St Paul on Sexuality: Then and Now

My final year dissertation, which earned a first-class mark (84), providing an exegetical evaluation of the Catholic Church's use of Pauline scripture to justify a continued condemnation of homosexual relationships. 



This essay aims to provide a critical analysis of the exegetical foundations for the Catholic Church’s condemnation of homosexual acts as ‘intrinsically disordered’ and a ‘serious depravity’ (Ratzinger 2003:4). Indeed, homosexuality is described by the Catholic Church as a ‘troubling moral and social phenomenon’ (2003:1) that is ‘harmful to the proper development of human society’ (2003:8). The Vatican makes these claims ‘on the grounds of scriptural evidence’, specifically the Pauline verses of Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. These three verses are cited as providing the solid foundation for the Catechism’s declaration that ‘under no circumstances’ can homosexual acts ever be approved (Catechism 2357). Instead, all homosexual persons are ‘called to chastity’ (Catechism 2359). 

This essay will primarily focus on the importance of considering circumstances and context when reading Pauline scripture, especially when applying this scripture to the contemporary debate on homosexuality. For example, this essay will consider how the types of homogenital act Paul condemns in the New Testament may – or may not - relate to the contemporary same-sex acts that the Church condemns today. This essay will also consider the broader theological and sociological circumstances that surround Paul’s condemnation of homogenital acts, such as their relationship to idolatry, lack of procreative potential, and challenge to the patriarchal order of 1st century Greco-Roman society. In our efforts to understand what Paul was saying – and the relevance of his comments to the contemporary debate - this essay will survey different translations and interpretations of the Pauline verses, drawing upon both conservative and liberal perspectives from the past one hundred years. In light of this exegesis, I will consider whether Paul’s condemnation of particular 1st-century homogenital acts concerns something intrinsic to them – for example, their lack of procreative potential – or whether Paul’s condemnation is only applicable to specific acts taking place within a specific context. Ultimately, I will conclude that there is no scriptural authority for the claim that Pauline scripture justifies the condemnation of all homogenital acts as ‘intrinsically disordered’ (Ratzinger 2003:4), but that – like any sexual act – the morality of homogenital acts depends on the nature of the particular act in question, as well as the wider context.


Part One


1.1 Romans 1:26-27 – Shameful Lusts and Unnatural Relations


Romans 1:26-27 is the most significant passage concerning Paul’s attitude towards homosexuality. As the only major reference to homogenital acts in the New Testament (Scroggs 1983:109), this letter is cited by the Church as providing the ‘solid scriptural foundation’ for a condemnation of homogenital acts as ‘intrinsically disordered’ acts of ‘grave depravity’ (Catechism 2357), as noted above. It is evident that these verses, - characterised by Brownson as a ‘crescendo of condemnation’ (2013:150) - present the acts in question in an extremely negative way (2013:17). However, it is not clear, from these verses alone, who is being discussed and for what reason they are being condemned.  It is therefore essential we consider the wider context, social circumstances, and particular nature of the ‘shameful acts’ in question before we can fully understand Paul’s teaching in this passage or apply his comments to the 21st-century debate.


(a)Idolatry: ‘Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts’


Paul’s most significant condemnation of homogenital acts is found in his letter to the Church at Rome, which he wrote to ‘explain his mission and to request their assistance’ (Sanders 2015:616). According to EP Sanders, the main theme of Romans is to ‘convert gentiles’ (2015:619), whilst also reinforcing the central Pauline teaching that everyone – both Jew and Greek – is ‘equally condemned and in need of salvation’ (2015:621). Robert Scroggs characterises the overarching themes of Romans as justice, mercy, and universal human fallenness (1983:110). Fallenness is understood as a refusal to acknowledge or obey the one true God of Christianity, with ‘sinners’ defined as those who live in a state of falsehood whilst claiming it to be true (1983:111). In other words, they are people living idolatrous lives and failing to honour the one true God of Christianity. This raises the primary concern of Paul’s letter – the problem of idolatry. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul discusses the aforementioned problem of gentile idolatry; they have ‘exchanged the truth about God for a lie’ (Romans 1:25) and ‘worshipped and served created things rather than the creator’ (Romans 1:25). This leads into Romans 1:26, where Paul discusses the consequences of this idolatry; the ‘exchanging’ of ordinary heterogenital relations for excessive, lustful, and extramarital homogenital acts.

An association between idolatry and ‘perverted’ sexual relations – by which we mean any kind of sexual act not heterosexual and reproductive in nature - was prevalent in early Jewish writing, such as the Book of Wisdom, which states that the ‘very idea of idols was the beginning of sexual immorality’ (14:12 CEB).  Indeed, it was common for Jews to associate sexual immorality – and same-sex activity in particular - with idolatrous practices (Rogers 2011:363). By reminding his reader of this association between idolatry and sexual immorality, Paul can be understood as ‘whipping’ them into what Brownson describes as ‘a frenzy of indignation against others’, namely the idolatrous gentiles (2013:150). He does this to make a point – and issue a powerful warning - about the dangers of idolatry, warning his reader of the consequences of living without the moral anchor of monotheism (Vine 2014:106).

This suggests Paul’s comments on homogenital acts in Romans only make sense in a wider theological and social context; Paul is not condemning homosexual people on account of their orientation, but idolaters who have ‘rejected their calling, gotten off the true path they were once on’ (Boswell 1980:109). This is perhaps exemplified by the kind of homogenital acts Paul had in mind. He is not condemning loving homogenital acts taking place within committed same-sex relationships. Instead, he was condemning what David Gushee characterises as ‘adulterous, debauched and exploitative’ acts taking place in addition to the participant’s ‘normative’ heterogenital sexual relationships (2015:150). Daniel Helminiak agrees, writing that homogenital sex acts in the first-century Roman empire were typically associated with ‘abuse, exploitation and lust’ (1995:95). Indeed, the most common form of same-sex behaviour in ancient Greece - pederasty – included the use of boys for the sake of older men’s sexual satisfaction (Vines 2014:35). Paul was therefore not condemning monogamous and meaningful same-sex relationships - which are ‘virtually unknown’ outside of contemporary Western society (DeFranza 2016:53) - but excessive and abusive acts that were understood to be the result of excessive lust. Considering that, as Dale Martin has written, the goal of life in the early Church was to achieve the ‘extirpation of sexual desire’ (2013:163), it is unsurprising that lust-fuelled and excessive homogenital acts were explained by Paul as the punishment for idolatry, a grave theological sin.


