Bishop Robinson on “The Offence Against God”, “God’s Purpose”

Speaking at New Ways Ministries’ conference on  the theme From Water to Wine:  Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships, began by demonstrating that we cannot hope for a  change Catholic teaching on homosexual relationships, until we first achieve a change in teaching on heterosexual relationships. He then devoted a major part of his address to demonstrating just why that teaching is unsound, producing three discrete arguments:

  • The first addresses the Church’s claim that the essence of sexual sin is a direct offence against God, irrespective of any harm caused to any human being.
  • The second reason for change is that the statements of the Church appear to be assertions rather than arguments.
  • The third argument is that the teaching emphasises the God‐given nature of the physical acts, rather than on how such acts affect persons and relationships.

After demonstrating why present teaching needs reform, Bishop Robinson moved on to a positive basis for a new Catholic teaching, and then to a discussion of Catholic ethics for homosexual relationships. I will get to these later. For now, I consider here only the first of these three arguments:

First Argument (Against Catholic Teaching on Heterosexual Morality):

The teaching of the church  that sexual sin is that is a direct offence against God raises two serious questions, one concerning nature and the other concerning God.

The claim that non -procreative sexual activity is a sin against God rests on the belief that this contravenes “God’s purpose” for sex, opposed to the natural order that God established. One problem with this, is that observations of “nature” show clearly that this is not so. There is abundant evidence that in the natural world of the animal kingdom, many species practice a wide range of sexual activities that cannot lead to procreation, including sex before reaching full maturity and fertility, oral and anal sex, masturbation (alone or with others), genital rubbing, and homosexual activities. Some primates even manufacture and use sex toys – breaking off vine sections for use as dildoes, and fruits adapted as masturbation aids.

But that is not the objection Robinson raises. He finds another, one that I have not found before. Is there any other context, he asks, where theologians identify a sin on the grounds that it is against God’s purpose? If there are, he asks further, why do church documents not list them? To demonstrate the absurdity of theologians deriving a single, inviolable “God’s purpose” for a particular human faculty, he refers to the rather trivial case of human vision. If the purpose of eyes is to see where we are going, is it then a sin when driving, to use rear view mirrors, which show us where we have been?

There are numerous other examples that he could have used to demonstrate the futility of deducing a single “purpose” of God in any part of creation. One that I would certainly not be acceptable to the Vatican was once used by post-reformation Protestant theologians. Observing that women have narrower shoulders and broader hips than men, they deduced that God’s purpose for women was to bear children.  Some Catholic theologians might accept this – but not their next conclusion, that this implied that for women to live celibate lives in convents was clearly in contravention of God’s purpose for them.

In the sexual context, I wonder about the tongue. It would seem self-evident that this has two purposes: for speech, and in eating. The Church’s teaching on sex is that it too has two purposes, unitive and procreative, but that these must both be present for sex to be licit. For the tongue, any attempt to apply both uses simultaneously, eating and talking at once, is clearly not ideal. Then, there is another, less obvious use of the tongue, in kissing and in love-making. Following the Church’s reasoning on any contravention of God’s “purpose” as sinful, are we to conclude that introducing the tongue in love-making is a third purpose for the organ – or that such use is a contravention of its two intended purposes, and so sinful?

There are many more objections that could be raised to the whole idea of identifying a particular “purpose” of God, but Robinson goes on to another issue entirely, the suggestion that any contravention of such purpose is an offence against God, to which he proposes a remarkably simple riposte: God is bigger than that, and not so easily offended.

Robinson’s full text is posted on his own website. This is the extract relating to his “first argument”.

First Argument

The first argument is that the teaching of the church says that the essence of sexual sin is that it is a direct offence against God because, irrespective of whether harm is caused to any human being, it is a violation of what is claimed to be the divine and natural order that God established. It is claimed that God inserted into nature itself the demand that every human sexual act be both unitive and procreative. If it does not contain both of these elements, it is against “nature” as established by God. This raises two serious questions, one concerning nature and the other concerning God.

