Fr Owen O’Sullivan on Gay Inclusion (Pt 1): Is Homosexuality Unnatural?

Extracts from Fr Owen Sullivan’s Furrow article on gay inclusion may be read at “Boundless Salvation”, where they have been reproduced by Jason Davies-Kildea, a Salvation Army officer serving as Social Program Secretary of the Melbourne Central Division. He has divided the series into eight parts, under the headings

Here at QTC, I shall be attempting to add some commentary of my own, keeping to the same eight -part division.

So, is homosexuality “unnatural”? I have already published numerous posts showing clearly that it is not, at least not in the sense of “found in nature”. Abundant evidence shows conclusively that same sex erotic activity is found throughout human history, in multiple cultural contexts, and in all branches of the animal kingdom.  I am not going to haul out this evidence yet again. Regular readers will be familiar with it, new readers can follow the links. But, I have been told,”natural” does not mean “moral”. Of course it doesn’t – but it also doesn’t mean immoral. In any case,I am told further, that is not what the theologians mean by “unnatural”. What then, do they mean?

O’Sullivan shows that the very word is a slippery, dangerous one, with multiple meanings and connotations – both positive and connotations.  In Victorian times, Europeans used the word pejoratively to justify the colonial exploitation of Africa, but also used a concept of the “natural order” of things to justify a diverse set of  racial, political, social and cultural agenda. Today, it is often used as a recommendation, such as for foodstuffs and herbal remedies – but used selectively. Deadly Nightshade, for instance, is every bit as “natural” as peppermint or organically grown potatoes – but will not be found in health food shops or organic greengrocers.

He also notes that reasoning from human physiology (i.e. the argument from plumbing) is also a poor application of the concept of “natural” to human sexuality – else why do men have nipples? Even the CDF itself, in its Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, warns against this simplistic reductionist reasoning.

I like his emphasis on the diversity of experience to be found within both homosexual and heterosexual contexts. The CDF Letter, as I have said before, sets up an entirely misleading contrast between heterosexual loving conjugal relationships and homosexual pursuit of self-gratification. O’Sullivan reminds us that

homosexuality is not just about what goes on between the sheets, or in clubs or the ‘gay scene.’ The latter is often as far removed from a committed, loving relationship as the activities of a brothel are from a committed, loving marriage. Homosexuality is about the way human beings relate to each other in their totality.

O’Sullivan, in fact does not offer one definition of what the theologians mean by “unnatural”, I suspect because there is not a single meaning for them, any more than for other people. Boswell has shown that both Aquinas and the earlier writers who influenced him used “natural” in different ways,  both as commendation and as damnation, depending on the specific purpose. Others claim that “natural” refers to God’s “purpose” in creation. To me, this simply begs the question – how are we to know God’s purpose? To claim to have achieved such absolute knowledge is simple human arrogance, as is amply demonstrated by similar claims in earlier times that slavery, the subordination of women, or South African apartheid were part of God’s purpose.

It is also simplistic to claim, as many do, that the obvious “purpose” of sex is to produce children, because the human race needs to reproduce to survive. The human race also needs to grow food to survive – but that does not mean we must all become farmers. Besides, if the argument were valid, the Church should be opposing celibacy as vigorously as it opposes homosexuality.

The only way to make sense of the term “natural” in any discussion of sexual ethics is to see it as irrelevant. On human sexuality, “Nature” is morally neutral. In the continuing search for a sound sexual ethic, we must look elsewhere.


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