A Brief Ecumenical Note

Alas, Victor is still traveling, but I have found time for a brief note.  One of our readers, Rei, brought this blog post concerning the Orthodox Jewish position on homosexuality to my attention.  Unlike the infamous “Halloween Letter” written by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVIth) when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to Bishops on the pastoral care of “homosexual persons;” the Statement of Principles originates from a Rabbi, who then allowed it to be “commented upon by and revised based on the input from dozens of talmidei chachamim, educators, communal rabbis, mental health professionals and a number of individuals in our community who are homosexual in orientation.” This statement was then signed  by many Rabbis and other prominent Orthodox Jews who agreed with the sentiments espoused therein. Both authorship and audience ought to be kept in mind while drawing comparisons.

The first thing that struck me was that the language of the Statement of Principles was far more welcoming.  Compare, for instance, the first few lines of each:

We, the undersigned Orthodox rabbis, rashei yeshivaramim, Jewish educators and communal leaders affirm the following principles with regard to the place of Jews with a homosexual orientation in our community…


The issue of homosexuality and the moral evaluation of homosexual acts have increasingly become a matter of public debate, even in Catholic circles. Since this debate often advances arguments and makes assertions inconsistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church, it is quite rightly a cause for concern to all engaged in the pastoral ministry, and this Congregation has judged it to be of sufficiently grave and widespread importance to address to the Bishops of the Catholic Church this Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.

The disparity in language here cannot be attributed to mere differences in authorship, style, religious structure, or audience (although those do factor in).  The Statement of Principles clearly underlines that there are practicing homosexual Jews within the community, whereas the “Halloween Letter” only speaks of homosexuality in a way that distances its readers, as an abstract concept; the document discusses homosexual acts, not homosexual Catholics.  We are not included in the community.  This is particularly interesting, as the Statement of Principles is not actually any less damning than the Halloween Letter in its moral evaluation of homosexuality.  It affirms that no matter what the cause of homosexuality, such interactions are prohibited:

4. Halakhic Judaism views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited. The question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic, or rather environmentally generated, is irrelevant to this prohibition.

Interestingly enough, the Halloween letter discusses the possibility that homosexuality is not a choice:

11. It has been argued that the homosexual orientation in certain cases is not the result of deliberate choice; and so the homosexual person would then have no choice but to behave in a homosexual fashion. Lacking freedom, such a person, even if engaged in homosexual activity, would not be culpable.

Here, the Church’s wise moral tradition is necessary since it warns against generalizations in judging individual cases. In fact, circumstances may exist, or may have existed in the past, which would reduce or remove the culpability of the individual in a given instance…

Although, it immediately warns its readers against “the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behaviour of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive and therefore inculpable,” as

What is essential is that the fundamental liberty which characterizes the human person and gives him his dignity be recognized as belonging to the homosexual person as well. As in every conversion from evil, the abandonment of homosexual activity will require a profound collaboration of the individual with God’s liberating grace.

While both the Halloween Letter and the Statement agree on the unacceptability of homosexual relations, the latter contains something that the Halloween letter lacks:  an awareness that the religious community has a fundamental duty to welcome those within it, even if they are homosexual, and an understanding of the harsh psychological toll well-meaning devout persons may have on those who are LGBTQ.  The Statement clearly addresses this issue immediately:

1.  All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot). Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same sex attraction. Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.

This is reiterated again, and again and again.  The document “affirm[s] the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous,” and warns against marriages between someone who is gay, to someone of the opposite gender, as “this can lead to great tragedy, unrequited love, shame, dishonesty and ruined lives.”  Furthermore, the document makes it quite clear that the children of homosexual couples, both biological and adoptive, are also to be welcomed into the community.[1] Quite a far cry from what one may see/experience in any conservative Catholic setting.  And who can be surprised, as only once–quite far into the document–does the Halloween letter demonstrate any sensitivity on the part of the Church to such considerations:

10. It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.

This is quickly followed up (lest the reader should forget!) by a reminder that homosexuality is in no way to be condoned.

I am amazed that conservatives of another religion have managed to write a document that is just as hardline on the morality of homosexuality, while simultaneously managing to remind people that GLBTQ are part of their community, and ought to be treated as such, and remaining psychologically sensitive.  I would wish to see similar language from hardliners within my Church.

