Skip to content

Luke Timothy Johnson vs. Eve Tushnet on Homosexuality

I just came across a very fascinating and well-written exchange on homosexuality in Commonweal.  In it, New Testament scholar and theologian, Luke Timothy Johnson and freelance writer Eve Tushnet debate the current Catholic teaching on same-sex relationships.  Interestingly enough, Johnson, who is both a creative and theologically conservative theologian, argues against the current teaching of the Catholic church, while Tushnet, an openly lesbian woman takes the traditional position, arguing for submission the traditional teachings of the church and Scripture on marriage and sexuality.  Regardless of the position one takes on this issue, I think Tushnet’s peice is quite good and should give anyone much to think about in regards to this particular question facing so many churches.

Here’s a few paragraphs from her article:

The coming-out story is a quintessentially American story. It is self-discovery in opposition to societal regulation. It is personal liberation-as American as “lighting out for the territory.” There are ways to tell the Christian story so that it corresponds very well to this story of self-discovery and liberation: through Christ we are freed from sin and come to know ourselves; in Nietzsche’s phrase, we “become what we are.” But there are other ways of talking about Christian life-ways that focus on sacrifice, martyrdom, dying in Christ to live with him-which are perhaps less quintessentially American, and for that reason all the more necessary for us. There’s a reason all Catholic churches have a crucifix, an image of the tortured God.

Johnson, like many writers who oppose the church’s prohibition against all homosexual acts, points to the real virtues exhibited by so many gay couples: loyalty, caretaking, and compassion. Anyone who supports church teaching must still acknowledge that these virtues are real; that deep, often sacrificial love works through these couples like gold threads in cloth. The question is whether that is enough. How could it not be? How could Christ require more?

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” …The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22)

The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the only sacrifices God wants.

And so the central problem emerges: Whom do we follow? How do we follow love? Can a human beloved have the same ability to overturn us completely-to read and interpret and reshape us-that Jesus himself has? Can love of another person do the same work as the love of God?

Almost all the time, love of God will deepen and strengthen our love of others in obvious ways, rather than conflicting with that love or posing a dilemma. And so we are tempted to believe that our love of God and our love of others won’t ever conflict. But there will be times when it does seem like God is asking us to choose. At the very least, God may require us to radically reshape our understanding of what love of another person should look like. God may ask you not to stop loving your partner but to express that love without sex.

The analogy between God’s love for us and our love for one another is real but partial, and needs to be understood in light of the entire teaching of the church. The church does not teach that whatever anyone does out of a deep conviction and a desire to express love is always intrinsically good. We can sincerely seek to do good and yet actually act wrongly; this happens all the time. Even the saints get stuff wrong, as do all kinds of loving, sincere people. It might even be said that the reason we have church teaching in the first place is that loving, sincere people do their best and still sometimes get things very wrong.

Johnson begins by saying that his position “stand[s] in tension with Scripture.” But he then seems to use human beloveds as a kind of walking Scripture in themselves, able to contradict and correct the merely paper canon. So he writes:

I think it important [for the integrity of our position] to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us.

I’m not convinced this is how human love stories relate to the divine love story. Loving one another can be an echo of the love we receive from God; it can be the child of that love; it can be preparation for our own awestruck love of God. (I would argue that my erotic and romantic love of women has been all three of those things, at different times.) But our human experience, including our erotic experience, cannot be a replacement for the divine revelation preserved by the church. We must be careful not to let it become a counternarrative or a counter-Scripture.

When I was baptized and confirmed, pledging, “I believe all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches,” I did it basically as a leap of faith. I knew why I needed to be Catholic; I knew that as a Catholic I’d have to follow this stuff, faith seeking understanding and all that; I trusted that eventually I would understand the reasons behind the teaching a little better. And I do. Even so, I waver on how much I think I understand the teaching from day to day.

But what has constantly surprised me about the Catholic Church is just how much there is for me here. There is a rich theology of friendship, helping me to express my love of women both sacrificially and chastely. There’s honor for both celibacy and married life, and resources for living fruitfully in either of these states. We have Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, we have saints who are possibly even crazier than I am, we have the Anima Christi and Thomas à Kempis’s rewriting of the Song of Songs as a hymn to the crucified Christ. I feel as if every week or so I discover yet another hidden treasure of the church that speaks to me in exactly the way I need in order to deal specifically with my struggles, resentments, longings, and strengths as a woman and a lesbian. We can make the church’s teaching believable by becoming more Catholic-which is, not coincidentally, what we should be doing anyway.


  1. goobynelly wrote:

    Very interesting! Thanks Halden. If only we had such respect for the Church today, instead of the cynicism which keeps us in busy-ness.

    Monday, June 18, 2007 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    What I find so moving about Tushnet’s statments is how the richness of her ecclesial tradition provides her the resources to live a life of self-denial in such a personal area of her life (sexuality). I think there is a great witness in lives such as hers.

    Monday, June 18, 2007 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  3. Brother Incitatus wrote:

    I think this is a very moving personal account concerning the nature of personal sacrifice. However, it isn’t an even remotely viable argument for writing secular law prohibiting Christians and non-Christians alike from forming homosexual unions (which if course, is the real source of conflict on this issue). Indeed, Tushnet’s argument is completely grounded in personal choice. In the first story, what value would the man’s sacrifice have (i.e. leaving his valuables and following Jesus) if he was coerced by the state to do so? Absolutely none at all.

    Tuesday, June 19, 2007 at 7:03 am | Permalink
  4. goobynelly wrote:

    Right, and I think Protestants have a particularly difficult time seeing beyond the resources of their own local church in order to grasp the treasures of the past. Self-denial, where it is preached, is typically treated as a purely inward process of psychological cleansing. The outward motivator comes from the preacher’s constant exhortations: “We must die to ourselves!” Or it comes from the accountability partners we set up. While these may indeed be helpful, the resources of the past can help a great deal as well.

    Tuesday, June 19, 2007 at 7:14 am | Permalink
  5. Canadian wrote:

    I disagree with Brother Incitatus (#3) that the real source of conflict is secular law. Here in Canada the law allows same-sex marriage. Legally the issue is settled, and I don’t think there’s much possibility of undoing it. Yet the Anglican church is being torn apart over the issue of blessing same-sex unions, and other denominations are experiencing similar conflict. (I think much of it has to do with conflicting opinions on the authority of Scripture.)

    Tuesday, June 19, 2007 at 7:26 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    I don’t think Tushnet intended her article to specifically speak to what the secular laws should be regarding same-sex, partnerships, nor do care to deploy her arguments to that end. Personally, I don’t think that what the church does in its own theology and practice of marriage has anything to do with how the state regulates such things.

    And definitely, this issue is clearly about the way we understand the authority of Scripture (and tradition). Johnson and Tushnet’s arguments make that very clear in thier respective methodologies.

    Tuesday, June 19, 2007 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  7. udo wrote:

    Yet Tushnet overlooks Johnson’s main example of Acts 11-15 particularly 15 when the Holy scripture’s exclusion of (particularly uncircumcised) Gentiles was completely overturned and ignored through some fancy readings of unrelated texts that gave no right to include them without circumcision. All done because of a privileging of Gentile experience and the already committed acts of Paul’s ministry (easier to ask for indulgence than permission, I guess).

    Still the tone and the irony of the positions here is great. And any advocate of celibacy in this culture is to my mind a hero(ine).

    Tuesday, June 19, 2007 at 11:31 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site