Sex Life Issues and Schism

The greatest disputes within mainline Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as between Christians in both the advanced and third world, relate to that most fundamental of human activities—matters related to sex and procreation. These developments have led and could possibly lead in a number of instances to schism, since belief in doctrinal interpretations of sex and life issues are undergoing fundamental changes in some mainline churches, including the Baptist, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic churches. Historical interpretations of the Bible and biblical criticism by scholars and theologians are the source of some of the most painful conflicts. A central doctrinal and interpretive issue is homosexuality. As Diarmaid MacCulloch points out, "Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity, let alone having any conception of a homosexual identity. The only alternatives are either to try to cleave to patterns of life and assumptions set out in the Bible, or to say that in this, as in much else, the Bible is simply wrong.''38 (The New Testament's anti-Semitism and its clear acceptance of slavery as part of society are two examples.) The Bible offers numerous examples, preposterous by contemporary standards, of obsolete prohibitions—some made ridiculous by science. Abstracts from Exodus and Leviticus alone—from which the famous prohibition that "homosexuality is an abomination'' is drawn—offer interesting examples. In Leviticus 15:19-24, sex with a woman while she is in her period of "menstrual uncleanliness'' is another abomination; in Leviticus 19:19, two crops cannot be planted in the same field; in Exodus 35:2, death is the sentence for working on the Sabbath; in Leviticus 25:44, slavery of both sexes is permitted so long as they are from "neighboring nations'' (Mexico and Canada?), and so on. The question is clear: Who is to interpret the Bible on these moral issues and how is it to be interpreted?

Some mainline denominations in the United States are beginning to ordain openly gay clergy, bless same-sex unions, and ordain women clergy. Some churches that do at least one of these in one form or another are the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Assemblies of God, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Church, and the United Church of Christ.39 Even in traditional Roman Catholic universities, at least according to one study, students' opinions become more liberal over four years of college with respect to legal abortion, premarital sex, and same-sex marriages.40 Civil marriage as opposed to civil marriage "with benefit of religious clergy'' is on the rise in the United States, increasing from 30 percent of marriages in 1980 to 40 percent in 2001. Further, opinions on whether gay and lesbian couples should be allowed the same legal rights as married couples are also changing, with favorable and unfavorable opinions divided equally according to a U.S. survey in 2003.41 Such developments have prompted a counter-missionary movement among mainline churches, who send conservative, fundamentalist missionaries from third-world branches of these churches to U.S. communities, especially low-income communities, to proselytize. Schisms, formal or informal, within large families or groups of religions occur regularly. These developments are affecting the unity and potential unity of three major Christian sects: Baptists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics.

Baptists In June 2004 the Southern Baptist Convention voted to secede from the World Baptist Alliance, a global federation of Baptist denominations, the latter being "too liberal'' with respect to the role of women and other policies. The SBC was instrumental in forming the global alliance of churches one hundred years ago. That alliance is a federation of 46 million Baptists in 211 denominations (SBC membership was 16.3 million in 2004). The schism, provoked by the increasing conservatism of the SBC sect over the past twenty-five years, is emblematic of the disputes over attitudes and policies toward homosexuals. The SBC believed that particular churches in the Baptist association, in particular the American Baptist Churches sect, were altering the "inerrancy of the Bible'' and that some were becoming "gay friendly congregations.''42 The conservatives also required seminary professors and missionaries to sign fidelity oaths to particular interpretations of scripture in order to keep their jobs.

Potentially important, however, is the fact that growth rates in the SBC have been lagging since the conservative-evangelical takeover. The Associated Baptist Press, a publishing arm of the moderate wing of the Baptist Church, estimates that there has been an enormous slowdown since the conservative coup in 1978-1979 with membership increasing 22 percent since then and 64 percent during the previous quarter of the century.43 Baptisms in the SBC are at half the rate they were in 1954 and the constituency is aging rapidly—an ominous sign since younger members (and certainly potential members) hold far more liberal beliefs on the nature of science, doctrine, and policy.

