In the English-speaking Orthodox Christian world, there is hardly a man of his generation more deserving of the Western title “Doctor of the Church” than Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, dean emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. In his many lectures, catechetical works, scholarly commentaries on controversial issues relating to sex and gender, and frequent podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio under the title “Speaking the Truth in Love,” Fr. Hopko has demonstrated such broad knowledge of the Orthodox tradition, such keen insight into the subtleties and mysteries of the Orthodox faith, and such carefulness and clarity in expressing what he knows and thinks as to earn universal acceptance as the proto-pedagogue of the English-speaking Orthodox Church.
Yet despite strong traditional stands on key issues related to homosexuality, Hopko now represents the leftward limit of permissible opinion in the Orthodox Church on homosexuality, such that those who openly challenge the Church’s teaching now describe themselves as slightly “left of Hopko.” David Dunn, who openly declares himself a “pro-gay” Orthodox lay theologian, characterizes his own stand on gay marriage as “a quarter-step to the left” of Hopko. Dunn also writes in The Huffington Post that he began his “holy disobedience” against the Church on homosexuality after reading Hopko’s 2006 book Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction. Applauding Dunn in an online comment, Rebecca Matovic, another well-known advocate of change in the Orthodox Church, claimed “there are many, many priests who think about these issues in a loving, pastoral way and increasingly find themselves moving to the ‘left’ of Hopko.”
If Matovic is right, it would seem that Hopko has inadvertently positioned himself less as the gatekeeper of Orthodoxy than as the head usher for heresy. Indeed, both Hopko’s recent public comments on homosexuality and his 2006 book have opened holes in the Church’s defenses through which the Enemy is now shoving battalions of wrong ideas to confuse and confound the Church’s defenders.
This is a shame, as there is much else that Hopko says that the Church’s defenders could use. In Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction, Hopko summarily dismisses attempts to reinterpret Scripture and Tradition to make homosexuality acceptable. He writes that God does not make people homosexual; that people are not therefore naturally homosexual as they are naturally male or female, black or white, etc.; and that same-sex attraction is a result of man’s rebellion against God. He calls homosexual sex a “betrayal” of the love God intends for His people, saying it can never express divine love because it is “incapable” of edifying souls the way heterosexual sex can. He likens acceptance of homosexuality today to the general madness famously prophesied by St. Anthony of the Great. (Saying 25: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”) He declares that “those who publicly affirm and promote homosexual behavior (like those who publicly advocate abortion) cannot be sacramental communicants in the Orthodox Church.” He goes even further to state that those “openly propagating teachings and practices contrary to Orthodoxy” may be excluded not just from communion but “from church gatherings” to prevent harm done to others, especially the young.
Most controversially, Hopko suggests an understanding of homosexuality consistent with sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), citing the work of British research psychologist and theologian Elizabeth Moberly, who theorizes that homosexuality is an attempt to “repair” a lack of childhood affection from persons of the same sex, especially parents. Hopko does not explicitly endorse “reparative therapy,” the SOCE based on Moberly’s theory, but he does explicitly endorse therapy “to deal with same-sex developmental issues that must be resolved for … emotional and spiritual healing.” He also leaves open the possibility of sexual orientation change through therapy, saying in an endnote that Moberly “thinks that I can be more optimistic” about the possibility of change. It is for these reasons that Hopko’s book bears a blurb from American psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, a leading advocate of SOCE, who in 2006 was president of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the organization gay activists most love to hate.
Yet these brave stands on key issues are undermined by other things Hopko says that have the effect of (1) narrowing the category of unacceptable homosexual behavior, (2) discouraging preaching and teaching offensive to homosexuals, and (3) condemning Christian resistance to the gay political agenda. Let’s see how each of these faults appears in Hopko’s book.
1. Narrowing the category of unacceptable homosexual behavior
Hopko helps narrow the category of unacceptable homosexual behavior by the obscurity of his brief “reflections” on the nature of homosexuality. He never quite nails down what he’s talking about, shifting from “same-sex attraction” to “same-sex feelings and desires,” then to “same-sex love” and even same-sex “eros,” referencing C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. Hopko briefly defines the four loves—charity (agape), friendship (philia), affection (storge), and romantic love (eros)—but he never clearly distinguishes them and instead defines eros as a “dynamic and passionate” combination of the other three. Orthodox mystical theologians do sometimes use the language of eros to describe both the love of God for man and the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for each other. Perhaps this accounts for Hopko’s confusion of eros with the other loves. In any event, the more Hopko says about eros, the harder it is to tell whether same-sex eros is good or bad, sinless or sinful:
- On one hand, Hopko says that naturally good passions and desires “become evil only when they are misdirected and misused,” that “in Orthodox tradition, both conditions and actions can be ‘sinful’ without necessarily being ‘culpable,’” and that “involuntary and inculpable sinful desires … including passionate feelings for sexual union with persons of one’s own sex” are a result of sin.
