Slippery Jim is at it again. This is his latest controversial tweet:
Interesting: “Where the Bible mentions [same-sex sexual] behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether the biblical judgment is correct. The Bible sanctioned slavery as well and nowhere attacked it as unjust.. https://t.co/52jL6NDgRu
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) October 23, 2019
This question (and line of reasoning) came up a few years ago when I was writing for CRUX. Margery Eagan, who was the spirituality columnist at The Boston Globe’s Crux website, posed a question about homosexuality in this column.
Listening to the reading at Mass last week from Ephesians, Margery heard St. Paul say, “Slaves be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling.” The priest explained that times were different back then, and St. Paul was not really condoning slavery. Slavery was a reality in the ancient world, and Paul was a man of his time. We know better now.
Margery had the same question pop into her head as did Fr Martin.
Hearing all this, again, I was left with my perpetual question. In Romans, Corinthians, and Timothy 1, Paul also condemns homosexuality. And those letters, too, have been quoted throughout Christian history to justify treating gay men and woman differently, even to reject them. So how is it that we don’t hear the same “different time” explainers about Paul and homosexuals? How is it that the Church has found a way to discount and dismiss what Paul said repeatedly about slaves, but not discount and dismiss what he said repeatedly about homosexuals?
I don’t have the answer. I simply ask the question.
Slippery Jim and Margery must be using the same playbook: Don’t challenge church teaching openly. Just pose a question. That tactic has been around for a long time. Check Genesis 3.1.
Let’s be plain. This is a tactic to move opinion in favor of accepting homosexual activity. As I have said before, this post is not about the homosexual condition, nor is it about homosexual actions per se. I have no opinion on these matters other than the teaching of Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
But let us put Slippery Jim’s duplicitous methods on one side and treat the question itself.
On face value, it is a fair question, it is the sort of question any quizzical ninth grade student might ask.
Margery and Fr Jim seem puzzled. They’re “just asking a question!” They don’t have an answer.
Maybe I can help.
Firstly, plenty of people do make this “different time” argument, and not just about homosexuality. The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, used this argument when debating women’s ordination. In 1 Timothy 2:12, St. Paul says, “I do not allow a woman to teach a man or to hold authority over him in church. She should be quiet.” When opponents of women’s ordination used this verse to defend their position, Carey waved it away, saying, “We know more now about gender roles than they did back then.”
Carey’s problem was that he wanted to disregard Paul and ordain women, while at the same time hold out against the homosexual lobby. The LGBTQ activists used the “different time” argument to support the ordination of practicing homosexuals and same-sex marriage. Did Carey and others object? Was St. Paul against such things? “We know more about human sexuality than they did back then,” was the reply.
So the first answer to Fr Jim’s question is, “The argument you make is not new. The Anglicans and other mainstream Protestants have been using the “different time” argument for years.”
The problem with the “different time” argument is that it is a blunt instrument. It can be used to relativize Scripture completely, so if someone doesn’t like this or that they say, “Geesh, that was then. This is now.”
The other problem with the “different time” argument (and the reason Catholics don’t use it) is because it reveals a Protestant mindset about the Bible – as if the Bible is the only authority, and that it is no more than a book of doctrines or a book of regulations.
The Bible is not simply a list of rules and regulations to be followed, nor is it a list of doctrines to be believed. It is the record of God’s relationship with his people. While there are particular commands and regulations written down in particular cultures and time periods, the main things we look for are the overarching principles and the underlying theology. The idea is not so much to glean particular dictums or dictates, but to understand the whole wisdom of God for mankind.
We must consider the matter of different cultures and time periods, but these are not the main lines of reasoning when interpreting Scripture. Margery Egan as a lay person could be excused for not understanding the guidelines for Biblical interpretation, but for Fr Martin to use such a sophomoric method of argumentation is laughable.
While we take into consideration the different time and culture in which the Bible was written, it is a low level aspect of Biblical interpretation and it is balanced by other basic rules of Biblical interpretation. The rules are that we do not take verses out of context, nor do we argue a position from one verse or a handful of verses alone. Scripture interprets Scripture. We weigh up not only the whole of one author’s writings, but what the whole of Scripture teaches.
Finally, Catholics are not “Bible only” Christians. We believe the Sacred Scriptures are the inspired record of the acts of God in Christ as lived by his Church. The Scriptures come from the Church and are interpreted by the Church. Therefore it is to the Church’s magisterium that we turn for the final interpretation.