In relation to nature, should not the church’s argument give a number of examples of other fields where God has given a divine purpose to some created thing, such that it would be a sin against God to use that thing in any other way? Or is this the only example there is of God giving a divine purpose to a created thing? If there are other examples, why do church documents not list them? I remember reading years ago the mocking argument that the natural God‐given purpose of eyes is to look forwards, so rear vision mirrors in cars are against nature and hence immoral. Granted that this is a mocking argument, does it not raise questions about what we mean by “nature” and how difficult it is to draw moral consequences from a claim to a divinely established nature?

In relation to God, the argument was used in the past that striking a king was far more serious than striking a commoner, and, for the same reason, an offence against God was far more serious than an offence against a human being. In this view, the most serious sins were those directly against God. In practice, this applied above all to sins of blasphemy and sexual sins, and it helps to explain why, in the Catholic Church, sexual morality has long been given a quite exaggerated importance.

When a person takes great offence at even a trivial remark, we tend to speak of that person as a “little” person, while a person who can shrug off most negative comments is a “big” person. My reading of the bible leads me to believe in a very big God indeed who is not easily offended by direct offences. I believe, for instance, that God shrugs off much of what is called “blasphemy” as an understandable human reaction to the felt injustice of evil and suffering in this world. I do not believe that God is in the least offended when parents who have just lost a child rage in terrible anger against God.

In this vein, I must ask whether God will be offended by any sexual thought or action considered solely as an offence against an order established by God, before any question of its effect on other persons, oneself or the community is taken into account.

The parable of the prodigal son may help us here3. The younger son had received the entire share of the property that would come to him and he had
wasted it. He had no right to one further square centimetre of the property, for the entire remaining property would now go by strict right to the elder son (“You are with me always and all I have is yours” v.31). The father respected his elder son’s rights and would take nothing from him. When, however, it came to the hurt the prodigal son had caused to his father by abandoning him and wasting the property he had worked so hard for, the father brushed this aside out of love for his son and insisted that he be welcomed and treated as a son rather than a servant. The message is surely that God cares about the rights of human beings and what they do to one another, but is big enough, loving enough and forgiving enough not to get angry at direct offences against God. May we ask whether the god portrayed in this parable would condemn a person to eternal  punishment for sometimes getting unitive and procreative purposes out of a perceived ideal harmony in the midst of the turbulence of sexuality?

For centuries the church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin (4) According to that teaching, even deliberately deriving pleasure from thinking about sex, no matter how briefly, is a mortal sin. The teaching may not be proclaimed aloud today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes (5) it has never been retracted and it has affected countless people.

The teaching fostered belief in an incredibly angry God, for this God would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of
deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. I simply do not believe in such a God. Indeed, I positively reject such a God.

Does it not follow that there are serious dangers in basing the church’s moral teaching concerning sex on the concept of direct offences against God? It must be added that, in the response to revelations of sexual abuse, this became a most serious problem, for far too many church authorities saw the offence primarily in terms of a sexual offence against God, to be treated according to the criteria governing such offences ‐ repentance, confession, absolution, total forgiveness by God and hence restoration to the status quo. This contributed greatly to the practice of moving offenders from one parish to another. There was never going to be an adequate response to abuse as long as many people thought primarily in terms of sexual offences against God rather than harm caused to the victims.

3 Lk. 15:11-32

4 See Noldin-Schmitt, Summa Theologiae Moralis, Feliciani Rauch, Innsbruck, 1960 Vol.I, Supplement
De Castitate, p.17, no.2. The technical term constantly repeated was mortale ex toto genere suo. The
sin of taking pleasure from thinking about sex was called delectatio morosa.

5 For example, Clement VII (1592-1605) and Paul V (1605-1621) said that those who denied this
teaching should be denounced to the Inquisition.


Robinson, Bishop Geoffrey: Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church

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6 comments for “Bishop Robinson on “The Offence Against God”, “God’s Purpose”

  1. Chris Morley
    March 21, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    “Bishop Robinson challenges the Church for not giving other similar examples of gravely sinful use of created faculties. He jokingly suggested using rear view mirrors is a perversion of the forward-looking purpose of eyes.

