There are two sides to the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Everyone is familiar with the prohibition of same-sex sexual relationships. But there is often less discussion of the teaching on the dignity of homosexual persons and the responsibility of Christians to oppose violence and unjust discrimination against them.
“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes. “They do not choose their homosexual condition. ... They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.” The Vatican’s document “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” expands on this point: “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. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.”
Dismissing real wrongs
It is important to note here that the Church recognizes that acts of violence and malice have been perpetrated against homosexual persons. Sometimes, out of a desire to avoid granting legitimacy to the legislative demands of gay rights groups, Catholics dismiss or deny genuine wrongs against “LGBTQ” people. Some believe that claims of anti-gay violence are only a meme circulated in order to gain political clout in debates about same-sex marriage and adoption.
This attitude is often symptomatic of a wider problem. Catholics who accept the Church’s teachings on the immorality of gay sex tend to approach the issue of homosexuality primarily as a political problem, a nexus of hostility within the “culture wars.” As a result, the genuine spiritual and political needs of homosexual people are neglected.
Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage, the largest Vatican approved ministry to people with same-sex attractions (SSA), notes that “the strength of the Courage apostolate lies in its approach to homosexuality: not as a cultural question or political debate, but as a personal reality in the lives of individual men and women.”
The Canadian Council of Bishops in its recent document on Pastoral Ministry to Young People With Same Sex Attraction points out: “To assist young persons with same-sex attraction it is necessary to understand the enormous pressures to which they are frequently subjected: unjust discrimination, the sense of invisibility and isolation, and ignorance of their particular situation.” The bishops add that “ostracism or the fear of being rejected or even hated, frequently contributes to the despair that all too often is felt by these young persons.”
When Catholics adopt attitudes that privilege social or cultural concerns over the needs of individuals, this leads to a situation where the teachings of the Church seem cold, bigoted or homophobic. By recognizing the legitimate concerns of “LGBTQ” people, and by insisting on their legitimate rights, Catholics can contribute to showing that opposition to same-sex genital activity is not contrary to genuine love and charity.
Finding a cure
One of the primary areas in which gays and lesbians are often subjected to real violence is in the area of “cures” for homosexuality. Throughout the past century, gay men have been subjected to a wide range of often bizarre experimental procedures, including castration, testicular transplants, and electric shock treatments.
It is easy to think that such things no longer go on, but within recent years international attention has been drawn to several situations in which lesbian women have faced severe violence in an attempt to alter their sexual orientations. In early 2011 Ndumie Funda and her organization, Luleki Sizwe, brought to light the practice of “corrective rape” that has been practiced in many African countries over the past couple of decades. More recently, Paola Ziritti of Ecuador has been fighting along with the Fundacion Causana to shut down more than 200 clinics in which lesbians are confined and assaulted, sexually and physically, in order to “cure” them of homosexuality.
Although most Catholics would certainly agree with the Vatican that such practices are “deplorable,” it is important to openly acknowledge and condemn them within the public sphere. Such condemnation is not only right and just in light of the dignity of the human person, it also shows that Catholics genuinely love and care about their homosexual brothers and sisters.
It is also important to recognize that even if Catholics would object to violent “treatments” for homosexuality, a failure to distinguish between homosexual acts and homosexual tendencies can foster negative views of the homosexual person which encourage real malice and hatred. Too often, conservative Catholics stereotype people with SSA as narcissistic, immature, angry, manipulative, and lacking in self-control — even if they are completely chaste.
Such negative images lead many to see orientation change as a necessary component of salvation for homosexual people. Encouraged by the testimonies of those who have been able to enter heterosexual marriages, Catholics may assume that most homosexuals are capable of becoming straight. This view is not endorsed by the Vatican or by Courage. Even the most optimistic studies of orientation change show that only a small minority of homosexually attracted people will go on to experience opposite-sex attraction, whether as a result of prayer support, psychotherapy, or other forms of treatment.
The Vatican emphasizes the importance of integrating homosexual persons into the Body of Christ in a way that calls them to chastity, while providing the means of support necessary to make that a reality. “An authentic pastoral program will assist homosexual persons at all levels of the spiritual life: through the sacraments, and in particular through the frequent and sincere use of the sacrament of Reconciliation, through prayer, witness, counsel and individual care. In such a way, the entire Christian community can come to recognize its own call to assist its brothers and sisters, without deluding them or isolating them.”
Special note should be taken that homosexually attracted people who choose to live out their Christian vocation to chastity require the support and assistance of “the entire Christian community.” Many, when they turn away from the hope of a lasting same-sex union, are left in a sort of vocational vacuum. Marriage is rarely a possibility, and the Vatican has recently ruled that deep-seated homosexual tendencies are not compatible with the priesthood. Many religious communities also exclude same-sex attracted people. This means that a life of single celibacy remains the only viable option for the majority of orthodox same-sex attracted Catholics.
Such a life can only succeed if it is enriched with opportunities to give and receive human love. Author Wesley Hill points out that “one of the main challenges of living faithfully before God as a gay Christian is to believe, really believe, that God in Christ can make up for our sacrifice of homosexual partnerships not simply with his own desire and yearning for us but with his desire and yearning mediated to us through the human faces and arms of those who are our fellow believers.”
The love which Catholics extend to same-sex attracted people cannot be a merely abstract love fixated on the problem of homosexual sex. As stated in one of the five goals of Courage, “chaste friendships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste Christian life.” In order for a homosexual person to succeed in being chaste, they must find opportunities to share their life with others, both with Christians who are willing to support them, and those whom they are able to serve through self-giving love.
Fear, negative stereotypes, demeaning attitudes and a failure to acknowledge the very real difficulties which homosexual Christians face can drive away those who most need the love of Mother Church. Those who do not experience the love of Christ in the visible Church will find it very difficult to understand the invisible truths of the faith.
Therefore love, not the condemnation of gay sex, should be the primary message which homosexual people hear from Catholics, for it is only in the context of a greater love that it is possible to put aside the desire for erotic fulfillment.
Melinda Selmys is author of “Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism” (OSV, $15.95).