Homosexuality: III. Religious Perspectives

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Homosexuality is one of the most contentious issues of contemporary times, though important scholarship has indicated that it was not always so. This article will trace Western religious perspectives on homosexuality in Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism from Greco-Roman times to the twenty-first century, as well as summarize homosexuality's position in Islam.

Pre-Christian Greece and Rome

In the Greco-Roman ancient world, same-sex relationships were parts of the warp and woof of civilization, though there is no evidence that the word homosexuality existed in either Greek or Latin. However, same-sex unions paralleling heterosexual marriage appear to have existed from ancient times through the Middle Ages (Boswell, 1994). Both Jonathan Ned Katz and John Boswell argue that homosexuality is a nineteenth-century invention. Anne Zachary reports that "the term, 'homosexuality,' was first coined as recently as 1869 by Benkert."

Scholars have long known that in ancient Greece, adult male citizens engaged in pederasty (sex between men and boys), a practice that was a thoroughly acceptable part of Greek social and cultural anthropology. It was common for adult male citizens (not slaves) to initiate young boys into the rituals of manhood, which included sexual partnering. This same practice was not followed in ancient Rome, though same-sex relationships did exist there.

In the Mediterranean world, social stratification was commonplace and included rigid demarcations between free men and slaves, as well as between adult males and adult free women. Bernadette Brooten has argued that attitudes toward same-sex relationships between women in the ancient world ought to be viewed within the context of attitudes towards women in general (1996). Since gender stratification undergirded the Mediterranean worldview, the ancients commonly regarded women as inferior to males, and they held derivative positions by virtue of their relationships to their husbands and fathers. Such a realization is important in understanding the place of same-sex relations within the Greco-Roman context.

In Greek and Roman anthropology, human nature was bifurcated—either active or passive. Under this view, males were thought to possess an active nature and women a passive nature. In terms of sexuality, the ancients recognized a fluidity that extended to any sexual expression of the male nature. Sexual expression would have taken place between "one active and one passive partner, regardless of gender.…" (Brooten, 1996, p. 2). Some scholars point to social condemnation of the penetrated male because he was thought to violate the male nature by assuming a role fitted for women. The male penetrator did not appear to be similarly reviled, since he was acting in accord with man's active nature.

Within the context of this worldview, sex between two women simply had no place in the social and gender hierarchy of the ancient world. However, the ancients may have been less condemnatory of the partner who was penetrated as she was at least behaving according to nature (kata physin, in Greek). Both Roman and Greek sources indicate a knowledge of female homoeroticism: frictrix/fricatrix and tribas/tribades in Latin, for women who "rubbed" other women, as well as the Greek words, tribas and Lesbia. Although ancient authors were certainly aware of female homoerotic relationships, it remains unclear whether this was regarded as a matter of particular concern since it was out of the bounds of gender hierarchy on which the ancient world was based.

Was there an anti-homosexual attitude in ancient Greece and Rome? The question is itself reflective of a twenty-first-century bias. It has been established that the term was unknown to the ancients, and scholars such as Brooten (1996) argue that what the ancients condemned was the transgression of rigid gender hierarchies (the active/passive distinction), rather than homosexuality. Boswell (1994) argues that same-sex relationships were not condemned, though he did not apply a gender analysis to his research. R. T. France, an Evangelical scholar, holds that "Homosexual partnerships, whether pederastic or between adults, are accepted without comment, and described with appreciation, across a wide range of Greek literature" (France, p. 248).

Some scholars argue that a bias against same-sex relations did exist, though most write chiefly of male-male relations. Ward, for example, argues that such a bias can be found in Plato (The Timaeus, and Laws), as well as in Philo, a first-century c.e. Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, and in the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, contemporary with Philo (Ward). The bias articulated in these sources, according to Roy Bowen Ward, is one of anti-hedonism and proprocreationism. In this view, homoeroticism in the Greco-Roman world was seen to be para physin (against nature) because it is hedonistic behavior that cannot lead to procreation.

Biblical Issues

By far the most contentious terrain in the battle over homosexuality and religion is that of the Bible; this is particularly so for Christians. Genesis 19: 1–11 and Judges 19: 22–30 each contain a reference to a similar story in which God punishes ancient Israel for its behavior. Exactly what kind of behavior is the hermeneutical issue for biblical scholars. Theological conservatives tend to interpret Genesis 19 and Judges 19 as stories of God's condemnation for attempted homosexual rape, while more liberal exegetes have taken the position that the violations condemned are violations against the ancient code of hospitality so central in the Biblical world. Feminist biblical scholars have pointed to the misogyny of Judges 19 as an interpretive key.

