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Same-sex attractions: The Church’s pastoral response

Part I - Sexuality and homosexuality

One of the greatest issues before us now is that of homosexuality. The phenomenon of homosexuality is nothing new. But now we face something completely new in the history of the world: the demand that homosexual relationships be approved as normative and recognized as "marriages." Such approval would radically change the understanding of marriage and family that has been at the heart of our civilization for millennia. Given not only this threat but also the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the Church's teaching, we must know the truth about homosexuality.

But first we must review the Church's teaching on sexuality in general. For the Church does not propose different standards of sexual morality (one heterosexual and another homosexual). Rather, she articulates the truth about human sexuality for all - a truth that is not her exclusive possession but pertains to the nature of man. She bears witness to the natural law, to the design and purpose of human sexuality. The truth is this: Human sexuality has meaning, purpose and design - all discernible by natural reason. It is for something: for procreation and union.

We want our lives (especially the most intimate part of them) to have meaning and purpose. But these come with limits. Consider this in a less controversial context. Eyes and ears have a purpose and design - both physical and spiritual. Physically, they have a particular design that enables us to see and hear. Spiritually, they have a purpose as well: to see reality and to hear the truth; to see others and to hear them. The design brings limits. To disobey the physical design brings pain, perhaps blindness and deafness. To disobey the spiritual purpose brings moral decline - the inability to know the truth and form relationships.

So also with human sexuality. Physically, human sexuality is designed for procreation by the union of man and woman. Biologically it makes sense no other way. Human genitalia have no other purpose or meaning. Their physical design is inexplicable apart from this. Further, the physical is a sign of the spiritual. The physical complementarity of man and woman indicates a deeper, spiritual complementarity. As one writer puts it, one-flesh unity is the body's language for one-life unity. Human sexuality is designed for the consummation and expression of the one-life unity of a man and woman. The moral norms follow. It is immoral to use one's sexual faculty in any manner that violates either procreation or union.

This review is important because the current demand to approve the homosexual lifestyle does not exist in a vacuum. It must be seen within the broader context of sexual immorality. The truth about human sexuality has been violated for decades by widespread contraception, adultery, fornication, divorce, pornography, etc. Yes, these things have always existed. But in recent decades they have been approved and thus have grown. This disregard for the truth about human sexuality in heterosexual relations logically prompts the question why homosexual relations should be wrong. If by contraception heterosexual sex can be closed to life and frustrate spousal union, then what makes it special? Why only a man and a woman? And if heterosexuals can divorce and remarry with such frequency, then what is so special about marriage?

Thus the first step in addressing the challenge of homosexuality is to rededicate oneself to the full truth of human sexuality as the Church has always taught it.

As regards homosexuality, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2357-59) identifies three distinct levels in the Church's teaching: the act, the inclination and the person. It is essential to maintain these distinctions in order to respond charitably and faithfully to the issue.

First, homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. The word disordered means that such acts fail to observe the design and purpose of human sexuality. They lack the natural ordering to procreation. They also lack the complementarity necessary to achieve the union of two persons in one flesh. The word intrinsically means that the disorder is in the nature of the acts themselves. They are always and at all times immoral. No situation, circumstance or affection can make them moral. Some accuse the Church of saying that homosexual persons are intrinsically disordered. The Church has never said any such thing. As we will see, that error comes only from those who reduce personal identity to sexual activity.

Second, the homosexual inclination is objectively disordered. Same-sex attractions, which a person may experience in varying degrees, tend toward a use of sexuality contrary to its twofold purpose. This is not a moral statement insofar as a person who experiences homosexual inclinations is not morally culpable for such feelings. Feelings in themselves are morally neutral. They become morally charged (for virtue or vice) only when we act on them. The inclinations themselves are not a sin. Nevertheless, they incline individuals to unchaste actions and therefore are disordered.

Finally, and most importantly, the person. The human person is always a good and always to be respected - indeed, loved. The person - no matter his attractions - is a child of God, bears the likeness of God and is redeemed by the blood of Christ. Those with same-sex attractions are not an exception to this. They are called to chastity, to holiness - to heaven. They experience a particular struggle, and at times a deeply painful one. But that does not undermine their dignity as persons.

We must always distinguish the person from the attractions. Most errors in this area come from the reduction of the person to the attractions: to say, "A person who has homosexual attractions must be homosexual." This reduces the human person to the sum total of his sexual inclinations. Two extremes make this error. On one extreme the homosexual culture contends that those with same-sex attractions are "gay" or "lesbian" and therefore ought to live the lifestyle - that they harm themselves by not acting out. On the other extreme are those who contend that those with same-sex attractions are gay or lesbian and therefore are somehow hated by God. Caught between these two extremes is the person himself - precisely the one who needs to be helped.

Such is the Church's teaching. Let me add one more thing. For the last six years I have run a group called Courage - a spiritual support group to help those with same-sex attractions live chaste lives. The truly courageous men and women who come to our meetings find the teaching articulated above to be tremendously freeing. It frees them from a confined and limited identity and restores their deeper human dignity. Indeed, the Church's teaching resonates with the sense of truth within their hearts. Let us not be ashamed of the Church's teaching but see in it a vindication of the person's dignity and lofty, if difficult, calling.

Fr. Scalia is pastor of St. John the Beloved Parish in McLean and chaplain of Courage.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010