The Vatican announced late last year its plans to release a document on the advisability of admitting gays into the Catholic priesthood. At Harvard in December, the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Supporters Alliance’s anti-homophobia efforts reminded the community to scrutinize its own attitudes of acceptance of sexual minorities. Many American Catholics have chosen this past year, in which abuse revelations and anti-gay sentiment have injured Catholic communities around the country, to examine the Church’s teachings on sexuality and sin and to envision how these teachings may apply to a culture from which they differ sharply.
Following the example of Jesus, who read and interpreted Hebrew scripture for his followers, Catholics place great importance on intellectual analysis of religious topics in partnership with a strong faith in the inexplicable presence of God. With the hope of inspiring healing dialogue among Catholics and others, I will attempt to shed light on the often misinterpreted teachings of the Church on homosexuality. I hope this analysis will help the Harvard community strengthen the atmosphere of mindfulness toward its own actions and beliefs.
The Catholic Church does not allow homosexuals to marry, nor does it sanction sex outside of marriage for individuals of any orientation. This is based on the doctrine that sex is a blessing given to us for the dual purpose of procreation and strengthening the marital bond, and that to use it otherwise would be to misuse the gift of sex. The Church’s current teaching on homosexuality and marriage creates a difficult situation for homosexual Catholics who may feel called to dedicate their lives to another individual in the sight of God, as heterosexual Catholic couples do in marriage.
While we may criticize the Church for creating this situation, we need to remember that any faith institution exists both inside and outside of a temporal context. The religious truth the Church spreads has not changed in the 2,000 years since Jesus’ life; however, the issues of how to live these truths need to be addressed as cultures change. The godly men and women who have created doctrine throughout history have inhabited, for the largest part of the Church’s existence, cultures that have refused to tolerate homosexuality. Additionally, the Bible, which Christians believe is the inspired word of God, contains proscriptions against homosexuality such as those made by the author of Leviticus in the Old Testament and the Apostle Paul in the New. However, Leviticus also prohibits sex during a woman’s menstrual period, and Paul expends much energy insisting that women wear head coverings at worship. Subsequent to the writing of the texts, Church interpretation and common practice have shown Christians that God may be worthily served without the strict interpretation of these particular doctrines. The faithful of every age have the dual responsibility of adhering to their faith in the essence of salvation and of questioning it from their modern viewpoint, engaging in respectful dialogue with the goal of perfecting the Church’s message.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls homosexual acts “objectively disordered,” which does not mean that homosexuality is believed to be a disorder. It means that sexual acts outside of the frame of procreation disobey the Church’s teaching on sexual economy. Acts are condemned and not inclinations: the Catechism also teaches that “everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his [sic] sexual identity,” and it specifically calls for the treatment of sexual minorities with respect and compassion. The Church does not believe that homosexual individuals are in any way more inherently sinful than other beings. According to Jesus’ teachings, represented in the Bible and professed by all Christians, all humans are sinful and all have equal access to redemption. The Bible tells us that Jesus sought out and loved the thieves, prostitutes and sinners shunned by the “righteous” of his day. His longest conversation with an individual in the Bible is with a sexual sinner many times over, the Samaritan woman in John 4, and he saves the life of an adulteress by telling an angry crowd, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
The state of homosexuality does not require forgiveness and is not something individuals should strive to overcome. However, even if the state of homosexuality were sinful—and even if it were a sin to be female or male, wealthy or poor, a high school dropout or a Ph.D—Catholics would be bound to treat all individuals with equal love and concern, as Jesus did in life, and as we believe he does as the Risen God.
In a prayer that many Catholics and Christians of other denominations pray daily, we ask God to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” These words remind Christians that we are as accountable for our inner thoughts as our visible deeds. We are called to erase repercussions from anyone who may have harmed us as completely, lovingly and without restraint as we hope to one day be forgiven by God. One of the fundamental beliefs of Catholicism and of all Christianity is the power of God’s forgiveness. St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “Jesus has forgiven me more than St. Mary Magdalene [a prostitute and disciple of Jesus] since He forgave me in advance by preventing me from falling.” This speaks eloquently of the Church’s message that, as great as is the tendency of all humans to sin, the forgiveness of God is more powerful. Catholics teach and are taught not to condemn or punish, but to love and forgive others with this same richness. While current teachings surrounding homosexual marriage could take centuries to change, Catholics and all Christians would be at fault if they waited for an encyclical to restate what the Christian message has always been: All humans sin. All may be forgiven by God. All are bound and blessed to love one another.
Kate G. Ward ’05 is a psychology concentrator in Leverett House. She is vice-president for spirituality of the Harvard Catholic Students Association.