Indeed, Paul’s 1st century contemporaries understood homogenital acts as the shameful and emasculating result of failing to worship God and obey his commandments (Brownson 2013:153). Homogenital acts represented a heteronormative excess rather than the expression of an orientation, with the word ‘homosexuality’ itself not coined until the 19th century (Elliott 2002:8).  Paul’s primary concern in Romans was the theological sin of idolatry, and the punishment received as a result of such behaviour. He cites the desire for homogenital acts as the punishment because of what they represented in his 1st-century context, not because they are intrinsically and objectively unethical under all circumstances. This is not an outright condemnation of homosexuality, but instead a contextually dependent argument about the result of worshipping pagan gods and idolatry (Boswell 1980:108).

Therefore, Romans 1:26-27 may be best understood as an etiological explanation rather than a universal ethical condemnation. Homogenital acts had significance because of their prevalence – in the Jewish mind – among ‘other peoples’ of the period (Loader 2013:132). Paul explains their existence by citing them as an example of what happens when people practise idolatry and are subsequently ‘handed over’ – by God - to ‘shameful’ lusts, resulting in excessive sexual behaviour (DeFranza 2016:58). These lust-fuelled acts are practised by individuals unable to control their passions, an example of shameful emasculation in Jewish and early Christian culture (Stewart 2016:99). This is reflected in Jewish historian Josephus’ understanding of homogenital acts as the ‘fruit of uncontrolled sexual passion’, usually associated with men who were at the same time promiscuous with women (Loader 2013:135).

The foundation for this association between shame and lust is found in the Old Testament Book of Genesis, where the Fall of Adam and Eve represents the beginning of a long association between sinfulness and sexual desire (Loader 2013:23). Therefore, in the same way that Adam and Eve were punished for their failure to honour God and his commandments, Paul is writing that the Gentiles are being punished for theirs. This suggests Paul is providing an etiological explanation for excessive sexual desire and excessive sexual practices, not a universally binding condemnation of sexual orientation.


(b)Human nature: ‘Abandoned natural relations’


What was it about homogenital acts that made them so shocking to Paul’s reader? Why might these acts have been understood by Paul to be the punishment for idolatry? We perhaps find our best answer by exploring Paul’s use of the phrase ‘abandoned natural relations’. The term ‘natural’ is a translation of the Greek ‘para physin’, used by Stoic philosophers developing an early understanding of natural law (Helminiak 1994:66). According to the 1st century Stoic and Jewish world view, the only natural – and so acceptable - purpose for sexual intercourse was procreation (1994:66). This meant ‘natural’ sexual relations constituted vaginal penetration between man and woman, with only sexual acts leading to the ‘propagation of the species’ considered natural and therefore ‘good’ (Loader 2016:39). One of the biggest proponents of this particular worldview was Philo of Alexandria, who argued sexual acts must only be engaged in for the sake of procreation, not pleasure (Wheeler-Read 2017:46). He criticised those who ‘waste their seed’ by sowing in a ‘saline or stony soil and hard places’, instead of a ‘deep-earthed plain’ (Contempl.62). According to this worldview, male ejaculation for any purpose other than procreation was unnatural and wrong, violating what was believed to be God’s will for procreative sexual pairings (Wheeler-Read 2017:44).

This is a position grounded in scripture, with the Genesis command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28 NIV) interpreted by Second Temple Judaism as teaching sex is only permissible for the purpose of procreation (Wheeler-Read 2017:44). Subsequently, if the only ‘natural’ purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation, anyone engaging in non-procreative sexual acts – such as homogenital acts - would indeed be ‘abandoning natural relations’ and subverting what is ‘natural’, at least according to Paul’s Jewish and Stoic influences. Indeed, the Stoics, who valued ‘moderation’ in every area of life (DeFranza 2016:92), viewed same-sex desire as heterosexual desire which had ‘run beyond its natural bounds’ (2016:92). In Romans, Paul is arguing similarly that dishonourable passions have driven people – of both sexes - to dishonour their bodies, by turning from natural to excessive and lust-fuelled unnatural sexual behaviours (Murphy 2019:236).  

Indeed, Conservative scholar Robert Gagnon affirms that Paul’s main objection to homosexual practice was that it violated God’s will for male-female pairings (Vine 2014:111), as commanded in Genesis (2:24 NIV). This reflects the 1st-century Jewish belief that only procreative sexual intercourse has received God’s blessing (Loader 2013:10). Chuck Colson has put it like this: Paul is essentially saying ‘stand up a naked man and woman and you’ll see what’s normal’ (Vine 2014:108). Anatomical complementarity is essential to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28 NIV). If the divinely ordered plan for sexual intercourse is the ‘propagation of the species’, then homogenital acts do indeed violate the ‘natural law’ and God’s intention for human sexual behaviour. This was certainly the conclusion reached by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, who asserted that same-sex activity is ‘contra naturam’, or ‘against nature’ (Rogers 2011:367). This position was affirmed in the 20th century by Pope Paul VI, who writes in the encyclical ‘Humane Vitae’ (1968) that the Church, ‘calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law…teaches that each and every act must remain open to the transmission of life’ (1968:58).


(c)Patriarchal Society: ‘Committed shameful acts’


Homogenital acts not only violated the divinely ordained natural order, but the socially constructed patriarchal order as well. As Boswell writes, Paul did not discuss ‘nature’ simply as a question of universal law or truth but, rather, as a ‘matter of the character of some person or group of persons’ (1980:110). According to Kathy L Gaca, Philo’s insistence on procreation as the sole purpose for sexual intercourse was ‘part of an innovative agenda for social order’ (2003:193). The regulation of sexual desire and behaviour was thought essential for the good of society; unrestrained eros, it was believed, would lead to lawlessness (Wheeler-Read 2017:47). This was an ‘honour-shame’ culture (Brownson 2013:207), in which household order and security were a significantly high priority (Loader 2013:40). Homogenital relations were therefore considered ‘unnatural’ because they violated the established gender roles, norms, and expectations of this patriarchal society (Vine 2014:108), meaning they would have been a source of embarrassment and shame.

