Imagine that you were able to meet with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops committee that designed the “Marriage: Unique for a Reason” website. While to be sure you’d point out some US bishops’ ongoing false statements and hurtful actions regarding LGBTQ folk, imagine that you were also able to reach a level of deep dialogue that went beyond “no!” and “yes, but…” to “yes, and…”, affirming many of the bishops’ deeply held beliefs without compromising your own. You’d be able to praise and celebrate the miracle of majority male-female attraction and union in procreative marriage and the minority variation of same-sex attraction and partnering.
Evangelical author Karen R. Keen accomplishes this and more in her readable book Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. In a moment of increasing Catholic balkanization over LGBTQ issues, the book is more than a breath of fresh air. It’s a manual all progressive LGBTQ Christians can use to reset the broken conversations with traditionalists in their own communions. And we Catholics can do this by using tried and true methods that (surprise!) are found right there in the Bible.
For a sense of Keen’s whole argument, read Michael Sean Winters’s enthusiastic review in the National Catholic Reporter. In this space, I want to highlight the possibility that Keen’s practice of reading and discerning biblical texts—which are at the center of Evangelical debates over sexuality—provide a model for reading and discerning natural law and sacramental theology—which are at the center of Catholic debates over sexuality.
First, Keen insists that we should neither “ignore certain scriptural texts as simply archaic, [missing] out on important theological truths” nor “ascribe greater importance to the particularities than to the purpose of the laws.” And that purpose, she argues forcefully, was “fostering a good and just world” in the time and place in which they were written. For instance, the demand from long ago that rapists marry their victims fostered justice by securing the support of “ruined” women who’d otherwise have been unmarriageable and destitute. In our world, fostering justice and goodness would involve a prison sentence.
On the natural law side, Thomas Aquinas’s condemnation of sex outside marriage was similarly contextual: he repeatedly insisted it was a sin against the child (likely to be) conceived, who—in an era in which did not legally recognize “bastards” as heirs—would be deprived of a father’s support.
Second, Keen deploys models of scriptural interpretation that she finds in scripture texts themselves. Deuteronomy extends Exodus’ rules about the release of male slaves to women, expanding the reach of justice. Mark, Matthew, and Paul all make important exceptions to rules against divorce and remarriage, acknowledging that one partner’s infidelity or desertion should not deprive the other of remarriage—which was essential for not just emotional but social and economic flourishing. Jesus is portrayed as breaking the Sabbath observance not to demean it, but to emphasize that healing the sick and injured was a supremely urgent obligation. In each case, the authors discerned the interpretation of the law that would advance justice and goodness then and there.
Likewise, for centuries Roman Catholic natural law thinkers condemned charging interest on loans, to protect borrowers and forestall greed. But with the advent of capitalism, they accepted fair interest, acknowledging the essential role (and risk) of investors in a money economy. Here too interpretations adjusted to preserve justice rather than to maintain the old rule.
Finally, Keen uses Paul himself to qualify a common traditionalist claim based on Paul’s Ephesians 5. The argument goes this way: marriage must be limited to opposite-sex couples because they prefigure the union of Christ the Bridegroom with the Church, his bride, at the end of time. On the contrary, Keen points out, Paul himself says in Colossians 2 that festivals, fast days, and other observances pale in importance to Christ, which is the heart of faith. Paul adds:
“‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ These are all things destined to perish with use; they accord with human precepts and teachings. While they have a semblance of wisdom in rigor of devotion and self-abasement (and) severity to the body, they are of no value against gratification of the flesh.”
In essence, Paul argues: don’t worship the regulation. Worship God, who is merciful and concerned for human need.
Of course, Roman Catholic marriage theology erects a barrier to same-sex unions that Evangelicals do not: the sacrament of matrimony. Still, Keen helps us see that elements of matrimony’s symbolism are rooted in a problematic theology. If Church is to Christ as bride is to bridegroom, doesn’t that put husbands in power over their wives? Is that appropriate symbolism for marriage as a union between equals?
Keen’s book is revolutionary in the most traditional way possible: she uses Christianity’s own texts and practices to both honor and affirm the insights in longstanding interpretations and make room for new ones. She closes with an invitation:
“I welcome you to dialogue with me. As we continue the conversation, may God grant us wisdom, grace, and charity.”
Spoiler alert: Karen Keen is an Evangelical spiritual director trained in Ignatian spiritual discernment and educated in scripture at Marquette University, among other institutions. So maybe it’s not surprising that her approach to the subject resonates with this Catholic blogger! This is just another reason for congratulations, though. If Keen’s approach feels comfortable to both Evangelicals and Catholics, it will contribute to the effort to overcome divisions between churches as well as within them—an impressive twofer.
—Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, August 7, 2019