There are only two places in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) that contain explicit prohibitions against what is referred to as homosexuality, though the word itself is never mentioned in the Bible. Both are contained in the book of Leviticus, mentioned in the context of the codes of ritual purity by which Israel is to set itself apart from other people. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible translates as follows: Leviticus 18:22, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination"; Leviticus 20: 13, "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them."

Scholars debate both the meaning of word choices (what does it mean to "lie with a male as with a woman"? what does abomination mean?), and of historical/cultural context. Not surprisingly, Evangelical and conservative Christian exegetes tend to interpret the passages to mean that God condemns acts of same-sex eroticism between men; a few Biblical literalists use Leviticus 20:13 to argue for the death penalty for homosexuals today (see <www.godhatesfags.com>). If the writer of Leviticus does intend to signal God's condemnation of homosexual sex between men, what is the basis for the condemnation? Conservative exegetes argue that the abomination (toevah in Hebrew) in question is quite simply sodomy, or anal intercourse between two men; hence the meaning of to "lie with a male as with a woman." Lynne C. Broughton claims that toevah signifies something inherently wrong and contradictory to nature.

More liberal Christian exegetes make two kinds of hermeneutical claims. The first view is that the ritual codes of ancient Israel were written for a particular context and that few of these commands are observed today (Borg). Indeed, few Christians observe other prohibitions found in Leviticus, such as having sex with a menstruating woman (18:19), eating certain foods (19:26), cutting beards (19:27), wearing clothes made from two kinds of fabrics (19:19), or tattooing (19:28). Marcus J. Borg maintains that Christians who set aside these laws must assume the burden of proof for following any one of them, including the proscription on homosexuality. Others who view the New Testament as superceding the Old Testament might claim that the New Testament already invalidates much of the Levitical ritual concerns, rendering them less authoritative for Christians.

A second view, characteristic of William L. Countryman and Brooten, holds that the concerns of Leviticus 18–20 are not those of ritual and morality, but rather, as Brooten puts it, "holiness, impurity, defilement, shame and abomination" (1996, p. 288). On this view, the Levitical codes exist to secure the holiness of the people of Israel, a people bound to God. It is important to recognize the centrality of group welfare in ancient Israel—the writer's concern is not for securing individual purity, but the purity and survival of the whole people. This runs counter to the modern sense of individual liberties and rights. When seen from the perspective of group purity, many of the pieces of the Levitical codes that contemporary readers find objectionable (execution for adulterers, execution for perpetrators and victims of pederasty, and so on) can be understood as relevant to group survival and holiness: the offending violation and the violators must be cleansed from the midst of the community.

Similarly, Daniel Helminiak holds that the Levitical proscriptions are not against male homogenital relations (women are never mentioned), but must be seen within the context of ritual purity; the taboo (a translation of toevah) that concerns Leviticus is one of uncleanliness or defilement in a religious sense, but not in an ethical or moral sense. The chief concern of the writer is the purity of the people of Israel over and against the Gentiles; all of the purity violations in the holiness codes are cited as abominations or taboo.

Scholars generally agree that Paul relies on Leviticus in his proscriptions against same-sex expression, particularly in Romans 1:26–27, though also in I Corinthians 6:9 and again in I Timothy 1:10. The latter texts concern lists of behaviors to be avoided by Christians (lying, adultery, idolatry, and so on), and included among the lists we find the Greek word, arsenokoitai, which is generally translated as "men lying with men." While this word has been translated "homosexual," it has been variously translated "sodomites" or "male prostitutes," "homosexual perversion," and even as "abusers of themselves with mankind" (Borg, p. 4; Helminiak). Boswell (1980) argues that arsenokoitai refers to male prostitution and not homosexuality generally. Arsenokoitai also appears in the Septuagint Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22, 20:13. Some scholars hold that it refers to the specific practice of pederasty in ancient Greece and that it is this practice, along with male prostitution, that is condemned by Paul, and not homosexuality per se (Scroggs; Borg, 1994; Ackerman). Others disagree with this interpretation (e.g., Furnish; Wright).

