Many facets of American secular culture is contrary to basic Christian ethics, which as a consequence, requires a response on the part of the faithful. One of these issues is “tolerance” and homosexuality. The Christian commitment to protecting and promoting marital dignity and the family is absolute. The profound temptation in politics, given the “us” versus “them” mentality is to lose a sense of charity that is due to our neighbor, even those with whom we disagree. This happens quite regularly; we even do it to those we love.
Just recently one of my roommates — who is entirely oblivious to my sexual orientation — made a discourteous statement about “fags.” It was hurtful. Given our friendship, if he knew I am homosexual, perhaps he wouldn’t have said it. But that’s not sufficient. I would rather he — because of interior conviction — would refrain from such comments, not simply because of his audience. This should be true of all Catholics.
The point here is certainly not to offer disagreement on the sanctity of marriage and on the disharmony of homosexual acts with the complementarity of the sexes and the sexual design itself. The point of interest rather is the approach one ought to take in the debate about marriage, family, and the rights of homosexual people. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to speak about homosexuality without stirring up preconceptions or emotional reactions. Nearly everyone comes to the subject of homosexuality with some agenda — often enough, their position is non-negotiable. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be. After all, what does the other side possibly have to say that is relevant? Right? Of course not. Yet, this is often how we think. The problem with agendas is that they can take on an importance and value that closes us off from empathy, compassion, and understanding.
The fundamental question I’m concerned about is this: how can Catholics be faithful to the constant and clear teaching of the Church on the issue of human sexuality and still be inclusive and sensitive to the plight of homosexuals, both in the Church and American life? Let’s move past the basics. No, homosexuals cannot marry. No, homosexuals should not adopt children. No, same-sex sexual activity is not equal or comparable to marital love. Despite these moral truths, most Americans have a profoundly different view of human sexuality than the Catholic Church. There must be dialogue with those who disagree with us and we have to educate our Catholic brothers and sisters, as well as everyone else with the authentic Catholic view.
There is yet another question. How did this “hot-button” issue become the problem that it is? This is a question that often goes unnoticed and unanswered.
Many gays and lesbians drift away from their faith. Often enough, a sense of alienation or hurt isn’t traced to a particular event or person, but it’s there nonetheless. Personally, I am friends with many homosexuals, both male and female. I’d say less than half of them believe in God; I’ve discussed sexuality with many of them and have listened to stories of their quiet drift away from faith into skepticism and their sense of liberation away from religion and religious people. The others who believe in God, particularly those who are in some sense religious, do not share my view on living the Christian life, i.e., lifelong celibacy, as a homosexual person. But is this really surprising?
What my friendships with them has offered me — which I hope to share with everyone I can — is profound insights that have formed my views and approach to homosexuality, marriage, and family life. In my discussions with other homosexual men and women, there is a single reality that we all unfailingly describe. It has effected all of us — regardless of our experiences or views — and that reality is silence. People often talk about what is important to them. Given this, silence can have many meanings. It can be perceived as a form of denial of another’s presence or existence in the community. This silence to many homosexuals means “you don’t matter.” In a debate about whether the Church loves gays enough to support those who live chastely, a homosexual Catholic said to me, “Eric, never once is a prayer uttered for homosexuals — for their souls, for their struggles, or for their concerns — in prayers of intercession during Mass.” I haven’t forgotten it and I think about it daily at Mass during the prayers of the faithful; it’s always the prayer I hold in my heart that the priest commends to God with all others. But truly, such an omission is especially noticeable because we usually pray for literally everything else under the sun.
Back to the theme of silence — what does a homosexual person do in this silence? We typically internalizes the negative messages we hear. I’ve always found that the so-called “gay lifestyle” people talk about, which encompasses a subculture of anonymous sexual encounters, sex clubs, pornography, drugs, and an over-identification with one’s sexual orientation to be grossly (and wrongly) applied to all homosexual people in an unfortunate generalization, especially by conservative Christians. This is not the experience or way of life for many gays. There’s not a moment of my own life when I wasn’t aware of “being different” and in my adolescence, this view deeply upset me. I’ve never been promiscuous. Many homosexuals aren’t, but admittedly, the danger to be promiscuous is there.
