Monthly Archives: May 2016

Catholic Bishops on Same-Sex Marriage

May 2016 Pulse

The recently-concluded Synod on the Family (4 – 25 October 2015), a historic meeting of 270 bishops from around the world at the Vatican, published a report on some of the most controversial issues surrounding marriage, divorce and sexuality after three weeks of “rich and lively dialogue”. Pope Francis convened this summit in order to “open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints”.

The 94-paragraph report examines the profound changes in culture and social habits that have worrying ramifications on the way in which marriage and family is viewed. It not only addresses hot-button issues like divorce, re-marriage and co-habitation but also artificial reproductive technology, echoing the teachings of John Paul II in The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae, 1995).

The entire report emphasises the beauty of marriage and the family.

The opening of the Synod was briefly overshadowed by Monsignor Krysztof Charasma, a Polish-born priest and Vatican theologian who declared that he was in a gay relationship and that he wanted to be an advocate “for all sexual minorities and their families who have suffered in silence”. The Vatican summarily dismissed the priest, describing his actions timed at the beginning of the synod to get full media attention “very serious and irresponsible”.

Progressives hoping to see significant changes in the Church’s position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage were no doubt disappointed with the Synod’s report, which continued to uphold the traditional teachings of the Church.

The position of the Roman Catholic Church on homosexual behaviour, as stated in its authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) is clear: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved”.

Paragraph 76 of the Synod report, which states the Bishops’ position on gays and lesbians, fully concurs with the basic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, although it takes a distinctively more pastoral approach by focusing its attention on the care of “families that have a member who has homosexual tendencies”.

The Synod also reiterates what the Church has always taught, “that every person, regardless of their own sexual tendency, be respected in his dignity and welcomed with respect, trying to avoid ‘any kind of unjust discrimination’.”

The Bishops’ position on same- sex marriage is clearly articulated in the second half of Paragraph 76: “Regarding projects that try to equal homosexual unions to marriage, ‘There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family’.”

The Synod therefore continues to uphold the teaching of the Church – again clearly articulated in the Catechism – that marriage according to God’s intention is the union between a man and a woman. As the Catechism puts it, such a union “is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring”.

The Bishops also openly and directly criticised international bodies for coercing poor countries to introduce same-sex marriage laws in return for financial aid.

In his carefully-worded address at the close of the Synod, Pope Francis said that the summit sought to take seriously the “difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family” and confront them “fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand”.

But the Pope was quick to add that the summit was also about “urging everyone to appreciate the importance of the institution of family and of marriage between a man and a woman, based on unity and indissolubility, and valuing it as the fundamental basis of society and human life”.

Thus, although the Church must always be cognisant of the differences in cultures and of the fact that Christianity must take root in culture – what Vatican II has called inculturation – it does not follow that it must embrace moral relativism.

‘Inculturation’, says the Pope, “Inculturation,” says the Pope, “does not weaken true values, but demonstrates their true strength and authenticity, since they adapt without changing; indeed they quietly and gradually transform the different cultures”.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of the Methodist Message. 


Religion and Violence

May 2016 Feature Article

We have recently witnessed tragic events of violence in many parts of the world.  The massacres in Belgium, Paris, and Pakistan, the shooting in California, the tension in Jerusalem, and the terrorist attacks in Turkey, Egypt, Ivory Coast, and Tunisia are but a few examples.  While many of these assaults are attributed to fanatics of Islamic extremism, there is an unspoken thesis that their religious conviction is the seed of such violence.  People like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would like to brand all religious beliefs under the same banner of intolerance and hate.

For instance, after 9-11, this slogan was posted on some billboards: “Science will fly you to the moon…  Religion will fly you into a building.”  Occasionally, the media would reinforce the idea that religion is outdated and the enemy of modernity.

While these accusations are mostly unfair, the challenge remains.  What is the relationship between religious beliefs and violence?  Are monotheistic religions more prone to violence than polytheistic or Asian ones?  Does belief in a One True God translate into proselytization and the intolerant suppression all other “false” gods?  How do we explain the different passages in the Bible or the Koran that advocate violence towards unbelievers?

It is important to address these assertions, as religions in general and monotheistic belief in particular is increasingly under the scrutiny of the secular world.