In Greco-Roman culture, nature dictated that free men were ‘active’ in every area of life, which meant taking on the penetrative role sexually and being assertive in public affairs (Williams 1999:17). This was in contrast to the social position of women, who were deemed passive and inferior to men (1999:17). Women – whom Philo blamed for bringing sexual desire into the world (Opif. 152-152) - were ‘defined by…and the property of…men’ (Wheeler-Read 2017:60). In this 1st century context, manliness – the ‘most prized’ of virtues - was not a birthright related to gender but something that ‘had to be won’ and maintained (Gleason 1995:159). For a freeborn man to be penetrated by another man would be a violation of this highly prized manliness. Indeed, Philo described homogenital acts as ‘removing manliness’ (Contempl. 60) and ‘producing the female disease’ (Contempl. 60), demonstrating why Paul may have understood them as shameful. People in this society were expected to conform to strict gender roles and norms; stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, cited men who ‘change their clothes with women’ as an example of people living ‘contrary to nature’ (Moral Letters 122.7).

Further, sexual wrongdoing – such as engaging in homogenital acts - was seen as the result of losing control of one’s passions (Loader 2013:120), another shameful example of emasculation.  It is in this context that Paul’s use of the word ‘natural’ can be fully understood as referring to what is considered ‘characteristic, consistent, ordinary, standard, expected and regular’ of a particular person in a particular context (Helminiak 1994:64), in particular of Greco-Roman freeborn males. The idea that homogenital acts are socially shameful – and therefore ‘unnatural’ - is relative to the social context of a patriarchal society. Paul inhabited a world where everyone was assumed heterosexual (Boswell 1980:109) and each individual had a particular position within the social order. As a result, sexual relationships were considered a matter of status and honour, not love (Loader 2013:55).  In this context, engagement in homogenital practices would indeed be socially ‘unnatural’. Not only would they represent a failure to reproduce, but they would also result in shameful emasculation. However, it is unclear whether they could therefore be understood as ‘unnatural’ outside of this patriarchal context, for example in the egalitarian 21st-century Western world.

Interestingly, the term ‘shameful’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘atimia’, used by Paul when he writes that it is shameful for men to have long hair (1 Corinthians 11:5-16 NIV). This further suggests Paul’s condemnation of homogenital acts was an issue of culture and custom, rather than intrinsic sexual morality. In today’s world, where it is socially acceptable for a man to have long hair, Christian scholars do not debate the morality of hairstyle choices. In the same way, it does not make sense to apply the honour codes and social codes governing sexual behaviour in patriarchal Greco-Roman society to the contemporary debate concerning homosexuality. Paul’s condemnation of homogenital acts owes to the fact they violated the social conventions and regulations of the patriarchal Greco-Roman world (Brownson 2013:207), raising significant questions about their relevance to the contemporary debate. Indeed, whilst Paul’s comments may offer an insight into 1st century Greco-Roman and Jewish gender norms, they do not necessarily form the foundation for a universal Christian ethic (DeFranza 2016:82). 










2.1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10


We now turn our attention to the two other Pauline references to homogenital acts, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. In both Epistles, the debate centres around the translation of the Greek term ‘arsenokoitai’. In Corinthians, the debate also concerns the translation of a second term, ‘malakoi’. The translation of both terms as referring to homogenital acts is highly contentious. John Hall Elliott has argued that the terms have ‘little or nothing to do’ with homosexuality as it is understood today (2004:8). Boswell agrees that there is no reason to believe either word connoted homosexuality in Paul’s 1st century Greco-Roman context (1980:339). Scholars have attributed this apparent ‘mistranslation’ to a ‘failure to translate the culture of Greco-Roman antiquity and its contexts’ (Siker 2020:185), which has resulted in translations that do not reflect Paul’s original meanings. As Elliott has written, modern translations – such as those which translate Paul as condemning ‘homosexuals’ – tell us ‘more about the culture and values of the translators than Paul’ (2004:8).


(a)Vice Lists: ‘Wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God’


The verses cited as Pauline condemnations of homosexuality in both Corinthians and Timothy are located within so-called ‘vice lists’. Whilst these vice lists have been interpreted as authoritative condemnations of homosexuality, it is important to consider this may not have been Paul’s intention. Elliot, for example, argues that Paul did not employ his list in 1 Corinthians to make a particular ethical point about homogenital relations, but instead to respond to a legal problem with ‘social rather than sexual ramifications’ (2002:17). Indeed, EP Sanders describes Paul’s vice list in this letter as a ‘rhetorical homiletical device’ (2015:339), further suggesting Paul’s apparent condemnation of homogenital acts is contextually dependent rather than universally binding.

The first of the two ‘vice lists’ is featured in Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth, a city with a reputation for ‘dubious morals’ in antiquity (Ehrman 2004:326). Indeed, Paul found Corinth to be a community that ‘tolerated immoral and scandalous behaviour’ (2004:326), such as drunkenness and the frequenting of prostitutes (2004:317). In Paul’s mind, his generation was living at the ‘very end of time, and much work needed to be done before Christ returned’ (2004:325). It is within this context of eschatological expectation that he constructs his vice list, which outlines who will be excluded from the anticipated Kingdom.



(b) ‘Arsenokoitai’: The active participant?


The Greek term ‘arsenokoitai’ is translated by the New International Version (NIV) as, ‘men who have sex with men’, whilst the King James Version (KJV) translates it as ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’. Both translations suggest a direct reference to homogenital acts, potentially of all kinds. In Timothy 1:9-10, the term is translated by the NIV as ‘those practising homosexuality’, whilst the KJV again translates the term as those who ‘defile themselves with mankind’. Despite the apparent confidence, in both translations, that ‘arsenokoitai’ refers to homogenital acts, there is little scholarly certainty about what the word actually means (Helminiak 1994:87). Considering that the word ‘homosexuality’ was not coined until the 19th century (Elliott 2002:8), there is perhaps an issue with contemporary translations.

