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A Dramatic Change in the Teaching on Homosexuality?

It was only relatively recently when psychiatrists no longer considered homosexuality as a disease.  In 1973, after a contentious struggle within the ranks of American psychiatrists themselves, the influential American Psychiatric Association (APA) deleted homosexuality as a disease in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This was a crucial breakthrough for DSM can be likened to a bible for psychiatrists. But while this development was an important stage in the evolution of the psychiatric evaluation of homosexuality, still there was no complete about-face.  The association now called it “sexual orientation disturbance”, in effect pronouncing that heterosexuality is still the norm. One argument then was that while a number of homosexuals desire to be heterosexuals, there is no known case the other way around. Then another term was coined: “Ego-Dystonic Homosexuality.” But gays, both in and out of the psychiatric profession, vigorously contended that the distress experienced by homosexuals is culturally conditioned.  Thus, since 1987, even the new term was abandoned in newer editions of DSM.

Other mental health organizations followed the lead of APA. In 1992, the World Health Organization delisted homosexuality in its classification of diseases.

Is there a similar change in the Catholic teaching on homosexuality? This short essay tries to grapple with this question. But before doing so, two preliminary points are in order.

First, this short article does not primarily concern itself with a moral evaluation of homosexuality. The issue it addresses is whether there is a change in the teaching of the church on the issue at hand.

Secondly, our question is not just about any change. Obviously, there is an evolution in the Catholic teaching on homosexuality. From the description that homosexual condition itself is sinful to the label that it is an objective disorder is already a significant development. But our question is whether the change is from one proposition “homosexual behavior is immoral” to its complete opposite, “homosexual behavior is moral.”

Let us dwell on this clarification further. Oftentimes in the history of the Catholic theology, changes have been made. After all, theology is not static and it has to engage in dialogue with other fields of knowledge. It has to constantly reflect ever more deeply on the signs of the times. Let us cite two examples among the many that can possibly be cited. What we now call the sacrament of the anointing of the sick used to be referred to as extreme unction. Another is about infallibility. Dei Filius of Vatican I proclaimed papal infallibility. But Vatican II added another dimension to this teaching when it taught that “the entire body of the faithful anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief,” (Lumen Gentium 12). But these examples do not involve change from one proposition to its opposite. They are development in the context of continuity.

Some examples of change involving a turn-around include the dictum “extra ecclesiam nulla salus.” It used to be taught that “no one remaining outside the Catholic Church… can become partakers of eternal life; but they will go to the eternal life prepared for the devil and his angels, (General Council of Florence, 1442). But Vatican II teaches that “… Christ died for all men and women, and since the ultimate vocation of the human being is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known to God, offers to every person the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery,” (Gaudium et Spes 22).

Some examples in moral teachings can also be given.  Take the case of slavery. It is not a linear development from “slavery is morally justified” to “slavery is morally unjustified.” Even during the times when the prevalent teaching of the Church was to justify institutionalized slavery as part of natural law, there were prophets within the Church who condemned the abuses or even the system itself. But clearly, there is a discontinuity. In the early 15th century, Pope Nicolas V issued a papal bull Dum Diversas which granted the king of Portugal “full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ… and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.” This provision was later renewed or extended by succeeding popes. But in 1891, Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII states,  “The active force inherent in the person cannot be the property of anyone other than the person who exerts it…” This criticism against slavery was later codified in the 1917 Code of Canon Law and later reaffirmed by Gaudium et Spes. Some other examples are the idea of religious freedom and the attitude of the Church towards Judaism.

What about homosexuality? Pope Francis has touched a sensitive chord when, in a documentary entitled “Francesco,” he was quoted to have approved of legalizing same sex unions. Those who were uneasy with his statements opined that the documentary involved a mistranslation of the Spanish word convivencia.  Subsequent clarifications from the Vatican tell us that the Pontiff has not changed the teaching that the sacrament of matrimony is only for the man and woman.

But Pope Francis actually said the same thing in an interview with Dominique Wolton, which is now transcribed in A Future of Faith. In it, the Pope says, “‘Marriage’ is a historical word. Forever, throughout humanity, and not just in the Church, it’s between a man and a woman. You can’t change it just like that. It’s the nature of things. That’s how they are. So, let’s call them ‘civil unions.’… marriage is a man and a woman. That’s the precise term. Let’s call same sex unions ‘civil unions’.”

Bracketing the question of the magisterial weight of the statement that did not come from an official papal document, we go back to the question: is there a complete turn-around?  Or is it a case of pastoral sensitivity but with no essential change in the moral evaluation of homosexuality?

My answer is a qualified yes and no. No, there is no change since the Pope insists that marriage as a sacrament is only for man and woman. But yes there is change: it can be argued that the call for the legalization of same sex unions implies that they are not intrinsically disordered. Indeed those who oppose Pope Francis’ statement argue that what is objectively immoral cannot be legalized. Surely, it is opposite to what the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith pronounced in 2003: “… respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to the approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”