First published in Between the Lines, May 18, 2006.
Last week Pope Benedict spoke out against gay marriage and civil unions. “Only the rock of total and irrevocable love between a man and a woman is capable of being the foundation of building a society that becomes a home for all mankind,” the pope declared, speaking at a conference on marriage and the family on May 11. He added that marriage was between a man and a woman “who are open to the transmission of life and thus cooperate with God in the generation of new human beings.”
The Catholic Church’s opposition to homosexuality has never been mainly about the bible. This fact is to its credit: taken literally and as a whole, the bible is an unreliable moral guide; taken critically, it fails to provide good grounds for a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.
Instead, the Church’s main arguments against homosexuality have been rooted in “natural law,” and specifically the premise that sex must be open to procreation. Thus, all deliberately non-procreative sex is sin.
Consider for a moment the implications of this premise. Contraception is an obvious no-no, given the Church’s position. So is masturbation. These facts are enough to make hypocrites of many Catholics who condemn homosexuality “because the Church says it’s wrong.”
Also, forbidden, though far less often discussed, is orgasmic non-coital sex between married heterosexual partners, such as oral sex, masturbation of one’s spouse, or anal sex. (Such acts are permitted as foreplay, but never on their own.) Official Catholic doctrine permits no exceptions here. Imagine the case of a man injured in such a way that he can no longer pursue coital sex, but still enjoys performing oral sex on his wife for the intimacy it achieves between them. It would seem permissible (perhaps even selfless and admirable) for him to engage in such sex, but the Church says no.
Thus far, at least the Church is consistent in its views. (Stubborn, perhaps–even foolish–but consistent.) But there’s one implication of the “openness to procreation” premise that the Church refuses to acknowledge. If sex must be open to procreation, then it should be wrong for sterile (or postmenopausal) heterosexual married partners to have sex. Imagine a woman whose ovaries and uterus have been removed for medical reasons. Clearly, her sexual acts will never be “open to the transmission of life” in any morally meaningful way. But the Church declines to condemn such acts.
Why the apparent inconsistency? Catholic natural law theorists answer that such acts can still be of “the reproductive kind.” But it is difficult to make sense of this claim, except as a lame attempt to deny unpalatable conclusions that clearly follow from the Church’s position. If a sexual act cannot result in procreation and the couple knows it, then how is the act “of the reproductive kind”? Political scientist Andrew Koppelman expresses the problem well. In his book The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law, he writes:
“A sterile person’s genitals are no more suitable for generation than an unloaded gun is suitable for shooting….Contingencies of deception and fright aside, all objects that are not loaded guns are morally equivalent in this context: it is not more wrong, and certainly not closer to homicide, to point a gun known to be unloaded at someone and pull the trigger than it is to point one’s finger and say ‘bang!’ And if the two acts have the same moral character in this context, why is the same not equally true of, on the one hand, vaginal intercourse between a heterosexual couple who know they cannot reproduce, and on the other, oral or anal sex between any couple? Just as, in the case of the gun, neither act is more homicidal than the other, so in the sexual cases, neither act is more reproductive than the other” (pp. 87-88).
I once presented this argument before a university audience, and one conservative Catholic student told me that I was ignoring the possibility of miracles. I told him that if he’s going to invoke miracles, then why can’t I get pregnant? He responded–I’m not making this up–“But that’s impossible!” Apparently, God’s miraculous power is limited by conservative comfort-levels.
Italy is clearly on the brink of recognizing same-sex unions. Anticipating this, the pope declared that “it has become urgent to avoid confusion between [marriage] and other types of unions which are based on a love that is weak.” If only the pope could see the weakness of his own stance.