What is the official church teaching on homosexuality? Responding to a commonly asked question

 Pope Francis attends an encounter marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the Vatican Oct. 11.Pope Francis attends an encounter marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the Vatican Oct. 11. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Since Building a Bridge, a book on ministering to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, was published, I have been asked—at Catholic parishes, retreat centers, colleges and universities and conferences—a few questions that recur over and over. The most common are: “What can we say to gay people who believe that God hates them?” “How can we help young people who feel tempted to suicide because of their sexual orientation?” And “What can we say to gay or lesbian Catholics who feel that their own church has rejected them?”

Another common question is about the church’s official teaching on homosexuality, homosexual activity and same-sex marriage. Usually these questions are asked not by Catholics who are unaware of the church’s teaching (for most Catholics know the teachings); rather they are asked by Catholics who want to understand the basis for the church’s teachings on those topics.

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Building a Bridge intentionally steered clear of issues of sexual morality, since I hoped to foster dialogue by focusing on areas of possible commonality; and the church hierarchy and the majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics remain far apart on these issues. It also makes little sense to begin a conversation with topics on which the two sides are the farthest apart. Overall, the book was about dialogue and prayer, rather than moral theology. (As a Catholic priest, I have also never challenged those teachings, nor will I.)

But for a meaningful encounter to occur between the church hierarchy and any community, it’s helpful if both groups understand one another as much as possible. As I mentioned in the book, good bridges take people in both directions.

So it’s important to ask: What is the church’s official teaching on these issues? As an aside, since the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a compendium of church teaching on various topics, does not address bisexual or transgender persons but rather “homosexual persons,” I’ll refer here to gay and lesbian people to be more precise.

Church teaching at the most basic level is contained in the Gospels and, even more basically, in the revelation of the Father’s love in Jesus Christ. So the most fundamental of all church teachings about gay and lesbian people is this: God loves them. They are beloved children of God, created by God and in need of God’s loving care and mercy—as all of us are.

Moreover, in his public ministry Jesus continually reached out to those who felt ignored, excluded or marginalized, which many gay and lesbian Catholics do. In fact, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics are probably the most marginalized group in the church today, and so I believe that Christ loves them with a special love.

When it comes to gays and lesbians, then, the Gospel values of love, mercy and compassion are the building blocks of all church teaching.

To that end, it’s important to state that in the eyes of the church simply being gay or lesbian is not a sin—contrary to widespread belief, even among educated Catholics. That may be one of the most poorly understood of the church’s teachings. Regularly I am asked questions like, “Isn’t it a sin to be gay?” But this is not church teaching. Nowhere in the catechism does it say that simply being homosexual is a sin. As any reputable psychologist or psychiatrists will agree, people do not choose to be born with any particular sexual orientation.

But when most people ask questions about “church teaching” they are referring not to this question, but to restrictions on homosexual, or same-sex, activity as well as the prohibition on same-sex marriage. Homosexual acts are, according to the catechism, “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law.” (The bulk of the catechism’s attention to homosexuality is contained in Nos. 2357-59.) Consequently, the homosexual orientation (and by extension, any orientation other than heterosexuality) is regarded as “objectively disordered.”

Where does this teaching come from, and what does it mean? While this teaching has some biblical roots (Gn 19:1-29; Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tm 1:10), we can perhaps best understand it from the church’s traditional reliance on natural law, which was itself heavily influenced by the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (who himself drew on Aristotle).

Natural law is founded on the idea that God’s divine will and divine plan for the world and for humanity are not only revealed in the natural world but are, perhaps more important, self-evident to the human mind. During my philosophy studies, the Catholic sister who taught us medieval philosophy told us, “Aquinas wants us to see that the world makes sense.” One can understand God’s plan, says Aquinas, not only by observing nature but also by using our reason.

