Friday, July 07, 2017

Sister Vassa on Homosexuality

Sister Vassa Larin recently sparked a controversy by posting her advice to a mother who has a 14 year old son who "came out" as a homosexual. She has been a popular figure in the English speaking Orthodox world, and is a highly regarded liturgical scholar. She is a very bright and articulate person, and has often been invited to speak at Church conferences around the world --  and in fact was the featured speaker at a youth event in my own diocese, and my parish spent the money to send some of our children to that event, one of my own daughters included. So it is with genuine sorrow and great disappointment that I must take issue with her publicly, because she has publicly endorsed views that are in serious error, at a time when pro-homosexual propaganda is inundating our children from virtually every direction in society. Our children should be able to count on those within the Church to encourage them in the Faith once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3)... and to not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2).

In the course of the discussions that followed the original post, I came across a sincere Orthodox Christian who has struggled with homosexuality, recognizes that homosexual sex is incompatible with the Christian life, and is striving to live a life in accordance with the Gospel -- and he interpreted much of the criticism of Sister Vassa's post as a failure to appreciate the difficulty of his struggle -- though he recognized that her post was problematic. Let me just say up front to him, and to anyone else who is sincerely struggling against this sin that the problem is not with them and their struggle, nor would I minimize their struggle. I would, however, suggest that while heterosexuals have different struggles, it is not as if we cannot relate and appreciate their plight. We all have crosses to bear. My wife's godmother grew up in the Soviet Union, faced near starvation, was separated from her husband who had been drafted into the Soviet Army, and had to flee for safety when the Nazis invaded with three small children, ending up in a displaced persons camp at the end of the war. She then had to come to a foreign land, and start from scratch. She never saw her husband again, and never knew whether he was alive or dead. On top of all of that, her son was killed during the Vietnam war. Despite all of these hardships, she lived a pious celibate life and was an inspiration to all who knew her. Being a Christian is usually difficult, and it is difficult for different people in different ways, but that it is difficult is something we all share.. and if we don't, it's because we aren't trying very hard. So God bless you in your struggles, and know that we all love and support you.

Now, to the specifics of Sister Vassa's post:

Sister Vassa began by trying to inoculate the rest of her answer with a disclaimer:
"Dear N., Thanks for writing. I can't reply to your question officially, but will reply to it personally. Because my personal opinion is not in line with some official pronouncements of my Church. So please just accept it as my personal opinion, no more and no less than that."
I'm not sure how she could give an "official" response, but presumably she means that this answer is sort of off the record... except that she posted it on Facebook for all the world to see, and it has since gone viral, and has been shared on pro-homosexual "Orthodox" groups. She has taken it down, but the horses are already out of the barn, at this point. She has not (at least as of yet) posted a retraction.

She acknowledges up front that she is disagreeing with the Church, but confines that disagreement to "some official pronouncements". The problem is these pronouncements include the Scriptures and canons of the Church which are clear and unambiguous on this subject.

Following some other introductory comments, she then, after giving quick lip-service to the idea that an active homosexual lifestyle was sinful, proceeded to undermine that belief by minimizing the seriousness of the sin:
"But here’s the thing about homosexuality. And please read this to the end, if you could. I must say, and cannot say otherwise, that actively living it out is a sin. It’s a no-no. But so are many other things, which we tolerate in ourselves as “only human.” Like, our consistent disregard for God’s word, which is worse than the sins of “Sodom and Gomorrah,“ as our Lord points out in Matthew 10: 14: “…And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable (ἀνεκτότερον) on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” (Mt 10: 14-15) [Emphasis added]"
It is simply twisting this text of the Gospels to attempt to equate someone who maybe doesn't read their Bible as often as they should with rejecting the Gospel, which is what Christ is talking about in that passage. I don't take the sin of ignoring Scripture reading lightly, mind you. I generally ask three questions when hearing someone's confession (aside from questions raised by the specifics of their confession), unless they bring these subjects up first:
1). How's your prayer life?
2). Are you reading the Scriptures regularly?
3). Do you forgive those who have offended you?
But not reading the Scriptures regularly is not the same as rejecting the Gospel. Both are sins, but there are degrees of sin. There is, for example, a big difference between having an unkind thought and engaging in mass murder. It would be insane to say that there was no difference between those two sins. Unkind thoughts can lead to the act of murder, and so should not be ignored, but they are not the same. And the canons of the Church show this clearly. There is no canon that suggests a lengthy penance for having an unkind thought. The penances for murder, however, are lengthy -- some suggest excommunication until the person is on their deathbed, other, more lenient canons call for 20 years.

