In my high school apologetics class (in a Catholic school), I have students write a paper on the topic, "Can homosexual acts be ethical?" I role-play several fictional characters in the class, including a Catholic (George Stewart) and an Agnostic (Robert Merryweather). Students have to write their paper to either George or Robert, depending on which one answers the question the opposite way they do (George answers no and Robert answers yes). Whoever they write to then writes back and responds to their arguments, and a dialogue ensues, which continues over four drafts.
I value this paper very highly because of the skills I think it is well-suited to build. Here is something I say about that in a document explaining the paper:
By engaging in the dialogue with their interlocutor (the person they're writing to), they are enabled to have a conversation which will require them to learn better to recognize their own assumptions and their interlocutor's assumptions. "What do I really think? Why do I think what I think? How have I arrived at my conclusions? What assumptions or beliefs do I have that I may not even have previously noticed on a conscious level? Do I really have a good basis for my opinions and convictions? Why does my interlocutor think the way he does? Why does he come to the conclusions he does? Why do I not arrive at those same conclusions? Where do we diverge in our beliefs in such a way that we are led to these different conclusions? What merit is there in my interlocutor's point of view? Does he have good arguments? If so, why don't I agree with him? If I don't find his arguments finally convincing, where do I think his reasoning goes wrong?" And so on.
By practicing and getting better at these skills, students will learn to better understand themselves and others, to recognize why people think differently about various subjects, to understand why different people do different things, to be better able to examine questions about what is really true and to come to reasonable and warranted conclusions, to have good reasons for their beliefs and to recognize better what those reasons are, to be more empathetic with others who think differently while at the same time being able to hold on to what they really think to be true, and to more effectively dialogue with people they disagree with. This leads to an "iron sharpening iron" sort of situation where everyone is able more effectively to reach truth, and it also leads to a more peaceful and compassionate society where people are able better to interact with and live alongside those they disagree with.
I picked it because it is a controversial topic in our culture today. I picked it because it is a topic upon which most people have pretty strong opinions, and which is important to a lot of people. I picked it because it is a topic where a particular point of view has, very recently, become very entrenched and dominant in our culture, and the alternative point of view has come to be seen more and more as obviously wrong, outrageous, and even evil. I picked it because it is an area where the Catholic point of view is at odds, in some ways, with the dominant point of view in our surrounding culture. All of these things make this topic an ideal one for the practice of a dialogue designed to really challenge students to grow in the skills of self-awareness, other-awareness, the questioning of assumptions, and effective dialogue, especially in a Catholic school setting. High school seniors are at a point in life, typically, where they are learning to think for themselves and form their own opinions and identity relative to the culture of their upbringing as well as the surrounding culture. Teenagers raised Catholic are in a fascinating position, as they are heirs of a culture that, while it agrees with the broader, surrounding culture in many areas, yet is out of step with that culture in some crucial and important areas. This creates a serious tension, as these teenagers often experience a strong pull in opposite directions. Serious and critical engagement on a topic like this can be ideal as a practice ground for learning to think critically about the conflicting points of view they are trying to navigate through. And non-Catholic students, similarly, gain much by exploring and dialoguing about this subject.
Robert Merryweather’s Answer to the Question
I’ve been asked to comment upon the question, “Can it be ethical to engage in homosexual acts?” My answer to that question is yes, it can be ethical.
My views on homosexuality are, of course, rooted in my broader worldview assumptions. I am an agnostic. I believe that, at this time, we humans do not possess knowledge of anything beyond the natural, empirical world that we inhabit and experience with our senses. I do not assert that such knowledge could never be had in principle. I won't even assert dogmatically that absolutely no one at all has such knowledge now, but I claim that if anyone does have such knowledge, it does not seem to be generally available to us. So perhaps I should say that there seems to be no publicly verifiable knowledge available to the human race at present of anything beyond the natural world. Of course, unlike George, as an agnostic I do not have “official documents” I can refer you to to find out more about agnosticism. Agnosticism is a substantial view regarding what we know and what we don't know, and it greatly affects how we view the world we live in, but in a sense it is a much more “negative” worldview than George's—not “negative” in the sense of “bad” but rather in the sense that it is more an affirmation of what we don't know than a list of things we do know. This makes it much easier to define. If you want to see more descriptions and definitions of agnosticism, I would recommend the Wikipedia article on “Agnosticism” as a good basic overview, as well as Bertrand Russel's essay What is an Agnostic?
