Editorial: Talking Sense about Catholicism and Sexual Morality:     Fall, 2006:  Archive

Is this “do ask do tell” or “do ask don’t tell”?


The recent passing of Pope John Paul II and the election of the new Pope from Germany, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI has drawn more attention to Catholic views of morality, in both theory and practice. The new Pope presents a paradox, in that he comes from a country that is now viewed as socially liberal, yet represents such strict and traditional views on gender and sexual morality.[1]


Let’s start by noting that most major religions base their teachings on the idea that moral teachings come from God and cannot be deduced by secular rationalism or consequentialism. Religion, whatever the debate about Free Will and Original Sin, tends to stress that God often preallocates roles and duties for people. Christianity, furthermore, stresses that salvation is a gift open to everyone based not on personal works or achievements but only through Grace and through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. Maybe some people don’t want to accept it.


So then, the Vatican comes down with its pronouncements on Objective Truth, which it believes comes from God and is in the Scriptures. So do many other religions, with their own variations. Truth is not negotiable or subject to democratic or judicial interventions. Only Church officials, they claim, receive the revelations of Truth, and ordinary priests and seminarians (and ordinary practicing Catholics) are not free to invent their own versions of Truth and promote these views.


We come, then, to the seemingly oppressive statements by the Vatican on divorce, abortion, and especially homosexuality. And of course we are led to wonder about the Catholic practice of a celibate priesthood, and the apparent hypocrisy than human priests do not come close to living up to the expectations of chastity.


I can be glib here and draw the comparison with the military. If the Armed Forces don’t want gays, it seems that the Vatican doesn’t want straights![2]  (In fact, it doesn’t want either straights or gays! There have been recent moves by the Vatican to ban even “latent homosexuals” from the priesthood.[3][4] And that doesn’t leave much of the human world.) And here I won’t go further into the tragedy of the molestations and the crisis caused by priest behavior.[5] Practicality to me suggests that the Church might be better off if it accepted married priests and women. But the theology is for them to decide. (I am not Catholic myself.)


Instead I think we should recognize the sociology of what is going on here. Many men and women are, for a variety of constitutional reasons (maybe biological) sometimes more interested in their own psychological worlds than in participating in extending blood relationships and lineages through traditional courtship, marriage, procreation, and family parentage. The Catholic Church, compared to most protestant practice, gives non-procreative people an opportunity for a special place in the world through the priesthood or convent. But there is a bit of asymmetry here: people who are different can have a large effect on others because of their differences. So the moral teachings of the Church require absolute chastity and sexual abstinence from such members. Chastity serves the purpose of removing sexual competition (particularly based on sexual attractiveness), and sending the message to ordinary church members that “family values” offers a chance for everyone. So do other notions common in religious practice, such as abstinence outside of marriage and aversion to divorce, and especially the idea that feminism should not lead to women taking over the space of men. The pure Catholic notion that sexual activity should only take place in a married couple when open to procreation suggests a subtle moral precept: that any self-satisfying action (like sex, or even accomplishment based on pride) should incur a debt that, when discharged, helps specific others (often within the family) directly, so that, in the long run, every individual does his or her share in caring for others and promoting equality among persons of different backgrounds and abilities. Not exactly the best rational thinking and open to question (not allowed for religious teaching) but making certain sense to a person of faith. Openness to procreation (to the point of avoiding contraception or genetic testing, let alone abortion) could be viewed as a way of showing reverence for human life itself. There is a connection between openness to life and reverence to life, even if those two concepts are not completely equivalent.  To give Catholic theology some credit, its notion of sexual complementarity does seem to reinforce the idea that sexuality ought to be healthfully connected to giving people (more) value or elevating them rather than measuring them and demonstrating orders of social superiority or performing narcissistic upward affiliation (which is perfectly possible in heterosexuality, too). The theology demands a certain psychological socialism and collectivism.


The Catholic Church claims that it accepts homosexual people who abstain from sex (that is from sin), but its bombastic pronouncements at times that homosexuality is an “objective disorder” or “intrinsic evil” are gratuitous and glaring indeed.[6] What is the point of such a statement? It is probably reflecting upon the competitiveness of what it perceives the (particularly male) homosexual mindset to be—determined to extend the adolescent narcissistic competition among males as to who is the most “powerful” or most “beautiful” and who is, in some particular community, the “alpha person” or indeed in cultural terms a kind of pope himself. Such a mentality suggests that people win and lose, and that the losers are not welcome. Again, Catholic moral teachings are designed to socialize persons with homosexual inclinations (for whatever cause) into taking their fair part in sharing the responsibilities for raising or caring for other generations and balancing social justice without creating competitive disruptions. The Church is perfectly willing to accept and promote the idea that God gives some people extra “burdens” (in this case, homosexual attraction and a lack of natural heterosexual libido) to bring them closer to Him. A bit authoritarian to be sure.  A common belief in conservative Christianity (outside of Catholicism) is that belief in God and the sanctity of life will provide a transparent psychological motive for most men to father children and actually parent them; that is, as a matter of faith, new life really matters. In Catholic theology it matters so much that giving it up (sex and procreation) is itself supposed to be a big deal. 


