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Public Theology: Church and Sex: Homosexuality, Gays, and the Queer Community
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Church and Sex: Homosexuality, Gays, and the Queer Community
Richard John Neuhaus writes about scandals in the Catholic Church.

By Ed Knudson

I have hesitated to say much about the priestly sex scandals because there is so very much to say. To say too little is to risk too much misunderstanding. Now, however, I see that Richard John Neuhaus has said quite a lot about it in the June/July 2002 issue of First Things, the journal he edits.

Neuhaus can be irritating because he uses so many words to say what he wants to say (like most of us, I suppose), but his is the only treatment of this subject I have seen which addresses many of the key issues involved. He says some bishops should resign, that it's not just a matter of pedophilia but homosexuality, that gay life styles now predominate in some seminaries and religious orders, that the church has adopted therapeutic constructs and methods to address the issue rather than focus on the main problem which is "fidelity", that the faithful of the church are beginning to rally behind it (worship attendance and giving have increased).

Neuhaus distinquishes between homosexuality and being "gay." A homosexual is a person with same-sex desires while "gay" refers to a person "whose self-identity is determined by such desires." A homosexual can be a faithful, celebate priest. A gay person cannot. I agree with this to the degree that "gay" values and life styles should not be allowed to dominate the life of the church to the exclusion of others, just as no particular sub-cultural grouping should become exclusive.

But my experience is that there is a third category of homosexual expression, persons of same-sex orientation who desire stable and enduring personal relationships but do not gain their primary identity from this orientation. To discuss this third category I think we should define some terms a little more carefully.

For what Neuhaus calls "gay" I think we should use "queer" which is the self-definition of those who, indeed, want to determine their fundamental identity from their homosexuality. The term "gay" can then be used for the third category of homosexual persons, those who have no interest in defining themselves narrowly or exclusively in terms of the queer community, but do want to enjoy satisfaction of sexual desire in the context of enduring relationships and who also are called to offer their lives in faithful service to the church, as so many have over the centuries. Most of the homosexual persons I know who use the word "gay" for themselves think of themselves in this way. Indeed, they want to participate in the church not as an exclusive queer community but as the church universal.

Celibacy in the Catholic Church precludes satisfaction of sexual desire for homosexuals or heterosexuals, so even gay persons can not consider ordained service in that church. But church bodies which allow clergy to marry should consider this third category of homosexual expression, that which we are calling "gay."

My church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, allows homosexual persons to become pastors, but does not allow them to enter into satisfying personal/sexual relations as is the case with heterosexual pastors. This is inconsistent. It has to do with marriage definitions, of course, morally and legally. And currently there is such contestation concerning these matters that I do not believe deliberative processes leading to formal guidelines and policies is the best way to address the issue. It should be addressed through the pastoral practice of bishops and courageous acts in local congregations which will provide a realm of positive experience upon which then, at an appropriate time, the church can build more formal policy.

But one thing needs to be recognized, and Neuhaus does not mention it. He does say that homosexuality is the fundamental issue in the current priestly sexual abuse cases. But he does not address issues of justice for homosexuals within society; he presents no realistic understanding of what it means to be a homosexual person. Homosexual persons have long been denied any legitimate sexual expression. Illicit relations between men and boys has been one result of this denial. To the degree that the church participates in its surrounding culture, social practices in the culture will re-occur within the church, thus the scandals. So to address the issue the church must also be concerned about the issue of homosexuality within the larger society.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the church should accept some responsibility for the crazy way the society now views sex. Sexual satisfaction has become the means of salvation for human beings in western society. Cultural media make incredible promises about the efficacy of sexual expression; sex provides all that is good and true and beautiful. On these promises the biological functioning of sex cannot deliver, of course.

But where did modern society get such a glorified but unrealistic view of sex? Well, partly from the church. Augustine, the early theologian who defined so much of what the medieval church came to believe, associated original sin with the sex act. After the Reformation in the 16th century the Catholic Church instituted regular confession as a means of consolidating its power over the faithful. So people weekly had to go and confess their sins to the priest. If sin is defined primarily as sex then what do you suppose the people confessed? What did the priests have to listen to again and again? Stories of sexual expression and fantasy, of course. The church systematically taught the people how to talk about sex as a central aspect of their lives.

