//Traditional moral teaching on Homosexuality

Traditional moral teaching on Homosexuality

by The Rev. Tim Finigan

Lecture delivered at the Cost of Conscience/Reform Seminar

 Imperial Hotel, 16th September 1997



I consider it an honour to be asked to address you today as part of
a teaching day on the Christian response to the Gay Agenda. In addressing
the topic of traditional moral teaching concerning homosexuality,
I will refer often to the Catechism of the Catholic Church although
you will understand that the Catechism itself refers constantly to
and is based upon such traditional teaching. We could see it as a
kind of compendium of such teaching. I intend to place the traditional
Christian moral teaching on homosexual behaviour and homosexual acts
in the context of the traditional teaching concerning love and sex,
a teaching that has sadly been neglected in our time with the result
that genuine friendship is more difficult for many young people to
achieve. It is more difficult because of the confusion of our secular
society’s attitude to love. Many people fear the automatic assumption
that every friendship will necessarily have a component that is sexually
active. It is this falsehood that fuels much of the activity on the
Gay Agenda.

Traditional teaching on love and marriage

In any consideration of matters to do with sex or sexuality, we should
begin with the traditional positive moral teaching on love and marriage.
This is doubly important because sometimes people have a sense that
traditional moral teaching is simply negative on all these matters.
It is thought of as repressive, as limiting our freedom whereas on
the contrary it is genuinely liberating, allowing the development
of good and wholesome friendships without the fear of suspicion that
every friendship will necessarily tend to become sexually active.

First of all, our traditional teaching is that the creation of man
and woman is the highest of God’s creation here on earth. The man
and woman were created in the image and the likeness of God. They
were told to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The Church
continues to teach the goodness of new life and the positive value
of the fruitfulness of sexual union. It should also be made clear
that traditional teaching is very clear on the equal dignity of men
and women.

Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God,
with equal dignity though in different way. The union of man and woman
in marriage is way of imitating in the flesh the Creator’s generosity
and fecundity: “Therefore man leaves his father and his mother and
cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” All human generations
proceed from this union. (Catechism 2335)

Within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, sexuality, it is not something
bad but something good and ordained for the procreation of new life
and the loving union of a man and wife. The Catechism puts it like
this

Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage
the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of
spiritual communion. Marriage bonds between baptised persons are sanctified
by the sacrament. (Catechism 2360)

It then goes on to quote Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation
Familiaris Consortio

Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one
another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses,
is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being
of the human person as such. It is realised in a truly human way only
if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit
themselves to one another totally until death. (Familiaris Consortio
11)

Thus our belief as Catholics is that sexual union is something good
and blessed by God. It has two purposes, the creation of new life
and the mutual union of the couple. In Humanae Vitae, dealing with
the question of artificial contraception Pope Paul VI clarified this
teaching by saying that each and every use of the marriage act must
be open to the creation of new life. That was the reason for declaring
the unlawfulness of artificial contraception whereas the use of the
infertile period is still open to the creation of new life. Thus if
a couple used the Billings method and the wife became pregnant, their
using that course of action in accord with the Traditional understanding
would be shown by their willingness to accept the new life. The safe
period is in that sense still “open to new life” even though the couple
would prefer that there would not be any more children for the time
being.

As a Roman Catholic, I would naturally see this as the ultimate case
of the practical requirement of the traditional moral teaching. The
wrongfulness of the use of artificial contraception was accepted by
all the Churches until the decision of the Lambeth Conference in 1933,
a decision which prompted the issue of the encyclical Casti Connubii
of Pope Pius XI, the doctrine of which was re-iterated by Paul VI
in Humanae Vitae. I understand, of course that this point may be controversial
but I suggest it to you as worthy of consideration in this discussion
which has far-reaching implications.

One more preliminary point before moving on to the specific question
of homosexuality. It is important for us constantly to affirm and
to clarify the point that that traditional teaching in these matters
of the natural law is not like a set of rules made up by human beings
and subject to change. The mission of the Church is to interpret the
natural law faithfully. She has no right to do otherwise. So when
Pope John Paul II reaffirms the traditional teaching concerning sexual
ethics, we should not see this as his teaching so much as his handing-on
of the teaching of Christ. That is the reason for the requirement
to obey traditional teaching-not the authority of the Pope as a leader
but on the authority of Christ as God made man who sent the apostles
to teach the nations everything I have commanded you.

