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What the Church Teaches About Homosexuality

by Richard Sparks, C.S.P.

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, #56).

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 acts.

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, #52).

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 a challenge:

"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, #55).

—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 is homosexual.

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!

Richard Sparks, C.S.P., a Paulist priest and widely published free-lance author, holds a Ph.D. in ethics from Catholic University of America. He is a popular lecturer on ethics, serves as ethical consultant to hospitals, and is associate pastor at Old St. Mary—s Church in Chicago. His most recent book is Contemporary Christian Morality: Real Questions, Candid Responses (Crossroad).

Next: How Catholics Share Faith—New Catechetical Guidelines
(by Daniel S. Mulhall)


The Sacredness of Marriage

"However, we also want to express clearly the Church—s teaching that —homosexual— (genital) activity, as distinguished from homosexual orientation, is morally wrong" [Live in Christ Jesus, #52]. Such an orientation in itself, because not freely chosen, is not sinful.

"As we have stated several times in this document, we 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 life.

"Therefore, homosexual genital activity is considered immoral. Like heterosexual persons, homosexual men and women are called to give witness to chastity, avoiding, with God—s grace, behavior that is wrong for them, just as nonmarital sexual relations are wrong for heterosexual men and women."

—U.S. bishops, Human Sexuality, #55


Twelve practical suggestions
For Heterosexual Persons

1) Be or get in touch with your own sexual identity and personal security issues first. Is my being ill-at-ease with homosexual persons more my own "issue" or their provocation? Sometimes it—s a bit of both.

2) A homosexual orientation does not necessarily imply that the person is genitally, sexually active. Don—t assume so one way or the other. At the same time, a person with a homosexual orientation is not called to a totally touchless, intimacy-free or neuter life. Discerning their own touch boundaries and moral limits requires time, patience and room for graced discernment.

3) Be careful not to single out homosexual Church members for harsher sexual moral scrutiny and standards than other members or groups in the parish, diocese or Church. We are all graced yet sinners, a pilgrim people. Remember the bishops— call for "full participation" and a "special degree of pastoral understanding" for gay and lesbian Catholics.

4) Realize that the tone and choice of wording of some recent Catholic documents related to homosexuality, while theologically accurate, may seem harsh or pastorally insensitive. If you agree with Church teaching about homosexuality, there still should be room for candid, yet tactful discussion of the issue with those who disagree or dissent.

5) Given the HIV/AIDS crisis, which is not a gays-only disease, but which drastically has impacted the gay population in the country, homosexual men and communities are living through a plague-like period. Be as pastorally sensitive and gentle as you would with any other hurting, grieving person, group or network.

For Homosexual Persons

6) First of all, I would like to apologize to you for how you have too often been treated by society, by some members of the Church and, at times, by those in authority—now and across the centuries. If we use the measuring rod, "What would Jesus do?" we are found wanting at times. I—m sorry.

7) Coming out—accepting one—s homosexual orientation—can and often does entail some negative, exaggerated, alienating, potentially sinful behaviors, e.g., "acting out" and experimenting with genital and nongenital boundaries; catty or campy behavior; overestimation of gay and lesbian numbers and who is or isn—t; cliquishness and straight-bashing (reverse discrimination is also no virtue). To the extent one engages in these behaviors, anticipate some societal reaction or response.

8) Be aware that once you "come out," family, friends and colleagues may need the same time, patience and grace to work through their own subsequent pain and acceptance issues as you needed in the first place.

9) While anti-gay and anti-lesbian discrimination continually needs to be challenged; and while some people do have a psychological phobia or obsession against homosexual persons—be wary of using the term homophobia too freely. Just because a person or group believes that some aspects of homosexuality or related sex acts are wrong, that does not automatically make them prejudiced or bigoted. Like faggot, dyke and fairy, the term homophobe can be used more to bash and silence than to foster greater understanding of different orientations and moral points of view.

For Everyone

10) We all are sexual beings, all struggle with our sexuality—drives, desires, loneliness, orientation and self-identity. As the Catholic bishops note, human sexuality is a "wonderful gift" and an "awesome responsibility." There is more in common among us than that which divides or differentiates us— our inherent worth as images of God, our embodiment and our efforts to live sexually chaste and appropriate lives.

11) The distinction between being and doing, while not airtight or universally compelling, is still a helpful one. We can learn to accept and love ourselves (or another)—whether homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual—while still debating, discussing or disagreeing about the morality of certain sex acts.

12) Last, I borrow from the document Human Sexuality: "Educationally speaking, homosexuality cannot and ought not to be ignored....First and foremost, we support modeling and teaching respect for every human person, regardless of sexual orientation. Second, a parent or teacher must also present clearly and delicately the unambiguous moral norms of the Christian tradition regarding homosexual genital activity, appropriately geared to the age level and maturity of the learner. Finally, parents and other educators must remain open to the possibility that a particular person, whether adolescent or adult, may be struggling to accept his or her own homosexual orientation" (Human Sexuality, #56).



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