Friday, 4 March 2011

Traditional Catholic teaching on homosexuality

In this post, I want to explore the attitudes that Catholic theologians traditionally adopted towards homosexuality.

Below, I have translated a series of passages from various theologians from the 17th to the 19th centuries which deal with the subject (the original language of the texts was, of course, Latin).

I would make the following general observations on the material: 

1.  It is oriented towards confession.

It is, at least in part, intended to tell the priest-reader exactly how much a penitent needs to tell him in the confessional.

2.  It is legalistic.

It is careful to make category distinctions and to specify particular factors that must be taken into account.  This approach to sexuality may strike the modern reader as incongruous.

3.  It is dependent on Catholic natural law theory.

This is the big one.  There is an underlying assumption that what is natural, or the natural "purpose" of something, is ordained by God and gives rise to moral obligations.  Specifically, it is assumed that the only legitimate form of sexual behaviour is heterosexual intercourse between spouses in a manner that is capable, at least in principle, of conceiving children.

It may be useful to quote here the Catholic house theologian, St Thomas Aquinas (from the Summa Contra Gentiles):

Now, it is good for each person to attain his end, whereas it is bad for him to swerve away from his proper end....  Now, though the male semen is superfluous in regard to the preservation of the individual, it is nevertheless necessary in regard to the propagation of the species.  Other superfluous things, such as excrement, urine, sweat, and such things, are not at all necessary; hence, their emission contributes to man’s good.  Now, this is not what is sought in the case of semen, but, rather, to emit it for the purpose of generation, to which purpose the sexual act is directed....
It is evident from this that every emission of semen, in such a way that generation cannot follow, is contrary to the good for man.  And if this be done deliberately, it must be a sin.  Now, I am speaking of a way from which, in itself, generation could not result: such would be any emission of semen apart from the natural union of male and female....
This explains why theologians cared very much about (for example) what happened to the semen when men ejaculated and where it ended up.

4.  It is therefore physically rather than emotionally oriented.

The writers are concerned essentially with the mechanics and circumstances of gay sex, which is ubiquitously labelled with the term "sodomy" (sodomia), rather than with the emotional or relational context in which it takes place.

5.  It condemns gay sex on the ground that it is unnatural.

This is the basic moral judgement of the theologians.  Sodomy is a crime "against nature" (contra naturam), and it involves sex using the "wrongful" gender or orifice (indebitum, non debitum).

Sodomy is covered in sections dealing with sins against nature, and it is grouped together with other sins - masturbation, sexual sacrilege, bestiality - which may not at first sight seem to have any very obvious affinity with each other.  These sins form a mixed bag, and to modern eyes they appear differ widely both in their essential nature and in their moral status.  To classical Catholic theology, however, they shared the characteristic of being violations of the natural order and the purpose of sexuality.

6.  It uses strong, emotional terms of condemnation.

In spite of the rather abstract philosophical basis for the theologians' condemnation of gay sex, they use strong, emotional language in denouncing it.  Sodomy, they say, is a "deformity" (deformitas), a "disgrace" (turpitudo) and a "horrendous crime" (horrendum crimen).  It is "unholy" or "blasphemous" (nefandum).

This may be why several of the theologians appear to approve of burning sexually active gay people at the stake.

7.  Other comments

-  Sodomy is not only a gay phenomenon: heterosexual anal intercourse was also regarded as "imperfect" sodomy

-  Lesbians as well as gay men could commit sodomy.

-  Incest is repeatedly mentioned as a possible accompanying sin.  One wonders whether this is simply a product of academic thoroughness, or whether it says something about the sexual mores of the time.

The theologians

Please note that in some cases I have altered the format of the texts and deleted some references to other works.

1.  Hermann Busenbaum, Medulla Theologiae Moralis (1652)

Perfect sodomy is the coupling of two people of the same sex, a male with a male or a female with a female.  It can also include other ancillary sins, e.g. incest - in which case the degree of kinship does not necessarily have to be specified.  It is enough to say "I have had intercourse with a relative"....  However, the penitent must explain whether he took an active or a passive role. 

2.  Alphonsus de Liguori, Homo Apostolicus (1759)

1.  On Sodomy.  Sodomy involves a special deformity.  However, there is doubt among scholars as to what it consists of.  Some believe that it consists of intercourse using the wrong orifice.  The other opinion, which is more widespread and probable, and is shared with St Thomas, is that it consists of intercourse with the wrong sex.  From this it may be inferred that the coupling of a female with a female or a male with a male is perfect sodomy, in whatever part of the body the intercourse takes place, because ordinarily there is always present an inclination towards the wrong sex.  It is therefore not necessary to explain in confession whether ejaculation took place within or outside the wrong orifice.  However, for it to be a reserved sin there must be insemination inside the orifice.  I think, however, that in cases of sodomy everything should be explained in confession, including whether the penitent took the active or the passive role, because the person taking the passive role does not always easily ejaculate as does the person who takes the active role.  It must also be explained if the sodomy took place by force, or with a married woman, or with someone under a vow of chastity.

