Before examining this issue, however, I first want to temporarily set aside the Holy Father's suggestion that Catholics not "obsess" over the Church's sexual prohibitions, so that we can highlight the clear perennial teaching of the Church and thereby set off in sharp relief the tell-tale ambiguity that marks the muddle-minded thinking of our own day.
To this end, let us consider a recent article by intrepid theological critic, Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., who has just published Part 1 of a two-part series entitled "Why Are Homosexual Acts Wrong?" (Latin Mass Magazine: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition, Winter/Spring 2014), pp. 16-19 [notes are Fr. Harrison's].
In this first installment of his two-part series, Fr. Harrison briefly lays the groundwork for his discussion by summarizing Church teaching; but his main purpose in the balance of the series, he says, is to address the most common objections to the traditional Christian understanding of why homosexual acts are gravely immoral. The first and only objection dealt with in Part 1 is the claim: "It's not unnatural."
One point Fr. Harrison makes is that St. Thomas' answer to the question at issue does not in any way depend on -- or even mention -- marriage, but appeals to an even more fundamental ethical criterion: the kinds of sexual acts from which generation can never follow, says Thomas, are "the most grave and shameful" of the various types of lust, because "they transgress that which has been determined by nature with regard to the use of venereal actions." (ST, IIa IIae Q. 154, art 12, c) While all sexual activity outside of marriage is gravely sinful, not all such sins are equivalent. As Fr. Harrison reminds his readers, "Sodomy is, but fornication is not denounced in the Bible and Catholic tradition as one of the four 'sins that cry to heaven for vengeance.'" (Cf. Gen. 18:20; 19:13, CCC #1867. According to the fashionable interpretation of many modern exegetes, the sin of the men of Sodom is seen by the Genesis author as consisting merely in their 'lack of hospitality' toward Lot's guests, and not in the vice that has been named after their city. In reply to this objection, it will be sufficient for present purposes to point out that it is refuted by the Bible itself. The Letter of Saint Jude tell us (v. 7) that Sodom was punished for its "unnatural vice" (in the Vulgate, abeuntes post carnem alteram, "going astray after other flesh," i.e., "other" than what God and nature have ordained.")
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its own answer to our question, takes the same approach as St. Thomas, as Fr. Harrison points out, not even mentioning the question of marriage. Rather, it declares:
Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity (Gen. 19:1-2; Rom. 1:24-27; I Cor. 6:10; I Tim. 1:10), 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." (CCC, #2357, emphasis added)Which brings us to the question raised by the title of our post. While we see daily examples of Catholics and even some Church officials appearing to waffle or go soft on various aspects of Church teaching, particularly on morals, most Catholics would be surprised to think that of a flagship publication of Catholic neo-conservatism founded by the celebrated Catholic convert from Lutheranism, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. One would not expect, for example, to read passages such as Paul J. Griffiths recently wrote in his review of Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, by Richard Rodriguez, a self-identified "gay." Near the end of his review (FT, April 2014, pp. 58-59), Griffiths first offers this rather benign observation:
I don't agree with every position taken in Darling, or with every argument offered. On Islam, I suspect that's what's needed at the moment isn't emphasis on the similarities among the three so-called Abrahamic religions as desert faiths, real though these are, but rather on difference and complimentarity. The recent work of Rémi Brague on this, especially On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others), is especially instructive.As I say, nothing particularly notable there ... But then he continues:
On homosexuality and homosexual acts, by contrast, I think Rodriguez much closer to being right than not. Insofar as such acts are motivated by and evoke love, they are good and to be loved; insofar as they do not, not. In this, they are no different from heterosexual acts.Really? Acts that the Bible and Catholic tradition have always declared "sins that cry to heaven for vengeance" can be "motivated by and evoke love"? What sort of "love"? If even contraceptive intercourse is disqualified from being an act of authentic self-donating love because it involves the withholding of our procreative power from our spouses, one wonders what sort of "love" Griffiths has in mind. Erotic love, perhaps? But there's nothing particularly novel or exceptional about that. Even a prostitute in the red light district is perfectly clear about what she means when she asks, "Wanna little lovin', sailor?" -- and it isn't the sort of love Jesus Christ commanded us to have towards our neighbor. Even if a prostitute's client were kindly and considerate toward her, this would hardly change the fundamental immorality of the transaction between them.
