by Austen Ivereigh
The positive intention behind the criticism of the Church's teaching on homosexuality and contraception is the concern for people's welfare and dignity, and an awareness of the wrongness of scapegoating and condemnation. Contraception is seen as protecting people from the consequences of their actions — unplanned pregnancy — which could affect the lives of many. There is a concern that people are being harmed or sacrificed for the sake of dogmas and principles. We should have compassion for people who are not ready or willing to embrace conjugal love.
“Sexuality has an intrinsic meaning and direction, which is not homosexual,” says Pope Benedict XVI in Light of the World, because “evolution has brought forth sexuality for the purpose of reproducing the species.” The idea that sex has an intrinsic purpose and meaning may seem strange to an age which regards it as the expression of intimacy or an act of pleasure. Yet however countercultural, what the Church teaches is quite in keeping with history and culture: the purpose and meaning of sex is to unite a man and a woman in order to give children a future. “This is the determination internal to the essence of sexuality,” Pope Benedict adds. “Everything else is against sexuality’s intrinsic meaning and direction.”
The pope recognizes how unpopular this teaching is: “this is a point we need to hold firm,” he says, “even if it is not pleasing to our age.” The issue at stake here, he goes on, “is the intrinsic truth of sexuality’s significance in the constitution of man’s being.”
The Church’s teaching is sometimes described by critics as reflecting a visceral (homophobic) prejudice against gay people. Yet the Catechism has an objective and straightforward definition of homosexuality as referring to “relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex” (no. 2357), and goes on to point out that this is nothing new. Homosexuality “has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures” says the Catechism, before adding that “its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.”
The Church, in other words, takes no position on the unresolved “nature versus nurture” debate about why some people are homosexually inclined, and therefore cannot be accused of homophobic ideas and language about gay people being in some way “unnatural.”
Nor does the Church reject — as homophobes often do — the prevalence of the homosexual inclination: “the number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible” (no. 2358), says the Catechism, which is not something that homophobes would ever accept. The Catechism goes on to spend some paragraphs strongly opposing homophobia, using very strong language about the importance of accepting gay people with “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” adding firmly that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
Nothing in the Church’s teaching on homosexuality justifies the accusation that it is contributing to the marginalization of, or prejudice against, gay people. It is also wrong to claim that the Church “is opposed to gay rights,” although it is strongly opposed to some laws which have been advanced in the name of gay rights. The Church believes, for example, that marriage is a natural institution between a man and a woman; other kinds of union are not marriage. This is not an anti-gay-rights position, but a pro-marriage one.
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Much of the modern “gay rights” agenda, in fact, has little to do with the original purpose of the movement to end prejudice and hostility against homosexual people in the law and in public opinion. But insofar as it adheres to that purpose, the Church supports it. In the 1980s, the Archbishop of Westminster in England, Cardinal Basil Hume, set down criteria for Catholics considering how to respond to proposed changes in the law claiming to eliminate discrimination or prejudice against gay people, but which may conceal other agendas or curb other rights. “Are there reasonable grounds for judging that the institution of marriage and the family could, and would, be undermined by a change in the law?” he asked. “Would society’s rejection of a proposed change in the law be more harmful to the common good than the acceptance of such a change? Does a person’s sexual orientation or activity constitute, in specific circumstances, a sufficient and relevant reason for treating that person in any way differently from other citizens?”
Cardinal Hume said these were “matters of practical judgment and assessment of social consequences, and thus must be considered case by case — and this without prejudice to Catholic teaching concerning homosexual acts.”
Those last words are significant. Catholics are quite able to distinguish between the moral question of homosexuality — sex is reserved for marriage — and the civil rights of gay people, for the same reason they are able to discriminate between sins and crimes.
The Church believes that homosexual acts are immoral, yet favors their decriminalization. “With respect to the Church’s position on a law that penalizes homosexuals or establishes the death penalty, there is nothing to discuss: She is absolutely opposed,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., at a Vatican press conference in 2008. “This is a position that respects the rights of the human person in his dignity.” At the same time, he said, the Church “opposes the perspectives that lead some to say that sexual orientations should be placed on the same level in all situations and in relation to all norms” — and he went on to cite the question of marriage laws as one example.
The Church opposes all “unjust” discrimination against gay people while at the same time upholding the unique importance of marriage in law. Catholics can applaud and welcome the lifting of obstacles to the participation in civic life of gay people of recent years, while opposing attempts to enthrone an ideology which seeks to establish same-sex unions as equal in law to the marriage of a man and a woman, and what flows from this: same-sex adoption.
Just as the Church believes that a marriage between a man and a woman is in the best interests of society, it is also convinced that a child’s best interests are served by being brought up by a man and a woman. In each case it is not that the Church “opposes gay rights,” but rather that the Church favors the rights of children, and the duty of the state to protect marriage. So when the Church opposes attempts by the state to give special protection and rights to same-sex unions (or indeed to any sexual relations outside marriage) or same-sex adoption, it is not seeking to enforce prejudice against gay people; it is arguing that the good of society and children are best protected by reserving some legal privileges to marriage and restrictions on the right to adopt. There are many important rights at stake in this question — the common good of society, the rights of children — which trump the interests of particular groups.
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