Chastity and Homosexuality in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catholic Catholic’s teaching concerning homosexuality is summarised in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994, hereafter CCC or ‘the Catechism’), which was approved and promulgated by Pope John Paul II and received its Imprimi Potest from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The CCC can be found in its entirety on the Vatican’s website.
Like all documents published by the Holy See, references are to numbered paragraphs rather than to page numbers. Homosexuality is the subject of only three out of almost 3,000 paragraphs. These paragraphs are reproduced here in full:
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, 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.
2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfil God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
The first thing to note in an analysis of the Catechism’s teaching is that the Church admits an incomplete understanding of, or explanation for, what it calls the ‘psychological genesis’ of homosexuality. Why LGBT people are as we are is typically a frequent topic for debate among our own kind as we reach maturity and into later life. Psychologists have also sought a convincing explanation and failed to agree on one, despite having postulated many hypotheses and theories. Scientists would probably agree that it cannot simply provide hereditary advantage: its very nature would appear to belie such an idea.
For those of us in later life, indeed I hope for the vast majority of us, it is sufficient to have concluded that our sexuality is among God’s most gracious gifts to us as individuals, and one without which our lives would have only a fraction of their richness, both in terms of friendships and individual happiness.
The Catechism, however, claims that Sacred Scripture presents homosexual acts (n.b, not homosexuality or homosexuals per se) as “of grave depravity.” It then turns to tradition, which for the Catholic Church (if not for Protestants) is held to be both complementary and supplementary to Scripture. This concept of tradition (frequently called sacred tradition) has been summarised as the assertion that ‘we alone were there and we know what was taught by the apostles’ and is perhaps what Roman Catholics have in mind (alongside the Apostolic Succession) when they collectively assert their belief in an Apostolic Church as they recite the Nicene Creed every week.
Sacred tradition, apparently, has consistently taught that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”, and contrary to “the natural law”. Like contraception, such acts “close the sexual act to the gift of life”, “do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity” and under no circumstances can they be approved”. Wow! For a Church which admits it does not understand the origins of homosexuality, she certainly feels supremely confident to hold extremely strong views on the subject!
In reality, such views seem quite mild when compared to those which motivated the Catholic Church to actively persecute LGBT people, as they did, for many centuries. As something of what could be an amusing historical aside if the sentiments were not so abhorrent, consider this vehement denunciation of homosexuality written by the Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia and would-be Church reformer, St Peter Damian, who lived between 1007 and 1072:
Unquestionably, this vice surpasses the enormity of all others, is impossible to compare with any other vice. Without fail it brings death to the body and destruction to the soul. It pollutes the flesh, extinguishes the light of the mind, expels the Holy Spirit from the temple of the human heart and gives entrance to the devil, the stimulator of lust… This disease erodes the foundation of faith, saps the vitality of hope, [and] dissolves the bond of love. It makes way with justice, demolishes fortitude, removes temperance, and blunts the edge of prudence… Lest the wantonness of this foul impurity be allowed to spread unpunished, it must be repelled by proper repressive action of the Apostolic severity. And thus all those defiled in any way by the four types of filth which have been mentioned, are, in consideration of due censure, deposed by our judgment and that of the sacred canons from all ranks of the Church which is Immaculate … Should anyone dare to criticize or attack this decree bearing Apostolic sanction, let him be aware that he does so with the risk of losing his rank.
I suspect even our most reactionary and homophobic prelates would today wince at such vile words from a so-called holy man of God. Examine the book’s title closely, however, and tell me a smile doesn’t appear, however fleetingly, on your face – Peter Damian’s admonitions were addressed solely to the supposedly celibate clergy of the Catholic Church!
Let us return to the Catechism. As an appendix to this paper, I have added a brief but I believe honest refutation of each of the four passages on which the Church bases its denunciation of homosexual acts in the Catechism. Better refutations can probably be found, but I believe that what is written should be sufficient to shake the rather sandy foundations of the teachings as far as sacred scripture is concerned, despite its alleged major role in defining the attitude of the Church toward homosexual acts.
LGBT people have been the victims of a persecuting heterosexual majority since before, and certainly throughout, the Christian era. This is true for almost but, as we shall see, certainly not every society, and it is quite feasible that many of the mistranslations and misunderstandings may have been intentional.
