Geek alert: theological history ahead!
Last month, I wrote on Bondings 2.0 about an English translation problem in the 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons that changed the meaning of a significant passage. A number of readers pointed out that correcting this little error would not come close to undoing the document’s dominant language (and thinking) of intrinsic, objective, moral disorder.
Surprisingly, people from across the theological spectrum agree. Even some who energetically support Vatican teaching and take a strong tone against same-sex relationships oppose the term (for instance blogger Aaron Taylor). James Martin, S.J. decries it. More recently, Bob Shine reported that Irish journalist Ursula Halligan had called such language “vile.”
Why is this the one thing on which Catholics who agree about little else can find common ground? Possibly because we agree on one other thing: the label of intrinsic, objective moral disorder doesn’t fit anyone who gets up every morning committed to inhabiting God’s love, justice, and wisdom. We are all flawed, we all fall short, but intrinsically disordered? That’s a hard one to take. So how did the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith arrive at this destructive language, why is it still employed, and what should we do about it? The main point of the tale is that we’re here because of some odd twists of history that can hardly be considered the final word and that we shouldn’t accept as fixed.
How we got here
Throughout early Christian history, theology—including moral theology, or ethics—was a hot mess of varied approaches, just as Europe and the Mediterranean world were a shifting, hot mess of cultures, states, and empires. If theologians said something impossibly far out and gathered a following, they were likely to be anathematized. But in general, variety reigned.
In the late Middle Ages, however, theologians began to be interested in doing more than collecting and organizing theological debates. They wanted to systematize them too, and conform them to the rigor of philosophy. The University of Paris became a center for this project. It was also a center for the study and systematization of law, and the two disciplines—law and what became known as scholastic theology—grew up in conversation with each other.
It does not take too much imagination to see how the language necessary for legal judgment of an action—object, knowledge, freedom, intention, means, end, etc.—could also be useful for a confessor determining the degree of a sinner’s moral culpability for an action. The Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas found the 4thcentury BCE Greek philosopher Aristotle very useful for this project. Thomas was excommunicated posthumously for his radical approach, but eventually Rome came around and declared him a saint. That freed scholastic moral theologians to meld Aristotle with the philosophy of a good creation, orderly legal thinking, and traditional Western Christian sexual mores, adopting the idea that all God’s creations are meant to accomplish some particular good end.
Let’s spin out the consequences of this thinking. For Thomas, it was self-evident that human beings are meant for union with God, and their bodies are meant to contribute to this project while they are on earth. Feet are for walking, hands are for working, mouths are for eating the right sorts and amounts of food to nourish the body and for speaking the truth, and sexual organs are for propagating the species in an orderly way, within marriage. At least for men, desire and pleasure (thanks to design or the fall, depending on your perspective) are almost inevitable in the process, so they are permitted, but sex for the sake of desire and pleasure alone is always sinful to some degree because it orders or directs the sexual organs to the wrong end: self-gratification. (The irrelevance of women’s desires and pleasures to this story leads to problems we should address another time!)
Of course, there are gradations of sin-as-disorder. On this logic, sex that can produce offspring (opposite-sex vaginal fornication, adultery, rape, etc.) may at least achieve procreation imperfectly, outside marriage. So it does not disrespect God’s created order as gravely as sex that by definition cannot reproduce: masturbation, contraceptive sex, bestiality, and same-sex unions. Scholastic moral theology sees these acts and desires as intrinsically disordered because they don’t aim even implicitly at procreation.
From the scholastic perspective, then, same-sex attraction is mainly a category error, a tendency that makes no sense according to God’s plan for creation. It’s not a sin, or a physical or psychological illness, but it is an intrinsic disorder, as in basic dis-order, as in a self-evident mis-direction. The moral disorder is pursuing this obviously mistaken desire as if it were a good. It’s an active choice against God’s objective plan.
This mode of thinking about sex became Church policy in 1879, when Pope Leo XIII was looking for a way to found a pro-labor theology in something besides Marx. Leo’s encyclical Aeterni Patris used Thomas Aquinas not only to start the ball rolling on what we now call Catholic social teaching but also to set the exclusive standard of orthodoxy for all of Catholic theology. In the process Leo swept all other approaches to theology off the table. The upshot was that Thomas’s description of persons, ends, acts, and objects was now the only game in town. Moral theology had to be expressed in Thomistic, scholastic analytical concepts, like “well-ordered” and “disordered” acts and desires.
But when Vatican Council II finally broke the Thomistic theological logjam (for instance, replacing Thomas’s ideal of monarchy with democracy), individual moral theology was only slightly affected. With the promulgation of Humanae vitae (the birth control encyclical) in 1968, it became clear that the fresh air of aggiornamento had had the least effect of all on the Vatican’s moral teaching on sexuality. The result is that, despite Humane Vitae’s addition of the “unitive” dimension of sex, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith still views sex as being first and foremost about procreation. With the 1975 Persona humana and its language of “intrinsically disordered,” the Vatican doubled down on scholasticism, and this wording fed into both the 1986 Letter and the Catechism. When it comes to sex, the Vatican really is stuck in the 13th century.
What we should do, and why it matters
On one hand, if the past is any indicator, theological forecasters should take courage. Just when it seems things can’t get any worse, a change is usually around the corner. The revolutionary theologian Thomas Aquinas was excommunicated, then canonized, then declared the sole standard of orthodoxy. Many of the theologians who shaped the documents of Vatican Council II did so in semi-secrecy from sidelines because, as dissenters from orthodox Thomism, they were suspected of heterodoxy or were actually under censure. Thus it’s likely that the moral theologians now laboring under a cloud will be embraced in the near future, and that all the LGTBQ Catholics stinging from the blows inflicted by current moral theology will see it replaced.
On the other hand, however, too much is at stake for us to wait for Vatican III. The Vatican’s current teaching deprives people of the Eucharist, gets them fired, forbids them funerals, and even subjects them to violence in some places. What to do?
Paradoxically, if we lay aside “intrinsic disorder,” Thomas Aquinas is an inspiration for just the Catholic moral theology of sexuality we need. Thomas trusts our embodied experience of the world, and he assumes that a sure sign of a genuinely holy person is a life of true fruitfulness and flourishing. I’m betting you know at least one partnered LGBTQ person who fits this description. Let’s get started!
—Cristina Traina, New Ways Ministry, May 9, 2018
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