Monotheism and violence

The claim is that polytheistic religions, which already allow for the coexistence of different deities, are therefore more tolerant to different, ‘foreign’ conceptions of God, and hence less likely to militantly enforce their view on others.  Because of this oriental religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism are also more tolerant than monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—which are historically marred with much fighting internally and externally.

At a first glance, there seems to be some veracity in this.  There are many conflicts described in the Old Testament between the Jews and other peoples, and then one can add the wars between Muslims and Christians in the Crusades, between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation and the Thirty Years War, and the current situation in Israel and the Middle East.  Christians persecuting Jews, Muslims fighting against Jews, Shiites against Sunnis, and the al-Qaeda and ISIS jihad against the West seem to validate this claim.

However, upon closer examinations, history has shown that states with polytheistic religions are not at all benign.  The Roman Empire was very violent against minorities and intolerant towards Christianity in the first three centuries.  In the past century, we witnessed how several atheistic regimes have perpetrated the worst massacres and genocides in human history.

We need to look for the causes elsewhere. Samuel Huntington, who wrote The Clash of Civilizations in the early 1990s, claims that geopolitical conflicts will occur along the lines of cultures.  Thus, these conflicts are often equated as religious ones because most civilizations define themselves along religious lines.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ recent book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence provides further insight as to why it seems religions could be a source of division.  He believes that people commit atrocities because of an identity crisis.  Human beings are social by nature, and as a result of the herd mentality tend to define their world in terms of “us” and “them.” Religious identity is often the strongest social bond that distinguishes one group from another.  He states,

“Violence has nothing to do with religion as such. It has to do with identity and life in groups. Religion sustains groups more effectively than any other force. It suppresses violence within. It rises to the threat of violence from without. Most conflicts and wars have nothing to do with religion whatsoever. They are about power, territory and glory, things that are secular, even profane.  But if religion can be enlisted, it will be.”

This is confirmed by the fact that many of the suicide bombers and terrorists are not really religious. Their upbringings were not ultra-religious when they were recruited.  They are often radicalized through a process of socialization when given a new mission and meaning in life.

It is interesting to note that the current wave of terrorism is related to the secularization which began in the West and now spreading across the globe. Secularization was a process that began in the 18th century with the Enlightenment, where reason was seen as the alternative to religion as the unifying force of peoples.  By depriving society of the central role that religion plays in it, it was thought that people would unite under the standard of science and reason. The secular state becomes the norm of modern societies where individual freedoms are guaranteed.  After all, wasn’t “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’) the motto of the French Revolution and the cornerstone of modern democracy?

With secularization, however, relativism and individualism have become prevalent.  And once cultures and religions become relative, modern man is forced to live an individual existence unmoored from his cultural roots and traditions and isolated from community, church and extended families. Autonomy, individual rights and “spirituality” have replaced virtues, duties and religious practices.

Yet, the modern man is restless, constantly in search of meaning and identity before an array of possibilities. Many people find comfort in religious fundamentalisms and sects which offer a sense of meaning and spirituality in the West and in Islam.  This turn towards fundamentalism can at times result in violence.

Faith and Reason

One way to resolve this tension is to emphasize the possible harmony between reason and faith. On the one hand, the secularists need to learn that while human reasoning is the common basis and starting point of knowledge, it is not the only font.  On the other hand, religionists must also shun fideism which only blindly accepts revealed sources without being open to dialogue with different interpretations in a reasoned manner.

One area where this is applicable is in the field of theology and biblical exegesis, especially the difficult passages where violence seemed to be condoned in the Old Testament. Between the two extremes of literal interpretation and historicizing away the difficulties, a mature approach that balances faith and reason can help us to better understand the biblical message.  One such example is the International Theological Commission publication God the Trinity and the unity of humanity: Christian monotheism and its opposition to violence which concludes that, “The Christian faith, in fact, sees the incitement of violence in the name of God as the greatest corruption of religion.”

Faith and reason needs one another, to purify one another from potential pathologies.  For Christians, Christ being the Logos Incarnate means that faith itself cannot be illogical. Human reason finds its fulfillment in the new commandment of charity of Christ impels believers to enter into dialogue with others. A healthy tension of faith and reason that avoids the extremes of fideism and rationalism can therefore allow peaceful dialogue to take place among cultures, religions and the secular world.

