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.”
23 thoughts on “A Reflection about Morality and Same-sex Identity”
Thank you, Dr. Jack, for your lucidity in the confronting and “unmuting” the absurdity of confining the Word to our unfinished mental terminology, rather than to the experience of reality that IS the procession of creation. As you say (pardon the compressions here), “our human concepts, theories, and … changing human perspectives… adequately considered... must always be subjected to scrutiny.” Best of all is your bull’s-eye from the lips of The Incarnate one, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” You inspired me to some linguistic archaeology, implicate in your closing reference. Correct me if I’m getting this wrong.
The Greek of Mark 12:30 sits immediately prior to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The sentence structure gives the most prominent position– at the end of the sequence of how to love your Lord God individually as a member of the Israelite community– to the phrase (transliterating here), “ex holEs tEs ISCHYOS sou,” or as usually translated, “with your whole strength.” One of the acclamations sung in Greek at the old liturgy of Good Friday, I think during the Adoration of the Cross, includes ”ISCHYROS” as a title for Jesus (along with “Athanatos,” Deathless One, etc.). The root meaning of “Ischyros” extends beyond being strong in body, to “with one’s full powers.” That is, in a transparent extension, “with the integrating self,” the whole undivided body-mind-heart-soul-spirit, as a person, perceiving a glimpse of the whole of reality, not limited by merely a single slice of this local temporal-spatial perspective. That includes the person right next you and around the corner.
Perception of what is transparent around the corner and beyond, of what is transfigured, is an epiphany of the real Presence calling for each of us to transform within, the hardest task of all. Jesus many times in Christian scripture is experienced as transformed (e.g., on Mt. Tabor, as resurrected calling Mary Magdalene by name, and knocking Saul by name off his horse, with the unaswered question “Why”). The transfigured, transformed Jesus speaks not just a descriptive parable or an abstract concept, but a statement of faith– not our faith, but the faith that He, the Originating Word, has in us: that we remember Him, and do what He did in serving others, indiscriminately, without exclusion.
This is an ever-present open work, the “present tense” For Another Voice, originating creation still, in saecula saecularum, for which our language sputters, limps, needs a tune-up. Unlike some of our limited perspectives on Nature as we think we can know and measure her, about reality, and of religion, I remember that Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In other words, the fleshy-now is where the Presence is, so, in the old Latin dismissal, “Ite, missa est,” I hear literally, “Get out there, it’s a mixed up mess.” Maybe I hear too an echo of Jesus weeping in Bethany and yelling at his friend in the tomb, “Lazarus, Get out of there, Now!” Why are we still here?
Many thanks Dan.
We are still here to witness, to care for others, and to speak the truth.
Thanks, Jack! You’ve handled the difficulties of this subject much better than I could. Pope Francis seems to be much more open to these understands than his predecessors.
Many sincere thanks Marc!
You have done it again with another profound reflection on a complicated subject. You have written with wisdom, insight, and maturity, something that is often lacking, I fear, with edicts from our Church leadership. Sexuality and human relationship is so much more than simple biology. I fear that the adolescent, immature perspective of our predominantly old celibate clergy looks at love as an animal response to continue the species and not as bonding of mind, heart, and soul. The fascination/obsession of the clergy with matters sexual reminds me of little boys wanting to look at naughty pictures because they are exciting but being afraid because “good boys” don’t do that!! Sometimes I wonder if they frown on married couples being intimate if there is no chance of reproduction in “the act!” I suspect that homosexuality must cause apoplexy in the curia when trying to help us pew lowlifes control our animal desires! Your respectful, thoughtful words bring hope that, perhaps, wise leaders will arise to bring forth deep understanding, compassion and, dare I say, love!
Dear Jack and fellow readers,
Having re-read my comments above, I wish to apologize for the harshness and intolerance I expressed about the clergy and the blanket statement I made about their point of view on human sexuality. Although I frequently disagree with pronouncements from church authorities, I have no right to be so judgmental in this forum which is one of peace and kindness. I am truly sorry.
No problem Frank!
Many sincere thanks Frank. I remember a famousUS bishop asking me once if I thought the church would ever ordain gay men. I looked at him with a chuckle and said “Archbishop the church has been doing it for about two thousand years.”
Your response is priceless!! :))
Amen, Jack, another Classic. Thank you.
Thanks, Jack, for facing this topic head on! Your explanation is so clear and simple, wrapped up in the phrase, “the human person adequately considered.”
Yes indeed! Thank you!
