The recent unanimous condemnation of "same sex marriage" (along with abortion, support for ordination of women to Holy Orders and pre-emptive justifiable war) by the recent Antiochian Archdiocesan Conference in Detroit Michigan on 29 July 2005 invite some reflections on the issue of sexual orientation and church practice.
Homosexuality is probably not a unitary state. [Like alcoholism we should be speaking of alcoholisms, which can be differentiated on the basis of biological as well as complex cultural and social factors (American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition-Test Revision [DSM-IV-TR], 2000) so too with homosexuality we should be speaking of homosexualities]. There is probably a subset of those who practice homosexuality, wherein there is a choice element. For these, individuals there may have been some social learning and/or other factors that lead them into this practice. However there is scientific evidence that there are biological factors involved in some other subsets of those who have a homosexual orientation. (Camperio-Ciani, Corna, Capiluppi, 2004; Savic, Berglund & Lindstrom, 2005)
If I may direct us to heterosexual sexual studies for a moment. There is in the current scientific literature strong support that there are male/female differences in "strength of attraction" between the sexes. Males are more strongly and quickly aroused by 'multiple females'; Females are more strongly and deeply aroused by a male to whom they are bonded and that will protect them. (Buss, 1994; Rasa, Vogel & Voland, 1989). The Church Fathers, not knowing the terminology of modern psychology used the term "passions" in describing our bodily predispositions. Is it not possible to consider that the biology we possess is the material substrate of these passions? This is not to say that the passions are not also in mind [cognitive content] and influence the 'nous' of our spirit. God did create us as composite creatures of body and soul and of course we left our natural state as our Church Fathers have told us with consequences to our body and soul due to the 'sin' of our first parents.
Now in cases of sexual orientation (homosexual and heterosexual) we are all called to a standard of sexuality in God. A heterosexual male, despite inclinations and predisposition to 'multiple females' is called by God to be bonded with one woman, blessed by Christ, through His church and participate in God's creation through sexual union (Morelli 2004). In spiritual, pastoral or clinical counseling of heterosexuals I point out that yes we have these passions or inclinations, but as Christians we are called to 'overcome' them, be cured and heal them as illnesses and live a life in Christ. To the homosexual I give the same answer. "Yes you have this inclination, but your special vocation is to overcome such a 'passion' etc. It is not easy, but all is in grace, what is impossible for man is possible for God." (Mat 19:26) I do not want to see the Orthodox Church, get into the position, the Western Church got in when it avoided [and at times condemned the findings of Copernicus]. Science is merely a method to learn about God's creation. We use our intelligence [we are made in His image to do so] to understand and have dominion over the world. (Gen 1:26) We know as Christians, 'Truth, is One.' There cannot be any contradictions. I suggest the above as a consideration, so we may live the Truth of Christ and use this same truth in pastoral interactions with any individuals, heterosexual or homosexual trying to lead a "life in Christ"
Some of my thoughts in attempting to experience and understand the relationship between passions, biology and sin, come from a little booklet, [compiled I believe by Fr. Alexy Young, although not credited]: The Teaching of the Holy Fathers On the Passions, (1986)] On page 11 citing St Macarius the Great, Homily 4 :"We can cultivate the ability to discern right and wrong if we understand the three movements which lead to passion: The first is a natural movement, inherent in the body, which does not produce anything sinful or burdening to the conscience, but merely lets it be known that it exists in the body" —such as hunger " Fr Alexy goes on to interpret this in light of St. Mark the Ascetic: "Here we see that the natural appetite of the body innocently expresses itself: feeling the pangs of hunger, we prepare food and eat to fullness. Suddenly certain thoughts come to us involuntarily. Until 'our will consents, these thoughts constitute neither virtue or vice, but merely disclose the inclination of our will.'" This is the reason I use the term biological substrate in discussing sexual orientation and the passions. It seems to me that there is an Orthodox anthropology that suggests "natural movements", "inclinations", that then lead to passions and further sins, etc. I do believe what are called "natural movements" are not the same as the "original nature" of man, but are a result of our fallen nature. However I have found these words of the Holy Fathers to be pastorally and clinically useful in dealing with both homosexual and heterosexual individuals attempting to live a life in Christ.
A further reflection: I think one of the subsets of homosexual behavior may be situationally displayed in specific settings. There are well documented reports of prisoners, for example, who have engaged in extensive homosexual acts while incarcerated, and switch back to total heterosexual activities upon release. From a clinical viewpoint, such individuals would not be considered to have a 'homosexual orientation'. Pastorally I think it is important for human persons, to understand themselves, spiritually, psychologically and biologically and have the faith and commitment in God to do all they can to 'fight the good fight' by asceticism, prayer, the holy mysteries of the Church etc. [My answer to those, homosexual or heterosexual persons, who say they are simply acting 'by nature' is to point out the above distinctions and to reaffirm: All of God's children (heterosexual and homosexual) are called to use their sexuality in Christ. A heterosexual male, for example, has to overcome his "inclination" (passion) to "know" multiple females. A homosexual individual has to overcome his/her "inclination" to "know others of the same sex. All of us human creatures, male, female, heterosexual or homosexual, conforming to God's will, and thereby having God indwell in us is the way of our salvation.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th edition -- text revision). Washington, DC: Author.
Buss, D.M. (1994). The strategies of human mating. American Scientist , 82, 238-249.
Camperio-Ciani, A., Corna, F., & Capiluppi, C. (2004) Evidence for maternally inherited factors favouring male homosexuality and promoting female fecundity. Proceedings of the Royal Society. England, 271, 1554, 2217-2221.
Morelli, G. (2004) Sex is holy: The responsibility of Christian parenting. The Word. 48. 6, 7-8.
Savic, I, Berglund, H., Lindstrom, P. (2005) Brain response to putative pheromones in homosexual men. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 102, 20, 7356-7361.
Rasa, A. E., ,Vogel, C., & Voland, E. (Eds.), (1989) The Sociobiology of Sexual and Reproductive Strategies. London: Chapman & Hall.
The Teachings of the Holy Fathers on the Passions (1986). Richfield Springs, NY: Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society.
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V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.
Fr. Morelli is the Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion.
Fr. Morelli is a Senior Fellow at the Sophia Institute, an independent Orthodox Advanced Research Association and Philanthropic Foundation housed at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City that serves as a gathering force for contemporary Orthodox scholars, theologians, spiritual teachers, and ethicists.
Fr. Morelli serves on the Executive Board of the San Diego Cognitive Behavior Therapy Consortium (SDCBTC)
Fr. Morelli serves as Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
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