Lesson 4: Homosexuality

This lecture is supplementary to tape 4. Tape 4 covered Karol Wojtyla's interest in shame (following to some extent his mentor Max Scheler) as illuminative of sexual ethics. Also discussed were the difference between negative and positive norms. Tape 4 covers various violations of the goods of marriage such as adultery, divorce, premarital sex, sexual abuse, and particularly homosexuality.

Part One:1

Perhaps no thinker is as closely associated with natural law theory as Thomas Aquinas. It should come as no surprise, then, that his thought is, at the very least, a point of departure for those who appeal to the natural law tradition in arguing against the liceity of a homosexual "lifestyle". Likewise, we would expect those who wish to undermine the natural-law understanding of homosexuality to attack or attempt to reinterpret Aquinas. For if Aquinas's understanding of homosexuality would turn out to be groundless or incoherent, the natural law approach to this question could well be vitiated. Thus John Boswell in his Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality observes:

It is difficult to see how Aquinas's attitudes towards homosexual behavior could even be made consonant with his general moral principles, much less understood as the outgrowth of them.2

After reviewing Aquinas's statements about homosexuality, Boswell concludes,

In the end Aquinas admits more or less frankly that his categorization of homosexual acts as "unnatural" is a concession to popular sentiment and parlance.3

Not surprisingly, there is reason to challenge these statements of Boswell. Indeed, several scholars have found them completely discordant with a proper interpretation of Aquinas's teaching on homosexuality.4 Thus, Boswell's work provides a good foil for an exposition of that teaching.

It must be kept in mind that Aquinas does not provide a thorough or systematic treatment of homosexuality. He treats the topic largely as an adjunct to other points under consideration. Given the current climate, we must also note that Aquinas was not providing a pastoral treatment of homosexuality. He was not endeavoring to choose the most sensitive rhetoric or terminology to present his views; his treatments are philosophical, partial, and expressed in a terminology that is no longer current, easily misunderstood, and therefore occasionally offensive to some.

Meaning of "Nature"

Boswell, as many others, fails to understand Aquinas's understanding of nature and its role in Aquinas's evaluation of ethics. Admittedly, Aquinas's use of the term "nature" is diverse, but sufficient reference to the larger context of Aquinas's understanding of the cosmos and sufficient attention to the more immediate context should enable us to see that Aquinas's teaching on homosexual acts does grow naturally out of his general moral principles and that his categorization of homosexual acts as "unnatural" is not a concession to popular sentiment and parlance.

There are several fundamental principles that one must keep in mind when interpreting Aquinas's natural law teachings; 1) Aquinas understands God to be the author of nature and thus what is natural is good and 2) the primary meaning of word "nature" for Aquinas is not physical or biological but ontological; "nature" most precisely refers to the essence of a substance, in the case of man, to a substance that is a unity of spirit and body.5 3) Natural law ethics and virtue ethics are integrally related for virtues are a perfection of man's nature. All sins are a violation of some virtue. 4) Since the Fall, man's physical nature and intellectual nature are flawed and thus can mislead him in his actions. Natural law ethics also involves various epistemological claims, but such elements are not of great relevance here.

Naturalistic Fallacy

Indeed, here is not the place to do a full exposition and defense of Aquinas's natural law theory but perhaps one crucial point must be made. Aquinas and Aquinas's interpreters are often accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy -- that is of moving from what "is" the case to what "ought" to be the case.6 Certainly Aquinas uses what "is" the case as a guide to what "ought" to be the case but in a sense that it seems most everyone does quite spontaneously; for instance, it "is" the case that it is natural for human beings to have two eyes; thus human beings "ought" to have two eyes. Aquinas would not leave it here, of course; he will inquire into human nature and attempt to discover why it is fitting that humans have two eyes. What is the case is a guide to what is fitting but ultimately it is what is fitting that is the determinative principle. What is fitting is what is ordered to the good and the good is the perfection of one's nature. And what is fitting involves an "ought." The move to a moral ought is also common and spontaneous; e.g., since it is a fact that children need food and parents are responsible for their children, it is good, and fitting that parents ensure that their children are fed; parents ought to feed their children.