Of course, not everyone agrees with me about agnosticism, and many non-agnostic holders of other worldviews have claimed that their worldview can indeed be known to be true and have presented arguments attempting to show this. If I wish to avoid begging the question, then, in my claims regarding homosexuality which are rooted in my agnosticism—and I do!—I must do something to respond to these arguments. George and I have written up a debate document (found on Google Classroom) in which we have argued for our respective worldviews. I will not repeat my arguments here, but simply refer you to those documents.
It may be that there is more to reality than the natural, empirical world, but if there is, we don't know about it. No doubt there is much about the natural, empirical world even that we don't know. But in constructing a system of ethics and deciding how practically to live our lives, we cannot build on what we don't know but only on what we do know. If someone suggests that we ought to follow the commands of the Christian God just in case Christianity might turn out to be true, well, what if Islam, or Hinduism, or for that matter the ancient Aztec or Norse religion turns out to be true? We will simply have dug ourselves into a deeper hole, perhaps, by trying to be Christian. Of course, the religions overlap to a great extent in terms of practical advice, but then in most of the areas of overlap—such as prohibitions against murder, theft, etc.—one can reach the same conclusions on naturalistic grounds as well and so one doesn't need to know anything about the supernatural to establish such things. When we go beyond these basic ethical principles, however, and begin to get into more specific practical commands and prohibitions of the various religions, we find that the religions differ greatly. Is it a sin to eat pork? Christianity says yes, Islam and Judaism say no, etc. Also, there are times when the historic religions of the world mostly agree on certain particular principles, but that agreement seems to be rooted more in custom and prejudice than rational consideration. Homosexuality is, I think, one of those cases. Many religions have been against it in human history, but I don't think they can show that they have had good reasons to be against it (barring belief in the supernatural claims of the religions). If human antiquity nearly agrees on something, that should give us pause and make us consider the matter carefully, but it should not determine the matter for us if the position seems to be without or contrary to reason. After all, there are many things—slavery, for instance, or lack of religious freedom, or belief in magical cures for diseases—which have been nearly unanimously thought to be OK by most human cultures in history which we now reject as irrational and not conducive to human thriving. Homosexuality has been objected to by many historic religions, but that doesn't prove they had (or have) a good reason to be against it. And not all cultures have been against it. In fact, it has been widely practiced in various forms throughout the world’s cultures (the Wikipedia article on “Homosexuality” documents some of this). Research has shown that it is even present sometimes in the non-human animal world!
At any rate, we can only
work with what we have, and all we have, agnostics claim, is what we know of
the natural, empirical world. This includes our knowledge of the external,
physical world as well as our knowledge of our own inner thoughts, desires,
etc. George's Catholic worldview claims that there is an “objective moral law”
rooted in the will of God. We were created by God and belong to him, and
therefore there is a purpose for which we were made and to which we have a duty
to conform. But I see no basis to claim the existence of any such “objective
moral law.” What I do see is that we all have desires. We all
want to be happy. There are certain things that are more conducive to making us
happy, other things less conducive. Since we all want to be happy, we will want
to live in such a way as to be as happy as we can be. It is out of this fact, I
believe, that ethics arises. Ethics, in my view, is the art of recognizing both
our desires and the relevant facts of the universe in order to find a way to
live that brings about happiness and contentment. I would argue that the sorts
of motivations that are natural to us include motives of self-interest, by
which we seek our own personal happiness and well-being, and also motivations
which embrace a concern for others—such as love, empathy, sympathy, compassion.
As beings who have evolved in a social context, we are not only naturally concerned
for ourselves, but we are also naturally concerned for other beings around us
who we can see are like us in their capacity to experience pleasure and pain.