First Corinthians 6:9 also contains the word malakoi, which refers to soft or weak persons, though Brooten translates this term as "men who assume a passive sexual role with other men" (1996, p. 260). This translation undergirds her argument that what was reviled by the ancients, including Paul, was the violation of the active/passive distinction on which society was based. Countryman and Boswell (1980) argue that malakoi does not refer to homosexuality at all.

Romans 1:26–27 is cited by most Protestant religious denominations, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, as the cornerstone of a variety of positions opposed to homosexual sexual expression. It merits citing here: "For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error" (NSRV). Scholarly debate generally turns on the context of the passage: what is it that Paul is concerned to communicate to his audience? and what is meant by the terms natural (kata physin) and unnatural (para physin)?

Does para physin mean contrary to nature in keeping with the Stoic insight on the right and natural order of things (Hays, contra Boswell), or does it mean, as Boswell suggests, beyond nature, meaning extraordinary or peculiar, but not unnatural (1980)? Boswell's claim is that the term was in some sense morally neutral for Paul, since he used it with respect to salvation of the Gentiles as well as to sex between men. Picking up from Boswell, Helminiak suggests that Paul meant surprising behavior, which is to say, "When people acted as was expected … they were acting 'naturally.' When people did something … out of character, they were acting 'unnaturally'" (Helminiak, p. 64). Thus "exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural" would have indicated sex that was surprising and out-of-the-ordinary, but not inherently wrong or disordered in the Stoic sense of "the laws of nature."

Stoic philosophy did make use of the term para physin and the Stoic philosophy of the natural law was pervasive in the Roman Empire. Robin Scroggs, however, maintains that para physin was "a commonplace Greco-Roman attack on pederasty" (p. 115), while Ward sees in it echoes of the emphasis on the importance of procreation typical of the Hellenistic Jewish community (and Stoic thought) of which Paul was a part. In terms of the procreation concern, Helminiak believes it would have been inconsistent for Paul to have made a priority out of this issue since, as we know, the early Christian community expected the imminent return of Jesus; thus marriage and procreation were not their chief concerns.

Among the more persuasive arguments is Brooten's (1996), that para physin did mean contrary to nature, but that what is referred to as kata physin (according to nature) is the non-biological active/passive distinction: any sex act had to have an active and a passive partner. Accordingly, sex between two women would certainly be thought of as shameful, unnatural and impure because natural sex meant penetration, characterizing the active dimension of the male. "Impurity applied to gender thus means that people are not maintaining clear gender polarity and complementarity" (Brooten, 1996, p. 235).

Similarly, for a man to have intercourse with a man, instead of a woman, would be a violation of the social order in which the male nature was believed to be active and penetrating. Boswell, on the other hand, argues that to exchange natural for unnatural intercourse refers to heterosexuals engaging in homosexual sex, since Paul presumes that such persons are capable of natural intercourse. He further maintains that Paul is making a distinction between homosexual persons and homosexual acts, and is really concerned only with the latter (Boswell, 1980). Richard B. Hays disputes Boswell on this point, arguing that for Paul homoerotic expression does constitute a willful upending of the sexual differences that God intended for creation. Brooten adds that neither scholar takes a gendered analysis of Paul's position and his cultural assumptions into account, and that "Gender ambiguity is also the best framework within which to view Paul's understanding of unnatural relations in Romans I" (Brooten, 1996, p. 252).

Homosexuality and Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism, emphasizing the halakhic or legal side of the Talmud, has been largely opposed to same-sex sexual expression between males. Such expression between women is not addressed in the Torah, although it was later condemned by the rabbis (e.g., Sifra 98 and Mishneh Torah Issurei Biah 21:8). Perhaps silence on same-sex eroticism between women in the biblical period of ancient Judaism reflects the patriarchal nature of culture; one cannot really be certain. However, it is clear that male homoeroticism was condemned as an "abomination" (toevah) in Leviticus 18:22 and punishable by death in Leviticus 20:13. The reasons for the condemnation have been debated both in the Talmud and by scholars up to the present.