- On the other hand, he says that “attraction between persons of the same sex” can be “godly,” that “same-sex love” can be “pure and godly,” that “having loving desires for people of one’s own sex is not at all sinful,” that even “passionate love between people of the same sex” can be “praiseworthy,” that only “same-sex attraction in its fallen form … includes desires for genital sexual actions,” [emphasis added] and that “same-sex love, when properly experienced and purely expressed, is always God’s sacred gift.” [emphasis added]
It might be said in Hopko’s defense that inasmuch as there is in a particular person’s “same-sex attraction” an element of genuine, unselfish love for someone of the same sex, that love is godly. But such love is not what psychologists mean when they speak of “same-sex attraction,” neither is it what Hopko himself always means when he speaks of “same-sex love,” nor is it what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote of “eros.” For Lewis, eros was a strictly male-female love, defined by “delighted pre-occupation” and intense desire for personal union, such that a husband would look upon his wife as his “other half,” and a wife might say to her husband, “I could just eat you up!” When would such a love be appropriate between two men? Even the iron bond of combat brotherhood does not fit the description of eros or match the infatuation of a young man with a young woman—or of a gay man with another man. A man might “properly experience and purely express” deep and intense charity, friendship, and affection for another man, but not eros, for eros is a strictly sexual love and desire that “become evil” when misdirected toward someone of the same sex.
Hopko, however, writes as if same-sex eros can be sinless and godly. In fact, the only aspect of homosexuality he explicitly condemns in the book is same-sex “genital sexual actions.” This leaves open the possibility that “same-sex love” could be “properly experienced and purely expressed” by kissing, hugging, holding hands, and otherwise living and relating as a married couple. Hopko says nothing about such experiences or expressions. Perhaps this is just an oversight—something he didn’t think to cover—but perhaps the oversight was occasioned by his inadequate definition and application of key concepts. Either way, the oversight lends itself to abuse by gay activists, who, by stressing the condemnation of only genital sex, can effectively normalize all other gay behavior. Think about it: If the only thing condemned were genital sex, gays would be free to live as gay as they please so long as they do not copulate in public or advocate sodomy.
2. Discouraging preaching and teaching offensive to homosexuals
Even Hopko’s condemnation of sodomy is greatly weakened by the limitations he places on what the Church should do about it. His stated principle that those who promote homosexual behavior “cannot be sacramental communicants” appears to mean in practice that such people should be “asked to refrain from the sacraments” but not turned away if they decide not to refrain. He writes:
It may be necessary, however, as we [sic] indicated above, for the person to abstain from participation in the Eucharist when his or her convictions and actions are in conscious and willful contradiction to the Church’s doctrine and discipline. If there is any question about this, the benefit of the doubt belongs to the person being counseled.
Here the emphasis is clearly on the person’s responsibility to decide whether to commune or abstain. The Christian pastor is relegated to an advisory role and authorized to deny communion only as a last resort, when there is no question that a person’s words or deeds are “in conscious and willful contradiction to the Church’s doctrine and discipline.”
Through three chapters on same-sex attraction and “church community,” “pastoral care,” and the “counseling process,” Hopko’s sympathies remain with those struggling with same-sex attraction. He says nothing about how Christian pastors are to care for and counsel others on the issue of homosexuality—nothing about preaching against sodomy, teaching others about homosexuality, advising parents of the importance of bonding with their same-sex children, warning of the danger of being too tolerant of sin, or urging the maintenance of traditional sex roles supporting normal sexual identities. His chief interest is keeping those with same-sex attraction in the Church. He is obviously concerned that they will be turned off by negative statements about homosexuality. He never uses the morally pejorative word sodomy, preferring the morally neutral but no less distasteful phrase “genital sexual actions.” He could have pointed out that no Christian should be offended by the word sodomy, that repentant sinners can’t complain about hearing their sins condemned, and that sinners do need to be reminded from time to time that their sins are actually bad, lest they take them too lightly. Instead, the whole point of his chapter “Same-Sex Attraction and Religion” is the necessity of not judging or offending homosexuals with hard words about homosexuality.