Indeed, ‘arsenokoitai’ is ‘not attested in Greek literature’ prior to its appearance in 1 Corinthians, and it appears ‘only rarely’ thereafter (Elliott 2002:13). Its components are ‘arsen’ (‘male’) and ‘koite’ (bed’).  Robert Scroggs has therefore suggested that the term may be a Greek translation of the Hebrew term ‘miskab zakur’ (‘lying with a male’), a Rabbinic expression that is found in the Talmudic translation of Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 (1983:107-108). DF Wright affirms that the ‘inspiration’ for the neologism ‘arsenokoitai’ is in the Greek of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (1987:396), suggesting Pauline consistency with the Old Testament condemnation of homogenital acts.

However, recent exegetical inquiries have cast doubt on the term’s association with homogenital acts.  In his study of Pauline lexicography, John Boswell found that whilst several English translations translate ‘arsenokoitai’ as referring to homosexual behaviour, the ‘best’ foreign translations do not (1980:338). The contemporary English ‘Message Bible’ (MSG) translates 1 Corinthians 6:9 as condemning ‘those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it’ (1 Cor 6:9 MSG). Significantly, this interpretation avoids any reference to homogenital acts or homosexual persons, emphasising the nature of the relationship rather than the gender of those involved. Further, the Complete Jewish Bible translates the term as meaning ‘the sexually immoral – both heterosexual and homosexual’, whilst the New Life Bible translates Paul as condemning ‘those who do sex sins and for people who do sex sins with their own sex’. Both of these translations also emphasise sexual immorality in general, rather than homogenital relationships in particular. Paul’s concern is the nature of the acts taking place, rather than the sexual orientation of those involved.

Boswell writes that the most extensive evidence that ‘arsenokoitai’ does not connote ‘homosexual’ is the vast amount of Greek literature on the subject of homoeroticism, in which the term ‘does not occur’ (1980:345). If the term had meant ‘homosexuals’, Boswell writes, then it is ‘extremely difficult’ to believe that no previous or contemporary author would have used it in a way which ‘clearly indicated this connection’ (1980:345).  Even 4th century Church father John Chrysostom, who wrote extensively about homogenital acts and quotes from these very Pauline epistles, does not use the word ‘arsenokoitai’ once (1980:347). The amount of uncertainty surrounding the word ‘arsenokoitai’ undermines the Catholic Church’s insistence that the Pauline vice lists provide a ‘solid scriptural foundation’ for the condemnation of all homogenital acts. Considering that ‘arsenokoitai’ is not even used by Jewish writers, Plato, Aristotle, or St Augustine (1980:350), Boswell is justified in his conclusion that it did not connote ‘homosexuality’ to either Paul or his contemporaries (1980:350). 

Boswell’s suggestion is that the word may instead mean ‘male prostitutes capable of the active role with either men or woman’ (1980: 233). According to Boswell, male prostitutes were common throughout the Hellenistic world in the time of Paul; he had ‘no doubt’ that Paul was familiar with – and critical of – the practice of male prostitution (1980:344). Ehrman writes that Corinth was well-known for its tolerance of ‘immoral and scandalous behaviour’, including prostitution (2004:326). This would suggest Paul concern is the nature of sexual relationships – for example, that they are extramarital and economic - rather than the gender or orientation of those involved. This suggests scholars cannot say with confidence that Paul’s letters refer to – never mind condemn – homosexuality as it is understood in the Western world today. Considering the term ‘homosexual’ was not coined until 1869 (Elliott 2004:2), it certainly seems unlikely that the vice lists were condemning those of a homosexual orientation, as the Church today interprets them as doing so. As Helminiak writes, the ‘world view’ contained in ‘arsenokoitai’ is ‘not the worldview of today’ (1994:94). 


(c) ‘Malakoi’: The effeminate male?


Paul’s use of the term ‘malakoi’ may offer further insight into the contextual circumstances and the specific nature of the acts Paul had in mind. The term, translated by the NIV as referring to the passive partner in homogenital intercourse, is found elsewhere in the New Testament canon, but - interestingly - in a non-sexual context. The term appears in both Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25, and in these instances is translated as ‘soft’ (KJV) and ‘effeminate’(NIV). The inclusion of ‘effeminacy’ in Paul’s vice list – and the consequential translation of this as referring to homogenital acts – must be understood in the context of 1st-century Greco-Roman society.  

Paul’s apparent condemnation of ‘effeminacy’ can be understood as a contextually dependent point based on the attitudes and values of 1st-century patriarchal society. As EP Sanders has put it, both Greeks and Romans ‘despised effeminacy in grown men’ (2015:347). For example, Cicero wrote that male orators must avoid any ‘effeminate bending of [their] neck’ (Orator 18.59), controlling themselves by the ‘vigorous and manly attitude’ of their body (Orator 18.59).  Perhaps the most insightful translation of ‘malakoi’ is found in the Bible in Basics English (BBE), which offers the translation of ‘less than a man’.  This suggests this is a contextually dependent issue of male honour in a patriarchal society. Indeed, questions concerning masculinity were ‘pervasive’ in Greco-Roman culture (Mayordomo 2011:515). The translation of effeminacy as referring to homogenital acts raises the question of what kind of acts Paul was condemning. For example, many scholars have associated ‘malakoi’ specifically with those taking on the passive role in male homogenital sex, individuals whom Plutarch described as ‘belonging to the lowest depth of vice’ (Vine 2014:37).

