After considering some of the transformations that have irrevocably changed the Catholic Church, I consider now some of the internal contradictions in Vatican doctrine on sexuality.
Catechism, and homosexuality
The Catechism instructs (correctly) that sexuality is an important element of our human make-up, and urges the full integration of our sexuality is essential for a well-rounded personality:
“Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.” (2333)
“Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another” (2337)
- but only if our sexual orientation is strictly heterosexual. Elsewhere, it urges that homosexuals should be treated with compassion, respect and understanding – but understanding the other is only possible if it includes respectful listening. I know of no evidence that the institutional Church is making any effort at all at either listening to us and the lessons of our experience, or to understand by any other means.
Sensus Fidelium and Contraception
The idea of the “Sensus Fidelium” tells us that unless a teaching has been accepted by the church “as a whole”, it has no validity. The full doctrine is complex and subtle, and I fully accept that it is not a simple matter of counting heads by opinion poll. But however we assess, it, I cannot see any way at all of concluding that the teaching on contraception has been accepted by the church as a whole. I therefore ask, on what possible basis, can we accept it as fully valid teaching? Next, I have to ask, on what basis can we agree that the primary purpose of sex is procreation, so that every single genital act must be open to making babies? If we reject this idea, we then have to ask, on what reasonable basis can the rest of Vatican sexual doctrines be supported, as given?
Vatican documents pay lip service to the importance of taking due note of the findings of the natural and social sciences – but on sexuality, completely ignore these. We who are here know well that a homoerotic sexual orientation is entirely natural, a non-pathological condition we are born with (rather like being left-handed), so I will not expand on this here. Instead, I want to point to some findings from science on animal sexuality. It’s becoming better known these days that homosexuality occurs naturally in the animal kingdom, but the full extent of this, and other aspects of animal sexuality are not as well-known.
Science, and Natural Sexuality
Bruce Bagemihl has collected extensive evidence that same-sex activities have been observed and described in scientific papers for several hundred species of mammals and birds, and also for many other species of reptiles and insects. The chances are that same-sex activities have also been observed, but misinterpreted, or simply not reported, for many more species, and may occur without human observation, for many more. (Some writers believe that homoerotic interactions occur in most or even all mammal species). We do have detailed reports on these activities for almost all species of primates, and especially for those closest to us on the evolutionary scale. For some species, and for many individuals in others, same-sex coupling is actually more common than the between-sex variety.
Even for heterosexual animals, sexual actions are not solely geared to procreation. Scientific observations also describe mating outside the time of oestrus, or by anal intercourse, or intercourse without penetration, or without ejaculation; for some primates, juveniles begin sexual activity well before the onset of physical maturity and fertility (as much as two years before); masturbation is common, alone or with others (even without hands); oral sex has been observed in chimps, fruitbats and a few other species; some primates make their own sex toys, making dildos from pieces of liana vine, or masturbation aids from fruit; chimps, monkeys and penguins are known to engage in a form of prostitution, exchanging sexual services for material rewards.
There are even species which show trans behaviours, from cross-dressing to full gender transitioning, and which have more than a simple two distinct genders.
If we are to rely on the evidence of biological science to determine the “purpose” of sex, it becomes clear that procreation is just one of many such purposes. Others include social bonding and conflict resolution or avoidance, material gain – and simply physical pleasure.
As with the evidence from human sciences, and the responses of Catholics themselves, it is clear that the belief that only sex open to procreation is natural and acceptable, simply does not stand up to scrutiny.
Some Straws in the Wind
I think that over the past few years, there has been a decided shift in tone coming from the Vatican, and at least some senior bishops. In April last year, Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna remarked that it was time for the Church to end the obsession with homosexual genital acts, and to begin thinking instead about the quality of our relationships. (He also said that we should end the prohibition on remarriage after divorce, because it is ludicrous to stop some people from marrying when so many are not bothering to marry at all – an argument that could apply equally to gay marriage. These thoughts were interesting, but more important was the response. In over a year since then, not a single bishop has said anything to reject or repudiate them – and a fair number of others have made other statements indicating a shift to a more welcoming tone.
From my point of view, the most encouraging of these were several statements by Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Bernard Longley about the Soho Masses, quite bluntly telling our opponents to end their criticism. In Sydney, even Cardinal Pell has said much the same thing to the opponents of the Sydney equivalent, declaring that LGBT Catholics are “welcome” in the Catholic Church.
One of the minor news item that caught my attention recently were some words of Pope Benedict on Joan of Arc. In my work on the queer saints and martyrs in church history, she is one of those that most interests me, as a cross-dressing martyr. Unlike the early Christian martyrs, she was martyred not for the Church, but by the Church – and was later rehabilitated. Pope Benedict spoke about how she had been convicted for heresy by the theologians of the church, and quite pointedly observed that her later canonization showed that it was perfectly possible for theologians to turn out to be mistaken. Draw your own conclusions about current orthodoxy.
Very recently, the Vatican hosted an important conference on responses to HIV/AIDS, including the place of condoms in prevention strategies. What was notable here was that this conference was not simply limited to the same old Vatican experts speaking to each other without reference to the real world, but also included secular experts with very different perspectives. Another such conference on sexual abuse is planned for February 2011, and will also include secular experts, as well as the Vatican bureaucrats. It is becoming possible for me to imagine that some day, we could even see such a conference on sexual orientation, with gay and lesbian participants talking directly to those who have previously dictated Vatican thinking from their celibate or closeted ivory towers.
35 Years as LGBT Catholics: Looking Back, Looking Ahead
- 1) Where Have We Come From?
- 2: Where Are We Now? Changes in the Church
- 3) Where Are We Now? Internal Contradictions in Church Teaching
- 4) Where Are We Headed, and What Can We Do About It?
- Aquinas, and “Nature”
- Excluded From God’s People (The Problem of Homosexualitatis Problema)
- Some Reactions to the American Catholic Council Conference
- Who are the “Catholics” that Oppose Contraception and its Funding?
- Yes, It Moves: The Catholic Church No Longer Revolves Around the Vatican
- A “Truly Queer Theory” on Sex (The Wild Reed)
- Joseph Palacios: “The Church is Not the Victim” (The Wild Reed)