Never once in my life have I attended a gay pride parade. I thought the entire idea was stupid. To say “I’m a human being with equal dignity, deserving of rights and respect” seemed dubious if one is willing to stand on floats cross-dressed, often enough half-naked, behaving in a flamboyantly sexual manner with people of the same-sex. It was ridiculous. I never once wanted to flood the education system with programs to teach children that homosexuality is a normal, acceptable alternative lifestyle and violate others’ rights to have their view on homosexuality. Surely, more gays and lesbians than we imagine simply want to be able to visit their loved ones in the hospital and make decisions for them when they’re dying without being prevented from seeing them or making health care decisions solely because they aren’t married and as well enjoy other benefits — that don’t necessarily require the status of ‘marriage’ or undermine marriage — while living quietly and peacefully without disturbing society as a whole.
Much of the talk about homosexuality and generalizations made about us often don’t take into account or reflect our actual lived experience. Even within the Catholic Church, the talk about homosexuality hardly ever has anything to do about homosexuals themselves. There is hardly a word uttered about our pain, our journeys in faith, the hard questions we face, and so much more. I’m saying we’re more of an abstract subject than people. We’re also spoken to (don’t act out on your sexual impulses) or about (homosexuals in general). But no one hardly ever speaks with us. Listening is not always about agreeing with all that one hears.
I mentioned that there isn’t a moment in my memory of consciousness when I wasn’t aware of a “difference” and it didn’t take me long to realize what it was. This isn’t the case for all gays as individual testimonies will affirm; some realize it later. But for some reason still unknown to me is that I never dared to mention it to anyone. It was a secret. In fact, the complete absence of any note of the subject in my family, in school, in television, in newspapers, or in books I could get a hold of, made the reality much more interesting and more difficult to deal with. I recall wondering if this curious reality — this unmentionable fact — had any physical manifestation. This in many ways deeply shaped my views later when I was certain there were others like me and how negatively society seemed to view us and treat us.
I remember reading a letter written by a homosexual Catholic quoting Will Rogers who once said, “An Indian always looks back after he passes something so he can get a view of it from both sides. A white man doesn’t do that. He just figures that all sides of a thing are automatically the same. That is why you should never judge a man while you are facing him. You should go around behind him like an Indian and look at what he is looking at, then go back and face him and you will have a totally different idea of who he is.” The Catholic in question practices his faith, loves God, and is deeply religious. He also dissents on the issue of homosexuality. From his perspective, most Catholics don’t take the time — and frankly are not interested — in learning about the lives of their homosexual brothers and sisters, or imagining what it is like to walk in their shoes. “Look and listen before you judge and speak,” he said.
What is the experience of gays?
The “gay experience” is the experience of being different. Long before I was conscious of sexuality, I was different.
The “gay experience” is one of being bad. The topic is often avoided all together. It’s discussed in hushed tones or it’s discussed angrily. Often enough, the whole experience is reduced to genital acts. Regardless of sexual orientation, sexuality is an important element of human personality, an integral party of one’s overall consciousness. It is both a central aspect of one’s self-understanding and a crucial factor in one’s relationships with others and influences how one relates to others. The common expression “homosexuality is a sin” can be very misleading and easily misinterpreted by a homosexual person, particularly an adolescent struggling already in the period of their life where the focus is self-identity and that is even more difficult with a powerful sense of difference that in our society they feel they cannot talk about. In listing homosexuality — “the sin of homosexuality” — in a list of sins, without explanation or clarification that is found in Church teaching can be simplistic and again, misleading. This is not just for homosexuals, but for everyone. All Catholics can misrepresent the Church’s teaching without proper clarifications being made. But all of this is especially harmful for homosexuals who recognize their sexual orientation as a discovery of an already existent condition not a self-conscious choice to be attracted to the same-sex.
The “gay experience” is the experience of secrecy. Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Forget the interior destruction it may cause you. All that matters really is that others are uncomfortable with it — the homosexual condition is inconvenient and disturbing to them, so keep it to yourself. In essence, keep it quiet and in the closet. Become two people. Live in two worlds. Why reveal it? Who wants to be called a “fag” or “dyke” anyways? This may not be the intention of others, but it is often enough how it’s experienced and in many respects what it translates into in practice. Demanding silence and secrecy is truly a type of rejection. Additionally, this isolation inflicts further damage and hurt on homosexual people who already by their condition have lost capacity to fulfill the desire for marital love and intimacy that is wired into human nature, which includes all that comes with it: family life with a spouse, children, grandchildren, and so many other blessings that most people simply take for granted. Some people choose to become priests and religious, others choose to stay single; for homosexuals, there doesn’t seem to be much of a choice on the road to Heaven and alienation only makes it more difficult.