Therefore, I would argue that, ordinarily, the best way to live the happiest
life we can is to live in a way that balances self-interest with other-focused
motivations. We don't want to be too selfish, and on the other hand we don't
want to live as slaves to the desires of others to the point of our own misery.
I could go further on this point, but instead I will refer you to an excellent
little essay by Fred Edwords, The
Human Basis of Laws and Ethics, which I think has
argued for these points in a very compelling way. Here's another
good one from Ronald Lindsay.
Homosexual Acts Can Be Ethical
It can be ethical to engage in homosexual acts. Why? Because it makes the people who engage in them happy. Of course, I’m speaking generally. It would not make everyone in the world happy to engage in homosexual acts at any time, in any circumstances, etc. Probably the large majority of the world’s population has no desire to engage in homosexual acts and would find no pleasure in doing so, and would probably find the practice very undesirable. And even those who are inclined towards homosexuality would, of course, need to use prudence in terms of how, when, with whom, etc., to engage in homosexual acts. So, as with any human activity, there are a lot of prudential questions to answer in terms of the specifics of when and how homosexual acts should be engaged in. All I’m saying is that homosexual activity, like heterosexual activity, is not off the map in terms of ethical activities some humans might reasonably choose to engage in.
Why would homosexual activity be unethical? Some might argue that it is unethical because it spreads disease. But homosexual activity does not in itself, inherently, spread disease. Sure, there are imprudent ways in which one might engage in homosexual activity that might spread disease, just as is the case with heterosexual activity. Random and unthinking promiscuity—whether heterosexual or homosexual—runs a high risk for disease, both for oneself and for one’s sexual partners. Perhaps certain forms of homosexual activity might be prone to the spread of disease or to other physical harm. But this is all irrelevant to the real point here. I like the way the original question is framed. The question is not, “Is it ethical at any time and in any way to engage in homosexual acts?”, but “Can it be ethical to engage in homosexual acts?” My answer is yes, it can be ethical, if done reasonably and prudently.
Some might argue that homosexual activity is unethical because it can cause psychological harm, or harm to families (such as when a person leaves his/her spouse to get involved in a homosexual relationship). Well, yes, again, of course there are ways of engaging in homosexual acts that can cause psychological harm, or can harm families. If Bob is strongly convinced that homosexual activity is wrong, or dangerous, or whatever, and he engages in it anyway, he may experience great psychological discomfort. Again, I am not saying that everyone in any situation ought to engage in homosexual activity. Bob might want to abstain, at least until perhaps someday he has a change in his beliefs about homosexuality. And if a person leaves a spouse or some other committed relationship to form a homosexual relationship, this can cause harm to the former spouse or partner. But, again, this is irrelevant to the point of the original question. We’re talking here about questions of adultery and other questions extraneous to the pure question of the ethicalness of homosexual acts per se. Sexuality is a big deal in human life and society. One’s sexual behavior can have a great impact on oneself and others. So, again, one must proceed prudently, as well as compassionately, when one is considering engaging in some specific sexual act. All of this has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. It’s exactly the same with heterosexual activity.
Some might argue that homosexuality used to be considered a psychological disorder. This is true. But this is no longer the case. The basic medical consensus today is that the earlier designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder was based on lack of data, stereotypes, false cultural assumptions, etc. The Wikipedia article on homosexuality discusses this here. Based on our current level of scientific and medical knowledge, there is simply no reason to classify homosexuality as a mental or psychological disorder.
Another popular objection is that homosexuality is “unnatural”. Sexuality, so the argument goes, is obviously designed with reference to procreation. It is obviously designed as an act that is to take place between a male and a female. To take it out of that context, then, is to misuse it by using it “unnaturally”.
