What's Church Belief on Homosexuality, and Why?

As the author of this weekly column, I often receive questions from people wrestling with painful, personal problems. Most of these are private matters, of course, so I do not answer them in the public column, and many of them are beyond my gifts in pastoral care to deal with anyway - so all I can do is refer the inquirer to one of our Marian priests, or to counseling resources in their own area. I am, after all, primarily a theologian and not a pastoral counselor or spiritual director.

For example, I have had a number of people write to me about their own personal struggles with same-sex attraction, or about their state of bewilderment regarding how to respond to family members and friends who have "come out of the closet" and proclaimed their homosexual identity.

For example, one person wrote me and asked what we as Catholic Christians should do if one of our friends announces that he or she is "proud to be gay." Another person who wrote me was in anguish about how to overcome her own same-sex passions, and a third simply asked why the Church teaches that the homosexual lifestyle is wrong. After all, he said, they cannot help being attracted to people of the same sex: Perhaps God just made them that way. The important thing is whether or not we love one another, not whether we express that love with a man or a woman. Besides, he said, the gay couple that he knows is as kind-heartened and friendly as any other couple-so what's the big deal? Another person simply asked what the message of Divine Mercy has to do with homosexuality anyway!

This issue is a complex one, so it will take me more than one column to address it. Please bear with me. In fact, there is a lot of fuzzy thinking on all sides of the matter, so we need to clear away the fog in order to see it more clearly, with the mind of the Church and from the heart of the Church.

First of all, the Catholic Church makes a distinction between homosexual "acts" and the homosexual "condition." In most cases, people are not responsible for their given psychological and biological condition. In the short run at least, they "can't help being that way"; they are only morally responsible for their voluntary acts. Thus, when the Church says that homosexuality is a "sin," she means that homosexual acts are sinful. She does not mean that it is a sin to find oneself attracted to people of the same sex.

Nevertheless, the "condition" is still not a good thing. The Catholic Tradition definitely looks upon it as a "disordered" state (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2357). Yet this, too, can easily be misunderstood. By viewing the condition and inclination as a disorder, the Church does not mean it is a "psychosis," or that the person who has this condition is "crazy." It does not mean that the individual with same-sex attraction cannot form real friendships, or cannot have genuine affection for their relatives, or cannot be an honest, hard-working and effective employee, or is automatically at a high risk of being a pedophile. Thus, it is not surprising that the man wrote to me and confessed that the gay couple in his neighborhood are generally friendly and kind. What is needed for friendliness and kindness is not immediately at stake when someone adopts a gay lifestyle. That is not the area of their life where the problem initially lies.

The Catholic Faith is that homosexuality is a disorder because it stems from brokenness, a wounding of the human condition. In that sense it is "unnatural." In other words, it is not what our Creator intended human nature to be in its whole and healthy state. As a result, someone who lives out a gay lifestyle will inevitably find that it does not lead to true fulfillment and peace of heart. There may be a temporary release of tension when the person "comes out" and admits that they are gay, and it is better to be honest with oneself than to live in fear and self-deception. But again, in time that person will realize that giving in to that inclination and living out the homosexual lifestyle only leads to spiritual emptiness. One form of self-deception has simply replaced another: Now the person is deceiving themselves that God made them gay and that they can find peace of heart, deep happiness, and even sanctity, by being "who they are." But that is not who they are. The fact is, we are all people "in recovery" in one way or another, sinners-not-yet-fully-cured. Whenever we fail to see what our Lord really made us to be and would have us become, we are stifling His healing, sanctifying work within us. There can be no deep joy and no peace of heart and no perfect love down that pathway.

How can I be so sure about this?

Generally, there are two ways we know this: by divine revelation and by rational reflection. We will look at the first way in this column, and the second way next week.

"Divine revelation" means God's special acts in human history by which He reveals His nature, His saving work, and His purposes for us. The three principle stages of that revelation are the life of God's chosen people Israel, the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, and the witness of the apostles whom He chose, and to whom He gave authority to teach in his name (e.g. Mt 10:40; 16:19, 18:18; Lk 10:16; Jn 16:13, 17:17).

Why does God provide moral guidance for us through Jesus our Savior, through His apostles, through the divinely inspired Scriptures they used and wrote, and through the Sacred Tradition of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Because we cannot figure out everything we need to know all by ourselves. Almost all of us have neither the time nor the capability to do so, even if it were possible. But Jesus promised: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free" (Jn 8:32). Free from the shallow and confusing treatment of moral values in the media and popular culture. Free from slavery to our own disordered desires and moral self-deceptions. Free from everything that blocks us from finding true fulfillment and peace of heart.

I am frequently amazed by people who reject some of the Church's biblically based moral teachings - say, on divorce or homosexuality or abortion - and yet claim at the same time to be committed to belief in a God of love and in Jesus as His Son who died for our sins and rose again. After all, on what basis can we possibly believe that God is love? Our daily experience does not prove it; often it seems to contradict it. Philosophy can demonstrate that there is a God, but cannot assure us that merciful love is His supreme attribute - only, at best, that He is generally and vaguely benevolent. It is only divine revelation, authoritatively given to us through Jesus Christ, the Scriptures, and the Apostolic Tradition, that can give us really firm ground for believing that God is Love and that He assumed human flesh and made the perfect sacrifice for our sins on the Cross. In short, the sources of divine revelation that assure us that the homosexual lifestyle is wrong, and ultimately a road to spiritual self-destruction, are the very same ones we count on to assure us that God is love and that He paid the ransom-price for our sins on the Cross. To undercut the authority of divine revelation in our lives is to undercut the only solid basis for believing the central doctrine of our faith: the merciful love of God.