In contemporary Judaism, Saul Olyan, for example, argues that what the Torah actually prohibits in Leviticus is male anal intercourse and not other instances of male-male coupling (see also Boyarin). For contemporary explanations on the differing treatment of male and female homoeroticism in Jewish law, see the work of Rebecca Alpert and Rachel Biale. One of the debates in contemporary Judaism has been whether or not halakhah is open to change on homosexuality in light of new realities, or whether its character is fixed. In one sense, within halakhic Judaism it is apparent that homoerotic acts (though not necessarily inclinations) between men are to be regarded as an abomination, and as an aberration from the commonly held norm of heterosexual acts that ensure procreation and the promotion of family life, primary values in Judaism. David M. Feldman, for instance, does not agree that the proscription in Leviticus has anything to do with procreation. He summarizes three possible reasons for the prohibition according to his reading of rabbinic sources: that male homosexuality cannot result in procreation; that such sexual activity will result in men leaving their wives and families; that it constitutes "going astray" (toeh attah bah, play on toevah) from the Creator's design for creation (Feldman, p. 428).

Following the rabbis, Feldman regards homosexual acts as sinful, but makes the distinction that "If the aberration is the result of 'sickness,' no guilt can attach to it; if it is advocated as an 'alternative lifestyle,' this then is consciously immoral and soberly sinful"; thus volition plays a key part in the condemnation (Feldman, p. 426). Under this view, halakhah and homosexuality are regarded as incompatible, and it is interesting to note that the rabbis apparently regarded male homosexuality and Judaism as an unlikely combination—that Jews could not really be homosexual. There is much discussion, from Talmud to Maimonides, on yihud, "being alone together." Generally, proscriptions against yihud reflect concerns with heterosexual adultery so that the Talmud actually allows two men to be alone together and even to sleep under the same blanket. This might reflect the relative lack of attention paid to homosexuality as a reality in ancient Judaism, in contrast to the gentile communities in Greece and Rome.

Robert Kirschner, opposing Feldman and David J. Bleich, argues that halakhah is capable of change on this matter, as it has been on many others (e.g., the debate over heresh deaf mute), since the power of interpretation is a cornerstone of rabbinic tradition. Kirschner makes a case for Judaism taking into consideration scientific evidence about sexuality, including theories on the etiology of homosexuality. Contemporary science confirms, for example, what the rabbis did not think to be the case—that sexuality and its expression is variable, fluid and not dichotomous; therefore, homosexuality can be seen "not as a perversion but, rather, in its multiple manifestations, a state of sexual being" (Kirschner, p. 457).

Currently, the four branches of Judaism in the United States (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist) take a variety of positions on homosexuality. Orthodox Judaism is largely settled on these questions and it accepts the Levitical condemnation on male same-sex acts as an abomination. Some more liberal Orthodox Jews maintain a distinction between the act and the person (the sin and the sinner), regarding the homosexual Jew as sinning, but a Jew nonetheless. In recent years, support networks of Orthodox homosexual Jews have emerged, despite the fact that Orthodoxy does not recognize homosexuality as an orientation or state of being. Examples of these networks include: Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association (GLYDSA), Orthogays, and Orthodykes, all of which have a presence on the Internet. In 1999, Rabbi Steven Greenberg became the first Orthodox rabbi to come out as a homosexual Jew, a subject of great controversy in Orthodox Judaism (see Grossman). In 2000, the Rabbinical Council of America condemned the position taken by the Reform rabbis to affirm same-sex relationships in Jewish ritual. In 1999, the Council publicly opposed the state of Vermont's ruling legalizing same-sex civil unions, on the grounds that marriage is only between heterosexuals.

In 1991, the Conservative Movement in Judaism (both the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) passed a resolution affirming its halakhic commitment to heterosexual relationships, while simultaneously opposing civil restrictions on and expressions of hatred against gays and lesbians. The movement officially welcomes gay and lesbian persons at synagogue and encourages education among Jews about homosexuality. Since 1992, the official policy of the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has been to prohibit the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, as well as to prohibit same-sex marriages or commitment ceremonies. That policy was under discussion at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and is opposed by some rabbis within the movement. Conservative rabbis are permitted to serve gay and lesbian congregations, but they are halakhicly prohibited from officiating at commitment ceremonies. For a helpful and balanced overview on homosexuality in Judaism, see Matters of Life and Death, by Conservative rabbi Elliot Dorff (1998). The Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism published an official rabbinical letter on human intimacy in which it stated, with reference to the Levitical codes, that some acts of sexual expression are abominations (cultic, oppressive, or promiscuous sex, whether by homosexuals or heterosexuals), but that monogamous, loving sex is sacred and should be sanctified, whether heterosexual or homosexual (see Dorff, 1996).