There is no canon that calls for a period of excommunication for failure to read the Scriptures. The stricter canons against homosexual sex call for a 15 year penance, while St. John the Faster allowed for it to be lessened to 3 years, if the person was truly penitent and took their penance seriously. Both sins are sins; however, the sin of sodomy is far more serious. The sin of rejecting the Gospel is even more serious, because there can be no possibility of restoration for someone who has chosen to cut themselves off entirely from the source of healing, but that does not make the sin of sodomy a light matter.

Not a single Church Father could be cited to support the idea that Christ's point in this passage was to suggest that the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah weren't so bad after all. His point was to cite one of the most wicked examples found in all of Scripture, and to say that rejecting the Gospel is even worse than that.

Then Sister Vassa minimizes the sin even further by suggesting that the sin is really beyond the level of choice (which if true, would mean that it was not really a sin at all, in any usual sense of the term):
And here’s the other thing about homosexuality. We do know today, according to reliable scientific studies, that this sexual orientation is formed in most (not all) cases, by the early age of 3-4. Importantly, it is before the “age of reason,” which is traditionally considered the age of 7, so it is not a “choice.” You mention that you knew this about your son well before he came out to you now, at the age of 14. I have heard this from several mothers of homosexual children, including one wife of an Orthodox priest, that they “knew” it from their child’s early childhood.
There is actually little in the way of hard evidence that homosexuality is somehow innate (see for example: "Born gay or transgender: Little evidence to support innate trait"). Furthermore, while there are "scientific studies" that argue for homosexuality being rooted in genetics or other innate factors, they come in a highly politicized context, in which the pressure to produce certain results in this area is very great (just consider the firestorm a University of Texas Study received which shows that children of gay couples have more problems on average than those raised by both a mother and a father). And if you don't think political pressure can influence academic research, I suggest you read up on how Nazi politics influenced some of the most respected academic institutions in the world, and resulted in the kind of pseudo-scholarship produced by the Ahnenerbe to promote Hitler's theories of racial superiority. Academicians are human, and they are often motivated by a desire to be noticed and recognized, to make a good living at their work, and to be advanced. Unfortunately, the desire to find and present the truth for its own sake is all too often subordinated to those more selfish motivations. And so a healthy amount of skepticism is also in order here on issues that are currently driven by political agendas.

We do not accept the idea that we are slaves to our genetics, or to the environmental factors of our upbringing, and so effectively have no free will or ability to make moral choices. Such a view is contrary to the Orthodox understanding of what it means to be a human being. We reject determinism, in all of its forms. However, even if, for the sake of argument, we granted that there was some genetic predisposition to homosexuality, this would still not justify the conclusions that Sister Vassa suggests. There actually is a proven genetic predisposition for alcoholism, but this does not make being a drunk acceptable, nor does it remove choice from the equation. If you get pulled over for driving drunk, saying "I was born this way" is not likely to get you off the hook. It is certainly a lot harder for some people to not abuse alcohol than others, but we know that they have a choice, and in fact all of our laws assume that people who are not legally insane or mentally incompetent are responsible before the law for the choices that they make, no matter how disadvantaged they may or may not be.

The Church does teach that we are all born with an inclination to sin. And yet we are taught that we are to overcome that inclination, by God's grace.

What do you mean "we", Paleface!?
"Hence we come to the question of “culpability” for this state of affairs, in one’s gift-and-cross of (homo)sexuality. We can and do separate the question of “culpability” for the sin, and the sin itself, - so let me point out that God must also. In most cases, homosexuality is not one’s own choice. So, “crossing the line” in this area, and not committing to total celibacy, as one “must” do according to traditional, scriptural law, is “more tolerable” in God’s eyes (as Christ says in the above-quoted passage), than our other kinds of trespasses. Among our “other” trespasses let me mention heterosexual adultery, masturbation, premarital sex, and just “looking lustfully at a woman” (Mt 5: 28), - all “sins,” although we tend to “live and let live” with them, as they are only human. But we have a double standard when it comes to homosexual “sins,” for the plain reason, I think, that most of us feel free-and-clean of this particular thing."
I do not wish to be included in the "we" that Sister Vassa invokes here, and I suspect few Orthodox clergy would either. If someone confesses that they have engaged in heterosexual adultery or premarital sex, and they are not talking about a sin in the distant past, or before baptism, I treat them as very serious sins, that would call for some kind of a penance. The penance would would depend on a lot of other factors, but there would certainly be one.

