What Would Approving of Homosexuality Mean for the Roman Catholic Church?

For one thing, it would have to give up its claim to infallibility.  Over at Vox Nova, I explain briefly what other changes the church would have to make, how the lives of gay and lesbian persons challenge traditional Catholic doctrine, and why we’re almost certainly not going to see the hierarchy budge on this issue.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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62 Responses

  1. I think your link isn’t working.

  2. GordonHide says:

    And yet the Catholic Church does eventually get dragged kicking and screaming into more modern thinking from time to time. As an outsider it just seems 75 – 150 years years behind society in general.

    Take this whole paedophile thing. The Church is catching it in the neck for trying to sweep the whole thing under the carpet. That’s exactly what society in general used to do 75 years ago.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      From time to time, yes. For example, it took a while for the Catholic Church to promote religious freedom as a desirable condition, but it eventually got there. But on some matters, changes can’t be made to the official teaching without completely undermining the authority of the church’s teaching office.

      • GordonHide says:

        I take your point, but perhaps after a century or two nibbling at the edges, some of today’s intractable problems for the Church may not seem so intractable.

  3. North says:

    Forgive me if this sounds pithy but didn’t the magisterium’s realistic claim to infallibility go out the window around the time of Gallileo if not earlier?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Infallibility, a doctrine that wasn’t formally defined until 1870, applies to only a very narrow set of teachings. The church’s teachings on human sexuality morality arguably fall within the set, but the church’s positions on the movements of the planets and stars would not because infallibility is claimed only of definitive magisterial teachings on faith and morals. Whether infallibility has ever been reasonable has been a matter of much debate among Catholics. There was quite a bit of opposition within the church to its being defined.

  4. Tod Kelly says:

    It seems to me that another answer to the titular question would be that they could climb on board the train that’s headed for the 21st century.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      The Magisterium would say that train is headed for a wreck. We’ll see, won’t we? Or maybe not. Reality is often spun to fit one’s per-conceived ideas and interests.

      On a related point, I’ve long thought that the doomsday scenarios proposed by those opposed to same-sex marriage are strategically idiotic. If they don’t come true, then they’ll look the fools. In other words, they’ll look like fools. And yet I’ve little doubt that those same doomsday prophets will spin the reality in an effort to retain their credibility.

      This debate will be with us for a while. Maybe into the 22nd century.

      • Kazzy says:

        The mere existence of same-sex marriage will be enough for them to claim that their fears were realized. They don’t need the sky to come crashing down.

      • Tod Kelly says:

        “This debate will be with us for a while. Maybe into the 22nd century.”

        Perhaps, but I think not. It was only a decade or two ago that “gay” and “pedophile” were pretty much interchangeable in public policy discussions. I believe in 30 years this will be a dead issue, for one simple reason” it is very easy to believe people you have never knowingly had contact with are all kinds of evil other. It’s another to see that the people around you aren’t really that different and make that same leap. The more mainstream and out gays and lesbians are, the less reason people will have to be anxious.

        Just as people quickly got over interracial marriage when it didn’t lead to society’s collapse, gay relationships will soon just be a thing some people do.

        And I also predict this: In 30 years, most of the people of my generation that are anti-gay and SSM now will remember having never had a problem with it, the same way that no one from my father’s generation ever remembered having a problem with the civil rights movement.

        • Mike Schilling says:

          And the conservatives will be claiming Harvey Milk as one of their own.

          • Jaybird says:

            “We were the ones arguing that the Twinkie Defense was bullshit. It was the left who said that Milk’s killer shouldn’t have been found guilty!”

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          There is a teleology to sex; race per the civil rights movement is apples and oranges. The Church has always claimed there’s a teleology to sexuality [and indeed a metaphysics, that 2 become one flesh]; race is a facile political analogy, but does not speak to the theology and philosophy of sex.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Maybe, but I’m not so sure. There’s a centuries long tradition of viewing gay relationships as intrinsically evil, a tradition that will continue to be a part of some major religious institutions, whatever changes we see in secular culture. Such religious groups will continue to put up a fight to propagate their beliefs, especially if they feel threatened. If, for example, there are attempts to criminalize anti-gay speech or to make churches recognize gay marriages–even if these attempts aren’t likely to go anywhere or are made by only a few fringe groups–you can safely bet that religious organizations will retaliate.