Of course, there is truth in this objection. It is obvious that sexuality is something that has been “designed” by evolution for the primary function of allowing males and females to procreate. Who could deny this? It’s one of the most obvious facts of the biological world. But it is also completely irrelevant to this discussion. This objection seems to take the idea of “nature” and give it quasi-personal properties, as if “nature” were some kind of god who creates things for some purpose and has ownership over them, demanding that they be used in certain ways. It’s as if the objector is picturing nature as looking down (from somewhere) and saying, “Hey you! Don’t you go using sexuality outside of male-female relationships and for purposes other than procreation! That’s not what I made it for!” But this is to endow “nature” with something like religious qualities. From a scientific standpoint, “nature” is nothing more than the processes by which things in the natural world function. So far as the scientific evidence goes, there is no reason to believe that any person designed sexuality or any other aspect of the natural world. Sexuality, like living systems in general, evolved over millions of years by means of random mutations and natural selection. Organisms reproduce and make copies of themselves. These copies make their own copies, and so on. Sometimes the copies aren’t exactly the same as the versions they came from. Sometimes the differences hurt the survival of the copy, sometimes they help. “Natural selection” simply refers to the fact that some organisms survive better than others. In the evolutionary history of life, sexuality probably developed because the mixing of DNA from multiple parents increased diversity in the offspring, and diversity helps a species survive and thrive. There is no actual design, no intentional purpose, in this process of evolution. So far as our scientific knowledge goes, sexuality was not created by any person for any specific purpose. It is not owned by some god, who gets to dictate by some objective moral law how it is to be used. As I said earlier, ethics is not rooted in some objective moral law of God, but in our own human desires as we navigate the realities of the world around us, trying to be happy. So it is completely irrelevant to the ethicalness of an action whether that action is “natural” or “unnatural” in the senses under consideration. All that matters is whether it promotes happiness. And, of course, homosexual activity, engaged in rationally and prudently in the proper circumstances, does promote happiness. So the fact that it is “unnatural” does not at all make it unethical.
The “It’s unnatural” argument seems to me to be a bit question-begging as well, in that the users of this argument don’t actually seem to believe their own argument. They merely use it to support a position they’ve already reached on other grounds. Why do I say that? Because they use the argument selectively. Sexuality is not the only thing we humans have taken out of its original or primary context to make different uses of. We do this all the time with the things we find in the world. Is it “natural” to cut down a tree and build a house out of it? Surely the original and primary role of a tree is to live and grow as a tree. But we cut it down and use the wood to build all sorts of things. Is it “natural” to shave a sheep and use its wool to make clothes? Is it “natural” to cook food? Is it “natural” to build canals, or irrigate fields? Is it natural to build machines so that humans can fly through the air to distant places, or even to go into space and walk on the moon? After all, as the old saying goes, “If man were meant to fly, he’d have been born with wings!” I don’t see any way in which all of these things can be declared to be “natural” that will preclude homosexuality from being declared “natural” as well. If I can cut down a tree and use its wood to build a house, why can’t I take the sexual act and make use of it in a homosexual relationship for enjoyment, to create bonding in a relationship that brings joy or security, etc.? If the latter is unnatural, so is the former. If we say the former is natural because it is natural for humans to use their brains to find new uses for things that had a different original use, then isn’t that exactly what those who engage in homosexual acts are doing with sexuality?
Some might argue that homosexuality is a choice rather than a condition people are born with. But this does not seem to be true. (Again, see the Wikipedia article for a helpful discussion and some resources on this.) But, even more importantly, I think it is irrelevant. What if it were true that homosexuality was a choice rather than having any deeper inherent roots in biology, etc.? Why would that make it unethical? Do I have to prove that an inclination to some activity is rooted in my genes or my basic biology in order for it to be ethical for me to engage in that activity? Do I have to prove that I am hard-wired to play video games in order to justify playing them? Do I have to prove that I have some kind of gene for world travel in order to justify enjoying traveling around the world? Do I have to prove that I have a built-in genetic basis to be attracted to brunettes before I can be justified in marrying a brunette? In all of these things, is it not enough to say that I have chosen to do these things because they make me happy? So why would it be otherwise with homosexual activity?