Significantly, Robert Scroggs writes that Paul ‘must have had, could only have had, pederasty in mind’ (1983:122) when condemning homogenital practices. Jewish philosophers such as Philo were appalled by the practice of pederasty, which they believed emasculated - and therefore injured - both the active and passive partners, typically young boys. Philo describes a dinner party at which slave boys are dressed up as women, their faces ‘rubbed with cosmetics’ and hair ‘tightly braided’ (Contempl. 50).  He condemns the use of boys as ‘toys of the pederasts’ (Contempl.52), arguing that the practice was contrary to the laws of nature (Contempl.59). The ‘maltreatment’ of these young boys – they were treated as sex objects - would lead them ‘into the grade and condition of a lover-girl’ (Contempl.61 [Taylor]). Therefore, aside from the obvious problem of abuse, this raises the social issue of male honour and gender hierarchy.

Greco-Roman society expected men to take the ‘active role’ in every area of life, including sexual intercourse (Vine 2014:108). To become ‘feminised’ meant lowering yourself, losing self-control, and damaging your reproductive capacity. Emasculation of this kind was obviously something Paul would condemn, with Philo’s description of manliness as ‘the most useful virtue in war and in peace’ (Contempl.60) emphasising the importance of male honour in 1st-century society. The use of boys as ‘passive’ partners was seen as particularly harmful because of the preoccupation with male honour; in the Greco-Roman imagination, penetration was subjugation and masculinity was domination (Williams 1999:18).  For the sake of their sexual pleasure, men feminised and raped boys, infecting them with what Philo describes as the ‘female disease’ as a result (Contempl. 60). Phil believed the practice ‘removes manliness’ (Contempl. 60) and makes ‘androgynes of those who ought to have been trained in all pursuits of valour’ (Contempl. 60 [Taylor]). In a patriarchal society where male superiority was assumed, and manliness was ‘something that had to be won’ (Gleason 1995:159), the emasculation of freeborn boys would have been shameful and damaging. In this context, where men were expected to be ‘constantly achieving’ masculinity (Mayordomo 2011:515), being penetrated – or penetrating another male (due to an inability to control your passions) - meant abrogating masculine privilege and so becoming liable to shame and scorn (Williams 1999:19).

Indeed, Philo writes that shame did not only affect the passive, ‘emasculated’ partner, but the active partner as well. This reflects the ancient world’s understanding of homogenital acts as the result of lust, rather than sexual orientation. The active partner – the pederast - is condemned by Philo, who writes that their ‘body, soul and property’ are damaged by the relationship (Contempl. 61). Whilst the passive male is emasculated because of their penetration, the active male is emasculated by his inability to control his passions. He becomes ‘blind’ to other things both public and private, his body is ‘wasted away’, whilst his property is ‘left to suffer’ (Contempl. 61). He describes pederasty-practising dinner party guests as like ‘feeding gulls’ who have ‘filled their stomachs up to their throats’ (Contempl. 55a [Taylor]). This imagery of overindulgence is significant considering that an ability to master one’s passions ‘consistently marked manhood’ across Greek, Roman, Jewish, and early Christian thought (Stewart 2016:99). Those in attendance at this dinner party of greed, overindulgence and desire represent the antithesis of this masculine ideal. 

To be effeminate in this way was a gross violation of moral norms and social expectations (Elliott 2004:9). Marriage and sexual relationships were not a ‘private affair’, as they are in the Western world today (Loader 2013:40). Instead, they were a concern for both the family and entire community (2013:40). In Roman society, proper order was essential for both state and household, with the man in control of all members of his household, including his wife and slaves (Loader 2013:40). It was feared that displays of unrestrained eros – which the men in question are showing for young boys – would lead to lawlessness in society (Wheeler-Read 2017:47). This demonstrates why Paul may have perceived such practices as harmful, both for emasculated men involved and for the patriarchal social order, which is undermined. Significantly, his condemnation of homogenital acts as socially shameful only makes sense in a society where men are expected to be ‘active’ in every area of their lives, including sexual intercourse. This condemnation is therefore a product of a particular patriarchal worldview and is based on particular assumptions about gender and masculinity not prevalent in contemporary Western society. It is also the condemnation of very particular acts – such as pederasty (Scroggs 1994:122) – which even modern societies ‘would never accept’ (Vine 2014:35).

Therefore, as Robert Scroggs writes, ‘malakoi’ is ‘no technical term for a homosexual’ (1984:14). It must be understood as referring to particular acts taking place within a 1st-century patriarchal social order. Subsequently, the use of Pauline scripture in the contemporary debate on homosexuality is therefore subject to what Elliott calls ‘serious exegetical and hermeneutical constraints’ (2004:1), owing to a serious clash of ‘ancient and modern sexual concepts, constructs, and frames of reference’ (2004:1).



(d) 1 Timothy 1:9-10: Particular Acts and Pastoral Epistles


These ‘hermeneutic constraints’ are further demonstrated by the third Pauline reference cited as supporting the condemnation of homogenital acts, his first letter to Timothy. In this letter, ‘arsenokoitai’ appears without ‘malakoi’. The term is located between two other significant Greek terms, ‘pornoi’, translated by the NIV as meaning ‘sexually immoral’, and ‘andropodistais’, translated as ‘slave traders’ (NIV). This raises further questions about the contemporary NIV translation of ‘arsenokoitai’ as a general reference to ‘those practising homosexuality’. Justin Cannon, for example, argues that the ‘syntactical and historical context’ of Timothy 1:10 suggests a more accurate understanding of the term is as referring to ‘men who sleep with boy prostitutes’ (2012:22). He suggests that these verses are about the ‘practice of prostitution and probably paedophilia’ (2012:22). DeFranza suggests that ‘sexual slavery’ may have been the target of Paul’s exhortation (2016:79), again moving the focus from homosexuality in general and focusing on particular acts of an exploitative and abusive nature. This suggests that it is those who abuse or harm others – rather than those with a specific sexual orientation – who are to be excluded from the Kingdom of God. As David Gushee has concluded, the word must be understood as linking explicitly to ‘sexual predation, abuse and exploitation’ (2015:150).

