“Nature” a Moving Target for Theologians


Austen Ivereigh, a columnist on the website of America: The National Catholic Weekly, made some insightful comments on the Church’s changing understanding of what is “natural” in his Christmas Eve column, “Gays, Galileo, and the Message of the Manger”. Excerpts:


The BBC has the correct headline on Pope Benedict’s curial speech story. “Pope attacks blurring of gender” is far more accurate than all those headlines claiming that “saving gay people is as important as saving the rainforests”…

The essential theological point in the Pope’s intriguing address is that going green while erasing God from Creation is a contradiction. Nature, he says is “the gift of the Creator, with certain intrinsic rules that offer us an orientation we must respect as administrators of creation.”

And he goes on: “That which is often expressed and understood by the term ‘gender’ in the end amounts to the self-emancipation of the human person from creation and from the Creator. Human beings want to do everything by themselves, and to control exclusively everything that regards them. But in this way, the human person lives against the truth, against the Creator Spirit.”

It’s worth placing this papal observation alongside the tribute Benedict XVI paid last Sunday to Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) on the 400th anniversary of the condemned astronomer’s telescope.

Galileo, you will recall, was declared a heretic by the seventeenth-century Church for supporting Nicholas Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun (church teaching at the time placed the Earth at the centre of the universe). For centuries the Galileo condemnation has been used by secularists as a symbol of all that is incompatible between faith and science.

Last weekend, the Vatican sought to reverse that symbolism, building on Pope John Paul II’s 1992 apology and dusting off Galileo as a shining representative of faith and reason working together….

…I can’t help but spot an irony.

Galileo was condemned, at the time, because he was held to subvert the God-ordained nature of things. One can imagine Pope Urban VIII in 1633 using words similar to Pope Benedict’s to the Curia: that nature has “certain intrinsic rules that offer us an orientation we must respect as administrators of creation.”

But it wasn’t long before the “intrinsic rules” were overturned by the evidence. It turned out that putting the Earth at the centre of the universe was not God’s plan at all.

Mark Dowd, gay ex-Dominican and strategist for the Christian environmental group Operation Noah, is widely quoted in UK press reports as saying that in his curial speech Benedict XVI betrayed “a lack of openness to the complexity of creation” — in other words, that papal faith in the fixity of male-female gender roles may be misplaced.

At the moment, there seems little room in the Catholic Church’s “human ecology” for a possible divine purpose for homosexuality — just as in the seventeenth century there wasn’t much space for the idea that God has arranged the universe with the sun at its centre. It would be syllogistic to suggest that because the Church was wrong on the second it will turn out to be wrong on the first.

But it’s striking how the homosexual orientation appears in church teaching as “intrinsically disordered” — in other words, as contrary to the way God arranged the universe — in the same way as the Copernican view appeared in the seventeenth century.

And it isn’t a bad thought, at Christmas, to remember that the Creator of the Universe is capable of subverting its laws for the sake of His creatures.

Things are never so finally fixed that God can’t rearrange it all. The arrogance of scientists, of clergy, of the wise, our own arrogance — all get dethroned tonight by the Great Event: the manger-child, born of a refugee couple and the Holy Spirit, in a cave, in a place somewhere off the map, to where the centre of the Universe quietly relocates. Happy Christmas.

10 comments on ““Nature” a Moving Target for Theologians

  1. Judy says:

    I am not catholic but I do support the view of the pope. The analogy that the church got it wrong regarding the placement of the earth in the universe and the homosexual debate is totally irrelevant. The church was guessing it got it right about the earth being the center of the universe, whereas the bible clearly states that homosexuality is not God ordained, but it’s man’s lust one for another and setting oneself up as judging what is good and evil. God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. The pope is now endeavouring to endorse the sanctity of marriage and how our Creator intended relationship to be between man and woman. After all it’s the natural way – it all fits perfectly. Basically it comes back to the fact, do we want to follow the creators handbook, or set ourselves up as thinking we know better. Many times I have purchased something and tried to set it up without reading the instruction manual. It usually doesn’t work, doesn’t fit, have pieces left over, I don’t know how to use it properly or to it’s maximum potential as the designer intended. We are now doing the same. Homosexuals are going against the creators instructions and it will in the long term end in disaster.
    I hope for the sake of those confused with their sexuality, they will acknowledge there is a great designer/creator and understand He knows best and designed things in a certain way. He clearly states that homosexuality is against His will.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    The point of the article, as I see it, was that theologians aren’t always the best judge of what is “natural”. New scientific evidence has required them to change those views from time to time, and apparently even the Catholic Church has found a way to accommodate this dynamic without undermining the authority of the Pope or the Bible.

    I don’t take the Garden of Eden story literally, but what I do see in the present day is that God has indeed made “Adam and Steve”, i.e. some people for whom same-sex love comes naturally.

    You rightly point out the arrogance of setting one’s self up to judge what is good and evil for other people. What right do you and I have, as straight people, to decide whether same-sex attraction is natural for those who experience it? We’re not God. We have no right to override their own account of how they experience God in their bodies and souls.

