Lately Giacomo Sanfilippo posted on his Orthodoxy in Dialogue blog a response to “a professor at an Orthodox seminary” whom he styled “Ross Douthat’s Orthodox admirer”. I am not sure why the reluctance to engage in persons directly and name Dr. David Ford as his target. Let us nobly assume that he is motivated by a noble desire to deal with issues and not personalities, and not by a desire to make the anonymity of his target an excuse to deal rudely with him.
Ross Douthat wrote in his book Bad Religion about how “recurring efforts to downplay the faith’s moralistic side…have usually ended up redefining Christianity entirely”. Sanfilippo quotes the paragraph of Douthat containing this quote and concludes that it “contains so much that is problematic…that one hardly knows where to begin to respond”. I do sympathize. I felt exactly the same way about his own piece. Perhaps the best way would be to number my detailed responses.
- Despite his final words about his piece not being “an appeal to emotion” it is precisely that. It opens with a photo of “two innocent boys” playing in the surf, who “might have romantic feelings for each other”. Or, of course, they might not. His assertion that “young children often experience romantic love for someone of the opposite or their own gender in all the freshness of innocence” [italics mine] is simply emotional rhetoric. As a young child, I often experienced infatuation with girls, but never with boys. Sanfilippo’s rolling both genders into the same category of “romantic love” is characteristic of homosexual propaganda generally, and is meant to give the impression that young homosexual feelings of desire should enjoy the same parity of legitimacy as heterosexual desire. That some adult homosexuals experienced such feelings early on is not disputed (though calling the feelings “romantic love” is unwarranted regardless of the gender involved and is intended to project adult realities back into childhood for the purpose of justifying them; who really knows about romantic love “as young as four or five years of age”?). But the presence of such feelings does nothing to justify them as intrinsically innocent or legitimate. A desire can be present and still be disordered, and “innate” is not the same as “natural”. It matters not a whit to the debate over the meaning of Scripture that “over 80% of interviewed youths reported same-sex attractions prior to the physical manifestations of puberty”. The statistics simply prove that in many cases homosexual desires predate puberty; the statistic cannot be morphed into the additional theological conclusion “and therefore the desire must be legitimate”.
- Next comes a series of rhetorical questions decrying Douthat’s/ Ford’s “moralism”. Here Sanfilippo seems to simply misunderstand Douthat’s main point, which is that Christianity’s moral teaching (not to be equated with or stigmatized as “moralism”) is inseparable from the rest of its teaching. Ford is nowhere suggesting that “moralism” is “a valid category in Eastern theology, spirituality, and ecclesial life”; he is simply observing that morality is inseparable from them. To which any confessor would agree. I wonder if Sanfilippo’s is letting his anger run away with him with what seems to be an angry question to Ford, “Have you read any modern Orthodox theology at all?” How else to explain his other questions? The fact that everyone struggles with the passions and the fact that many people have divorced and remarried have nothing to do with the issue of the moral legitimacy of homosexual acts.
- There is another appeal to emotion, in the form of reference to Katherine Kelaidis’ piece in the Public Orthodoxy site “My Gay Orthodox Friend’s Suicide”. Ford’s observation that a personal tragedy cannot become the lens through which we do our theology is not “cold-hearted indifference”, but an appropriate and essential objectivity required by theologians. Endowing this tragedy with theological significance such as would influence the debate about the meaning of the Scriptures is precisely an appeal to emotion.
- Then come references to Maximus the Confessor and Symeon the New Theologian’s metaphors about “male-male nuptial intimacy” as if this somehow justifies homosexual practice. This is grasping at straws. Both of these Fathers would reject emphatically and categorically the sexual revision of the Tradition which Sanfilippo posits—it is distorting Maximus’ teaching to say that because “nothing human is evil in and of itself” that homosexual practice must therefore be legitimate. The desire for pornographic cruelty is also human, as are gluttony, bestiality, and other sinful desires as well, in the sense that these desires can be found within the human heart and are sometimes deeply ingrained. That does not mean that they are not evil or (as I would prefer to call them) disordered. That something exists in the human condition does not mean that it is necessarily good.
- It is significant that nowhere in his piece is Scripture quoted. This is perhaps because the condemnation of homosexual practice in the Scriptures is crystal clear. Persons struggling with the real and difficult challenge of same-sex attraction deserve our prayers, love, and support as they struggle to overcome their passions. But such support cannot include denying the teaching of the Scriptures which has formed the foundation of Christian thought on the issue for its entire history. To try to evade Scripture’s clear message by saying, “every generation will discover new meanings and application in Holy Tradition that had lain hidden to all previous generations” is futile. We don’t discover new meanings in Holy Tradition or Scripture by overthrowing the Tradition itself. A more honest approach would be for Sanfilippo to admit that he repudiates the Tradition and try to build a new religion from there. But he should not expect an Orthodoxy committed to the Scriptures and the Fathers to support him in this endeavour, whether on Facebook or elsewhere.
Note: The above was written as a result of the author receiving a request to respond to Mr. Sanfilippo’s blog piece in “Orthodoxy in Dialogue”.