Vatican: Human Sexuality … Is Not an “Identity”

More arguments for my thesis that “Sexual Orientation” is not an ontological category.

GENEVA, MARCH 24, 2011 ( Here is the address Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, permanent representative of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, delivered Tuesday at the 16th Session of the Human Rights Council on "sexual orientation."

Mr. President, 

The Holy See takes this opportunity to affirm the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings, and to condemn all violence that is targeted against people because of their sexual feelings and thoughts, or sexual behaviors.

We would also like to make several observations about the debates regarding "sexual orientation."

First, there has been some unnecessary confusion about the meaning of the term "sexual orientation," as found in resolutions and other texts adopted within the UN human rights system. The confusion is unnecessary because, in international law, a term must be interpreted in accordance with its ordinary meaning, unless the document has given it a different meaning.[1] The ordinary meaning of "sexual orientation" refers to feelings and thoughts, not to behavior.[2]

Second, for the purposes of human rights law, there is a critical difference between feelings and thoughts, on the one hand, and behavior, on the other. A state should never punish a person, or deprive a person of the enjoyment of any human right, based just on the person’s feelings and thoughts, including sexual thoughts and feelings. But states can, and must, regulate behaviors, including various sexual behaviors. Throughout the world, there is a consensus between societies that certain kinds of sexual behaviors must be forbidden by law. Pedophilia and incest are two examples.

Third, the Holy See wishes to affirm its deeply held belief that human sexuality is a gift that is genuinely expressed in the complete and lifelong mutual devotion of a man and a woman in marriage. Human sexuality, like any voluntary activity, possesses a moral dimension: It is an activity which puts the individual will at the service of a finality; it is not an "identity." In other words, it comes from the action and not from the being, even though some tendencies or "sexual orientations" may have deep roots in the personality. Denying the moral dimension of sexuality leads to denying the freedom of the person in this matter, and undermines ultimately his/her ontological dignity. This belief about human nature is also shared by many other faith communities, and by other persons of conscience.

And finally, Mr. President, we wish to call attention to a disturbing trend in some of these social debates: People are being attacked for taking positions that do not support sexual behavior between people of the same sex. When they express their moral beliefs or beliefs about human nature, which may also be expressions of religious convictions, or state opinions about scientific claims, they are stigmatized, and worse — they are vilified, and prosecuted. These attacks contradict the fundamental principles announced in three of the Council’s resolutions of this session.[3] The truth is, these attacks are violations of fundamental human rights, and cannot be justified under any circumstances.

Thank you, Mr. President.


[1] Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties, Article 31(1): "A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose" (emphasis added). Article 31(4): " A special meaning shall be given to a term if it is established that the parties so intended. " These rules of treaty interpretation are based on customary international law, and are applicable to "soft law."

[2] Moreover, many publications have given definitions of "sexual orientation," and all of the ones that we have seen are similar: they do not refer to behavior; they refer to sexual feelings and thoughts. E.g.:

(1) "sexual orientation means the general attraction you feel towards" another person or persons. Equality Commission (The United Kingdom); See,, under "What does sexual orientation mean?

(2) "sexual orientation may be broadly defined as a preference for sexual partners …." International Labour Office, ABC of Women Workers’ Rights and Gender Equality (2nd ed., 2007), p. 167). A "preference" is a mental-emotional state; it is not conduct.

(3) "sexual orientation refers to a person’s sexual and emotional attraction to people …." Amnesty International, Crimes of Hate, Conspiracy of Silence (Amnesty International Publications, London, 2001), p. vii (emphasis omitted).

(4) "’Sexual orientation’ refers to each person’s capacity for profound emotional, affectional and sexual attraction to, and intimate and sexual relations …." Asia Pacific Forum, ACJ Report: Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (15th Annual Meeting, Bali, 3-5 Aug. 2010), p. 8.

[3] L-10 on freedom of opinion and expression; L.14 on freedom of religion or belief; L. 38 on combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization.


  1. Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell :

    Unfortunately, this statement fails in its attempt at clarity. The impression it leaves is that there is nothing wrong with homosexual “feelings or thoughts,” that only homosexual activity is wrong, and that human sexuality is entirely “voluntary” (a matter of “action” and not a matter of “being”), which suggests that sex or gender not part of a person’s nature or “identity.”

    Part of the archbishop’s confusion may stem from the belief that the distinction of gender is solely for the purpose of procreation. I do not believe that it is. I have argued elsewhere that gender is one expression of the same “archical” order found in the Trinity. Gender, in that sense, is therefore largely a matter of tropos and not of physis, though God does also distinguish the genders physically.

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      But the purpose of the statement is not to provide a moral treatise on homosexuality, but to distinguish between the regulation of thoughts and behavior. If the distinction between thoughts and behavior collapses, then the criminalization of motives (“hate-crime” legislation and such) that the gay-lobby and other leftists seek becomes inevitable.

      • Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell :

        I see your point, Father, but after very carefully distinguishing between sexual “thoughts and feelings” and sexual “behavior,” Tomasi then begins talking about “human sexuality,” which he defines only in terms of behavior (“activity”). He also fails to define “identity” and “being.” Someone well-versed in Roman Catholic anthropology might know what he’s talking about, but he’s not talking to people well-versed in Roman Catholic anthropology.

        • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

          Well, yes, but the UN is not be the proper forum in which to either explain or provide and apologetic for the Catholic view. As I see it, he is trying to head off the criminalization of any criticism of homosexuality, or at least any resolution to that effect. (You wonder if Hillary is working to that end in the background.)

      • Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell :

        On further reflection, I wonder how Tomasi’s distinction of action and being squares with the Thomistic identification of the essence of God as “Pure Act,” but not being well-versed in RC theology, I can only wonder.

  2. Michael Bauman :

    The purpose of gender, especially gender in human beings is to fructify the rest of creation, not just produce children. Same sex attraction, even if un-acted upon denies the essential role of human beings in God’s giving life to His creation and is a form of idolatry.

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      The purpose of biological sexual differentiation (biological sex) is to….

      “Gender” is a term we use these days to define what the term “sex” used to mean, ie: biological differentiation. Sex is fixed (forget trans-“gender” tampering for the moment). “Gender” actually refers to how sex is expressed culturally and thus deals with social constructions, and “sex” with biology. In dropping the term “sex” from the common vocabulary (“make love” morphs into “have sex”), our concepts about biological differentiation are perceived to be social constructs as well. Anything goes, even “trans-gender.” I wonder how soon before we discover “multi-gendered.”


      On a hunch I decided to check out my idea and Googled “multi-gender.” It’s already here.

      • Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell :

        I myself do not feel that the distinction of sex and gender is clear enough to be useful yet. We could, of course, agree to define them a certain way and go from there, but we can’t assume that anyone outside our agreement would understand them they way we’ve defined them. To most people, gender just means what sex used to mean and still sometimes means: the difference of male and female, whether biological or otherwise.

        Does Michael really mean “the purpose of biological sexual differentiation” when he says “the purpose of gender”? I don’t know, but I can see an important purpose to the difference of male and female that is not related to biological differentiation. The man and woman are meant to relate to one another in a way that reflects relations within the Trinity — that is, they were meant to relate to one another “archically,” the man being the source or beginning (“arche”) of the woman. This is, interestingly, the only difference between the man and the woman mentioned in the creation account of Genesis chapters 2 and 3. It is also the only basis the Apostle Paul mentions for the head-and-body relationship of husbands and wives, which he says is analogous to the Father and the Son.

        So we can’t hang too much on the difference of biology. The greater mystery is the way the man and woman are meant to relate, and the body’s part in that relation is more to assign the roles than to define the roles. It’s up to us to define the roles and impress them upon the young. Each society will define them a little differently, and their definitions will change over time. Nevertheless the healthy society will maintain the basic archical, head-and-body relationship between the roles. Feminists may dismiss all sex roles as mere “social constructs,” but the truth is that traditional sex roles are ordained by God and that our construction of them is part of our complicity with God in our salvation.

        • Michael Bauman :

          Dn Brian, I do not mean “biological sexual differentiation” Gender is built into creation and allows for a particular type of synergy. Sexual differentiation is a sub-set

          • Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell :

            Well, now you got me. I can understand “biological” sexual differentiation as a “sub-set” (or rather aspect, component) of gender. But you seem to allow that there such a thing as gender that is not sexual. For me to understand you, I need discrete definitions of sex and gender. As I understand them, I would have to disagree with you.

            Now, in my own understanding, there is a difference between the sexes/genders that reflects other differences between persons, all based on the archical relationship of the Persons of the Trinity. But sex/gender only pertain to one category of such difference. There is no difference of sex or gender within the Trinity, nor any difference of sex or gender between a father and his son, between a king and his people, or between a priest and his parish.

          • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

            Yes, definitions are needed. My my vantage point, sex (biological differentiation) is ‘built into creation” — you see it with your own eyes after all, and gender is the construct.

          • Michael Bauman :

            Dn Brian,

            Sorry for the confusion, I simply mean that gender synergy can and does occur without overt sexual (flirting to intercourse) activity. The biological differentiation is part of that, is a reflection of that. Not the other way round.

            There is also a sense that we are all female before God IMO.

          • Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell :

            Michael, I think I see what you mean, but take a look at my article “The Problem with Hierarchy: Ordered Relations in God and Man” in the fall 2010 issue (Vol. 54, No. 2) of St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly. There’s another way to look at things that relates sex/gender to other relationships without ascribing it to those other relationships. In that other way, we can make more sense of many things and avoid having to say that God is male and creation is female.

          • Geo Michalopulos :

            I kinda like the Taoist idea of the “yin and yang” which in its cosmology, permeates the created order. I think that even if there had been no Fall and no need for sexual intercourse, that male and female would have brought different and complimentary things to the table so to speak. That’s why I believe that in the Resurrection we will still recognize our sexual differences but they will be idealized to such an extent that we won’t see them in a distorted fashion as we do presently (as we do when we objectify the opposite sex through erotica and the like).

            Just a guess though.

          • Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell :

            George, the idea that there are two opposing principles like yin and yang permeating the created order is plainly pagan and not Christian. The Fathers more often stressed the shared nature of the sexes — “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” — just as they always stressed the shared nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Talk of yin and yang inevitably takes us where we don’t want to go — to defining God as “male” compared to creation and the Son and the Holy Spirit as “female” compared to the Father. There is a better way to think of these things, as I’ve explained in SVTQ.

          • Geo Michalopulos :

            Deacon, thanks for the correction. Perhaps instead is what I was trying to convey is that there is a complementarity to male and female. Each bring something to the intellectual, societal, and of course, sexual, table. As the French like to say, vive la difference!

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