The dubious theology of Cardinal Ratzinger

     Joseph Ratzinger (b. 1927) was named Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [abbr.: CDF] by Pope John Paul II on 25 November 1981.  He held this office until he was elected as Pope Benedict XVI.  It was during his twenty-four year tenure as head of the CDF that he gave special importance to hammering out the theological analysis and pastoral response that was to be used for gays and lesbians.  Here are the key documents distributed to bishops worldwide that bear his signature:

  • Letter on the pastoral care of homosexual persons (October 1, 1986)[i]
  • Some considerations concerning the response to legislative proposals on the non-discrimination of homosexual persons (July 24, 1992)
  • Family, marriage and “de facto” unions (July 26, 2000)[ii]
  • Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons (June 3, 2003)

For our purposes the 2003 document is of prime importance.  My task will be to present and explain the key propositions within this document followed by my analysis and critique.

Proposition #1: “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.  Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law (§4).”

Analysis:  Cardinal Ratzinger here takes an essentialist viewpoint.  For him, sexual acts are permitted only to married couples, and every conjugal act of intercourse must be open to procreation (hence, contraceptives are prohibited[iii]).  By contrast, homosexual acts have neither the sanction of an exclusive life-long commitment nor the prospect of conceiving a new life.  According to the laws of nature, same-sex partners cannot conceive.  Their sex acts, consequently, are judged as “intrinsically disordered and able in no case to be approved.”[iv]  Thus, it follows from this that homosexual unions cannot be considered “in any way similar or even remotely analogous” to marriage.

Critique:  Cardinal Ratzinger fails to properly evaluate marital sex.  In some marriages, sex functions as a tool for dominating and humiliating of the subordinate partner.  It brings forth bruises and tears of pain from one partner and cries of anger from the other.  In such instances, the vows of marriage are used for subjugation.  To call these sex acts “holy” would be a farce.

Likewise, to say that same-sex couples can never have “holy” sex merely demonstrates how shallow the Cardinal’s investigations have been.  Presumably, the Cardinal had never had the opportunity to meet the sort of same-sex couples that I describe in Ch1.  In this case, his judgment would be based on his ignorance.

The fact of his “ignorance” is one thing.  Whether it is an excusable ignorance or a culpable ignorance is quite another.   Click here is order to pursue this question.  Keep reading if you want to further pursue an analysis of Rat’s 2003 letter on same-sex unions.

These dimensions of human sexuality escape Ratzinger’s notice entirely.  His treatment of marital love comes across to me as simplistic and legalistic.  His treatment of homosexual love comes across to me as shallow and uninformed.  As a result of his ignorance and his arrogance, he has saddled the world-wide Church with biblical judgments on homosexuality that are entirely misleading.  He has taken an essentialist form of Catholic moral reasoning and has applied it indiscriminatingly to all forms of homosexuality known today.

Major premise: Human sexuality is divine ordained for the conception of new life within the bounds of Holy Matrimony.

Minor premise: According to the laws of nature, same-sex partners cannot conceive a new life.

Conclusion: Their sex acts, as a result, must be judged as “intrinsically disordered and able in no case to be approved.”[iv]  And, from this, it necessarily follows that homosexual unions cannot be considered “in any way similar or even remotely analogous” to marriage.

Furthermore, someone sympathetic to the Cardinal might also add that, in all probability, his contact with homosexuals may have been entirely limited to the confessional and to “gay-pride” demonstrations.  Someone limited to these sort of experiences would understandably be prone to develop a  jaundiced perspective of the homosexual condition.

I myself was victim to such a jaundiced perspective due to my own early negative experience with gay men.  But I did not stop there.   I made opportunities to expand my understanding and discovered that I was severely ignorant of the variety of gay and lesbian life-styles and that, hidden below the surface, there existed personal stories of unconventional abiding love flowering among same-sex partners who gifted each other (and those around them) with bonds of affection and self-sacrificing mutual love that rivaled what my wife and I had attempted to offer each other.

