The sea change that has happened in attitudes to homosexuality during the last half-century marks this era as a time of massive cultural movement. Fifty years ago people often denigrated men and women who were gay; in fact, for most people talking about same-sex attraction elicited incomprehension and, too often, condemnation.
Today the gay lifestyle has been accepted as an added welcome dimension of Western culture. Same-sex marriage is part of life now, best explicated in this country by a mayor of a small town, Pete Buttigieg, who introduced his husband at many of his rallies and who made a positive impact on the Democratic race for the party’s presidential nomination. While polls showed some resistance to the mayor because of his sexual orientation, most Democrats claimed that his marriage arrangement did not influence their voting preference.
As late as the 1960’s and into the 70’s, the scientific community, led by psychiatrists in this area, viewed the intimate behavior of homosexuals as a clinical disorder. Many recommended a treatment called aversion therapy, a method which often included administering shocks designed to change the sexual orientation of the recipient. This approach usually included prescribing nausea-inducing drugs to be taken by the “patient” before watching same-sex erotic videos.
Apart from being cruel and harmful, this approach was ineffective. Such crude therapeutic methods are rarely used anymore, especially since 1973 when homosexuality was officially removed as a disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – known widely as the DSM.
Most Christian churches have not really changed in their declarations on this issue. Catholic church leaders have condemned discrimination against gays and admonished their members against showing prejudice based on sexual orientation, but over seventy gay employees in Catholic institutions were fired when they openly declared their sexual preference.
Early in his papacy Francis responded to a question about this matter by issuing a plea for broadmindedness and magnanimity: “Who am I to judge?” he declared. Since then he seems to have veered back to a more traditional perspective by recommending that young men who are deemed to have gay tendencies should not be admitted to any seminary.
This kind of thinking goes away back to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and, in fact, to a brilliant Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who lived a few centuries before Christ. They both wrote about the natural law and made it the cornerstone of their moral code.
Thomistic reasoning, grounded in Aristotle’s philosophy, is straightforward and understandable in the area of sexuality. Men and women obviously function differently for the purpose of procreation. Their bodies complement each other leading to pregnancy and the continuation of the species.
No argument so far, but Aquinas concludes that only heterosexual behavior is natural and thus ethically permissible. All other kinds of sexual activity, and certainly same-sex intimate behavior, are condemned as sinful. Thus, successive popes have denounced romantic activity between people of the same sex as deviant and intrinsically disordered.
“There’s the rub” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet says in his famous soliloquy because that conclusion about homosexual behavior is the major point of contention. Promoting a moral code based on conjoining the natural and the moral is highly questionable. And telling members of the LGBTQ community that they are valued members of the church – while describing an important part of their lives as unnatural – leaves many gays alienated from the institution and all its rituals.
Logicians write about the naturalistic fallacy which is at the heart of this debate. They assert that promoting moral imperatives based on what is seen as natural behavior breaches correct thinking. What is deemed natural should not be determinative of what is morally right or wrong.
What does modern science say about the issue? What decides a person’s sexual orientation? Biological factors such as genetics and pre-natal development largely explain why about ten per cent of humans – irrespective of culture – are gay. By the time that teenagers are awakening to their sexuality, the dye is already set. A clear majority wants to deal with the opposite sex, but a significant minority realize they have a different orientation. The young man or woman has no choice in the matter because genetic codes are not reversible.
There is no record of Christ commenting on the reality of homosexuality in his lifetime. Biblical scholars believe that if he had spoken about the issue, one of the gospel sources would surely have noted his views. St. Paul, who never met Jesus, does make some condemnatory comments, which carry a lot of weight with all the Christian churches.
The Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, which was finalized with its present content around 500 years before the birth of Christ, concerns itself mainly about rituals and rules for the Jewish people. There is no doubt about their opinion on same-sex relationships: “If a man lies with a man as with a woman, they both have done what is detestable and must be put to death.” Suffice to say that all the books of the bible, Old and New Testament, must always be understood in terms of the culture and behavioral expectations of their time.
Devout Christians speak of God’s providence as all-encompassing. From this perspective, a person’s sexual inclinations reflect the divine will. Would God create a person with strong sexual desires that could not be fulfilled? Perhaps we should be humbler and more circumspect when making pronouncements about the inscrutable designs of the Judaeo-Christian deity.
A majority of Catholics today have no problem with the gay lifestyle. They seem to take a live-and-let-live approach with no regard for what goes on in anyone’s bedroom.
This view is supported in an important statement by the German Catholic bishops. After a wide-ranging consultation they affirmed that homosexuality should be seen as a normal part of human development. This discussion took place under the aegis of the Commission for Marriage and Family of the German Bishops’ Conference last December. They wisely included several outside scientific experts in their deliberations.
The Conference concluded that “the sexual preference of humans is expressed during puberty and assumes a heterosexual or homosexual orientation at that time. Both belong to the normal forms of sexual predisposition that cannot be changed.” Later they add that the debate on the church ban on “practiced homosexuality is still timely and has been a hot topic just like the question of the legitimacy of using artificial contraceptives in marriage and by unmarried couples.”
These discussions are part of the Synodal Way in Germany where the various crises in the church are being seriously examined by a group of clergy and laity. They plan to report in the end of next year. Not surprisingly, the four areas of synodal concentration include a section on priestly celibacy and another on the impact on the church of the modern understanding of sexuality.
The church – like all human institutions – doesn’t like to admit that it is wrong on any issue. Think of the 400 years it took the Vatican to apologize to poor Galileo. The church leaders then felt that they couldn’t be in error because the Book of Genesis said the earth was the center of the universe. Many leaders in the Vatican are stuck today in old Thomistic reasoning about what is natural and unnatural behavior. The people have moved on and the German synod is showing the way to avoid another Galileo embarrassment.
GerryOShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com