In the last few days of 1975, Pope Paul VI approved for publication a document issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Its title is Persona Humana, in English the “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics.” It was two years after Roe and some forty years before Obergefell. It’s the kind of Church document that would not be published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith today. The mood in Rome is far different now, and rather than oppose the Sexual Revolution, it looks like we are running full stride to embrace it.
If we need any indication of our retreat, consider the comment made by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich last year, reported widely in the media, that “the sociological-scientific foundation of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is no longer correct.” It seems clear from the soundbite that the Archbishop of Luxembourg and Relator General of the Synod on Synodality dissents from settled doctrine on the matter. That he chose not to clarify his remark later reinforces the conclusion that a leading member of the College of Cardinals and a close collaborator of Pope Francis has taken the side of the Sexual Revolution.
The treatment of homosexuality in Persona Humana is not long. Despite its brevity though, the usual distinction in Catholic moral theology between orientation and acts is made. Noted too is pastoral care emphasizing understanding and prudence. Still, the document refuses to countenance homosexual acts.
Reading Persona Humana, you never come across the “sociological-scientific foundation” of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. You do, in contrast, see the moral foundation for the condemnation of homosexual acts. Two questions emerge then. Has the Church been wrong for two millennia to rely on Scripture and Tradition for her teaching? And, if so, when did sociology and science come to replace Scripture and Tradition as the underpinnings of Church teaching?
The appeal to sociology and science is a not-so-subtle way of subjecting the morality of homosexuality to a kind of plebiscite. Let polling and opinions determine morals, for if a former era condemned homosexual acts, a succeeding era will most certainly condone them. Make morality fluid, let it change with the times. The tolerance for homosexual acts is now at an all-time high in Western technocratic culture. It is far better (for some) to be with the culture than to teach antiquated and un-democratic ideas like the immorality of homosexual acts.
Besides the benighted position on the morality of homosexual acts, opponents argue, it is also how the Church arrives at that position. Persona Humana holds that it is by a consideration of the nature of the acts themselves that a moral approbation has to be rejected. “Nature” is a term and concept belonging to philosophical analysis, which finds many doubters and outright deniers today. The same holds for homosexual acts being understood as “intrinsically disordered.” A lot of people cannot fathom such a characterization. They can’t grasp how sexual acts between two consenting adults could be seen as disordered.
What, though, is philosophy for, if it fails to help us reason clearly? There is a long history of the Church making use of philosophy to help explain truths of the faith. In the words of JPII’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998), “the foundational harmony between the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of philosophy is. . .confirmed. Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason; and at the summit of its searching reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents.”
One cannot run and hide from a thing like “nature” because it is right there in the middle of everything, including every culture. Human nature is not sliced and diced geographically, ethnically, or even ideologically the way countries, races, and ideas sometimes are. No, there is a universality to human nature which must be acknowledged. Otherwise, we would not be able to communicate effectively regarding common aspirations and common tragedies in the midst of so many differences.
How else do you explain why great works of literature are translated into scores of languages, why great works of art are received in similar or identical ways despite very obvious cultural differences? Humanity’s tribes are not so different from each other that we cannot praise or condemn the same things.
Sociology and science, to which Cardinal Hollerich refers in his dismissal of the Church’s teaching on homosexual acts, are not the axes, morally speaking, for making determinations about homosexual acts. We need something with a greater fixity, a greater authority than just statistics and models. We need nature to flesh out what Scripture and Tradition declare to us in words. We dare to call these true words because they have the guarantee of the Word made flesh.
R.R. Reno, the Editor of First Things, writing recently in his own journal, asserts that homosexuality plays a central symbolic role in the Sexual Revolution. It does so, he contends, because it highlights the most fundamental form of sexual freedom: freedom from our embodiment. He goes on to observe that when we take into account other mislabeled “liberationist” expressions, things like abortion, euthanasia, and assisted reproductive technologies, it amounts to a rejection of the authority of nature.
Persona Humana takes the authority of nature very seriously. And so, obviously, should we. Too bad our culture doesn’t. For to be estranged from our nature is to be estranged from ourselves. We know ourselves best not in isolation from other moral actors, but in concert with them. We don’t have to know all of these other moral actors personally; it is sufficient to know that there exist laws and norms binding us all, and that it’s by adhering to them or violating them that we live well or badly. Sociology and science just can’t do that. That should tell us all we need to know.
*Image: The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri), c. 1602 [Palazzo Farnese, Rome]. Only a virgin can catch the unicorn. Both are unified by chastity and purity.