    He mentions blasphemy too, also a sin against God, like any sex that is not in marriage and procreative.

    What he misses seeing in blasphemy is that the Church could use that as another example, as an immoral misuse of the faculty of speech.

    There are other examples of immoral abuse of human organs and faculties.
    Sniffing coke is a misuse of the nose; smoking tobacco or other drugs is a misuse of the lungs / breathing faculty; singing the praises of the devil would be sinful, and for much of history reading Church banned-books was a misuse of the eyes. The brain, mouth and pen could be misused to think and communicate heresy.

    So Bishop Robinson’s new line of criticism is not particularly helpful, when we can find other sinful examples.

    His related point that God is big enough to shrug such things off, in the absence of harm to others, oneself, or the community, is of course still valid and valuable.


    There are, however, other problems with the Church’s ‘it’s not natural’ argument about any sex that isn’t unitive, heterosexually penetrative and procreative, that Bishop Robinson has not considered.

    First, it’s very simplistic, mechanistic and unholistic in its ‘natural law’ understanding of the use of bodily faculties and our organs.
    Biblical creation is assumed, but modern knowledge tells us the senses and faculties of God’s creatures evolved over billions of years from a beginning in primitive algae. This is not surprising when these ‘natural law’ ideas come from about 800 years ago in the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, who got much of them from the very deductive, logical, male mind of Aristotle, over 2000 years ago. So mouths are strictly for eating, noses for smelling, eyes for seeing and you can deduce all these ‘natural law’ permissible uses from an examination of those organs. The penis has an excretory function as well as providing a means of penetrating the vagina and depositing semen, but the only sexual uses the Church considers permissible, are penetration and semen deposition when within marriage. The reality of human body functioning, as modern biology and science continues to surprise us, is very much more complicated. Our sense and other organs generally have multiple functions and evolved / were designed by God and intended to work as a coordinated whole. This modern knowledge and human psychological insights are disregarded in the ‘natural law’ conception of moral uses of the organs of the body and its faculties.

    Secondly, the Church’s approach is very phallocentric. Celibate males in the Church neglected to consider the female body and sex from a woman’s perspective. It ignores the clitoris, whose sole function is to give pleasure and an orgasm if appropriately stimulated. The clitoris has no procreative or excretory function: it is not necessary for either. So in ‘natural law’ it is a superfluous mistake of God’s creation. The Church needs to credibly account for the presence of the clitoris by reference to ‘natural law’ and fit this explanation into its rules for sexual morality. It has not done so, and cannot.

    The Church’s approach to sex and relationships is also male-centric in other ways, so that it is now seriously out of step with contemporary standards on human rights and male-female equality. After marriage the Church teaches that a wife is supposed to be sexually available almost on demand to her husband: partners ‘gave themselves away’ at marriage
    and that is taught to be a lifetime’s consent to penetrative procreative sex. It seems there can be no rape in a heterosexual Catholic marriage. Women’s tendency to economic dependence and relative physical weakness to men mean Catholic wives are vulnerable to sexual coercion, or they risk sexual or physical violence, or homelessness with any children for refusal. The very limited procreation-only focused sexual menu the Church allows heterosexual couples disregards the ‘unitive’ nature of sex in marriage and the
    multi-purpose function of the human faculties, senses, our holistic nature and human psychology. It ignores the wealth of animal studies and evidence of diverse sexual behaviour in most species throughout nature. The common rejoinder that some natural animal behaviour like eating the young means you cannot use diversity in animal sexual behaviour as a model for acceptable natural human behaviour is trite and erroneous. Such behaviour as eating the young may be natural to some animals but would be clearly morally wrong in humans because it harms others. Consensual diverse human sexual behaviour is in a different category.

