Do Old Testament Teachings on Homosexuality Still Apply Today?

By St. Paul Center

Moses, Old Testament,

Sometimes critics of the Catholic Church’s moral teachings will argue that her position on the sinfulness of homosexual acts should be updated because there are plenty of other biblical teachings that we no longer abide by today.

If the Church is happy to disregard the Old Testament’s prohibition on beard trimming or eating shellfish, for example, then why not disregard the Old Testament’s teachings on homosexuality as well? While this objection may appear clever at first glance, it quickly falls apart for two major reasons.

In the first place, the objection rests on a basic misunderstanding of the ways in which the Church continues to apply Old Testament teachings. The Medieval Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, famously distinguished three different categories within the Mosaic Law: the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial.

The moral laws of the Old Testament are precepts like “Thou shalt not kill,” “Take care of the orphan and widow,” and “Worship the Lord your God.” The ceremonial laws, by contrast, are dictates relating to ancient Israelite liturgical and religious practice, such as specific provisions about how the Ark of the Covenant should be treated, what procedure the priests should follow on holy days, and so forth. Finally, the judicial laws are about forming a system of justice for enforcing the moral laws—a system tailored to the specific time and place in which those laws were received.

For Aquinas, a point of major importance in understanding the Mosaic Law is that of the three categories of law, only the moral was intended to be permanent. The moral law is permanent by its very nature, because good and evil are objective realities which transcend the confines of any particular time and place. Ceremonial and judicial laws, by contrast, are more contingent, depending on the unique needs of a given culture and era.

Prohibitions on things like beard trimming or eating shellfish thus served a particular purpose, whether that be hygienic (e.g. limiting the spread of disease by banning less safe foods) or pedagogical (e.g. forcing the people of Israel to undergo certain outward practices, even quite strange practices, to drive home the message that they were a people set apart for God).

Similarly, the judicial laws of the Old Testament enshrined certain penalties appropriate to the time and place in which Moses and his descendants lived. It was a period in which there wasn’t a proper prison system, for example, and the death penalty was much more common. It was also a time when the people of Israel were surrounded by pagan nations, which meant that temptations to apostasy, idolatry, and the overall dilution of Israel’s religious identity represented constant threats.

For these reasons and others, the judicial system of the Old Testament can appear very harsh in places. But we need to bear in mind that those stricter judicial elements weren’t intended to last forever. (Nor should we lose sight of the enormous compassion the Mosaic Law continued to express for the poor and the vulnerable.)

When it comes to the moral precepts of the Old Testament, now we are talking about precepts that continue to hold true even today. Hence when the Mosaic Law prescribes capital punishment for sins such as murder, kidnapping, adultery, or homosexual activity, we need to make a critical distinction.

The moral element behind these laws still stands, i.e., murder, kidnapping, adultery, and homosexual activity are still sinful. But what has changed with the coming of Christ is the judicial element behind the laws: the death penalty is no longer applied to these sins (at least not typically), and the modern Church has even gone so far as to express serious reservations about the morality of continuing to use the death penalty in today’s world.

What this boils down to, therefore, is that the Church doesn’t merely pick and choose which Old Testament rules to keep, and which ones to throw out. Instead, following the principles outlined by St. Thomas Aquinas and many of the Church Fathers before him, she understands that certain categories of Old Testaments laws were temporary and situational by nature, while others are expressions of the moral law itself, a law which is unchanging and which holds true in every time and place.

The second major reason why the Old Testament’s teachings about the sinfullness of homosexual activity can’t simply be done away with is that the New Testament also repeatedly speaks to the sinfulness of homosexual activity. In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, for example, St. Paul is very clear that engaging in homosexual relations is contrary to the moral law.

Just like the Old Testament, however, the New is emphatic that individuals who experience same-sex attraction are loved, cherished, and defended by the God who died for them. As St. Paul affirms later on in his epistle to the Romans, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (v. 8). That “us” includes individuals attracted to the same sex just as much as it includes bishops, popes, and saints.

Rather than attempting to reinterpret Scripture to fit their designs, individuals who experience same-sex attraction should seek to discover in God’s Word a message which, like all worthwhile things, is difficult and challenging, but also profoundly powerful, life-giving, and true. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

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. (§2359)

Why does the Catechism insist on using the language of “intrinsically disordered” to describe homosexual relations (see §2358)? In reality, the Catechism uses this language for a whole range of activities: our attachment to material things, our misuse of our passions, the sin of lying, and the sin of masturbation are all described as either “disordered” or “intrinsically disordered.”

Same-sex attracted Catholics aren’t in some special category of disordered affections. It’s sin which causes the misalignment in our hearts, and sin is a reality in which we all share. We all experience disordered desires and inclinations, as Fr. Mike Schmitz explains in his book Made for Love:

Because we are all fallen human beings, there is no one of us who does not have some wound in the area of our sexuality. Whether people experience heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual attractions, people experience at one time or another sexual feelings and attractions that aren’t good for them to act upon or embrace. Someone’s woundedness could manifest itself in a sexual attraction for members of the same sex, or in a desire to look at porn, or in a desire for someone who is not one’s spouse, or in a desire for any number of other things. Even within marriage, spouses sometimes have to deal with feelings that can make it a challenge to respond to one another appropriately when it comes to sexuality. This is why the virtue of chastity—a virtue by which we act properly with respect to our sexuality—is important for everyone. (p. 133)

Today, therefore, the Church continues to offer the same moral guidance she has always offered, not so that people will be miserable, but so they can be truly happy. For all of us in different ways, this truth can feel arduous at times. But if we are willing to put our trust in Jesus—the same Jesus who has transformed untold millions of lives over the past two thousand years—then we will not be disappointed.

Further Reading:

Daniel C. Mattson, Why I Don't Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace (Ignatius Press, 2017)

Michael Schmitz, Made for Love: Same-Sex Attractions and the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2017)

Clement Harrold is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame. His writings have appeared in First ThingsChurch Life JournalCrisis Magazine, and the Washington Examiner. He earned his bachelor's degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2021.

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