Exodus International has apologized for forty years of harm done to homosexual persons and shut its doors. Pope Francis has said that it is not his place to judge homosexual persons. Vicki Beeching, beloved Christian songstress, is gay. Reactionaries are all in a tizzy. What is happening to Christian values?
The answer is simple: they're winning out.
Let us go back to Paul. I'm not going to rehearse the arguments that have suggested that we have misread what Paul intended by his statements on homosexuality, as valid as these arguments might be. I'm going to say something that somewhat more radical, namely that Christian ethics and moral theology is only quite inadequately understood when conceived as the work of reading the biblical canon as if it were a law book. That this is the case should be clear from Paul's own statements about the letter of the law.
Of what do Christian ethics and moral theology consist, then? Well, here, again, Paul is of some help. Let us think about his conversion. I'm not talking about conversion from Judaism to Christianity: the reduction of the word "conversion" to movement from one well-defined religion to another, or in our era from no religion to a particular religion, evacuates the word of most of its meaning. No, I'm wearing to something like Lonergan's notion of conversion, which is to say of salutary breakthroughs in a person's subjectivity. Among such breakthroughs is indeed that which he calls "religious," by which he means a movement towards profound being-in-love, although we might better call this a Being-in-love: that is to say, through such conversion one's being becomes progressively one committed to loving others, where "others" ideally is not limited to other human beings but also animals, plants, etc.: indeed, all creation. This might or might not coincide with conversion to a new religion, although frankly given that conversion to love is properly in most cases a life-long journey it will properly be the case that it will not coincide with conversion to a new religion.
Let me suggest that what we get primarily in Paul are glimpses into the mind of a man undergoing such conversion. We know from his own words that Paul was not always a loving man. Then something happened to him. He changed. The Acts presents this change as the result of a vision of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and there is really no reason to think that Paul neither had such a vision nor that it did not have a profound effect upon him. That might very well be the moment that in retrospect he viewed as the beginning of his journey towards becoming what a Being-in-love. As he traveled this journey he inevitably and progressively subjected his earlier commitments to critique and found them lacking. The criterion of the critique was love, against which there is no law.
Now, do not let me be misunderstood: I do not think that Paul thought that the Law was antithetical to love. I think rather that he came to believe that interpretation of the Law must be subordinated to the experience of loving and being loved, and that through this in fact we come to discover the truest meaning of the Law. The Church has continued this Pauline work for two millennia, sometimes better than others. What this means is that new experiences of loving and being loved will continue to determine our readings of Torah, and not just of Torah, but also of the Old Testament, of the New Testament, of the Fathers, the medievals, the Reformers, the moderns, etc. And not just how we read texts but also how we interact with others in general. We will progressively submit more and more of the world to the rule of love, which in Christian theology means submitting more and more of the world to the rule of Christ.
And after two millennia the world has reached the place in its pilgrim journey that it is submitting the matter of same-sex attraction to the rule of love, and the Church is slowly, reluctantly, doing likewise. The experience of Being-in-love has led us to confront our often less-than-loving attitudes towards homosexual persons, and this has brought us to the point that we understand Paul and other passages deemed relevant to the matter somewhat differently. As we become less hostile to homosexual persons we become less confident that the scripture warrants our hostility. Put in Christian terms, God is softening our hearts of stone. We are learning that to think as Paul thought means not simply or even primarily or even at all to affirm the sum total of his propositions but rather more fundamentally to understand the logic by which he came to advance those propositions. And as we do so we begin to suspect that maybe, just maybe, St. Paul might be looking down upon our increasing collective love towards homosexual persons with joy and gladness.