The Catholic Church’s official teaching on homosexuality distinguishes between homosexual individuals and what it calls the “homosexual condition.”
The difficulty many people have in understanding this teaching is the gap between affirming gays and lesbians as made in the divine image and loved by God while condemning sexual activity among gays and lesbians as “intrinsically disordered.” This teaching puts gays and lesbians in no different a position from heterosexual unmarried Catholics, who are also expected to refrain from sexual intercourse. On the other hand, unmarried heterosexuals can get married and thus, in the church’s eye, then engage legitimately in intimate sexual activity. Since same-sex marriage is not considered possible by the church, gays and lesbians are called to life-long celibacy.
A series of four conferences entitled More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church taking place between September 16 and October 29 are not set up either to explain or challenge the official teaching position of the church. Their point is to take up issues that the official teaching does not address. Fordham University’s conference (September 16) will give various individuals including Catholic gays and lesbians as well as parents of LGBT individuals the opportunity to talk about their experiences and those of their children. Union Theological Seminary (October 1) will explore the much-debated issue of the disproportionately large number of LGBT young people who commit suicide. Yale University Divinity School (October 22) is examining the respective roles of the legal system and the Church in the legislative issues over same-sex marriage. And Fairfield University (October 29) has chosen to consider pastoral care, both the care the Church extends to gay and lesbian Catholics and the important roles of LGBT Catholics in the provision of pastoral care, including but not exclusively concerned with homosexual clergy.
While none of these issues are directly addressed in the official teaching of the church on homosexuality, they are issues that affect all Catholics, including gay and lesbian Catholics, whether or not they find the teaching of the church to be persuasive. They follow from the church’s evident awareness that what it is calling LGBT Catholics to is not easy and that they need the support of the Church to live out their lives as gay and lesbian people. So it would be fair to say that what the conferences are doing is adding many more voices to the conversation in order to explore the implications of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
Many people, not just gays and lesbians, would like to see the church change its teaching on homosexuality. Recent surveys show what may to some be the surprising fact that Catholics form the American Christian denomination most favorable towards either same-sex marriage or civil unions (74 percent at the last count). In itself that doesn’t mean they are necessarily right or that the church will bend to such a statistic, but it does suggest that the gap between the current position of the teaching church and the apparent convictions of Catholics gives us something that we have to discuss.
As to whether Catholic Church teaching will ever change on this topic, it’s hard to say –though one should never say never. Teachings have changed in the past and they could do so again. What seems fairly sure is that they won’t change because the church will recognize same-sex marriage or partnership as a matter of human rights. If the teachings change they will change because of a religious or, more accurately, a theological justification. Those who believe such a change can or should occur focus on Catholic understandings of the goodness of creation, which includes the goodness of all human beings as God made them.
The biggest obstacle to change in the church is the centrality of “the natural law” in official Catholic sexual ethics, meaning by this term that sexuality is “ordered” to procreation and that while sexual pleasure is a legitimate and even God-given good it is only appropriate in relationships that reflect this “ordering,” namely, heterosexual marriage. So if the teachings on homosexuality are to change, that will probably have to be part of a larger change in the way the church understands sexuality, which would also have implications for other hot-button issues in Catholic teaching like premarital or extramarital sex, contraception, sterilization and so on. Right now, there is no sign that the church is ready to make such a momentous move. But that is no reason to delay having an honest, open conversation about sexual diversity and the Catholic Church.
Aloysius P. Kelley S.J. Professor of Catholic Studies
Director, Center for Catholic Studies