Key Texts

Now let us turn to Aquinas's position on homosexual acts.7 The most extensive discussion concerning homosexual acts is found in the Summa Contra Gentiles. The key text deserves a full reading:

We have said that God exercises care over every person on the basis of what is good for him. Now, it is good for each person to attain his end, whereas it is bad for him to swerve away from his proper end. Now, this should be considered applicable to the parts, just as to the whole being; for instance, each and every one of his acts, should attain the proper end. Now, though the male semen is superfluous in regard to the preservation of the individual, it is nevertheless necessary in regard to the propagation of the species. Other superfluous things, such as excrement, urine, sweat, and such things, are not at all necessary; hence, their emission contributes to man's good. Now, this is not what is sought in the case of semen, but, rather, to emit it for the purpose of generation, to which purpose the sexual act is directed. But man's generative process would be frustrated unless it were followed by proper nutrition, because the offspring would not survive if proper nutrition were withheld. Therefore, the emission of semen ought to be so ordered that it will result in both the production of the proper offspring and in the upbringing of this offspring. (SCG III, 22)8

Not much further on, we also read:

It is evident ... that every emission of semen, in such a way that generation cannot follow, is contrary to the good for man. And if this be done deliberately, it must be a sin. Now, I am speaking of a way from which, in itself, generation could not result: such would be any emission of semen apart from the natural union of male and female. For which reason, sins of this type are called contrary to nature. (SCG III, 22)

This kind of objection to homosexuality strikes many as being absurd for they argue that one can certainly use bodily parts for purposes other than their "natural" one; one could, for instance, use discarded hair to stuff pillows or ear wax to stick things together. Aquinas himself considers such a counter-argument when he states some might argue that it is not immoral to walk on one's hands or to do something with one's feet that one usually does with the hands. Aquinas responds that he believes such actions are not "unnatural" because "man's good is not much opposed by such inordinate use." One supposes that he is thinking of instances where such use is not necessary --e.g., he is not thinking of instances where one uses one's feet instead of one's hands because one is without hands but when one does so when one's hands would serve one better. To use instrumental goods which are parts of a whole -- hands and feet, hair and earwax -- for purposes beyond their most immediately natural one is permissible since the immediate natural purposes are subordinate to the purpose of the whole and they exist to serve the good of the whole. Thus one could use parts for other than their immediate natural purpose if doing so aided the whole, and even if it did not, the offense would be small since man's good would not be much affected.

The good of some parts, however, is so distinguished that it would be seriously wrong to misuse those parts for in doing so one is violating the good towards which it is directed. Aquinas maintains that the good towards which semen is directed is such that to use it for something other than its purpose is to violate the very good of human life towards which it is directed. (We must, of course, realize that Aquinas's analysis applies not just to semen but also to any organs or secretions essential to the reproductive process.)

The Good of Human Life

It is very important to recognize the full status of the good towards which semen is directed in order to understand Aquinas' insistence that it cannot be used for any other purpose. Semen, of course, is reproductive material and the good to which it is directed is inherently connected with the good of sexuality and the good of new human life. It is important to understand that Aquinas holds that God created two sexes for the very purpose of bringing forth new human life -- if God had not intended humans to share in the procreation of new human life he would not have created humans of two sexes (Q. 92, art. 1).

Although Aquinas speaks of the good of sexuality as being "the propagation of the species", the propagation of the human species9 should not be understood in the same way as the propagation of all other species, since humans have immortal souls and are destined not just to contribute to the longevity of the species. Rather, each individual has an intrinsic value in his/her own right and humans in generating offspring are not just preserving the species; they are "multiplying individuals,10 that is, they are helping to populate heaven (not earth). Thus, humans not only reproduce; more properly they procreate; that is, they participate in the coming to be of a new human soul. God is the Creator of each and every human soul but he requires the provision of matter by human beings in order to effect the coming to be of a new human being. Human beings provide the matter whereas God provides the soul for the creation of each and every new human being (Q. 90, art. 3). Semen, then, (and the ova) is part of the matter into which God infuses the human soul. To deliberately misuse semen, that is, to use it in a way that prevents it from providing the matter for new human life, is, then, to violate a great good -- the good of potential new human life.11