The traditional teaching on the nature of the sexual act is fairly
straightforward. It is that the act has a built-in meaning, the creation
of life and the union of a man and wife. To avoid our inevitable tendency
to reduce it simply to an “ideal” which we respect but do not follow,
it is specified that each and every use our sexual powers should be
open to new life in the context of marriage. Thus, we could summarise,
sex is not “for loving” but for family in a state of loving.

Original sin and its effects

In attempting to live according to the traditional Christian teaching
concerning love, we will often find that we are tempted to commit
sin. This tendency to sin is widely mistaken as being “natural” whereas
it is in fact due to a wounding of our nature. Traditional Christian
teaching on original sin explains our tendency to sin without needing
to be repressive or to deny the goodness of the flesh. We say that
the flesh is created good by God but that it is wounded by original
sin so that we have a tendency to disordered desire.

The traditional name for this desire is concupiscence. It may be any
kind of disordered physical appetite although it is often (mistakenly)
used as if it referred exclusively to sexual desires. The thrill of
driving a car at excessive speed, causing needless danger to others,
is as much an example of concupiscence as the thrill of initiating
an illicit affair.

This wound in our nature is very clearly described by St Paul in his
letter to the Romans:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but
I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree
that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but
sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within
me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do
it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is
what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that
do it, but sin that dwells within me. [...] For I delight in the law
of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war
with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that
dwells in my members. (Romans 7:15-19, 22-24)

And again in his letter to the Galatians,

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.
For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the
Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each
other, to prevent you from doing what you want. (Galatians 5:16-17)

Because of this war within ourselves, it is necessary, in order to
lead a good life, to take up our cross daily to follow Christ. We
cannot hope to lead a truly good life simply by doing what we feel
like doing at any given time. The disordered desires that are consequent
upon original sin will lead us to sin. In order not to be led into
sin, we need to deny ourselves. This self-denial is not, of course
a hatred of the flesh or any kind of denial of its essential goodness
as created by God. It is a recognition of the wound of original sin
that needs to be overcome by our spiritual life and holiness.

Consequences of this for teaching on homosexual acts

It is obvious that there are many consequences of this traditional
teaching. If sex must always be open to the creation of new life within
marriage, then it is easy to see that the traditional teaching on
the wrongfulness of pornography, masturbation and pre-marital sex
all follow. Similarly in the case of homosexual acts, the traditional
moral teaching would use exactly the same reasoning. So for example,
the Catechism says of homosexual acts

They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to
the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and
sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
(Catechism 2357)

However, neither traditional moral teaching in general nor the Catechism
in particular is content to leave the matter with a condemnation of
sinful practices. If it did, there would be a number of misunderstandings
possible which might cause serious hurt and possibly disaffection
with the Church. Many people are very sensitive about sexual ethics
and it may well be true that homosexual people are discriminated against
unjustly, treated as figures of fun or marginalised as people. Therefore,
the Catechism goes on to make some further points. In the case of
masturbation, an equitable moral judgement (for instance in the confessional)
must take into account questions of immaturity, habit and “other psychological
or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability.”
(Catechism 2352)

In the matter of homosexuality, the Catechism acknowledges the conditions
of our own times.

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies
is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition;
for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect,
compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in
their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfil
God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to
the sacrifice of the Lord’ s Cross the difficulties they may encounter
from their condition. (Catechism 2358)

This is quite a remarkable example of the way in which the traditional
moral teaching can remain up to date without compromising the permanence
of revealed doctrine. It is clear, then, that while homosexual acts
can never be condoned and are always against the commandments, the
homosexual condition of an individual person is not necessarily regarded
as culpable. Furthermore, the principles on which the pastoral care
of homosexual people is required are clearly stated.

The second area of traditional moral teaching that is relevant is
that concerning original sin. Part of the necessary Christian spiritual
journey of daily self-denial in order to follow more closely in the
footsteps of Christ is the requirement of chastity in every walk of
life. So also in the case of a homosexual person:

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery
that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested
friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually
and resolutely approach Christian perfection. (Catechism 2359)

People outside the Church may of course forget that this paragraph
could be applied equally to everyone. It is not saying that homosexual
people alone are called to chastity; we all are. It is not saying
that only homosexuals can and should approach perfection through grace,
prayer and the sacraments; this is something that is true for all
of us. The Catechism simply applies to the homosexual person the full
and confident traditional teaching of the Christian Church on the
matter of spiritual growth.