Anglicans The ordination of a gay Episcopal bishop in the United States in August 2003 has created a potential schism within doctrinal Episcopalians and the Anglican Church.44 Conservative sects within the United States and especially those in less developed nations (where the religion is thriving) have threatened and continue to threaten a split in the Anglican Communion. There are in fact a significantly larger number of members of the Anglican Communion in Africa than there are in England. The natural question is whether the Anglican Communion is headed toward schism. Anglicans in North America have pushed the boundaries of their church's doctrine. In addition to the controversial ordination of a gay bishop, Episcopal clergy in the United States perform blessings (i.e., pseudo-marriages) for same-sex couples. The Episcopal Church of Canada has affirmed the integrity and sanctity of gay and lesbian relationships. Conservative Episcopal parishes, particularly in the American Midwest and the South, began attempting to reassert conservative values by moving to jurisdictions of conservative bishops. In 2004 a kind of moratorium was reached whereby the American Episcopal Church appeared to agree to cease consecrating gay bishops (but not priests). By 2006, however, that agreement appeared to be breaking down with the prospect of ordination of a gay bishop in California. Individual priests, moreover, remain free to conduct same-sex blessings. Such policies and prospective actions continue to enrage conservative parishes in the United States as well as Anglican affiliates in the third-world countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By March 2006, the move toward schism picked up steam as more than three dozen American parishes (out of approximately 7,200 with 2.4 million members) affiliated with non-American members of the Anglican Communion in Uganda, Rwanda, and Brazil. In addition, twenty-two out of the thirty-eight branches of the worldwide church have broken off relations with the American Episcopal Church.45 While belief in the sanctity of same-sex relations is not required for salvation in the American Church, the drive to schism by conservatives in the United States and Europe, as well as in the third world appears inevitable leading to a North-South split as described earlier in this chapter.

These developments are predictable, at least broadly, within the context of our theory: Growing tolerance ushered in by a change in scientific knowledge—many scientists and psychiatrists argue that homosexuality is not a choice and in fact may be genetic in origin—is altering religious forms in a rational economic manner. The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, founded in 1970, with a membership of about fifty thousand in three hundred churches (in 1998), ministers to lesbians, gays, but also to heterosexuals. It professes "traditional Christian theology on such doctrines as Scripture, the Trinity, and the sacra-ments.''46 On the other side of the ledger, conservative fundamentalist Southern Baptists (for example) make no attempt to disguise or soft-pedal their own particular interpretation of the Bible's view on homosexuality. In 2004, the sect proposed the withdrawal of church investments in Carnival cruise ships since they offered a "gay cruise,'' and urged members to withdraw students from Southern public schools due to instruction in sex education that included discussion of the "homosexual life style.'' In 1997 the SBC approved a boycott of the Walt Disney Company for permitting "gay days'' in its parks and for providing domestic benefits to its gay and lesbian employees. The boycott was lifted in June of 2005 without a response from Disney. (SBC officials claimed that they had cost the Disney Company hundreds of millions of dollars—a purported fact that did not prevent Disney stock values from rising between 1997 and 2005.)

The likely makeup of SBC membership is traditional Christians who have left churches in response to the full price and other economic factors of membership. Despite this evidence, and growing civil acceptance of marriage unions and other forms of contracts, traditional Episcopa lians, along with Southern Baptists and a number of other conservative Christian churches, continue to condemn homosexuality and particularly the establishment of full rights for homosexuals. In the terms we have used, a shifter is altering the demands for particular forms of religion. If the determinants of the demand for religious forms in terms of both doctrine and organization that we describe in this book are correct, schism into new forms of Anglican-Episcopalianism may be predicted.

Roman Catholics We have, in this chapter, suggested some reasons why the Roman Catholic Church may be ripe for schism. A pyramidal form of organization and primal papal authority on structure and doctrinal interpretation exists for the entire church, including the North and South, and developed and less developed areas of the world. Conditions of doctrinal supply are the same everywhere, but demand conditions for particular forms of Christianity (in this case with a Roman Catholic flavor) differ greatly depending on demand determinants. The chief subjects of these differences are related to sex and life issues. The situation in the developed world (the North) vis-a-vis the less developed world is clearly suggested in table 9.2, tabulated by the World Values Survey. Among Roman Catholics, percentages of respondents from seven nations who say that abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and euthanasia are never justifiable reveal the gap. Attitudes toward these matters are drastically more liberal in developed countries (represented in the table by the United States, Spain, and Germany) than those in less developed nations (Argentina, Venezuela, the Philippines, and Mexico). In general, U.S. Catholics are more liberal than Catholics worldwide and are even more liberal than the average U.S. population on divorce and gay issues.

