New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award

Rev. Charles Curran
Bridge Building Award Recipient – 1992

Image result for charles e curran

In 1992, the board and staff of New Ways Ministry instituted a Bridge Building Award to recognize an individual who has contributed through scholarship, leadership, or witness to the improvement of the relationship between the LGBT community and the Catholic Church. The Board of New Ways Ministry selected Charles E. Curran as its first recipient.

Fr. Curran is the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He has served as President of the Catholic Theological Society of America, the Society of Christian Ethics, and the American Theological Society.

As a world-renowned moral theologian, Fr. Curran has called the theological community and the Church to address the need for a viable sexual ethic for single and married persons, as well as for LGBT individuals. Through his scholarship, Charles Curran continues to inspire succeeding generations of ethicists with his courage and humility.

Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester says, “As a theologian, Father Curran enjoys considerable respect not only in our diocese but across this country. He is unfailingly thorough and respectful in his exposition of the teaching of the church. Indeed, I have heard it said that few theologians have a better grasp of or express more clearly the fullness of the Catholic moral tradition.”

In his theological writings, Charles Curran has dedicated much energy to addressing the pressing need of the Catholic Church for a viable sexual ethic. He has displayed vision by moving beyond the issues facing single and married individuals to include the crises affecting LGBT persons as well. In doing so, Charles Curran has shown compassion and insight by listening to their experiences and responding to their concerns. He has demonstrated courage in developing and articulating a position, which he forthrightly acknowledges to be at variance with episcopal teaching.

New Ways Ministry appreciates that his positions of integrity have not been without sacrifice. Charles Curran remains among the leading Catholic moral theologians, not only in the United States, but in the world, who take seriously the theologian’s role to speak the truth in love. Because of his positions on human sexuality, Charles Curran has been censured and denied deserved professorship at the Catholic University of America as an example to other theologians who would dissent from magisterial teaching on sexual ethics.    Despite criticism leveled against him, Charles Curran continues to present his theological positions publicly in the hope that they might advance understanding and development through constructive dialogue.

In 1981, while in the midst of his own case with Vatican authorities, he nevertheless appeared in a public forum during the First New Ways Ministry Symposium on Homosexuality and the Catholic Church. At that time, he spoke about the ethics of a same-sex relationship. This action, we are convinced, did not gain him favor from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

New Ways Ministry thanks Charles Curran for his theological and strategic advice to others, most notably to our co-founders, Jeannine Gramick and Robert Nugent, who have encountered similar difficulties with Church authorities. New Ways Ministry has been blessed many times by his professional advice and personal concern.

As a warm and loving human being, Charles Curran has maintained an openhearted, compassionate solidarity with LGBT Catholics and a public support of ministry on their behalf. He remains a source of encouragement to them in their struggle to be included and reverenced as members of the family of God.

New Ways Ministry is privileged to present to Charles Curran, a peacemaker, reconciler, and man of prayer, our first Bridge Building Award.

September 13, 1992

Charles E. Curran
Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas
Washington, D.C.

Is There Any Good News in the Recent Documents from the Vatican about Homosexuality?
Address delivered after receiving the Bridge Building Award from New Ways Ministry

I maintain, together with many others, that official hierarchical Roman Catholic teaching should accept the moral value and goodness of committed homosexual relationships striving for permanency and including homogenital sexual relations.1  The most recent two documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [the 1992 Some Considerations and the 1986 Letter] strongly reiterate the teaching that homosexual relations are always and everywhere wrong. This essay will examine these two documents (primarily the 1986 Letter because the 1992 Considerations deals primarily with legislation and merely quotes the moral teaching from the earlier document)  to see if they indicate any basis for the hope that the official hierarchical magisterium will ever change its moral teaching.

What this essay discusses from an academic perspective has become a burning existential question for many today: should they leave the Roman Catholic Church because of its present teaching and strong unwillingness to ever change this teaching?  This academic and theological study alone does not pretend to solve anyone’s personal question, but it might furnish some helpful information. This essay starts with a prejudgment, but attempts to examine objectively these two documents as they stand on the basis of the texts themselves and the context. The first part will deal with the case for the negative answer to the question: the documents show no openness whatsoever to any possible change in the hierarchical teaching. The second part will attempt to indicate some bases for maintaining that a change in the hierarchical teaching is possible.

