Informed Conscience

Romans 1:25-27

25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity. 1

Putting it into context

This passage in Romans (Romans 1:18-32) is about the punishment of idolaters.
The New American Bible gives the following explanatory note for verses 18 to 32:

In this passage Paul uses themes and rhetoric common in Jewish-Hellenistic mission proclamation (cf Wisdom 13:1-14:31) to indict especially the non-Jewish world. The close association of idolatry and immorality is basic, but the generalization needs in all fairness to be balanced against the fact that non-Jewish Christian society on many levels displayed moral attitudes and performance whose quality would challenge much of contemporary Christian culture. Romans themselves expressed abhorrence over devotion accorded to animals in Egypt. Paul’s main point is that the wrath of God does not await the end of the world but goes into action at each present moment in humanity’s history when misdirected piety serves as a facade for self-interest. 2

The Collegeville Bible Commentary was created by a highly respected group of biblical scholars and represents the latest thought in Scripture study. It is approved for use by Catholics (Nihil Obstat: Robert C. Harren J.C.L., Imprimatur: Jerome Hanus O.S.B.). It offers the following explanation for these verses:

They have substituted parts of God’s creation for God himself; this disregards the wholeness and completeness of God. Further evidence of this distortion is to be found in their sexual conduct. As is clear in the Leviticus (11-15) rules regarding purity, holiness, wholeness, the human body is a symbol of the social religious body or community. These rules seek to protect body boundaries. Notice the high degree of concern about orifices or body openings, both ordinary (like the mouth, genitals) and unusual (like leprosy = skin eruptions). Thus Paul’s remarks about “unnatural relations” (vv. 26 and 27) should be understood in the context of his concern for order, for wholeness, and for bodily integrity, which is supposed to mirror the order and integrity of society and the cosmos, viewed, of course, from a Jewish perspective. Hence “natural” and “unnatural” should be more accurately translated “culturally approved” and “culturally disapproved.”

Word analysis

The Greek word translated as “degrading” (as in “degrading passions”) is “atimia”.
Paul uses this same word in 1 Corinthians 11:14 to describe the disgrace of a man who wears his hair long.
This supports the interpretation of homosexual acts as socially unacceptable at the time, but not necessarily sinful.
In fact, Paul even applies the word to himself in 2 Corinthians 6:8 to describe the dishonor he endured because of his commitment to his ministry.

The Greek phrase translated as “unnatural” is “para physin”.
Paul uses this same phrase in Romans 11:24 to describe God’s action of grafting a wild branch onto a cultivated tree (referring figuratively to how God includes the Gentiles in His plan of salvation for the Jews).
Again, this supports the interpretation of “unnatural” as “unusual” (since cultivated branches are usually grafted onto wild trees rather than the other way round).
It would seem that even God acts “unnaturally” at times!

The Greek word translated as “shameful” is “aschemosyne”.
Paul uses this same word in 1 Corinthians 12:23 to refer to one’s private parts.
Once more, its meaning is more closely associated with social impropriety rather than sin.

In conclusion

Paul’s choice of words to describe homosexual acts would seem to indicate a social disapproval of it rather than an ethical condemnation of it.
This makes sense when we consider that Paul suggests that it is the due penalty for (a consequence of) their perversity (idolatry).

1 The New American Bible Romans 1:25-27
2 The New American Bible Romans Explanatory Note 1, 18-32$46A (superscript 13)

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