The Lone Ranger, Tonto, and the presumptuous "we".

And again we have the problem of equating things that are not comparable. Generally speaking, sins that involve other people are more serious than sins that a person commits alone. Also, sins against nature are more serious than sins that are not against nature. And so if you take the sin of masturbation -- this is a sin one commits alone, and so, while still a sin that cannot be excused or ignored, it is not as serious as having sex with another person that you are not married to. Looking on another person to lust is, as Christ said in the Gospels, committing adultery in the heart. However, neither Christ Himself, nor the Church since, ever suggested that there is no difference between committing adultery in the heart, and committing adultery in deed.

Imagine for example two scenarios. In one case, you have a man who looks on his neighbor's wife with lust, and then later repents and goes to confession. At the same vigil service there is another man who actually had an affair with his neighbor's wife, which resulted in two broken homes, great harm to their children, and countless extended relationships being broken. Would it make any sense for the priest to treat these two cases as if there were no difference between them? Of course not. This does not mean it is OK for a man to look on women to lust, or that such a sin should be ignored -- adultery in deed always begins with adultery in the heart. But it is obviously better for a man to be struggling against the sin of adultery in the heart before it gets to adultery in deed, then it is for him to say "what difference does it make?" and fall into the act of adultery with another person.

If we take the teachings of Scripture seriously here, we also have to acknowledge that homosexuality is a sin against nature (παρὰ φύσιν), and so for that reason is worse in some respects than sins that are in many other respects, similar, but which are not contrary to nature (for example, heterosexual sex outside of marriage). First off, this is clearly what St. Paul says about it in Romans 1:26-27, and St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on this passage, elaborates on it further (see his 4th Homily on Romans). Now, in our time, when we say that homosexuality is against nature, those who argue that it is an innate and immutable characteristic for some people, object and say that it must be natural, since it happens naturally. One need only study human anatomy to see that the anus was not designed with the penis in mind. Furthermore, one need only study the serious health and psychological problems, the propensity for drug and alcohol abuse, and  the domestic violence that all go along with living an active homosexual lifestyle, to see that this is in fact contrary to the natural order (see: "Immoralism, Homosexual Unhealth, and Scripture," by Robert Gagnon). Cancer occurs in nature too, but cancer is not something that makes for healthy human living.

Heterosexual sex outside of marriage is still a sin, and as such, will (if not repented of) exclude one from the Kingdom of God too, but life can come from such immoral relationships. Also, such a couple can repent, get married, and their relationship can develop into something that God can restore and even bless. A homosexual relationship can only damage both parties, and cannot be restored into something good (at least not as a homosexual relationship), because it is against God's created order.

When we say that sins against nature are, as a rule, worse than sins that are not against nature, this does not mean that those who commit these sins are to be despised more, it means they are to be more pitied, because the consequences of such sins are greater because of this fact. It is not loving to enable or encourage an alcoholic to kill himself with alcohol, and it is not loving to enable or encourage a person struggling with homosexuality to live a lifestyle that is destructive in so many respects -- and most importantly, a lifestyle that St. Paul assures us will prevent them from inheriting the kingdom of God, unless they sincerely repent and turn away from that sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) nevetherless requires that we actually speak the truth.

