Thomas Aquinas, the famous Dominican priest and theologian, promoted natural law as a sound basis for ethical teaching. This approach followed the great Greek thinkers and in particular Aristotle who used human reason alone to deduce binding rules of moral behavior.
Major problems have arisen as a result of the limitations of this natural law thinking when dealing with sexual morality. It was central to Pope Paul V1’s controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae which banned the use of condoms or the contraceptive pill even for married Catholics, basically because, following Aquinas’ model, the moral order dictates that one may not stymie or interfere with the natural procreative purpose of sex.
This papal edict was disregarded by almost 90% of Catholic couples as impractical. It has the distinction of being the first Vatican encyclical honored, in Shakespeare’s words far “more in the breach than in the observance.”
In the late sixties – at the time of the pope’s letter – the prevailing culture was hostile to gays. Queers were often dismissed as dysfunctional deviants, stigmatized as engaging in aberrant behavior which disobeyed the laws of nature.
Mainstream Christian teaching condemned homosexual acts as a clear breach of natural law and thus morally wrong.
Since the 1970’s societal attitudes to gays have changed dramatically. Most Western countries now propound the humanist belief system that eschews judging the sexual behavior of others and is comfortable with the philosophy of live and let live.
The Pew Research Center’s 2013 Global Attitudes Survey finds “broad acceptance of homosexuality in North America, the European Union and much of Latin America.” In many countries, including the United States and Ireland, gay marriage is now accorded the same protections and legal standing as male-female unions.
Sociologists are amazed by the speed of this massive change in attitude across the western world. It is correctly seen as a major paradigm shift in a short time frame from ignorance and intolerance of homosexuality to widespread acceptance of what is now often spoken of in terms of a different lifestyle.
The Christian churches in Europe and the United States face a major dilemma. Should they go with the new spirit of tolerance or revert to the old sermons that reflect the outright condemnation of homosexuality as an abomination, a viewpoint that is asserted in the books of Genesis and Leviticus as well as in the harsh epistolary reflections on same-sex relationships by the apostle, Paul?
Many theologians and biblical scholars point out that, whatever about the validity of assertions of divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments, all the books of both represent the thinking of the historical era when they were written with authors who reflect the beliefs and prejudices of their time.
True to this perspective, the Bible contains prohibitions against eating shell fish and has strange injunctions ordering the stoning of adulterers as well as those who work on the Sabbath, not to mention mandating the same treatment for awkward and disobedient children. And much more of the same!
Clearly these were tribal rules designed to deal with real situations thousands of years ago. It is close to blasphemous to suggest any divine input in such writings. Also, while Paul of Tarsus was fluent in advising Christians, especially women, on sexual matters, Christ had little to say about these issues. There is no record in the gospels of him even commenting on same-sex romantic behavior, suggesting strongly that it didn’t figure prominently in his sermons.
The Catholic Church responds to the new perspectives on the gay lifestyle by supporting laws that ban discrimination and by affirming the rights of homosexuals to a full social life free of any discrimination. However, the Vatican also asserts that same-sex intimate behavior is “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law.” It is a very tall order for a gay person to establish a positive relationship with a powerful institution that tells homosexuals, male and female, that they are loved but are also objectively disordered.
Some prominent conservative leaders in the church point to the prevalence of gays in the priesthood as the main reason for the clerical abuse crisis. This reasoning, based on an unfounded vision of out-of-control gay clerics with unnatural tendencies, is vehemently opposed by most commentators who point to clericalism, a hierarchical system that gives excessive and undue power to men wearing Roman collars, as the systemic root of the problem. The power of the clerical garb gave these immature men permission to act out their corrupt and evil fantasies.
Recent disturbing pronouncements from the highest levels in Rome about admission criteria to seminaries suggest that openly gay candidates are too risky for ordination and should be excluded. Advocates for a non-judgmental church, with the principles set down in the Sermon on the Mount as their guide, fear that gays are being scapegoated again. It is indeed inviting to point the guilty finger at queers and load the blame for the worst and most damaging church crisis since the Reformation on to their shoulders.
It should be noted that Cardinal Reinhart Marx, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, stated in an important interview last year that blessing of same-sex unions is allowed in German Catholic churches. Some Austrian dioceses follow the same protocol.
Note to Cardinal Dolan: If it is OK in Germany why not in New York where so many wonderful gay couples live, most of whom, unfortunately, feel alienated from the Catholic Church?
Protestant churches have similar internal differences about this thorny moral issue which can be appropriately seen as pitting tradition against modernity. Many are comfortable with the natural law argument and preach strongly against any diminution of the traditional Christian condemnatory stance.
They bolster their position by pointing to the biblical story about the denunciation of the sexual sins in Sodom described in Genesis as clear proof of God’s condemnation.
As long ago as 1963 the Quakers in England, who were very prescient in their analysis of the human issues involved, recognized the authenticity of same-sex relationships. The United Church of Christ celebrates gay marriage while some Anglicans and Lutherans provide a formal wedding blessing. The United Methodist Church elected a lesbian bishop in 2016, but two years later the Council of Bishops reversed the church’s liberal policy and today their official position opposes same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly-gay clergy.
Finally a word about Sodom which has come to represent the most glaring example in literature of lecherous debauchery because of the shameless sexual behavior associated with the biblical story about that ancient city. Many erudite modern scholars say that the Sodom message is not primarily about sexual depravity. They argue, based mainly on comments in later books of the Bible, that the Genesis authors wanted to convey that the worst sins that were committed in their powerful story reflected the shoddy welcome shown to the visitors in a Hebrew culture where generous and open hospitality was considered a paramount virtue.