Today we call the irrational hatred or persecution of LGBT people homophobia. This is an important and defining characteristic of homophobia, not least because Catholic theologians claim that the Catholic Church’s teachings are always entirely rational.
It is difficult to imagine how a Church that admits to being unable to explain the origins or causes of homosexuality can (within the same paragraph!) not only declare that homosexual acts to be ‘disordered’, but state that they are intrinsically disordered. My Oxford English Dictionary defines intrinsic as ‘inherent, essential, belonging naturally”, and disordered as “lacking order, confused.” Anything which is intrinsically disordered therefore is not understood. This is far from proving that whatever is so described is forever incapable of being understood; I can readily acknowledge a lack of understanding of many things, but I don’t believe a celibate heterosexual can ever enjoy a better understanding of my sexuality that I can myself. To state using this argument that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered fails the test of logic, and certainly provides insufficient evidence to convince anyone that homosexual acts ‘can never be approved.’ Those of us gay Christians, who believe our sexuality is a precious gift from the Almighty, must strive to demonstrate our gratitude to our loving Creator; perhaps one day the divine origins of our sexuality may become less mysterious to the theologians.
Like so much, we owe it to science that any appeal to the “natural law” (Latin lex naturalis) to condemn homosexuality is also nonsense. Firstly, this is not alleging that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’. We now know that homosexuality is widespread throughout the animal kingdom, and completely ‘natural’.
The ‘natural law’ is a philosophical concept which was developed by St Thomas Aquinas from the works of Aristotle. The concept holds that there are certain ‘laws’ which are universal and which anyone would naturally find reasonable and understandable even with the aid of divine revelation. To appeal to ‘natural law’ is to suggest that everyone everywhere at all times would readily perceive homosexual acts as evil. This is not my personal experience, and I further suggest for the majority of LGBT people, especially Catholics, it almost invariably takes a cleric, in the confessional or across a pillow, to teach us that our natural, God-given inclinations could ever contravene some ‘natural law.’ I have spent part of my life in Southeast Asia, where those countries who were never colonised by Europeans, like Thailand, have an incredibly open attitude towards homosexuality. The Buddha, like Jesus Christ himself, made no mention of homosexuality at all, but he did ensure that the rules he set down for his religious communities were entirely neutral concerning homosexuality and heterosexuality. It is simple to find other societies who have readily accepted, and in many cases highly valued, homosexuals. The Catechism’s appeal to the ‘natural law’ makes no more sense than any other.
It may be admitted that homosexual acts, in a similar way to contraception, do “close the sexual act to the gift of life”. Here we encounter a wider issue for the Catholic Church: its own irrational approach to the human body and to sexuality in general. Against such an attitude to the body, and the self-loathing it can induce in people, I confidently appeal to any non-celibate adult, male or female, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or straight: is the sole or even primary function of sex to make babies? No! Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab (paene) omnibus, it most certainly is not! The human race would be immeasurably poorer if it were. Consensual sex between two people celebrates the love they have for each other. It should be pleasurable for both partners; God made it that way so as to encourage us to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, but the role of sex in maintaining and healing any lifelong monogamous relationship is good; it is holy; and it also thereby open to the gift of life, no less for the homosexual as the heterosexual, even if homosexuals have babies less often as a result.
The final reasons given in the catechism why homosexual acts “can never be approved” under any circumstances are that they “do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.” The latter word is a technical term in many disciplines, and suggests here that heterosexual acts are in a sense complementary because of the differences between males and females, perhaps both physical and psychological; without the most common orifice and the most common organ of penetration, apparently, homosexual acts lack complementarity.
I frankly have no idea why or if this is an important point, but it does demonstrate such a distorted a view of sex, originating undoubtedly in some celibate’s imagination, that it is frankly laughable. Whoever came up with this gem would benefit from a five minute perusal of the stock of magazines in a sex shop, if his celibacy permitted such a thing!
He would learn that heterosexual acts can and do take place with at least as much variety of positions, orifices, etc., as homosexual acts! Perhaps the only further observation on this matter I will make is that homosexual acts are, in my experience, typically more consensual and egalitarian than heterosexual acts – and, undoubtedly for gay people only, more pleasurable.