The “gay experience” is the experience of loneliness. Years can be spent carrying a secret that cannot be shared. This reality creates a rift in even the most profound and closest of friendships. Everyone knows the “façade-me,” but not the real me. The problem goes beyond sex because sexuality is not only about sex. All humans are sexual beings and the real challenge for homosexuals, practicing and non-practicing, is intimacy, self-disclosure, acceptance, and love. This sense of loneliness is the breeding ground for dysfunctional lifestyles, compulsive sexual behavior, depression, and even suicide.
What is often the result of this experience?
The “gay experience” is the experience of freedom — transcendence, may be a better term. Homosexuals can make a clear analysis of what others often take for granted because they, at times, look from the outside. But this is not all that “freedom” means. In modernity, this “freedom” is a movement away from the rigid definitions of manliness and womanliness because to abolish this, seemingly, is the only way for homosexuals to gain recognition and acceptance. What do they want this for? Peace. A chance at not living a fragmented, broken life — showing one face to the world and living with another. This is the heart of the “gay movement.” Years of loneliness and isolation — that should and could have been avoided — brings gays together in a sometimes nihilistic movement for self-affirmation.
The “gay experience” is the experience of compassion. How can anyone who experiences so much exclusion not become experts in inclusion? Since it is traditionally conservatives who oppose homosexuality (in the broad sense), this movement often manifests itself as opposition to anything conservatives support. The gay rights movement links itself to the “pro-choice” movement because allegedly all pro-life conservatives care about is unborn babies — what about everyone else?
The “gay experience” is one that is paradoxically and ironically open to God. Homosexuals can be deeply religious. Jesus of Nazareth is a misunderstood, alienated figure. He is the “suffering servant” that the prophet Isaiah talks about. Suffering is an experience that homosexuals easily identify with. But homosexual religiosity is often done in a free form way, away from organized religion, away from structure because homosexuals don’t feel that these communities are very welcoming. If it is done in a religious community, it usually occurs in one that is politically liberal and affirmative of gay rights.
We all know that gays “come out.” But what we all don’t realize is that “coming out” is not a once in a lifetime thing. It’s a daily task. Gays live out their lives in a predominantly heterosexual world. It’s always presumed that everyone is heterosexual. Often enough, gays are faced with the question of whether or not this or that occassion calls for revealing one’s sexual orientation and it always involves risk — risk of alienation, rejection, misunderstanding, violence, loss of a job, or a rift in a relationship. When a gay person “comes out,” often enough, the most difficult person to tell is their own self. Homosexuals condition themselves to not accept and recognize who they are. The false identity, in a way, becomes their identity because no one can simply “act” for so long without the false realities imprinting on them. It’s the worse kind of sin, the worse kind of oppression. Self-deception. It opens millions of doors to other vices, particularly moral compromise. In such dire circumstances, one might do anything to gain the approval of others.
This is fundamentally the story of homosexuality in the lives of many men and women. It begins as considerable time and effort doing everything possible to rid themselves of any outward sign of one’s own homosexual desires, that is, by crafting an elaborate system of hiding true feelings and acting “straight.” Some even attempt marriage and even parenting, which only ends in heart break or a life of self-deception and internal destruction. The energy it takes to hide and pretend is too costly: ruined marriages, disrupted relationships, double lives of secrecy, loneliness, internal conflicts and isolation.
It makes sense then that after experiencing such isolation, homosexuals often have an overidentification with their sexual orientation. They finally can “be themselves” and that “self” that they never were, is a homosexual and it maintains a lot of their attention.