For the Reform Movement and for Reconstructionist Judaism, homosexuality is almost a non-issue, in that the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) voted in 1973 to accept full membership of a synagogue that had a specific outreach to homosexual Jews. In the 1980s the official seminary of Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College, voted to accept gay or lesbian rabbinical students; the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College preceded Hebrew Union in doing so. In 1993, UAHC adopted a resolution calling for full legal equality for gay and lesbian monogamous partnerships. In 1997, the UAHC reaffirmed its commitment to welcoming gays and lesbians into full participation in all aspects of Jewish life, and officially resolved (1) to support efforts towards civil gay and lesbian marriages; (2) to urge Reform congregations to honor monogamous gay and lesbian partnerships; (3) to support the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in its study of the possibility of religious commitment ceremonies for gay and lesbian unions between Jews. In March 2000, the CCAR became the first major congregation of American clergy to give its clergy permission to perform gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies. Although the UAHC and the CCAR have been very supportive of gay rights issues, there is no official position on the adoption of children by homosexuals.

Homosexuality and Roman Catholicism

Since Roman Catholicism and Christianity were synonymous until the Reformation, Christian attitudes towards homosexuality were, de facto, Roman Catholic attitudes, although popular attitudes were not necessarily synonymous with official Catholic teaching, as is true today. Boswell (1994) contends that evidence from liturgical texts and cultural history indicates that Christians once accepted same-sex relationships. Moreover, he argues that a distinctive contribution of early Christianity was an emphasis on the celibate life as spiritually superior to the heterosexual married state; eroticism thus became suspect and marriage was seen as a distraction from the important preparation of the Second Coming, and at best a compromise with the material world. These attitudes held sway in the church for the first thousand years of its existence (Boswell, 1994). Mary Rose d'Angelo shows how pairs of women missionaries in the New Testament can be seen as evidence of commitment both to the mission and to each other. Boswell, too, discusses the influence of "paired saints," such as Perpetua and Felicity, Serge and Bacchus, and even Jesus and John, on ordinary Christians.

Christian thinkers from late antiquity to the high Middle Ages have had an influence on official Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Among these are Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas. St. Augustine (354–430) contributed heavily to the Catholic view that marriage was for procreation, monogamy, and fidelity, or as Augustine put it, fides, proles, sacramentum (Boswell, 1994; Augustine, 2000). So influential was this view that traces of it are found in papal documents up through the twentieth century. Augustine was influenced by his membership in the Manichean movement that viewed the natural world as an inherent evil. Hence one finds in Augustine an insistence on sex within marriage exclusively for the purpose of procreation—husbands were encouraged to make use of prostitutes if they had a need for non-procreative sex (Augustine, 2000). Boswell (1980) maintains that Augustine's view of nature is to be understood in the sense of out of the ordinary, not the normal use of something. Thus Augustine condemned same-sex eroticism since it was certainly not the normal use of sex with which he was familiar. Contra naturum meant that which did not conform to ordo, or order of the world, the divine plan (see Augustine's "De ordine.") In this view, conformity was the issue for Augustine, not nature itself. Part of the order of things, as Brooten tells us, is the maintenance of gender boundaries. Augustine was one of the Christian thinkers who, perhaps reflecting the culture around him, insisted on the male nature as superior to the female.

Clement of Alexandria (150–c. 215) argues against homosexuality in the Paedagogus, an instruction manual for Christian parents. Clement did espouse the procreation argument for moral intercourse, but his rationale against same-sex eroticism was grounded primarily in the Epistle of Barnabas's view that such acts were animalistic. (The comparison to animals figured prominently in theological treatises up through Thomas Aquinas.) This popular first century Epistle (now part of the Catholic Apocrypha) equated the eating of certain animals in Leviticus (notably the hare, the hyena, and the weasel) with sexual sins. Though regarded as erroneous, the Epistle's influence is evident in Clement's writing, which itself was influential in the early church. Clement is one of the few sources who explicitly opposed woman-woman marriage, believing it to be unnatural in that it flaunts God's plan for woman as the receptacle of male seed. Drawing on both Plato and St. Paul, Clement held that same-sex relations were para physin.