Pastoral Discretion and Non-negotiable Principles of the Faith

Sister Vassa gets into the practical implications of what she is saying:
So what am I saying practically, about what you should do when your son “wants to date”? I think you won’t be able to change the fact that he will “date,” unless he wants to commit himself to celibacy. But I am going to go ahead and presume he doesn’t want to, and isn’t going to, do that, since he’s “come out” to you, and I don’t think you can change that in him, at age 14. So I would say, let him “date” in the daylight, with your knowledge, so he’s not chased into some kind of underground, of illicit hook-ups in certain kinds of pubs or bars. You aren’t “encouraging” him by saying, bring the guy here. Just like other parents, of heterosexual children, say, bring that girl (even the one of whom we disapprove) home, so we can meet her, aren’t saying, go ahead and do whatever you want. But what you are doing is bringing your child’s relationship into the daylight of your home, where your love, values, and mutual commitment, as family, can lend stability and light to your child’s behaviour in his/her relationships. You know, the whole gay-culture of previous decades led many homosexuals (as I know from a dear Roman-Catholic gay friend aged 60 at this point) to get into irresponsible sexual encounters, inspired by the whole aura of illicitness, in hook-ups in public bathrooms and that sort of thing.
If a mother with a 14 year old boy had written, asking for advice, and her son had informed her that he was a heterosexual, and was intent on having sex with his girlfriend, the proper response for a Christian parent would not be to provide them with a room and a condom. A responsible Christian parent teaches their children that they are not to have sex outside of marriage, and particularly when they are 14, they would generally tell them that they are too young to be dating anyway.

One can debate how best to handle a penitent sinner. The canons often lay out very strict penances, however, in our time we drastically reduce the severity of the penances, and  under some circumstances, we might not impose a penance at all... all depending on the circumstances, and the individual. You could argue that one priest or bishop is too lenient on such things, or that others are too strict. All good shepherds of Christ's flock are motivated by a common desire to see their people grow closer to Christ and to be saved. Practical applications of Church discipline are questions of wisdom, and spiritual insight. What is not open to debate, however, are matters of principle. A person who is engaged in a sin (any sin) and who refuses to repent of that sin cannot be given absolution by the Church, because sincere repentance is a necessary ingredient for absolution to be given. I have had people, who, when I ask if they have forgiven those who have offended them, will respond "No." I then explain why we need to forgive, and what that means and does not mean. However, if all of my efforts to get them to choose to forgive those who have offended fail, I cannot give them absolution. It is just not possible, and that is not a question that reasonable priests might disagree on. The same thing is also true of a heterosexual who is actively engaging in fornication with his girlfriend, and it is true of a person who is engaging in homosexual sex.

As far as your other practical question goes, of finding a faith-community for your son, I think he has two choices: 1. He can “suck it up” in your present community, like the woman wearing a scarlet letter. It’s not the worst thing in the world, because I can tell you from personal experience that it is liberating in many ways, to be the odd man out and OK with that, even if (and this might shock you) you are denied Holy Communion. (I am not homosexual, but I have been “the odd man out” in other ways). Your son’s humble presence in your parish could benefit both him and others, in unexpected ways. Just like the story of Mary of Egypt has been beneficial to all of us, even though she had no Holy Communion for over 40 years. 
St. Mary of Egypt did not have Communion for 40 years because she was living a life of repentance, which is not quite the same thing as being excommunicated because you are living an active homosexual lifestyle without any intention of repenting of that.

An Orthodox Christian Biblical Scholar commented on Sister Vassa's post, and asked why it would be better for a 14 year old to abstain from communion and to continue having homosexual sex, rather than for him to abstain from having sex and continuing to receive communion. Sister Vassa responded, "Have you ever met a 14 year old boy?" The woman she was responding to is a mother and a grandmother, and she pointed out that she was once 14 years old too. When did it become acceptable to assume that a 14 year old boy cannot control himself, and must have sex (either heterosexual or homosexual)?

Also, even heterosexual couples can be separated for lengthy periods of time. A husband might go to war, and be gone for many years. Should we just accept that he cannot control himself, and will have sex with whoever happens to be available? The Christian answer to that question would be "no."
The other choice is 2. Find a parish that is acceptive of your son’s particular gift-and-cross. There are parishes like that, here and there, but I don’t know where you live and whether you have one nearby. 
Encouraging someone to go to a parish that will ignore their sin, and commune them anyway is a shocking piece of advice from an Orthodox nun. There is absolutely no justification for taking such a position. You could not find a single example in the lives of the saints of such a thing, nor could you find anything in Scripture or the writings of the Holy Fathers that would support it.

