Jan 8, 2013
By Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D.
The Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality is one rooted in what philosophers call natural law, but also illuminated by divine revelation. This means that the Church understands her teaching to be grounded in those truths that unaided human reason can affirm about the nature and purpose of human sexuality, but that what God has revealed in both Sacred Scripture and Tradition on the matter provides additional light.
The ends and purposes of marriage and sex
According to the Magisterium of the Church, the basic ends or purposes of marriage and sexuality are twofold: union and procreation. By the “unitive” end, she means the one-flesh bodily union of the couple, made possible by the complementary character of the male and female gender difference. By the “procreative” end, she means the openness to life-in-its-transmission, made possible by the complementary character of the male and female bodies with their sexual capacity.
In Catholic teaching, only the union between a man and woman can realize the full spiritual, emotional, and moral bond between the couple. As well, only the male-female coupling can realize the end of the generation of new human life. This remains true even if the act of sexual intercourse is made sterile either by nature or by human interference, or if artificial means of producing life are substituted for sexual intercourse (e.g., IVF).
The moral difference between homosexual and heterosexual sex acts
Official Catholic moral teaching holds that while the same-sex attraction or inclination is not in itself sinful, the inclination considered anthropologically is an “objective disorder.” By this expression, the Church does not mean that the person who calls himself or herself gay or lesbian is disordered, but that the homosexual orientation (whatever its origin) is so because it inclines one to engage in acts that can only be intrinsically immoral (and therefore harmful on many levels) for the one who performs them.
Hence, not all sex acts are morally good. For human sexual expression to be morally good, various criteria must be met:
It must take place between one man and one woman who are committed to each other in marriage (excluding all others in both fact and fantasy).
It must be open to new life (no contraception/direct sterilization). Even when heterosexual married persons are by nature unable to achieve the procreative end (e.g., they are infertile due to disease or old age), they still may remain capable of engaging in acts of a “reproductive kind.” Thus, married couples need neither to be able to procreate nor intend to do so; they must simply be open to its possibility, doing nothing to impede life-in-its-coming-to-be. In a word, they must engage in sexual intercourse as spouses.
No unjust discrimination
The Church proposes sound reasons for her teaching that men and women of the same-sex cannot rightly marry or engage in sexual activity. Her teaching has nothing to do then with any kind of animus toward people with a same-sex attraction or a desire to discriminate against them. It is far removed from any kind of singling out for condemnation or scorn, those persons who find themselves with a sexual attraction to the same sex. Rather, the Church looks with compassion on such persons because she understands that this attraction can either prevent or disable a person for an opposite-sex-relationship that is oriented to the formation of a family.
Marriage simply does not include in its definition the wedded union of same-sex partners. That is, “gay marriage” is, by nature, an oxymoron since these persons are unable to achieve the ends and goods of marriage/sexuality – i.e., marital friendship and fruitfulness – as homosexuals.
A teaching confirmed by Scripture and Tradition
Not only does the natural law undermine any claim that homosexual acts are morally good, but the Scriptural witness – both Old and New Testament – unanimously confirms this conclusion in several passages. A classic text confirming this judgment for Catholics is St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:26-27, where the Apostle condemns how males and females gave up “natural relations” with each other in exchange for “unnatural” same-sex genital relations.
The Biblical testimony regarding the immorality of homosexual acts is taken up by the Church Fathers and taught consistently by the entire Tradition of the Church. These acts (often called “sodomy”) are taught as morally wrong for (1) contradicting God’s Word in the Scriptures; (2) being “unnatural”; and (3) violating the natural moral law.
Political pressure and pastoral response
Although there is great political and cultural pressure being brought to bear on the Catholic Church today to change her teaching in favor of homosexuality, the Church maintains that she is called to take to heart the old admonition, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” She does not regard herself at liberty to change her teaching to suit the times or political correctness. She is the interpreter and guardian of both divine revelation and natural law, a custodian of the wisdom of these two sources of doctrine.
The Church therefore calls all men and women, whatever their vocation or sexual orientation, to a life of holiness – and that includes the virtue of chastity. She knows that only a chaste sexual life will help lead human persons to fulfillment and true happiness in this life and the next. The virtue of chastity, far from constituting a “no” to sex, enables its possessors to love others in ways that respect their particular vocational situation as single, married, celibate priest or religious, and so on.
When the Catholic Church teaches the immorality of homosexual acts, she is not preaching hate or denying anyone’s rights. Rather, she is telling the truth in love, hoping that her message will set all men and women free from their disordered passions, sexual or whatever. For the Church to say otherwise would be a refusal to recognize what reality and reason teach us about the fundamental goods of marriage and sex. This is why the Church will forever defend the truth that marriage is between one man and one woman, for life.
Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 22 years. He is the co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), author of numerous articles and the forthcoming book, What's a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013).