But Griffiths is not finished:
There are other interesting differences between [homosexual and heterosexual] kinds of act. But if you think, as Rodriguez seems to, and I do, and all Catholics should, that we live in a devastated world in which no sexual acts are undamaged, free from the taint of sin and death and the concomitant need for lament, then the fact that homosexual acts have their own characteristic disorder is no ground for blindness to the goods they enshrine. Gay men should, of course, darling one another; those of us whose darlings are of the opposite sex should be glad that they do, and glad of instruction in love by the ways in which they do. Love is hard enough to come by in a devastated world without encouraging blindness to its presence.This sort of suggestion has two immediate effects: (1) it levels out differences between kinds and levels of sin, such as the Church and Bible itself make between mortal and venial sins (James 2:10-11), not to mention "sins that cry to heaven for vengeance"; and (2) it places traditional Christian standards of morality beyond reach as an unattainably lofty ideal, just as Martin Luther does when he declares that those who are declared just by Christ remain "in bondage to sin" (as Lutherans confess in their liturgy), simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously just and sinners) -- a gloomy view promoted by Reinhold Niebuhr and by others inclined to dismiss as hyperbole the words of Jesus when He said: "Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect." (Mt 5:48)
In other words, the sort of view set forth by Griffiths here, which declares that we're all sinners living in a "devastated world in which no sexual acts are undamaged," offers with one hand what it takes away with the other. It professes to take sin seriously by declaring that we are all immersed in sin and disordered by it, but then it removes the unique culpabilities proper to specific sins by nullifying the moral differences between them.
Hard on the heels of Griffiths's review comes Editor R. R. Reno's apologia for his magazine's publication of it. In "Sex and First Things" (FT, June/July 2014), p. 7 [print edition], Reno says some good things, as well as some confusing and perhaps confused things [my comments in brackets]:
When I read Griffith's review before publication, I shook my head. It's not what I would have written. It's true that sin taints all sexual acts. [It is? Does it?] And it's true that the intrinsically disordered sexual acts between men and men and women and women that are rightly condemned by both natural reason and the Catholic magisterium can, as he puts it, be "motivated by and evoke love." [They can? By what sort of love? See my earlier remarks.] But when our culture trumpets the equivalence of homosexuality and heterosexuality -- when the CEO of an Internet company is forced to quit after being "outed" for the secular sin of thinking marriage is between a man and a woman -- do we really need to buttress Richard Rodriguez's views about homosexuality?As I suggest, some good things here as well as a bit of confusion.
... It seems to me that when it comes to sex, our culture is drowning in naive, incoherent, irresponsible, and ultimately cruel affirmations. When a driver is careening toward the precipice, yelling "Stop!" is the most profound act of love.
But then comes Reno's express justification for publishing the piece, the puttative pièce de résistance, which turns out looking more like a Tupperware full of cream-of-Thursday leftovers:
That said, I published the piece because I may be wrong about what's needed today -- and because the magazine would be painfully boring if all the writers had to agree with me. [Oh? First Things has no editorial policy? It takes no position regarding Catholic Church teaching? It's endeavoring to compete with Entertainment Weekly?] It's an indisputable fact that we now have an openly gay culture in America that isn't interested in our moral judgments [So what -- we stop making moral judgments?]; indeed, we have a sexual culture in general that's not much interested in them. [Again, would this have altered our Lord's game plan in His Great Commission -- "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them ... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you"?] In that context, it may be that the moral wisdom of the Church can be widely heard only in careful, nuanced affirmations that don't betray the moral truth. [What??? Did Jesus or St. Paul say anything about "nuancing" the Gospel message when people weren't receptive? "And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet and leave that house or town" (Mt 10:14).]....Quo vadis, First Things?
There's precedent, after all. [Note this well!] Pope Francis's confusing (and perhaps confused) statements about homosexuality share Griffith's reading of the signs of the times. [And share, perhaps, in the confusing or confused statements of our times?] The pope seems to want to find the "yes" that gets us moving in the right direction, toward a recovery of a basic metaphysical sanity that allows us to see that the different physiologies (and psychologies) of men and women -- and their fruitful reciprocity in sexual union -- have moral relevance. [What??????? Is there anything relevant that this cannot mean? "Metaphysical sanity" sounds good. If this means respect and charity towards those whose moral behavior we find loathsomely immoral, that seems like a good thing. But what does it mean? That we're allowed to see that our different physiologies and psychologies (and fruitful reciprocity in sexual union) "have moral relevance"??? Is there anyone who doesn't already see that, or is there something profound here we're completely missing?] I believe that's Griffith's goal as well. [So Griffith's goal is the pope's goal, even though it's not quite clear from this what either of their goals are.]