Reports that the South African Parliament has approved gay marriage, and that the U.S. Catholic bishops have reiterated Church teaching on the disordered nature of homosexual acts, once again recall the line about the real reason for the culture wars: "It's the sex, stupid."
Part (but only part) of the problem, as crystallized so distinctly in these two news reports, comes from the understanding of the term nature that is implicitly operating in these two assemblies. Among secularists, gay activists, liberal politicians, and the like, it is taken for granted that homosexual urgings are "natural," in the sense of being innate (the word nature comes from the Latin natus, "to be born" as, in fact, does the word innate); and since the urges are natural in that sense (or so goes the claim), what's wrong with satisfying them? For the Catholic Church, however, nature always carries a teleological implication, and since the sex organs are also called reproductive organs, it represents an abuse of their function to make use of them in ways that violate their reproductive purposes.
I cannot possibly resolve that dispute here. For one thing, minds far more acute than mine are already working on this issue. What strikes me, though, is how much Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have tried to move the discussion not so much away from natural law as toward a deeper, more biblical understanding of human sexuality. John Paul's Theology of the Body has just been reissued in a new and more accurate translation, and what becomes immediately obvious is how thoroughly scriptural his reflections are. (This, of course, is partly due to the fact that the chapters of the book consist in his Wednesday allocutions, which are, by tradition, a set of papal sermons on the Bible.) And of course there is Benedict's Deus Caritas Est, itself a set of meditations on the meaning of the biblical doctrine that God is love and on the implications of that theme for man's erotic nature.
To these remarkable examples of magisterial teaching I cannot provide here a full-blown commentary but only, as it were, a mere footnote: All I want to do on this site is to provide a brief reflection on how St. Paul uses the word body in his letters. As the Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar John A.T. Robinson says in his lucid book The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology (a book-length exegesis of this word in the Pauline epistles):
One could say without exaggeration that the concept of the body forms the keystone of Paul's theology. In its closely interconnected meanings, the word soma [body] knits together all his great themes. It is from the body of sin and death that we are delivered; it is through the body of Christ on the Cross that we are saved; it is into His body the Church that we are incorporated; it is by His body in the Eucharist that this Community is sustained; it is in our body that its new life has to be manifested; it is to a resurrection of this body to the likeness of His glorious body that we are destined. Here, with the exception of the doctrine of God, are represented all the main tenets of the Christian Faiththe doctrines of Man, Sin, the Incarnation and Atonement, the Church, the Sacraments, Sanctification, and Eschatology. To trace the subtle links and interaction between the different senses of this word soma is to grasp the thread that leads through the maze of Pauline thought.
And a maze Paul's thought most definitely seems to be. Take, for example, Paul's seemingly confusing and interchangeable use of the words flesh (sarx) and body (soma). This shift in terminology, which can confuse many interpreters if not handled carefully, goes far to explain why Paul can be both so focused on the goodness of the body as the locus of salvation, yet also so strict in his sexual ethics. For the most part, Paul speaks of a life led "in the flesh" as being incompatible with being a Christian, a usage that would be odd, indeed meaningless, if he had said instead that a life led "in the body" is incompatible with Christian living. So what does this more restricted use of the term flesh mean? Again, let me cite Bishop Robinson, who gets the distinction down perfectly:
One cannot say that all soma is grass: that dust it is and to dust it shall return. Rather, it is "for the Lord." While Paul promises no resurrection of the flesh, he proclaims it for the body; whereas man as sarx cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:50), man as soma can.
In other words, when Paul uses flesh he is speaking, for the most part, of embodied man under certain aspects, above all, in his state of rebellion against God, and when he uses body he is speaking of that same reality but under a different aspect, his destiny in God, and that distinction is crucial.
From that perspective one readily sees why Paul objects so vigorously to sexual sin: not because sex is dirty or the body evil, but because it represents a translation, so to speak, of the Christian's personal body out of the Body of Christ:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, "The two shall become one flesh." But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against this own body. Do you not know that you body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own. You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (I Corinthians 6:1520).