Some might argue that homosexual acts are contrary to the law of God. Well, prove to me that that is the case, and we’ll see where it takes us. But, for now, I’m an agnostic, so this argument doesn’t have much weight with me. If religion is something that is unprovable, then it should be a personal matter. If you choose to practice a religion that is opposed to homosexuality, more power to you. But you can’t judge others on the basis of your religion as if that religion constituted some objective norm for the whole human race. That would be contrary to reason.
I think I’ve pretty much established my case to my satisfaction, so I’ll draw this essay to a close.
George Stewart’s Answer to the Question
“Can it be ethical to engage in homosexual acts?” No, I don’t think it can be.
I am a Catholic, and so I hold to the Catholic worldview. The Catholic worldview is described in great detail in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in a more condensed form in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is summarized in the Nicene Creed. The Wikipedia article on the Catholic Church is also helpful. We believe that there are two fundamental sources of knowledge-- reason (which refers to what God has made known to us by means of our senses and reasoning ability) and revelation (which refers to what God has made known through special messages and messengers, culminating in Jesus Christ and the revelation he has entrusted to his Church). The Catholic Church, being the church founded by Jesus Christ, has been entrusted with God's revelation and is the authoritative interpreter of it. This revelation has been preserved and expounded by the Church in two forms—in Scripture (the revelation of God written and infallible) and in Tradition (the revelation of God handed down infallibly through preaching and practice, with the interpretation of that revelation the Church is led into through the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit). Two documents of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum (especially Chapter II) and Lumen Gentium (especially #25) describe this in greater detail.
Since my answer to the question is rooted in the assumption of the truth of the Catholic worldview, it is my responsibility, to avoid begging the question, to make a case for the truth of that worldview. I will not attempt to do so here, however, as I have already done this in the debate document Robert and I have written up and which you can find on Google Classroom. I will simply refer you to that document.
God, being the Supreme Being and the author of all creation, is the ultimate moral authority of the universe. God's viewpoint defines reality, and therefore his views of good and bad are the foundation of an objective moral law which binds all of reality. He is also, for the same reason, necessarily the supreme judge. He will ensure that good is ultimately rewarded with good, and that bad is ultimately rewarded with bad (because he loves the one and hates the other), even though, in his wisdom, he does not always bring full judgment immediately. (See the debate document for more on these points. See also the Catechism's discussion of the moral law.) The moral law of God can be to some degree known to reason, but it is also communicated to us through his special revelation. The Church is the authoritative interpreter of God’s revelation, including the moral law.
Homosexual Acts Cannot Be Ethical
Homosexual acts cannot be ethical because they are contrary to the moral law of God. God created the human race. He created us male and female. He created human males and females to join with each other in a special covenant called marriage, in order to support each other and to create a household for the procreation and upbringing of children. Sexuality was designed by God to be a means of bonding between spouses and an expression of their love, as well as for the purpose of procreation. It is contrary to the moral law of God to take sexuality out of that context and to turn it into something fundamentally different. From this foundation arises moral prohibitions on various forms of illicit sexual activity—such as pre-marital sex, masturbation, adultery, prostitution, artificial contraception, and homosexual activity. These illicit forms of sexual activity are gravely immoral because sexuality is a very special and sacred thing, seeing that it is the God-appointed means for the creation of new human life and is an important aspect of human love and relationships.
2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection. (CCC #2357-2359, footnotes removed)
We need to make a distinction between objective sin and subjective guilt. The Catholic faith teaches that homosexual acts are objectively sinful, but that does not imply that every person who engages in such acts has the same level of guilt. The subjective moral state of a person involves more than merely the objective gravity of the sin. It involves the level of knowledge and awareness a person has, the extent of the consent of their will, the level of difficulty involved in avoiding the sin, and many other factors. It is relatively easy (in some cases) to judge the objective wrongness of an act, but judging the subjective guilt of a person is often immensely more complex. In fact, usually we do not have enough knowledge, and nor is it our place, to attempt such a subjective judgment. So when I claim here that homosexual acts are unethical, I am referring only to the objective immorality of the act. I am not making any judgment whatsoever regarding the subjective guilt of any particular person engaging in such acts.