Elsewhere on my sites and books I have talked about homosexuality as part of a creative lifestyle where adult relationships are pursued for their own sake. The morality of such a lifestyle comes from secular libertarian thinking, that accepts the fact that the world is a competitive place but that people should be free to find their own modes of living and choose their own communities, which may often not be based on family or blood relationships. Such a world, however, accepts the idea that people can fail when they have freedom.


The Catholic Church, by the way, seems aloof to the debate on whether homosexuality is innate, and acts as if it would not matter if it were.[7] God apparently can burden people differentially win sin in order to force them to Christ. Or apparently it’s just a trap of logic: some people have more “talents” than others, and how we handle this merit differential generates both freedom and moral debate. Or perhaps it is crawling back through our different biological and cultural inclinations to a reverence for life that generates real freedom. But it is the way we use psychological freedom in an individualistic world that matters the most.


There is no question that the Vatican is, in a practical sense, pressured (after catastrophic litigation with retroactive settlements for many archdioceses) to “do something” about the ongoing priest sexual abuse scandals (with the apparent widespread evidence of homosexual ephebophilia among priests); but, even when in survival mode, rather than focus on ageism (in sexual attractiveness) and, moreover, self-control, the Vatican seems, regrettably, to have become focused on what it sees as some kind of endemic sin in homosexual tendencies themselves. However, Vatican statements have been moving in this direction since the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic exploded.


Christian religious teaching, especially, is quite concerned about shared community values, about providing for or taking care of everyone (out of respect for human life), about “brother’s keeper” paradigms of ethics. Narcissism and upward affiliation, often associated with male homosexuality, may encourage people to do their best in a rational world but also can lead to values that drop a lot of people out in the cold. Again, this can lead to a heavy theological debate, way beyond the scope of this editorial. It is remarkable that Pope John Paul II played such a large role working with the Reagan administration covertly to help bring the end of Communism, yet preached a moral value system that, however rooted in scripture, seems to tie freedom to shared communal values and “brother’s keeper” morality that would discourage individuals becoming too lost in their own values. In the Pope’s view, the fulcrum for freedom depends on reverence for the transmission of life.  Not all of us see it that way. Ultimately, individuals need to use their own freedom of religion in our society to decide what is right for them.[8]


Imagine a thought experiment in which no one gets to follow his own choices in life until he/she develops emotional complementarity for others. Many people seem to believe in this idea, and in my own experience years ago reparative therapists claimed that I refuse to see "people as people" or as "living souls." That concept, sometimes associated with the term "aesthetic realism," is considered in religious thought as an essential step in psychological maturity, leading to capacity for lifelong marriage and parenting (and ties into ideas like abstinence and the sacramental pedestal of marriage).  The process is seen as a mandatory form of socialization, particularly problematic for some people whose circumstances or subtle disabilities force them (especially as adolescents or young adults) to focus inordinate attention on taking care of themselves. This sort of moral order, conceived in secular terms, would tend to guarantee that everyone would have “value” because there would always be someone else who owes any person loyalty. Of course, it would compromise freedom and individualized personal responsibility as modernism has come to understand it. It might also compromise justice between social classes and races, although Catholic and other religious thought seems to think that mandatory psychological complementarity would gradually erode injustice.


The whole paradigm of (traditional) marriage, buttressed by abstinence and pro-natalism, with ideas of gender-determined ideas of proper emotional commitments among people, does seem designed to give everyone a "chance" to be valued, within the family matrix; and it accepts (even in the New Testament) that some families are better off than others. That is the reason for charity. Homosexuality seems in this view to be focused on replacing emotive spontaneity (and complementarity) with a kind of fixated, narcissistic aesthetics that regards some individuals as permanently more "beautiful" ("better") than others, a notion that could have cataclysmic implications if carried to its ultimate "logical" conclusion, and that also explains the fact that some straight men feel that gay men are out to demean or neuter them. It would sound, at least if one were in a mood to give in to self-righteousness, that this process ought not to be permitted. Yet the real world is something different. (Nazism, despite the dubious ideas from commentators like Lothar Machtan about Hitler's psychology, saw aesthetics in collective, "folkish" terms.) Differences in wealth and the behavior patterns inherent in maintain "family position" often lead to horrific results, too. Morality seems achieved, then, by a pragmatic acceptance of diversity in human temperaments and aesthetic inclinations. The Vatican, obviously, cannot afford to concede this, even if individual Catholics may on their own. 