On the other hand, what can one say of the union of Martha and Mary (described in Chapter 1)?  Have not these two women mutually accepted each other “as God has designed them”?  Has not their mutual love brought self-acceptance and healing to the injuries and disappointments that have been visited upon them by hateful strangers and enemies?  Does their promise of mutual and faithful love “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part” nor draw down the blessings of God and the active support of those who love them and honor their self-sacrificing commitments?  Cardinal Ratzinger mentions none of these things.  This is a serious defect of his essentialist viewpoint.

For Cardinal Ratzinger, everything hinges on the assumption that every sex act must be open to procreation.  But this is decidedly not the case for even heterosexual love.  The yearning for sex knows no such artificial barrier.  Unlike those animals who only copulate when the female is “in heat,” humans have been designed by God to desire sex at all stages of the female fertility cycle.[v]  Hence, even by design, it is a serious mistake to conclude that God permits human sexuality only when conception is the natural outcome.

In same-sex unions, what can one say about the use of sex to celebrate their mutual love and to enhance their developing intimacy?  If I have found this to be true in my own love making with my wife, who am I to judge that same-sex unions cannot function “in many ways similar and analogous” (and, at times, even superior) to what I have discovered within my heterosexual marriage?  What a mistake it would be to condemn them all out of hand without reverently and quietly asking same-sex couples about these delicate and important aspects of their private lives.  Here again Cardinal Ratzinger mentions none of these things.  This is a serious defect.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary of Sydney, Australia, spoke at the Ways of Love conference on pastoral care with LGBTQ people, as follows:

It was God who created a world in which there are both heterosexuals and homosexuals.  This was not a mistake on God’s part that human beings are meant to repair; it is simply an undeniable part of God’s creation.

The only sexual acts that are natural to homosexuals are homosexual acts.  This is not a free choice they have made between two things that are equally attractive to them, but something that is deeply embedded in their nature, something they cannot simply be cast aside.  Homosexual acts come naturally to them, heterosexual acts do not.[vi]

What Bishop Robinson is affirming is that Cardinal Ratzinger’s judgment that “homosexual acts go against the natural moral law” only applies to heterosexuals.  God has uniquely designed homosexuals such that “homosexual acts” are natural to them and, consequently, their love making is, for them, a potential means of grace.  Bishop Robinson would therefore say that Cardinal Ratzinger’s analysis is intrinsically disordered because he makes the categorical error of taking the natural law that applies to heterosexuals and applying it indiscriminatingly to homosexuals.

Proposition #2: “Homosexual unions are totally lacking in the biological and anthropological elements of marriage and family which would be the basis, on the level of reason, for granting them legal recognition.  Such unions are not able to contribute in a proper way to the procreation and survival of the human race (§7).”

Analysis:  Cardinal Ratzinger now turns his attention to discover what reason a society might have to give legal recognition to homosexual unions if they contribute nothing to “the procreation and survival of the human race.”  This appears to be a utilitarian argument.  If homosexuals fail to contribute to “procreation and survival,” then it would be irrational to offer them legal recognition.

Critique: This argument is paper thin.  Every society has an investment in nourishing its members and in appreciating the gifts that they offer.  Even in the case of childless marriages, neither civil society nor the Church makes the fatal mistake of withdrawing its care and attention until such time as the first child is conceived.  Likewise, neither civil society nor the Church makes the fatal mistake of withdrawing its care and attention once a couple becomes infertile due to age or an accident or to God’s design.

“It takes a village to raise a child.”  I myself am indebted to scout masters, teachers, librarians, farmers, employers, counselors, officers of the law who saw fit to contribute to the man that I have become, in ways that extended beyond what my biological mother and father were able to supply.  I trust that among those who formed and supported me were to be found a few gays and lesbians.  I even have some suspicion as to who they might be.  Cardinal Ratzinger must be able to say the same thing for himself.  Thus, I find that the terms “procreation and survival” are excessively narrow criteria, and, if this rule were uniformly applied, then, as explained above, one out of three marriages would also be deemed unworthy of any special care and “legal recognition.”