The penultimate allegation contained paragraph 2357 is much more serious. It states that homosexual acts do not proceed from genuine affections, that the emotions that LGBT people feel for each other are somehow disingenuous, somehow less ‘real’ than those of heterosexuals.
This is downright insulting and – originating from the pens of authors who undoubtedly and unhesitatingly claim to be both celibate and heterosexual – probably the most homophobic nonsense in the catechism.
What level of hubris is needed to convince any heterosexual or celibate theologian that he can know anything about the quality or depth of the affections of somebody who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered?
Before finally legislating against the Slave Trade, the British used the same technique to deny the legitimacy of the relationships of slaves. Couples were routinely split up; women were separated from their children and routinely partnered with men who were not their husbands. The frequent justification for the Slave Trade in Catholic countries was St Thomas Aquinas’ considered opinion that the Almighty had created some races more suited to labour than Europeans. I am not aware that the Church has ever apologised for its role in supporting the Slave Trade. I truly believe she will one day apologise publicly and until that day her more fundamental message will remain hidden under this cloud of hatred for anyone who does not conform to some ecclesiastical norm, in sexuality or in actions.
It is worth remembering that many of those who admit to supporting and propagating such hateful teachings concerning homosexuality and homosexual acts, are being brought to book almost daily for child abuse, despite all-too-frequent attempts to cover up such abuse by their religious superiors. The more shrill opponents of homosexuality within the Catholic Church suggest that liberalism, rather than enforced (and arguably unnatural) celibacy, are at the root of such abuse. Whatever the root cause, the authority of a celibate clergy to come out with opinions on the validity of the relationships of others, relationships they presumably have not enjoyed, is further brought into question. A further paragraph of the Catechism related to this issue states:
2389 Connected to incest [the subject of the preceding paragraph] is any sexual abuse perpetrated by adults on children or adolescents entrusted to their care. The offence is compounded by the scandalous harm done to the physical and moral integrity of the young, who will remain scarred by it all their lives; and the violation of responsibility for their upbringing.
Read this, Catholic hierarchy, and consider the ‘scandalous harm done to the physical and moral integrity’ of young and impressionable LGBT people! To condemn their acts as ‘intrinsically disordered’, etc., without the most irrefutable and incontrovertible proof, is no less wicked an act against them than the abuse perpetrated by many of your clergy!
After such a terrible passage, paragraph 2358 is perhaps intended to compensate in some way for its predecessor. The majority of LGBT people will reject such sentiments as patronising in the extreme, and I do not believe it contributes anything of significance
The final paragraph considered here in any depth, 2359, however, is very interesting. It states that “homosexual persons are called to chastity.” It goes on to suggest self-mastery, etc., as a path towards Christian perfection. But it is the call to chastity which is most interesting. There is a marginal reference to paragraph 2347, which tells us that chastity is “a promise of immortality”, and is followed by the following paragraph’s opening words:
2348 All the baptized are called to chastity.
The most interesting issue is perhaps that it is chastity we are called to, and not celibacy.
Chastity is defined in the Glossary as “The moral virtue which, under the cardinal virtue of temperance, provides for the successful integration of sexuality with the person leading to the inner unity of the bodily and the spiritual being (CCC 2337). Chastity is called one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (CCC 1832).”
Celibacy is defined in the Glossary as “The state or condition of those who have chosen to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom of heaven in order to give themselves entirely to God and to the service of his people…” Celibacy is the state of abstaining from sexual activity, usually for religious reasons. This distinction is understandable if chastity is enjoined on all baptized persons, and obviously celibacy has to be voluntary – perhaps why LGBT people are merely called to be chaste?
Thus, while the Catechism teaches that homosexual acts ‘can never be approved,’ it does NOT teach that LGBT people must be celibate. We, and all the baptized, are called to be chaste. But chastity (under the cardinal virtue of temperance) provides for “the successful integration of sexuality with the person… leading to the inner unity of the bodily and spiritual being.”
We recognise that it is intemperance by the inhabitants of Corinth, and not their homosexuality, which was criticised by St Paul in I Corinthians 6:10. An excess of almost anything, including sexual activity, is almost always harmful. But, as we see from the clerical abuse scandal, a total prohibition against sexual activity, even voluntary celibacy such as is enjoined on its clergy by the Roman Catholic Church, can and has contributed to major scandals. Enforced celibacy, which seems to be the Church’s answer to homosexuality, could never be conducive to “the successful integration of sexuality with the person.” On the contrary it is hard to imagine how enforcing celibacy on anyone could be helpful in achieving any integration of sexuality with the person.
