Until 1861 buggery was, in English law, a capital offence. It remained illegal until 1967. Undoubtedly sodomy is an unpleasant vice with serious social consequences, but a capital offence? It has generally been assumed by contemporary Catholics and those with some sort of a commitment to reason and nature that opposition to the institutionalisation of sodomy through ‘anti-discrimination’ legislation and the creation of ‘same-sex civil unions’ and ‘Gay marriage’ does not imply a desire to return to the legal settlement prior to 1967 still less 1861. Is this assumption correct? What could have motivated our forebears (admittedly rather trigger-happy in such matters) to demand the death penalty for buggery?

The most explicit passage in scripture dealing with the immorality and significance of unnatural intercourse is contained in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans 1:18-32. The passage deserves quotation in full,

“The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.”

There is according to St Paul a vital link between atheism and sodomy. God abandons to unnatural lust those who refuse the imperative of nature and reason to worship Him. This is clearly illustrated in the history of Britain and other countries since the middle of the twentieth century.

The crucial question arises from verse 32 “they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die”. To what does it refer? It is clear that “they” are not as such the recipients of revelation. The entire passage concerns God and the Natural Law as knowable through reason and nature not through revelation. What then are “such things”. There are two possibilities. Either it refers to the list which extends from verse 29 to verse 31 “wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” or it refers to the earlier “unnatural” and “shameless acts” of verses 26 to 27. Both interpretations are possible. How could men know by reason alone that those who are (for example) “disobedient to parents” deserve to die.? This is not as outrageous as it seems. God created man out of nothing man owes Him an infinite debt of gratitude. As Newman famously asserted, the Catholic Church would prefer to see the destruction of the entire material order than a single venial sin be committed. The mortal gravity of sin is an important consideration in understanding the theology of justification upon which St Paul is about to embark in this Epistle. Nevertheless the restrictive “these things” seems to imply the Apostle is distinguishing certain exceptionally wicked acts from others. If this is so then the list in verse 29 to 31 seems oddly vague while the specific identification of male and female homosexual acts in verses 26 to 27 makes a lot more sense. I do not think that the text alone allows of a certain decision on the matter. The possibility arises nonetheless that the Apostle is teaching us that sodomy is of such gravity, and can be known by reason alone to be of such gravity, that (possibly uniquely) it can be seen from reason alone that the specific penalty of death is demanded for it in Natural Law. Whether that sanction would fulfil the criteria necessary for it to be applied by the state is another question again but a prudential one.

The possibility arises therefore that St Paul is teaching that not only should sodomy be a crime but that it cannot coherently even be opposed as an immoral act unless it be acknowledged that it should be, in a rightly ordered commonwealth, a capital crime.

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