In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are told that “tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’” (2357). Tradition hasn’t always claimed precisely this, of course, since no-one put the label “intrinsically disordered” on anything during the first millennium of Christian history. Tradition has, however, always claimed that such acts were seriously wrong, and this amounts to the same thing, as I pointed out in a previous post.
But it would be naive to think that because some aspects of the Church’s teaching cannot change, therefore no aspect of it can change. A quick look at history shows that Catholic beliefs about homosexuality have already undergone significant change.
The fifteenth-century preacher (and Doctor of the Church) St. Bernardine of Siena once remarked that “someone who lived practicing the vice of sodomy will suffer more pains in hell than anyone else, because this is the worst sin that there is.” Nor was this a case of isolated rhetoric. Such opinions were not uncommon in the Middle Ages and those who held them could claim that they were simply repeating what the Fathers had said. St. John Chrysostom (another Doctor of the Church) had declared in the fourth century that “lust between men” was “the worst of all passions,” and St. Peter Damian (yet another Doctoris Ecclesiae; are you noticing a pattern yet?) comes dangerously close in his eleventh century tract, the Liber Gomorrhianus, to asserting that the homosexual person cannot even be saved.
Looking back on the florid denunciations of homosexuality in previous centuries, even the most conservative Catholic will now blush with shame. The idea that what is perhaps a misguided (albeit objectively sinful) attempt between two people of the same-sex to express love for one another might be a worse sin than murder or desecration of the Eucharist would strike any Catholic today as absurd. What was common sense a few centuries ago is now beyond the pale.
Looking back at changes in Catholic beliefs about homosexuality helps us to understand that present teachings, too, are both the result of preceding change, and also part of an ongoing process of change which will continue into the future.
In Persona Humana (1975), the historic teaching on the wrongfulness of homosexual acts is maintained, but the Church says for perhaps the first time what many theologians, pastors, and ordinary Catholics had already thought for many years: that instead of being extraordinarily evil people in the grip of some satanic vice, homosexuals may be who they are simply because of an “innate instinct.”
Eleven years later, in Homosexualitatis Problema (1986), Cardinal Ratzinger argued that making gay people “the object of violent malice in speech or in action” is an aspect of our history that should be regarded as “deplorable,” and that gay people are “often generous and giving of themselves.” This stands in rather stark contrast to St. Peter Damian’s claim that homosexuality “expels all the forces of virtue from the temple of the human heart and, pulling the door from its hinges, introduces into it all the barbarity of vice,” a claim that arguably is one historic instance of homosexual persons being made the object of “violent malice in speech.”
Ratzinger was (and is) no idiot. He would have been well aware of these writings when composing Homosexualitatis Problema. The tradition is littered with such statements. Hence, he does not claim that current Magisterial teaching is simply a repetition of immutable, unchanging doctrines handed down intact from time immemorial. Rather, he says that present formulations of doctrine stand in “organic continuity” with the witness of Scripture and Tradition.
Arguably, however, not all new developments in recent Catholic teaching have been either positive or in “organic continuity” with the Scriptural witness. For example, in its Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies (2003), the Congregation for Catholic Education argues that homosexuals “find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women,” and it is suggested that the homosexual person per se lacks “affective maturity.”
Of course, one could raise all sorts of objections to this assertion in light of the succor it gives to homophobic Catholics who pathologize and stigmatize gay and lesbian persons under the guise of defending orthodoxy, or under the (even less credible) guise of “loving the sinner.” But the key questions here are theological rather than sociological.
The first caution that needs to be raised is that, in the Catholic tradition, the object of moral analysis when speaking about homosexuality has always been the homosexual act or the inclinatio ad actum, rather than the sexuality of the homosexual person as a psychological phenomenon. This is not to say that Christianity has nothing to say about the homosexual person, but simply that it is not a first-order concern of Catholic moral teaching whose historical subject matter has primarily been sin and confession. Expanding the object of moral analysis from the homosexual tendency (understood in the traditional sense of a tendency toward committing homogenital acts) outward to the entire personality of the homosexual person, and then thinking we can apply (without any kind of mediating argument) the same negative moral judgment to the latter as to the former, is arguably more the result of sloppy thinking than development within tradition.
The second caution is that recent attempts to outline a sort of “Catholic anthropology” that claims the entire homosexual personality is disordered do not sit well even with other recent teachings of the Holy See. In Homosexualitatis Problema, Cardinal Ratzinger argues:
Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.
Yet it is difficult to claim that we are not reducing a person to their sexuality when we are also claiming that the way they relate to men and women (i.e., every other person on the planet) is disordered because of their sexuality. It becomes a question of which assertion is more deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition: the claim that the human person should not be reduced to their sexual tendencies, and that they have a fundamental identity as a child of God? Or the suggestion that the human person can and should be reduced largely to his sexual tendencies, and a judgment rendered on his entire personality because of those tendencies?
To raise cautions and ask questions about recent formulations of Catholic doctrine is not the same as to deny (or even call in to doubt) the underlying truth embedded in the Tradition handed down to us from the apostolic era, that under no circumstances can same-sex sex acts be approved of. Nor is it to claim that those who find the reasoning behind the Church’s disciplinary decisions problematic have a license to disobey them, as if the Church were not one body that ought to think and act in unison, and we merely members thereof. It is simply to remain faithful to that biblical injunction: “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:21).
There are those who claim that fidelity to the Church requires us to leap to defend not only its doctrinal assertions but even its language and terminology, whence the continuous chants of “don’t say gay” emanating from some circles. No doubt there are many who “question” Church teaching having already made up their minds to reject it, but are just too cowardly to say so openly. But others who ask questions and raise objections do so not because they reject the Church but because they want to learn from it; they want to understand Catholic sexual teachings in order that they can more effectively impart a sense of their beauty to others. I have no doubt there will be those who confuse the second form of questioning with the first, just as I have no doubt there were those who were called crazy liberals in the fifteenth century for asking if perhaps devil worship was a worse sin than homosexuality.
Aaron Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at Boston College. He previously studied at the Universities of London and Oxford, and worked for a London-based research institute dedicated to raising the quality of thinking about public policy in civil society.