Homosexuality as Contrary to Nature

Aquinas speaks of acts of homosexual sexual intercourse as acts that are "contrary to nature" (SCG III, 122, 5; ST I-II, Q. 94, art. 3, reply 2). Now, it is certainly true, that Aquinas speaks of all immoral acts as being contrary to nature since all immoral acts violate human nature; they are not in accord with human nature which is rational; in short, they are unnatural because they are not in accord with reason. Yet some immoral actions retain some degree of naturalness. For instance, acts of fornication are unnatural because they violate reason; they do so because provision for offspring has not been made. Yet, since acts of fornication can fulfill the purpose of sexual intercourse in generating offspring, they are still natural insofar as they allow the semen and ovum to partially fulfill their natures. Homosexual acts of sexual intercourse do not achieve even this level of naturalness.

Again, some might think that Aquinas has given an absurdly high value to semen; after all there is an abundance of such and much is "wasted" in many ways. But, again, we should not isolate his view of the value of semen apart from the value of the whole human person and the value of the heterosexual relation that completes the human person both physically and psychologically, and which is the fitting context in which to bring forth new human life. Aquinas's understanding of the value of semen is part and parcel of his understanding of the reason for the differentiation of the sexes and of the love of God for new human souls.

Seeing that Aquinas's evaluation of homosexual acts is set within the broader context of human destiny might help us better understand Aquinas's view that the deliberate misuse of semen is a very grave sin;12 he states: "Hence, after the sin of homicide whereby a human nature already in existence is destroyed, this type of sin appears to take next place, for by it the generation of human nature is precluded." (SCG III, 22). Homosexuality, like masturbation and contraception, are immoral because they involve wasting the matter that should be directed towards the creation of new life. None are morally equivalent to homicide, of course, but all are like it in being sins against life.

The Unitive Purpose

In discussing the unnaturalness of homosexual sexual acts, Aquinas does not make reference to the unitive purpose of the sexual act and how homosexual acts are also incompatible with the unitive meaning. A suggestion that he shares the understanding that homosexual acts are not truly unitive can be found in the fact that Aquinas includes them as sins against the sixth commandment, the commandment against adultery. All sins that involve misuse of the sexual faculties are considered to be sins of unfaithfulness -- one is using one's sexual powers outside of the marital relationship or not in accord with the goods of the marital relationship; in other words, one is not sharing one's sexuality with one's spouse, or one is not sharing one's sexuality with one's spouse properly (as in contracepted sexual intercourse). In Aquinas's view there is a sense in which one's sexual powers belong to one's spouse for they exist to strengthen the spousal relationship and to create a family. Homosexual sexual intercourse bestows one's sexual favors with someone other than a spouse, the proper individual with whom to unite and procreate.

A complete treatment of the evil of homosexual acts would involve addressing the psychological complementarity of male and female and how sexual intercourse helps to foster the intimacy that enables spouses to achieve the union proper to marriage. Nonetheless, since Aquinas would likely understand the psychological differences distinguishing male and female to be related to their different roles in the business of parenting, even the unitive meaning of the sexual act cannot be explained without reference to its procreative meaning. God made man male and female so they could be one and so they could give new life. The sexual faculties are directed towards these purposes. To use them otherwise is to misuse them.

Aquinas, then, judges homosexual acts of sexual intercourse to be objectively disordered because they are not ordered to the goods naturally embedded in sexual intercourse.

Animal Behavior

Because Aquinas regularly refers to the behavior of animals in his discussion of human sexuality, some interpreters believe he evaluates human sexual behavior along the lines of animal sexual behavior. Boswell is one such interpreter. He makes the claim that Aquinas "resorted again and again to animal behavior as the final arbiter in matters of human sexuality."13

Yet his own reading of Aquinas implicitly contradicts that claim, because he maintains that Aquinas does not accept animal sexual behavior as totally determinative of human sexual behavior. Indeed, as Boswell notes, Aquinas occasionally speaks of sexual behavior engaged in by humans that is not in accord with the proper norms for human beings as animal sexual behavior. In his discussion of monogamy, Aquinas argues that humans should not imitate the many species of animals that are promiscuous; he finds that birds too must unite in their raising of offspring and notes that birds are monogamous. Since humans and birds are similar in their needing the care of both parents to thrive, Aquinas concludes that humans, like birds, should be monogamous.