Having now made my fundamental case, I’ll spend the rest of my time responding to objections and making clarifications.
Responses to Objections
“Isn’t your view inconsistent? You consider infertile couples to have a valid marriage and to be able to engage in sexual acts. Why is OK for them but not for gays and lesbians, seeing that in both cases there is an impossibility of procreation?”
The difference is that in the case of an infertile couple, there is no intentional act of divorcing sexuality from openness to procreation. The failure of the sexual act to result in procreation is accidental and unintended. There is no attempt to deliberately remove sexuality out of its proper context and function. Sexuality is still being used properly, with an openness to its fundamental purposes. With homosexual acts, however, there is such a deliberate attempt to misuse sexuality. The sexual act is being intentionally removed from its God-ordained context and put into a fundamentally different context. To use an analogy, one might compare a person unintentionally being born with only one arm vs. a situation where a person has only one arm because he has intentionally severed it. So there is no inconsistency in the Catholic position at this point.
“Don’t you Catholics approve of the practice of NFP, where couples make use of natural feminine cycles in order to avoid pregnancy? Why is this OK, considering that it is a deliberate attempt to separate sexual acts from procreation?”
The Catholic teaching is that it is immoral to divorce the sexual act from its natural tendency towards procreation. This is why the Church opposes artificial contraception. But NFP is a fundamentally different thing. There are natural periods of fertility and infertility built into the female sexual cycle. It is not contrary to the law of God to use prudence in order to regulate births. There should be a recognition that children are ordinarily a natural blessing in a marriage, and there should be an inclination to allow procreation to occur, all other things being equal. However, there can be licit reasons to avoid pregnancy—lack of ability or resources to raise children, health concerns, circumstances that require a smaller family size, and other things. It is also licit to make use of the natural cycles of fertility in order to regulate births. Couples are, in general, free to abstain from sexual relations for various reasons, for various lengths of time—it can be a good form of penance, for example. If couples choose to make use of “sexual fasting” during times of fertility in order to regulate births, this is perfectly acceptable according to the moral law of God. This is not to divorce sexuality from its natural tendency to procreation, or to take sexuality out of its proper context, but it is consistent with the God-ordained purpose and functions of sexuality.
It might be asked why God allows couples to engage in “sexual fasting” and to space births, but he does not allow them to use contraceptives or other means to divorce the sexual act from procreation. We have already pointed out the difference between these two things. But the question is, why does God allow the one and not the other? Ultimately, if we pursue many of these sorts of questions, we end up eventually at the brute fact of what God has created and commanded. We know from reason and from revelation that God has designed the human race a certain way and has designed sexuality to function in a certain way. While reason can take us some part of the way in seeing the reasons for aspects of God’s design, reason cannot give us all the answers. Why did God make humans with two arms rather than three? Why do we not reproduce by means of asexual reproduction instead of sexual reproduction? Why is grass green rather than blue? Things are the way they are because that is how God made them. If we have good reason to believe that God has indeed made them that way, our lack of knowing why in some particular case is not an argument against the truth of the fact.
“Your view is contrary to science. Modern medical science has shown that homosexuality is not a disorder, but is a natural condition for some people. Some people are, as they say, ‘born that way.’”
We could debate whether
or not homosexuality could or should be classified as some kind of
physiological or psychological "disorder". But it's not
important, because the Catholic position is not dependent on this issue.
There are aspects of human life that are completely "natural", in the
sense that they are a normal part of human nature as it currently exists, and
yet are still "disordered" in a deeper, metaphysical sense.
Take death, for example. What could be more natural than death?
Obviously, it is not a disorder when people die. It is the normal,
universal experience of all (or almost all, if you take a Catholic point of
view) human beings. But yet at a deeper metaphysical level, one that
takes into account not only the empirical sciences but the fundamental divine
purpose and design of human beings, death is a terrible disorder. Humans
were not created originally to die. Death entered the human race as a
result of the Fall. It is now a "natural" thing, but, at the
deepest level, it is fundamentally unnatural. The Fall not only brought
death, but it led to a widespread disordering of human nature. We are now
subject to all kinds of disadvantages and corruptions we would not have been
subject to before the Fall. Catholic theology talks about
"concupiscence"--the disordered desires of fallen human beings.