St. Paul in fact warns against this very thing:
"For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth..." (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
And in case anyone thinks St. Paul does not consider homosexuality to be contrary to sound doctrine, they need only look at his First Epistle to St. Timothy to see that the opposite is true:
"knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites [i.e. homosexuals, Greek "αρσενοκοιταις"], for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust" (1 Timothy 1:9-11).
Then Sister Vassa concludes:
Frankly I find the first option the better one, as shocking and insensitive as that may sound. But here’s what I would NOT suggest: to leave the Church. Our church is our family, and as a family, we are called to learn from one another, to love one another, and, as a result, to suffer to a certain degree, from one another, that we may grow. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I don’t believe in jumping ship when it comes to church-belonging. I think we don’t grow that way, I mean by jumping ship, but rather stunt or (best-case scenario) delay our growth. Please forgive me if this wasn’t helpful, but it’s all I’ve got. Love to you and your family from all of us in Vienna, SV
It is good that she encourages the mother to try to keep her son in Church, and even if a person is struggling without much success against their sins, the Church is the best place for them to be, because it is the place where they should be best able encounter God's grace, truth, and love. However, going to a parish that actively suppresses the truth, is another story entirely (Romans 1:18-32). Going to Church can help if the person hears the truth there, and God opens their heart to receive it. That is why we have to ensure that it is actualy the Truth that they hear in Church, and not the lies of this world.


Unfortunately, if there was any hope that Sister Vassa might back off from her comments, or clarify them in a more Orthodox way, she has dispelled them by doubling down on them, and doing so in a way that it would be charitable to call strident. There is no acknowledgment that she should perhaps have suggested that the mother in question encourage her son to refrain from sodomy. There is no awareness that being a childless nun who teaches Roman Catholic seminarians in Vienna has perhaps not made her an expert on child-rearing. Only the assurance from her zillions of fans that she is right.


In the course of the discussion that has followed, she said (on her personal Facebook page) in response to a deacon:
"I never said, in that post or in any other one, that I "often" disagree with the church. Please don't change my words. What I said, in black and white, was that I do not agree with some of the "proclamations" of my Church, today. If you read attentively, you will find that there are important nuances here, which point to the fact that I do not, actually, state that I am in disagreement with The Church. In fact I do not think that the dust has settled on what "The Church" actually thinks on this topic, in our today. But in the Orthodox Church we don't have the unified voice to discern and state what we think, because of our crippled state of (dis)unity. But regarding what I said in my little post, unfortunately most readers today do not read anything attentively, looking only for soundbites and lacking the patience to read deeply and prayerfully. That's all I've got to say, in addition to what I've already tried to say, in part unsuccessfully, on the matter."
So the Church may yet, in her opinion, take a very different view of homosexuality.

Another problematic aspect with regard to what is going on here is the fact that those who have disagreed with her have often been blocked and their comments deleted, while pro-homosexual activists have been free to promote their views and attack those who hold to the teachings of the Church. Here pro-homosexual fans seem to think they know where she is heading, and she is doing nothing to dispel that belief.

And with regard to Pope Francis being "the real deal," I think the folks at Lutheran Satire have him pegged pretty well:

Also, one homosexual activist on Sister Vassa's Facebook group took issue with my referencing the propensity of homosexual's to commit suicide, and suggested that this is because of religious people like me. The problem is that this is not borne out by the facts. Denmark is one of the most secular countries in the world, and yet studies there show that homosexuals in domestic partnerships in Denmark are 3-4 times more likely to die by suicide then those in heterosexual relationships:

Only 3% of Danes attend church at least once a week:

And homosexuality is widely accepted in Denmark:

For more information:

A 14 Year Old Boy (a Sermon on this subject)

What Sister Vassa Should Have Said (Replying to Sr. Vassa’s Mail), by Fr. Lawrence Farley

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth

Stump the Priest: Shrimp and Homosexuality

Robert Gagnon: The Bible and Homosexual Practice (7 Video Lectures)

Same-Sex Marriage: Separation of Church-State Issue, or a Moral Problem We Must Oppose? (a Live discussion on Ancient Faith Radio)

Statement on the Comments of Fr. Robert Arida on Homosexuality, by the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston and Southeast Texas

Sexuality and Gender: Finding from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences

Robert Gagnon had an informative debate with a Lesbian Anglican on Homosexuality which you can watch below (if you only listen to 15 minutes, go to the 49:00 mark):