Disagreement Between Friends, III

Part 3: The Law of Nature and the Law of the Church

To understand and make use of the perduring sense of “the two laws”—the lex naturalis and the lex christiana—is our central challenge.

In earlier posts in this series, “The Necessity of Dogma” and “The Priority of Scripture,” I tried both to defend the value which conservatives attach to the traditional sources of authority in the Church, and also to defend the skepticism with which liberals point out that these sources of authority do not settle the Queer Question.  For the infallible teachings of the Church are indeed few and far between, and the New Testament does not talk about anything that we would regard as a monogamous homosexual relationship.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Church’s canon law and penitential discipline, and the traditional understanding of natural law or natural right which the Church has assumed, do prohibit any sort of homosexual relationship, as well as any non-procreative sexual activity generally.  The rhetorical legacy of “the sin against nature” still trickles down, moreover, even into the most secular of contemporary contexts.   In its amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, the American Psychiatric Association found it relevant to cite a 1999 study demonstrating the existence of homosexual behavior in approximately 450 different animal species.  (Not the least of them being the chinstrap penguins, made famous by the years-long courtship of Silo and Roy at Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo.)

For the queer Christian, two problems arise.  The first is the tendency to reject altogether and even belittle the Church’s tradition of natural-law ethical reflection.  John Boswell seems to do just that in his introduction to Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, where he asserts that “[t]he scientific, philosophical, and even moral considerations which underlay this [natural-law] approach have since been almost wholly discredited and are consciously rejected by most educated persons.” [1] Not only would that be astonishing news to a (politically diverse) host of twentieth-century worthies—in the English-speaking world alone, names like Finnis, MacIntyre, Nussbaum, Bloom, Strauss, Voegelin, and Arendt, all spring immediately to mind—it would also belie the public’s evident interest in mentioning penguins in connection with opposition to Texas’ anti-sodomy law.

The second problem is the tendency in the other direction, that is, adhering to the letter of traditional natural-law theory and canonical law and discipline, without regard for their spirit, or awareness of their historical context.  Fr. Erickson, in the introduction to his anthology The Challenge of Our Past, caricatured such people in the Church, and accurately, as believing that “the Pedalion fell from heaven on Pentecost, along with the Typikon and other such vital compendia of rules and regulations.” [2] Sad to say, but when Pope Benedict XVI—or at any rate his fan club—characterizes anything in modernity which falls short of his idea of Christian society, as a “dictatorship of relativism,” as if there were no intermediate positions, both he and they are no more persuasive than the bearded Orthodox zealot who labels a modest reform of the liturgical calendar as heresy.

Born Under the Law: The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, January 1st

I will make some preliminary comments about each problem in turn.  Given the problems’ extent, and centrality, I expect I will return to them again and again.


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Published in: on January 16, 2011 at 12:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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