Admittedly, there is a rhetorical problem in our contemporary setting when Christians ground their sexual morality exclusively in a biblical understanding of human embodiment. For then secularists can say: Well, that's a religiously specific morality just for you Christians, not for us. (This rejoinder animates the "symbol wars" surrounding the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property.) But that secular objection ignores two points. First, Paul uses natural-law reasoning in his letters (Rom. 1:2627; 2:14-15) and was clearly influenced by pagan Stoicism (Acts 17:1629; Phil. 4:6), that school of ancient philosophy most adept at natural-law argumentation. Second, and more crucially, that secular objection (as in the hippie saying I heard so often in my youth: "Don't lay your value trips on me, man") rests on the assumption that someone can authentically sexually donate himself to another without making a definitive commitment to the other person; that is, he can "hedge his bets," so speak, without paying the consequencesa foolish assumption given the rates of sexually transmitted diseases, the divorce rates, the numbers of children born out of wedlock, and so forth. (How ironic that these are precisely the consequences that consequentialists refuse to face.)
That said, Christians must in turn remind themselves that a specifically Christian sexual morality can never be based solely on natural law. The biblical basis of a Christian's sexual ethic can never be abrogated. For that reason, liberal Christians are indulging in a pipedream if they think the Church has the freedom to alter her teaching on sexual morality. That is why liberal Protestant denominations are tearing themselves apart when they connive in adopting a utilitarian or consequentialist sexual moralityfor these churches are, whether they admit it or not, unmooring themselves from their constitutional foundation, which is ineluctably based in the charter of the Christian Scriptures. (In Greek, the word for charter and for Scripture is the same: graphē.)
At all events, nothing can gainsay this reality, on which both the Bible and anthropology agree: that there is something definitive about the commitment of one body to another in sexual congress, and from that anthropological fact the Church's teachings on sexuality must be understood. To call this teaching biblical only states the obvious, since it comes from the Bible. But to secular ears, biblical is often equated with Bible-thumping, that is, with conjured-up images of red-flushed preachers on cable TV haranguing their audiences. But what Paul is really getting at here is the mystery of love, as Benedict explains in his encyclical:
It is part of love's growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being "forever." Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal. (§6; emphasis added)
The loveliness of this encyclical comes from the way it both accurately diagnoses the pathos lurking behind modern views of love and then tenderly offers the cross of Christ as the medicine for that pathos. In Benedict's words, "love looks to the eternal." And where does love find that eternity? In the one love that really did go all the way to the end: that is, in Jesus' love for mankind on the cross. Because of the pope's friendship with Hans Urs von Balthasar, I cannot help but wonder if the following passage from his book The Christian State of Life did not influence the above passage. If not, it certainly can serve as an admirable commentary on Benedict's first encyclical:
As soon as love is truly awakened, the moment of time is transformed for it into a form of eternity. Even erotic egoism cannot forbear swearing "eternal fidelity" and, for a fleeting moment, finding pleasure in actually believing in this eternity. How much more, then, does true love want to outlast time and, for this purpose, to rid itself of its most dangerous enemy, its own freedom of choice. Hence every true love has the inner form of a vow: It binds itself to the beloved and does so out of motives and in the spirit of love. Love for a time, love expecting a time of break-off, is never true love.
As binding promises, vows entail obligations, which often become burdensome (sometimes excruciatingly so) with the passage of time. But love wants to be bound, which once more highlights one of the central points of this encyclical: The "duties" of sexual continence only make sense in the context of love.
In other words, this encyclical could not possibly be more opportune. As its author says in its introduction, "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message [of the encyclical] is both timely and significant" (§1). Benedict XVI has found the heart of the gospel; and how fitting it is that his first encyclical, indeed his whole pontificate, starts there.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.