In the case of homosexual behaviour, the teaching on original sin
is particularly relevant because it is often said that a person feels
that it is “natural” for them to live a gay lifestyle, “natural” to
commit homosexual acts. Traditional moral teaching on the contrary
would say that the homosexual person, as with every other person,
is subject to original sin and that what “feels natural” is not necessarily
a reliable guide to what is good. The revelation of the ten commandments
and the specific moral teaching of Christ and the Church are precisely
given because it is easy for our judgement to be clouded on moral
questions. Because of original sin, we can easily be fooled into thinking
and believing that a less perfect or even an evil way of life is good
because it “feels right”.

Question of the homosexual condition 

A further question does sometimes arise over the nature of the homosexual
condition itself. There are debates in the secular world over the
importance of genetic and social factors. I think it is unwise to
leap too quickly to supposed genetic factors because something which
is as socially adaptable as the sexual drive is unlikely to be generally
caused by genetic factors and if such is sometimes the case then it
may be that those homosexual people in which genetic factors are important
are not be typical of homosexuals generally. Incidentally, on this
question, the Catechism is entirely non-committal. It simply says
of homosexuality

It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in
different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.
(Catechism 2357)

This is something which we can see in our own society. With the rise
of the militant gay movement, many people “become gay” in their early
twenties as part of an alternative lifestyle. We also know that in
single sex institutions such as prisons, or boarding schools, homosexual
behaviour may be widely practised by people who are not permanently
inclined to homosexual affection.

We can therefore see the danger to young people of the tactic of some
gay groups to get people to “come out” about their homosexuality.
A great many people have homosexual feelings at some time or another
during the process of psycho-sexual maturing. To get someone in a
state of this sort to declare that they are gay actually takes away
their freedom. By going public, a person will find it difficult to
reverse the statement they have made and return to a heterosexual
lifestyle.

All of this, however, may be encroaching on other areas that will
be dealt with by speakers later in the day. From the point of view
of traditional moral teaching, we need simply say that whatever the
precise cause of a homosexual condition, it is not objectively in
accord with our human nature although the existence in a particular
person of a homosexual condition may come about through no moral fault
of that person. Of course, it may come about through some moral fault
to a greater or lesser degree if a person has failed to safeguard
their moral life or if a person has knowingly given in to the temptation
to take part in a certain lifestyle or mix in company that is dangerous
for them morally. Such judgements concerning culpability are, of course,
by no means limited to culpability for a homosexual condition. Many
of our traits of character that we now find very difficult or impossible
to change may have been brought about by a failure to live the full
standards of Christ’s moral teaching at some time in the past.

Pastoral approaches

Although there are legal and cultural questions where we must, as
Christians, stand up and be counted, it is clear that we should also
be aware of the obligations we have to pastoral care and spiritual
friendship. It is quite correct to say that many people find their
homosexual condition a great trial. People sometimes do appalling
things to themselves because of their feelings. We have a Christian
duty to communion with those who are wounded and in need of compassion,
solidarity and understanding. However, it is not generally the case
that Christians who follow traditional moral teaching lack compassion.
Anti-Christian propaganda often paints a very nasty picture of the
character of Christians who hold such teaching. It is possible to
find examples of extreme or uncaring views and distort them to appear
representative of all traditional Christians. In fact, traditional
Christian teaching is best placed to make sense of any person’s moral
dilemmas and to find a way out through the grace and mercy of Jesus
Christ.

For the priest or Christian minister it is important to be open and
accepting, to listen in a nonjudgmental way and in every way to fulfil
the demand of the Church to respect, compassion and sensitivity. The
Church as a whole also needs to be prepared to accept its responsibility
to those who have been wounded by the onslaught of sexual permissiveness
in western culture. In my view, the Church also needs to accept some
of the blame for failing to teach with courage and clarity what the
traditional Christian moral teaching offers as the human vision of
human love and friendship.

Call to chastity for all of us

The call to chastity is one to which we all need to return. The period
in the Church of the affluent West since the widespread controversy
over Humanae Vitae has not been notable for its confidence in promoting
the truly human and Christian values of Christians love and friendship.
We need to be more confident. We do not believe that every love must
be consummated in sex, nor do we accept that all the sexual activity
that takes place, even without the component of violence, it genuinely
loving. Many good friendships are spoiled by the greed for sexual
expression and many chaste friendships are made suspect, even in the
Church because we have lost our vision of genuine and sexually innocent
love. Chastity is possible and it is possible for all of us. The whole
body of Christ, not only homosexual people must comes humbly to recognise
this and accept the full truth of the teaching of Christ as the living
truth which makes sense of us, our sexuality and our loving.
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