    I think we’d do better to examine our own motivations a little more closely. A lot of arguments have been presented on this blog that make a plausible case for a pro-gay reading of Scripture. As I’ve admitted before, it’s not the only reading, but given a choice of potential interpretations, we ought to be cautious about choosing one that seems to be motivated by fear and anger, or that lays heavier burdens on our neighbors than on ourselves.

  3. Adam says:

    The Catholic church has got many things wrong down the years (eg planetary orbits), but so what?

    On this issue, they have a choice between common sense (anal sex is harmful) and folly (it’s a choice issue). Since the former happens to coincide with the teaching of the Bible, it’s kind of a no-brainer.

    No good hiding behind the argument that everyone experiences same-gender feelings at some time or other. The issue is what is done with those feelings. Most of us regularly experience murderous feelings (like when reading silly articles), the issue is what we do with those feelings. Do we factor in God / God’s take, or not? If you say you don’t believe in God, then where did your conscience come from? Primordial slime? Really? Such are the powers of human self-deception!

  4. Judy says:

    Jenni,
    I think you have missed my point. I am not judging homosexuals by what I think is right. The creator/designers handbook the bible clearly states and I quote ” For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions for 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, men with men commiting indecent acts… And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.” Romans 1:26-28. That to me is pretty explicit. Just as we must obey the laws of the land we must obey the Divine laws God has set out. I can’t just take some flowers and schrubs out of a public park just because i like them, neither can people think they live out their sexuality as want just because they like it. Laws are in place for the good of all and God’s laws are no different. However, let me make it quite clear that God loves the homosexual just as He does everyone else, but He hates the acts of homosexuality because it is against His great design, plan and purpose for mankind.

  5. Tim says:

    “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.”
    –G.K. Chesterton

    Just like your quote states, there is a line drawn, and in this case, like many others, it is the Bible. The pope is a figure to look up to, not someone to worship. Just like every other figure that is not Jesus, he is imperfect. He’s the closest we have, but he’s not Jesus. Not often are the Pope’s suggestions wrong, but they definitely can be (when they contradict the Bible). The Bible is God’s Holy Word, right? Why not use it, just as Judy and God suggests, as the Blueprint to life? I respect writers and some of their opinions, especially since they publish their work, but sometimes they are wrong. Take a look at history and every civilization that has crumbled. The vast majority have crumbled soon after they introduced this “natural” sexual orientation called Homosexuality or at least some perversion to the Biblical Man and Woman relationship. Give evil an inch, it will take a mile.

    Here is an example: Have you watched television lately?

  6. Jendi Reiter says:

    Civilizations rise and fall for many reasons, and no earthly regime is permanent, whatever its position on gender issues. The United States, which by worldly standards is the most successful civilization in modern times, is also one of the most progressive in terms of recognizing equal rights for sexual minorities. If America does fall anytime soon, it’ll more likely be because of our warlike behavior and waste of natural resources.

    I agree with you that the promiscuity of American popular culture is a serious problem, but I am arguing for monogamous same-sex partnerships, not “anything-goes” sexuality.

    Insults like “perversion” indicate that you have already pre-judged the issue, bringing your own preferences to the Bible and refusing to admit the good faith of those who interpret it differently. This does not contribute to respectful dialogue. Your point can be made without this rhetoric.

  7. judy says:

    Jenni
    i notice you didnt show my reply to you quoting scripture. Regarding your comment ‘insults like perversion indicate that you have already prejudged the issue….. those who interpret it differently’ please enlighten me on the different interpretation of that scripture. It appeared very black and white to me. I would like to hear the other interpretation please.

  8. Dave says:

    I would say that homosexuality and science are seperatee things entirely. The Catholics have changed in what they believe of the outside world but when it comes to morality I don’t think even they have changed mch in the past two milleniums. In short, I don’t think these can be compared and contrasted to produce an argument of any strength. The Bible is pretty straightforward about homosexuality whereas the universe is only referenced vaguely.

  9. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for your question. I did not publish one of your previous comments quoting Romans 1:26 because it did not engage with any of the arguments presented on this blog for a different interpretation of that verse and others like it. I appreciate your willingness to learn more. You can start with these links:

    James Alison, “But the Bible says…” A Catholic Reading of Romans 1
    Steve Parelli, The Bible and Homosexuality (notes for presentation at conference in Africa)
    Candace Chellew-Hodge, Whosoever Magazine: The Bible and Homosexuality

  10. Jendi Reiter says:

    On the contrary, the Catholic Church has changed its opinion on important moral issues including capital punishment, war, slavery, and treatment of non-Christians. Moreover, I think it’s an unwarranted leap to assume that the Bible is always talking about “homosexuality” in the broadest possible sense, as we understand it today, as opposed to particular same-sex acts involving promiscuity and idol worship. See the links I shared with Judy above.

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