Boswell observes, "It is difficult to believe ... that animal behavior actually suggested this position to Saint Thomas ..."14And he is right that the simple discovery of monogamy among animals is not what leads Aquinas to posit monogamy as fitting for humans. Aquinas does not simply see what animals do and conclude that such is what humans either ought to do or ought not to do. He looks to animals to see what they do and why; if humans share with some animal a certain good, it is likely that behavior which is conducive to that good, would be beneficial for humans also. Boswell laments "Aquinas does not explain the principle by which he determines which aspects of animal sexuality should be avoided by humans (e.g., the position they adopt in coitus) and which imitated (e.g., ornithological monogamy)."15 Yet Aquinas' principle is quite clear; he uses behavior in the animal kingdom to help him discover what about certain animals would make certain behavior deleterious or beneficial; if humans are like those animals in a certain respect (such as needing parents of both sexes), he would use that information to help him determine what is appropriate behavior for humans.

Boswell also makes the claim that two parents are not necessary for the successful rearing of children and claims that Aquinas is "devious or mistaken" when he makes appeal to what is "commonly" the case to support the claim that two parents are necessary16 (and it is only because I live in the 1990's that I feel I must say, a male and female parent). Boswell accuses Aquinas of "ignoring the intent" of those who may raise children as single parents for good reason and of addressing himself "only to statistical probabilities and physical consequences." In Boswell's view, some may have good reason for bearing children outside of wedlock; that most bear children within marriage and that such children thrive is in his mind only a statistical probability. Aquinas is most certainly not using statistical probability as his norm for nature; again, he uses what is fitting. Boswell himself acknowledges that Aquinas thinks that males and females bring something distinct to parenting and thus both are necessary for successful parenting. Aquinas does not make this claim on the basis of statistical probabilities or physical consequences, but on the nature of males and females.

The Homosexual Condition

To this point we have been considering Aquinas's evaluation of homosexual acts. He also makes some remarks that indicate his views about the source of the homosexual condition. Let us first note that while Aquinas speaks of homosexual acts as being particularly objectionable, he does not make that claim about the homosexual condition. And we must also note that when he speaks of homosexual acts as being particularly objectionable, he is comparing them to others sins of intemperance. Sins of intemperance are not the most serious sins; sins of pride and sins against charity are much worse. As for all human action, Aquinas maintains that one cannot judge the moral value of an action apart from a consideration of the state, character, and intention of the agent. There is ample evidence that Aquinas shared the modern understanding that the homosexual condition may not be one that an individual has chosen; he allows that it may be the result of a bodily temperament, of a psychological disease, or of bad conditioning.17

In an article entitled "Whether Any Pleasure is Not Natural?" (ST I-II, q. 31, art. 7) Aquinas quotes Aristotle in maintaining that "some things are pleasant not from nature but from some corruption of man's nature." He speaks of "some pleasures that are not natural speaking absolutely, and yet connatural in some respect." Those with corrupt natures find what is unpleasant to humans as a species to be pleasant to them as individuals. Aquinas speaks of corruptions of both the body and the soul. As an example of a corruption of the body that would distort natural pleasures he gives a man with a fever to whom sweet things seem bitter. As an example of a corruption of the soul, he speaks of a man who through custom takes some pleasure in unnatural intercourse, bestiality, or cannibalism.

Now Boswell argues that this reasoning should lead Aquinas to see that homosexuality is natural; he believes that Aquinas should concede that homosexuality is natural in some individuals since Aquinas holds that some individuals take a connatural delight in pleasures that are not pleasant to humans as a species.18 But Aquinas finds the origin of the "connaturality" to be some corruption, and thus would not understand the condition to be natural.

