About us



Vol 38 No 4

God–Lover or Judge?

Leslee Sniatynskyj

Cormac Nagle OFM

Brian Lewis

Frank Fletcher MSC

Brendan Byrne SJ

Michael Trainor


Kevin Mark


Some popular myths about gays and lesbians


ATTITUDES TO HUMAN relationships, including sexual relationships, have undergone a radical change among many in today’s society. The old ideals regarding sex and marriage are increasingly regarded as unrealistic, indeed harmful to health and well-being. Many believe today that homosexuality is merely a simple variation of human sexuality to be put on exactly the same footing and judged in the same way as heterosexuality. On the other hand, the views of others in our community have hardened against alternative sexual practices and lifestyles. Homosexuals are derided, sneered at and condemned as perverts. Prejudices against them are deeply rooted and continue to cause deep hurt. Perhaps it would be of benefit to have a closer look at some of these prejudices.

‘The Bible Clearly Condemns Homosexuality as a Perversion’
The Christian tradition has manifested a certain ambivalence about homosexuality, at times understanding it to be a psychosexual structure rooted in the personality, more often seeing it as a voluntary perversion. There is no doubt that this latter attitude has its source in the Bible, which appears in certain texts to condemn homosexuality very strongly.

Arguments drawn from biblical texts need, however, to be treated with particular caution (Moore 1998, 227-229). It is well recognised today that the teachings of the Bible must be understood in their historical and cultural context. The various books reflect different ages, attitudes and stages of development and cannot be expected a priori to give a consistent view on moral issues, including sexual ones.

The specific texts regarding homosexuality are to be found in Genesis 19:1-29 (the story of Sodom), Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Deuteronomy 23:18ff and Romans 1:212-27. However, modern scholarship considers that these texts are not in fact very helpful in clarifying the situation of homosexuals today. Genesis 19 condemns acts of homosexual violence, whereas homosexuals for the most part act towards one another with a great deal of respect and tenderness. Leviticus 18 and 20 condemn homosexual acts because they reflect the association of such practices with idolatry as found in male temple prostitution (see Deuteronomy 23:18ff; I Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46). Romans I also describes same-sex passion as a punishment for idolatry. The exact meaning in Greek of other New Testament texts in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1Timothy 1:10 is unclear and may refer to male prostitution and simple effeminacy.

The Bible seems to assume that homosexual acts are wrong, but it is difficult to cite specific scriptural texts to prove that such actions between committed homosexuals must necessarily be condemned (Keenan 2003, 137-139). One might wonder indeed whether the concept of the homosexual personality as we know it today comes within the biblical perspective. The biblical writers were in fact concerned with heterosexual persons engaging in homosexual behaviour.

‘People Choose to Become Gay or Lesbian’
This statement fails to take account of the complexity of the genesis of homosexuality, a complexity aggravated by the difficulty of finding agreement among authors as to its nature and causes. The literature on the issue displays a bewildering confusion of terms, definitions and ethical evaluations (Lewis 1986, 4-7).

Although currently there is no consensus among experts as to the precise causes of homosexuality, few seem to consider the causes to be purely physiological or hormonal, although the influence of physiological factors cannot of course be dismissed. In many cases socio-psychological causes such as environment, familial relationships, education and other developmental influences have a significant part to play. However, there is little agreement as to when or to what extent these factors may prove decisive. Seduction by an adult is often regarded more in the light of an aggravation or affirmation of an already existing condition due to other causes, but again opinions differ.

What seems clear is that in the vast majority of cases the individual does not choose to become a homosexual. Rather, the person comes to the realisation that he or she is marked by a homosexual orientation, and often definitively. The choice such persons have is related, not to the presence or eradication of the condition, but to deciding what controls, if any, they choose to impose upon the tendencies they experience.
‘Gay and Lesbian Persons are Readily Identifiable’

To respond adequately to this common myth it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what exactly it means to be homosexual. It is important to distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual activity. Sexual orientation can be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, depending on whether the person is erotically attracted by persons of the opposite, the same or both sexes. Homosexual orientation refers to adults who have an exclusive or very predominant psychosexual attraction towards adults of the same sex or who wish to express sexually deep feelings exclusively or predominantly with those of the same sex. Such persons are similar in every other way to other people apart from the typical structuring of their sexuality. It is imperative not to reduce the person, whether homosexual or heterosexual, to his or her sexual dimension. This would be a serious anthropological, theological and pastoral error. The term homosexual is not a substantive and its use for want of a better way of expressing ourselves ought not to give this impression.

Homosexual activity, on the other hand, refers to actual sexual actions between persons of the same sex, whether these acts be performed by persons of a homosexual or heterosexual orientation. Sexual behaviour does not always or necessarily correspond to a person’s sexual orientation.

