What Is Man? is a new book – new anyway in English, having been published at the end of 2019 in Italian as Che cosa è l’uomo? – from the Pontifical Biblical Commission. As such, it has no identified author or authors. (The English version was prepared by Fathers Fearghus O’Fearghail and Adrian Graffy.) It carries the subtitle, A Journey through Biblical Anthropology and is a defense of the Biblical roots of Catholicism’s view of human beings and our relationship to God.
When first published, there was a flurry of rumors in the press claiming that the book (either subtly or explicitly) suggested homosexuality should be considered normative. Fr. James Martin, for one, asserted that What Is Man? explains one of the Bible’s key condemnations of homosexual acts, the story of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis, as not really about sexual transgression at all but, rather, a lack of hospitality among the Sodomites. And there is a passage in What Is Man? that confirms the sins of the Sodomites were not exclusively, well, sodomy. But it’s also clear that the “men of Sodom” sought to “know” Lot and his angelic visitors, and that “to know” in the context “is a euphemism for sexual relations.”
What Is Man? Is divided into four long chapters: 1. The Human Being Created by God; 2. The Human Being in the Garden; 3. The Human Family; and 4. The Human Being in History. I’m going to consider here just a part of that third chapter, because it’s the source of the controversy that wasn’t. This is unfair to the entirety of Commission’s work, but let me explain.
It was sociologist James Chowning Davies (1918-2012) who articulated the “J curve.” That’s the idea that social revolutions are driven by “rising individual expectations and falling levels of perceived well-being.” It seems to me that the J curve with regard to the sexual revolution applies only to the Roman Catholic Church. (Well, it may affect some Protestant denominations too – but not many.) This is because the Church pretty much stands alone in opposition to the rising expectations among homosexual activists. After all, LGBTQ victories have been numerous and, in the United States, at least, there are arguably no more battles to wage against the “heteronormative” culture. So much is this the case that I’m not sure American culture can any longer be called heteronormative, except in terms of actual practice, i.e., most of us are “straight.”
Even that fact is undermined by the decline in the number of marriages, the rise in the number of divorces, and high levels of extramarital sex and pornography use. It should be terrifying that these things are now the norm. But many of us are somehow not terrified.
Anyway, sights are now aimed at the Church: the last bastion of resistance. The revolution that will come from homosexual activists’ “falling levels of perceived well-being” won’t result in burned and looted churches, so much as in abandonment of the Church by gay men and lesbian women. We should be pleased there’ll be no bloodshed, and that Fr. Martin may become an Episcopal bishop. Unless. . .there is schism, as seems to loom in Germany over just this matter. Schism is a kind of revolution.
But back to What Is Man? and Chapter 3, which begins:
God said: “It is not good that ’ādām should be alone (Gen 2:18). That the Creator wished that ‘in the beginning’ humanity should be constituted by man and woman (Gen 1:27; 2:21-23) invites us to consider carefully this fundamental human difference and to explore its meaning.”
The text goes on to emphasize the equal dignity and complementarity of man and woman, or as it specifically has it, “the two sexes.” The authors also stress that it’s love that should govern us and cautions that the union of the sexes is not without difficulties, almost seeming to quote Shakespeare’s Lysander: “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Because What Is Man? is a book by Bible scholars acting as anthropologists, there is some interesting commentary on Creation, more likely to start debate rather than settle it, especially with regard to the literal interpretation of Adam, Eve, and the Fall. I’ll have to leave that to more capable debaters.
I’m concerned with what seems beyond debate, especially in terms of those rumors that the book opens the door to a new Catholic view of homosexuality.
It should come as no surprise that the treatment of homosexuality in the book mirrors longstanding Catholic doctrine, especially the CDF’s 1986 letter to bishops, “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” Here again is the essential distinction between homosexual inclination and homosexual practice. What Is Man? acknowledges that Biblical affirmations against same-sex unions are widely “seen as no longer relevant.” The trouble with that is that Biblical anthropology is entirely on the side of the Catechism’s description of homosexual behavior as “inherently disordered.”
With reference to Genesis 1:28 (“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it), it may be affirmed that because
the system of “separation” [two sexes], and therefore of the diversities instituted by the creative word of God, finds its key in the difference between man and woman, male and female; its symbolic value is contradicted and undermined by the union of persons of the same sex.
In dealing directly with the Bible’s condemnations of homosexuality, What Is Man? provides a tidy overview of specific passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, most notably Leviticus, and the New Testament – specifically and dramatically in the words of St. Paul. Paul drew a crucial connection between homosexuality and idolatry, suggesting that homosexual relations are a kind of self-worship, inherently unwelcoming to strangers – the ones we meet in procreation. Which tells us a great deal about where many of our contemporaries stand today.
Fr. Martin, the Germans, and their fellow travelers can have their version of the faith, as long as they’re willing to have a Catholicism without the warrant of Scripture.