  1. The Negative Response

Universal and all inclusive statements remain difficult to verify and most academics rightly shy away from such pronouncements. However, I begin this section with just such a proposition. All those who share my position on the moral goodness of committed homosexual relationships have severely criticized these two documents. This section will not attempt to summarize all these criticisms, but will very briefly summarize the moral teaching of these two documents and will discuss at some length why the Congregation felt it necessary to maintain that even the homosexual orientation, as distinguished from homosexual behavior, constitutes an objective disorder.

The documents make the point that the moral teaching of the hierarchical magisterium remains absolutely clear: homosexual activity is always wrong. “It is only in the marital relationship that the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good” (1986 Letter, n. 7).2  This “clear position cannot be revised by pressure from civil legislation or the trend of the moment” (n. 9). The 1986 Letter recognizes that increasing numbers of people today, even within the church, are bringing enormous pressure to bear on the church to change its teaching. Such a position reflects, even if not entirely consciously, a materialistic ideology which denies the transcendent nature of the human person as well as the supernatural vocation of every individual. These reasons are profoundly opposed to the teaching of the church (nn. 8-9).

The moral reasons leading to the conclusion taken by the hierarchical magisterium come from scripture, tradition, reason, and the teaching of the church. The Letter cites scriptural passages in support of its conclusion: Genesis 3, 19:1-11, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, I Corinthians 6:9, and Romans 1:18-32 (n. 6). In keeping with its pastoral nature, the 1986 Letter does not go into the tradition of the church, but simply points out that the present teaching has been the constant and traditional teaching of the church (n. 8). The church’s position is “founded on human reason, illumined by faith”(n. 2). The Letter forcefully insists that the proper pastoral care of homosexuals clearly proposes the true teaching of the hierarchical magisterium. Bishops are warned to be especially cautious of any programs pressuring the church to change its teaching even while claiming not to. It is wrong to present the teaching of the magisterium as if it were an optional source for the formation of conscience. “All support should be withdrawn from any organizations which seek to undermine the teaching of the church, which are ambiguous about it, or which neglect it entirely” (n. 17).

This summary of the moral teaching and pastoral recommendations of the Letter indicates how forcefully and decisively this teaching has been proposed. No similar document with such admonitions and concrete pastoral measures to reinforce the teaching of the hierarchical magisterium has even been issued. Is it any wonder that all those who share the position of working for change in the teaching have unhesitatingly and strongly criticized the document?  Such a presentation of the teaching on homosexuality provides not even the slightest basis for a possible change in the teaching.

The Congregation found it necessary not only to condemn homosexual acts but also to describe the homosexual orientation itself (for which the individual person is ordinarily not responsible) as an objective disorder. The 1986 Letter emphasizes the objective disorder of the homosexual orientation, inclination, and condition more than any other point.

A great number of commentators have strongly disagreed with this understanding and have been quite perplexed about it.3  The document provides no psychological or psychiatric evidence to support its position. Why did the Congregation so forcefully emphasize this point?

Logically this emphasis is closely related to the position taken by the Congregation on the morality of homosexual acts and legal discrimination against gays and lesbians. The Letter strongly emphasizes the disordered nature of the homosexual orientation or inclination precisely because other recent documents had neglected it or even given the impression there was nothing disordered about the orientation. The Letter itself gives a partial glimpse of this history (n. 3).

The Declaration of Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on December 29, 1975, addressed the issue of homosexuality. The Declaration distinguished between “temporary homosexuals and homosexuals who are permanently such because of some innate drive or a pathological condition which is considered incurable.”  This condition, however, cannot justify homosexual acts. Homosexual acts are “disordered by their very nature” and “deprived of the essential ordination they ought to have.”  Thus the Declaration distinguishes between the homosexual condition or orientation and homosexual acts which are said to be always disordered. The 1986 Letter refers only to the Declaration, but other interesting developments occurred after the Declarationin the United States.