To make this last point, Hopko invokes the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s doctrine that Christianity is not a religion but rather “the fulfillment of all religions in their search for divine truth and human meaning.” Of course, Christianity is a religion by every definition of the word in the dictionary, which Hopko admits when he writes, absurdly, that it is “not a ‘religion’ (except in the conventional everyday use of the word)”—as if the word has an everyday use for laymen and a special theological definition for professors and priests. In fact, Christianity is not a religion only in Schmemann’s peculiar apologetic use of the word, which was intended to distance Orthodoxy from the caricature of “religion” in the minds of Schmemann’s New York neighbors and upper East Coast academic colleagues. According to that caricature, religions are backward, rule-bound, obsessive, and intolerant, focused entirely too much on getting things right in this world instead of on Orthodoxy’s glorious eschatological goal. Hopko encourages this caricature in his book, writing:
Those who consider their Christianity as a religion … inevitably see themselves as somehow superior to others who do not see things as they do. … They do not allow themselves even to consider that they may, in fact, be mistaken about one or another, or even all, of their convictions. As such, they are never in dialogue. They never listen. They never converse. They are never at peace in themselves or with others. They are always in a crusade and a war that they must win at all costs.
In contrast, Hopko writes, Orthodox Christians “if they be truly Christian and Orthodox” are “terrified of being guilty of ‘casting the stone,’” “live in the constant awareness that they may be mistaken in their most heartfelt convictions,” and “resist every temptation to identify themselves as anything other than an assembly of sinners without competence or calling to judge anyone for anything.”
One practical effect of these caricatures of prideful, hateful, judgmental “religion” versus humble, loving, nonjudgmental Orthodoxy is that Orthodox Christians cannot say anything against homosexuality or take any action against homosexuals without assuming the appearance of the first caricature. Another practical effect is that Christians taught to think by such caricatures will of course incline toward tacit acceptance of homosexuality—perversely paired with vocal intolerance of Christian preaching and teaching against homosexuality.
3. Condemning Christian resistance to the gay political agenda
If Hopko teaches acceptance of homosexuality implicitly in his chapters on church community, pastoral care, counseling, and religion, he does so explicitly in his chapter on civil rights, which begins with the following assertions:
“Whether or not men and women with same-sex attractions are struggling to resist engaging in erotic sexual activity, their civil rights, and the rights of the children in their care, must be guaranteed and safeguarded. Homosexual people must have the same access to housing, employment, police protection, legal justice, tax benefits, and visitation privileges at institutions that all members of society possess and enjoy. Those desiring to be joined in ‘civil unions’ or ‘domestic partnerships’ for such purposes should be allowed to do so, with the social and legal benefits that are guaranteed by such arrangements. This is especially important today, when the safety of homosexual people and their children largely depends on legal and social recognition and protection. It is also important because those in same-sex relationships, whether or not they are sexually active, almost always understand a denial of such public recognition and protection as an expression of hatred and contempt toward themselves and their families.”
So the civil rights of all homosexuals must be “guaranteed and safeguarded,” which means the same rights to “housing, employment, police protection, legal justice, tax benefits, and visitation privileges” that everyone else enjoys. It also means “civil unions” with all the “social and legal benefits” of marriage. Hopko, further on, grants that Christians can’t quite consider same-sex unions “marriages,” but he advises against resisting the same-sex use of the word marriage, calling such resistance “unreasonable and counterproductive.”
Hopko names three reasons for extending legal and social recognition and protection to homosexuality—justice, safety, and fear. He writes that (a) “Orthodox Scriptures and saints unanimously witness that justice and charity are to be extended to all human beings, without condition or discrimination”; (b) “the safety of homosexual people and their children largely depends on legal and social recognition and protection”; and (c) the denial of recognition and protection is “almost always” understood “as an expression of hatred and contempt.” Each of these reasons is highly suspect, to say the least.
