Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.” – Genesis 18:20-21 (RSVC)
Introduction: Principles and Consistency
One of the defining moments in my Catholic education was the realization that Church teaching on sexual ethics formed a sort of “seamless garment”, unified by an internal logic that accounts for every sexual prohibition – from contraception, to masturbation, to homosexuality – in a fairly intuitive manner. For when analyzing sexual activity itself from a Catholic “natural law” perspective, if the procreative dimension can be eliminated as optional and a barrier can legitimately be placed between the man and the woman, then the body of each person is related to the other as little better than any other physical body. At that point, it hardly seems to make a significant difference if the man derives sexual pleasure from a woman, or his own hand, or an inanimate object, or even the bodies of multiple other people. Provided that all persons involved freely consent, the objective difference between any two non-procreative actions becomes so thin as to render them nearly morally equivalent. Sever the link to procreation at the start, and all of the philosophical “natural law” objections to traditionally forbidden sexual activities slowly (but inevitably, and logically) collapse, with nothing but personal preference and consent to hold it back.
Thus, I came to value the Catholic approach to sexual ethics as something built on an airtight logic, according to which it would be impossible for the Church to abandon its condemnation of contraception or homosexual activity without (inevitably, and logically) surrendering everything it has always taught about the necessary procreative dimension of sexual activity. As an ethic that is not the least bit arbitrary in its details, but rather is seamlessly tied together through and through, we can see that the whole thing must stand or fall together. Reject the argument that sexual activity has any fundamental or indispensable and natural link to procreation – as our culture has done at least since the sexual revolution – and the inexorable result (apart from appeals to Scripture) is a radical new path toward embracing the conclusion that everything can be permitted. The only remaining moral condition is that there must be genuine consent from all involved, such that no individual is harmed, exploited, or otherwise violated against their will. This much, at least, is still observed by our culture as an intuitive moral principle.
To the traditionally minded Catholic, however, an awkward tension quickly presents itself. On the one hand, the moral difference between homosexual and contraceptive and masturbatory actions seems to be very thin: for all such actions are considered illicit, intrinsically and gravely disordered, on account of the same fundamental rationale. And yet, homosexual actions are frequently identified as something far worse than the others: for the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of only four sins described in Scripture as “crying out to heaven for vengeance”. In this essay I will explore the foundation of that tension, and attempt to articulate an interpretive lens that can offer a principled resolution.