The often-acrimonious debate about the morality of the gay lifestyle continues in the Catholic Church. In most parishes members of the LGBT community feel more comfortable keeping a low profile, not making demands, while the majority of pastors avoid preaching about the knotty and complex issues of same-sex relationships.
While Judaism, as represented in the Old Testament, strongly condemned homosexual activity, you will search in vain in the four gospels, which tell of Christ’s sermons and lifestyle, for any criticism of same-sex relationships. His main message focuses on the primary importance of love and compassion among his followers, calling for special care for the poor and oppressed.
How then did these matters become so important in the teachings of the Catholic Church and indeed in most Christian denominations? The answer lies in what the theologians call natural law. Proponents of this approach to morality assert that any sexual activity other than between male and female is against the natural order. They point to the obvious way that men’s and women’s bodies complement each other as telling proof of nature’s intentions.
The problem with this logic arises because it ascribes a moral value to natural acts. The Catholic Church preaches that any sexual activity outside of the male-female variety is unnatural and thus “inherently disordered” and sinful.
This belief that same-sex romantic behavior is inherently depraved goes back centuries and has caused a great deal of suffering to the minority of the population that is gay. These men and women were frequently seen as freaks because their sexual interests and needs diverged from those of the vast majority of the population.
In the early 20th century a distinguished British philosopher named G.E. Moore wrote about a mistake in reasoning that he named the Naturalistic Fallacy. In a word, he argued that just because something is natural does not make it morally good or desirable. Applied to the area of sexual morality, the alleged naturalness of any intimate behavior should not determine its morality.
To explain their thinking Moore’s followers sometimes use a simple example by pointing to a mother who chooses to bottle feed her baby rather than the clearly natural method of breastfeeding. Would anybody argue that the decision to use a bottle formula to feed a newborn is somehow a breach of the natural law and thus immoral?
There has been a major shift in attitudes to homosexuals in Western society. Gay marriage, which was unthinkable to most people a mere generation ago, is now legal in the majority of European countries as well as in the United States and Canada.
However, the Catholic Church has maintained a hard line against the gay lifestyle, even though various professional studies suggest that a disproportionate number of the clergy at all levels of the church is homosexual. In a recent book In the Closet of the Vatican, the author, Frederic Martel, claims that the Vatican curias or departments are rife with homosexuals, closeted and barely hidden.
Traditionalists in the church blame the sexual abuse crisis on gays. They point to the fact that most of the children abused are boys, proof, in their eyes, that gays are mainly responsible for the depredations of so many priests and brothers.
Progressives reject this thinking and explain the provenance of male victims by pointing to the easier availability to predators of boys rather than girls in sacristies and playgrounds. They identify the huge accrual of power over centuries by the clergy as the main source of corruption in the church. Such unchecked authority leads inevitably to clericalism and, unfortunately, to the reprehensible clerical behavior.
Liberal commentators argue further that the exclusion of women from nearly all positions of ecclesiastical power sidelined an important voice that might well have cried stop, which the male hierarchy failed dismally to do.
Pope Francis, a man of great compassion who lends a willing ear to all oppressed groups, seems to have taken both sides in this church debate. Shortly after his election as pope he was asked about gays in the church and replied magnanimously “who am I to judge?”Also, in dialoguing with a gay young man, Juan Carlos, a survivor of clerical sex abuse from Chile, he assures him “God made you like this and loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are.”
However, Francis has issued official declarations opposing same-sex unions and he has spoken against adoption by gay couples. More important, he urged bishops not to admit to their seminaries young men with “deeply-rooted homosexual tendencies.”
Such a vague policy is wide open to abuse. Who plays the role of Solomon in determining what level of “tendency” disqualifies an applicant?
The pope had a friendly meeting recently with Fr. James Martin, the Jesuit theologian who lives in Manhattan, whose recent book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity is a heartfelt plea for a closer dialogue between the church and homosexuals.
Martin urges that the disparaging description of gays as “intrinsically disordered” must be dropped. How do you build a positive relationship with anyone if your calling card includes a demeaning trope? Instead he suggests the non-judgmental description “differently ordered.”
That would be a great start, but many church traditionalists, led by the American Cardinal Burke who heads the anti-Francis brigade, say that Fr. Martin’s book “upends the teaching of the church, legitimizing relations between persons of the same sex.”
There is no guarantee that James Martin’s humane and thoughtful approach will prevail, but it certainly accords with the opinion of most Catholics and with the gospel values that should surely underpin all beliefs in the Christian community. Gerry OShea blogs at Gays in the Cat