Challenging the Basis for Catholicism's Sexual Ethics

A University of Notre Dame philosophy professor has challenged the reasoning that church officials use to dismiss church employees because of LGBT issues, in particular, for marrying a same-gender partner.

Professor Gary Gutting

In a blog post on The New York Times website, Professor Gary Gutting says that it is time for church leaders to

“undertake a thorough rethinking of its teachings on sexual ethics, including premarital sex, masturbation and remarriage after divorce. In every case, the old arguments no longer work (if they ever did), and a vast number of Catholics reject the teachings. It’s time for the church to realize that its sexual ethics are philosophically untenable and theologically unnecessary.”

Gutting’s argument goes to the central part of what underlies the church’s opposition to same-gender sexual relationships and marriages: natural law theory.  His explanation is one of the clearest and simplest that I have read, so I will excerpt it here, but also recommend that those interested read his entire essay.

Gutting begins with a short description of natural law theory and shows how it actually can support same-gender relationships:

“The primary arguments derive from what is known as the ‘natural-law tradition’ of ethical thought, which begins with Plato and Aristotle, continues through Thomas Aquinas and other medieval and modern philosophers, and still flourishes today in the work of thinkers like John Finnis and Robert George. This tradition sees morality as a matter of the moral laws that follow from what fundamentally makes us human: our human nature. This is what the archbishop was referring to when he said that homosexual acts are contrary to natural law. This has long been a major basis for the church’s claim that homosexual acts are immoral — indeed ‘gravely sinful.’

“The problem is that, rightly developed, natural-law thinking seems to support rather than reject the morality of homosexual behavior. Consider this line of thought from John Corvino, a philosopher at Wayne State University: “A gay relationship, like a straight relationship, can be a significant avenue of meaning, growth, and fulfillment. It can realize a variety of genuine human goods; it can bear good fruit. . . . [For both straight and gay couples,] sex is a powerful and unique way of building, celebrating, and replenishing intimacy.’ The sort of relationship Corvino describes seems clearly one that would contribute to a couple’s fulfillment as human beings — whether the sex involved is hetero- or homosexual. Isn’t this just what it should mean to live in accord with human nature?”

Sister Margaret Farley, a Catholic moral theologian, has made the same argument from an ethical point of view, pointing out that the goodness of a relationship should be judged by its relational qualities, not on the basis of any particular sexual act which may occur between two people.

Gutting doesn’t stop there, however, but goes on to critique natural law theorists’ rejection of the morality of same-gender relationships by showing that they do not provide a “satisfactory response” to two critical questions:

“First, why, even if nonreproductive sex were somehow less ‘natural’ than reproductive, couldn’t it still play a positive role in a humanly fulfilling life of love between two people of the same sex? Second, why must nonreproductive sex be only for the selfish pleasure of each partner, rather than, as Corvino put it, a way of building, celebrating, and replenishing their shared intimacy?”

Most importantly, he points out an assumption about lesbian and gay sexuality that seems to be underlying natural law theory:

“The natural-law argument might make some sense to those who see homosexuals as dominated by an obsessive desire for pleasure, to which they subordinate any notion of fidelity or integrity. The courageous uncloseting of many homosexuals has revealed them as people like most everyone else, searching for and sometimes achieving a fulfilling human life through rich and complex relationships. Since the official church, under Pope Francis, is more than ever open to this sensible view, the time is overdue for a revision of its philosophical misunderstanding of homosexual acts.”

Turning to Scripture and revealed truth, Gutting examines the natural law premise that both reason and revelation must agree with one another.  This kind of thinking usually requires reason to submit to revelation, but Gutting points out that this has not always been the case, and does not have to be the case when discussing homosexuality.  For example, in the cases of Galileo, Darwin, and the abolition of slavery, the Church accepted the testimony of reason, thus requiring new understandings or interpretations of Scripture.  Gutting concludes:

“The condemnation of homosexuality could plausibly be treated in the same way. The argument would then be that rational reflection strongly supports the claim that homosexual acts are not in general immoral, while there’s no need to conclude that God’s revelation says otherwise. This points the way to the church’s acceptance of homosexual acts as part of a morally fulfilling human relationship.”

Gutting began his essay by talking about how Archbishop Cordileone (and others) are using natural law theory to defend the firing of employees who support or are part of committed lesbian and gay relationships.   The fact that natural law is now affecting not just moral judgments, but is influencing the practical realm of employment, raises the urgency to review these types of arguments and to find ways that they can be life-giving, not damaging, to all people.

I’m thankful that Professor Gutting has started the discussion to help find those new ways.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

4 replies
  1. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    Prof. Gutting and Sr. Farley address the heart of the matter: people, gay and straight, have a basic human need for intimacy and sharing. By obsessing about LGBT people, and judging and categorizing sex acts of all kinds, the church is missing the boat. Our children are in desperate need for meaningful conversations and guidance about love and intimacy. They need to think about the difference between a “one nighter” and an actual relationship with commitment, mutual regard, and respect. One only has to see all the news around sexual misconduct on college campuses to see just how much kids need this guidance. The church drops the ball on all of this moral teaching with the “just say no,” and “intrinsically disordered” philosophies. It is ironic that many can hide affairs, one night stands and promiscuity. It is when LGBT people want to be in a lifelong committed relationship that they are fired from Catholic schools and parishes. Many are fired after getting married! This is ridiculous. The church is having the wrong conversations, and is causing pain and suffering. Many leave the church over this issue, so rather than supporting faith, these wrong philosophies cause crises in faith.

  2. Mary Lou Shookhoff
    Mary Lou Shookhoff says:

    I totally agree with Professor Gutting. As an OB nurse, I have seen many genetics differences in human beings and if our genes can make physical differences, then why not in our sexuality and our brain – body relationship. Most gay people whom I have spoken with (including some in my family) have felt ‘different’ from young childhood. And I can only imagine the horror of looking one gender and feeling that you are another!! One day when I was meditating on Mt. 19:13, the thought popped into my mind that Christ might have been speaking about non-heterosexual persons. If you think about it, many to most LGTB people were most likely born that way, (if you consider all of the variables in genetics), a few may have been made that way due to prolonged abuse, especially those who were abducted by their abusers. And we all know the last. The Church needs to get over the idea that letting LGTB persons marry will undo traditional 1 man/1 woman marriage. This idea hasn’t bothered my marriage at all!! In fact, my former choir sang at the funeral of the partner of one of our members. They had been together for 35 years!!! How many traditional marriage make it a decade anymore??We should all just, as Christ said, “Love one another”!!!


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