Gay subcultures don’t exist to ensnare people into a certain way of living. To be sure, there are destructive elements to such environments. But most certainly, it is more liberating and comparatively a more safe environment from the perspective of a homosexual who has lived in silence, in a heterosexual world. I can easily see why one would choose such a path. The reason homosexuals seek out each other is not because of in-built pervesion, but from misunderstanding and an often a lifetime of loneliness and a universal need for intimacy, and for that embrace they feel they never had. The sense that no one in the world cares nor understands, can lead to in the long run compulsive tendencies (after you’ve revealed yourself), to rebellion, and to the pull of homosexual company where one is at home with people who care and people who understand — away from a lifetime of gay jokes and haunting words like “fag” and “dyke.”
The public debate on homosexuality leads to a more fundamental question. What is the origin of homosexuality?
It’s the age-old question: is homosexuality the result of nature or nuture? Truthfully, little is known or understood about the origin of homosexuality with any kind of certainty. The fact that certain theories are politicized makes answering this question all the more difficult.
Again, when you think about it, what do we know about the origins of heterosexuality? Sure, it is evident that is apart of the creative order, but children generally show a “repulsion” (‘eww girls!’) or uneasiness about the opposite sex at a young age. Why the shift for the majority? And how do we accomodate this or that theory when even with modern knowledge, we don’t know what over half of the human genome actually does, that is, what ‘this’ or ‘that’ gene is for. It seems that what is normative is taken for granted. And while this question doesn’t bear the same urgency that homosexuality does, I think it’s a humbling question. There is much to learn about human sexuality.
I certainly have my views on the origin of homosexuality and I have no interest in trying to make a case for them. Several studies, including one by The Kinsey Institute, reported that no one knows what causes homosexuality. In fact, they argued, scientists are more clear on what does not cause homosexuality. Parenting in itself doesn’t cause homosexuality. Children raised by same-sex parents are no more likely to grow up homosexual than children raised by heterosexual parents. This isn’t to deny other ill-effects of having same-sex couples parenting, but to show that homosexuality is not solely caused by “bad” parenting.
Homosexuality possibly has a genetic foundation. Many Christians don’t like this idea because it seems that God causes homosexuality. But it doesn’t mean that God actively intends it rather than passively allows it. The same is true for a person who may be genetically inclined toward alcoholism or aggression. These things wouldn’t be termed “good,” but they certainly have a biological foundation. In a fallen world, Dawkins’ idea of “selfish genes” is not entirely impractical. Moreover some things don’t make sense in solely genetic terms. It doesn’t make sense in terms of pure biology for a person to use contraception, since their genes lose out due to this decision. In certain circumstances, it doesn’t make sense for organisms to act altruistically — e.g. humans sacrificing their lives for others — in terms of reproduction. Even then, a biological foundation doesn’t make alcoholism moral — no matter how strong the inclination. In the same way, a biological foundation of homosexuality wouldn’t change the morality of homosexual sexual behavior. Why? Free will doesn’t change. Metaphysics doesn’t change. Men and women would remain complementary to one another based on their ontological, metaphysical differences and their union would reflect the inner unity of the Creator. This would occur still in their striking way of cooperating with God in the transmission of life and still remains that choosing a partner of the same-sex would be to annul the rich symbolism and meaning, not to mention the built-in goals of the sexual design. That is to say, ultimately, human nature does not evolve. It is objective and shared in common by everyone. It’s not based only on genes because genes vary person to person.
A genetic inclination toward homosexuality is an example of what may be a fundamental, universal cause of homosexuality. If homosexuality doesn’t have a biological foundation, it is more difficult to account for. Why? If homosexuality is entirely, say, psychological, then one of the challenges any theory would have to meet lies in the fact that there is no one way that all homosexual men and women feel and act. All homosexuals have entirely different life experiences, which leads to different psychological experiences. Arguably the rift in parent-child relationships between homosexuals and their parents may not be the cause of homosexuality, but a result of homosexuality–the “rift” is due to the secret that you can’t share, that disables you from in some sense from identifying with things masculine and feminine, etc and maybe not the other way around. It could very well be the former. Nevertheless, to accomodate this position, I’ve seen many make the case (which I’m not arguing for or against–here, at least) that there are probably a number of “homosexualities” — since human beings are multidimensional (more than just biology), situational (unique in their own life experience and interpretation of it), and contextual (in a particular culture at a specific time). Homosexuality then is compromised of a variety of experiences and expressions. This view, potentially would even include a possibly genetic inclination toward homosexuality as well as other types of conditions that result in same-sex attraction. Given this complexity, it seems that speaking about a “homosexual lifestyle” can really be unfair at times because what one is trying to conceptualize in such a phrase may be grossly inaccurate.
