectualized, faith; but leaving issues of grace aside, their real fear does mean that those of us who want to reconcile the hierarchy to the queer members of their flock, have a great obligation to show that they in no way threaten, or wish to threaten, the Church’s settled dogma. That, I hope, will be one of the main themes of this blog, and partly explains why we insist on continuing to call ourselves “conservative.”

    Do you have a link on the Anglicans who are afraid at the notion of Jesus’ having had “disordered affections”? That is (grotesquely) fascinating.

    I’ll say more about infallibility in future posts.

    Thanks again,

  3. I’ll look for the link, Victor. The odd thing is that the “conservatives” of my upbringing did not assume the infallibility of the Church, but of Scripture. Personally, I wonder if any assertion of infallibility about anyone other than our Triune God is tends to rank idolatry.

  4. […] Part 1 of this series, “The Necessity of Dogma,”  I suggested that traditional dogmatic theology is neither merely optional (contra […]

  5. Let’s try an analogy from science (my other handmade of Truth).

    Science prides itself on it capacity to describe and explain natural phenomena. It does so in theories, which to maintain credence, must be consistent with empirical data. Science expects that theories will change and on occasion be overthrown. Science does not wring its hands and fret that if this theory stutters to a halt then the whole edifice of scientific truth will come crashing down behind it.

    In theology we have to get the balance right between revelation and exploration. The reticence of the Church to dogmatise reflects its awareness that elements of exploration (and therefore provisionality) persist and where this is the case, dogma is impossible. However, sometimes truth becomes unassailable (cf. the earth is not flat) in which case dogma ensures that such fixed reference points are never disturbed.

    No one has convincingly demonstrated to me as yet that the last word has been spoken in the Orthodox-Catholic traditions concerning homosexuality. To do so would be to say that we know everything there is to know about human sexuality, its origins and expressions. There will always need to be a qualified response in those areas (usually ethical) where science continues to play a key role. We cannot turn wilfully blind eyes and deaf ears to truth wherever it might be found. To this question in my online

    What is the Christian response to truth seeking in the sciences, arts and humanities?

    …. a meagre 57% responded that “Whatever is true, wherever it may be found, comes from God.”

    That is the real problem we are dealing with here.

    Problems then arise when believers have a myopic view of truth to the extent that they absolutise every jot and tittle of Scripture or every papal encyclical with the aim of closing down the debate. This is both harmful and ultimately impossible and irresponsible. Better to allow for competing opinions for quite some time until matters are resolved. Mutuality of respect and patient dialogue in prayer are the only possible ways forward here.

  6. Sorry about the multiple lines on that link. I got the code wrong and I didn’t know how to edit the post (if that’s possible).

  7. Dear Fr. Gregory:

    Thank you for your comments. They are much appreciated.

    Bless, Father, and pray for us.


  8. […] earlier posts in this series, “The Necessity of Dogma” and “The Priority of Scripture,” I tried both to defend the value which conservatives […]

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