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Galileo and gays

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 1 March 2016


I came across an article by Angus Ritchie in ABC Religion and Ethics/ 16th Feb 2016 in which he compared the Church's response to homosexuality to its response to Galileo's support for the heliocentric form of the solar system. In 1610 Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius that supported Copernicus' evidence for heliocentrism. However, certain members of the Church clung to the old view that the earth was the centre of the solar system. Galileo was put on trial, and he was found to be "vehemently suspect of heresy". He was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment.

This shameful episode in the Church illustrates the problems encountered when the Church overreaches its authority to include the intricacies of the natural world.

But what, you ask, is the connection between the trial of Galileo to the Church's traditional attitude to homosexuality? It has now been established that a small proportion of men and women find themselves same sex attracted. How this comes about is unknown. It is not a choice of the individual and is indelible. Efforts to change orientation with psychotherapy have failed to a massive degree.

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Attempts by Christians to "pray the gay away" are similarly unsuccessful. The fluidity of sexual orientation has now become scientifically established just as the heliocentric universe was in Galileo's time.

St Paul, in Romans 1:26,27, refers to homosexual acts as an example of the corruption produced when humanity gave itself up to worship the creature instead of God, in other words, to idolatry.

This occurred in the context of Roman and Greek culture in which it was accepted that men used boys for sexual satisfaction. The lack of understanding of inherited sexual orientation meant that it was assumed to be a choice, and an unnatural choice at that, and hence an occasion for sin.

Thus any interpretation of biblical texts in both the Old and New Testament must recognise the context. Same sex attraction was not understood as psychologically defining, there was no concept of a person being homosexual. In this context homosexual acts were seen as a perverse diversion from sexual acts that were not fecund and were hence condemned.

Readers of the Old Testament in particular would be aware of the importance of child bearing in many narratives. Without children the future was closed and the promise of God to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations forfeit.

There is no reason to think that the proportion of people who experienced same sex attraction was different in biblical times. That they were suppressed may horrify us but cannot be cause for condemnation. A mature view of history will take into account the context and moral approbation must be suspended.

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A more recent example of the importance of context is the abhorrence of homosexuality expressed by my beloved Karl Barth when writing in 1951 in his Church Dogmatics (CD III.4) Barth sees that same sex attraction is contra to the divine command that orients men and women to each other as is set out in Genesis 2 and expressed in Adam's joyful cry: "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh."

Barth gives no quarter to homosexuality as might be expected of a male Swiss theologian writing in 1951.

The Roman Church became lenient in the reception of the same sex attracted and recognises its indelible nature. Thus in Persona Humana (VIII) 1975, we find the following:

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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