“Ask a Priest: Could the Magisterium Be Wrong on the Issue of Homosexuality?

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Q: I am currently a catechumen and should be baptized and confirmed next year at the Easter Vigil Mass. I have two questions which are of great importance to my faith, though they are deeply interconnected. My first question is about homosexuality. For the sake of context, I am a homosexual man, and I do struggle with the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, but not because of emotional difficulty. I am a bit of an armchair philosopher. It was St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae which convinced me to become a Catholic, and I base my sense of morality in natural law theory because of him. However, the Thomistic arguments for the immorality of homosexual acts have not convinced me, and further, in an attempt to think the issue through from a Thomistic perspective, I am inclined to think that homosexual acts can be morally permissible as far as natural law theory is concerned, but I have heard it said that natural law cannot truly conflict with divine law and Church teaching, so this produces a dilemma for me. I know this is at odds with the magisterial teachings of the Church, and this bothers me. If I am factually in the wrong, I want to be corrected. But if I am right, it introduces a new problem, and that is how to view the infallibility of the magisterium. I do accept the infallibility of the magisterium in matters of faith and morality, in principle. I have been told that the magisterium is infallible because of a charism/grace granted by the Holy Spirit to the individuals who exercise the offices of magisterial authority. But I have also been told that grace can be resisted, due to free will. If this is so, there is the possibility of culture putting blinders on their eyes, so to speak, and this isn’t something they could be at fault for if they are ignorant of the fact that they have these implicit biases in the first place. So please, tell me where I’ve gone wrong, because I don’t want to be in conflict with the Church unnecessarily. – R.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to hear that you are drawn to the Church, despite your difficulty with some of its teachings.

Church teaching is deep and broad, and it all fits together. It is the fruit of centuries of reflection, guided by the magisterium, which enjoys the gift of infallibility.

The answer to your first question (about homosexuality) lies partly in the answer to the second (about the magisterium). Here I have to sidestep the issue of natural law, since it involves a much longer kind of answer. But since you have a passion for philosophy and theology, I can recommend The Way of the Lord Jesus, by German Grisez, as worthwhile, post-Vatican II treatment of moral theology from a Thomistic point of view. The entire four-volume work is available ONLINE HERE. Now onto the issue.

First, the gift of infallibility functions like a guardrail on the side of a mountain road. It keeps cars from plunging over the cliff, no matter how bad the drivers are.

Fortunately, infallibility doesn’t even depend on people being open to grace. It is simply a gift whereby the Holy Spirit will prevent a pope or ecumenical council, for instance, from making an error in a matter of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church.

In practice this means a saintly pope as well as a corrupt pope (and there were a few of them in the early Middle Ages and the Renaissance) are both protected from teaching error in the area of faith and morals.

Without this guarantee we could never really be sure that Church teaching was on course.

Now, the issue of homosexuality — and here we mean homosexual behavior — is not an insignificant matter. If the Church were wrong on this point, then there is no reason to think it has gotten anything right.

What that means in practical terms is this: It isn’t unusual for someone to have difficulty with one point of Church teaching or another. I dare say that if a pop quiz on doctrine was distributed in any given parish church on any given Sunday, not every Catholic in the pews would get high marks.

Learning the faith, in fact, can be a lifelong task. The key point is that, when faced with a teaching we find hard to accept, the best thing is to give the Church the benefit of the doubt, and then try to research the point more.

Perhaps a better text to read on this issue is John Paul II’s theology of the body (the Waldstein translation is recommended you can find it HERE).

You are probably familiar with the Catechism on the matter of homosexuality. Two numbers worth quoting here are:

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection. [end of quoted material]

Significantly the Church believes that people with same-sex attraction can aspire to the heights of holiness, with the help of prayer and the sacraments.

That is a nutshell is what the Church and its teachings are here to help all of us become: holy.

Perhaps its high ideals are among the factors that draw you to the Catholic faith. That dynamic is something you want to pursue. Don’t give up your journey because of a difficulty you have with a teaching.

It might help you to find a priest or spiritual director who could guide you and give you encouragement at this moment. This journey of faith is one that you don’t need to make alone.

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