Further, whilst Corinthians was concerned with preparing the community for the end of times, Timothy – one of the three ‘Pastoral Epistles’ - is instead preoccupied with earthly social arrangements, leading scholars to suggest that it may not have been written by Paul himself. Alongside a unique vocabulary – 306 of the 806 words found in the Pastoral epistles occur nowhere else in the Pauline corpus (Ehrman 2004:389) - the Pastoral Epistles are also unique in their ‘preoccupation with social arrangements in this world’, rather than with the apocalypse that Paul had believed was soon to come (Ehrman 2004:393). Timothy is particularly concerned with gender roles and the status of women within the Church (2004:387). As Frederick Ivarsson concludes, this vice list is essentially a ‘description of deviant masculinity’, integrally related to ‘ancient gender ideologies’ (2007:164). The vice list may therefore have been produced for a particular community operating within a 1st-century patriarchal context, suggesting they are contextually relative rather than universally binding. Francine Cardman notes that the Pastoral Epistles sought to ‘model the Church on the patriarchal order of the Roman household’ (1999:303), further suggesting that the ethical pronouncements made in this vice list must be understood as socially relative and contextually dependent. This is similar to the aforementioned issues raised by the term ‘malakoi’ in Corinthians. Subsequently, both vice lists must be understood within their 1st-century patriarchal context, rather than as universally binding ethical pronouncements. This raises significant questions about the Catholic Church’s reliance on Pauline scripture in the contemporary debate on the morality of homogenital acts.






In the CDF teaching document, ‘Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition To Unions Between Homosexual Persons’, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – cites Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:10 and 1 Timothy 1:10 as evidence of ‘sacred scripture [that] condemns homosexual acts as a serious depravity’ (Ratzinger 2003:4).  He concludes that the Pauline epistles ‘attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’ (Ratzinger 2003:4), leading to his conclusion that homosexual unions cannot – under any circumstances – be approved. This is irrespective of context or circumstance because, as Father John Harvey has put it, same-sex attraction can ‘never lead to a morally good act…but rather it will always lead to an immoral act’ (Harvey 2018:1).

This section will consider how the Vatican might best approach today’s debate on the ethics of homosexuality, in the context of the Pauline epistles. Specifically, this section will consider how the two Christian ends of marriage - ‘procreation’ and ‘unity’ - might help frame the Church’s approach to contemporary same-sex relationships. Both are considered ‘fundamental to the Christian understanding of marriage’ (Loader 2016:48), and this section will therefore use them to consider whether the Church is justified in condemning homogenital acts – specifically, those taking place within committed relationships - as ‘sinful’, in particular on the authority of Pauline scripture. Arguably, if homosexual practice cannot be proven to be harmful in itself, then it cannot be shown in Pauline terms to be sinful (Brownson 2013:46). Subsequently, there may be no justification for the teaching that participation in committed and self-giving homogenital acts is incompatible with living a Catholic life.












3.Procreativity: The ‘natural’ purpose of sexual intercourse in 21st century Catholicism


Robert Gagnon affirms that Paul’s condemnation of homogenital acts as ‘contrary to nature’ (Romans 1:26-27 NIV) owes to their lack of procreative potential (2014:20).  Indeed, the Catholic Church has insisted on the necessity of procreative potential in sexual relationships for nineteen hundred years (Jung 2005:39), a position reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humane Vitae, in which he wrote that ‘each and every [sexual] act must remain open to the transmission of life’ (1998:58).

Whilst there is considerable Old Testament evidence for the importance of procreation, this is a position without Pauline authority. Indeed, the idea Paul’s opposition to homogenital acts owes to their lack of procreative potential is undermined by the fact that, as David Wheeler-Read writes, ‘nowhere does [Paul] state that the purpose of marriage is procreation’ (2017:67). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes that ‘time is short’ (1 Corinthians 7:29 NIV) as ‘this world in its present form is passing away’ (1 Corinthians 7:31 NIV), demonstrating what Wheeler-Read describes as his ‘apocalyptic mindset’ (2017:72). He appears to believe procreation is ‘irrelevant’ because Jesus will soon be returning (Wheeler-Read 2017:73), and so he calls people to celibacy, writing that ‘it is good for a man not to have sex with a woman’ (1 Corinthians 7:1 NIV). In Paul’s mind, his generation is living at the ‘very end of time, and much work needs to be done before Christ returns’ (Ehrman 2004:325). He believes that Christian love ought to guide ethical behaviour ‘in this evil age’ (2004:324). Therefore, due to the amount of sexual immorality occurring, he urges those who cannot control their desires to marry, because ‘it is better to marry than to burn with passion’ (1 Corinthians 7:9 NIV).

Subsequently, Paul believes marriage is not about procreation but the prevention of sexual immorality (Wheeler-Read 2017:71).  Whilst all are ‘called to chastity’ (Catechism 2348), there is also a ‘second best’ option of marrying. This suggests Paul saw marriage as an outlet for controlling passion, rather than producing children. In this context, there is no reason for monogamous heterosexual relationships to be permissible whilst homosexual monogamous relationships are not. Paul’s concern was not people ‘closing the sexual act to the gift of life’ (Ratzinger 2003:4), but people ‘burning with passion’ (1 Corinthians 7:9 NIV). This is about how people express their sexuality in a responsible way, rather than the gender of those involved or whether the act will produce offspring. In a 21st century context, where homosexuality is understood as an exclusive orientation rather than a heterosexual excess, it could be suggested that Pauline scripture might justify the marriage to homosexuals wishing to ‘sanctify’ their passion, in the same way Paul advocated marriage to 1st century heterosexual couples for such reasons.  