John Chrysostom or John of Antioch (347–407) was another of the early Christian thinkers who was influenced by the Manichees, as well as by the Stoics, a combination of belief systems that "led him into the paradoxical position of condemning sexual pleasure … while at the same time denouncing homosexual acts for not providing pleasure: 'Sins against nature … are more difficult and less rewarding, so much so that they cannot even claim to provide pleasure, since real pleasure is only in accordance with nature.'" (Boswell, 1980, p. 156). Chrysostom, also a product of Mediterranean misogynistic culture, was repulsed by the idea of a male taking on the role of a woman and this transgression was part of his opposition to same-sex eroticism. Both Boswell and Brooten agree on this. Brooten notes that Chrysostom began to use the language of disease with respect to same-sex eroticism, adding this to the language of sin in early Christianity and ancient Judaism (1996).

Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274), the influential Dominican scholar, argued that same-sex acts were to be regarded as sinful because they thwarted the natural law, as ordained by God. The thirteenth century is the period in which civil laws against homosexuals arose; anti-homosexual rhetoric became vitriolic and remained so through the twentieth century. In this light, Boswell (1980) regarded Aquinas as reflecting the popular attitudes of his time rather than responding to the substance of church tradition on this issue. It is important to recall that Aristotle, the Stoics, and natural law discussions of the first centuries of Christian history heavily influenced Aquinas. His articulation of what constitutes nature and natural law, particularly in his Summa theologiae, has been given decisive weight in Roman Catholic moral theology up through the present day. Aquinas devotes much of the Summa to considerations of natural law; one succinct definition is as follows: "It is clear that natural law is nothing other than the participation of rational creatures in eternal law" (Aquinas, 1952, Ia.2ae.91.2). Aquinas held that reason is that which distinguishes what is natural to humans from what is natural to animals. Therefore, one might expect Aquinas to argue that homosexual acts are contrary to reason, and in this sense unnatural. But this was not the rationale that he employed.

In the Summa there are three places of commentary on same-sex eroticism (Ia.2ae.31.7; Ia.2ae.94.3 ad 2; 2a.2ae.154.11–12), though "only the last has received scholarly attention in the context of Scholastic attitudes towards homosexuality" (Boswell, 1980, p. 323). In 2a.2ae.154.11–12, Aquinas discusses "vices against nature," which for him included heterosexual intercourse without intent to procreate, intercourse with animals, homosexual intercourse, and masturbation. These constitute the most sinful forms of lust, though Aquinas does not here discuss what order of nature is violated by these sins; he does hold that all sins are unnatural because they are "against the order of reason, which must order all things according to their ends" (Aquinas, 1952, 2a.2ae.153.2 Resp.). Why then is homoeroticism particularly unnatural? One might expect Aquinas to ground his opposition in the "spilling of seed" argument that had been popular (nature intended semen to find its end in procreation of children), and indeed he did consider this rationale (Aquinas, 1923). But he disposed of the argument after considering that nature fitted other body parts for uses to which they were not always put and therefore, misusing a part of the body could not be the sin; the sin was rather to impede the propagation of the species, which itself is a good. If homosexual sex precludes procreation, he the might have applied the same argument to celibacy and to virginity, but he did not.

However, Aquinas considered that there were some things that might seem against human nature generally, though peculiar to certain individuals and, therefore, natural to those individuals as everything in nature was believed to be ordered by God to some good end. One might have a defect of nature, but that defect of nature could be quite natural; indeed this was the way in which Aquinas regarded females (as "defective" males) (see Aquinas, 1952, Ia.92.I). As he writes, "In fact, because of the diverse conditions of humans, it happens that some acts are virtuous to some people, as appropriate and suitable to them, while the same acts are immoral for others, as appropriate to them" (Aquinas, 1952, Ia.2ae.94 ad 3). And in a footnote to history, Boswell writes, "It would seem that Saint Thomas would have been constrained to admit that homosexual acts were 'appropriate' to those whom he considered 'naturally' homosexual" (1980, p. 327). Perhaps reflecting the attitudes of his day, Aquinas did not do so, as he also did not show why homosexual acts were immoral theologically, apart from being unnatural—neither is this point considered in official Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

The Roman Catholic Church has issued five key statements that are meant to instruct the faithful as to its official teaching on homosexuality:

  1. in December 1975, homosexuality is considered within the document, "Declaration on Certain Problems of Sexual Ethics" ;
  2. in October 1986, the Vatican issued "The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons";
  3. in July 1992, "Responding to Legislative Proposals on Discrimination Against Homosexuals" was issued;
  4. in 1995 the Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised, containing three sections on homosexuality (paragraphs 2357, 2358, 2359);
  5. in 1997, the United States Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on homosexuality, "Always Our Children."