The first reason is nonsense, as justice and charity for all does not always mean the same treatment for all, and certainly nothing in the Orthodox tradition specifies the same treatment for homosexuals and heterosexuals; quite the contrary, one need look no further than First Corinthians to find the Apostle Paul telling the faithful “not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator … with such an one no not to eat.” (1 Cor. 5:11)
The second reason begs for explanation: Just how is the safety of homosexuals or their children threatened by society’s denial of special recognition and protection for homosexuality? It is not as if this denial makes homosexuals outlaws with no rights at all, whom any man might rob and kill with impunity. If Hopko has some particular threat to safety in mind, he does not mention it. If he is thinking of the “hate crimes” and suicides played up in the pro-gay press from time to time, the case still needs to be made that special “legal and social recognition and protection” for homosexuality, which would inevitably include affirmative action, will diminish such events. We have good reason to expect that they won’t. Most people quite naturally consider homosexuality revolting and resent being forced to pretend otherwise. And even if gay rights laws could achieve their purpose of coercing complete approval of homosexuality, that is hardly a purpose Christians should wish to accomplish.
But the third of Hopko’s reasons for endorsing gay rights—fear—is most surprising. Hopko sounds the alarm about the danger of Christians having to endure hatred and contempt three times in this brief chapter, returning to it again and again to advise against opposing gay rights. He writes that a “Christian’s noblest work is to intercede with the Lord” on behalf of “everyone and everything,” and that we cannot do this “with impunity if we are at the same time denying basic human and civil rights to anyone, especially to those who may hold us and our convictions in greatest contempt and derision.”
This is a very odd argument for a Christian pastor to make. Christians have endured hatred, contempt, and derision for bearing witness against the sins of the world from the beginning, in imitation of our Lord Himself. Countless martyrs were murdered for offending unbelievers by disrespecting their gods, disobeying their laws, and disapproving their way of life. Should those martyrs rather have gone along with immorality so that their worst enemies would have thought better of them? Would they have shown greater love for the world by hiding the truths it hated? Would that have won the Roman Empire over to the cause of Christ even sooner?
Some might scoff and say that civil rights are only about fairness and freedom, but civil rights aren’t always enforced fairly, and special civil rights creating “protected groups” like women, ethnic minorities, and now homosexuals are as much about non-freedom as they are about freedom. Such rights deprive some people of freedom to do some things so as to give other people freedom to do other things. For example, our so-called “equal employment opportunity” laws deprive employers of the opportunity to hire people they want so as to force them to hire people they don’t want. Granted, it is an open question whether an employer’s reasons for not wanting to hire someone are fair or good, but there is no question that laws forcing him to ignore differences between people take away his freedom to run his business the way he wants and thinks best. Even worse, such laws take away his freedom of association, forcing him to work daily with people he would rather not be around. And by taking away his freedom of association, they take away his freedom of speech and expression, because people must of course watch what they say and do in mixed company. And with his freedom of speech and expression goes his freedom of conscience and religion. He can no longer be himself, freely living and sharing his life and faith with his employees, without fear that one of them will bring in the law to make him stop. What’s more, his employees are in the same boat, forced to spend five days a week with people unlike and maybe even hostile to themselves, who might invoke their “civil rights” to silence and punish coworkers for offending them.
Hopko overlooks all such practical realities of civil rights for homosexuals. It never occurs to him that a Christian photographer might be fined for refusing to photograph a gay wedding, or that an online dating service run by Christians might be forced to spend $2 million to make amends for not helping gays find mates. He never mentions any negative consequences of extending legal protection to homosexuality, only negative consequences of not extending it. He fails to acknowledge, and perhaps fails to understand, that one way or another, directly or indirectly, legal protection of homosexuals means forcing people to pay money to support homosexuality, do things to support homosexuality, or keep quiet about homosexuality. He considers the issue only abstractly and sentimentally. He accepts the simple abstraction of “civil rights” for homosexuals as axiomatically good, a matter of manifest fairness needing no analysis, deliberation, testing, or historical review. He doesn’t dare consult two thousand years of Orthodox political experience to ask how “pious kings and right-believing queens” treated homosexuality; instead, he recommends a hate-filled rant in a Vermont newspaper, telling his readers that they “must listen carefully to what this mother of a gay son” has to say.
Hopko fails in this chapter not only as a political philosopher, which he isn’t, but also as a moral theologian, which he is. What about the moral responsibility of Christians to bear witness to the true nature of manhood, womanhood, and marriage when the minds of so many believers and unbelievers alike are turned to these topics by political events? What about the moral responsibility of Christians as citizens of a democracy to participate in its governance by democratically supporting civil laws consistent with divine laws? What about the moral responsibility of Christians to balance the public debate so the voices heard defending Christian teaching are not only the most ignorant and intemperate? Finally, what about the moral responsibility of Christians to offer all people a clear choice of truth to accept or reject, so as to call the faithless to repentance and encourage the faithful not to waver? In the United States today, Christians need answers to all these questions, yet Hopko avoids every one of them as if Christians have no such moral responsibilities.