          So, anyway, in the overall culture, I think your optimism is warranted, but it will take much longer to bring around organizations like the Catholic Church, if getting these groups’ support is even a possibility. Regarding the Catholic Church, I don’t see it happening. The Church’s magisterium would first have to radically redefine its own self-understanding. It could no longer claim to be the authoritative, sometimes infallible teacher in matters of faith and morals.

          Of course, these organizations may simply come to have minimal social influence.

          • Tancred says:

            The Anglican church basically abrogated its authority, and my, look at how it’s prospered!

          • Mike Schilling says:

            The Church abandoned views held for millenia in Nostra Aetate. There’s certainly a possibility for further progress.

  5. Kimmi says:

    masturbation as sin. they’re both about equivalent in the American Church’s eyes, you know.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Don’t remember where, but I came across a pastor or some such who was attempting to discourage people from masturbating by saying it is a homosexual act. I guess where the fear of Hell doesn’t work, there’s the fear of being gay to play on?

  6. At what point in the church’s history did the idea or concept of “magisterium” and the inerrancy of “magisterium” arise? Was it the letters of Paul? Was it sometime later?

    Now my diatribe / screed: As a mostly outsider–I was raised Catholic, but didn’t learn much about my faith, and I no longer profess it–I have a hard time understanding how any one can reconcile faith in a supernatural, or at least transcendent, God with the infallibility (admittedly limited to matters of “faith and morals”) of an institution operated by humans, especially when the faith seems to be predicated on the depravity (total or partial) of humans themselves. This seems like a power game, done in the name of appeals to authority in the guise of appeals to reason. [/diatribe / screed]

    [I realize I am probably out of line here, but these are my (mostly unsettled) thoughts on the matter.]

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Pierre, In Acts 15 they debate whether to keep kosher, i.e., the Mosaic law.


      This establishes the Holy Spirit as guiding the church after Christ has left the earth; Roman Catholicism holds that apostolic succession, the unbroken line from Peter the first Pope to Benedict of today keeps the magisterium via the Holy Spirit intact.

      “The Magisterium of Catholic Church teaches the faithful in two ways;

      1) Solemn Magisterium: is Church teaching which is used only rarely by formal and authentic definitions of councils or Popes. This includes dogmatic definitions by councils or Popes teaching “ex cathedra”
      2) Ordinary Magisterium: this second form of Church teaching is continually exercised by the Church especially in her universal practices connected with faith and morals, in the unanimous consent of the Fathers and theologians, in the decisions of the Roman Congregations concerning faith and morals, in the common sense of the Faithful, and various historical documents, in which the faith is declared.

      (Definitions from A Catholic Dictionary, 1951) See below for Scripture and Church teaching on the Magisterium of the Church.”


      • Tom,

        Your answer certainly comes close to answering my first question–about when the magisterium idea arose–although I suspect the answer is more complicated than those early decisions you describe in Acts (I take your word for it…I didn’t follow the link and it’s been a long time since I’ve read it). It still seems a jump to me to say that successors to Peter, etc., establishes the current Bishop of Rome’s authority, in consultation with the other Church fathers (assuming I understand correctly what you’re saying).

        In short, thanks for answering the first, less intemperate, part of my comment.

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          Pierre, the Magisterium hits the fan with Martin Luther—sola scriptura [the Bible alone], each man a minister, the Roman Church’s interpretation of scripture not necessarily correct, therefore not authoritative.