This being the case, it would seem only fair to consider how same-sex unions contribute to the life-long nurturing and learning that normally takes place in extended families, in neighborhoods, in schools, and in businesses.  Hence, it seems unfair for Cardinal Ratzinger to fault same-sex couples for not procreating when the needs of our society are much more ongoing and nuanced.   To illustrate this, I want to cite here the case of just one of the petitioners that were involved in the recent Supreme Court ruling relative to same-sex marriages:

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse are co-plaintiffs in the case from Michigan.  They celebrated a commitment ceremony to honor their permanent relation in 2007.  They both work as nurses, DeBoer in a neonatal unit and Rowse in an emergency unit.  In 2009, DeBoer and Rowse fostered and then adopted a baby boy.  Later that same year, they welcomed another son into their family.  The new baby, born prematurely and abandoned by his biological mother, required around-the-clock care.  The next year, a baby girl with special needs joined their family.  Michigan, however, permits only opposite-sex married couples or single individuals to adopt, so each child can have only one woman as his or her legal parent.  If an emergency were to arise, schools and hospitals may treat the three children as if they had only one parent.  And, were tragedy to befall either DeBoer or Rowse, the other would have no legal rights over the children she had not been permitted to adopt.  This couple seeks relief from the continuing uncertainty their unmarried status creates in their lives.

Just taking this single case, one wonders whether Cardinal Ratzinger would find that these two committed women are unworthy of any legal protections because their children, in this case, are adopted. And, going further, by what right does Cardinal Ratzinger take it upon himself to obstruct all those Catholics who support their quest for the civil recognition of their union?  Clearly Ratzinger’s thoughts are disordered and jaundiced.  He seems incapable of allowing for a nuanced recognition of the varieties of services that Catholics in same-sex unions provide within our society.

Cardinal Ratzinger lives in a comfortable world of abstract analysis and iron-clad condemnations:

If it is true that all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are obliged to do so in a particular way, in keeping with their responsibility as politicians. . . .  To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral (§10).

But the very opposite is true!  It would be “gravely immoral” to deliberately block April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse from being legally named as co-parents of the handicapped children they have adopted.  Cardinal Ratzinger acts recklessly and unjustly when he brings pressure on every Catholic “to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions.”  In his mind, supporting legislation in favor of the legal recognition of same-sex unions is a mortal sin.  For someone who sees legal recognition “as beneficial to the common good,” it must be allowed that, both morally and legally, they vote their conscience.

Proposition #3: “As experience has shown, the absence of sexual complementarity in these unions creates obstacles in the normal development of children who would be placed in the care of such persons.  They would be deprived of the experience of either fatherhood or motherhood.  Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development (§7).”

Analysis:  Cardinal Ratzinger now brings forward the argument that a child needs the nurturing exposure of both a father and a mother.  Having two fathers or two mothers doesn’t wash.  Hence, a society which enables same-sex couples to adopt children does “violence” (strong term) to these children for it consigns them to an environment that thwarts their “full human development.”

Critique:  Cardinal Ratzinger now appeals to “experience.”  Is he referring to his personal experience or to the general experience of parents or to the experience of childcare specialists? It is impossible to say. In any case, I would have Cardinal Ratzinger consider my own personal history.  My mother died when I was eight and my father did not remarry.  The same thing happened for the future pope, John Paul II, whose mother died when he was twelve, and his father never remarried.

Would Cardinal Ratzinger want to argue that these motherless families would be “doing violence to these children”?  If so, this is pure nonsense. I, for example, became quite adept at choosing my playmates on the basis of whether their mothers gave me some of the care and attention that was now absent in my own home.  And did I not draw closer to my maternal grandmother precisely because she treated me warmly as “her dear grandson”?  And did I not cherish Mary, the mother of Jesus, and reveal to her the black hole in my heart that followed upon the death of my mother?

I might presume that my experience might have found parallels in the life of the future John Paul II.  While Cardinal Ratzinger makes a cloaked appeal to “experience,” he seems to be blissfully ignorant of the experiences of children growing up in single-parent households.  Had he known of my experience or that of John Paul II, he would never have argued that adoption into motherless families would be “doing violence to these children.”