In sum, there is nearly nothing in Hopko’s chapter on civil rights to show that he has studied the issue carefully or thought deeply about it. His comments on civil rights never rise above the high school level. Indeed, the chapter could have been written by a bright seventeen-year-old with nothing more to say than — “Denying homosexuals civil rights is mean, and Christians shouldn’t be mean because it hurts people and they will hate us for it.”
Ideas have consequences
Since publication of Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction in 2006, Hopko has continued to speak publicly about homosexuality in lectures, interviews, and articles. Little in his message has changed. Though most of what he says is sound, and some of what he says is even profound, the same troubling themes recur often enough to undermine the soundness of the whole. His pastoral focus never shifts from the few souls with same-sex attraction who are supposedly open to the truth but deeply resentful of having it spoken too plainly. His stress is always on not offending them. He pleads for dialogue, for listening, for not saying anything publicly for fear of being misunderstood, and for relying solely on person-to-person contact so that our love can pave the way for our truth. He advises against proof-texting the issue with citations from the Scriptures or the Fathers and often counterbalances the little he says bad about homosexuality with something bad said about some other sin like greed, gluttony, or heterosexual lust. He frequently invokes the worst examples of witnessing against homosexuality—people who preach that gays will all “burn in hell”—to discourage us from participating in “this culture war business.”
Most disappointing is his continued trimming of Church discipline and sacramental sanctity. He still allows that Orthodox priests may deny the sacraments to militant gays who become “really offensive” and vocal in declaring their rejection of Church teaching. But he says that we should be “incredibly merciful” and “do whatever we can to keep people in the orbit of the grace of the Church,” to the point of communing people who live gay less openly. And he insists the faithful “must trust their priests” in this matter and that what gays do privately is none of their business. This is a dangerously naïve expectation, given the doubtful faithfulness of several notorious priests, Hopko’s own estimate that as many as 20 percent of students at Orthodox seminaries suffer same-sex attraction (!), and the overt and covert efforts by some Orthodox communicants to undermine the sound parts of his teaching.
In Hopko’s own jurisdiction, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), we have already seen where the unsound aspects of his teaching lead:
- An archdeacon who ran off to California to marry another man, after abandoning that man, takes up residence with a retired bishop and resumes diaconal duties at a cathedral in Florida.
- Until last year, a man commonly believed to be gay, who shares a home with another man identified as the “son-in-law” of the first man’s mother in her obituary, was an influential member of the OCA’s governing Metropolitan Council.
- With the full knowledge and consent of its rector, an OCA parish in Los Angeles pays members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles to sing for divine services as members of its choir.
- At the OCA’s primatial cathedral in Washington, D.C., priests regularly commune a woman who announced to parishioners that she had married another woman, who often brought that woman to church with her, and who still has a webpage celebrating her marriage, with a photograph of the pair in each other’s arms. When parishioners ask why this woman still communes, they are told to mind their own business.
It is hard to imagine Orthodox Christians creating such scandals, much less tolerating them, in any century before the last, but nothing in Hopko’s teaching permits us to be outraged by them or to take action to correct them, for any expression of outrage or attempt at correction will appear judgmental and unloving to those taught to see the world according to his caricatures, and indeed those who have in fact expressed outrage at these scandals and tried to correct them have been very unlovingly judged and condemned by others in their own church.
It is also hard to imagine how the Church’s teaching on the nature of man and on the sinfulness of homosexuality can possibly survive when every effort is made to make gays feel at home in the Church. Hopko assumes it will, but this hardly seems likely in view of what has happened in other churches. Certainly Christ’s Holy Church will survive, and so will her teaching, but not necessarily in every jurisdiction calling itself the Orthodox Church.
Finally, judging the tree by its fruits, it seems the greater danger in this age and place is not that Orthodox Americans will succumb to self-righteous pride and add their voices to the angry oddballs telling gays to burn in hell, against all social and legal pressure on Christians to conform to this world, but that they will succumb to cowardice, complacency, and self-righteous pride in their tolerance of homosexuality, thinking themselves saintly for “speaking the truth in love” when they are instead speaking only half-truths in fear out of self-love (philautia). In all his writing and speaking on homosexuality, Fr. Thomas Hopko gives little indication that he is aware of this danger.