Last week’s reflection about Joseph Ratzinger, who passed from this life on December 31, 2022, generated a lot of reaction and questions. One issue that many people commented about was his strong affirmation of Catholic teaching about gender, human sexuality, and specifically the same-sex orientation, traditionally called “homosexuality.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “homosexual acts” are “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered….Under no circumstances can they be approved.” Regarding homosexuality as an orientation, the Catechism describes it as “objectively disordered.” The Catechism, as I mentioned last week was drafted by a commission chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992.
Certainly today the scientific and experiential insights available to us clearly indicate that the RCC’s theological tradition can be and must be approached critically, to clarify its foundation, rationale, and continued meaningfulness in the changed socio-historical circumstances of the contemporary world.
The Bible and Homosexuality
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) turns to the Bible in its discussion of the “problem of homosexuality” and asserts that “there is … a clear consistency within the sacred scriptures for judging the immorality of homosexual behavior.” The texts on which this “clear consistency” is built are: Genesis 19:1-11; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-7; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10.
Nevertheless, in the light of contemporary biblical scholarship, it is impossible to agree that the texts on which this Catholic tradition about the immorality of homosexual acts is based are “unambiguous” and provide “solid foundation.” Contemporary theologians would stress that the biblical accounts are complex and socio-historically conditioned literary forms that demand careful historical-critical analysis.
First of all, neither the Bible nor the Christian tradition rooted in it prior to the twentieth century ever really considered the homosexual condition as a specific sexual orientation. They took for granted that everyone was heterosexual. To look for any mention in the biblical texts of what today is called “homosexual orientation” is simply unfounded. One might just as well search the Bible for advice about buying a cellphone or a laptop computer
The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New testament condemn homosexual acts is shaped by the socio-historical conditions of the times in which they were written, namely that all human beings naturally share the heterosexual condition and that, therefore, any homosexual behavior is a perversion of “nature” and immoral. Because that biblical assumption is now scientifically shown to be incorrect, the Bible has little to contribute to the discussion of genuine homosexuality and homosexuals as we understand them today. In fact, the Bible also contains many questionable moral teachings about sex: the evil of sexual relations during menstruation for example, or about the stoning of adulterers, about women’s role, about slavery, and a host of other issues. All of these issues have been rejected by modern Catholic moral theology as archaic misunderstandings. But homosexuality?
In this reflection, I cannot go into a detailed analysis of all biblical texts touching on homosexuality. For a detailed analysis of the biblical texts I suggest the book: The Sexual Person, Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler (Georgetown University Press / Washington, D.C., 2008). It is still an excellent book. I have known and respected Todd for many years, from the time he was a theology student at the Catholic University of Leuven and then completed his doctorate in 1994.
The Catholic tradition also teaches that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered because they are “contrary to the natural law.”
The Natural Law Argument
In determining contemporary moral values and behavior, a realistic understanding of human life requires an historically conscious worldview, because human reality is dynamic, evolving, and changing. We certainly see this when it comes to medical science. During the 19th century, for example, bloodletting was a very common treatment for basically any ailment you might be suffering from. At the time, doctors believed that too much blood would throw off the balance in your body.
People today laugh at such ignorant foolishness. People, however, do not always apply new human insights to moral moral values. As our human understanding develops and changes, so too do our human concepts, theories, and courses of action. This is not a matter of relativism but of changing human perspectives. There is indeed a human thread from generation to generation that links faith and moral values. People in every age reflect, evaluate, and interpret that faith and moral values tradition in terms of their contemporary culture and understanding.
When people determine moral obligations from “nature,” they are really deriving them from their own human interpretation of “nature.” The challenge with “natural law”and “human nature” is that our understanding of human sexuality – with its biological, emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual dimensions — has developed historically and it continues to develop. I learned this years ago from my Louvain (Leuven) professor, Louis Janssens (1908 – 2001), founder of the Louvain tradition of personalism. Janssens made an original contribution to the study of the human person through the approach which he coined as “the human person adequately considered.”
Personalist moral philosophers and theologians stress that the old “traditional” biological and strictly physicalist understanding of traditional natural law and human “nature” must be transformed into a contemporary personalist, relational understanding. The former defines the morality of acts based only on the physical, biological structure of those acts. The latter defines the morality of acts based on the meaning of those acts for persons and relationships. Marital sexuality in a personalist relational understanding, for example, is about much more than simply linking genitalia to produce progeny.
The ethical criterion for human choices and actions therefore is the extent to which these choices and actions respect and enhance a person’s living together in time and space, in all the many different dimensions of a person’s life world and life history: familial, social, material, environmental, spiritual, physical, and psychological. This is “the human person adequately considered.”
“Nature” and natural law have always had a prominent place in Catholic moral theology and, in official Church teaching, not only homosexuality but also masturbation, premarital, extramarital, contraceptive, and non-reproductive types of marital sexual activity have been condemned as “contrary to the natural law.”
I would emphasize, however, that every interpretation of “nature” is a socially constructed reality dependent on human perspective and interpretations. The reality of “nature” must always be subjected to scrutiny, even if the interpretation be advanced by the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Homosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a heterosexual orientation. Period. Sexual acts are moral when they are natural, reasonable, and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner.
The historical Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. He did say “Love your neighbor as yourself.”