Marriage Analogies: A Further Response
I am hesitant to join in this debate with my colleague, Paul Hinlicky, because I had hoped that he would not take the opportunity upon receiving a trenchant critique by Pastor Ley to respond by reiterating his argument for “recognizing but not blessing” gay and lesbian unions. Hinlicky’s argument had caused quite an uproar earlier among orthodox dissenters in the ELCA because it seemed to be another sort of argument for reaching the same conclusion, the public recognition of gay and lesbian unions. Reiterating that argument has the possibility of igniting sharp differences between him and the vast majority of CORE members whose company he had recently joined, and therefore would jeopardize his role in the unfolding of CORE. So I am hesitant to add momentum to a conversation that can be damaging to his role in CORE and to the CORE project itself. Re-starting this debate does a service to neither him nor the movement. And it upsets me because I want one of the most productive and creative Lutheran theologians in America “on our side”...
I am hesitant to join in this debate with my colleague, Paul Hinlicky, because I had hoped that he would not take the opportunity upon receiving a trenchant critique by Pastor Ley to respond by reiterating his argument for “recognizing but not blessing” gay and lesbian unions. Hinlicky’s argument had caused quite an uproar earlier among orthodox dissenters in the ELCA because it seemed to be another sort of argument for reaching the same conclusion, the public recognition of gay and lesbian unions. Reiterating that argument has the possibility of igniting sharp differences between him and the vast majority of CORE members whose company he had recently joined, and therefore would jeopardize his role in the unfolding of CORE. So I am hesitant to add momentum to a conversation that can be damaging to his role in CORE and to the CORE project itself. Re-starting this debate does a service to neither him nor the movement. And it upsets me because I want one of the most productive and creative Lutheran theologians in America “on our side.”
There are more than church-political dimensions to my consternation about his resurfacing “recognition but not blessing.” There are substantive theological ethical reasons for rejecting his argument. There is also the serious question about what it means to be a theologian of the church. Let’s take them up one by one, beginning with the theological, then the role of a theologian of the church, and ending with some more church-political thoughts.
At its theological base, I agree with Hinlicky. He affirms the traditional Christian argument that the homosexual orientation is disordered and imperfect and that acting upon those inclinations is certainly not living up to the ideal in Christian sexual ethics. He might even call such action “sin,” though he seems reluctant to do so. He is willing to honor the classic Christian appeal to abstinence for homosexuals who have the charism of chastity. He even holds the door open for “reparative therapy.” Yet, he recognizes that there are those who are intractably homosexual in orientation and who fall in love and have sex with those of the same sex. There are goods in such a relation that the church can honor—their friendship, for example.
So far so good. But Hinlicky wants to recognize homosexual pairs not as friends but as unions analogous to marriage. But there are huge barriers to such recognition. The three purposes of marriage affirmed by the whole Christian tradition are: a one-flesh loving union of male and female; procreation; and the avoidance of sexual sin. Homosexual unions are incapable of the first two and actually enact a sexual sin prohibited by the third.
Yet he claims those unions exhibit analogous goods. But the same arguments can be made—and have and will be made—for incestuous unions between consenting adults. Indeed, one could argue that incestuous unions are closer analogously to two of the three classic purposes of marriage. But it falls very short on the third. The church has always prohibited such unions, following the biblical prohibitions against sexual love with people too close to us (incest), beings too different from us (bestiality), and people too much like us (homosexuality).
The point of all this is that homosexual unions are so dubious morally that it is unwise to offer public recognition to them. The challenge to our teaching and practice would be enormous. Ordinary folks in the pew—teens and younger children—would have a hard time understanding how this would be consistent with everything they have been taught about marriage. And with good reason. Even though Hinlicky would like to surround those teachings and practices with all sorts of nuanced reservations, it is difficult to see how they wouldn’t inflate to blessings and then marriage, both of which are directly contrary to Christian teaching.
