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For Catholics, ‘natural law’ one path to accepting gays

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday.

Evangelicals are not the only Christian believers wrestling with the question of how to respond to homosexuality within the church’s traditional teachings. For Catholics, the battleground is not primarily in the pews—polls show individual practicing Catholics are significantly more accepting of gay relationships than Protestants—but among the church hierarchy. Pope Francis’s apparently gentler approach to the issue, including asking “Who am I to judge?” about gay priests, is symbolically important as a weathervane for church attitudes, but doesn’t mark a change in Vatican theology.

When it comes to the theology, where evangelicals tend to fall back on individual Bible passages for moral guidance, the Catholic Church’s position is based on centuries’ worth of reckoning with natural law, a framework that posits a universal moral code accessible to all human beings by common sense. It might seem that “natural law” is just as inflexible as a literal reading of Scripture, if tradition defines homosexuality as unnatural, and thus sinful. But some Catholic theologians—at least, some liberal ones—also see it as offering a possible outlet for the debate. Our knowledge of biology has changed over time, and if homosexuality is increasingly understood as “natural” for a segment of the population, then this could, in theory, change the Church’s reading of natural law.

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James Alison, a theologian and openly gay priest who has written extensively on the subject, compares being gay to being left-handed: It’s now clear, he says, that both are naturally occurring variants in the human condition, rather than defects. “Nature, because it’s creation, is in principle a good thing,” he said. “Therefore if something is, it must be capable of some sort of flourishing.”

Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.
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