These are the desires that lead us into sin. These desires are, on the
biological level, quite normal, but they are anything but normal when we are
talking about the original design and purpose of human beings. We
Catholics would put homosexuality into this category. Whether or not it
should be classified as a "disorder" in the sense intended by the
modern scientific and psychological community, it is an expression of
concupiscence. Now please note that concupiscence in itself is not
personal sin. One is not responsible for one's disordered desires.
One can only be morally responsible for what is under the control of one's
will. It is choosing to act on a disordered desire and
to therefore do something ethically wrong that involves personal sin and
guilt. So being homosexual, in the sense of having homosexual
inclinations, is not a personal sin. But acting on those
inclinations and engaging in sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage
is a sin, at least objectively speaking.
So I do not see any basis for the claim that the Catholic view of sexuality is contrary to anything we know from the natural sciences. The natural sciences can determine lots of things about human sexuality, but it is not within the domain of the natural, empirical sciences to determine more fundamental metaphysical and philosophical truths about human nature and the divine design of that nature, or to determine which actions are ethical and which are not. These are philosophical questions that transcend the natural sciences and can only be answered within the domains of philosophy and theology.
“But if homosexuality--and other forms of non-traditional sexual inclinations--are built into human nature, at least as it currently exists (in what you call a "fallen" state), then isn't it unethical for the Catholic Church to condemn such sexual activity? The Church is asking for the impossible! It's asking for people to suppress or even to throw away who they really are. It is unjust to ask this of anybody. And it's harmful. The LGBTQ+ community tends to have a high rate of suicide, precisely, at least in part, because of these kinds of inhuman demands. You can't ask people to reject their real selves.”
I think this is perhaps
the most important objection against my position. I understand the very real concerns it is
expressing, and my first response is compassion. We should certainly not
underestimate how hard it is to live according to some of the Church's
teachings. And we should never underestimate the pain of those who do
experience real disrespect, hatred, and bullying for being who they are.
We should help and love and support such people, and all people. We do
such a terrible job of understanding, loving, and respecting those who are
different from us! No doubt a substantial portion of the backlash the
Church is experiencing from the LGBTQ+ community is justly deserved, as
Catholics, and most others as well, have failed to live up to the love and
respect required by the humanity of those who have struggled with things that
have put them at odds with the larger society.
However, I cannot agree with the objector that Church teaching is unjust in this area. In a sense, our entire human civilization is built upon the foundation of denial. We are all fallen creatures. Our desires are continually driving us to do things we know in our reason we ought not to do. That's one reason life is so hard. We must be constantly restraining ourselves from doing what we want, making ourselves do what we don't want to do, and in general going against and disciplining our human inclinations. Different people struggle more with different things, whether because of their peculiar circumstances, their peculiar personality and psychological make-up, their particular physiology, or whatever. It is notoriously difficult to get the mastery over our impulses and desires and to bring them into conformity with right reason. That is precisely what ethics is all about.
Ethics asks hard things of all of us. Sometimes it asks particularly hard things of some. It calls some to be martyrs. What could be more unnatural than allowing oneself to be killed, when simply saying a few words or performing a few external actions (denying the faith, burning some incense to the emperor) could preserve one's life? I just watched A Man for All Seasons the other day, a movie about the life of Thomas More, who allowed himself to be beheaded simply because he would not agree to King Henry VIII being head of the Church of England and to his marriage to Anne Boleyn. So many people tried so hard to get him to capitulate. "All you have to do is just sign this piece of paper, no big deal." But he allowed his head to get chopped off rather than do it. I can't imagine what that was like, nor, I'm pretty sure, could anyone else who has not been in that situation.