Boswell also argues that although Aquinas speaks of homosexuality coming about through some defect, Aquinas may not necessarily mean some moral defect. And Boswell is certainly correct in this observation.19 The text upon which Aquinas draws here is a text from Aristotle wherein Aristotle uses the desire for one's own sex as an example of a perverse desire that may have been fostered by childhood sexual abuse.20 Certainly, if such was the source of one's homosexual desires, one would not be morally culpable for possessing the desires, though one most likely has some moral culpability for acting upon these desires, unless they could be considered truly uncontrollable obsessions.21 And certainly some may be morally responsible for having homosexual desires; they may recklessly "experiment" with homosexual actions and they may expose themselves to homosexual erotica and arouse desires in themselves that otherwise may not have been activated. But however the homosexual condition comes to be, whether one is morally culpable for acquiring the condition or not, Aquinas would still consider the condition a disordered condition -- even if one's homosexuality were genetically determined. According to Aquinas's principles those who are made lame by others, those who make themselves lame because of bad choices, and those who are born lame, are all suffering some defect, some disorder in their being.

Boswell observes that some conditions that come about through defects are not in themselves defects. Boswell observes that although Aquinas thought that females came to be because of some defect in the semen or because of the presence of a moist south wind, Aquinas did not think females, for that reason, were without a natural purpose. Boswell reasons: "Since both homosexuality and femaleness occur "naturally" in some individuals, neither can be said to be inherently bad, and both must be said to have an end."22 (see also his footnote 87). He observes that "The Summa does not speculate on what the 'end' of homosexuality might be, but this is hardly surprising in light of the prejudices of the day." Boswell does some fancy distorting of texts to come to this conclusion. Boswell fails to note that there are many kinds of imperfection, one being something that is not a perfect instance of something (as a child is an imperfect adult), or something that is a privation of a good (such as blindness). Women may be "naturally" inferior to males because, for instance, they are the passive as opposed to the active principle in procreation, but both maleness and femaleness are ordered to some good. In Aquinas's view, homosexuality would be like blindness; it is an absence of a good and not ordered to any good.

Moderns are unlikely to understand and accept Aquinas's analysis because few share his view of man's ontological dependence on God; few share his view that God wills each soul into existence and wants to share an eternity with every human being; few share his view that sexuality has a purpose designed by God and that we must live in accord with that purpose. Nor do many share his view that all of us must carry some portion of the cross. Original sin alone makes every human being disordered; many of us have acquired more specific disorders through our genetic heritage, our upbringing, our choices. Many of these make it difficult for us to avoid disordered and sinful actions. For Aquinas, homosexuality is simply one more of those disordered conditions; he would assure us that God's grace is available to assist us in being healed and in avoiding sinful behavior.

Part Two:23

There are few topics that require greater sensitivity than that of homosexuality. The phenomenon of homosexuality remains one that is very little understood either by professional psychologists or the general public. There is, for instance, no agreement about how common the condition of homosexuality is nor exactly what constitutes the "condition" of homosexuality. There are those who claim to experience sexual attraction only for members of their own sex and such individuals may properly be designated homosexual in respect to sexual orientation. Even individuals with a strong heterosexual orientation may at some point in their lifetime experience sexual attraction for a member of the same sex. Moreover, there is no consensus about what might be the cause or causes of homosexuality and what might be the reversibility of the homosexual condition.

Many in modern society would like to proclaim homosexual sexual acts to be moral and would like homosexual unions to be recognized as legitimate alternative "life arrangements" or modes of partnership. Homosexual sexual activity, however, has, throughout the long tradition of Judeo-Christian thought, been considered incompatible with God's plan for human sexuality. On the basis of natural law principles, scripture, and tradition, the Church has taught that the proper use of sexuality is between a male and female who are married and who are open to having children. Sexual intercourse is meant to be an expression of love by those who are married to each other. Sexual intercourse between members of the same sex is understood to be a misuse of the gift of sexuality; it does not serve to create a bond between male and female; it cannot serve the purpose of bringing forth new life; it creates an inappropriate bond between members of the same sex.

Yet some individuals find themselves with a sexual attraction to members of their own sex, an attraction, again, that can be experienced as permanent and seemingly irreversible, or as a response to a particular individual in a very particular situation. Again, what the cause is of such attractions is unknown. Many claim that the homosexual condition is not chosen; that it seems to be innate or the result of certain experiences in early childhood, though all such explanations seem largely speculative and without hard scientific data to support them. The American Psychiatric Association has held varying positions on the subject of the normalcy of homosexuality, positions that seem to be as much influenced by cultural and political factors as reliable scientific studies.

