Is the Church Homophobic?

The short answer to the question “Is the Catholic Church homophobic?” is simple: No.

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Of course, that won’t do for those who claim — often with great intensity — that the Church is “homophobic.” Allow me to begin with a personal anecdote. Twenty years ago, while still an evangelical Protestant, I worked in retail advertising. Some of my co-workers were openly “gay” (more about that term in a moment). One of them — “Bob” — began engaging me in talks about homosexuality that, not surprisingly, turned into lengthy arguments. I resolved to show I could be his friend even while holding that homosexual acts are immoral. Bob rejected this approach, insisting it was “hypocritical” and then, after many conversations, “homophobic.” In the course of those conversations, which took place over a year’s time, I learned several important lessons. First, it became evident that Bob’s identity and sense of worth were so bound up with his being gay that he viewed nearly every perceived slight or actual disagreement as somehow homophobic. Second, despite his talk of “tolerance” and “understanding,” Bob had little tolerance for my position and even less interest in understanding the points and arguments I presented. It was a one-way street, and any appeal to Scripture, historical record, moral consensus, logic or other data was eventually dismissed as simply evidence of my personal “prejudices.” 

Finally, I began to see how the misuse of language was an integral part of how many with a pro-homosexual agenda either mislead or even intimidate those in disagreement. It was curious how the term “homosexual,” which is both descriptive and neutral, was rejected, often vehemently. The correct term, I was told, is “gay,” which connotes, even if subtly, a positive and attractive quality. Many readers might be surprised to learn the term gay was not used regularly until the 1980s. The New York Times did not use it (other than referring to organizations or giving quotes) until 1987. 

The term “homophobic” is a misuse of language. Strictly speaking, the etymology of the word is puzzling, as it literally means, “fear of sameness,” when it quite obviously is meant to label a fear, dislike or hatred of those who are different. The use of “phobia” is rather ingenious, as it implies that an actual mental disorder is afoot, as if the natural aversion most people have to homosexual acts and lifestyles is somehow an infantile, irrational pathology. One hardly needs to look far to find plentiful evidence that, increasingly, any concerns — never mind thoughtful judgment — about the homosexual lifestyle are dismissed as homophobic, hateful and intolerant. In other words, the Church’s consistent and traditional teaching that homosexual acts — not inclinations — are disordered and immoral is deemed hateful and intolerant. Of course, the Church also teaches that adultery, fornication, masturbation and pornography are also grave sins, yet terms such as “adulterophia” or “pornophobia” have yet to become common. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the Church’s “tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (No. 2357). There is a clear, vital distinction made between the inherent dignity of those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies and their freely chosen actions. In addition, the Catechism teaches: “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (No. 2358).  

In 2006, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an important document entitled “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care.” It emphasized the distinction between “engaging in homosexual acts and having a homosexual inclination,” and said that while “the former is always objectively sinful, the latter is not.” TCA 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.