Interaction: God, Science, Sex, Gender – An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics (1)

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This will be a continuing dialogue as I read through this book.

In what is bound to elicit heated arguments from all sides of the debate, the editors have compiled a series of essays, all connected to each other, delivered in symposium style concerning the ongoing debate in (mainly) the Catholic Church about the roll in which science should play in determining human sexuality ethics. I said Catholic because while this book has at the purpose ‘Christian’ ethics, it is generally written to that of the Catholic ethicist by prominent Catholic ethicists. This is not to say that others should not read and draw from the discussions, but the role of authority may be expressed and defined differently based on the denomination.

The book contains three parts, with the first part comprised of five essays essentially laying the ground work for discussion to come. Beginning with Jon Nilson‘s historical critique on authority in the Catholic Church in which Nilson doesn’t rely upon Tradition, but attempts to correct perceived notions of Papal infallibility and hierarchy. While the history of Papal infallibility may not be known to many, what is even more unknown is the deciding factor in which many of the Cardinals had already vacated the See to return home, leaving the vote easily cast in favor of the sitting Pope’s view. Further, Nilson goes into the loosening of the hierarchical rolls leading upon to Vatican II and what should have emerged from that Council. Detected in his language, is the acceptance of the present system but only as far as history would allow. For him, this insistence into monarchical authority in Rome must be challenged by courageous theologians because,

(F)irst, to remind us all that the whole Church is not yet of one mind on issues of sexuality and, no less important, to give heart to those who have been marginalized in the Church for their sexuality and/or gender who have suffered greatly on account of it.

Nilson’s view on authority is not based in Rome, but in changing trends, a view in which he meets with resistance by Anne E. Figert‘s essay on the disputes between scientific and religious authority.

She brings to bear her sociological background in helping to show several weaknesses in surrendering to the weight of Science that which may in fact be contained in the realm of Religion, especially when both hemispheres tend to be absolute only in public. She deals with Weber and Dawkins, discussing the roll in which Religion figures as an Authority and compares it to the Authority of Science, and rightly notes that challenges to both are ‘more driven by human politics, economics, and power struggles than their claims to the pure pursuit of the truth might suggest.’ Figert describes the current boundary disputes, and just what roll Science plays in the hearts and minds of followers. This is important, especially since she notes a report by Gilbert and Mulkay in 1984 in which it was found that scientists have a different discourse in private. They are much less absolute and often times presented as competent. Figert’s essay serves to remind us of the boundary disputes and that in both areas, human politics are a driving force.

Following this is Fred Kniss who admits that framing the debate on human sexuality in the way it has been has already ‘almost necessarily pitted itself against science.’ Admitting that conflicts, such as the one discussed, are social issues but still sees the need to rely upon Science. In a brief, but powerfully open-ended essay, Kniss never comes fully to determining ‘natural’ and which sphere of authority should decide it, but does present a solid overview of the impacts of the controversy into the arenas of our lives. In what should be a common chapter in most political science text book, Kniss shows the almost hypocritical political and religious spheres in which the individual as moral project is weighed against the locus of authority.

In the final two essays of the first part, Francis J. Catania and Patricia Beattie Jung bring into the discussion ]] (and by virtue, ]]). Both present a saintly picture of Aquinas as the example for allowing Science to share, in part, in the realm of Religious Authority, at least when it comes to dictating ethics based on observable fact. Dealing with the subject of ‘human flourishing’ and the changing notion of sexual morality inside the Roman Catholic Church, each author separately builds the case the science has and could benefit theological and ethical discussions. There is, without a doubt, a large change which has taken place in the teachings on sexuality by Rome within the past century, even before Vatican II. Both authors trace this, somewhat, to Thomas Aquinas, and indeed, the ancient writer has seen a resurgence in Catholicism lately, and indeed, Christian scholasticism. How far they could bring him, however, is yet to be determined.

Why? Because while the interdisciplinary approach works well, no one has laid the foundation for ‘natural,’ ‘nature,’ and who decided what is ‘natural’ is still morally, theologically, and ethically ‘good.’ While discussing gender roles, the role in which sexual intimacy plays in marriage, and the current role and future of celibacy, we find historical changes, opposition, and flat out refusal to abide by Roman attitudes to such for the past two millennia (even in Rome herself) but these discussions present a stark difference to the current one on homosexuality. While the others have been, at sometimes, heated, homosexuality and the question of ‘if it is natural, is it divinely sanctioned’ is volatile.

The essays are well written, well supported, and provide a great companion to the discussion on-going in many theological realms.

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