In November 1976 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued To Live In Christ Jesus, a pastoral letter dealing with all aspects of the moral life. The very brief discussion of homosexuality in this pastoral letter begins by recognizing that some persons find themselves through no fault of their own to have a homosexual orientation. Homosexuals have the same basic human rights as everyone else and should also have an active role in the church community. Homosexual activity, however, the bishops say, is morally wrong. Since the orientation is not described as morally wrong or disordered, and since the orientation is contrasted to the morally wrong acts, one could conclude legitimately that the orientation itself is not disordered and is neutral or even good. Some American bishops on the basis of this document in their own individual statements and teachings repeated the distinction between the orientation and the morally wrong activity.4  Pope John Paul II in his address to the American bishops in Chicago in 1979 praised them for rightly saying that homosexual activity, as distinguished from the homosexual orientation, is morally wrong.5

The 1986 Letter perceptively recognized that, in accord with its own moral methodology, the condemnation of homosexual acts logically involves the recognition that the homosexual orientation itself is objectively disordered.

A preliminary step requires a proper understanding of the term “disordered.”  According to the 1986 Letter the homosexual orientation is not a sin but is an objective disorder (n. 3). This same Letter later speaks of homosexual activity as being a moral disorder (n. 7). The Letter thus uses the term disordered to describe both homosexual orientation and homosexual activity.

Every human moral act contains two aspects: the objective and the subjective. The objective refers to the rightness or wrongness of the act in itself, whereas the subjective refers to the culpability or the responsibility of the agent who does an objectively wrong act. Right and wrong are the most correct terms to use about the objective aspect of the act; culpability or sin refers to the subjective aspect. The Catholic moral tradition in common with many other moral traditions has recognized that various factors might affect the culpability or sinfulness of the person who does a morally wrong act. Thus the present hierarchical teaching maintains that homosexual acts are objectively wrong, but various factors might affect the subjective culpability or sinfulness involved (n. 11). In the tradition of Catholic moral theology an act is objectively wrong because it is disordered. Thomas Aquinas long ago referred to law as an ordering of reason. The divine law, the natural law, and human law involve an ordering of reason. A disordering constitutes an objective wrongness which thus goes against the divine, natural, or human law.6

But why was it necessary for the Congregation to maintain that the homosexual orientation, condition, or inclination constitutes an objective disorder?

The documents under consideration help to provide an answer by mentioning significant aspects of the hierarchical magisterium’s teaching about moral methodology in determining whether or not an act is objectively well-ordered or disordered. The moral ordering of acts is determined by their ends. Teleology and the principle of finality play an important role in the moral methodology employed in hierarchical Catholic sexual teaching. The 1975 Declaration maintains that respect for the finality of the sexual act guarantees the moral goodness of the act (n. 5).

Natural law has been described as the participation of the eternal law in the rational creature. God has made us, and human reason by examining human nature can discover how we are to act. However, natural law does not involve a heteronomous or extrinsic understanding of law. We are not to do something just because God commands it. God made us to achieve our own happiness and fulfillment. By acting in accord with our nature and God’s plan or law we achieve our true happiness. Thus the 1986 Letter maintains that every morally disordered act prevents one’s own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God (n. 7).

But how do we know God’s creative plan and the proper finality and ordering of human acts?  The theory of natural law behind hierarchical Catholic sexual teaching, as illustrated in the 1975 Declaration, discovers the plan of God by looking at the nature and purpose of the sexual faculty or power. The sexual faculty exists for the twofold purpose of procreation and love union of male and female. This twofold finality must be respected in every sexual act and grounds the norm that it is only in the marital relationship that the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good (nn. 4, 5).

The 1975 Declaration applies these principles and norms to all the particular sexual questions. Thus, for example, artificial contraception between spouses is wrong because it goes against the procreative finality of the act. Homosexual relations are judged wrong because both finalities are missing: procreation and the love union of male and female.(n. 6 ff).

The 1986 Letter follows the same approach. “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” (n. 7).

The teleology or finality fundamental to this natural law theory also controls with regard to the evaluation of inclinations. Note that the very word inclination itself has teleological overtones. One is inclined to certain ends or purposes. In fact Thomas Aquinas develops his fundamental approach to natural law on the basis of the three inclinations in human beings: what they share with all living things, what they share with animals, and what is specific to human beings as such. The order of the precepts of natural law is according to the order of the natural inclinations. Good is to be understood in terms of the end.7  Logic demands that if the act is disordered, the inclination or orientation to that act is also disordered. The end determines the judgment about the inclination or orientation. Stealing is morally disordered, so the inclination or orientation to steal is disordered. If the inclination or orientation to a certain end is good or neutral, then the act itself is good or neutral. The logic of the moral theory demands that if the homosexual act is disordered, then the inclination or orientation to that act is also disordered. The Congregation from its perspective could not continue to allow Catholic statements to imply or even maintain that the homosexual orientation is neutral or good.

