Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
What the Church Teaches About Homosexuality
Homosexuality is surely one of the "hot-button"
or "red-flag" issues in Church and society today. Gay-rights advocates
and activists are pushing a strong political agenda from the left—job
benefits for domestic partners, civil recognition for gay marriages,
the right to bear one—s own children via reproductive technologies,
equal access to adoption, anti-discrimination statutes, etc.
The religious right not only tends to
oppose most of these political inroads, it also seems to lend some
measure of credibility to gay-bashing hate groups, like those who,
in October 1998, "lynched" 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, beating
him and leaving him tied to a fence in rural Wyoming.
Most of the rest of us, including Catholic
Church leaders, feel caught in the middle, between either polar
extreme. Pressured by some to accept too much, too easily and embarrassed
by others for their intolerance and hostility toward gay and lesbian
persons, the Catholic Church in recent decades has striven to chart
a mid-course. That course is moral yet pastoral, true to our sexual
moral tradition yet not inflexible or intolerant.
Starting in the mid-1960—s, with the
publication of a groundbreaking, pastorally sensitive article on
homosexuality by Fr. John Harvey in the New Catholic Encyclopedia,
the Catholic Church has embraced the core moral distinction between
being homosexual in orientation and the choice of doing (or not
doing) homosexual sexual acts. The Catholic bishops in the United
States noted in their 1990 document Human Sexuality: "The
distinction between being homosexual, and doing homosexual genital
actions, while not always clear and convincing, is a helpful and
important one when dealing with the complex issue of homosexuality,
particularly in the educational and pastoral arena" (Human Sexuality,
In brief, evidence indicates that being
homosexual—that is, "experienc(ing) an exclusive or predominant
sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex"—is most often
an experience that is discovered, not freely chosen (Catechism
of the Catholic Church, #2357-8). With the onset of puberty,
and its associated hormonal changes, every adolescent boy and girl
begins to discover sexual attractions, desires, fantasies and feelings.
For the majority of people, this attraction
is primarily focused toward members of the opposite sex. Thus, their
orientation is termed "heterosexual." But for a relatively small
but significant percentage of the population, homosexual persons,
this attraction or orientation is primarily toward their own gender.
Bisexual persons seem to be somewhat equally drawn to members of
both sexes. While having a homosexual (or even a bisexual) orientation
is not typical, it is not in itself morally wrong or sinful.
Since in most cases it is discerned
or discovered, not freely chosen, it is not automatically blameworthy
(Human Sexuality, #55; Catechism, #2358).Thus
the Church has taken a fairly benign or accepting stance toward
homosexual persons—who discover their desires and inclinations (i.e.,
orientation) toward same-sex sexual activity. Yet the Church has
consistently taught that to act on these inclinations, particularly
to engage in homosexual genital acts, is always objectively morally
wrong. Why so? Here the Church attempts to be true to the core premises
of our Catholic sexual-ethics tradition, while at the same time
fostering basic human respect, justice and pastoral care toward
gay and lesbian persons.
Accept the orientation, not the actions
As the Catholic bishops state it: "(W)e
believe that it is only within a heterosexual marital relationship
that genital sexual activity is morally acceptable. Only within
marriage does sexual intercourse fully symbolize the Creator—s dual
design, as an act of covenant love, with the potential of co-creating
new human life. Therefore, homosexual genital activity is considered
immoral" (Human Sexuality, #55). In somewhat less
pastoral, more philosophical terms, Vatican documents use the phrase
"intrinsically disordered" when referring to homosexual genital
Whatever the term chosen, the implication
would be the same: that sexual intercourse is designed by God both
1) as an act of lovemaking, of two-in-one-flesh union, and also
2) as the means to procreate new life, to co-create—as a couple
and with God—s grace—new members of the human species. If these
are the indelible meanings of sexual intimacy, written, as it were,
into human nature and the nature of these intimate acts, then homosexual
sex seems to be essentially deficient or incomplete.
Biologically speaking, homosexual sex
acts are wholly non-procreative, since either the sperm or ovum
element would be absent. While many homosexual couples embrace one
another sexually and intimately as an expression of their love,
it can be argued that such intimate genital embraces are fundamentally
created to be heterosexual acts, reserved to those couples pledged
to each other for life in the bond of marriage.
Therefore, the Church calls all homosexual
persons, like their single heterosexual counterparts, to be chaste,
that is, sexually appropriate for their uncommitted, unmarried state
in life. Various Church documents acknowledge that this may be a
difficult challenge, even a lifelong cross to carry. This is particularly
true since heterosexual couples may anticipate marriage-to-come,
while for gay or lesbian couples such a future sacramental union
is not available.
The Vatican as well as Catholic bishops
in this country promise that the Church—s ministers will not be
lacking in compassion. They counsel a measure of prudence in the
confessional setting as well as a special degree of pastoral care
(Catechism, #2358-2359; Human Sexuality, #55-56;
Declaration on Sexual Ethics, #8; To Live in Christ Jesus,
What about the rest of us?
Interestingly, just as all Church documents
on homosexuality acknowledge this orientation/action distinction
when speaking to homosexual persons, the same documents always aim
the moral lens squarely at the heterosexual majority as well. The
same moral principles apply to homosexual and heterosexual persons.