Cardinal Ratzinger was presumably raised by parents who followed the rule of separate domains.  His father did manly things.  His mother did womanly things.  This is what Cardinal Ratzinger appears to mean by “sexual complementarity.”  He might also be thinking of psychological complementarity that is exhibited in books such as Dr. John Grey’s Women Are from Venus; Men Are from Mars.[vii]

In contemporary society, however, the standards for judging manly things and womanly things have changed.  In the last thirty years, women have entered into nearly all the professions formerly judged to be suitable for men only.  Men, for their part, have not hesitated to enter into professions formerly judged as suitable only to women, for example, nursing and child care.  Many fathers and grandfathers, for their part, have felt the new-found freedom to change diapers, to feed their children, and to play with them—something that my own father and grandfather never did because they thought, in so doing, that they would be trespassing upon the domain reserved for women.

Even in the case of “The Sound of Music,” one cannot help but notice how Maria brings to the von Trap children a sense of playfulness and joy that was largely beyond the grasp of their father who was locked into his identity as a naval officer.[viii]  Thus, under the influence of Maria, Admiral von Trap gradually puts away his whistle and allows Maria to usher him into hitherto unknown dimension of personally relating to his children. He even goes so far as to participate in their group singing, and he performs publicly with his children, an endeavor which, in his era, would be judged by many as “unmanly.”  Thus, quite apart from his opposition to Hitler, Admirable von Trap gradually escapes the neat “sexual complementarity” that Cardinal Ratzinger seems to be requiring in every suitable family.

And what of same-sex couples?  Cardinal Ratzinger appeals to “experience,” but fails to tell us what experience that he has had of same-sex parents.[ix]  This is unfortunate.  If he had, he would have quickly noticed that, even among lesbian couples, one of the pair is prone to take on the home repairs, the organization of finances, and the disciple of children.  In some instances, one of the pair frequently even dresses more “manly” while the other dresses more “womanly” (as in the 15-year renewal of vows of the lesbian couple shown in the pic above).

Thus, what Cardinal Ratzinger fails to notice is how the modern flexibility of roles found within heterosexual unions has spilled over into same-sex couples as well.  Has this transition crippled the upbringing of children and given them mixed messages regarding sexual identities?[x]  Or has it liberated both boys and girls from rigid stereotypes that thwart their human development rather than to promote it?  In any case, Cardinal Ratzinger fails to make a convincing argument that same-sex couples are inherently detrimental to the human and sexual development of children in their care.

All in all, I would thus give Cardinal Ratzinger poor marks for his judgment regarding same-sex unions:

  • C- for Proposition #1;
  • F for Proposition #2;
  • D- for Proposition #3.

What grade would you give him for each of his three propositions?  What prejudicial stereotypes do you detect are underpinning Cardinal Ratzinger’s judgments?  What elements of your own experience would you have wanted to share with Cardinal Ratzinger that might have allowed him to reexamine his stereotypes and to replace them with informed judgments?

Those who want to interact with this blog are invited to “Leave a Reply” below.  A solid way to begin doing this is to offer “readback lines.”  To do this, quickly glace back over the entire blog and pick out the one or two lines that have made a deep impression upon you.  Copy them [CTRL-C] and then paste them [CTRL-V] into an empty comment box below.  If you wish, signal the emotion that you feel when reading your readback lines.  The primary emotions are anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise.   No need to further explain yourself.  It is enough to identify the text important to you and to name the emotion(s) that it evokes.

I and others will “thank you” for your contribution.  If you are tempted to say more, I urge you to hold back.  Your sense of safety and the safety of others is best protected by not getting overly wordy in the beginning.  This will come after a few days or weeks.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Endnotes and Leave a Reply~~~~~~~~

[i] In this letter to the worldwide bishops, one finds the following:

Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. [. . . .] It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs.

[ii] In this letter, an attempt is made to demonstrate that every society is founded upon the supreme importance given to marriage and family.  Any society, therefore, that would offer protection and rights to “civil unions” of same-sex couples or unmarried heterosexual couples would thereby weaken the family and contribute to “the breakdown of the natural institution of marriage”:

With the pretext of regulating one context of social and juridical cohabitation, attempts are made to justify the institutional recognition of de facto unions.  In this way, de facto unions would turn into an institution, and their rights and duties would be sanctioned by law to the detriment of the family based on marriage. The de facto unions would be put on a juridical level similar to marriage; moreover, this kind of cohabitation would be publicly qualified as a “good” by elevating it to a condition similar to, or equivalent to marriage, to the detriment of truth and justice.  In this way, a very strong contribution would be made toward the breakdown of the natural institution of marriage which is absolutely vital, basic and necessary for the whole social body.