With remarkable consistency, the church has always held that homosexual acts are disordered and against nature. Thus the church has never sanctioned such acts, though its documents on the matter do indicate a shift from a complete condemnation in the documents from 1975 and 1986 (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1982; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1986) to a more recent distinction between the act and the actor, or the sin and the sinner in the documents from 1995 and 1997. For an alternative claim by a contemporary Catholic moral theologian, see Margaret Farley, "An Ethic for Same-Sex Relationships."

If the church is now making a distinction between homosexual acts, which it condemns as against the natural law, and homosexual persons, who deserve compassion, it does so because it believes that homosexuality is not chosen (Roman Catholic Church). Earlier, the church had distinguished between curable and incurable homosexuals, yet it counseled the faithful to instill hope "in them of one day overcoming their difficulties and their alienation from society" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1982, para. 8). It would seem that Pope John Paul II is aware of the scientific data about the origins of homosexuality and that his position in the Catechism accounts for some openness to science and social science. In rather non-judgmental language, the Catechism observes: "Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms throughout the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained" (Roman Catholic Church, p. 2357).

All of this notwithstanding, the Roman Catholic Church does not condone homosexuality and recommends celibacy as the only acceptable form of sexual expression for homosexuals. Accordingly, it does not approve of civil unions, such as the state of Vermont's; nor does it condone homosexual marriages or unions in its churches, nor adoption of children by gay and lesbian persons. It should be noted, however, that there is a substantive gay-affirming movement within the Roman Catholic tradition known as Dignity. During the 1970s, 1980s and into the mid-1990s, a Catholic priest, Robert Nugent, and a Catholic nun, Jeanine Gramick, ran New Ways Ministry, a ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics. In 2000, they were ordered by the Vatican to cease teaching publicly or face expulsion from their respective orders.

Homosexuality and Protestantism

Most of the major Protestant denominations in the United States have positions on homosexuality. Since Martin Luther's movement back to the authority of the Bible defined Protestantism, interpretations of scripture tend to play the major role in shaping Protestant denominations. Protestantism in the United States exists on a kind of continuum with conservative Protestant denominations on one end (Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, independent Evangelical churches), liberal Protestant churches on the other end (Episcopal Church, American Baptist Church, United Church of Christ), and moderate Protestant churches in the middle (Presbyterian Church U. S. A., United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

In general terms, conservative Protestants tend to regard homosexuality as a perversion of God's intent for creation (heterosexual marriage and children). They regard the institution of the heterosexual family as the bedrock of God's plan and are opposed to anything that thwarts this plan. Homosexuality is a grave sin and homosexuals are regarded as sinners; some conservative Protestants believe that there is an inherent contradiction between being Christian and being homosexual. Such Protestants hold that the Bible condemns homosexuality unequivocally and Christians are called to do likewise and to help homosexuals repent of their sin (see, for example, <www.sbc.net>). Conversion ministries, in which ex-homosexuals help homosexual persons convert to heterosexuality through Jesus Christ, are a suggested means of dealing with this aberrant lifestyle (see Exodus International, for example). Conservative Protestants view homosexual inclinations as either a depravity of nature or a willful choice to violate God's intent, and thus these denominations retain an ambivalent attitude with regard to developments in science and genetics (Green and Numrich).

Liberal Protestant denominations, on the other hand, tend to regard homosexuality as an alternative expression of the variety and goodness of sexuality given by God. While affirming the inherent dignity of homosexual persons, such churches have taken advocacy positions for full civil rights for gay, lesbian, and transgendered persons, usually including recognizing legal status of domestic partners, and adoption of children. Some of these churches perform holy unions or commitment ceremonies for same-sex members of their churches, and some also ordain "out" homosexual clergy. Liberal Protestants tend to embrace developments in science; in fact many are sanguine about the benefits of science for humankind, particularly genetic science. One finds openness to the possible genetic etiology of homosexuality among liberal Protestants. The United Church of Christ has taken several public stands affirming gay and lesbian persons and "it was also one of the first American churches to affirm and ordain gays and lesbians in ministry" (Green and Numrich, p. 23). The Episcopal Church has called for full participation in the life of the church for gay and lesbian persons, including church leadership, and is studying the possibility of holy unions. Still, many of these churches struggle over the issue of how to regard homosexuality within the confines of their respective traditions.

