The Open Debate: Moral Theology and the Lives of Gay and Lesbian Persons. (Notes on Moral Theology)

By Keenan, James F. | Theological Studies, March 2003 | Go to article overview

The Open Debate: Moral Theology and the Lives of Gay and Lesbian Persons. (Notes on Moral Theology)


Keenan, James F., Theological Studies


AS I WRITE THIS NOTE during the fall of 2002, I am aware of the effect that the sexual abuse crisis has had on our churches. I believe that now more than ever we must have in the Church the space to discuss respectfully and without fear of reprisal the nature of our magisterial teachings and theological opinions on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. (1)

MAGISTERIAL TEACHING ON HOMOSEXUALITY

In his scholarly investigation of church teaching on homosexuality from the tenth to the twentieth century, Mark Jordan makes the case that magisterial teaching on the topic is not only inconsistent but actually incoherent because "from the beginning, `sodomy' has meant whatever anyone wanted it to mean." (2) In recent years, however, the teaching on gay and lesbian persons by Vatican congregations and the hierarchy has been rather consistent. In his study of debates on homosexuality, Carlos Dominquez Moran notes that in comparison to the other Christian churches, the Vatican's position has changed only a little, even though a lively debate exists within the Church at every other level. (3) The Vatican's teaching remains so because its contemporary exponents privilege as a condition of truthfulness a teaching's unchanged status. (4) Thus, those who explain and defend contemporary magisterial teachings, like the magisterial teachers themselves, do not countenance debate, innovation, or investigative discourse. (5) Nonetheless, even these writings generate debate. (6) J. Giles Milhaven explains that this is because "the Vatican teaches and commands the opposite of what a large portion of pastors encourage, theologians teach, and ordinary Catholics in good conscience do." (7) Thus, the late Javier Gafo declared the debate over homosexuality as unavoidably an open one. (8)

A variety of approaches to this debate can be used. In order to facilitate this bibliographical overview, I propose three divisions: critical reaction, specific moral theological investigations, and power, language, and experience. These could be called phases in the development of the debate, but only loosely so.

Critical Reaction

In its "Letter to Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons" (1986), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stipulated its position on homosexuality: "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder." (9) The Congregation added "only in the marital relationship that the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good. A person engaging in homosexual behavior therefore acts immorally." "To choose someone of the same sex for one's sexual activity is to annul the rich symbolism and meaning, not to mention the goals, of the Creator's sexual design. Homosexual activity is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living. This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves; but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent." (10) Finally, regarding the use of Scripture, the Congregation warned: "It is likewise essential to recognize that the Scriptures are not properly understood when they are interpreted in a way which contradicts the Church's living Tradition. To be correct, the interpretation of Scripture must be in substantial accord with that Tradition." (11)

The Congregation's Letter generated extensive critical reaction. Four very different responses help to highlight the diverse concerns that were named then and continue today. (12) First, John Coleman noted the lack of regard for the personal rights of gay and lesbian persons. He held that the Letter maintained the older view that "error has no rights" and failed to take into account the insight from Dignitatis humanae that adds "but persons . …

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