Sometimes people have been called to endure torture, or long, cruel imprisonments, or other horrors, in order to preserve their ethical integrity. Alcoholics have to go through a hard and painful process to avoid capitulating to their addiction to drink. Some people are naturally belligerent, or get angry easily, or lack compassion, and they have to work hard to correct for these biases that would lead them into unjust actions. Some married people find themselves attracted to another person, and they have to work hard to suppress their desires, which would lead them to do something that would harm their spouses and their children.
The challenge to "do the right thing" is surely the biggest and hardest challenge human beings face in this life. The Church—or, to be more accurate, God—calls on those inclined towards homosexual acts, and other forms of unethical sexual expression, to live in a way contrary to their natural tendencies. We mustn't underestimate how hard this can be. And yet I see no objective reason to conclude that this is something a good God would not ask of his creatures. God is the chief good. All other goods shrivel into nothing in comparison to him, or they resolve into him. Being with him forever is an infinite treasure that is worth all the hardship this life can bring on us and far more. God has allowed evil to exist in this universe, not because he likes evil or because he cannot stop it, but because he knows that allowing it will lead to a greater good. He has allowed sin and death, and all that follow them, to enter into this world. He has allowed his creatures to suffer. But he is not only all-powerful, but all-good and all-benevolent. He knows that the way of suffering is ultimately the way of eternal life and happiness. He blazed that path himself before us. In order to open the path to heaven for us, Christ himself, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, lived a human life, endured human hardships, and suffered and died. Then he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He calls us to follow him, both into his death and into his resurrection. This is what we are all called to, though it takes different forms for different people. For those inclined to homosexuality, part of this calling may involve a hard and painful struggle against what seems so good and natural. It may lead to a lifestyle which can be very difficult and lonely. But it is worth it. God is worth it. It will pay off in the end. All God asks of any of us is that we choose to follow him. We may not always do it very well, but he keeps offering us his grace. We simply have to choose to keep getting up and trying to go forward, knowing that he is with us and that it is worth it. And, of course, there are consolations along the way, but these will take different forms with different people.
People with an inclination to homosexuality are not called to deny who they truly are. They are called, like all of us, to discipline their passions and their actions in order to learn how to better become who they were truly created to be. And they will succeed in the end if they keep choosing to go forward. And even along the way, for many of them, there may be ways to make life go more smoothly. All of us, as their brothers and sisters, should strive to help them along their journey, to help them make that journey successfully and to help make the journey itself as smooth as possible.
“But how can you know it is right to ask LGBTQ+ people to live according to these difficult Catholic standards?”
Well, it all comes down to the question of truth, doesn't it? Is Catholicism true or not? If it is, then the teachings of the Church are not just human teachings, but they come from God himself, our Creator, the one who knows and understands everything, who is all-good and benevolent, and who is the source of the objective moral law. So if Catholicism is true, if we want to get reality right and live our lives appropriately and successfully, we have to look at things from the Catholic point of view and live according to that. On the other hand, if Catholicism is not true, then it is not from God. Its teachings are merely the teachings of some human beings, and so there is no reason why we should take them as normative for us.
Well, I think I’ve gone on long enough. I’ve made my basic case. Let the dialogue begin!
For more, see here.
ADDENDUM 6/14/21: I recently read an article encouraging people in the Church to get over simply condemning as unethical homosexual sexual relationships and instead focus attention on creatively thinking about how those with same-sex attraction might go forward positively in their life in the Church, particularly how those who cannot find fulfillment by entering into heterosexual marriage might develop other kinds of relationships. Thinking creatively and positively about these things seems to be a very worthy and much-needed endeavor. I also listened recently to a podcast from Jesuitical in which Catholic author Eve Tushnet was interviewed. She spoke about how same-sex attraction need not be seen as purely a negative thing--a difficulty to bear up under--but also as something put into one's life by God that can lead to positive blessings. This is true of all things in our lives, for all aspects of life are under the providence of God, and even those things that we do not want serve a purpose in our lives and can be a means of our growth and an aid to our service and living out of our callings in the world. If this is true with every other aspect of life, why not with same-sex attraction as well? Some very worthwhile things to think about here.