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 Homosexuality and the Catholic Church               Gerry OShea

Up until 1973 homosexuality was considered a mental illness, meaning for instance, that any member of the medical profession in the United States, identifying as gay, was liable to lose his or her license. In those years, sodomy was listed as a crime in 42 states.

 The cultural milieu in most Western countries which allowed this blatant discrimination has changed dramatically in just a few years, and gays now can comfortably proclaim their sexual orientation without fear of recrimination.

Pete Buttigieg represents a good example of this transformation in American life. From a modest leadership role as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he ran for the nomination of the Democratic Party in the last presidential election. He acquitted himself with distinction in all the debates and public appearances, often accompanied by his husband, Chasten. Mr. Buttigieg now serves as the Secretary of Transportation in the Biden administration.

 Official Catholic Church teaching about the gay lifestyle has not changed. They consider intimate relationships between same-sex couples as intrinsically evil, meaning morally depraved. Their thinking relies on natural law, which, the Vatican contends clearly confines sexual activity to men and women for the purpose of procreation.  

The church has struggled with the sexual dimension of living from the early years of Christianity, which is surprising because Christ had little to say about the subject. In the second century, Tertullian, who is considered the first major Christian theologian, viewed sexuality as “a bubbling cesspit of desire.” For him, it became the sin that transcended all others, and the finger was pointed at women as the devil’s source of man’s downfall, a demeaning contention certainly not supported in the four gospels.

St Augustine, writing in the 4th century, after years of libertine living, cast a cold eye on all sexual activity. Adopting a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden tale, he propounded the amazing idea that the fruit that Eve and later Adam ate was laced with sexual desire. This led them both to feel shamefully compelled to cover their genitals, proof, in this convoluted logic, that the sexual drive was out of control.

Many scholars are critical of Augustine for aligning sex with original sin, and they identify his teaching as the main source of Western society’s negative attitudes in this important area. His legacy certainly helps to explain the genesis of Catholic misapprehensions about romance and lovemaking.

Augustine condemned “sins against nature, the sin of Sodom as abominable and deserving of punishment.” The other great Father of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, living in the 14th century, was even more explicit, warning that practicing homosexuals will suffer “more pains in hell than anyone else for the sin against nature by which man debases himself lower than even his animal nature.”

These eminent proponents of Christian theology both point to the gay lifestyle as a breach of natural law, running counter to the clear sexual complementarity between male and female. Logicians tellingly reject as fallacious drawing moral conclusions from natural proclivities. In other words, the biological symbiosis between the two sexes should not be used to justify ethical norms of human behavior.

Modern science also suggests a different perspective. Human sexuality is most appropriately seen as a continuum from heterosexual, which identifies about 86% of people, to homosexuals and bisexuals who cover nearly all of the remainder. The strongest current evidence indicates crucial genetic contributions to the identity question. A person’s biological makeup plays a big part in sexual orientation. However, no complex human behaviors are caused by one or just a few genes, so researchers suggest a mix of biological and environmental factors in determining sexual attraction.

There were rumblings of dissent for years about the clear, not-an-inch injunction from Rome disallowing intimacy in loving gay relationships, but in the era of Benedict and John Paul II, both outspoken proponents of traditional beliefs, no member of the hierarchy dared to criticize the status quo in this area.

 In early February of this year, Cardinal Jean-Paul Hollerich from Luxembourg, who serves as the president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, declared that his church’s teaching on homosexuality is wrong. “I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct.”

The cardinal elaborated further. “There is no [condemnation of] homosexuality in the New Testament. There is just a brief mention of what were partly pagan ritual acts.” He went on to stress that the church has to remain human and in touch with positive modern thinking.

Then, Cardinal Reinhard Marx from Munich in Germany, in late March, stated in a bombshell interview that “homosexuality is not a sin. The catechism is not set in stone; one may also question what it says.”

Earlier in March, at a Mass celebrating the 20th anniversary of “queer services” in Munich, Marx apologized for the church’s discrimination against gays and pledged to play his part in moving the teaching forward to more enlightened pronouncements about same-sex behavior.

Perhaps, with Thomas Aquinas’ harsh declaration about the eternal damnation of gay people in his sights, he cautioned that “those who threaten homosexuals or anyone else with hell have understood nothing.”

A few years ago, Rome announced a ban on priests providing a blessing for married gay couples. The official rationale given qualifies as a real head-scratcher: God does not and cannot bless sin. Refusing a priestly benediction for loving couples seems particularly mean-spirited and un-Christian to many churchgoers. Cardinal Marx agrees and he has breached this prohibition and provided a blessing on a few occasions.

Last month priests in Germany offered blessing services in over 100 locations across Germany in a planned campaign which they named “Love Wins, Blessing Service for Lovers.”

Polls show that a clear majority of Catholics in Europe and the United States embrace a live-and- let-live belief system. Crude anti-gay jokes, commonly heard thirty years ago, are now dismissed as inappropriate and unacceptable.

However, the avatars of traditional thinking, conservative members of the hierarchy in the Vatican magisterium, reject any change in the old formulation about sexual behavior as an intrinsic evil.

German Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the former prefect for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responded in anger to the blessing of gay couples, terming it an act of “blasphemy” in outright defiance of Church teaching.

Muller is joined by Cardinal Joseph Zen from Hong Kong and many American bishops in calling on Pope Francis to intervene and stop the German church from going into “schism.”

Will the Catholic Church hang on to the old and outmoded certainties on this crucial issue, or will it move with the modern scientific insights that lead to a positive appreciation of the gay lifestyle?

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking

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