Furthermore, the idea that every sexual act must be life-giving appears irresponsible and inconsistent with contemporary attitudes towards sexuality, from both within the Church and beyond. Whilst the Pastoral Epistles were concerned with Roman household rules and the associated patriarchal social order, the 21st century Church is operating within a radically different society. Whilst, as Cicero wrote, the Roman household is ‘joined together by marriage and offspring’ under male leadership (De Finibus 5.65), contemporary society is not characterised by such patriarchal structures. The difference between 1st century and contemporary attitudes towards procreation is exemplified by the fact that, under the reign of Augustus, a failure to procreate was a ‘punishable offence’ that affected a person’s rights (Wheeler-Read 2017:8). It was a ‘civic duty’ for men and women to marry and produce children for the state (2017:2), legislation that arose out of the need to ‘supply Rome with soldiers and administrators’ (2017:4). Indeed, in early Judaic society – as in all traditional societies – children were a ‘barometer of success’ (Wilson 2005:188). Yet, whilst Greco-Roman philosophers such as Plato may have once believed that the state was in decline because people were not producing enough children (Wheeler-Read 2017:4) - and so citizens must ‘set their minds to produce for the State children of the greatest possible goodness and beauty’ (Legs. 784) - the contemporary world does not share this problem of insufficient procreation. Indeed, the more pressing issue is arguably overpopulation. For example, whilst life expectancy in the Pauline-era Roman empire may have reached only ages 25-30 (Loader 2013:60), human beings today typically live at least twice as long. There is therefore much less of a social need for reproduction, and there is certainly no state-imposed ‘duty’ on the population to reproduce. This suggests that sexual intercourse does not have to be directly and uncompromisingly associated with a demand for reproduction.  

The Church’s insistence on the procreative principle – despite the lack of New Testament evidence - is further undermined by temporary attitudes towards non-procreative heterosexual intercourse. Natural Law scholar John Finnis concedes that, in ‘most circumstances’, heterogenital intercourse does not actually ‘result in generation’ (2011:340). The Church no longer teaches that the coital activity of pregnant and postmenopausal married women is unnatural, despite the fact these acts are no more open to procreation than homosexual acts (Jung 2005:40). Further, the Church today permits the marriage of infertile couples, as well as the marriage of women past the childbearing age (Canon 2012: 39). John Boswell cites the example of masturbation as a traditionally ‘sinful’ sexual act which ‘few people any longer regard…as the sort of activity that would preclude entrance to heaven’ (1980:107). This suggests heterosexual Catholics do not only engage in sexual acts with the primary intention of procreating, meaning there is nothing about them that differs from homogenital expressions of sexuality.

Even Philo – who frequently insisted procreation was the sole purpose of sex – does not insist that parents no longer able to reproduce should therefore cease sexual intimacy (Spec. 3.35). He writes that men who marry women ‘in ignorance’ of their capacity or incapacity for successful motherhood ‘deserve our pardon’ if they later refuse to dismiss them (Spec. 3.35).  A similar view was held by Plato who, despite insisting the sole function of intercourse is procreation, ‘happily affirms’ sexual relations taking place once the couple has ‘finished producing children’ for the state (Leges. 784-785; Loader 2013:58). If heterosexual people are permitted to have non-procreative sexual intercourse, it is arguably inconsistent to condemn homosexual people for taking part in similarly non-procreative acts. Significantly, a 1958 resolution of the Ninth Lambeth Conference concluded that it was ‘utterly wrong’ to assert that, unless children are specifically desired, sexual intercourse is sinful (Canon 2012:39). The Conference also concluded that it is wrong to say intercourse ought not to be engaged in except to procreate (Canon 2012: 39).

In light of this contemporary position, and in light of the fact Paul himself minimised the procreative principle, the idea homosexual sex is intrinsically sinful because it lacks procreative potential (Ratzinger 2003:4) is undermined. For Paul, marriage is not about procreation but the prevention of sexual immorality (Wheeler-Read 2017:71). He was arguably more concerned with ‘good stewardship’ – in other words, using sexuality in a way that ‘was not excessive’ (Boswell 1980:115). It is therefore within the framework of Pauline scripture to consider homogenital acts taking place within committed and self-giving homosexual relationships as a successful way of preventing people from ‘burning with passion’ (1 Corinthians 7:9). As Charles Hefling Jr summarises it, ‘sex can be productive without being reproductive’ (Gomes 1996:171). The condemnation of all homogenital acts on the grounds they do not fulfil the procreative principle is therefore without Pauline authority.


















4. Unitive: ‘egalitarian’ and ‘self-giving’ sexual relationships in 21st century Catholicism


As we further consider the application of Pauline scripture to the contemporary debate on homogenital acts, it becomes clearer that the present age is one far-removed from the Greco-Roman world he inhabited. Thus, it does not make sense to apply the Patriarchal household codes of the Pastoral Epistles or the etiological explanation for ‘heterosexual excess’ in Romans to the contemporary debate. Paul’s comments only make sense in the context of the 1st-century patriarchal world he inhabited, which held a hugely different understanding of the causes of same-sex desire compared to the Western world today.

Nevertheless, scholars such as John Scott maintain that Scripture ‘defines marriage in terms of heterosexual monogamy’ (1984:17), arguing that Scripture permits ‘no other kind of marriage or sexual intercourse’ than this (1984:17). This is perhaps unsurprising, considering that monogamous, same-sex relationships are ‘virtually unknown’ anywhere in human history outside of the contemporary West (DeFranza 2016:53). As we have established, Paul was not condemning monogamous and loving homosexual relationships but excessive practices that were ‘debauched, exploitative’ (Gushee 2015:15) and a violation of Greco-Roman social norms. The particular practice Paul most likely had in mind – pederasty - is something that ‘modern societies would never accept’ (Vine 2014:35). Most significantly, it is a practice that does not address ‘the overwhelming majority’ of homosexual people today (Keen 2018:41).  As Matthew Vine has written, there is a ‘substantial difference’ between the type of behaviour Paul condemned and the committed relationships of gay Christians today (2014:11). Therefore, it appears unclear how Paul’s condemnation of excessive and exploitative acts taking place within a 1st-century patriarchal context can justify the Church’s condemnation of committed, consensual acts taking place within the framework of monogamous same-sex relationships.