Church teaching shows a special concern
regarding prejudice shown to homosexual persons. "Mindful of the
inherent and abiding dignity of every human person" the Catholic
bishops reaffirm that "homosexual persons, like everyone else, should
not suffer from prejudice against their basic human rights. They
have a right to respect, friendship and justice. They should have
an active role in the Christian community" (Human Sexuality,
#55; To Live in Christ Jesus, #52).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
goes on to state: "Every sign of unjust discrimination in their
regard should be avoided" (#2358). And in an even more sharply worded
statement from the Vatican—s Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith we read: "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" (Letter to the Bishops of the World on the Pastoral
Care of Homosexual Persons, #10).
Thus, the Church challenges homosexual
persons concerning their discovered orientation and its implication
in terms of sexual action choices. At the same time, the Church—s
leaders challenge the so-called "straight" or heterosexual majority
to take its own moral pulse, to remove the plank of prejudice and/or
self-righteousness from our own eyes. In an eloquent summary of
the latter notion, the Catholic bishops in the United States offer
"We call on all Christians and citizens
of good will to confront their own fears about homosexuality and
to curb the humor and discrimination that offend homosexual persons.
We understand that having a homosexual orientation brings with it
enough anxiety, pain and issues related to self-acceptance without
society adding additional prejudicial treatment" (Human Sexuality,
—Always our children—
In October 1997, the U.S. bishops— Committee
on Marriage and Family published Always Our Children: A Pastoral
Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral
Ministers. Many who emphasize the Church—s official teaching
against homosexual sex feared that the document was too lenient,
too pastoral, not clear enough about the Catholic prohibition of
homosexual genital sex. Others, conversely, were concerned that
the document didn—t go far enough or that its focus on parents and
family might leave homosexual persons themselves feeling left out
or talked about, but not dealt with directly.
In July of 1998 a revised version of
Always Our Children was reissued, now with Vatican support.
The changes and refinements, while relatively minor, did serve to
better nuance and clarify those points considered too vague or unclear.
The stated purpose of the document is "to reach out to parents who
are trying to cope with the discovery of homosexuality in a child
who is an adolescent or an adult." It encourages families to draw
on their untapped reserves of faith, hope and love, as they together
face "uncharted futures." Drawing on all the same Catholic sources
cited in this Update, the bishops of the Marriage and Family
Life Committee want to encourage parents and families to accept,
love and walk together with their gay son or lesbian daughter.
Their pastoral concern is prompted,
in part, by the growing sociological literature linking many male
teen suicides to the discovery that the boy has a homosexual orientation,
with a subsequent presumption that his family would shun or disown
him. Often the teen feels that his parents would rather discover
that he is dead than have to cope with the fact that his orientation
So also, far too many young gay men and
lesbian women attempt heterosexual marriage, in an effort to "turn
themselves around" or to "hide" their orientation within a socially
accepted marriage covenant. If not dealt with up front, during puberty
and adolescence, such repressed orientation issues often lie dormant
for years, but not for a lifetime. Discovering—at age 30, 40 or
50—that one—s spouse, the father or mother of one—s children, is
primarily homosexual and wants out of the marriage is a devastating
blow. Was the whole marriage a lie? Should we stick with it for
the sake of the children? If teens are allowed to deal more openly
with their sexual feelings, fantasies and orientation at an appropriate
age and in responsible counseling and educational settings, such
later tragedies may be avoided.
—Coming out——It—s hard on everyone
For these reasons, and in an effort
to help parents and families cope wisely and well with the news
that a loved one thinks she or he is or might be homosexual, Always
Our Children was issued and given wide media coverage.
The "coming-out" process, sometimes
called "coming out of the closet," is not an easy transition for
the gay or lesbian person or for one—s family and loved ones. Frequently,
this discovery is accompanied by a variety of mixed feelings, including
anger, sometimes relief, mourning for what can never be, fear, guilt,
shame, loneliness or depression, and even a desire to protect or
repress, "to put the genie back into the bottle" or closet. All
of these feelings are real. They—re understandable. They—re normal.
It takes time, support, patience and often professional help for
a gay or lesbian person to accept one—s orientation and to sort
out the moral do—s and don—ts of sexual activity.
So too, once a homosexual son or daughter
"comes out" to parents, family or friends, it is not uncommon for
recipients of this news to "go into the closet" of their own denial
or fears. Like their gay or lesbian relative, other family members
may need some time to do their own "coming-out" process about a
homosexual son, daughter or loved one. Granting to all involved
the time, space, patience and love needed for this acceptance process
is a key focus of Always Our Children.
I once heard a mother phrase it this
way, "I love my daughter, who happens to be lesbian" (as opposed
to saying, "I love my lesbian daughter"). The daughter—s lesbian
sexual orientation, while real and important, was not the defining
trait that encompassed their relationship. Mother-daughter is more
core, more binding, more love-infusing than discovery of a loved
one—s sexual orientation or desires. Bravo for this mom!
Next: How Catholics Share FaithNew
(by Daniel S. Mulhall)