          And that’s how you end up with 30,000+ Protestant sects.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      @Pierre – As Tom notes, the idea of the church’s infallibility originates (at least in part) from the belief that the Holy Spirit guides and protects the church from error in faith and morals. There are scriptural passages that the Catholic hierarchy cites as evidence for this (see, for example, Peter being given the keys of succession), but scholars debate whether these really speak to infallibility, more generally to the church’s teaching authority, or to something else entirely. There’s also some debate as to whether key passages were added later to buttress an desired interpretation. I’m only vaguely familiar with these debates, though, so I can’t say much about them. Either the seeds for a developed doctrine of infallibility were planted here or they were planted later. Throughout history, the church hierarchy’s self-understanding has evolved, and it’s claimed, here and there, stronger authority to speak definitively about matters of faith and morals, often after a long train of ugly, self-serving power games. Yes, there’s no denying those. Look no further than the way the formal definition of infallibility was pushed through at the first Vatican Council. How does one reconcile these power games and deceptive tactics with belief in God? Perhaps by hoping in the face of hopelessness that God somehow is involved in the mess, keeping the church ultimately on track even when the power games of popes and bishops (and priests and lay people) temporarily derail it.

      • Thanks for your (and Tom’s) thoughtful answer to my less than thoughtful question(s). I am curious–and perhaps I just need to do some research–about the history of the early Church’s construction of the passages you and Tom cite (although, as you note, there is some claim that some of those passages may have been added post hoc).

    • James K says:

      This seems like a power game, done in the name of appeals to authority in the guise of appeals to reason.

      I don’t believe in the supernatural, so of course I don’t see how it could be anything else. The thing to remember is that for much of its history the Catholic Church could destroy anyone who questioned their authority. When you have that kind fo power you don’t need to make good arguments. It’s a bit like Idi Amin declaring himself to be The Last King of Scotland. It’s not like anyone was going to argue to his face.

  7. Serena says:

    If it were to ever come close to accepting homosexuality it would have to conclude that not all sexual behaviors were created to be pro-creative (oral, anal,and masturbation). I don’t see this happening but it could hold these beliefs while reinforcing its beliefs on natural law and contraception. Vaginal intercourse is the only procreative sex act unique to heterosexuals, there fore putting a literal physical barrier or artificially making one infertile for vaginal intercourse would go against this natural law. Even if this were this the case, I could not see the Church viewing gay unions as “holy matrimony” but perhaps remaining silent on how civil governments administer civil marriage contracts.

    • Do you (or Kyle, or anyone else) think it’s possible for the Church to maintain its current views on sexuality and yet also remain silent about civil marriage contracts? (I’m not trying to be snarky….I really don’t know the answer and you seem to understand the Church’s position better than I do. My “sense” of the answer is that the Church could find a way to be silent on civil marriage contracts right now without doing too much damage to its teachings.)

      • Kyle Cupp says:

        It could, yes. It won’t, at least in the near future, because the powers that be believe that acceptance of gay marriage (or cohabitation, or civil union) implies a failure to recognize the true meaning of marriage, and since, according to this thinking, society is in part structured on the institution of marriage, redefining it implicitly or explicitly will lead to further breakdown of the institution and the social order.

      • Tom Van Dyke says:

        Serena nails the question from the Roman Church’s POV. As for the Church becoming silent about what it considers to be a disordering of sexuality, it’s difficult to imagine that it would abrogate its teaching responsibility about natural law.
        For instance

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      @Serena – Interesting speculations. Opening the door to homosexuality would also invite in other forms of non-procreative sex.

      Are you saying that the church could embrace these now forbidden acts while also continuing to advocate for its conception of natural law? I’m not sure how this would work as the church usually appeals to “natural law” to support a normative teleology of human sexuality (that should, in some ways and to some extent, be enforced by the civil law).

      • Serena says:

        Unless I’m mistaken the Church doesn’t view contraceptive sex between a husband and wife morally superior than sex between a same sex couple. If homosexual sex were to become more accepted in the Church’s teaching then it could be argued that contraception could also be accepted. However, if the teaching on contraception is partially based on making the possibility of human creation impossible, there is only one sexual act where that manipulation can be done.

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          Sounds accurate, Serena. Teleologically speaking, homosexual sex is not “sex” any more than solo sex is, or other types of sexual expression if you recall Bill Clinton’s argument re l’affair Lewinsky.

