This is the first article in our new “The Wheel 13/14: Responses” series.
I read Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s foreword on human sexuality with interest. I would like to reflect on his example of the “second anomaly,” while keeping in mind the pastoral reminders and exhortations of the first part: that Ware does not consider anyone guilty of a sexual orientation, and that it is possible for a person to choose celibacy rather than act on an orientation whose expression is not blessed within the teachings of Orthodoxy. Here is the example, quoted in full:
A second anomaly is to be found in the way homosexuals are commonly treated in the sacrament of confession. All of us recognize that there is an important distinction to be made between those homosexuals who engage in casual encounters, seeking out in some “gay” bar a partner for a single night; and on the other hand, those homosexuals who are committed to a permanent relationship, faithful and monogamous, in which deep love is involved. Surely no Christian is in favour of sexual promiscuity. Yet what frequently happens in confession? Let us suppose that the one who is promiscuous comes to feel a sincere revulsion for his way of life, and with genuine penitence resolves to pursue a life of purity in the future. In that case, he will probably be given absolution by the priest and will be permitted, perhaps with certain restrictions, to receive holy communion. For a time, he refrains from sexual activity, but then from frustration and loneliness he relapses into another casual encounter. After that he repents, and is absolved, and is once more blessed to receive communion. Then after a time he again lapses. So the cycle continues. What happens, by contrast, to the faithful and monogamous homosexual? Perhaps the priest says in confession, “Are you willing to give up your homosexual relationship?” The penitent may answer, “I cannot do that.” The priest may rejoin, “You can continue to share a common life, marked by mutual affection; but will you abstain from further sexual activity?” The other may well reply, “I am not yet ready to undertake that.” (Yet I have known homosexuals who have indeed transformed their relationship in this way.) The priest, faced with this refusal, may well feel that he cannot bless the penitent to receive the sacrament. Now here certainly is a paradox. The homosexual committed to a stable and loving relationship is treated more harshly than the homosexual who is casual and promiscuous, and who is seeking not true love but passing pleasure. Something has gone wrong here. (9)
From this parable, I note three variables which logically require response: implicit in the premise of this issue is the question of whether homosexual acts are sin by definition. Second is the question of whether sexual promiscuity is sin, and Ware answers that “surely” all Christians must think so. Third is the aspect of repentance: in the parable, has the person repented?
Each of these three variables must be answered. In his example, Ware varies the aspect of repentance and promiscuity but declines to answer the first question, so let us imagine both possibilities in regards to this first aspect of the parable. (Later in the piece Ware notes, “The Orthodox tradition teaches clearly that sexual acts between persons of the same sex are not permitted” .)
Under the assumption that homosexual acts are by definition sin, the promiscuous homosexual who repents is no different morally from any sinner who repents, which is every person of the Christian Church. Were the priest to withhold holy communion from this sinner, the same logic would require that all believers abstain from holy communion. Now, repentance only accompanies sin. It is absurd to suggest repenting over an act not considered sinful. It is important that, if homosexual acts are by definition sin, this sinner has sinned in promiscuity and homosexuality both. Of course, sin is not mathematics, so it hardly matters for this person, but the relevance of the distinction becomes apparent when we consider the second figure.
Continuing with the assumption that homosexual acts are by definition sin, the second figure has also sinned, once. He is guilty of the first, but has not been promiscuous. When he comes to take holy communion, he—unlike the first figure—has not repented of his sin. Thus, the priest is wise to withhold his blessing.
If homosexual acts are not sin, the first figure has sinned only in his promiscuity. Since he is a penitent, it is right for the priest to treat him accordingly. The second man has not sinned, because homosexual acts are not sin and he has not been promiscuous. The priest calls him to repent for something which is not sin, and he declines. In this scenario, the priest is withholding a sacrament over not-sin.
To present this parable as a paradox obscures the question. If homosexual acts are sin, the priest who withholds his blessing is consistent in blessing the penitent but not the unrepentant. Nothing has gone wrong. There is no anomaly. If homosexual acts are not sin, the first figure has sinned in promiscuity and then turned from that sin, while the second has not sinned and should not be called to penitence over that matter. The priest’s withholding is the only thing which has gone wrong.
Without taking a stance on the fundamental, pressing issue at stake in this discussion, what can this parable offer? Ware says he welcomes this issue of The Wheel precisely because “it does not claim to offer a systematic and definitive treatment of sexuality” and “because its aim is to ‘initiate discussion’” (10), a goal which I laud. Yet a considered, scriptural position responding to the question “Are homosexual acts sin?” must undergird the discussion in order for it to be productive.
Annalise Wolf is a PhD student in English at Fordham University whose research focuses on medical and religious understandings of bodies. She holds an MA in English from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She and her husband attend the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection (OCA) in downtown Manhattan as inquirers.