Research indicates that there are different levels or degrees of homosexuality. Some gays are exclusively homosexual all their lives, while others have sufficient heterosexual tendencies to be able to relate affectively and sexually with somebody of the opposite sex. It is also very important to distinguish homosexuality from other forms of sexuality. The gay or lesbian person is not a pedophile, i.e., one who is erotically attracted to children of the same sex. The gay or lesbian person is not a transvestite, i.e., one who enjoys wearing the clothing of the opposite sex and who consequently may wish to undergo a sex change. Nor are homosexuals habitually prostitutes; prostitution occurs in only a small section of the gay community. These are myths just as much as the popular notion that all gay men are easily identifiable as effeminate and all lesbian women as masculine types, and hence these notions deserve to be exploded for what they are – untruths.

‘The Catholic Church’s Treatment of Gays and Lesbians is Harsh and Unjust’
Many persons in our community today see the relational value of sexuality as fundamental and alone important in determining sexual morality. The procreative aspect of sexuality is discounted as of peripheral relevance. In this perspective no difficulty is seen in regarding homosexuality as morally normative for what gay and lesbian persons do in the same way as heterosexuality is for straight persons, i.e., the criterion of morality is the quality of the relationship between the persons. Homosexual actions will therefore be morally right or wrong to the extent that they express and foster mutual self-giving, caring and personal fulfilment on the one hand, or on the contrary are simply instances of exploitation, manipulation and use of another for one’s own ends. This approach has become increasingly popular in contemporary society, even among many Catholics moral theologians (Keenan 2003, 140-146).

The official Catholic Church, virtually alone among the churches, has continued to maintain the traditional Christian sexual morality. The lynchpin of this moral position is that sexual genital actions should be limited to marriage alone. And in marriage they are justified when they are both unitive of the married man and woman and also at least open to new life, i.e., nothing is done of set purpose to prevent conception (Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, n.10). Pope John Paul II speaks of sex outside marriage as a lie, since it is ‘not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving’ (Familiaris Consortio, n.11).

According to the logic of these principles, the magisterium of the Church, while not maintaining that gays and lesbians are morally responsible for their sexual orientation, judges homosexual actions to be objectively wrong in all circumstances. The technical expression used, ‘intrinsically disordered’, indicates the basic reason for this, namely that such activity does not include gender complementarity and is not open to procreation (Catechism, n.2358. See Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, October 1986, n.3).

Such uncompromising teaching about the objective morality of homosexual actions may appear to some to be unduly harsh, but it needs to be seen in the broader perspective of Vatican II’s teaching on the inherent dignity of every human person. This is one of the key emphases called for by the Council in the renewal of moral theology. In this light the magisterium insists that homosexual persons ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard is to be avoided’, their human dignity protected and their human rights upheld (Catechism, n.2358). The implications of this personalism for homosexuals are still in process of development. It seems, however, that some points can fairly be made.

First of all, it matters much more who one is than what one does. The person is more central and more important than her/his actions, although there is an intimate connection between the two. The first consideration in regard to homosexual persons ought then to be what they should become, namely, good and virtuous persons. From this point of view the gay or lesbian person is no different from anybody else. Like everybody else, they are called to be generous, caring, just, courageous, repentant of their sins, temperate in their lifestyle, prudent. As Christians, they are challenged to live by the Gospel, to follow Christ in his commitment to the poor and in his shouldering of the cross.

Secondly, high among the Christian virtues is friendship, without which the person cannot grow and flourish. As Pope John Paul II put it: ‘Man cannot live without love…life is senseless if love is not revealed to a person, if one does not encounter love, if one does not experience it and make it one’s own’ (Redemptor Hominis). Deep, strong, even intimate, relationships between persons of the same or opposite sex, like all human friendships, are as such morally good (prescinding from the question as to whether or not they lead to homosexual activity). It is also true that such relationships of their nature lead to expressions of affection and cannot exist or certainly flourish without them. In this the homosexual person is not different from anybody else.

Thirdly, the Church sees conscience as the human person’s ‘most secret core and sanctuary’ and upholds the right of all persons to freedom of conscience. Respect for the person demands respect for the person’s conscience, which does not lose its dignity even when, as frequently occurs, it ‘errs from invincible ignorance’ (Gaudium et Spes, n.16). Conscience does not even then lose it because its dignity is not first of all the dignity of conformity with laws, even those of the Church, but that dignity proper to the human person, which is to involve oneself earnestly in the search for the truth of one’s personal situation. The Council also makes the point that no one is to be forced to act against conscience. For the right and duty to seek the truth of one’s situation and to adhere to it once it is discovered would be compromised unless persons ‘enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom’ (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 2). For the same reason it is never justified to prevent a person from acting according to conscience. However, as with all freedoms, the right to follow one’s conscience must be exercised with personal and social responsibility.