Quite simply, the New Testament simply did not envision the kind of committed, mutual and lifelong same-sex relationships that can be observed in our world today (Brownson 2013:252). Whilst homogential acts may have been associated with ‘abuse, exploitation and lust’ (Helminiak 1995:95) in the Roman empire, they are understood very differently today. Significantly, Karen Keen observes that contemporary same-sex partnerships are – unlike the abusive and excessive practices Paul condemned - ‘fully capable of exhibiting’ the fruits of the spirit (2018:57). According to Patricia Jung, the basic requirement for Christian marriage is ‘friendship’ (2005:35), rather than procreative potential or adherence to patriarchal honour codes. Indeed, the New Testament emphasises self-giving love as the standard of Christian behaviour (Woggon 1981:158). Our contemporary understanding of sexuality suggests that self-giving love is not exclusive to heterosexual relationships but can be expressed within contemporary homosexual relationships as well. There is therefore arguably no scriptural foundation for the judgement of self-giving and monogamous same-sex relationships to be sinful. As Keen asks, if ‘sin’ is defined as something that violates the ‘fruits of the spirit’, on what grounds could loving same-sex relationships ever be described as sinful? (Keen 2018:57)

We have previously established that a lack of procreative potential does not justify the condemnation of homogenital acts on the grounds of Pauline scripture. Thus, the remaining consideration is whether such acts may be capable of fulfilling the ‘unitive’ end of Christian relationships. Keen’s aforementioned assertion that same-sex relationships are ‘fully capable’ of exhibiting the fruits of the spirit (2018:57) suggests homogenital acts taking place within loving and self-giving homosexual relationships cannot be described in Pauline terms to be sinful. A 21st-century consideration of Pauline scripture might propose assessing the morality of homogenital acts in terms of whether same-sex couples are capable of achieving the kind of ‘one flesh’ union Paul envisioned for couples in Ephesians (Ephesians 5:31 NIV). As we have established, Paul saw marriage as an opportunity for providing sexual behaviour with a means of sanctification (DeFranza 2016:95). Contemporary same-sex relationships are arguably just as capable of achieving this ‘means of sanctification’ as heterosexual pairings. As Justin Canon writes, the fact monogamous and self-giving homosexual relationships are capable of fulfilling many of the divine ends of marriage, such as unity, means the Church ought to consider accepting - or even blessing - lifelong homosexual unions (2012: 39).

An acceptance of contemporary same-sex relationships might even be consistent with Pauline scripture and, in particular, Paul’s egalitarian outlook. Philip B Payne characterises Paul’s attitude towards marriage as ‘strikingly egalitarian’, to the extent that it was ‘without parallel in the literature of the ancient world’ (2009:106). His assertion in 1 Corinthians 7 that ‘the husband does not have authority of his body, but his wife does’ (1 Corinthians 7:4 NIV) has been viewed by many as a bold challenge to the patriarchal nature of Greco-Roman relationships. It emphasises the importance of reciprocal self-giving, rather than social hierarchy or status. From this egalitarian perspective, there is arguably nothing inherent about self-giving and monogamous contemporary same-sex partnerships that excludes them from the ‘one flesh’ model of relationships as it is understood by the Christian tradition (Brownson 2013:109) and advocated by Paul.

Ultimately, sexual passion – for heterosexuals and homosexuals – can be both lustful and loving (Jung 2005:33). Pauline scripture appears predominantly concerned with how this passion is expressed – for example, whether it is expressed in a self-giving or excessive way - rather than the orientation of the people it is directed towards. Salzman and Lawler therefore write that sexual acts are to be considered moral when they are ‘expressed in a truly human, just and loving manner’ (2012:179), rather than because they are procreative or an affirmation of patriarchal household rules. The Pauline understanding of sexual relationships as a means of sanctification (DeFranza 2016:95) is essential to understanding how homosexual relationships might be understood by the Church today.

Both heterogenital and homogenital acts have the potential to be both moral and immoral, depending on whether they fulfil the ‘unitive’ end of sexual relationships, or cause harm. The Christian understanding of sexual intercourse as an ‘act of love’ (Ramsey 1965:100) is not necessarily exclusively heterosexual.  It therefore appears clear that the use of Pauline scripture to condemn all expressions of homosexuality – including those that are self-giving and taking place within a monogamous homosexual relationship - is without foundation. As Dan O Via has put it, if it cannot be demonstrated that 21st-century homogenital acts are harmful in themselves, they cannot be shown in Pauline terms to be sinful (Brownson 2013:46). Indeed, self-giving and loving homogenital acts may even be conducive to personal flourishing and capable of providing the foundation for successful, committed and ‘one-flesh’ inspired relationships. Such relationships would provide homosexual couples with a ‘means of sanctification’ for their passion and love, something that does not appear - in Pauline terms - to be unequivocally sinful.



























Over the course of these exegetical inquiries, I have considered Paul’s three references to homogenital acts in their wider context. As a result, I have concluded that Paul’s condemnations only refer to particular 1st century homogenital acts, specifically those characterised by exploitation and understood as the ‘product of sexual excess, not the expression of a sexual orientation’ (Vine 2014:129). As Daniel Helminiak has put it, Pauline scripture criticises the ‘abuse of heterosexuality’ (1995:95) – taking place as a result of idolatry and lustful, unrestrained passion – rather than the meaningful expression of an exclusive sexual orientation. This condemnation of particular acts within a particular context cannot justify the claim that all homogenital acts are therefore ‘intrinsically disordered’. Whilst Paul’s condemnation of particular acts offers an insight into the customs and values of the 1st-century Greco-Roman world, it cannot necessarily form the foundation for a universal Christian ethic (DeFranza 2016:82). 

Indeed, as Richard Sparks has concluded, scriptural evidence alone ultimately leaves us short of a ‘clear and clean condemnation of what might be called committed or covenantal homosexual acts’ (1996:81). The homogenital acts addressed by Paul simply do not address ‘the overwhelming majority’ of homosexual people today (Keen 2018:41). So, how should the Catholic Church therefore address this demographic today? Justin Cannon suggests that the Church needs to ‘embrace and support homosexuals, not despite scripture and tradition, but in light of it’ (2012:42). Indeed, I affirm Brownson’s conclusion that the Church should strive to develop a robust 21st-century vision of sex ethics for all, focused on leading to a ‘flourishing life for all’ (2013:267). It should primarily be concerned with the nature of sexual relationships – for example, whether they are self-giving or exploitative- rather than the orientation of the individuals involved. Ultimately, contemporary homogenital acts that are not demonstrably harmful in themselves cannot be shown, in Pauline terms, to be intrinsically sinful (Brownson 2013:46).














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