It’s often argued that sexual activity with a member of the same sex is immoral because it’s a disordered act, or a perversion of the sexual faculty. The idea here is that moral disorder enters human acts when we willfully direct some faculty or power away from its natural end or goal (that is, a due end or goal).
For example, say I want to enjoy the taste of pizza, but I also want to avoid the pizza’s effect on my waistline. If I eat the pizza and then willfully vomit it up right after, I voluntarily engage the power to eat and direct that power away from its natural end of nourishing the body. (Pizza does, after all, have some nutritional value, albeit not for the waistline!) That’s a perversion of the involved faculty, and thus a disordered human act. And disordered human acts are immoral acts.
Sodomy concerns the misuse of the sexual power, willfully directed away from sex’s natural aim: procreation. That’s why sodomy is a morally disordered or defective act.
(By the way, these points about frustrating the natural end of the sexual powers apply just as much between opposite-sex partners. But the overwhelming pressure lately to accept and celebrate it in the context of same-sex partners makes it necessary to zero in on that context. “Pride month” is just barely in the rearview mirror, after all, and “LGBT History Month” is coming up next in October.)
Some people argue that the Church unfairly picks on sodomy because there are several other ways we “misuse” our bodily powers that appear to be perfectly fine. We use earplugs, blindfolds, and antiperspirant. We hold our breath, cut our nails, and shave. (I for one am familiar with this one, being bald and all.) We also do things like walk on our hands and chew sugarless gum. So why aren’t all these behaviors immoral, too?
To answer, let’s remember the precise reason why sodomy is disordered and thus immoral: it is the misuse of the sexual faculty or power, directed away from its natural end.
To misuse a faculty, the faculty first must be voluntarily used—but some of the above apparent counterexamples don’t involve use. Rather, they merely involve the prevention of some action. Unlike the sexual power, hearing, seeing, and breathing happen automatically, without our willing them. So when a person uses earplugs, it’s not as though he actively starts the act of hearing only to shut down its end. Likewise with the blindfold and with holding our breath.
And there can be good reasons to suppress these automatically occurring powers. Earplugs can save your hearing at a rock concert, a blindfold will protect your eyes after surgery, and Lord knows there are good reasons to hold your breath . . . like when you’re underwater, or in a public bathroom!
What about the supposed evil of grooming? Well, again, we’re not willfully using the power to grow hair or grow nails or sweat and then willfully directing that power away from its natural end. These are involuntary biological processes that we manage, unlike our sexual faculty, which we do control.
Not only that, but unlike the sexual power, hair, nails, and sweat don’t have an end state or goal. As the philosopher Ed Feser points out, there’s no ideal hair or nail length the body moves toward. On the contrary, too much hair or nail growth will cause serious health problems . . . and too much sweat will cause social problems. But the sexual power has not only a goal—procreation—but also a concrete beginning (the moment the will engages it) and end. And that end can be frustrated.
Now, there’s another objection that someone might raise: what about the examples that do involve the active use of some faculty? Take a person who walks on his hands. Isn’t that a voluntary use of the power to grasp things, directed away from its natural end? Or what about chewing sugarless gum? Doesn’t that involve voluntarily directing the nutritive power away from the end of nutrition?
Regarding walking on our hands, there are two things we can say in response. First, our hands, and our power to use them, don’t seem to have any specific purpose, whereas our sexual organs and their related powers do. They’re more of a “general purpose” organ—what Aquinas, following Aristotle, calls the “organ of organs” (Summa Theologiae I:91:3 ad 2). They’re for whatever man wishes to use them for—of course, within the boundaries of reason (we don’t want to start punching ourselves in the face). This being the case, it’s not clear how temporarily walking on our hands would thwart the natural end of the power of using our hands.
Second, even if we concede that our hands have a purpose of grasping things, that doesn’t mean that grasping things is their only purpose. We can use them for purposes other than grasping things without doing violence to the power, like pushing my desk around when I’m reorganizing my office. Doing a handstand—for fun, work, or exercise—would be just another purpose for which we use our general-purpose hands.
The chewing sugarless gum example also fails. Although it looks as though gum is a crime against nature because you never swallow it, and therefore it’s not food, recall that the misuse of a faculty requires thwarting the achievement of its natural end. The nutritive power is ultimately directed to the end of nutrition, which in turn is ordered to the end of self-maintenance. It doesn’t matter that you eventually spit out gum, because the purpose of gum isn’t to be swallowed. Yet chewing it nevertheless attains the goal of nutrition, however minimally. As with our pizza above, there is some modicum of nutrition in gum!
Finally, it’s important to understand that actual achievement of the end is not even necessary for proper use of a faculty—but we do have to use the faculty in a way consistent with its natural end. You might chew gum because you like the taste, or to reduce plaque acid (according to the recommendation of nine out of ten totally unbiased dentists). These purposes don’t conflict with nutrition; rather, they are are consistent with it. In fact, they’re naturally involved in the acts of chewing and swallowing. But in the case of sodomy, whatever secondary goods could be argued to come from it—physical pleasure, companionship, spiritual bonding—can come only at the expense of the primary end of the sexual power. In other words, if procreation can’t occur—not just by happenstance, as in the case of infertile spouses, but rather by design, because the parts just don’t work that way—then there’s no justifying the act.
To sum it all up, the Pride crowd can’t appeal to personal grooming or silly walks to topple the Church’s morality on sex. All of the above apparent counterexamples are just that—apparent. But when we think them through, it’s clear why nail-clippers and handstands didn’t make it into the Catechism.