Most people think they know what the Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality, which can be simply summed up as “don’t do it”. That much is true – just as the Church also says “don’t do it” to married heterosexual couples who want to use contraception, or to unmarried couples, or to single people who want to do it alone. Many gay and lesbian Catholics also believe that the Catholic Church claims that they are somehow “disordered” – and that is simply not true. Although the hurtful and damaging language of “disordered” is used, it is not directed at gay people themselves.
So – just what does the Church teach? Are there elements of Catholic teaching that are in fact supportive, not simply hostile to same-sex lives and loves?
Indeed there are – and also elements that are mutually self-contradictory. When the Westminster diocese announced that the Soho Masses group then meeting at St Anne’s Soho, would be given a new home at the Catholic parish of the Assumption and St Gregory in Warwick Street, the press release described two expectations. The Masses should be “pastoral, not political”, and they should present Catholic teaching “in full, without ambiguity”. At the time, I was privileged to be one of the Soho Masses team that had several meetings with Bishop Bernard Longley about this move. To my relief, the group welcomed the move, but pointedly did not sign on to any agreement on the cardinal’s two expressed expectations, for the simple reason that they just did not make sense. As a South African, I knew from experience and felt strongly that in matters of justice, the pastoral is political (and vice versa), and that it is impossible to present Catholic teaching on sexuality “in full, and without ambiguity”, because it is so badly riddled with it’s own ambiguities and internal contradictions. Teaching can be presented with a degree of fullness, or without ambiguity – but not both, at the same time.
“Without ambiguity” usually comes down to the simplistic “don’t do it”, which is not particularly helpful (but is probably what the cardinal envisaged), so I will attempt at least to begin a more complete presentation of the teaching – emphasising “more” complete, because fully complete would be a never-ending task.
The central, core fact of Catholic doctrine on homosexuality is spelled out in the Catechism, which says
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,141 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.
There is much in that short statement that many lesbian and gay Catholics find deeply offensive, and even damaging. How then, is it possible for lesbian and gay people who find this clause so objectionable, to remain in the Catholic Church?
Part of the answer lies in the short sentence highlighted in bold, “They close the sexual act to the gift of life.” This same principle also rules out heterosexual intercourse that uses contraception, and solo sex – self-gratification. We know that the vast majority of Catholics disagree with these restrictions, but have no difficulty remaining in the church – as a matter of conscience, and in the knowledge that the Catechism paragraphs on sexual ethics occupy only a relatively low level in the hierarchy of Catholic teaching.
For lesbian and gay Catholics, the problem is somewhat more severe though, because it’s not just part of the formal doctrine that is hostile, but also much of the language, and quite often, pastoral practice. Paradoxically however, there is much in doctrine, especially as recommended by Pope Francis in “The Joy of Love”, that mandates supportive pastoral care – and is supportive of homosexual people, if not of same-sex love.
In later posts, I will be unravelling some of these tangled threads, to demonstrate the existence of supportive elements in Catholic teaching – and how it is possible, in good conscience, to resist the harmful elements.