Thus the 1986 Letter clearly states, “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” (n. 3). If the orientation or inclination is neutral or good, then the act is neutral or good.

The objectively disordered nature of the homosexual orientation is also logically necessary to support the position taken by the Congregation in Some Considerations on the legal aspects of homosexuality (nn. 10-16). Laws have been proposed and enacted to prevent discrimination against people because of race, ethnicity, gender, age, or sexual orientation. The Congregation holds that rights such as the right to work, to housing, etc. are not absolute. They can be legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct. The homosexual orientation is not the same as race, gender, age, or ethnic origin. It is an objectively disordered orientation. Homosexuals thus can and should be treated differently by the law whereas persons of different races, ethnic origins, gender, or age should not be discriminated against and treated differently. Logically the moral and legal positions taken by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith require the Congregation to insist that the homosexual orientation is objectively disordered, even though so many have criticized that claim.

Thus this section proves that the Congregation has a strong, forceful, aggressive, and unequivocal commitment to the present position on homosexuality. In no other issue has the hierarchical magisterium in general taken such practical initiatives to ensure that this official teaching is so clearly enunciated and pastorally protected against contrary encroachments. This approach constitutes very bad news indeed for those calling for a change in the teaching. One can understand why such proponents have been so negative about the recent documents.

2. Positive Aspects

Can these documents provide any basis for the possibility of change in the teaching of the hierarchical magisterium on homosexuality?  Invoking Rynne’s Law constitutes one possible approach. Xavier Rynne was the pseudonymous author whose Letters from Vatican Cityfirst appeared in The New Yorker during the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and provided the English speaking world with an inside view of the workings and machinations of Vatican officials and bureaucrats. In a 1981 book Francis X. Murphy claims to have discovered in an analysis of the ecclesiastical events described by Rynne a definite pattern of change discernible in the doctrinal, moral, disciplinary, and structural aspects of the church. When faced with a new or evolving position or issue in which many people and theologians are calling for change, the magisterium staunchly and forcefully refuses to acknowledge any possibility of change. However, change soon occurs.

Rynne’s Law maintains that with the publication of a papal or hierarchical document that expresses a refusal to budge on the issue, an unwitting acknowledgment has been made of the fact that the turnabout is already in process. Actual change is thus accomplished by “reverse English.”8

What about Rynne’s Law?  No one can doubt that Murphy has properly interpreted Rynne. A few years ago the heretofore coy Murphy publicly acknowledged that he was/is Xavier Rynne. However, is Rynne’s Law true?  Those looking for a change in the hierarchical teaching on homosexuality can find great solace in Rynne’s Law. All must acknowledge the very forceful and unprecedented defense of the existing teaching on homosexuality made in the most recent documents. The application of Rynne’s Law thus provides great hope even in the midst of the massive evidence to the contrary.

Undoubtedly Murphy-Rynne can point to many occasions in which Rynne’s Law has been verified. However, in more recent times one looks in vain for illustrations of Rynne’s Law. Begin with the issue of contraception. The hierarchical magisterium has been adamant and, despite massive disagreements by Catholic spouses in practice and Catholic theologians in theory, the hierarchical magisterium has not changed its teaching. In fact the hierarchical magisterium has even devised a new defense for the teaching. The church, in bearing witness to the message of Jesus, must often be counter-cultural. Even though the majority of people espouse a particular position, the church in the tradition of the prophets must remain faithful to and continue to practice and bear witness to the truth.9  (I do not see how such a counter-cultural emphasis is compatible with the traditional Catholic recognition that its moral teachings are based on natural law which is common to all human beings.)

Proponents of change in other areas of sexuality, church structures, and the role of women in the church have also been disappointed. Perhaps Rynne’s Law needs more time in order to become effective. But perhaps the law itself is somewhat biased and not always true.

