The Centrality of Marriage: Homosexuality and the Roman Catholic Argument

By Hanigan, James P. | The Ecumenical Review, January 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Centrality of Marriage: Homosexuality and the Roman Catholic Argument


Hanigan, James P., The Ecumenical Review


It is surely inadvisable, if not impossible, to address the issues of sexual orientation and homosexual behaviour independently of one's more general theological and moral views about human sexuality and sexual behaviour. Certainly the Roman Catholic tradition has not done so. I will therefore proceed in this essay in three stages. First, I will indicate the sources of Roman Catholic moral thought and how I understand the teaching about human sexuality which was developed by the historical tradition from those sources,(1) with special attention to sexual orientation and/or preference and sexual conduct. Second, I will explain the moral stance which the Roman Catholic community, through its official teachers,(2) has taken on the issues of homosexual orientation and conduct at this time in history. Finally, I will touch briefly on the implications of this official teaching for the rights of homosexual persons in both church and state.(3)

The sources of Roman Catholic moral thought

The Roman Catholic community has a lengthy, rather complex tradition of thought in regard to sexual morality.(4) The Bible, the primary narrative and fundamental normative source(5) for the church's own self-understanding and ethical practice, as well as for its relationship to the larger society, has considerable material for reflection and appropriation on the subject of human sexual behaviour. Starting with the two creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis (Gen. 1:28; 2:18-24),(6) and including a variety of narratives found in the historical books (e.g., Gen. 19:1-14; 34:1-5; 38:1-26: 39:1-20; Ruth 4; 2 Sam. 11-12:15; 1 Kings 11:1-13; Tob. 8:1-21), the holiness codes in Leviticus (ch. 18, esp. v.22), the ten commandments (Ex. 20:14,17), the Song of Songs and the practical moral advice of the wisdom literature (Pss 127 and 128; Prov. 5; 31:10-31; Eccl. 9:9-10), and the prophetic analogy between marriage and the Israelite covenant with God (Isa 54:4-10; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1-3; Mall 2:10-16). the Old Testament is thought to shed considerable light on marriage and family as central to the divine purpose for human sexuality and its responsible uses in relation to God s covenant with Israel.

The New Testament is likewise eloquent in its testimony to marriage and family as the embodiment of the divine purpose for human sexuality and its proper use in light of the already and not-yet present kingdom of God proclaimed in and by Jesus the Christ. The gospel passages on marriage and divorce (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:1-9: Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18), on sexual desires (Matt. 5:27-30), and on celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:10-12) are all taken with great seriousness in the Roman Catholic tradition. The Pauline instructions on licit and illicit sexual behaviour (1 Cor. 6:12-7:40), as well as the great Pauline analogy of the mystery of Christ s union with the church to the human marital union (Eph. 5:21-33) are prominent among New Testament passages which provide fuller insight into the divine plan for human well-being and the gospel call to holiness in regard to sexual activity.

In addition, within the Roman Catholic community its saints,(7) its theologians, its pastors and official teachers, as well as its members, have continued over the many years of the church s life to reflect upon the meaning and value of human sexuality. This reflection has proceeded with faith in the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit and in light of both the community's ongoing engagement with the biblical witness and new knowledge about the human person and the ever-changing social conditions in which people struggle to make sense of and live out their sexual desires and relationships.(8)

Since for most of recorded history nothing seems to have been known about what today we somewhat ambiguously call sexual orientation,(9) it is only in the present century that we can expect to find anything relevant in Roman Catholic teaching about the orientation itself.

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