“Homosexuality”: The Church Doesn’t Know What She’s Talking About

One of the most difficult aspects of entering into the Church’s present conversations on sexuality is the imprecision of language. Many people write about proper and improper uses of sexuality, its ends and proper means to those ends, its features and attributes. But there currently exists no set definition of “sexuality” from “the Catholic perspective.”

This is not necessarily a bad thing. As a deeply human mystery, sexuality may evade definition and instead merit descriptions that help to feel out its contours but never actually give us a comprehensive picture with intellectual finality. Or sexuality may just be a new category under consideration for the Church, and She needs to give it a proper Newmanian process of development before defining it.

Still, the imprecision of language merits attention. For example, Karol Wojtyla uses sexuality in a very particular way in Love and Responsibility (first published in 1960). Though he doesn’t conclusively define “sexuality,” he does discuss it in a variety of contexts. Man’s “sexual orientation” takes “as its object ‘the other sex.'” (48). The “sexual urge” directs itself towards concrete persons of the other sex (49) and has as its biological end procreation and as spiritual ends the rearing and education of children (50-54, 65). The sexual urge, however, doesn’t solely aim towards sexual-genital activity but is oriented towards a person of the other sex as such and tends towards the integrated love of that other person as a person, not merely as particular sexual attributes or values (49, 57).

Wojtyla repeatedly says that he limits his discussions of love in Love and Responsibility to the love between persons of the opposite sex (73). He recognizes that such elements as attraction, goodwill, desire, and reciprocity will be present in any love, but he narrows the scope of his discussion in the book to the love between man and woman (73-88).

I suspect that Love and Responsibility understands sexuality as something occurring between man and woman by nature of their sexual difference. Sexuality is not confined to anatomical attributes and their functions, but related to the love between man and woman in their very personhood, which includes their sexual anatomical attributes but also transcends and is not limited to them. Thus, sexuality encompasses the relationship between manhood and womanhood.

If this is correct, then by implication “homosexuality,” a term which Wojtyla uses in the book, is actually a misnomer. Relationships between men or between women could fall under the categories of “love” or “eros” or “use” or “objectification,” but they couldn’t fall under this scheme of “sexuality,” even if their relationships were to engage the use of the sexual organs. Under this framework, one of Cormac Burke’s views on contraception make sense: sexual acts that are not procreative acts (contraceptive sex) between a man and a woman are not even sexual acts, because “there is no sexual intercourse or communication.” They’re not sexual, even if they engage the sexual faculties, because they don’t engage the sexual capacities that occur between man and woman. By destroying fertility, they don’t engage the couple fully as man and as woman. Contraception bars open communication between man and woman as man and as woman. Likewise, while Wojytla may use a term such as “homosexual deviation,” the term doesn’t really make sense under his schema.

The current edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church adopts a contradictory approach, defining homosexuality as “relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or dominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex” (2357). This contradicts Wojtyla and Burke. Under the framework of Love and Responsibility and some of Burke’s writings, this attraction can’t actually be “sexual,” even if it seeks the engagement of the “sexual faculties.”

This is not necessarily a theological problem but could just be a problem of language. Many disagreements occur within the Church over sexuality, I suspect, because many of us are simply talking about different things and haven’t done sufficient listening to discover that many issues might be resolved if we accept that some terms may currently be subject to different interpretations and are still under development. This must be the case (and I suspect this is the case), unless we want to say that either Wojtyla or the Catechism are just wrong.

So we may not actually think that “homosexuality” is a bad thing, depending on how different people understand the term. And we may not even be sure what “sexuality” is, what it encompasses, what it implicates, and the contours of the discussions about it.

This isn’t to deny language’s importance, but we should prioritize listening to how different people understand these ill-defined terms and use those understandings as a starting point for pastoral practice, rather than insisting that people use them in a particular way that isn’t even consistent across the magisterium. This also means that we should carefully consider what various documents mean when they talk about sexuality; they’re not always consistent with what we mean, or with each other. But that’s ok. The Church has navigated ambiguity before, and She’ll do it again.

(If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Love and Responsibility. You can order a copy here.)

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