The argument is made that if some individuals are born with a propensity to a homosexual orientation, then we must proclaim homosexuality to be natural and normal -- just one of the many variants of the human identity. Some human beings have blue eyes, some have brown; some have green; we have what we are born with and are not subject to moral evaluation on what is "given" to us at birth. On this analogy, some individuals are born heterosexual, others are born homosexual and there is no ground for moral approval or disapproval of these innate conditions.

Nonetheless, were it to be proven that some individuals have a genetic determination to homosexuality, in itself this evidence would not serve to invalidate the Church's claim that homosexuality is an unnatural or disordered condition. Indeed, those who think that a proof that homosexuality is innate would serve to prove that homosexuality is natural, misunderstand what the Church means by the word "natural."

The word "natural" has a fairly complicated meaning within the Church's moral tradition. "Natural" does not, as some think, refer simply to what is in accord with the biological processes of man. Nor does it refer to what is innate, nor even to what is "normal." Rather, the word "natural" in the context of the Church's moral doctrine has a metaphysical meaning. The Church relies largely on the principles of Thomism to explain its moral teachings. Thomism understands all things to have essences or "natures"; these "essences" or "natures" are good (in fact, designed by God) and everything prospers insofar as it acts and is treated in accord with its essence or nature. Whatever is said to be "natural" is what accords with what is good for human beings; what is called "unnatural" is what is not good for human beings. Integral human nature, or human nature before it suffered the effects of original sin, was an "ordered" nature. This means that the psychic processes of the human person were ordered; there were no disordered desires, no desires to eat or drink or do anything that was not in accord with what is good for human nature. Before the fall the human person reasoned correctly about reality and his passions quite automatically and spontaneously followed the deliberations of reason. With original sin, came what is known as "fallen nature."

The condition of original sin or fallen nature brought with it disordered passions and desires. After the fall, humans began to act against their nature, quite constantly and predictably. The fact is, that because of original sin, all human beings because they are imperfect, are in an "unnatural" and "disordered" condition. It is common to the human condition, for instance, for human beings to want to eat, drink and sleep more than is good for them. It is common to the human condition for humans to want to have sexual intercourse with those with whom they should not or when they should not or in ways that they should not. In the "natural" state, the prelapsarian state, or the state of humans before the fall, humans would only desire what was good for them. After the fall, human beings are susceptible to innumerable unnatural and disordered desires.

The claim by the Church that homosexuality is "unnatural" or disordered has been found offensive by some since the terms "unnatural" and "disordered" seem to suggest that homosexuals are in some special category of being, deserving of particular censuring by the Church. Yet, as the above explanation of the term "natural" establishes, any human desire for what is not good is "unnatural" and "disordered". Thus, in this context, homosexuality is simply one more of the "unnatural" or "disordered" conditions to which humans are susceptible.

It should not be surprising if some individuals are born with a propensity to homosexual sexual attractions, for it certainly seems that individuals are born with many propensities, both good and bad -- a propensity to generosity, patience, anger, irritability, or alcoholism, for instance. Part of the challenge of the moral life is to learn how to order what we find disordered in our being; for instance, if we have bad tempers, we need to learn how to govern them. Some of us may acquire the orderedness or disorderedness in our psyches through childhood experiences, either good or bad, rather than through heredity. Having good and generous parents who work to impart that quality to their children, for instance, will likely assist the children in having souls relatively free from greed and selfishness. Conversely, having lazy parents may facilitate our being lazy. Such experiences as sexual abuse may deeply scar our psyches and fill us with fears and tendencies that we in no way chose to acquire. It seems plausible that a homosexual orientation may be the result of any number of factors or causes. But the fact that it may be inborn or not the product of our own choosing does not thereby make it a "natural" condition not subject to moral evaluation.

It is very important to note that although the Church teaches that the homosexual condition is unnatural or disordered, it does not teach that the homosexual condition itself is sinful. Again, this is true of any disordered propensity that may be in the human soul; those who are irritable or hot-tempered by nature are not sinful by virtue of these temperamental traits. Sin is a result of the voluntary choices we make in response to what our passions may be driving us to do. For many, there is no moral culpability in feeling irritable or hot-tempered; rather it is in acting irritable or acting out of hot temper that most sin occurs. (We can though be morally culpable if we do nothing to overcome our temperamental propensities.) So while individuals may have little or no responsibility for having a homosexual orientation, they can exercise moral agency in respect to their actions.