2.  Intercourse in the rear orifice of a woman carried on by a man is imperfect sodomy, distinct in type from perfect sodomy.  If a man defiles himself using the legs or arms of a woman, he commits two different sins: one of incomplete fornication, the other a sin against nature.  Is ejaculation in the mouth a sin of a different kind?  Some say that it is, and call this sin irrumation.  They say that it is different in type even though ejaculation does take place in an orifice other than the natural one.  The more plausible opinion is that the ejaculation of a man in the mouth of a male is sodomy, and if it takes place in the mouth of a female it is incomplete fornication, and is in addition a sin against nature, in the same way as said above.  Intercourse with a dead woman does not constitute bestiality, as some say, but it does constitute masturbation, and in addition it constitutes intended fornication.  Aside from this, masturbation while touching a boy or a sleeping woman, but without intercourse or a joining together of the bodies, entails only the same level of wrongdoing as simple masturbation.  This is the more probable opinion.  A man who masturbates with someone else touching him commits two sins because he is complicit in the sin of the other person.  He is not bound, however, to explain whether he was touched by a man or a woman, unless it was a woman who has a husband or is under a vow of chastity.  The more probable opinion is that both sodomy and all impure touching among relatives, or spiritual or legal relations, also entail the sin of incest, since they have the same deformity as the consummated sexual act.

As for the punishments for sodomites, they are to be condemned to death by burning.  However, clerics and members of religious orders, through the bull Horrendum of St Pius V, are to be deprived of every office, benefit and clerical privilege, provided that (as the scholars teach) (1) the sodomy was committed with another man, not a woman, or an animal, (2) it constituted perfect sodomy, including ejaculation in the orifice, and (3) it was committed repeatedly.  It is probable that those taking the passive role also incur these penalties, since those taking the passive role are truly sodomites.... 

3.  Compendium Salmanticense, Antonio de San José (1779) 

On sodomy

Q1.  What is sodomy, and where does the term come from?
A.  It is intercourse with the wrong sex, i.e. intercourse of a male with a male or of a female with a female.  I say intercourse, and in this respect sodomy differs from masturbation, which can take place without the parties sleeping together, and goes together with other kinds of sexual sins which are perpetrated through intercourse.  I add with the wrong sex.  In this respect, it is distinct from all other types of sexual sin because the others are committed with the appropriate sex, apart from bestiality, which is intercourse with another species.  It is called sodomy after the Sodomites or citizens of Sodom, who gave themselves over to this blasphemous vice more than any other nation, to such an extent that they defiled themselves through this disgraceful sin with young boys as well as men.

The sin of sodomy is so extremely grave and unholy that men who engage in sodomy are accordingly called the worst in sacred Scripture.  It is worse than masturbation, because, although both are against nature, sodomy adds a further detestable perversion through the ejaculation of semen in an orifice which is contrary to the natural purpose of procreation.  It is therefore punished with very serious penalties, as I will explain below.

Q2.  Does the intercourse of a woman with another woman truly constitute the sin of sodomy?
A.  Yes, because sodomy is intercourse with the wrong sex, which is what happens when a woman couples with another woman.  So whether the intercourse takes place using the natural orifice or the rear orifice, or with some additional instrument or without one, sodomy is truly committed in that act of intercourse, and it must be specified in confession.   The offence is worse if it takes place through the medium of an instrument, because, apart from the fact that the intercourse is taking place with the wrong sex, the wrong instrument is being used.

Q3.  Does intercourse between a man and a woman using the rear orifice truly constitute the sin of sodomy?
A.  Metaphysically and essentially, this is not truly sodomy.  However, it is reckoned to be sodomy in the public forum.  The first part of the definition does not apply, because it is not intercourse with the wrong sex.  However, it has such a resemblance to sodomy that it has the similitude of sodomy and in the public forum it is frequently punished with the punishment proper to sodomy.  This does not mean that it is sodomy, but it is a sin against nature.

Q4.  If a man touches another man and ejaculation follows, is this the sin of sodomy?
A.  No, because no intercourse takes place, unless they have an inclination towards using the rear orifice.  In such a case, this inclination or desire entails the vice of sodomy.  Masturbation, or oral intercourse, whether using the mouth of a man or of a woman, is not sodomy, but it does entail a most disgraceful perversion which it is necessary to specify in confession.

Q5.  With respect to the circumstances, it is necessary to specify in confession whether one took the active or the passive role?
A.  Yes, because for the active party ejaculation takes place per se whereas in the case of the passive party it takes place incidentally, as it were.  If, therefore, the man has ejaculated, he must state this specifically.

