One could arguably say that in no other time in her history has the Church faced such vehement opposition to her teaching regarding the immorality of homosexual acts. For this reason, it is especially important that the principles underlying her stance presented in a clear and pastoral manner.
With the advancement of many of the empirical sciences in the last half century, we are only now coming to understand just how complex an issue homosexuality is. While these sciences have aided in understanding much of the underlying psychology associated with same-sex attraction, it is because of the Church’s global vision of “the rich reality of the human person in his spiritual and physical dimensions” (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons(PCHP), 2) that the Church is able to authoritatively discuss how those who suffer from this disorder can achieve integral human fulfillment.
An important distinction needs to be made at the outset in order to fully understand the teaching. The Church makes a firm distinction between homosexual inclinations and homosexual acts. Having a homosexual inclination is not in and of itself sinful. This does not mean however that having such a tendency is neutral or even good. Because it is a tendency towards a grave moral evil, the inclination itself is properly understood as an objective disorder (PCHP, 3).
Even if a person has this inclination, the Church cautions against labeling a person as homosexual because there is something much more fundamental to each person than their sexual inclinations. In fact the Church, “refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: a creature of God and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life”(PCHP, 16).
Furthermore, it is important to recognize that no one is ontologically homosexual. The fact of the matter is that there really is no such thing as “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality”. In truth there are only two sexual identities; male and female. Our sexuality is the call of men and women to love as God loves in and through their bodies. The unfortunate reality is that we live in a fallen world where there can be distortions that obscure our sexual identity.
Even though the Church recognizes that same sex attraction is an objective disorder, in her wisdom she leaves it to the empirical sciences to determine what causes this inclination in some people and not in others. The Church does recognize that in most cases the inclination is not directly willed by the individual. Although the inclination is not directly willed, it does not mean that a person is not free to choose whether these inclinations are acted upon. For that reason she is most concerned with freely chosen homosexual acts when it comes to moral judgment.
Once this foundation is set, we can begin to look at the Church’s reasons for her constant teaching that homosexual activity is intrinsically evil. Like all of her moral teachings, the Church bases her reasoning “on human reason illumined by faith” (PCHP, 1).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexual acts are contrary to the natural law (CCC 2357). To see why this is the case, we begin by recalling that the first principles of the natural law are based upon the fundamental human goods, of which marriage and procreation are included. God is the author of human nature so what is natural is also good so that “we offend God only by acting contrary to our own good” as St Thomas says. The Church says that homosexual acts are immoral because they do harm to the good of the person by acting against fundamental human goods. The fundamental human goods that the sexual act is ordered to are the union between husband and wife and the procreation of children (CCC 2201, 2249). In other words, every sexual act then must be both unitive and ordered to procreation in order to be a true human good (CCC 2369).
Although this should be obvious to us, the fact that it is not is because we are steeped in a culture that approaches man dualistically and also encourages contraception. Much of Pope John Paul II’s teachings on Theology of the Body were spent trying to help us clear away these two dangerous misconceptions. In developing what he called an “adequate anthropology”, Pope John Paul II showed that the sexual difference that is marked by the reciprocal complementarity in the sexes reveals that the body has a spousal meaning. It is this complementarity through which man and woman are able to make a sincere gift of themselves to each other.
If we examine sodomitical or other homosexual activity we see that the unitive aspect of the marital act cannot be achieved. In fact because they lack sexual complementarity the act is truly self-indulgent in that each partner uses the other for his own gratification. Not only does this do harm to the spousal meaning of the body, but because it is based on an illusion of intimacy it leaves each of the partners emptier in their search for love.
These homosexual acts also lack the procreative aspect as well. Although this is obvious, many say that the marital embrace is not intrinsically ordered to procreation. One can then see how a culture’s acceptance of contraception leads to its acceptance of homosexual activity.
The Church’s teaching is also based upon divine revelation as well. There are numerous biblical passages in which homosexual activity is clearly condemned. Perhaps the best known passage is the story of Sodom (Gn 19:4-11, PCHP, 6). This story refers to the attempted homosexual rape of Lot’s visitors by the men of Sodom. Modern exegetes have attempted to reinterpret this passage and say that Sodom was destroyed for a lack of hospitality. However, this interpretation not only is contrary to the traditional understanding of the Church but also is contrary to the interpretation that is given in Scripture itself. The Letter of Jude says that the people of Sodom acted “immorally and indulged in unnatural lust” (Jude 7).
There are numerous texts within the New Testament as well, but the clearest condemnation comes in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans in which homosexual activity is regarded as punishment for disbelief: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26-27).
Even if these individual Scriptural texts were omitted, one could easily argue the immorality of homosexual acts based upon the Scriptural understanding of sexuality itself. Like her Divine Master, the Church points us back to” the beginning” to gain a proper understanding of human sexuality. “God, in his infinite wisdom and love, brings into existence all of reality as a reflection of his goodness. He fashions mankind, male and female, in his own image and likeness. Human beings, therefore, are nothing less than the work of God himself; and in the complementarity of the sexes, they are called to reflect the inner unity of the Creator. They do this in a striking way in their cooperation with him in the transmission of life by a mutual donation of the self to the other” (PCHP, 6). Only in marriage then do we find the proper place for sexual expression that finds its meaning in union and procreation.
In conclusion, despite the fact that the Church is often viewed as “intolerant” in her condemnation of homosexual activity, she bases her teachings on what is truly good for the human person. This has been the constant teaching of the Church and is confirmed by both natural law and divine revelation.