First, if we are concerned with historical context we should learn what slavery was like in ancient Rome. We think of slavery as Africans wearing chains picking cotton being watched by a white man with a whip. This article explains that slavery in the Roman times was considerably different. It’s worth a read.
While we read that St Paul expects slaves to obey their masters, his understanding of the matter is more complex. Rather than just giving slavery the nod and moving on, he tells masters that they should regard their slaves as brothers. In the Book of Philemon he instructs Philemon to treat the slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ (Philemon 16) Paul tells masters to treat slaves with justice and fairness (Col. 4:1) and not to threaten them (Eph 6:9) All these are practical instructions for Christian living, but in his theology Paul lays the seeds of the abolition of slavery. Through baptism we are equal in the sight of God. In Galatians 3:28 he teaches, “For all of you who were baptized in Christ… there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free…but all are one in Christ.”
St Paul’s treatment of slavery then, can be summarized thus: “Slaves should obey their masters, but masters must treat them as brothers in the Lord for in Christ there is no slave or free.” While the fact of slavery is accepted, St Paul sees that in Christ the chains of slavery are broken. The eventual abolition of slavery is therefore present in seed form in the teaching of St Paul. This is a clear example of the right kind of development of doctrine–in which a final understanding blossoms forth from a seed that was planted in the first place in the New Testament.
If Margery’s preacher simply said, “We don’t have slavery now because we know more than Paul did back then.” he was not a very profound preacher. We have not abolished slavery because “we know more than Paul did back then” but because the abolition of slavery was present within Paul’s attitude to slavery from the beginning. Our present position is therefore not a contradiction of St Paul or a dismissal of his teachings, but a fulfillment of them.
Now let’s compare Paul’s teaching about slavery and his teaching about homosexuality.
In the case of slavery Paul was condoning the status quo. In the case of homosexuality he was condemning the status quo. There is a big difference.
To put it simply, his attitude to slavery is, “We accept it as a reality, but slaves should be treated fairly because deep down they are our brothers and in Christ there is no slave or free. ” The fulfillment of Paul’s whole teaching is that slavery is abolished. If his attitude were to homosexuality were comparable he would say, “Homosexuality is a reality in this society. We condemn it, but we know one day that loving, long term homosexual relationships will be accepted as an alternative kind of marriage.”
However, St Paul’s theology nowhere suggests an eventual acceptance of homosexuality. His condemnation is absolute. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11 homosexuality is condemned in the strongest language. As with the slavery issue, we must consider the theological background in Paul’s teaching. In the case of slavery Paul’s underlying theological background plants the seed for slavery’s abolition. Paul’s theological background for homosexuality is found in Romans 1 where he sees homosexuality as the fruit of a deeper rebellion against God and the natural order. He says it is a form of sensual idolatry, pride and self love. In other words, St Paul’s underlying theology leads to a greater abhorrence of homosexuality for a deeper reason–there is no seed planted which might lead to an eventual acceptance of homosexual actions, instead the opposite is true: homosexuality is seen as the result of a profound rejection of God and the natural order.
Finally, Catholic Church teaching is always reliant not only on Scripture but on an integration of Catholic truth with natural law. From Augustine through Aquinas theologians have argued that natural law is against slavery because, both in creation and in Christ, all are equal. The same reasoning has always and everywhere held that homosexual actions are contrary to natural law and cannot be condoned or accepted.
Homosexual activists may disagree with St Paul and the Catholic Church, and they may make their arguments, but the short answer to Margery’s question is: We are not “disagreeing” with St Paul. Instead the fullest understanding of St Paul’s teaching leads to the abolition of slavery and the condemnation of homosexual activity.”
Should St Paul’s underlying principle that “in Christ all are brothers” and “in baptism all are equal” be applied to homosexual persons?
Should they be treated with respect and accepted with dignity?
Of course. The Catechism already teaches that. Homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” CCC 2358