Can proponents of change appeal to anything other than Rynne’s Law in their analysis and interpretation of recent hierarchical documents on homosexuality?  My response is yes. The 1986 Letter itself offers some basis for a positive answer, but this support is muted and barely visible to the naked eye. Yet its reality cannot be denied. The support exists not on the level of the specific conclusions about homosexuality but on the level of moral methodology. Again the 1986 Letter deals primarily with pastoral approaches, but it also mentions ever so briefly some of the methodological aspects of the Roman Catholic tradition in moral theology. Five methodological aspects mentioned there provide significant bases for changing the hierarchical teaching: the role of reason; the realization that God’s law and the natural law are based on what is for human good, fulfillment, and perfection;  the role of the sciences; the critical interpretation of the scripture; and the living tradition of the church with the dependent role of the hierarchical teaching office. The proponents of change in the teaching on homosexuality have appealed to these same methodological understandings to make their point. This section will now examine each of these issues.

The Role of Reason

The 1986 Letter states that “the Catholic moral viewpoint is founded on human reason illumined by faith…” (n. 2). The Roman Catholic tradition has consistently insisted on the importance of both faith and reason and has asserted that faith and reason cannot contradict one another. The significant role of theology in the Catholic tradition flows from the importance of human reason. Catholic theology rests on the twofold aspects of faith seeking understanding and understanding seeking faith. The role of reason has been prominent in moral theology. Catholic moral teaching has traditionally been based on the natural law or human reason and not directly on scripture or revelation. Human reason by reflecting on human nature can arrive at true ethical wisdom and knowledge. Contemporary Catholic social teaching recently appeals, and correctly so, to all people of good will.

Of course, the ultimate problem comes from determining whose reason or what reason. The 1986 Letter and contemporary hierarchical teaching on sexuality in general understand reason in terms of a manualistic concept of natural law which determines the proper ordering of acts on the basis of the faculty or the power from which they come.

Logically, reason constitutes a more general and broader term than natural law, which is a particular understanding of human reason. The present theory of natural law actually did not exist prior to the individual teachings which it supports. The theory actually arose as a way to explain consistently, coherently, and systematically all the existing particular teachings. The Roman Catholic tradition has consistently recognized a mutual relationship between theory and practice. The theory changes, develops, and is modified in the light of the developing practices. Reason, as the more general reality, can and should critically evaluate the existing theory or method which is being employed.

The methodological approach followed in the 1975 Declaration is basically the same as that on which the later pastoral letter is based. Many Catholic theologians have strongly criticized that methodological approach. For our purposes it suffices just to mention some of those criticisms: a failure to give enough importance to historical and cultural developments; a passive role for human reason merely discovering the values embedded in human nature;  an overly deductive methodology based on eternal, universal principles founded on human nature; an overemphasis on the finality of the sexual act and faculty and not enough emphasis on the person; a physicalism which too readily identifies the moral aspects of the act with the physical aspects; a deontological ethical model based on natural law which claims too great a certitude for its conclusions and applications; a failure to pay enough attention to the experiences of people.10

Those who disagree with the official hierarchical teaching on homosexuality have a different understanding of the meaning of sexuality for gays and lesbians. The historical Catholic emphasis on the goodness of human reason and its ability to come to true ethical wisdom and knowledge can be the basis for criticizing the very way in which reason is understood and employed in the teaching of the hierarchical magisterium.

Morality and Human Fulfillment

The Roman Catholic insistence on faith and reason and the goodness of reason stems from the central Catholic emphasis on mediation or sacramentality as it is sometimes called. According to the principle of mediation, the divine is mediated in and through the human. The human is not evil but is good and is positively related to the divine. As a result, Catholic theology has strongly acknowledged that the glory of God is the human person come alive. God’s law, if you want to use that term, calls for all human beings to come to their fulfillment and happiness. Thomas Aquinas in the very beginning of his Summa Theologiae maintains that the ultimate end of human beings is happiness (Ia q. 1-5). In this context morality is intrinsic in the sense that what is moral and good constitutes human happiness and perfection. (Of course, the Catholic tradition understands the human person in the broader context of community and not as an isolated individual.)  In the best of the Catholic tradition something is commanded because it is good and not the other way around.11  The 1986 Letter strongly supports this classical Catholic approach although using it for its own purposes. “As in every moral disorder, homosexual activity prevents one’s own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God” (n. 7).

This principle, however, can and has been used against the existing hierarchical teaching. Yes, the questions of what constitutes true humanity and true fulfillment generate much debate, but the question remains about what actually does serve the fulfillment and happiness of gays and lesbians.

