But the Bible says .
A Catholic reading of Romans 1
by James Alison
A talk prepared for Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women, Baltimore, and given
there on 12 January 2004.
This evening’s talk has a very odd title. One of the reasons it is odd is that few Catholics are likely
to interrupt a theological discussion with the phrase: ‘But the Bible says .
.. ‘ And this is not so
much the result of the famed stereotype concerning Catholic ignorance of the Scriptures but
because in a Catholic discussion, it is unlikely that an appeal to authority would take the form of
an appeal to the Bible. It is more probable that an appeal to authority would take the form ‘But
the Holy Father says .
.. ‘ or ‘But it’s in the Catechism’. So why bother people by attempting a
Catholic reading of Romans 1?
What has pushed me in the direction of offering this reading is really two things: in the first place,
I was brought up Evangelical Protestant, and this text, Romans 1, was really a text of terror for
me, a text in some way associated with a deep emotional and spiritual annihilation, something
inflicting paralysis. So, finding myself ever freer of that terror, it seems proper to try and offer a
road map to others who, whatever their ecclesial belonging, may suffer from the same binding of
conscience that a certain received reading of this text has seemed to impose. But there is a second
reason, no less important to my mind: owing to arguments surrounding Episcopal appointments in
the Anglican Church on both sides of the Atlantic, a huge amount of press has been generated in
which it has been repeated
that ‘The Bible is quite clear .
.. ‘ about this or that.
Furthermore we are told time and again that those who think either that gay people should be
allowed to marry, or that being gay should be no bar to Episcopal consecration, are in some way
repudiating an obvious written sacred injunction. The impression that ‘the Bible is quite clear’ has
passed largely unchallenged in the media, which has found it easiest to present the argument as
being between conservative people who take the Bible seriously (and are thus against gay people)
and liberal people who don’t (and thus aren’t against gay people).
Well, what is being treated to public travesty here is the Bible. Indeed it seems to me that if
anything, the truth is closer to being exactly the other way round: you need a very modern liberal
reading of the Bible in order to make it a weapon against gay people, and those who refuse to do
this are, by and large, much more traditional in their Biblical reading habits. But this sounds so
counterintuitive in our world that I’d like to take time to show that there is at least one perfectly
respectable Catholic way to read this text which enables us to see it in quite a different light.
Before actually reading the text I’d like to make two points as a build-up. If any of us is faced