We can begin with the Thomistic idea that the world “makes sense.” From that starting point, Aquinas would say that it’s clear that everything is “ordered” toward something. Its Aristotelian telos, or endpoint, should be obvious both to our eyes and to our reason. For example, an acorn is quite obviously “ordered” toward becoming an oak tree. A child is “ordered” toward becoming an adult. Likewise, every act is judged according to whether it is properly oriented toward its proper end. In terms of sexuality, all sex is “ordered” toward what are called the “affective” (love) and “generative” (having children) ends, within the context of a marriage.

Consequently, according to the traditional interpretation of natural law, homosexual acts are not ordered toward those specific ends and so they are deemed “disordered.” Thus, “under no circumstances can they be approved,” as the catechism states. Consequent to that, the homosexual orientation itself is viewed as an “objective disorder” since it can lead to “disordered” acts.

Here we need to make clear that the phrase “objective disorder” does not refer to the person himself or herself but to the orientation. The term is also not a psychological description but comes from the perspective of philosophy and theology. Moreover, it does not detract from the inherent dignity of any human being, since God creates all human beings equal and good.

This leads to the church’s official teaching on chastity for “homosexual persons.” Since homosexual activity is not approved, the person may not engage in any sort of sexual activity: “Homosexual persons are called to chastity.” Here the catechism means celibate chastity, since every person is called to the chaste expression of love—even married couples. (Broadly speaking, chastity, in Catholic teaching, is the proper use of our sexuality.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also states that gays and lesbians can and should approach “Christian perfection” through chastity, with such supports as “the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace.” In other words, gays and lesbians, the catechism states, can live holy lives.

Needless to say, all these considerations rule out same-sex marriage. Indeed, official church teaching rules out any sort of sexual activity outside the marriage of a man and a woman—thus the church’s prohibitions on activities like premarital sex, adultery and masturbation.

But there is more to the church’s teaching on this topic in the catechism. Perhaps mindful of the specialized philosophical and theological language, the church teaches that “every sign of unjust discrimination” against gays and lesbians (again, here “homosexual persons”) must be avoided, and gays and lesbians must be treated with the virtues of “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” In my experience, this is the section of the catechism’s teaching on homosexuality that is the least known by most Catholics.

Beyond the catechism, in his recent apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis made three points related to the issue of homosexuality. First, the pope reiterated the church’s opposition to equating same-sex marriage with traditional marriage between a man and a woman. Second, he repeated the prohibition against “unjust discrimination.”

The third point Pope Francis makes is representative of his approach to pastoral practice and moral guidance. Francis notes that we must recognize the good at work in every person, even in situations that fall short of what the church proposes as the fullness of Gospel living. He says that Jesus expects us to enter into the reality of people’s lives; “accompanying” them as we can, helping to form their consciences, the final arbiter of moral decision-making; and encouraging them to lead faithful and holy lives.

Part of that accompaniment is dialogue. That is one reason that it’s important for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to understand the church’s teaching in its totality—the Gospels, the tradition of natural law and its roots in Thomistic and Aristotelian reasoning, the catechism, “Amoris Laetitia” and other documents—in their desire to become good Catholics.

As Building a Bridge mentions, it is important for the institutional church to understand the lived experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics. It is also important for this group of Catholics to understand what the church believes and teaches.

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Robert Lewis
1 year 4 months ago

You know, Mr. Gaglione, the reason that I think hysteria-inducing homophobia is at the root of opposition not just to "gay marriage" (which I oppose, too), but also to public and ritual embrace of the "same-sex-attracted" (or, basically, to ANYTHING that permits the young to understand that homosexuality is natural, ever occurring, and never "intrinsically disordered," but, rather, a "cross" of great spiritual advantage) is that, objectively-speaking, its prohibition in the Old and New Testaments is no more set in stone (and no more rigid) than tolerance and even approval of slavery, than support for legalized murder (aka "capital punishment"), than the celibate priesthood, than the taking of usury, than the prosecution of "just wars," etc. etc. And this is especially true when you understand that the idea of a congenital orientation of exclusive affectivity toward one's same sex was beyond the cultural understandings of ancient peoples. The cause of this hysterical homophobia is not to be found in the sophisticated, humanitarian and elegantly "developed" theology of the most intellectually respectable of Christian sects; it is not to be found in the dialectical hermeneutics of Catholic Scriptural interpretation; it is given absolutely NO support in the mystical writings of certain saints, male and female, who use an erotic discourse to describe their love of the Savior or of His Mother. It is rooted, instead, in an irrational fear that is very similar to the horrified misogyny of ancient monotheists. I think it would be beneficial and salutary for our gay brothers and sisters to share their childhood fear of the bodies and the erotics of the opposite sex, and than have them tell us how they overcame that fear--through friendship, and love, and respect.