Considering these rules of interpretation, let’s consider the question at hand: St. Paul seems to condone slavery and condemn homosexuality. We reject his acceptance of slavery due to historical differences in culture, why not reject his condemnation of homosexuality if times have changed? (the difference between condoning something and condemning something is important. I discuss it in more detail here.)
First, if we are concerned with historical context, we should learn what slavery was like in ancient Rome. We think of slavery as Africans wearing chains, picking cotton, being watched by a white man with a whip. This article explains that slavery in the Roman times was considerably different. It’s worth a read.
While we read that St Paul expects slaves to obey their masters, his understanding of the matter is more complex. Rather than just giving slavery the nod and moving on, he tells masters that they should regard their slaves as brothers. In the Book of Philemon, he instructs Philemon to treat the slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ (Philemon 16). Paul tells masters to treat slaves with justice and fairness (Col. 4:1) and not to threaten them (Eph 6:9). All these are practical instructions for Christian living, but in his theology, Paul lays the seeds of the abolition of slavery. Through baptism, we are equal in the sight of God. In Galatians 3:28 he teaches, “For all of you who were baptized in Christ … there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free … but all are one in Christ.”
St. Paul’s treatment of slavery, then, can be summarized thus: “Slaves should obey their masters, but masters must treat them as brothers in the Lord, for in Christ there is no slave or free.” While the fact of slavery in Roman society is accepted, St. Paul sees that in Christ, the chains of slavery are broken. Underlying this is the story of the Hebrews being delivered from slavery to freedom in the promised land. The theme is therefore present from the beginning of the Biblical account that slavery is terrible and freedom is good.
The eventual abolition of slavery is therefore present in seed form from Exodus through to the teaching of St. Paul. This is a clear example of the right kind of development of doctrine – in which a final understanding blossoms forth from a seed that was planted in the first place in the Old and New Testaments.
For a preacher to say “We don’t have slavery now because we know more than Paul did back then,” is not exactly profound. We have not abolished slavery because “we know more than Paul did back then,” but because the abolition of slavery was present within Exodus and Paul’s attitude to slavery from the beginning. Our present position is therefore not a contradiction of St. Paul or a dismissal of his teachings, but a fulfillment of them.
Now let’s compare Paul’s teaching about slavery and his teaching about homosexuality.
In the case of slavery, Paul was condoning the status quo. In the case of homosexuality he was condemning the status quo. There is a big difference. The first is a passive acceptance of an evil. The second is an active condemnation.
To put it simply, his attitude to slavery is, “We accept it as a reality, but slaves should be treated fairly because deep down they are our brothers, and in Christ, there is no slave or free.” The fulfillment of Paul’s whole teaching is that slavery is abolished. If his attitude to homosexuality were comparable, he would say, “Homosexuality is a reality in this society. We condemn it, but we know one day that loving, long-term homosexual relationships will be accepted as an alternative kind of marriage.”
However, St. Paul’s theology nowhere suggests an eventual acceptance of homosexual actions. His condemnation is absolute. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11, homosexual actions are condemned in the strongest language.
As with the slavery issue, we must consider the theological background in Paul’s teaching. In the case of slavery, Paul’s underlying theological background plants the seed for slavery’s abolition. Paul’s theological background for his judgment of homosexual actions is found in Romans 1, where he sees homosexual actions as the fruit of a deeper rebellion against God and the natural order. He says it is a form of sensual idolatry, pride, and self-love.
In other words, St. Paul’s underlying theology leads to a greater abhorrence of homosexual actions for a deeper reason – there is no seed planted which might lead to an eventual acceptance of homosexual actions; instead, the opposite is true: Homosexual activity is seen as the result of a profound rejection of God and the natural order.
Finally, Catholic Church teaching is always reliant not only on Scripture, but on an integration of Catholic truth with natural law. From Augustine through Aquinas, theologians have argued that natural law is against slavery because, both in creation and in Christ, all are equal. The same reasoning has always and everywhere held that homosexual actions are contrary to natural law and cannot be condoned or accepted.
Homosexual activists like Fr Martin may disagree with St. Paul and the Catholic Church, and they may make their arguments, but the short answer to Fr Jim’s question is: We are not “disagreeing” with St. Paul. Instead, the fullest understanding of St. Paul’s teaching leads to the abolition of slavery and the condemnation of homosexual activity.
Should St. Paul’s underlying principle that “in Christ all are brothers” and “in baptism all are equal” be applied to homosexual persons?
Should they be treated with respect and accepted with dignity?
Of course. The Catechism already teaches that. Homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”