Moderate Protestant denominations are a hotbed of struggle over homosexuality. The question of whether homosexuality is compatible with Christian teaching (especially the Bible) is intensely debated, and some have speculated that it could produce a schism in the church. Moderate Protestants are clear, however, that homosexuals are children of God and deserve a place in their congregations. Commitment ceremonies for same-sex unions have been intensely debated in recent years in these denominations, as has the ordination of practicing homosexual clergy. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) agreed to lift its ban on ordination of gay and lesbian clergy in, though the issue appears far from settled. The Methodist Church has been in conflict over the disciplining of clergy who perform same-sex union ceremonies in its churches, as well as over the sanctioning of clergy who have "come out" as homosexual. The Evangelical Lutheran Church will spend until 2005 studying issues of ordination of homosexual clergy, same-sex blessing ceremonies, and so on.

Currently, "out" homosexual clergy in most denominations are expected to be celibate. Moderate Protestants are not settled on these questions, or on the issue of whether homosexuals may adopt children. However, rooted in an affirmation of Biblical justice, all moderate Protestant denominations reject efforts to curb the civil rights of homosexuals, and advocate non-discrimination of gay and lesbian persons.

There are also movements within a variety of Protestant denominations to affirm the rights and dignity of homosexuals. For example, in the Presbyterian Church there are "More Light churches"; the United Church of Christ has the "Open and Affirming Movement"; the Episcopal Church has a national gay and lesbian affirmation movement called "Integrity."

Homosexuality and Islam

The Western concept of homosexuality, as sexual orientation and lifestyle, is unknown in the Islamic world. As Amreen Jamal notes, "the term 'homosexuality' is erroneous when it is used in Islam, unless it is used by Muslims who identify also with the Western description of the queer lifestyle which includes both behavior and orientation" (Jamal, p.69). It must be stated that just as there are many versions of Christianity and Judaism, so Islam is not monolithic in its expression. For the purposes of this discussion, however, it may be assumed that Islam is in wide agreement in its outlook and teachings on same-sex activity.

The authoritative text for Muslims, Al-Qur'an (believed to be the divine revelation from God to the Prophet Muhammad as told to him by Gabriel) is generally thought to be explicit in its condemnation of same-gender sexual activity. Al-Qur'an (Koran) references the same story that some Jewish and Christian scholars reference in the Hebrew Bible, the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19), as evidence of God's condemnation of samegender sex. "In Islamic terminology," Khalid Duran notes, "homosexuals are called qaum Lut, Lot's people, or, briefly, Luti" (Duran, p. 181). Traditional Islamic scholars tend to interpret this story as evidence of God's disproval of the actions of Lot's people, anal penetration.

Beyond the Lot narrative (mentioned five times in Al-Qur'an), the Qur'an permits sex for pleasure, but indicates that the express purpose of sex is procreation. Marriage and procreation are central values of Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, "Marriage is half the religion." In light of this, the shari'a (traditional Islamic law) finds same-sex activity, particularly between men, to be a punishable offense, though the offense must offend publicly and solid evidence of the offense must be established. In other words, the shari'a has little concern for what occurs in private, but what is publicly offensive is punishable. While there is a range of opinion among scholars, traditionalists interpret homosexuality as a crime and not just a sin; since the penalty is not specified in the Qur'an, it is a matter for contemporary authorities to debate, and death has been interpreted as one of punishments. In summary, Islam generally teaches that such sexual acts are against the natural order God intended for humans and are therefore sinful violations, and a deviation of the proper intent for human sexuality, marriage and procreation.

At least one scholar notes that there may be some openness to reform of the Muslim position within the context of its mystical branch, Sufism, and the freedom and justice teachings of Ustadh Mahmud Muhammad Taha (d.1985) of Sudan. Ustadh Mahmud's teachings involved the development of a new or revised shari'a that was not dependent on the social constructs of seventh-century Islam (Duran). For an interesting contemporary study of the possibility of reform interpretations of homosexuality in Islam, see Amreen Jamal, 2001.

suzanne holland

SEE ALSO: African Religions; Authority in Religious Traditions; Christianity, Bioethics in;Judaism, Bioethics in; and other Homosexuality subentries


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