In Corde Mariae,


[1] One has the sense that this would not happen.

Published in: on August 5, 2010 at 10:08 pm  Comments (1)  
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Talking “Ism”s, Post-Pride

Two news stories out of the Russian church, of ambivalent significance, bookended this year’s Pride marching season.

At the end of June, Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, met with Patriarch Cyril in Moscow.  Good news: the patriarchate under Cyril is not going to walk away from ecumenical dialogue with the other Anglican and Protestant bodies which comprise the WCC.  Bad news: the condition of such continued participation in ecumenical dialogue is the official silence of the WCC on homosexuality and female ordination.   

And about a month earlier the Libreria Editrice Vaticana published at Rome an Italian translation of Patriarch Cyril’s politico-theological writings.  Good news: the Russian church, maybe for the first time since the misfortunate metropolitan of Kiev who signed on the dotted line at Florence-Ferrara in 1438-39, has a serious philo-Catholic for its primate.  Bad news: his proposed Roman-Muscovite alliance for the “re-evangelization of Europe” centers on public opposition to homosexuality and abortion.

Chiesa quotes the patriarch as writing:

Both of the questions [i.e., homosexuality and female ordination] confirm, among other things, the thesis about the liberal nature of Protestantism, as previously defined.  It is absolutely evident that the introduction of female priesthood and the admission of homosexuality have taken place under the influence of a certain liberal vision of human rights: a vision in which these rights are radically opposed to sacred tradition.  And a certain part of Protestantism has resolved the question in favor of this conception of human rights, ignoring the clear norm of faith in the tradition.

The question whether or not Protestantism may be, in its essence, a religious manifestation of “liberalism,” is a long geschichte.  But the question I would like to ask, is why does opposition to “liberalism”—opposition to liberalism having just been defined by the patriarch as support for sacred tradition—necessarily entail opposition to homosexuality, or to female ordination?  The Orthodox churches, just for example, have been ordaining women to the diaconate, time out of mind; and when S. Paul commends to the church of Rome the deaconess Phoebe, and also greets his co-adjutors Prisca and Aquila (Rom. xvi, 1-4), he surely has no notion of United Nations (or WCC) statements on human rights.

Conservatism, Healthy and Unhealthy

We have characterized this blog as “conservative,” meaning that we support sacred tradition.  And yet what His Holiness Patriarch Cyril finds to be “absolutely evident” and “clear” in the tradition, we do not. 

A.I. Solzhenitsyn, certainly the twentieth-century Orthodox public intellectual best known in the West, made the following observation about the underlying harmony of the principles of continuity (read: a rightly-ordered conservatism) and of change (read: a rightly-ordered liberalism).  The context is a discussion of literature at the National Arts Club of New York in 1993, but what he says here of literature and the fine arts, comparatively true, is perhaps superlatively true of religion and philosophy: 

The divine plan is such that there is no limit to the appearance of new and dazzling creative talents, none of whom, however, negate in any way the works of their outstanding predecessors, even though they may be five hundred or two thousand years removed.  The unending quest for what is new and fresh is ever close to us, but this does not deprive our grateful memory of all that came before.  No new work of art comes into existence (whether consciously or unconsciously) without an organic link to what was created earlier.  But it is equally true that a healthy conservatism must be flexible both in terms of creation and perception, remaining equally sensitive to the old and to the new, to venerable and worthy traditions, and to the freedom to explore, without which no future can ever be born. [1]  

There exists in Orthodox ascetic theory, on the other hand, a diagnosis for the vice or passion which may be associated with an unhealthy conservatism.  Its defining characteristics are a sad complacency; insensibility of the need for continual striving; lack of pleasure in life or vocation.  Pseudo-conservative traditionalism—as distinguished from authentic conservative tradition—is, looked at supernaturally, only so much acedia.

Fortunately, since humans are still humans, and still bear the image of God (the Fall notwithstanding), “[t]he unending quest for what is new and fresh is ever close to us.”


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] “Playing upon the Strings of Emptiness,” The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005, ed. Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2006), pp. 585-86.

Published in: on July 12, 2010 at 9:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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