Q6.  Where the sin of sodomy is committed with a relative, does this add to it the sin of incest requiring to be specified in confession?
A.  Yes, because there is not a lesser but a greater sin against the reverence and piety due to relatives in the sin of sodomy by comparison with other sexual sins.  Therefore, just as in other cases it is necessary to explain the circumstances constituting incest, the same is the case, with greater reason, in the case of sins of sodomy.... 

On the punishments of sodomites

Q1.  What are the punishments imposed on sodomites?
A.  This execrable crime is punished in the first instance by divine law with the death penalty:  If a man sleeps with a man as with a woman, both have committed an abomination and they shall be put to death (Lev. 20.13).  St Paul assigns the same penalty of death in Rom. 1 not only to those who commit this detestable offence but also to those who consent to it.  According to St Thomas, every sodomite died before the night of the Lord's birth, so that the nature which he assumed should not be defiled with such impurity.  The lifeless sea washed over the locations of Sodom and Gomorrah, so that the land infected by that crime should not be seen any longer.

By human law, even among the gentiles, sodomites were punished with the penalty of death by burning.  According to the civil law in the Liber Authenticarum, they are similarly subject to the death penalty.  Under Spanish law, they are deservedly punished with death by burning and the confiscation of their property.  Canon law punishes sodomitical laymen with the penalty of excommunication.  In a constitution published in 1568, Pius V decreed that clerics, whether regular or secular, apart from the other punishments inflicted by the common law, should lose their office and be handed over to the secular power. 

4.  Theologiae Moralis Concinnatae, F.P.Kenrick (1841) 

Sodomy is the name given to intercourse between two persons of the same sex.  It is named after the Sodomites, who are infamous for committing this sin.  The offence includes both the attempted copulation of a male with a male and that of a female with a female.  In the past, God punished this terrible sin with flames of vengeance, and he continues now to punish it in hell. 

Imperfect sodomy is the name given to intercourse between persons of the opposite sex outside the proper orifice.  Theologians caution that a confessor should not question a penitent in what location or by what means they have had intercourse outside the proper orifice - it is sufficient to know that they have had intercourse outside it.  It is even sufficient in confession for young men to say that they have sinned in sleeping with other young men without explaining whether they have had full intercourse, for there is a sodomitical inclination towards the wrong sex in that sexual behaviour.

For a male to ejaculate while touching a boy, or a sleeping woman, or a person without the use of reason, or the genitals of an animal, without intercourse taking place, is thought by many to be no different from simple masturbation, as long as the desire to have intercourse is absent.  They therefore consider that it sufficiently fulfils the obligation of confession if a person says that they have engaged in masturbation.  If, however, they have caused scandal to another person, or if they have touched a woman who is bound by the tie of marriage or engagement, a new type of wrongdoing arises therefrom.  According to some, they must also explain whether they took the active or passive role, due to the greater danger of ejaculation for the one taking the active role.

Sodomy between relatives up to the fourth degree is to be classified as incest, because the law of the Church which prevents them from getting married out of respect for their kinship is to be considered to prohibit all the more every other type of intercourse.  Hence boys who shamefully sleep together must explain whether they have had intercourse with their brother or their cousin or someone entirely unrelated....

Sodomites used to be punished under civil law by being burned.  A bull of St Pius V declares that members of religious orders, both ordained and lay, who engage in sodomy are to be deprived of all clerical privileges, offices and benefits.... 

5.  Jean-Pierre Gury, Compendium Theologiae Moralis (1852) 


The horrendous crime of sodomy consists of copulating with a person of the same sex, or of the opposite sex but using the wrong orifice.  Two types of sodomy may hence be distinguished:
1.  Perfect, which is intercourse with a person of the same sex.
2.  Imperfect, which is intercourse with a person of the opposite sex outside the natural orifice, and with an inclination towards the unnatural orifice.
Sodomy is a much worse offence than simple masturbation.  This is the case because of the horror that it excites among all people and because of the unheard-of punishments that God inflicted on Sodom and the other cities that defiled themselves with this sin.

1.  Perfect sodomy differs in kind from imperfect sodomy, because through the former a man unnaturally pursues the wrong sex and orifice, while conversely through the latter he unnaturally pursues only the wrong orifice.

2.  Perfect sodomy is committed whenever coupling takes place by application of the genitals to any part of the body of a person of the same sex in the manner of intercourse, and with an inclination towards the same, even if ejaculation does not follow.

3.  The term "sodomy" should not, however, be used where there is a simple application of the hand or foot to the genitals of another person, because there is no intercourse.  However, the individual must confess to having a sodomitical inclination if he had such.

4.  The more probable opinion is that an individual is not required per se to confess who took the active or passive role because the sin is of the same kind in either case.