Could the Catholic Church Ever Approve of Homosexuality?
With the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church having stood firm against social changes in sexual norms and the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples, it seems unreasonable to envision the church hierarchy approving of homosexual orientation and behavior. I don’t expect such a radical switch to happen, although the prospect is not inconceivable from a certain point of view.
To be sure: the teaching office of the church would have to change not only its understanding of human sexuality, but also its teaching about its own teaching authority. And I find it nearly unfathomable to think that the church could make such changes within a framework of what Pope Benedict calls a hermeneutic of continuity—the principle that new developments in teaching, doctrine, worship, etc. corroborate and confirm what came before. Nonetheless, the lives and experiences of gay and lesbian persons pose a challenge to the church’s traditional teaching, a challenge I do expect the church to answer more concretely, one way or another, in the coming years and decades.
Traditional Catholic teaching on human sexuality makes no room for understanding the love between gay or lesbian persons as a legitimate form and expression of erotic love; such “love,” from the church’s perspective, must always be disordered, disorientated, and unnatural. Same-sex attraction is always an instance of concupiscence. Erotic love between members of the same sex cannot actually exist. And yet—and here arises the challenge—those with same sex attraction perceivably experience their love as an authentic and genuine eros. To all appearances, sex between gay or lesbian persons can be an expression of affection, compassion, tenderness, intimacy, and the gift of self. Their experiences and self-identities give testimony to an understanding of love denied by the magisterium, whose position is that, ontologically, gay and lesbian persons don’t really exist because human sexuality is ontologically complementary and ordered toward procreation.
Officially, church teaching on these issues cannot change. Catholic advocates of LGTB rights therefore hope against hope in seeking any fundamental change in teaching from the magisterium. The church authorities will undoubtedly have a hard sell to make as society becomes more accepting of homosexual relationships and as these relationships and their fruits become more visible; nevertheless, the bishops are no strangers to taking unconventional and unpopular positions, even in the face of moral outrage. They’ll insist on the truth of their position whatever the successes of LGTB relationships.
If, hypothetically, the church magisterium were to change its teaching and profess the existence and goodness of erotic homosexual love, other foundational changes would first have to be made. First, it would have to broaden its ontological understanding of human sexuality to include as authentic both sex ordered toward procreation and sex not ordered toward that end. Sexual identity would include but not be limited to difference and complementarity. Second, the church would have to revise its traditional reading of the creation myth, perhaps taking a less literal interpretation of the passages related to God creating the human race as male and female. Third, it would have to redefine its conception of chastity so as to include the possibility of exercising temperance and self-mastery with respect to expressions of non-procreative erotic love.
All of these changes in teaching would imply that the magisterium had been wrong about not only homosexuality, but also human sexuality in general, the bible, and the virtue of chastity. To accept homosexuality as a legitimate orientation would mean admitting error about matters of faith and morals—error that, according to the magisterium, cannot be made. Consequently, you won’t see the magisterium giving thumbs up to LGTB people without it first giving thumbs down to its traditional self-understanding. I don’t see that happening. Whether the obstruction is due to the protection of the Holy Spirit or to what Garry Wills calls “the structure of deceit” will continue to be a matter of much debate among those who believe the Catholic Church ought to be a prophetic voice within society. Meanwhile, society will continue on its present course.