We are left wondering just what insights the Catechism offers to us – perhaps very little that is helpful to LGBT people, except to caution temperance, to reject any and all instances of homophobia, both overt and covert, and to follow our own instincts and God-given conscience. The content of the Catechism is important as, even though it may be a partial selection from magisterial documents, it is the most available source for anyone seeking knowledge of the Catholic Church’s teaching – and is published under the direct authority of the current pope and his predecessor. Individual human rights include freedom of expression, and the Catholic Church is free to teach what it likes in private. The moment clergy emerge into public fora, or claim the right to teach children, any homophobic utterances must be balanced against the rights of other to be protected. Promulgation of homophobic (or racist, or sexist) values is damaging to the public good. It is sadly also damaging to the Church herself. Parish priests denounce secularism almost weekly, and yet fail to realise how the majority of their fellow citizens react with horror at their intolerance towards those who do not fit their blinkered idea of normality.
There is much that is deeply unsatisfactory in the Catechism concerning homosexuality. What is taught concerning homosexuality and homosexual acts is clearly and fundamentally flawed and misleading, as the result of mistranslation, hubris, and probably ill-willed and intentional homophobia.
When, one day, the Church heeds the cries of LGBT people for a fundamental re-appraisal, of homosexuality and homosexual acts, in the light of modern psychology and the experience of loving relationships outside of any ghetto (enabled, is has to be admitted, by secular society), then the evident homophobia which spoils so many peoples’ lives will be excluded from the Catechism – and LGBT people will be accepted and valued for what they are – perhaps no better, but certainly no worse, than any others.
Woking, March 2008
 Cf. Gen. 19:1-29; Rom. 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim. 1:10. [See over]
 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Persona humanae, 8.
 <!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite><Author>Damian</Author><Year>1982</Year><RecNum>2837</RecNum><record><rec-number>2837</rec-number><ref-type name=”Book”>6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Damian, Peter, Saint</author></authors><subsidiary-authors><author>Payer, Pierre J.</author></subsidiary-authors></contributors><titles><title>Book of Gomorrah: an Eleventh-century Treatise against Clerical Homosexual Practices</title><alt-title>Liber Gomorrhianus</alt-title></titles><pages>xi,108p.</pages><keywords><keyword>Homosexuality Religious aspects Catholic Church.</keyword><keyword>Gay clergy.</keyword><keyword>Catholic Church Homosexual clergy</keyword></keywords><dates><year>1982</year></dates><pub-location>Waterloo, ON</pub-location><publisher>Wilfrid Laurier University Press</publisher><isbn>0889201234 (pbk) : Unpriced</isbn><accession-num>b8337693</accession-num><call-num>BX1912.9
262/.142/08806642 19</call-num><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote><![endif]–>Peter Damian, Saint, Book of Gomorrah: an Eleventh-century Treatise against Clerical Homosexual Practices (trans. Pierre J. Payer, Waterloo, ON, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>.
 Many people, including many in the Church’s hierarchy, object to the use of this word. Literally, I acknowledge, homophobia should mean ‘fear of the same’, just as homosexual implies ‘sex with the same’ – and is totally unrelated to the Latin homo, man. English words are defined by their usage and the generally accepted meaning of homophobia is that given in the text.
 Homosexual behavior, not necessarily full sexual coupling, has been observed in close to 1500 species, ranging from primates to gut worms, and is well documented for 500 of them – Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
 Does this have a strange resonance with the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden?
 I am tempted to suggest that St Augustine’s conversion from dualist Manicheism cannot have been very complete, and that his misunderstanding of the physical role of sex, indeed his entire opinions concerning the physical world, severely injures the Church down to the present day.
 Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus translates as ‘what (is, has been) held always, everywhere and by everyone. Its English equivalent is probably ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time’. Paene is Latin for ‘almost’.
 We have met St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) before in this paper. He is still known as the ‘Angelic Doctor’ in the hagiology of the Church.
 See appendix.
 “Sancto subito” indeed! “John Paul the Great “ was a reactionary bigot. This comment won’t appear in the final version!