The assumptions made by Cardinal Ratzinger in this letter do not hold up to close examination.  This will be shown in what follows.

[iii] For an examination of the faulty logic here, go to Catholic Scholars’ Statement on the Ethics of Using Contraceptives (
statement-on-contraceptives/).  For personal stories, go to

[iv] Ratzinger uses the phrase “intrinsically disordered” to indicate those actions which can never be considered as permissible due to special circumstances.  Ratzinger further judges that “although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin [because it is not freely chosen], it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil [illicit sex]; and thus the inclination [toward unnatural sex] itself must be seen as an objective disorder” (Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, §3).

[v] Christine Gudorf examines God’s design from the vantage point of the clitoris.  Gudorf’s philosophy [like that of Cardinal Ratzinger] is squarely within the Thomistic Natural Law tradition. But Gudorf argues that if we take a careful look at the anatomy and physiology of the female sexual organs, and especially the clitoris, instead of focusing exclusively on the male’s penis (which is what Aquinas did), quite different conclusions about God’s plan and design emerge and hence Christian sexual ethics turns out to be less restrictive. In particular, Gudorf claims that the female’s clitoris is an organ whose only purpose is the production of sexual pleasure and, unlike the mixed or dual functionality of the penis, has no connection with procreation. Gudorf concludes that the existence of the clitoris in the female body suggests that God intended that the purpose of sexual activity was as much for sexual pleasure for its own sake as it was for procreation. Therefore, according to Gudorf, pleasurable sexual activity apart from procreation does not violate God’s design, is not unnatural, and hence is not necessarily morally wrong, as long as it occurs in the context of a monogamous marriage (Sex, Body, and Pleasure, p. 65). (source=Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[vi] To fully understand all of Bishop Robinson’s nuances, examples, and explanations, I urge interested persons to read his entire text which can be found on the conference’s website.

[vii] Dr. John Grey is a relationship counselor who writes a self-help book.  Unfortunately, his book describes “men” and “women” in stereotypical fashion that does a disservice to those couples who have a greater integration of the male and female dimensions of themselves.  The review from Publishers Weekly says that Dr. Grey’s “overuse of gimmicky, often silly analogies and metaphors makes his otherwise down-to-earth guide hard to take seriously. Here Martians (men) play Mr. Fix-It while Venusians (women) run the Home-Improvement Committee; when upset, Martians “go to their caves” (to sort things out alone) while Venusians “go to the well” (for emotional cleansing)” (

[viii] In effect, Marie wrote a biography, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (1949), that traces a significantly different story from that of the musical and the film.  “Maria married Georg von Trapp in 1926, not 1938 as portrayed in the musical. She initially fell in love with the children rather than the father and only later came to love him. The father was not the aloof patriarch who disapproved of music but a warm gentle-hearted parent. They also left Austria openly by train” (  What was unusual is that Maria was 25 years younger than George and that they conceived and raised three additional children.  The Sound of Music was the highest-grossing film of all-time—surpassing Gone with the Wind—and held that distinction for five years. The film was just as popular throughout the world, breaking previous box-office records in twenty-nine countries.

[ix] Sr. Jeannine Gramick, a woman who has spent over forty years ministering to homosexuals, reports that she was able to have an informal discussion with Cardinal Ratzinger relative to his experiences with homosexuals.  Here is what she discovered:

A number of years ago, I had a providential meeting on a plane with Benedict XVI before he was elected pope. I was making a pilgrimage to Munich and we both happened to be on the same flight from Rome. In our 20-minute discussion about lesbian and gay people, I asked him if he had ever met any gay people. “Yes, in Germany,” he said. “In Berlin, they were demonstrating against the pope.” This was his experience of gay people—in a conflict situation. Apparently, he had not heard the personal stories of lesbian or gay people and how they feel about their lives, their beliefs, and the struggles they have encountered from society and the church (

[x] See, for example, Liz Halloran, “Report: Utah Judge Orders Child Removed from Home of Same-Sex Parents,” 11 Nov 2015 (

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