Some find fault with the analogy between "innate" or "unchosen" homosexuality and a propensity to alcoholism or a propensity to any moral failing. They argue that since our sexual orientation so deeply influences how we respond to the world, how we fulfill, for instance, our needs for intimacy, to categorize homosexuality with all other human disorders is to mischaracterize the plight of the individual with a homosexual orientation. It seems right to acknowledge that the plight of the homosexual is a particularly burdensome one; that the condition of homosexuality presents challenges to the moral agent many times greater than the usual challenge of dealing with disordered passions. For human beings do have a profound need for intimacy and most individuals will satisfy that need (insofar as it is possible) through marriage and family.

Moreover, there is disagreement about whether it is possible for those with exclusively homosexual attractions to change their sexual orientation. Some psychologists maintain that no permanent change is possible; yet, others maintain that with the help of therapy and grace many homosexuals have been successful in entering and sustaining heterosexual marriages. The Church does not require that homosexuals seek such reorientation; rather, homosexuals, as are all Christians, are called to a life of chastity.

Those with a homosexual condition have often suffered unjust censure and discrimination by members of their own families, by society at large and by some of those who represent the Church. The prejudicial rejection of homosexuals is called "homophobia". Those who are guilty of homophobia refuse to recognize the full human dignity of those with a homosexual condition. Such prejudicial rejection is in manifest conflict with the dictates of justice and Christian charity. Indeed, much love and acceptance should be extended to those with a homosexual condition since often they find themselves lonely and rejected.

The celibate lifestyle to which those with a permanent or irreversible condition of homosexuality (if there is such) are called need not be lonely and isolating. There are many, for instance, celibate priests, nuns, and laypeople, who forgo the intimacy of marriage, sexual relations, and family. Moreover, not only those who are called to the consecrated life are called to celibacy. Celibacy is lived by some heterosexuals who are unsuccessful in finding a spouse or who have been abandoned by their spouses. They fulfill their needs for intimacy through a deep relationship with Christ, through friendship and by extending their love more broadly. They often have very rich human relationships in which the lack of a sexual dimension allows other dimensions of the human person and human relations to emerge.

Some object to the claim that since many heterosexuals lead celibate lives successfully, it should be possible for homosexuals to do the same. Some think there are false analogies being drawn here between the celibacy of the consecrated life, the celibacy of unwed heterosexuals, and the celibacy of homosexuals. They note that the celibacy of those in the consecrated life is a voluntary celibacy and one that often wins them great respect and esteem. They note that it is possible for heterosexuals who live lives of involuntary celibacy to have some hope that their situations may change. The celibate homosexual enjoys neither the esteem given to the consecrated individual nor the hope of the unwed heterosexual. Furthermore, as mentioned, there is a stigma attached to homosexuality that makes it very difficult for homosexuals to be open about their condition, often even with family and friends. Given the amount of both overt and subtle unjust discrimination against homosexuals, open acknowledgement of one's homosexuality is often unwise, and thus one is denied even the comfort of self-disclosure. The isolation and alienation that can accompany the homosexual condition can, therefore, be extreme and the Catholic demand that homosexuals lead celibate lives can seem unrealistic and cruel.

The cost of Christian discipleship, however, is often very high. While it must be acknowledged that for many reasons, homosexuals are in a particularly difficult situation, there are others who face challenges that equal or surpass the lives of homosexuals in difficulty. For instance, many individuals with severe physical or psychological anomalies may also face lives burdened with various stigma, subject to much discrimination, and in which establishing intimate relations is extremely difficult.

Required Texts

Catechism: section 2357-9; 2396.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics. 1976

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. 1986

Additional Reading

Christopher Wolfe. Homosexuality and American Public Life. Spence Publishing Company. 1999, 129-40

John Harvey. The Truth About Homosexuality. Ignatius Press. 1996

John Harvey. The Homosexual Person: New Thinking in Pastoral Care. Ignatius Press, 1987

John Nicolosi, Ph.D. Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality. Jason Aronson, Inc. 1991

National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Always Our Children. 1997

Paper Topics

1. Explain how an analysis of shame can shed light on sexual morality.

2. Respond to the claim that homosexuality is natural.

3. Explain why the Church holds that the homosexual orientation is not sinful whereas homosexual acts are.

1. This lecture is nearly identical to my "Aquinas's Natural Law Theory and Homosexuality" in Homosexuality and American Public Life ed. by Christopher Wolfe. Spence Publishing Co. 1999, 129-140

2. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 319.