    The Church also ignores the male prostate gland which is rich in nerve endings (the male g-spot), where the nerve-rich surface has no apparent purpose except for pleasure by stimulation in anal sex. Could these nerve endings in fact be part of God’s design too, like the clitoris; surely God’s ‘natural law’ human creation can’t incorporate two superfluous sexual pleasure organ mistakes?”

    • March 22, 2012 at 9:44 am

      One more thought about “God’s Purpose”.

      My personal view on the whole question of God’s purpose, is that it’s complete red herring. It’s fundamental to completely orthodox, traditional Catholic theology that God is unknowable. If it’s impossible to claim any definitive understanding of God, how on earth is it reasonable to claim any definite knowledge of God’s purpose?

      This is why I find interesting, Robinson’s observation that Vatican theologians do not make any claim about God’s purpose for any other area of human activity.

  2. March 21, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    Thanks for this additional commentary, Chris. It doesn’t bother me that some uses of organs for purposes not intended for them, may be sinful. I’m more interested in the existence of some non-intended uses which clearly are not sinful – because they disprove the thesis.

    Your observations on the clitoris and the prostate are important. Traditional sexual theology has no reply to your question: what is God’s purpose, if not to give pleasure? 

    • Chris Morley
      March 25, 2012 at 2:43 pm

      sports are a good
      example of people pushing their bodily functions to extremes in
      ways bodies are not really designed for, and thereby risking their
      lives, for the challenge, sense of achievement and adrenalin rush,
      such as in free-diving.

      free-diving you dive as deep as you can without any air supply. How
      long can you stay under / how deep can you go? are the challenges.
      Experts can stay under for minutes and you can run out of
      air, breath water and drown. Another example is climbing Everest, where 1 in 10 die in the attempt.
      considering the morality of doing this in Catholic terms:

      Natural Law, Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism,
      all teach that there are three ‘fonts’ of morality: 1.
      intention; 2. moral object; 3. circumstances.

      1 The
      first font is the intended end, your purpose in choosing to do something. 2 The second font is the inherent moral meaning of your chosen action [if the ‘act’ were euthanasia, the ‘moral object’ (who this is done to), is the patient].3 The circumstances are
      evaluated by the moral weight of the reasonably anticipated good and
      bad consequences of the act. [the Church teaches that euthanasia is an inherently wrong act
      that can’t be made morally right by any amount of good intentions; so a good
      Catholic would find another way to relieve the patient’s suffering,
      e.g. by increasing doses of painkillers so the patient falls asleep /
      becomes unconscious].1 The intention
      is the subject’s, the person who does the act. There are various
      possible intentions behind doing anything. So
      in free-diving, each diver’s intention is likely to be different. One
      might want to beat the depth record, another to beat their personal
      best, another to return with an oyster from the bottom of the sea. I want to reach 200 feet down, beating my personal best dive of
      Each act has an intrinsic moral purpose, its moral object. The
      act chosen by the person is an intentionally chosen act
      The will chooses an intended end (beat
      personal best and dive to 200′),
      and these choices are made in the knowledge of the consequences of
      the act (I
      could succeed, fail, or drown).
      My moral object (beating
      personal best with a 200′ dive) intrinsically isn’t wrong / sinful – it’s not like stealing or lying; so it is
      morally neutral.3 Assessing
      the circumstances, the good or bad moral consequences of challenging
      myself physically to dive 50′ deeper than I have before, depends on whether
      I do this recklessly. There’s an inherent risk in adventure sports: you might
      make a mistake and suffer the consequences. That’s morally neutral: I’m not intending to make a mistake because I want to survive and
      continue diving.

      Does my responsibility to others / the wider
      community also come into this? It does.
      In my case I
      have no dependents and my only responsibility to the wider community
      is towards my diving companion in the boat above (who might take
      risks trying to rescue me if I get into trouble, but is responsible
      for their own safety and has an aqualung for their safety in any rescue attempt),
      so I think those are also all morally neutral, so there are no good
      or bad reasonably predictable consequences for myself or

      So adventure sports are an example of using your bodily functions in ways they weren’t really designed for, but which is a morally acceptable use in ‘natural law’ for Catholics.

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