The Role of Sciences

A third somewhat related methodological issue concerns the role of the sciences in the moral judgment. The Catholic approach which is so open to the human and human reason must also be open to learn from the human sciences. The sciences can tell us quite a bit about the human and hence about morality. On the other hand, each individual science is limited and cannot simply be identified with the totality of the human. The human includes the different aspects: the psychological, the sociological, the eugenic, the biological, the physical, the psychic, etc. Human moral judgments must take all these aspects into account, but the human moral judgment comprises the ultimate and all inclusive judgment. Nothing in this finite world is ever perfect from every possible perspective. We all know the problems and difficulties in determining the proper balance among all these aspects. Think, for example, about the contemporary debate over sacrificing environmental concerns to economic concerns or vice versa. Sociologists, for example, might be able to achieve very important data by invading other people’s privacy, but we say no to such approaches in the name of the human. Thus the Catholic tradition in its contemporary understanding recognizes the importance but also the limitations of a particular science or all the empirical sciences taken together.

The 1986 Letter recognizes and accepts the epistemological place of the sciences in Catholic understanding. The Congregation claims that the Catholic moral perspective finds support in the more sincere findings of the natural sciences, which have their own legitimate and proper methodology and field of inquiry (n. 2). “The Church is thus in a position to learn from scientific discovery but also to transcend the horizons of science and to be confident that its more global vision does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person in spiritual and physical dimensions created by God, and heir, by grace, to eternal life” (n. 2). The last part of the quotation appears to be overly defensive, but the basic thrust is in keeping with the best of the Catholic self-understanding.

Those who disagree with the present hierarchical teaching frequently appeal to contemporary psychiatry and psychology, although the practitioners of these disciplines do not all agree about the reality of homosexuality.12  The human moral judgment embraces more than the psychological and the psychiatric, but these aspects remain very significant.

The Use of Scripture

The Catholic approach, as distinguished from some Reformation approaches, has rejected the axiom of the scripture alone. The Catholic emphasis on tradition, the role of the church and the Holy Spirit, and the use of reason form the basis for the rejection of sola scriptura. In the first part of the twentieth century, Catholic hierarchical teaching firmly rejected the critical historical analysis of the scripture, but ever since Pope Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943 Catholics in general have accepted and used critical biblical scholarship. One cannot go directly from a scriptural text embedded in its own historical and cultural circumstances to the present with its very different historical and cultural circumstances.

The Catholic approach in general and in the manuals of moral theology insists that its moral teaching is based primarily on human reason. Since Vatican II moral theology has given more importance to the role of scripture, but the sexual teaching still claims to have a rational and natural law basis. Reason and the scripture cannot be opposed.

The 1986 Letter of the Congregation actually spends much more time discussing the scriptural basis for its judgment than the rational and natural law basis. The Letter focuses on the causes of confusion regarding the church’s teaching with special emphasis on recent scriptural interpretations. The Congregation cites and explains seven different texts to prove that homosexual relations are morally wrong. The 1986 Letter rejects this new exegesis of scripture “which claims variously that scripture has nothing to say on the subject of homosexuality, or that it somehow tacitly approves of it, or that all of its moral injunctions are so culture-bound that they are no longer applicable to  contemporary life. These views are gravely erroneous and call for particular action here”(n. 4). Thus the document explains why it pays so much attention to the scriptures.

Despite this strong condemnation of some contemporary interpretations of scripture, the Congregation remains true to the Catholic approach and even explicitly recognizes historical and cultural differences between the scriptures and our times (n. 5). The Letter explicitly recognizes that its own conclusion about homosexuality does not logically follow from this above understanding of the scripture. “What should be noticed is that, in the presence of such remarkable diversity, there is nevertheless a clear consistency within the scriptures themselves on the moral issue of homosexual behavior” (n. 5). Note the “nevertheless.”

Many scholars from Derrick Sherwin Bailey in 1955 down to the present have used the understanding of the scriptural diversity and conditioning accepted by the Congregation to justify homogenital behavior between constitutional homosexuals in a committed relationship.13  Thus one can appeal to the methodological understanding of the role of scripture in determining Christian morality as proposed by the 1986 Letter to come to a very different moral judgment about homosexual behavior.

The Living Tradition and the Role of the Hierarchical Magisterium

Without doubt the most discussed and the most significant issue in contemporary Catholic morality concerns the role of the hierarchical teaching office. While forcefully and even aggressively defending the hierarchical teaching on homosexuality, the 1986 Letter briefly indicates an understanding of that hierarchical magisterium which recognizes its somewhat limited and dependent role. The hierarchical magisterium is not the only or the highest authority in determining Catholic moral teaching in general.

