I have to begin by stating that I actually agree with the (Catholic) Church’s teaching on homosexuality: that while it is not sinful to be gay, gay sexual desires and acts are sinful. But then you have to be clear about what you think sin actually is, and what you judge to be ‘gay desire’ as such (see previous blog entry). For myself, I certainly don’t agree that all gay sex is equally sinful or constitutes ‘mortal sin’.
The most important factor is the quality of the relationship of which the sex is just a part. If the sex occurs as part of a truly loving, faithful, monogamous gay relationship, this is arguably a lot less sinful than, say, adultery on the part of straight persons or indeed any kind of promiscuous, loveless sex, straight or gay. If the degree of sinfulness corresponds to the extent to which God can be said to be present or absent from our actions, then God is – I believe – more present in the hearts of a loving gay couple as they express their feelings and commitment in a sexual way than it is in the hearts of a man and woman who are just using each other for sexual gratification.
But then the heart of the issue, from the ethical point of view, is whether one is prepared to tolerate the presence of any amount or degree of sin: whether tolerance of a ‘less sinful but still somewhat sinful’ life is acceptable. Sin is, after all, an absolute even if present in our actions to a variable extent. Our guides in this, alongside scripture and Church teaching, are our hearts and conscience. If fighting against the sin of any particular desire or attachment involves destroying a love that could prosper without damaging others – such as spouses or children that might be affected – are we sure that we are serving the God of love, and enhancing our ability to serve him in the future, more or less in erasing this love from our heart? Of course, not all desires and attachments of a sexual nature are loving.
Many Christians who are more condemning or hostile towards homosexuality try to evade the ethical complexities of these situations and feelings by in fact denying that gay sex and desire could ever truly be the expression of love – although this could lead us into a discussion of the different types and names of love. But this is all a bit facile: it’s very easy to deny and condemn morally the experience and actions of homosexuals if you yourself are not prone to gay desire and affections (because you are straight). There’s not much virtue in resisting a temptation that never arises (if it never does in such people, that is, which is a moot point – see last blog). People who are all too willing to deny that gay relationships are in any way compatible with a true living out of Christian faith should consider whether they would be prepared to undertake the same sacrifices as they expect gay people to make in the service of their faith: to be celibate for the rest of their lives. (Of course, another way round this is to deny that gay people are necessarily ‘condemned’ to being gay for the rest of their lives, and to imagine that they can be cured and ‘restored’ to heterosexuality.) Some people are indeed willing to make this sacrifice – for which God be praised – but I suspect they’re in a small minority.
The mistake that Christians make – and this of course goes back right through Christian history – is to think of homosexuality as being in a radically distinct category from conventional, heterosexual life. I mean this in both the psychological sense discussed in my previous blog (that there is an overlap and crossing over between homosexuality and heterosexuality, for which the bisexual often serves as a stigmatised symbol), and in the ethical sense. Gay sex and desire are just one sin among thousands, as indeed are straight sex and desire in probably most circumstances (i.e. those which transgress – from the Catholic point of view – the teaching that only genital sex between a man and a woman within marriage and without the use of contraception can be considered to be ‘without sin’ – and then is it totally without any sinful component, even so?). And certainly, faithful, loving gay sex comes way down the scale of sinfulness compared with many other sins that turn our world into a vale of sorrows: crimes of abuse and exploitation, sexual or otherwise.
So on one level, we should not tolerate gay sexual sin, just as we should not tolerate any sin; but on another level, we have no choice but to tolerate that sin if we are to be honest about ourselves as sinners. Of course, we must strive to be saints but accept that we are far from being them. So long as our hearts are truly set on love – that is, on Christ – we are heading in the right direction, even if we all take wrong turnings on our way. Some of us – gay or straight – might also be resolved to be celibate and chaste in our hearts; but few of us can truly say we’ve achieved this. God give us grace to go on.
(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 24 July 2007.)