          Therefore, it’s apples and oranges when speaking of marriages or relationships in the natural law context. There can be no teleological, metaphysical/religious and even literal “relationship” where two become one flesh. It’s much more than an arbitrary ritual Deutero-Levitical prohibition like not eating cheeseburgers or pepperoni pizza.

          [Which come think of it must really be a drag, although they say you don’t miss what you never had.]

          • Murali says:

            Tom, just a bit of honest curiousity here:

            Given that the only real sex is procreative heterosexual sex, I can understand if people are enjoined to do that if they are able. After all go forth and multiply and all that.

            But if gay sex is as much sex as masturbation, i.e. not really sex at all, why are they forbidden from doing that? is it because such things use people’s sex organs for purposes outside said organ’s telos?

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Pretty much, Murali, which is why Aquinas is still held to be correct on the matter even though he was wrong about the actual biology. The phrasing of your question would be more precisely along the lines of ordered vs. disordered sexuality, not exactly against using the penis for a second purpose. The bonding nature of the sex act itself serves a secondary yet salutary purpose: the pleasure bond is seen a good, necessary and ordered thing, not a disordered one.

            Using the penis to hammer nails, however, is seen as a disordering of its purpose, and is therefore not recommended.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            This reminds me of a great line from the movie Real Genius.

          • Murali says:

            By bonding, you mean the emotional bonding? If bonding is considered salutary, I can see the church mellowing out on the issue of gays once it realises that gay relationships still have this secondary salutary purpose even though such relatiosnhips may never be able to have the primary reproductive purpose

  8. BlaiseP says:

    For all practical purposes, the American Catholic takes no direction from the Pope. It’s buffet theology. Case in point, not directly related to homosexuality — Melinda Gates, practising Catholic, won’t fund abortion clinics but is using Bill’s billions to fund Depo-Provera birth control for women in the Third World.

    Americans take a while to come around but over the long haul: no matter how socially conservative we might be, we don’t like bigots. Runs contrary to our sense of fair dealing. It doesn’t matter what some old German jackass who tottered up to the Lateran might say about homosexuality. American Catholics will make up their own minds on the issue.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Wrong again, brother Blaise. Luther’s Theses’ 500th anniversary is coming up in 2017, but the Roman Church has taken a licking and keeps on ticking.

      Christendom stood to blow up in a million pieces, but today there are 30,000 Protestant sects [and Luther’s own is dying] representing 1/3 of Christianity, and still Mother Church sustains, representing the far larger majority of Christianity.

      The Church survived Martin Luther; surviving Melinda Gates will be no problem.

      • Someone, I forget who, has made the argument that the Reformation actually revitalized the Catholic Church by giving it definition in the places where it still claimed adherents and by compelling people to identify one way or another (or, eventually, 30,000 others). I’m no expert in Early Modern European History, and I’m sure there are counter-arguments, but that sounds like a plausible argument.

      • BlaiseP says:

        The Catholic Church has been so thoroughly disgraced, there’s nowhere to go but up these days. The Church might have survived Luther but it might not survive the monetary judgements awarded to the thousands of children abused by its clergy, abuses covered up by the current Pope. Soon enough, mark my words, the Vatican will begin to sell off its art to settle up with juries everywhere.

        It hardly matters. American Catholics have long since gone their own way, to the consternation of the Holy See. Its latest diatribes against the American nuns for their emphasis on poverty have only added yet more insult to injury. Benedict is becoming increasingly irrelevant. As America finally puts its long legacy of unfair dealings with homosexuals behind it, the Catholics will be hard-pressed to justify their stances.

        Seen from afar, the Catholic Church has become a haven for sexual predators. It was always an enemy of science and freethinkers and a great engine of tyranny throughout the world. Where the Protestants would evolve, Catholicism would and could not. Now confined to its little hidey-hole inside the walls of the Vatican, it continues to trouble the world, its leadership complicit in crimes against children, intent upon the persecution of its own holy orders. They have become the apotheosis of hypocrisy and malfeasance, a laughingstock, a curse and a byword.