An earlier section pointed out that the Catholic tradition sees the morally obligatory as what is for the good, the perfection, and the fulfillment of the human person called to live in community. Thus something is commanded because it is good. Consequently, the hierarchical magisterium itself does not make something true or good but must discover this basic truth or goodness. The hierarchical magisterium does not constitute the only or the highest source and goodness in the Catholic tradition.

The 1986 Letter refers to “the church’s living tradition” (n. 5). This comparatively innocuous reference is most significant. The document could have omitted the word “living” but it did not. Tradition thus is a living reality. The church grows and develops. The experience of the Second Vatican Council underscored the reality of living tradition. The church must understand, appropriate, and live the word and work of Jesus in the light of the historical and cultural situation of today. Too often in the past, tradition was understood to be something that stopped fifty years earlier. A recognition of living tradition means that the church in general, or the hierarchical magisterium in particular, cannot just repeat what has been said in the past.

The 1986 Letter (n. 5) explicitly cites the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council to show that the hierarchical magisterium is not the only source of knowledge and truth. It recognizes the magisterium functions in relationship to scripture and tradition. The paragraph in the 1986 Letter from the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (n. 10) spells out in greater detail what that relationship entails. The hierarchical magisterium is the servant of the scripture and tradition. The three sources are not on an equal plane.

One influential commentary on the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation stresses the significance and consequences of such a view of the magisterium:

When seen against this background, the explicit emphasis on the ministerial function of the teaching office must be welcomed as warmly as the statement that its primary service is to listen, that it must constantly take up an attitude of openness toward the sources, which it has continually to consult and consider, in order to be able to interpret them truly and preserve themnot in the sense of “taking them into custody” (to which sometimes the activity of the teaching office in the past may have intended), but as a faithful servant who wards off attempts at foreign domination and defends the dominion of the word of God both against modernism and against traditionalism. At the same time the contrast between the “listening” and the “teaching” church is thus reduced to its true measure:  in the last analysis the whole church listens and, vice versa, the whole church shares in the upholding of true teaching.

The author of this commentary is Joseph Ratzinger.14  Ratzinger sees in this paragraph of the Constitution a theology of the word and a renewed theology of the laity as totally rejecting the understanding of solo magisterio.15

Those who are calling for a change in the hierarchical teaching on homosexuality accept, endorse, and propose just such an understanding of magisterium in their attempt to change its teaching.

One cannot deny that the recent forceful reiteration of the hierarchical teaching on homosexuality is bad news for those trying to change that teaching. However, the 1986 Letter recognizes significant methodological approaches in the Roman Catholic tradition which are the same approaches employed by those who are trying to change the teaching. In the final analysis the methodological aspects are more important and will have more of an influence than the particular teaching itself.

3.  Practical Conclusions

I believe that the methodological approaches traditionally associated with Roman Catholicism’s discussion of morality support the arguments calling for a change in the hierarchical magisterium’s forceful condemnation of all homosexual behavior. However, I am not Pollyannaish. This change will take time, patience, much frustration, and great resolve. The factors aligned against such a change constitute a powerful force and will not quickly and readily disappear. Look at the record. The Roman Catholic Church has not changed on any of the significant points that have been discussed in the last twenty-five years.

In theory, in accord with the perspective of the hierarchical magisterium, change can only occur on those matters which are of church law and not of divine or natural law. The ordination of married men serves as one such example of church law. But even here the hierarchical magisterium refuses to change its teaching, even though more and more church communities are unable to celebrate the Eucharist together. The Eucharist has always served as the heart and center of the Catholic life, but Catholic bishops are now busy preparing, devising, and carrying out non-Eucharistic liturgies. Thus change has not occurred even on a matter that all admit is not by anyone’s definition unchangeable.

Matters of natural law by definition are said to be unchangeable precisely because they are the law that God has set down from all eternity and by definition cannot be changed. The church did not make these laws. God made them and the church cannot change them. I believe that just such an understanding lies behind the strong rhetoric used in defense of such teachings. God is on our side, and we are defending God’s law against all comers. Opponents point out that even Thomas Aquinas recognized that the secondary conclusions of the natural law are removed from the first principles and can admit of exceptions (Ia-IIae, q. 94, a. 5). But the hierarchical magisterium has never recognized such an approach.

