James Martin, S.J., editor at large for the monthly magazine America is the author of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity, HarperColins, 2017. In his book he stresses that Roman Catholic teaching at the most basic level is contained in the Gospels and, even more specifically, in the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Therefore, Martin emphasizes, the most fundamental of all church teachings about gay and lesbian people should be that God loves them. Gay and lesbian people are beloved and created by God, deserving, like all of us, God’s loving care.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, howeverthe same-sex orientation is considered “objectively disordered.” Needless to say, official Catholic teaching rules out same-sex marriage and any sort of sexual activity outside of the marriage of a man and a woman, like premarital sex, adultery, and even masturbation, “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” 

Theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler from Creighton University have written extensively about Catholic sexual morality. I strongly recommend their book The Sexual Person, Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, Georgetown University Press, 2008. Their book draws historically and anthropologically from Catholic tradition and provides a helpful context for current ethical debates about marriage, cohabitation, sexual orientation, and reproductive technologies.

Todd and Michael contend that the Catholic Church is being inconsistent in its teaching by adopting a dynamic, historically conscious anthropology and worldview on social ethics and the interpretation of scripture while still adopting a static, classicist anthropology and worldview on sexual ethics. They propose a definition of human sexuality that finds love and truth in all just and loving heterosexual, lesbian, gay, and bisexual acts. Current Catholic teaching, however, adheres to a definition of human dignity that finds love and truth in an understanding of human sexuality that is limited to sexual acts in heterosexual marriage. The Church proposes norms and legislation based on that definition.

Currently, there is no scientific consensus on the origins of sexual orientation. While scientists do not know the exact cause of sexual orientation, they theorize that it is caused by a complex interplay of genetic, hormonal, and environmental influences.

About sexual activity, there is no doubt that all animals have genitals in order to reproduce. Human animals, however, have added a second meaning to their genital activity, namely, to express in a bodily activity the personal love they have for one another. Much depends on our human nature. But that opens an important discussion.

Some argue, with Church support, that same-sex activity is unnatural. Contemporary sexual anthropology, however, recognizes sexual orientation as an intrinsic dimension of human nature, and what is accepted as natural sexual activity will vary depending on whether a person’s sexual orientation is same-sex or heterosexual. Gay and lesbian acts are natural for people with a same-sex orientation. Heterosexual acts are natural for people with a heterosexual orientation.

Heterosexual and same-sex acts, therefore, are natural because they reflect the person’s fundamental human nature as interpreted by right reason. To be ethical, Salzman and Lawler stipulate, every human sexual act, same-sex or heterosexual, must be not only natural but also free, just, loving, and respectful of the human dignity and flourishing of both partners.

I know and greatly respect Todd Salzman, who did his doctorate in Leuven in 1994. I conclude this reflection with an excerpt from a 2020 article written by Todd and Michael Lawler, “Exploring Human Dignity: Foundations and Applications that Transform Contemporary Society.” (Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society, Volume 6 (2020): Issue 1 July)

 “Church teaching on the truth of the meaning of human sexuality, that homosexual orientation is objectively disordered, that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered, and that legislation preventing same-sex civil unions, adoption by homosexual parents, and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender is deeply flawed and violates human dignity and the truth of God’s unconditional love for all people. It is also driving young people away from the Church, doing serious emotional, psychological, relational and spiritual damage to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and unintentionally legitimizing hate-speech and violence against them.”

And so what should we do today? 

First of all of course we need to check our own attitudes and behavior. Then we need to work with others in changing institutional attitudes and behavior. Just expressing our genuine concerns and assuring people of our thoughts and prayers is not enough. As the old saying goes: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing.” 

It is a very big issue. The American Library Association, for example, reports that in 2022, public and school libraries have received a record-breaking 1,650 calls for elimination of books, with over a third of the targets featuring LGBTQ content. Meanwhile, far-right Christians are still insisting that any teacher or librarian who makes LGBTQ-friendly material available is part of a global pedophilia ring, an accusation that began with QAnon. It is crazy and becoming even more crazy as people push toward the November 8 midterm elections.

For more information about being supportive of LGBTQ+ people, I recommend checking regularly with Dignity USA via their website.      https://www.dignityusa.org/

The most fundamental of all church teachings about LGBTQ+ people should be that God loves them. They are beloved and created by God, deserving, like all of us, God’s loving care – and our loving care and support. And “loving care and support” demands that we work to change institutional attitudes, teaching, and behavior. Working together we can do that. As my friend, Patrick Sullivan, emeritus president of ARCC, has so often said: “Once people start to believe change is possible, the drive to achieve it accelerates.”

13 thoughts on “Perspective: Sexual Orientation and Catholic Teaching

  1. Unfortunately I don’t remember the source (Washington Post?); but I recently read that accusing someone or a particular group of pedophilia is an established strategy in Russia for attacking anyone who opposes the government’s status quo. Lot of social and emotional triggers to engage conspiracy-minded people to accuse and attack… Maybe it’s QAnon in the U.S. right now; but the threats of a cabal of people, driven by pedophilia, attacking innocent children has a long and sordid history. Easy, convenient, based on lies.

  2. Dear Jack,
    Your words offer such profound logic in addressing many aspects of the Church’s handling of the LGBTQ+ “dilemma.” In my life experience, the reality is that we all know people who are homosexual and that can change everything. My son’s best childhood friend in school, scouts, sports, etc. is gay. He later taught with me. Another friend and fellow educator was gay. My whole perspective on the morality of homosexuality completely changed when I realized gay people whom I respected and cared for were in my life. My childhood attitudes formed by instruction came into conflict with what I experienced in “real life.” It frustrates me to have to confront and challenge the official teachings of my beloved Church when I know good people whom I know God loves and who love God in return. When I hear friends say, “Love the sinner; hate the sin,” it makes me cringe because it sounds so compassionate but clearly indicates a judgment that is anything but compassionate. Thank you for so clearly offering us sources to help clarify and enlighten our thinking.

  3. Dear Jack, your thoughts this week on the church’s stance on sex and sexuality take me directly back to a book I finished reading a few weeks ago, The Truth at the Heart of the Lie, by James Carroll. In it he cites church history back to Constantine and that man’s personal issues with sex that was ultimately written into church philosophy and law. It seems to me that in order to make any changes in church beliefs we will have to go all the way back in history and correct Constantine before any meaningful changes can be initiated today. That is probably a far reach.

  4. Thank you for opening up a space for dialogue.
    The recent and very public discussions include an emphasis on ‘gender’. We are told that gender is the new sexuality in a very skewed way. Erasing women except only to have children is no longer science fi. I concur that
    This a is a big issue! It included the disappearance of lesbians; and the development of new easier sexual partners for men because of the scientific and surgical breakthroughs. Economically this new trend in Trans-enabling is over the top in Capitalistic societies. Sadly I link this discussion to the current abuse situation in the Catholic church;
    Sex trafficking; drug addiction and the basic sadness of our children.

  5. Thanks for this essay. I especially appreciated the book recommendation and the “bottom line” from the gospel.

  6. Jack
    I have been thinking lately that “nature” is just a term that replaced the causality of the fertility gods of ancient myths. I have never been a fan of natural law ethics. I prefer the law that expresses the reality of grace that makes us all human and redeemed.
    Thanks for all the wonderful references.

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