Then years later Freud puts people on the couch, tells them to tell him their deepest secrets, and what do you suppose they talk about? Sex!! So the educated of the modern world begin to believe what Freud taught, that sex is the most fundamental psychic experience for human beings; it's a kind of scientific fact. Those coming after Freud begin to believe that it is through sexual expression that one finds one's true and authentic self and this becomes a central feature of all cultural media. Homosexual persons begin to believe this too; they learned it from the larger culture.

What the church needs to make clear to both heterosexual and homosexual persons is that there have been altogether too many false promises made about sex. In that sense I agree with Neuhaus when he says a big part of the problem has been "The Triumph of the Therapeutic." And I agree that the church should primarily use its own theological resources to address the issue. But I disagree with his seeming rejection of all social/psychological resources for understanding sexuality and especially his characterization of gayness as unhealthy or not "manly."

It may be helpful to remember that the very concept of "sexuality" is a modern idea. That is, the idea of sex as an abstraction referring to a realm of physical activity open to scientific study is a product of medical practice in the modern era. And so, also, the idea of homosexuality as a state of being is also modern. Earlier periods of history understood only sexual acts. People were people, some did it with the opposite sex, some did it with the same sex, some did it with sometimes one and sometimes the other. There was no general concept of "homosexual". For a full treatment of all this see Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. Foucault himself was of homosexual orientation and died of Aids in 1984. His work can be a helpful corrective to overly romanticized notions of "finding one's true sexuality" according to false promises made in modern cultural media.

Foucault wrote several books which were histories of specific institutions such as the clinic, prisons, mental hospitals, as well as sexuality. He shows how professional disciplines based on "knowledge" developed into very powerful segments of modern society. In the middle ages the local priest was a very powerful person. In modern times the most powerful persons are not the priests but legal, media, and social professionals.

I could not help think about this as I watched on C-Span the June meeting of the Catholic Bishops in Dallas. The bishops spoke about how wrenching it was to hear the stories of the abuse victims who spoke of events that happened over twenty years earlier. It is difficult to hear about what adults sometimes do to children and young people; the violation involved, the misuse of power and authority, the terrible confusion it creates in the mind of the person abused.

But I also thought about all the professionals involved who have developed a real stake in the whole matter of abuse. Since sex is so important in this society we have created more and more law surrounding it, more and more professionals to focus on it. I began to wonder about the culture we have created around abuse. To what degree were professionals involved in arranging for these victims to come forward now? Was it the publicity, how important was money as a motivating factor, what role was played by the adversarial legal system, to what degree were victims coached? And, fundamentally, is it good for them to have done this. Is this how healing occurs? Is this how to stop abusers? I am beginning to wonder how much abuse is being done by the self-righteous campaign to eradicate abuse. It is on behalf of those who have been abused that I raise these questions.

I began to think that perhaps the professional that survivers of abuse most need is not a lawyer, or a social worker, or a therapist; such a person needs, well, a priest, one who knows about the reality of evil in the world, one who knows the source of redemption and foregiveness, not an easy forgiveness, not a forgiveness which hides the sin, but a forgiveness without which life is not finally possible for any of us.

This is not in any way to justify what has too often happened in the church (and not just the Catholic Church), a covering up of the sin to protect the sinner. The church can learn from other professionals. But current scandals should also lead us to think a bit more broadly about the role of sex in society. Just going after priests is not the solution, of course. In fact, the Catholic Church and most other church bodies have within the last couple decades adjusted their policies and procedures to address clergy sexual abuse in a much more direct manner.

A broader policy question can be asked as follows. There are a certain number of people who want to do exactly that which society deems to be the most grievous wrong. If we make sex with children the most grievous wrong and treat it publically in this manner will it not be true that sex with children will increase? The more such sexual content people experience in the cultural media the more such behaviors are made known to greater numbers of people. In other words, on all these matters there is a cultural learning process that occurs that then itself influences the behaviors of people. What we do not get much of on our television programs is positive images of responsible gay sexual experience. At any rate, I am wondering about all this.

The church in our time does have an opportunity to develop new understandings and practices of appropriate and healthy sexual relationships; it has that opportunity because of the gay persons who strongly desire to be part of the church. The Catholic Church cannot be the institutional context for this, at least among its clergy, since it promotes celibacy. But I hope other expressions of the church will see and respond to that opportunity.

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Date Added: 6/30/2002 Date Revised: 7/2/2002

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