I know I haven’t written in a long time, but something came up today that compelled me to say something I felt so many times throughout graduate school and know that the Church desperately needs to address. So here it is:
To grow and follow the Spirit the Catholic Church has two options. Option 1) Get rid of “Natural Law” as the basis of all sexual ethics. Option 2) Allow what “Natural Law” calls natural to be influenced by sexology.
Natural Law–for those of you who are unfamiliar–is the primary basis for why the Catholic Church says that homosexuality, transgenderism, and basically living out anything that is not cis-gendered heterosexuality is wrong. This “Law” says that our physicality dictates what we should do with our bodies. In other words: He has a penis; She has a vagina; look they fit together! And because they fit together this is clearly the ONLY way God intended sexuality to be physically expressed–and remember, no masturbation because that doesn’t include both a penis and a vagina. (I know that’s a gross simplification, but when we’re really honest with ourselves, that’s what Natural Law boils down to).
When the Church conforms to this understanding of Natural Law we end up with any act that isn’t penis-vagina sex being deemed by the Catechism as “disordered,” because it goes against the “order” of Natural Law.
The Williams Institute released their findings in a study in April 2011 (so granted it’s a few years old) that about 8.2% of U.S. residents have participated in some form of same-sex sexual behavior, and 11% of U.S. residents have experienced same-sex attraction. About 3.5% of U.S. residents identify as homosexual and .3% are transgender (however, I have also found studies that put both these numbers as significantly higher, around 5% and .58% respectively.)
We also know from Alfred Kinsey’s work that most people are not exclusively homosexual or heterosexual. Despite how one might criticize his findings for various reasons, it remains important that of his sample 11.6% of men were identified as a 3 on the Kinsey scale (meaning they were equally homosexual and heterosexual); and 7% of single females were identified as a 3.
Being aroused by members of the same gender is clearly part of what is “natural.” And for many people it is experienced even though it isn’t acted on. In a study where women were shown erotic images of both men and women, self-identified heterosexual women became aroused looking at images of both men and women–interestingly enough, self-identified heterosexual men generally only became aroused looking at erotic images of women. This study alone indicates that women are very “naturally” bisexual.
All this to say: homosexual desire and homosexual acts are VERY NATURAL.
I could continue this thread with historical and cross-cultural anthropological studies–as well as cross-species studies from ethology–that demonstrate the prevalence of homosexual behaviors, but it should be clear that we now have overwhelming and undeniable evidence that homosexuality is about as natural as snow.
Something that frustrated me throughout theology school is that no one seemed ready to throw out natural law. Additionally, no one seemed interested in amending natural law to include our sexological findings. It was as though everyone was so scared of what might happen if we got rid of this one concept.
The barbarian ever at the gates of the citadel of Natural Law, of course, is something called “Moral Relativism.” For centuries, Catholics have clung to a black and white view of the moral universe, creating a false dilemma: either we accept and abide by Natural Law, or it’s ok to microwave puppies. Without Natural Law, we are lost to chaos and nihilism.
But, what if the Holy Spirit which guides the Church and humanity toward perfection, actually wanted us to discover our sexual diversity? What if the Holy Spirit is inspiring the LGBTQUIA+ community to speak out and demand the rights they deserve? What if the Holy Spirit is guiding us as humans to understand better what “natural” is?
Here’s what might happen if we followed what I believe is the Holy Spirit’s guidance:
- Homosexuality would be seen as natural, not disordered. As such, homosexual actions would be seen as natural.
- When homosexual acts are seen as natural then same-sex marriage would be considered natural.
- When homosexual acts are seen as natural, then sex acts that don’t end with penis in vagina sans condom sex would be considered natural and good, also–including, but not limited to masturbation and using contraception.
And, those three things are why it is essential that the Church move toward a broader and more sexologically–that is to say, scientifically–accurate understanding of Natural Law. It’s a simple move.
And, guess what? We don’t have to become moral relativists to do this: We can still hold fast to the belief that safe, sane, and consensual sex is the only thing that’s okay. Meaning rape of adults and children is still gravely disordered (we can still use that most beloved term from the Catechism).
How does this happen?
Ethicists within the academy need to push for this. This is not something that can be done using a “we’re all the Church” style of Ecclesiology. This must be done through using a hierarchical model of the Church if it is to have the necessary effects on sex education, LGBTQIA+ rights, and general sexual health of members of the Church. It’s not enough for the “liberal Catholics” to claim that each individual makes up the Church. Yes, We are all the Church, but it’s still a hierarchical structure that needs to change.
A brief note on geographical diversity in the Church: I get that different cultures around the world are at different stages of understanding human rights. Just because someone’s not ready to accept another person’s full humanity doesn’t mean that person doesn’t deserve to have their full humanity accepted–and the Global Church needs to begin to understand that moving slowly ultimately disenfranchises more of humanity longer in order to allow those with privilege (in this case heterosexuals) to feel comfortable.
As always, I’m open to your thoughts, suggestions, comments, questions, etc.