So the first thing to ask a Christian who does not trust the Bible and the Church on this matter is simply this: Why don't you trust Jesus? After all, He is the one who gave authority to His apostles to teach and who founded the Church and inspired the Scriptures to be written. Why don't you trust Him when He tells you what leads to peace and fulfillment and what leads to sorrow and loss in the end?

Someone may respond: "But Jesus Himself never said anything about homosexuality, right?" Actually, that is not quite true.

In Mark 7:21 Jesus talks about the evil that comes from the heart of man, and He lists some examples, including a word that is usually translated as "fornication." It was actually a blanket term that can refer to all forms of extra-marital sex and sexual immorality, and therefore probably referred to all that his Jewish listeners clearly understood to be such, including homosexual acts (see Lv 18:22. 20:13). Some people object to any reference to the beliefs of the Jews recorded in the Old Testament on the grounds that the OT Law also condemned such things as eating pork and shellfish. Surely we are not meant to follow the whole Law of Moses today!

Indeed not, but the fact that we are not required to follow it all (e.g. Jewish ritual laws, or civil laws, which God intended for that particular time in the history of the Jewish people) does not mean we can ignore it all either, or that it has no underlying moral lessons for us. There are obviously some moral laws in the Old Testament that are meant to be for all generations (e.g. the Ten Commandments). The trick is to discern the main principles of right and wrong that God was applying to that particular time and place.

OK, so let's look at some other clues from the Old Testament (and remember that for Jesus Himself, the Hebrew Scriptures were "The Word of God" that "cannot be broken": Jn 10:35; cf Mt 5:17-20; 15:6; 19:5). The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is the one from which we get the term "sodomy" for homosexual acts, and it appears at first glance to be a clear condemnation of homosexual acts:


Before the guests went to bed, the men of Sodom surrounded the house. All the men of the city, both young and old were there. They called out to Lot and asked "Where are the men who came to stay with you tonight? Bring them out to us!" The men of Sodom wanted to have sex with them. (Gen 19:4-5 GNB)

Some gay advocates have argued that the real sin that the Sodomites omitted was violating the Jewish laws of hospitality, or seeking victims to rape, but not homosexuality. But the context surely implies all of these sins were on display at once. The city was so rife with all kinds of immorality that God destroyed it in the end. That homosexual acts were among these moral crimes was also the interpretation of the story given by the apostle St. Jude in the New Testament (Jude, verse 7).

Perhaps the clearest teaching on the subject of homosexual acts is found in the epistles of St. Paul. Remember that St. Paul was specially chosen by Jesus Christ Himself to be the great apostle to the Gentiles: "He is a chosen instrument of Mine, to carry My name before the Gentiles, and kings, and sons of Israel" (Acts 9:15). In St. Paul's epistles, I Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Tim 1:10 clearly warn against homosexual acts, telling us that they are spiritually self-destructive, for without repentance such actions can even keep us from "inheriting the kingdom of God." This means, of course, that you are not doing anyone any real favors by pretending that a same sex-lifestyle is OK. Merciful love for others implies "speaking the truth in love" (Eph 4:15), not closing our eyes to divinely revealed truth (more on how to relate to your gay friends and family members with merciful love in our column next week). The most famous passage in St. Paul's epistles in this regard is Romans 1:26-27:

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.

Leaning on some ambiguities in these texts, gay advocates have claimed that these passages might be interpreted in other ways. For example: as condemnations only of male prostitution or the sexual corruption of the young (in the case of I Cor 6:9 and I Tim 1:10) or as a rejection only of the shameless orgies involved in pagan cults (in the case of Rom 1:26-27). But there are several reasons for doubting such interpretations. For example, none of the earliest Christian teachers interpreted these texts in such restrictive ways, and yet they understood and used the same Greek language in which these epistles were written. Moreover, scholars have looked at St. Paul's use of phrases such as "natural" and "unnatural" relations in Romans and found that these are the same phrases used by many other writers of his time generally to distinguish between natural (heterosexual) and unnatural (homosexual) sexual behavior.

Most importantly, it is futile to try to understand Scriptural prohibitions of various kinds of sexual behavior apart from the context of God's positive teaching about the meaning and purpose of sexuality in His plan for human life revealed in the Creation story in Genesis 1 and 2. Jesus Himself explicitly endorsed this teaching (e.g., in Mt 19: 3-9). All Jewish and Christian writers in biblical times accepted it as true and normative. In Genesis it is absolutely clear that God's plan for human sexuality is that it is meant to bond together male and female in a loving, lifelong, complementary (heterosexual), exclusive, and fruitful union (that is, open to the gift of children). There is no wholesome, natural, alternative sexual lifestyle given to us by our Creator. He would have told us so if there were. Genesis gives us the "manufacturer's operating instructions," so to speak: the Creator's own blueprint for human fulfillment and peace of heart in this important aspect of our lives.

So first of all, if someone asks me what the Divine Mercy message has to do with the Church's teachings on homosexuality, I would reply that it has to do with the very heart of that message: "Jesus, I trust in You!" I trust in the apostles You chose and to whom You promised the guidance of the Spirit of Truth. I trust in the Scriptures that they wrote and the Hebrew Scriptures that You Yourself trusted. I trust that You would not leave Your Church and all of humanity in the dark about this matter for more than 2,000 years. I trust that You show us the way to authentic love, and lasting peace.

There is a lot more that needs to be said on this issue - and will be said in Part 2. But for anyone who believes in God, and wants to be a follower of Jesus, it begins with trust.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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