About a decade ago, I organized a retreat for university students about spirituality in everyday life. I invited two monks to speak. With only rushed emails to discuss their topic, they arrived on a hot July day in full habit and sat before the students, who stared at them with a mixture of fascination and fear.
After an awkward silence, I pleadingly said, “Ah, you’re on.” One monk spoke up. “Some of you might wonder why I wear these clothes. Everything stems from the knots on the rope around my waist. These represent three vows that I made when I joined my order: ‘poverty,’ ‘chastity’ and ‘obedience’ are the archaic words for them. Another way to say these words is ‘money,’ ‘sex’ and ‘power.’
“I don’t expect any of you to make the same decision I made regarding these things but I believe everyone makes profound decisions about each. Our spiritual lives are made by these decisions, not by our ‘spirituality.’ In the Bible, Jesus is unconcerned about the ‘spiritual’ lives of the people he meets. He is concerned about their lives as a whole and their decisions about these three things. And just as Jesus preferred to listen rather than speak, so do we. We have nothing else planned except to provide each of you with the space to speak and for us to listen.”
Another awkward silence followed. During it, I imagined what I would say to justify my obviously bad decision to invite them. To my surprise, the students began to ask questions and make appointments to speak in confidence. After the retreat, I learned that many were facing life-changing decisions about each topic, and particularly about sex. They found the monks to be compassionate, insightful and clear.
This experience represents the church at its best when it comes to topics like sex. Recently, we have seen the church at its worst, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith gave notification on Just Love (2006), a book on sexual ethics by Margaret Farley, a professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School. The notification listed those points where she departed from traditional church teaching: “masturbation,” “homosexual acts,” “homosexual unions,” the “indissolubility of marriage,” and “divorce and remarriage.” Consequently, the Vatican forbade Roman Catholics from using the book as “a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”
Although I share Farley’s more liberal perspective on these issues, I have no quarrel with the positions taken by the Vatican. For decades if not centuries, these issues have been as much a source of common disagreement as agreement among Christians.
What is troubling, however, is how the Vatican justified its position against hers. Rather than rehearsing passages from scripture or doctrines of the church, the Vatican referenced its own previous judgments and positions taken from 1975 through 2004.
In doing so, it continued a curious behavior by churches to address issues of sexuality by making them placeholders for other ethical issues standing off-stage. The real ethical issue in this notification does not concern sexuality but another matter altogether – the authority that prior church pronouncements hold over present ethical discussions and reflection. According to this line of reasoning, Farley’s book went ethically wrong, then, not when she took positions on sexuality the Vatican disagreed with, but when she generated an ethics that did not respect the boundaries set by the church.
Many connect this notification with other efforts to reign in women’s religious orders. This is unsurprising: the study of ethics in every religious tradition traces a web of power constructed from sacred texts, inherited traditions, common practices and espoused values. The Vatican was being comprehensive, if cold-hearted, in reasserting its control.
Less noticed, however, is the failure to discuss sexuality even when it is the ostensible topic. The current debate over Bill 13 in the Ontario provincial legislature, in which the Roman Catholic church is trying to shift the issue from the bullying of sexual minorities to the relation between church and state, provides yet another example of this avoidance strategy.
In choosing this strategy, Roman Catholics are not alone. For the past decade, Anglicans have been divided over similar issues in sexual ethics, but instead of discussing these issues directly, or having a more focused theological consultation about sexuality as a whole, the debate has largely turned on ways to maintain church unity in the face of increasing disagreement. Examples abound in other denominations.
Indeed, this pattern has been evident for the more than 60 years since Alfred Kinsey published his controversial studies of sexuality. As Mark Jordan notes in a recent history of contemporary Christian debates about sex (Recruiting Young Love, 2011), many Christian leaders do not draw from the slower, more deliberate “rhetoric” of their liturgies and formative narratives to address what role sexuality has in the creation of an authentic self before God. Instead, they have opted for the faster “rhetoric” by mimicking the communication strategies of the wider culture -hastily borrowing language from psychologists, skillfully changing the topic and terms of debate, and engaging in politically polarized discourse and actions. Although this strategy has left them in control of their own faith communities, it reveals a lack of confidence in the power of the slower rhetoric to change and transform lives at the deepest level.
As my experience with the monks demonstrates, this slower rhetoric still has purchase in the wider society. The question is whether Christian churches can muster the confidence to loosen their grip, rely on this more enduring source of power and listen as well as speak.
The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr. is dean of the faculty of theology and associate professor of religious ethics at Huron University College, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.