3. Boswell, 328

4. See John Harvey's review of Boswell in Linacre Quarterly (Aug. 1981) 265-275; Bruce Williams, "Homosexuality and Christianity: A Review Discussion," The Thomist 46:4 (1982) 609-625; Glen Olsen, "The gay middle ages: A response to Professor Boswell," Communio (Summer 1981) 119-138; Warren Johansson et. al., Homosexuality, Intolerance, and Christianity: A Critical Examination of John Boswell's Work (Gay Academic Union, P.O. Box 480, Lenox Hill Station, New York, NY. 10021)

5. See Boswell, 324-5.

6. For a brief but thorough defense of Aquinas in respect to the naturalistic fallacy see, Ralph McInerny, "The Primacy of Theoretical Knowledge: Some Remarks on John Finnis," in Aquinas on Human Action: A Theory of Practice (Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame Press, 1990) 184-192.

7. I speak of homosexual acts here rather than homosexuality because for Aquinas morality is a matter of action. When I speak here of homosexual acts, I am using the phrase as a abbreviation for "homosexual acts of sexual intercourse."

8. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles: Book Three: Providence, Part II, trans. by Vernon J. Bourke, (Notre Dame, Notre Dame Press, 1975), 143.

9. Boswell makes another remark that suggests that he misunderstands Aquinas's claims. He claims that Aquinas's advocacy in behalf of the preservation of the species was based on the ethical premise "that the physical increase of the human species constitutes a major moral good" (322). This certainly is not the view of Aquinas; he makes it very clear that the mere physical increase of the species is not a good (SCG III, 122); parents should bring forth children to raise them to share eternity with God -- not to populate the earth.

10. If sex were only for the purpose of the preservation of the species in the sense of keeping the species going, there would have been no need for reproduction in paradise, since Adam and Eve were never going to die. But Aquinas argues that there would have been generation of offspring in paradise for the purposes of the multiplication of individuals (Q. 98, art. 1, reply 2).

11. Boswell (322) finds Aquinas to be inconsistent in his rejection of homosexuality because it involves the waste of semen whereas Aquinas considers nocturnal emissions to be sinless because they are the result of natural causes (ST I-II, 154.5, resp.). Boswell fails to inform his readers that Aquinas does think that while nocturnal emissions themselves are never sins (because they are not the result of a deliberate act) but they can be sinful because of their cause, e.g., because of gluttony, drunkenness or deliberate thoughts about carnal pleasures that may have left some "trace or inclination" in the soul.

12. Boswell claims that Aquinas held heterosexual promiscuity to be worse than gluttony only because it could result in serious harm to the a child conceived of the union (321). He then questions why Aquinas should find homosexual acts so grievous since they do not produce an uncared for child. He also believes that to be consistent Aquinas should classify homosexual acts as mere intemperance on the order of drunkenness. Boswell is wrong to think that the only reason Aquinas objects to heterosexual promiscuity is because of the harm that may be experienced by an uncared-for child. Aquinas does not give a full statement of his evaluation of acts upon every mention of them; he makes a point that is adequate to meet his immediate concerns.

13. Boswell, 319.

14. Boswell, 321.

15. Boswell, 323, fn. 71.

16. Boswell, 320, fn. 63.

17. Anthony C. Daly, S.J., "Aquinas on Disordered Pleasures and Conditions," The Thomist 56:4 (Oct. 1992) 583-612 gives an excellent review of the relevant texts on this issue.

18. Boswell, 326-8.

19. Boswell, 328.

20. For an excellent discussion of these texts, see Daly.

21. See Aquinas's Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics 7.5.

22. Boswell, 326-7, and footnote 87.

23. Part Two is nearly identical to my entry on homosexuality in Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine ed. by Russell Shaw. Our Sunday Visitor Publishing. 1997.


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