The support at the present time for a change in the hierarchical magisterium’s teaching on homosexuality is weak if compared with those seeking a change in the teaching on artificial contraception for married couples. If the Catholic Church’s hierarchical magisterium will not change its position where the arguments, the pressure, and the numbers seem so strong, it is not going to change very quickly on the issue of homosexuality.

As all recognize, the hierarchical magisterium finds change difficult and above all is most reluctant to admit that its teachings have been wrong and need to change. Perhaps the most significant change of the Second Vatican Council on a specific issue concerned the teaching of religious liberty. The major issue concerned not the teaching itself but the problem of change. How could the church teach in the twentieth century what it denied in the nineteenth?  The problem was solved by a theory of development which claimed that the historical circumstances had changed so that the church was right in both centuries.16  I believe the unwillingness to admit that its teaching has been wrong constitutes the major reason why the hierarchical magisterium has not changed its teaching on artificial contraception. For all practical purposes Pope Paul VI admitted that in his encyclical Humanae vitae (n. 6).

Most of the problem areas in discussion today in the Catholic Church concern the issue of sexuality. I am sure many unconscious fears, anxieties, and power questions are involved in these issues. I do not have the competency to explore these matters. However, some very legitimate fears and questions also exist. Where should the church draw the line?  The church cannot merely accept everything being done today. A one-sided individualism infects many aspects of contemporary life including sexuality. Fear of what will follow if some changes are made grounds another strong reason in favor of the status quo.

Some maintain that change on homosexuality and other issues does not occur because of a few powerful personalities holding office in the church. Undoubtedly personalities do make a difference, but the opposition to change comes from deeper sources than just a few personalities. In other words, changes in personalities are not necessarily going to open the door to change.

I do not underestimate the forces working to uphold the status quo, but I still believe that the Catholic tradition, approach, and methodology in morality give grounds to support a change in the hierarchical magisterium’s teaching on homosexuality.


1  Different authors use different ways to arrive at this conclusion. For an overview see Edward Batchelor, ed., “Homosexuality and Ethics” (New York: Pilgrim, 1980); Anthony Kosnick, et al., Human Sexuality: “New Directions in American Catholic Thought (New York: Paulist, 1977), pp. 200-209.

2  The reference refers to the paragraph numbers of the document. All subsequent references are to the 1986 Letter unless explicitly indicated.

3  For a perspective analysis and critique of the Vatican’s position on homosexual orientation, see Robert Nugent, “Sexual Orientation in Vatican Thinking,” in Jeannine Gramick and Robert Nugent, eds., The Vatican and Homosexuality (New York: Crossroad, 1988), pp.48-58.

4  See statements by Archbishop John R. Roach, January, 1978; Archbishop John R. Quinn, May 5, 1980; Archbishop James A. Hickey, April 5, 1984 in previous pages of this book.

5  Pope John Paul II, “In Love, Faithful to the Truth,” Address to the Episcopal Conference of the United States, October 5, 1979, The Pope Speaks 24 (1979): 352.

6  John Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), pp. 224-258.

7  Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Theologiae” (Rome: Marietti, 1952), Ia-IIae, q. 94, a. 2.

8  Francis X. Murphy, The Papacy Today (New York: Macmillan, 1981), pp. 2-3.

9  For a description of the hierarchical teaching on contraception as prophetic, see Pope John Paul II, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World—Familiaris Consortio (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1981), n. 29, p. 47.

10 Richard A. McCormick, Notes on Moral Theology 1965 through 1980 (Washington: University Press of America, 1981), pp. 668-682.

11 Mahoney, pp. 235-245.

12 For appeals to psychiatry and psychology in ethical discussions of homosexuality, see many of the authors in Batchelor, Homosexuality and Ethics.

13 Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality in the Western Christian Tradition  (London: Longmans, Green, 1955), pp. 29-63.

14 Joseph Ratzinger, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Chapter II, in Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 3 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), p. 197.

15 Ibid., p. 196.

16 John Courtney Murray, “Vers une intelligence du dévelopment de la doctrine de l’Église sur la liberté religieuse,” in Jerome Hamer and Yves Congar, eds., Vatican II: La liberté religieuse, declaration ‘Dignitatis humanae personae’ (Paris: Cerf, 1967), pp. 111-147.