What does the Church teach about homosexuality?

The Catholic Church’s teaching on all aspects of human sexuality is derived from our belief that God created human beings, male and female, out of love, and gave us a special vocation to love and to communion. As summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator’s generosity and fecundity” (CCC, 2335). Thus much of our teaching on sexuality flows from reflection on that special union of man and woman. We believe that certain sexual expressions are reserved to that sacramental union. We also teach that sexual intimacy between a husband and wife has twin purposes: their union, as a couple, and procreation, expressed as openness to the gift of life. But all people – whether married or single, male or female, young or old – are called to chastity. This means “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (CCC 2337). Chastity is a virtue that is lived in body and spirit. We are all called to love and to love deeply, as God loves us. We do that according to our state of life: married people express that love in a particular commitment to a spouse; priests and vowed religious dedicate themselves in love to God and to serving the Church; single people are called to show love of neighbor in their relationships with friends and family.

This context allows us to consider Church teaching on homosexuality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines homosexuality as “relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex” (CCC 2357). Notice that this definition refers to specific acts – “relations” – without addressing the question of sexual orientation. This is in keeping with scriptural references to homosexual acts, which is how homosexuality has been understood throughout much of human history. Modern psychological understanding of sexuality as a matter of orientation is a relatively recent development. Thus the United States Catholic Bishops, in their 1997 pastoral letter “Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers,” take a broader understanding of homosexuality. They write that “it seems appropriate to recognize sexual orientation (heterosexual or homosexual) as a deep-seated dimension of one’s personality and to recognize its relatively stability in a person.” Both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the US Catholic Bishops recognize that sexual orientation is not a choice and is not sinful: “Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose” (“Always our Children”). Thus homosexuality itself is not sinful. It is another part of the great mystery of humankind, all created in the image of God. But sexual relations between men or between women, because they cannot fulfill the twin purposes of sexual intimacy – union and procreation – are “contrary to the natural law” and cannot be approved (CCC 2357).

Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.