Catholic moral thinking, then, is utopian, if circular and smug, self-righteous. It can give everyone a place, either in the family or in the priesthood, and outflank the paradox of freedom: that there must be personal competition, but that people must value each other as equal merely by being human beings. Yet it neglects the idea that everyone needs his own source of passion, even at the cost of questioning cohesion with others. It would be willing to predicate any person's expressive freedom upon first connecting to others in ways that show loyalty, emotional solidarity, complementarity, and openness to dependent life.  A little disruption is probably a good thing to keep the system honest. The morality of Catholicism as practiced seems to need the practicality of the real world.


Catholic or Vatican moral teaching exudes a certain paradox: there is no personal value more important than devotional complementarity and the transmission and nurturing of human life for its own sake, but then Christ himself must be more important than that. After all, the teachings of the Church maintain, literally (whatever the practical effects), that a priest has given up his own biological or "natural" motive to procreate and parent for something that after all is said in done is higher. The role of the priest is then to complement rather than to compete. It comes full circle. 


©Copyright 2005 (Feb 2005, Dec 2005) by Bill Boushka. All rights reserved, subject to fair use.


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[1] Andrew Sullivan, “The Vicar of Orthodoxy: The Pope’s dogma is a circular system that’s immune to reasoned query.” Time, May 2, 2005.  Sullivan claims that the Pope admits that homosexuality may be immutable but is still inherently evil: that is, some people are created as “evil” or at least inferior in order to force them to be drawn closer to Christ. Don’t question the “heard” teachings! Don’t reflect and don’t reason! I suppose that when a homosexual is “saved” he still needs Christ even more in Heaven and is less his own person than someone else who was psychosexually normal. That seems to be the implication of such a teaching, but—again—don’t ask questions, and dpn’t think for yourself. Just believe!


I will pose an “obvious” response here. If the best that I can do is serve another’s religious agenda and set an example of Grace despite being an inherently evil creature, maybe I wouldn’t want to be saved. If my existence on earth is deserving only of contempt, then I shouldn’t exist at all. If this is real Catholic theology (on homosexuality), I find it profoundly insulting.

[2] I remember that the Marine Corps said in 1993 that it should not recruit married men, right in the middle of the debate of President Clinton’s proposal to lift the ban on gays in the military. They didn’t want gays, they didn’t want straights!  Well, JoAnn Wypijewski (Mother Jones, Dec. 2005, p. 18) pretty much hits the nail on the head with “The Roman Inquisition: The pope’s plan to “purify” the priesthood denies that for centuries gay men have found refuge in the church’s ranks and rituals.” She goes on to characterize the priesthood as a partly gay subculture for a whole millennium, a “complex bargain” for “renegades from straight sex roles.” The whole façade is “now exposed and under attack.”

[3] According to ABC “World News Tonight” the new Pope, intent on purification, may sign a decree banning even celibate homosexuals from entering seminaries in the fall in 2005. The rationale seems like the “propensity” logic (or “rebuttable presumption”) of the military ban against gays, but this seems like a matter of forced asking and telling. What would the psychological effect of this be outside the Church? The story is by AP writer Nicole Winfield, at http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=1148417 on 9/22/2005.

[4] There is more clarification in Daniel Williams, “New Rules Will Affirm Pope’s Stance on Homosexuality,” The Washington Post, Oct. 8, 2005,  p. A15. Supposedly the Vatican will allow new homosexual applicants to the priesthood if they have abstained for at least three years and do not have homosexual associations (through politics, Internet use [presumably that forbids visiting this seditious site of mine!], movies, consumer behavior). Even the military cannot legally prevent homosexual association under “don’t ask don’t tell” even though it often tries! The article brings up the interesting canard, that a homosexual priest’s or seminarian’s abstinence from behavior already described as “sinful” should not be equated with abstinence from what is noble, “sex in married life.”

[5] Peter J. Boyer. “A Hard Faith: How the new Pope and his predecessor redefined Vatican II,” The New Yorker, My 16, 2005 carries Sullivan’s logic further. Regarding the priest scandal, one bishop said, “If you’re a conservative, homosexuality is the problem; if you’re a liberal, celibacy is the problem.” Later, “the scandal …was primarily not one of pedophilia ,,, but of pederasty.” The article goes on to discuss reports of a “gay subculture” in the priesthood and at various institutions.

