LEXINGTON, Ky. – In Margaret Nutting Ralph’s first book, “And God Said What?: An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms” (Paulist Press, $18.95), published in 1986, Ralph wrote from the standpoint of a Bible-studying “contextualist” within the Roman Catholic Church. She put Scripture into its historical and moral context, considering overall directives of the Scripture in addition to specific historical mandates.
Her new book, “Why the Catholic Church Must Change: A Necessary Conversation” (Rowan & Littlefield, $34), examines various topics not just of the secular culture – abortion, marriage annulment and social justice – but of the Catholic culture and focuses on how the church can change.
In addition to her writing, Ralph, a Catholic, is director of the pastoral studies master’s program at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and teaches in the permanent deacon program at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Ind.
She discussed her new book with the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Q. You write that the Catholic Church teaches that people “will be judged, not by their obedience to the law, but by their fidelity to a well-formed conscience.” You discuss the importance of putting Scripture in context. How does that square up with those who quote selected passages from the Bible as “evidence” that they are right to be, say, anti-gay marriage or anti-abortion?
A. If you don’t put Scripture passages in context, you can use them to support anything you already think; so you can have two people diametrically opposed on an issue, and both of them will be convinced they’re right, because they’ve taken an out-of-context Scripture passage to support what they already think.
Q. In your chapter on abortion, you make a salient point about how many people who are pro-choice are not really pro-abortion. Why do you say that “Catholics also do harm when those who believe that abortion is immoral try to distinguish themselves from all of their opponents by calling themselves pro-life.”
A. I’ve talked to many people who would never have an abortion themselves and are not pro-abortion at all, but they think that it’s a decision of conscience and that it should be a personal decision and not a decision of the federal government or state government. They’re not for criminalizing abortion, because that would deprive people of it being a personal choice, but nevertheless they’re against abortion.
Q. You write about gay marriage and emphasize that the greatest mandate we are given by Scripture is to love thoughtfully and to express tolerance and encouragement to others. How does that reflect on the issue of gay marriage?
A. My thoughts on this have certainly evolved. Initially, not knowing anything about it, I thought it was a choice based in lust.
My husband’s a psychologist, and I asked him, “Do you think people choose this action freely or is it innate to them to be homosexual as I am heterosexual?” He said, “I don’t think they choose it.”
I said, “What do you think causes it? Is it nature or nurture?” He said, “We don’t know the exact cause, but it’s probably both.”
I began to think the only way for people of homosexual orientation to have a happy stable life, the kind of life I have, is if they have a relationship.
My next stand was that civil unions would be all right, but don’t call them marriage. But then a priest friend of mine told me, “If you want to be faithful to the teaching not to discriminate, you have to let them use the word ‘marriage.’ Marriage brings privileges under the law.”
I consider myself a 100 percent faithful Catholic. A lot of people who read this book won’t consider me that, but I do. I accept them (gays) for who they are. This is the way God made them. They are the way God wants them to be, and I shouldn’t be discriminating against them.
Q. Throughout the book you talk about Scripture abuse. Could you give us an example of an often-abused passage of Scripture?
A. Because of the Supreme Court’s considering the right to marry among people of the same gender right now, I heard over and over politicians being interviewed about this saying, “Scripture tells us that for a man to lie down with a man is an abomination, and Scripture has authority in my life, so I can’t be in favor of this.”
Well, before I was a contextualist, I would have agreed with that statement, because I can find those words in Scripture, but they weren’t addressing the question we’re addressing now. The question we’re addressing now couldn’t be addressed by a biblical author, because the idea of sexual orientation was unheard of. If homosexual orientation is a fact, which I think it is, then we have a new setting within which to ask the questions.
Q. What do you think reaction to the book is going to be?
A. Some people will think I’m the tool of Satan, and other people will be very, very grateful that what they’ve thought for years has been stated and is part of the conversation.