        Which is not to say that a person can’t be a Catholic and a good person. Many are, as evinced by these nuns being slapped around by the Holy See for their great trespasses against Catholic doctrines in their concern for the poor. It was once a noble religion, a great preserver of much that was good in the world, a comfort and a blessing to the poor and lowly. For once it professed to follow the example of the Man from Nazareth, who told us to love our neighbour and do good to those who despitefully use us. Since this is no longer the case, let every man and woman take up his cross and follow the Man from Nazareth. The Men from Rome are no guides any more.

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          Pope Benedict is a reformer, restoring the Roman Church to its intended purpose—salvation, not being an arm of the Democratic Party. It is the nuns who have lost their way: let them form cloisters of secular humanism then, for there is no discernible difference from reform Jews, the old joke being that their Messiah looks exactly like FDR.

          I’m no expert of Romish theology except enough to know that on virtually any subject, the Church has 8 feet of volumes on the library shelf devoted to the question.

          What pains me the most intellectually is that her critics commence with the one least effectual method of attack, that the Church’s position on this or that is internally contradictory and therefore logically invalid.

          The Church’s position on this or that may be wrong in some cosmic sense, but since it she who defines and sets the premises [magisterially, if you will], and has some of the greatest minds in mankind’s history at her disposal, she never argues invalidly. [Or not for long, as one of those great minds would or has repaired the error.]

          The Protestants are pretty easy pickins on the whole though, esp the literalists/fundamentalists, which is why they’re so popular with those with an animus against theology. As for the mainstream sects, if you don’t like their position on this or that, just wait awhile and one you like will come around soon enough, especially these days.

          • BlaiseP says:

            The Church’s position, that is to say, Ratzinger’s position, has been rendered moot by his demonstrated inability to realise he lives in the 21st century. As the Church bleeds out money from the ongoing sexual crimes cases, a problem he oversaw for many years as Prefect of the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, this Pope will preside over a reformation, all right — to the life of poverty so clearly described in the vows of ordination, for their riches will have to be sold to pay judgements. This Pope has already asked for ( and been granted ) diplomatic immunity for a case of three abused boys in Texas.

            I could care less what the Protestants or Catholics have to say about Jesus Christ. If Christ’s words are any indication of the life we should live and the enlightenment we should seek, the world would be a better place entirely and Christianity would not have its current evil reputation. Gandhi the Hindu had this all summed up when he said there were as many religions as there were people.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Blaise, your historical argument is unhistorical. The Roman church is sui generis, has survived 2000 years without your advice, and even with Martin Luther’s.

            It took much of Luther’s advice, mind you. But—if I may be permitted to take your argument seriously for a moment—if “revelation” is real, that God spoke to man directly and the results are at least someone contained in the Bible, then Gandhi is wrong. There is not an infinite plurality of religions or gods or anything else.

            There is but one Truth [there is only truth: all else is necessarily false] and one God.

            If you argue against Revelation itself, then sure, anything goes. We’re not speaking the language of religion and nothing you say is provable or falsifiable. We’re not having a conversation atall, really.

            NB: I don’t claim the Bible is true or even that God exists in fora like this, Blaise. I’m explaining the Roman Church as it understands itself. Cosmic truth is on offer elsewhere, but not from me.

          • BlaiseP says:

            Cosmic truth is on offer elsewhere, but not from me.

            Truer words were never spoken. These days, Tom, I find great comfort in knowing the atheists are finally coming into their own. They’ll have to come to terms with what they believe but considering how much bullshit they’ve decided not to believe, including the crushing load of centuries of bullshit emitted from the nether parts of hundreds of popes, they’re off to a fine start. Perhaps they’ll come around, as do all people of goodwill, to some conclusions about what it means to be spiritual beings, at least I hope they will. But they don’t need the likes of Catholicism or Protestantism or Hinduism, in short, anyone else’s belief structures to reach these conclusions.