[6] Williams (Ibid) discusses some of Benedict’s writings. Gay unions are missing “conjugal dimension” and “transmission of life… The inalienable value of matrimony and the family cannot be equated or jumbled up with other forms of human unions.”  In 1986 Ratzinger had written (in “The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”), in fact, “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech and action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs….Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is more or less a tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder…The use of sexual behavior can be morally good [only in a marital relation framed by procreation]. A person engaging in homosexual behavior therefore acts immorally.”  It would seem even here that the Church is accepting the idea that God determines that some people should have a quiet (“second class”) existence, submissive or supportive to the collective needs of the sexuality of others. Otherwise, such individuals (as they become more public in a global “reconciled” world) could undermine the social supports of family upon which many people depend even to survive (hence the “evil”  -- one can describe heterosexual relations with similar concerns, but heterosexuality can at least “transmit life”.) Why not instead frame the meeting of collective needs in terms of personal responsibility? But that would be out of scope for religion.

On Nov. 22, 2005 the Vatican announced its new version of “do ask don’t tell”.  That is, pastoral students who practice homosexual acts or whose homosexuality is “deeply rooted” (whatever that means) cannot be admitted; candidates who had “transitory” or experimental homosexual inclination may be considered if they have been chaste for three years. Candidates may not have regular contact with “gay culture” (whatever that means). The CNN link is http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/11/23/vatican.homosexual/index.html

The Washington Post story by Daniel Williams and Alan Cooperman is “Vatican Document Sets New Rules for Gays in Seminaries.” The document states that those with “deeply rooted” same-sex attractions would present parishioners a “situation that presents a grave obstacle to a correct relationship between a man and a woman” even if they are chaste. In order words, such priests would not have the emotional focus that it would take to support marriages of others in their parishes. The document does not seem directly  concerned with abuse of minors, although that was obviously a major historical motivation. Here is the document in Italian (PDF file): http://www.adistaonline.it/congregatio.PDF?PHPSESSID=b7e84bd0b45f5deca3e46aa92e7ba5ca

Or see http://www.adistaonline.it/ for a summary.

The Associated Press published a story in which the Vatican defends its policies on 11/29/2005, story by Victor L. Simpson, at http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/V/VATICAN_GAY_PRIESTS?SITE=VTBAR&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

The Nov. 30 The Washington Times story (by Julia Duin) reads “Vatican bars all gays as priests: Liberals slam new guidelines,” and ends with a characterization(by Monsignor Rohlfs of the Archdiocese of Washington) of homosexuality as a “character disorder,” a term that I had tossed speculatively in the Introduction to my own first DADT book. The document is called “Concerning the Criteria of Vocational Discernment Regarding Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of their Admission to Seminaries and Holy Orders.” The document definitely regards homosexual tendencies (even when no longer acted on) in an established male adult (say over 30) as likely to be a major source of psychic motivation and to compromise his ability to pastor others. The policies read

. “The Church, even while deeply respecting the person in question, cannot admit to seminary or holy orders those who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture.”

. “The negative consequences that can result from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not be obscured.”

. “When dealing, instead, with homosexual tendencies that might only be a manifestation of a transitory problem, as for example, delayed adolescence, these must be clearly overcome at least three years before diaconal ordination.”

. “It would be gravely dishonest for a candidate to hide his own homosexuality, regardless of everything, to arrive at ordination.” That is, “do ask, do tell.”

The Washington Post story. By Alan Cooperman (Nov. 30, 2005), is less strident. “Bishop says Edict Allows for Some Gay Priests: U.S. Catholics at Odds Over Interpretation of Vatican’s New Doctrine.”

The Washington Times, on Dec. 3, 2005, reported that the seminaries have also received a private letter instructing them to remove teachers and rectors with longstanding homosexual tendencies.


There is also an argument to the effect that homosexuality as an "objective disorder" is related to original sin. There is a paper by Andrew J. Sodergren, M.S., "Causes of Homosexuality: Christian Appraisal of the Data," in the John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, at http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/may/causesofhomosexuality.htm  The argument eagerly accepts the "unfairness" of different "burdens" that people inherit because of original sin, and may be related to Gospel diffidence to overcoming social injustices.


On Oct. 29, 2006 Laurie Goodstein wrote a piece "Bishops Draft Rules on Ministering to Gays" for The New York Times, p. A16.

It accepts ministering to children of same-sex couples as long as they are raised as Catholics, accepts the idea of gays "telling" immediate family and friends, but with respect to the entire parish, it recommends that gays be expected to abide by a "don't ask don't tell" concept in order to avoid disturbing or distracting other families. Blogspot entry.

[7] Ellen Goodman, “A Vatican Retreat on Homosexuality,” The Washington Post, Dec. 3, 2005.

[8] A proposed “Bill of Responsibilities” may express the gist of Gospel expectations of personal conduct and motives. Note especially the last point. The Catholic Church is particularly concerned that, without reverence for “transmission of life” the incentives for lifelong marriage and parenthood will be gutted and that political freedom and stability is undermined.  Catholic theology sees marriage and family as a pivot point linking individualism with the group welfare so fundamental to the Gospels.