Father Joseph Tham
Fr Joseph Tham (LC, STL, MD, PhD) is Dean of the School of Bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome and Fellow of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights.

Cities and Human Flourishing

May 2016 Pulse 

In his fascinating book, Triumph of the City the world-renown economist Edward Glaeser describes the significance of cities in the history of human civilisation with great eloquence and inimitable passion. ‘Cities’, he writes, ‘the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been the engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace’.

Presently about 54 percent of the world’s population live in cities, which Glaeser memorably describes as humanity’s ‘greatest invention’. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, the proportion of people living in urban areas is expected to increase to 66 percent.

In recent years, a number of Christian theologians have been reflecting on the significance and meaning of the city, and construcitng what may be described as a theology of the city. A notable contribution to these reflections is surely Timothy Gorringe’s A Theology of the Built Environment, published more than ten years ago.

The perceptive reader of the Bible, however, will notice that the city is not regarded very highly in its pages.

We do not have to venture too far into the Bible to find a city that symbolises the colossalism and rebelliousness of the human spirit. The building of the first skyscraper described in Genesis 11 was a clear expression of human defiance against God, making Babel the quintessential city of rebellion.

In just a few short chapters later, we arrive at two cities that together signify the epitome of human depravity. There can be no doubt that the great sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is sexual perversion, those degrading habits and practices that are detestable in the eyes of the holy God (Genesis 19; Jude 7).

In the final chapters of the Bible we find a city – personified as a woman – that embodies every kind of idolatry and abomination, and the persecutor of Christians. In describing this city, John does not mince his words: ‘And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations”. And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus’ (Revelation 17:5).

It is therefore not at all surprising that some Christian thinkers see the city as the very antithesis of the will of God for humankind.

The most forceful and eloquent among them is surely the French Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul, for whom the city signifies the rejection of Eden and the quintessential symbol of sin, the ‘world’ and the powers of hell.

To see the city in such a negative light, however, is to fail to appreciate the complexity of the Biblical portrayal. Most crucially, it is to fail to see the significance of the fact that although the Bible began with a garden, it ended with a city.

In the midst of the Bible’s negative use of the city as a symbol of human evil, we find the powerfully redemptive imagery of the cities of refuge in Joshua 20 that serve as safe havens for persons guilty of manslaughter. These cities, built on the basis of the divine imperative, serve as the striking symbol of justice and mercy.

In Israel’s great wisdom literature and in the testimony of her prophets, we find an even more remarkable imagery of the city as a place of security and prosperity. ‘Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble’, writes the Psalmist, ‘and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in’ (Psalm 107:6-7).

The city is depicted as a home, a refuge from the dangers and terrors of the wilderness, where the human community could flourish. The meaning of the city therefore transcends the buildings and the shared spaces, important though they are. As Gorringe puts it, ‘It was early recognised that it was the community, and not the built environment, which makes a city’.

The existence of cities therefore tells us profound things about ourselves and about our species. ‘The enduring strength of cities’, writes Glaeser, ‘reflects the profoundly social nature of humanity. Our ability to connect with one another is the defining characteristic of our species’.

‘Cities’, argues Gorringe succinctly, ‘instantiate social relations of difference without exclusion’. The city manifests this more powerfully than the town or the village simply because of the density and diversity of its population.

The Christian theologian or thinker must therefore avoid two extremes when reflecting on the meaning and significance of the city.

The first extreme is to follow Ellul uncritically and regard the city as the evil invention of the fallen man. And the second is to idealise the city and to see it as the guarantor of human happiness and peace.

Cities are in reality a mixed blessing, caught in the tension that characterise our time, between the first advent of Christ and his return.

And in this ‘time between the times’, human cities enigmatically are at once the locus of sin and evil and the environment where everything that is associated with what it means to be human – relationships, community, art, science, technology, music, commerce – may flourish.

In the midst of tensions and contradictions, however, cities can also be the locus of the presence of God.

In Ezekiel 48, we have a powerful description of the restoration of the city. In looking for best way to characterise the restored city, Ezekiel writes: ‘And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The LORD is there’ (Ezekiel 48:35).

The city that upholds justice and mercy can be a place that welcomes and honours the holy God. It can be a faint but real reflection of that heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, where glory of the Lord is resplendent and where nothing unclean, detestable and false can be found (Revelation 21: 27).

 Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.