Sexuality and the Christian Understanding of the Human Person

The Great Conversations program of the office of Provost of Saint Mary’s College recently sponsored a conversation between two Catholic scholars on the topic of human sexuality.  Theologian Fr. James Alison and philosopher Sherif Girgis presented different perspectives in a ninety-minute program before an audience of several hundred, mostly students. What follows is a synopsis from the collective memory of  number of community members of the speakers’ remarks with a question for the future.

Sherif Girgis offered a vision of sexuality that drew from the philosophy of natural law and the theology of marriage. Only in wedded heterosexual coitus do two bodies truly become one and thereby mirror the spiritual union of Christ and the Church. Therefore any sexual conduct outside of coitus in heterosexual marriage is immoral. The fertility of heterosexual coitus is proof of its divinely-intended nature even though fertility need not be present in every act.

Jean-Joseph Thorelle, Adam et Eve au paradis terrestre, 1887, Musée Charles de Bruyères, Remiremont, France

James Alison spoke about homosexuality and, like Girgis, saw the hand of the Creator at work. Homosexual orientation is natural and therefore plays a role in the flourishing of individuals. It is a minority variant of the human race and an element of creation that we are learning new things about in our own day. With respect to good living, homosexual conduct cannot be categorically immoral since that would mean that gays and lesbians could never discover right from wrong. They would always be wrong. They could never learn to distinguish love from lust since they would always only be guilty of lust.

Icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, 7th century, Kiev Museum of Eastern and Western Art

For Girgis, it seems, pastoral theology should be aimed at helping heterosexuals understand the sacred and comprehensive nature of sexual union in marriage and helping homosexuals to find non-sexual ways of being in relationship and loving others. The way all people live out their sexuality is part of their response to God’s call. Alison would not disagree with the connection between sexuality and vocation. For him, pastoral theology should nurture all young people through their adolescent years of discovery so that they come to know right from wrong in their relationships whatever their orientation.

These are two different views of human sexuality with the common belief that God loves us, each of us, individually and wants the best for us. Since there is no argument about the goodness of the union of heterosexual married couples, there is more pastoral work facing the Church about homosexual love. Given the growing universal recognition in the Church that homosexuality is not a disorder, the task would be to say more from both perspectives presented by Girgis and Alison about the good of God-given homosexual love, which by nature cannot participate in the comprehensive union of heterosexual spouses. More positively, how do homosexuals flourish as humans because of, not in spite of, their orientation?

Photos from Wikimedia Commons

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