Church, (Sex), Family and Tradition

This is an interlude in the series of blog posts on Ecclesiology and human sexuality begun here.

Peter J Leithart recent essay at First Things Sex and Tradition, illustrates my frustration with much conservative thought on sex, sexuality and the family:  it clings tenaciously to Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics to critique modern and contemporary metaphysics and does so in defense of monogamy and family.  My difficulty has several facets.  First before St Thomas Aquinas achieved his synthesis of Aristotle and the Tradition of the Church, Aristotle wasn’t seen as an obvious friend of the Tradition.  Second there is the assumption that merely because there are current philosophies and understandings of science that challenge the Tradition, there is no possibility of dialog or analogous Thomistic synthesis between the Tradition and current knowledge and theory.  Third, is that there is the consistent failure to reflect on that in the Church’s history celibacy/virginity was the preferred state and not marriage and biological family.

The Church didn’t reject marriage, family, and sex, but in my reading of the Tradition it doesn’t seem to be as enamored of marriage and family as Modern and contemporary conservative expressions of the tradition are.

In regard to the church and its tradition. Leithart’s conclusion that family is the space that Tradition happens is an odd claim if one looks at the history of the Church.  First, if we take up Irenaeus of Lyon, the place of tradition is the gathered people of God around a bishop,  family isn’t in view at all.  While people with families are certainly participants in this process of passing on the Tradition but it is the Bishop that is the locus of tradition.  Also, the monastic tradition of the church has been transmitted for centuries by celibates, without the aid of family or procreation.  Generally it was familial relations that have often threatened the transmission of the tradition when dioceses and monastic foundations became part of familial inheritance.  If we look at the history of the church monogamous marriage and the biological family wasn’t seen as the locus or seen as necessary for the transmission of the Tradition of the Church and its faith.

This isn’t meant to deny that family can be a place of receiving from the past and even of receiving the faith and the Tradition of the Church.  I’m deeply grateful for my family and its long history of faith, and many of my friends have also so received the Tradition as passed through their family.  However, I would argue that my family was able to pass on the faith to me because it didn’t consider itself to be the locus of tradition and the faith, but rather regarded the people of God, the Church, as that space where I could receive the faith.  My family gave up its primacy in my life and brought me to the gathered people of God, the Church and its sacraments.  At a month old, I was Baptized and joined with people to whom I wasn’t related, and even those to whom I was related in the gathered people of God I first knew them as members of the church and only later in life realized that they were also my second and third cousins.  First, and foremost we were in Christ, members of the household of God, secondarily we were biological family.  For the church, it isn’t biological and familial inheritance that is the locus of the tradition, rather family can become a means for passing on the faith when it brings itself and its children to the people of God as the locus of belonging and reception of the Tradition not based on familial ties and biological descent and inheritance but new birth, which is from God and not human will.

One doesn’t need to have children within a monogamous marriage to understand or have tradition, and certainly the Tradition of the Church is not localized in the biological family unit.  When the biological family dies to itself and makes its union with Christ its primary identity then family is taken up into Christ and can join in being the locus of the transmission of the faith, but it is so because it relativizes biological birth by the spiritual birth of Baptism.  The people of God, created by God’s will and not procreation, is the only locus of the Tradition of the Church.

This study on sexuality and gender through the lense of ecclesiology and the Trinity continues with two posts on Paul’s analogy of the household of God in Epesians one: first post an interpretive riff, second post focusing on the peculiarity of the theme.