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Thinking with the Church

QUESTION: Archbishop would you tell me clearly the teaching of the Church on decriminalising buggery in Trinidad and Tobago?

I will begin by saying that in keeping with the teaching of the Church, Archbishop Joseph Harris, Bishop Gabriel Malzaire (Roseau, Dominica) and myself are now on public record teaching that the Church does not agree with keeping buggery as a criminal offence. Buggery is a serious moral offence, but it should not put someone in prison for 25 years.

In an intervention at the 63rd session of the United Nations (December 18, 2008), the Church put forward its official teaching: “The Holy See continues to advocate that every sign of unjust discrimination towards homosexual persons should be avoided and urges States to do away with criminal penalties against them.”

Fr Federico Lombardi, then Director of the Vatican Press Office clarified further, saying every person has innate human dignity that cannot be taken away and adding, “Most Catholics, and indeed most Catholic teachings, tell us that all people are entitled to live with basic human dignity without the threat of violence”(The Christian Post, Dec 13, 2008).

For many, this will not be easy to hear or accept. I ask you to think with the Church and work hard to understand her perspective. This is a teaching of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. We need to let it guide us. Let us delve a bit deeper now to understand the issue and to think with the Church on this matter.

The Buggery Laws

The buggery laws were established in England 1533. They covered a wide range of offences. Originally it referred to an unnatural sexual act against the will of God and man. Later, the courts defined this to include only anal penetration and bestiality. The penalty was death and confiscation of all assets, thus leaving dependants destitute.

The law covered a wide range of sexual offences. It was meant to be a moral deterrent to ensure that others were dissuaded from such practices. This law included all forms of anal sex, even in marriage, and all forms of bestiality. These acts were considered not only a sin against God but also a sin against nature.

There has been much debate on homosexuality over the last decade or so. The public perception has shifted significantly. Many countries including Ireland, England and the United States have changed the definition of marriage to include same sex couples. It is now socially unacceptable to “discriminate” against a person for their sexual orientation or lifestyle. In a very short time we have found ourselves in a very different social context when it comes to public sentiment on these issues.

Church’s Teaching

There are two biblical stories that shed light on this issue, The Annunciation (Lk 1:26–38) and the woman caught in the very act of committing adultery (Jn 8:1–11).

If Joseph had denounced Mary publicly she would have been stoned to death. Adultery was considered a capital offence, punishable by death. The scriptures tell us that Joseph, being an honourable man, decided to divorce her quietly (Mt 1:19). If Joseph had publicly denounced Mary the consequence would have been a trial for adultery. Does Joseph circumvent the law because of his love for Mary? Or, is he displaying characteristics that Jesus would reveal as attributes of God?

Our second biblical story is more to the point. This woman was caught, the scriptures tell us, in the very act of committing adultery. The Pharisees use this in an attempt to trap Jesus, ‘You speak of a God of mercy but the law requires us to stone women like this.’ This is a test to Jesus’s teaching on mercy.

What does Jesus do? He writes in the sand. He asks, “Has no one condemned you?” and then says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again” (v10, 11). This is the only time we hear of Jesus writing. The last time we hear of God writing it was the Ten Commandments.

For Jesus mercy is more than justice. This is a New Testament teaching that we have been slow to receive. When Jesus says, “What I want is mercy not sacrifice” (Mt 12:7), the word mercy is a very weak translation of the Hebrew word hesed, which is best translated as ‘faithful love’ or ‘covenantal love’. The text refers to the intimacy and depth of love towards God.

Many believe that mercy is a Pope Francis’ thing. It is! But it was St John Paul II who put mercy on the agenda with his encyclical Dives Misericordia, followed by the canonisation of St Faustina and his instituting Divine Mercy Sunday on the Second Sunday in Easter. It was Pope Benedict XVI who wrote God is Love, his first encyclical, establishing the relationship between love, charity and mercy.

Mercy is the epicentre of the Gospel message. It is the key through which we must interpret the whole of the biblical text. To miss this point is to be like the Pharisees. They used the law to put Jesus to death.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on the Church’s teaching on homosexuality (CCC 2357–2359). There are several important points. The homosexual act is intrinsically disordered because it is closed to life. Yet, homosexuals should be protected and we should ensure they are not subjected to discrimination or violence.

They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. The homosexual person is counselled to unite their sacrifice with that of Christ, living a life of chastity, mastery and inner freedom as a way to Christian perfection.


Moral issues are not a matter of emotion. It is not what you feel, or feel passionately. It is a matter of reasoning from biblical principles and Church teachings. I know a major objection is that repealing the buggery laws will open the door to same sex marriage. These may well be strategies that are tied together. We need to deal with them separately. We will oppose same sex marriage in every way possible. That is a different issue.

Key Message: Thinking with the Church is a hallmark of discipleship.

Action Step: Reflect on your feelings about this matter and ask yourself why do you feel what you feel? Are you thinking with the Church? If not, engage Jesus and research some more.

Scripture: Lk 1:26–38 and Jn 8:1–11.

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