Further, given that Hinlicky’s proposal is both radical (a new practice) and highly controversial (especially in this time of division), he owes us a careful exposition of what he means by “recognition.” My dictionary has many meanings for the word, but those that seem at all applicable suggest that recognition is a public gesture or ceremony that bestows favor upon the recognized. Is that what he means? And what sort of rite would it be? Where would it happen? Who would do it?
These are important questions that themselves are fraught with serious difficulties. I, for one, could not continue to belong to a congregation that had a formal, public recognition before the altar. But perhaps that is not what he means. But I think the burden is on him to flesh out what he means by “recognition.”
I want to say that I have a lot of sympathy for Hinlicky’s commitment to treat gays and lesbians in the church with pastoral creativity and compassion. I’ve made my own little effort at such a pastoral accommodation. But in that proposal—the blessing of a domicile open to all members of the congregation—I was careful to make it a domestic arrangement that was essentially private. (I consider pastoral care to be a private ministry.) But such “threading of the needle” didn’t get very far. Neither do I think Hinlicky’s proposal will get very far among the orthodox. But it may lead to a fruitless debate, to which I am afraid I am contributing.
A second issue is raised by Hinlicky’s re-opening the argument: what does it mean to be a theologian of the church? One of the reasons I honor and respect Hinlicky is that he is a theologian through and through, and is fearless in making unabashedly theological arguments at a college whose dominant ethos is secular, to say the least. But he also desires to be a theologian of the church and on behalf of the church. But which church? It doesn’t seem to be the ELCA because he seems more alienated from “this church” than I am, and “this church” certainly gives him no recognition. Like most of us, he would see himself as a committed participant in the Western catholic tradition in general and the Lutheran tradition in particular. But where is the embodiment of this Lutheran tradition at its best? If not the ELCA, the Missouri Synod? That is exceedingly unlikely for him since he made a painful departure from the church of his youth and he has no theological or existential inclination to return. Yet, we need a real embodiment of that Lutheran tradition.
It seems that the most hopeful embodiment of that sort of Lutheranism might lie in the future as CORE and other groups define themselves. That is a bracing and exciting prospect for me, as it is for Hinlicky. Maybe we can get it right biblically and theologically. And I hope for an important role in that process for Hinlicky. But in that process the theologians’ role is to find orthodox common ground with the coming embodiment of such a Lutheran tradition. It is to serve and strengthen that emerging project. It is not to exercise one’s maverick and eccentric viewpoint, especially when it seems to reinforce a position from which the movement has just fled, often with many painful consequences. It is putting one’s gifts—and in Hinlicky’s case they are ample—in support of an emerging ecclesial reality, not straining to find a unique perspective on an issue about which that movement—and the church catholic—seems to have a consensus.
Finally, let me add a few more remarks about the church-political situation. What has touched off a huge battle in the ELCA was the Assembly’s decision to cross an important line drawn in the sand—it found ways to “recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable” gay and lesbian unions. That opened the door to ordination. These actions were done after the Sexuality Statement admitted it had no compelling theological or biblical grounds for such changes in policy. The ELCA is the first confessional group to take such a stand.
This led to a division of the house, so to say, and many people have taken sides. Indeed, not to decide means to decide, as we used to say in the 60s. Hinlicky, after some hesitation, took the CORE side. But his reiteration of the “recognition but not blessing” argument seems to argue for the other side. It leads to similar outcomes as those policies recommended by Assembly, especially since they do not include the word “blessing” in their recommendations. His argument seems to provide another rationale for the same outcome. Thus, the first respondents to his argument above had exactly that reading: one said that Hinlicky is “giving tacit endorsement of ELCA policies” and the second worries that Hinlicky has given “an inch and they will take a mile.”
If fairly careful readers of Lutheran Forum Online immediately come to the conclusion that he is arguing for the other side, what will far less sophisticated but orthodox lay folks think of his argument? At the very least it muddies the water for them; at worst it will bring forth angry rejection.
Robert Benne is the Director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society.