Given that the genesis of homosexuality is obscure, it is increasingly more difficult to define it. So then what is a homosexual person? “A homosexual person is a person who sustains a predominant, persistent and exclusive psychosexual attraction toward members of the same sex. A homosexual person is one who feels sexual desire and a sexual responsiveness to persons of the same sex and who seeks or would like to seek actual sexual fulfillment of this desire by sexual acts with a person of the same sex.” That’s the best definition I’ve ever encountered and it includes pretty much all we know about homosexuality and homosexual people — very little.
How are Catholics to respond to homosexuality?
When gays rebel, or “act out” — particularly when they do something religiously offensive, e.g. dress up like nuns — there is an immediate temptation to respond to such outrageous behavior with divisive comments that are just as outrageous that accomplish nothing and fuel the fires of hatred against the Catholic Church. When rage meets rage, the Devil has met his goal. How can we be proactive and not reactive?
The scriptures give a clear and consistent condemnation of same-sex sexual activity. However, the research of the natural and social sciences and the lived experience of ordinary Catholics should all play a part in how we approach the issue of homosexuality — particularly in subjective culpability and how the truth is to be preached. I find that a rigid and coldly objective application of the Church’s teaching can be most discouraging. The least effective way is to be stridently objective, not taking into account the spiritual journey of the person you are advising. When we focus on the homosexual orientation, we’re ignoring the whole of the person. Each human person is a story in his or her self. A person that is thrown into the mystery of life, trying to uncover its meaning, living in a world with all its unanswered questions of history, of competing philosophies and religions with even more stark differences in how they view the human person, as well as with different life experiences that influence how we respond to the question of what it means to be human. Sexual orientation does not encompass the entirety of humanity, but it does play a vital role and this needs to be taken into account, not just in the Church but in American life, particularly in our public policies.
In dealing with the complex issues surrounding homosexuality, it is very easy to give simple and at times caustic answers. It is more difficult and more rewarding to travel the road less traveled and to listen with an open heart and apply objective moral norms sensitively to basic human needs, concerns, and aspirations. Conversion is normally not something that happens in an instant or overnight, it is an ongoing process; we grow only gradually.
A simple insight into the general Catholic response to the “problem of homosexuality” lies in parish life. When one thinks of ministry that involves “family life” how quickly do we think of homosexuality? Not very quickly, I’d imagine. Why isn’t homosexuality considered a part of family life ministry? Homosexuals have families, are apart of families, and parents often have a hard time dealing with the revelation that their son or daughter is homosexual. It’s a family issue. So why do we hardly talk about it? In fact, how frequently does one see a ministry in support for homosexual Catholics trying to live in accord with the Church’s teaching in parishes? In the U.S., the sole ministry to homosexual Catholics, Courage, has about 100 chapters. This is good news and bad news. It is good that there are so many chapters. It is bad that there are so few. Only about half of the dioceses in the country have a chapter. In most dioceses, only one parish has one. What does that say about the Catholic Church in America? In my view, Courage does not get remotely the support it should from bishops and clergy.
It seems that homosexual Catholics hardly get the support they need from their Catholic brothers and sisters. It is absolutely true that Catholics have an obligation to build a moral and just society. However, there seems to be a hypocrisy in the way Catholics and other Christians make extraordinary demands on homosexuals in American life on the basis of “loving them”, yet the amount of effort spent in offering support and educational awareness of the plight of homosexuals and how to accomodate them sensitively within a Catholic moral framework is very disheartening. How many chastity resources for homosexuals can one think of that is secular, that may appeal to homosexuals who have struggles with approaching anything religous? What are non-religious homosexuals to do? Moreover, just how much do we actually think of the concerns and journey of homosexual people when considering public policy?
Much more can be said. But I think one thing is clear: before we, as Catholics, critique the moral inadequacy of society, perhaps we should reflect just on how much we contribute to and perpetuate that inadequacy. By reflecting on the common experience of homosexuals, we can take it into account as we develop our views of public policies about family life, particularly in terms of marriage and homosexuals in America.