Thank you, as always, for sharing with us your lifetime of scholarship and educating others. Yes, it’s time to bring Catholic teaching into the 21st century with intelligence and compassion!
I so greatly value your ongoing support.
Thank you Betty.
Excellent one, good sir. You covered the ground well. Gabriel Moran would have added a bit more linguistic analysis of “human nature” – but this works. The scripture science is clear, as is the human science. Thanks.
Debating about sending this to my “errant” friends and relatives – not sure it would make any difference. I think as need something expressing a deeper understanding and empthy of their sense that this violates their “sacred” sense. James Martin might read it well.
Hi Carl. I appreciate your last comment, violating “their ‘sacred’ sense.” Can you explain a little more? Maybe Jack will also address this. Thanks.
Sure. Jonathan Haidt has shown that we have some innate tendencies or reactions – he’s come up with 5 categories.
Sacred is one of them. When someone crosses our “sacred” barrier, we automatically reject it. It can’t be moral, ethical, period. Say your pet fido gets hit by a car. Dad goes out to pick up the beast, and announces that we are having dog for dinner. Most people would find that a problem – no thinking required, nor helpful. Yet there are parts of the world where feasting on canines is not a problem. That is the “sacred”. Sex is one of our sacred realms.
Our beloved Church has cast a whole world of stuff into the “sacred” regarding sex and marriage. People just can’t go there – period.
In order to reach someone immersed in that – you need to first speak to their sacred – their gut feelings about the right or wrong of it. Empathize – understand, etc.
The folks who did the indepth door to door canvassing on the California marriage equality referendum got very good at that. As Jonathan Haidt says – speak to the elephant – our gut – not the driver – our brain. Share your feelings, not your arguments.
I have lots more but that’s what I meant. Thanks for asking.
Thanks, Carl. I’ve never heard it put that way before. My next question would be Is your gut more sacred than your brain that you should be guided by it instead of your brain? My email is email@example.com if it’s better to discuss individually by email. Thanks.
Boy – that’s a long one. 95% of our thinking is our gut – emotional – the FAST brain. We have to work really hard to actually THINK. Kahneman, Lisa Feldman Barrett. I’ll send you a note.
An interesting response Carl! We like to think of ourselves as thinking beings with emotions. In truth, we are emotional beings who think. To your point. Thanks.
Yes, this elephant has to think really hard as an individual, but the matter is spiritual and personal, from both ends of the pole, not a brain/gut duality.
This is great work, hard work: changing-up my perception of what matter shows to spirit = the wholeness of what my amygdala, hippocampus, pituitary, etc. all know and converse about in the little grey cells, while considering the bloody mess in the rest of my guts and organs, when I get anxious over what’s happening in the aged churches, or in my aging body. It is the way, it is the same, and “Dominus nobiscum.”
A policy speechwriter friend admits to trying hard NOT to regard people as “meat bags,” but as voting responding persons who observe, judge and act according to what they know intuitively, that is, from their gut, often seeing deeply through what’s going on. He is right to hope for that: his consideration in itself is a sign of hope for seeing the whole.
Is there not a real Presence here among us, originating an ever-expanding creation that calls for the wholeness of my human being, becoming whatever “human” is? I like to think we do this together, even from physical Covid isolation, building a new structure to see the whole, freed from sliced-up floppy perspectives limited by only one point, one center. That feeding of the 5,000 was surely more than symbolic, one of my personal “sacreds,” because it is a model of what people do in assembling to hear and listen to one another, and find themselves changing at their own origin, “to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.” Louis Massignon called such insight “le point vierge,” deep in the gut beneath the heart, a fourth dimension. It’s not a party, doesn’t involve membership, but rather the grace of hospitality, openness, an originating transparency. Merton picked up on this, which is: the encounter with the ineffable Presence. It is a risk to systems, institutions, concretized structures that don’t flex and crumble= terrorized by the novel and the transparent, but from the rubble, the duff, the compost– seeds sprout, each one an epiphany, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Is not this conversation the way forward, in transparency, in “the cloud?” I would prefer in the fleshy-now, but structure determines function, so “here we are, altogether now, as we sing our song,” online “in spirit” for the time being, perhaps even quantum-entangled. Carl said that scripture science is clear, as is the human science: well, I struggle with a circumference that has no center, or, a center that has no circumference, and Einstein went way beyond that. I have to catch up! Thank you Carl, Cindy, Betty, Frank, Jack…et al.
And thank YOU Dan!