Fourthly, what of the morality of homosexual activity? The effort to imprint the pattern of reason on one’s sexuality is an important dimension of personal growth and development. Homosexuals, like everyone else, must respond to the universal challenge to overcome self-centredness and control their sexual passions. This is the task of the virtue of chastity. Despite its unpopularity and the cynicism, even scorn, that it evokes today, the Church continues to uphold the ideal of chastity for all according to their state of life.
It has been noted that there are as many kinds and degrees of homosexuality as there are homosexual persons. At one end of the scale are those gays and lesbians who make little or no effort to control their sexual urges and who are either quite promiscuous in their sexual behaviour or who become involved in a succession of short-term sexual relationships without any deep personal commitment. It would seem clear that such homosexual activity, unless its compulsive character diminishes moral culpability, is gravely morally wrong (as is similar heterosexual conduct between unmarried males and females).

Quite different is the case of homosexuals who are so independent that they do not feel the need for any intimate personal relationship apart from their families or for whom sexual abstinence does not impose too great a burden. If they are Christians, fidelity to the Christian tradition would ask of them perfect chastity in their personal lives and in the relationships they have, whether with persons of the same or the opposite sex.

A fair percentage of gays and lesbians, however, feel that a celibate life is quite impossible for them and yet that they experience peace and fulfilment in a stable same sex relationship, in which there is genuine commitment and a constant pattern of self-giving. It is inevitable and indeed necessary that such stable partnerships be sustained by expressions of friendship and affection. For many these displays of affection will include genital sexual expression in some form. A truly personalist theology demands that persons be perceived and accepted according to their situation and stage of moral development and that their actions be understood against the background of their pattern of life and in the light of the personal meaning they may have for them. Persons must be allowed to grow and mature gradually and at their own pace. God does not ask more than one can at this moment give. The fact that here a solid and humanising relationship is in process of development is itself a sign of progress, even if it does not yet correspond to the full Christian ideal upheld by the Church. The decision by such persons to remain in and seek to perfect this relationship reflects their present stage of emotional, moral and spiritual growth and needs to be judged in that light. It may be perhaps that maturity may well give rise to a changed perspective and lifestyle.

In regard to their sexual activity, persons in such relationships may be convinced in their own conscience that homosexual acts are not morally wrong either in particular for them in their present situation or even in general for irreversible homosexuals in stable partnerships. If they are Catholics, they have a grave obligation to listen seriously to the teaching of the Church and with the help of prayer to implement it as far as they can. But, having weighed up carefully all the circumstances, the final decision must be made by them in their own conscience before God. A long tradition in moral theology would say that in this case, although their judgment of conscience is objectively wrong according to official Church teaching, their conscience judgment is subjectively right and they are without fault. The Catholic tradition is rich enough to be relevant in helping gays and lesbians who wish to be in the Church to find moral ways to live as Christians and to be loving persons (Keenan 2003, 148-150).

Finally, a most important pastoral consideration is the grave responsibility of all Christians to work towards the elimination of the injustices perpetrated upon gays and lesbians by society. As a minority group that has suffered and is suffering more than its share of ridicule and discrimination homosexuals have a special claim on the concern of the Church. There are exhibitionists, of course. There are those who are vulgar and objectionable. But many good persons are faced with a constant struggle with the demands of their sexual orientation. Because they are aware of being ‘different’ from other people, they often experience a sense of alienation from society and may suffer from low self-esteem and loneliness. In the current climate they may feel that the Church sets impossible standards and be tempted to abandon the faith. However, faith offers them a challenge and a fruitful resource. As the aforementioned bishops say:

God sets certain standards, but his power of sustaining is comprehensive. Christ emphasised his concern for those whom society has rejected. The many difficulties the homosexual encounters ensure that the strength of God will be at hand. Christ asks that we take up our cross and follow him and this may mean that the homosexual person is very near to true Christianity if he/she responds to this invitation.

Brian Lewis graduated from the Alphonsian Academy of Moral Theology and the University of St Thomas in Rome. He has written much on moral issues, and is now in retirement.


Abbott, WM (Ed) (1967) The Documents of Vatican II, London: Geoffrey Chapman.
Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), Sydney: St. Pauls.
Keenan, James F, SJ, ‘The Open Debate: Moral Theology and the Lives of Gay and Lesbian Persons’, Theological Studies 64 (2003) 127-150.
Lewis, Brian A, ‘The Church and Homosexuality’, Word in Life, February (1986) 4-7.
Moore, Gareth, ‘Sex, Sexuality and Relationships’ in Christian Ethics (1998) (Ed. Bernard Hoose), London: Cassell, 223-247.