            Religion, it seems to me, is for lazy people who need to be told how to think. Enlightenment is a stern goal, rather like climbing tall mountains, not for the unfit or faint of heart. It requires years of training and knowing what you’ll need on the way up and what you don’t. The Catholic Church has no monopoly on salvation though that is its claim. Extra ecclesia nulla salus it would tell the world. To which I might reply, in rather better Latin than what I hear from priests today: Vos ex patre diabolo estis: et desideria patris vestri vultis facere. Ille homicida erat ab initio, et in veritate non stetit: quia non est veritas in eo: cum loquitur mendacium, ex propriis loquitur, quia mendax est, et pater ejus.

          • Fnord says:

            As much as I hate to agree with Mr. Van Dyke, you’re arguing from the flawed place, Blaise.

            Yes, American Catholics don’t much care for the pontifications of the patriarch of Rome (pun intended). But the United States is a sideshow. The power centers of the Catholic Church are in Western Europe and South America. That is where the future of the Catholic Church will be decided (or POSSIBLY in a vast population of new converts in, eg, China, but were I the Pope I wouldn’t count a repeat of the colonial-era evangelism without the sword of colonialism).

  9. Nob Akimoto says:

    I think ultimately the trade off might be a bit more cynical than that.

    Specifically: Can the Catholic Church remain relevant in the realms where it was traditionally strong?

    Catholicism is losing steam rather quickly in Western Europe, and it may very well be that Benedict is the last European Pope.

    It wasn’t long ago (really only 200 years when you think about it) when the French basically tore up the Catholic church for a while and demanded fealty to the Revolution. The Church eventually acquiesced and allowed Napoleon to crown himself Emperor….

    Now the Church I suppose can simply double down and accept that, claim the west has fallen and go its merry way. On the other hand, the more the Church is viewed as less sacrosanct and relevant to the moral, daily lives of the people of European states, the more likely these states are going to stop caring about the institution’s excuses with regard to things like confession. At some point, in fact, if it becomes so far out of the mainstream, people may start clamoring for overriding its (existing) religious immunity from things like, oh subpoenas and searches of its clerical records on issues like the cover-up of abusive priests.

    At which point, well, I suppose Mother Church can move to Latin America or Africa and take its sealed records with it.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Given the manner in which popes are selected, I doubt very much that Benedict will be the last European pope. But you are right that the church’s influence in Europe is waning, and, if these trends continue, in time we’re likely to see a demographic change in the college of cardinals–the group that elects the pope. A Vatican dominated by Latin American clergy would be very interesting. We’d surely see a switch in emphasis, and maybe liberation theology would get another shot at obtaining official approval.

      • James K says:

        Also kinda ironic. The Catholic Church was a colonising force in South America, and so in turn will South American colonise the Catholic Church.

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          “Catholic” meaning “universal,” JamesK, it’s prophetic, not ironic.

          The word catholic (derived via Late Latin catholicus, from the Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos), meaning “universal”[1][2]) comes from the Greek phrase καθόλου (kath’holou), meaning “on the whole”, “according to the whole” or “in general”, and is a combination of the Greek words κατά meaning “about” and όλος meaning “whole”.[3][4] The word in English can mean either “including a wide variety of things; all-embracing” or “of the Roman Catholic faith” as “relating to the historic doctrine and practice of the Western Church.”[5]
          It was first used to describe the Christian Church in the early 2nd century to emphasize its universal scope. In the context of Christian ecclesiology, it has a rich history and several usages. In non-ecclesiastical use, it derives its English meaning directly from its root, and is currently used to mean the following:

  10. Tancred says:

    What if Sodomy didn’t cause serious health problems?

  11. irishwonone says:

    Kyle, Kyle……..

    How could you mention this subject? Especially at this time. With the Catholic Church being sued left and right for for accused sexual abuses by current and former parrish priests. Let’s face it this just isn’t going to fly for several more years. In fact it will probably take another Pope who is more current and forward thinking and passionate than the current Pope. Gosh there are SO many issues in our present church that need to be addressed that you can put this one on the shelf for the next century!