Theodore Seeber
1 year 4 months ago

" And this is especially true when you understand that the idea of a congenital orientation of exclusive affectivity toward one's same sex was beyond the cultural understandings of ancient peoples. "

There is a name for that- false.

Mike Theman
1 year 4 months ago

Notice that Mr. Martin does not say that he agrees with what the Church teaches. Consider what he means when he encourages "dialogue," when the Church's position is that those who accept and engage in same-sex acts must repent for their sin. What's the purpose of the dialogue, then? To change the Church's teaching. Clearly where Mr. Martin is going in all of this is to attack natural law - notice that he skips the Biblical foundations of the Church's teaching on homosexual tendencies and acts - so as to chip away at what the Church teaches.

Mr. Martin is a clever writer, and he pulls on the emotional strings of his reader while carefully choosing his words to sound as if he's providing facts whereas he is lying - yes, lying (e.g., gays and lesbians are sinners because they accept and/or engage in homosexual acts by definition) and laying a foundation not to merely promote understanding between the Church and homosexuals, but to attack the Church's teaching.

Robert Lewis
1 year 4 months ago

Lies, nothing here but outright lies. It's very hard to follow America's editors' directive to be "charitable," when one is reading lies, obfuscations and deliberate twisting of the truth. Do you know the meaning of the word "libel," Mr. Theman?

Mike Theman
1 year 4 months ago

Yes, I do know the meaning of libel: I'm a lawyer. You, obviously, are not.

Robert Lewis
1 year 4 months ago

Ah, yes--which means that you will know how to commit libel, whilst technically avoiding prosecution for it!

Matthew Kilburn
1 year 4 months ago

Here is my question: does this "dialogue" or "bridge-building" or "understanding" sincerely begin with the objective of affirming Catholic teachings and correcting the sinful conduct on the part of those who identify as LGBTQetc?

Too often, I'm afraid, it does not. Instead it is used as a way of beating around the bush, looking the other way, or somehow else marginalizing - rather than enforcing or affirming - the church teachings on sexual morality. And to that extent, it comes from the "evil one", not God.

Of course this is not a problem unique to homosexuality - in fact it is common to the left-wing approach to virtually all topics of sexual morality. And, again, it comes from the evil one.

Theodore Seeber
1 year 4 months ago

The problem with aberrant sexuality (LGBT being only a minority example, the same catechism in surrounding paragraphs on sins against chastity contains many heterosexual examples as well!), is that it is primarily abusive. It is not possible to have a non-celibate extramarital relationship without abuse.

Jaroslav Lunda
1 year 4 months ago

One can understand it in terms of bodily salvation: Sticking to bodily salvation prevents aberrant sexuality.
Goal of such aberrant sexuality is non-bodily: "higher spiritualness", "freedom from the fallen body", etc.
Great example is postmodern pornography: 20 min. rituals based on destroying of bodies as means of liberation.

Theodore Seeber
1 year 4 months ago

Interesting Point

Jaroslav Lunda
1 year 4 months ago

There is subtle "omission" in the article: unjust discrimination.
Unjust discrimination is weaker term than plain discrimination. So one can be objectively disordered but chaste and yet JUSTLY DISCRIMINATED for example from being hired as a teacher.

Theodore Seeber
1 year 4 months ago

A hugely important question for any Jesuit to answer:
"If there is a teaching on the reception of church teaching, and we haven't received this teaching on the reception of church teaching yet, then where are we?"

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