The drop in Catholic populations in the United States, measured in terms of the number of priests and the number of Catholics attending Mass on a regular basis, is yet another symptom of growing demands for something other than hardline Catholicism. It is estimated that the number of diocesan and religious-order priests fell by 22 percent and that the number of parishes dropped by 3 percent nationwide. And, over an eighteen-year period, the percentage of Catholics claiming to attend weekly Mass has declined from 44 percent in 1987 to 33 percent in 2005.47

Table 9.2

"North" and ''South'' values among world Catholics (percentages responding that the following are ''never justifiable'')

Table 9.2

"North" and ''South'' values among world Catholics (percentages responding that the following are ''never justifiable'')





Catholic population

United States








































General population

United States










Source: The World Values Survey. Available online at www.worldvaluessurvey .org/services/index.html.

Source: The World Values Survey. Available online at www.worldvaluessurvey .org/services/index.html.

A number of explanations have been given for these phenomena: Population trends from cities to suburbs, the lack of managerial skills on the part of prelates, the child abuse crisis within the Church, and so on. But these trends are of long standing and it would appear that time-cost increases with income increases, together with advances in education, science, and technology—the shifters—are at the base of these sea changes in developed-world Roman Catholicism. Most of these shifters relate to life issues and to sex. Embryonic research enabling the creation of new colonies of stem cells creates the possibility for addressing conditions such as spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes, congenital immune deficiencies, Alzheimer's disease, and cancer. On the matter of sex, startling discoveries that reveal that instinctive behaviors of sexual choice can be specified and triggered by genetic programs such as those that determine eye color and other human traits.48 These kind of phenomena may be creating a foundation for disbelief in rigid Roman Catholic Church teachings. For the Church's part, at least given the pronouncements of Benedict XVI, John Paul Il's successor, genetic research, divorce, artificial birth control, trial marriages, and free-style unions, with homosexual unions leading the way, have all been loudly and roundly condemned. Again, the stage for schism in the Catholic Church is set. Mounting evidence that doctrinal interpretations of sex and life issues do not comport with scientific knowledge will likely cause either a change in interpretation (as in the case of slavery or knowledge concerning indigenous populations49) or will engender new Catholic forms of religion through schismatic activity. Maintenance of the traditional proscriptions by the papacy may create a smaller but more tightly organized church which, according to some, would make a more attractive product in the religious market place. One problem is that this better defined product will only find demanders in the poorer and less developed regions of the world and among low-income, low-education demanders in the advanced world. As Anthony Gill has pointed out, intense competition from non-Catholic evangelicals is taking members from the Roman Catholic Church in the third world, possibly due to the tight proscription against birth control by the Catholic Church.50

The probability of schism is augmented by the organizational structure of the Church that, due to the reaffirmed rules of canon law as revised early in the twentieth century, admits only an absolutist pyramidal structure of the Roman Catholic Church. Pronouncements by Pope Benedict XVI reaffirming the Church's stance on hot-button issues also signals a foundation for schism as well as a good deal of confusion. Almost immediately after his installment in 2005, Benedict affirmed policies that would bar gay men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies or those who supported a gay "lifestyle" from entering seminaries. Self-restraint is no longer sufficient for would-be priests. "Transitory" gay men may be admitted to seminaries, however, and the new directives do not apply to existing priests, bishops, or cardinals, and it does not distinguish between homosexuals and pedophiles. For now, the schismatic trend among both mainstream and fundamentalist denominations will likely continue along liberal-conservative lines. It is important to recognize that this split is not over doctrine or organization per se, but over the interpretation and political implications drawn from Scripture or precedent within particular denominations. It is even more important to recognize that heresy and schism, in and of themselves, are not to be discouraged even if that would be possible. As French poet, critic, and essayist Andre

Suarès (1868-1948) noted, "Heresy is the lifeblood of religions. It is faith that begets heretics. There are no heresies in a dead religion.''51 Stated in economic terms, heresy and schism will be constant factors in emerging Christianity because heterogeneous demands for new forms are functions of factors—income, education, or science—that are in constant flux. Our economic theory of the determinants of religious form predicts that there will be further (and perhaps more serious) schisms within these religious organizations as incomes, educational attainment, and scientific knowledge all increase. This result, in a sense, is the outcome of the expansion of the scientific, cultural, and economic revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It will also be interesting to observe how religious forms change in the third world as incomes, education, and political conditions advance.

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