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Overturning Catholic Moral Teaching on Homosexuality: Are Salzman And Lawler Right?

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By Phyllis Zagano
Religion News Service

(RNS) I was always told that you're not supposed to discuss religion or politics in polite company. That was before gay marriage became the item du jour.

Polls indicate a little more than half of Americans favor legal protections for same-sex couples. Gay marriage is another story; 44 percent of Americans support it, while 53 percent are opposed.

Gay marriage proponents want to redefine a word, marriage, and grab ahold of the hundreds of legal protections and financial incentives that are granted with a marriage license.

Regardless of which side you're on, you can be sure it will end up at the Supreme Court.

Then there's Don't Ask/Don't Tell, the ban on openly gay members of the military, which 70 percent of Americans support repealing. The current Uniform Code of Military Justice defines sodomy as "unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same or opposite sex or with an animal."

That will probably go before the Court too.

So the question is: what's "natural" or "unnatural?" That, in turns, leads to a more overarching question: Is homosexuality a status or a choice?

Some thinkers, including several members of the Supreme Court, seem to reason that homosexuality is an inborn status.

Catholicism--and, indeed most religions--teach that while homosexuality exists, homosexual activity is a "disordered" choice against the laws of nature.

If homosexuality is indeed a status rooted in biology or genetics, then homosexuals, like left-handed people, act according to their nature. But if homosexuality is a choice rooted in behavior, then homosexuals act against nature.

Stay with me, because here the argument splits even further. Are we talking about civil rights or morality?

In terms of civil rights, individuals deserve and are afforded protections for both status (say, skin color) and choice (for example, religious affiliation).

In terms of morality, status is neutral, while choice has implications and consequences.

Catholicism argues that homosexuals deserve legal protections, but not because homosexuality is a status. Catholicism says homosexual activity is a choice. So while bishops support non-discrimination policies, they won't agree that homosexuals are protected because of their genetic makeup.

Catholic thinkers have grappled with this question for ages. Creighton University professors Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler are the latest voices on the Catholic circuit. Their 2008 book, "The Sexual Person," just earned a rebuke from the U.S. bishops' doctrine committee.

Salzman and Lawler's dense academic argument turns traditional Catholic teaching on natural law on its head. They redefine natural law, saying "nature" is personal and individual, and that sexual activity need not be directed at procreation (contrary to what the Catholic Church has always said).

Salzman and Lawler argue that what is "natural" for a heterosexual is not "natural" for a homosexual, and therefore homosexuals and heterosexuals must act in accord with their personal "natures".

In other words, if it's "natural" for a homosexual to perform homosexual acts, then--for that person--heterosexual acts would be "unnatural" and immoral. For the two professors, homosexual activity is only immoral for the heterosexual acting against his or her nature.

Bottom line: Salzman and Lawler are arguing that homosexuality is a status, not a choice. If that's the case, then everyone--including the Catholic Church--should line up in support of an entire rainbow of gay-related arguments and ideas.

Taken to their logical conclusion, Salzman and Lawler's arguments would mean that Catholic moral teaching must do a complete about-face and disconnect sex from marriage--even from procreation--altogether.

But the only evidence the professors give is from behavior, not genetics.

In a way, I'd like to think otherwise. But, until I see the biological evidence, I'll think Salzman and Lawler are wrong, and the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of religious teaching is correct.

(Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and author of several books in Catholic Studies.)

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