I’ve been reading a book by award-winning Catholic journalist Dale O’Leary entitled One Man, One Woman: A Catholic’s Guide to Defending Marriage (Sophia, 2007). For many years O’Leary has been an internationally known advocate of family rights, and in this volume she brings her considerable talent to bear on the issue of “gay marriage,” and in doing so she charitable and accessibly addresses the issue of same-sex attractions from the standpoint of various perspectives and disciplines. I strongly recommend this book, as this is one of the defining moral challenges of our time.
Today, I would like to touch upon but one aspect of the issue, namely how the crucial distinction between the “sin” and the “sinner” in Catholic moral teaching aids our understanding and pastoral approach in this area.
In the context of homosexuality, we affirm the dignity of the person with same-sex attractions and the need to accept such persons with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (Catechism, no. 2358). At the same time, however, we recognize that homosexual liaisons are “acts of grave depravity” and “intrinsically disordered” (Catechism, no. 2357). This distinction between the person with same-sex attractions and homosexual acts is vitally important and must be patiently communicated to our contemporaries.
But what about the condition itself, the “inclination” or “tendency” or “orientation” to commit such acts? How does that fit in?
The most definitive teaching on this subject is found in The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (1986), published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This document notes that there has been an overly benign interpretation given to the homosexual condition itself, leading some commentators to adopt the error that the condition is neutral or even good. In response, the CDF says that while the homosexual condition itself is not a sin, it “is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” (no. 3).
One might ask, “So long as we love the sinner and hate the sin, what difference does it make whether we consider the condition itself to be ‘neutral’ or ‘good’ or even an ‘objective disorder’?”
It makes all the difference in the world.
Now surely there are Catholics who dissent from traditional Christian teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual acts. For them a step toward “bringing the Church around” on this issue is to have us believe that homosexuality is not a disorder at all, but a gift to be celebrated. And gay activists are well on the way toward imposing their pro-homosexual agenda on society at large, and this massive push for “gay rights” obviously presupposes that the homosexual lifestyle itself merits full legal protection.
The stakes are high, and as Catholics who truly desire to “think with the Church,” we need to go further than the helpful but limited distinction between the sinner and the sin and proclaim the Gospel truth about the human condition and the liberation Christ has won for all of us.
The heart of the problem is that as a people we have lost our sense of the divine. As Pope John Paul II has noted, when man loses the sense of God, he also loses the sense of his own human dignity and the purpose of his human existence. This in turn leads to the systematic violation of the moral law: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Rom 1:28). The sad truth is that we have sunk so low that basic Anthropology 101 principles like marriage being a stable relationship between one man and one woman are lost on us.
We frequently hear the unfounded assertion that homosexuals are “born that way.” The often unspoken inference is that if homosexuals are truly born that way, then that’s simply the way they’re wired and it’s unjust to prohibit them from acting upon that condition.
Certainly, homosexuality is a complex reality, and we rightly support honest research regarding its causes by scientists who have not succumbed to passion or agenda. In the meantime, though, we must affirm that the overwhelming state of the scientific evidence adduced to date shows that homosexuality is not genetic. It is a preventable, treatable, and at least sometimes reversible developmental disorder.
We might also add that when it comes to having a tendency to sin, we are all “born that way.” One aspect of original sin that never goes away in this life is what we call concupiscence (Catechism, nos. 1264, 1426), which refers to the inherited disorder within each of us that inclines us to sin. So, in some sense we are all “objectively disordered.”
Thanks be to God, who has not left us to wallow in our sin. Rather, through the victory of His Son, He has given us His Holy Spirit to continually strengthen us in the epic spiritual battles that rage within each of us without exception.
The Lord ensures our victory, but He requires us to join in the fight. Therefore, Catholic teaching affirms that while our freedom has been wounded by original and actual sin, it has not been fully destroyed. This means that we are responsible for our actions, that we can be expected to choose good and reject evil.
Regardless of the cause(s) of one’s homosexuality, the Lord clearly expects and requires those who follow Him to leave the lifestyle behind (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Have homosexuals who strive to live chastely been given a difficult cross? Undoubtedly. But no one has been given a cross that’s beyond his or her strength. Those who labor under the heavy weight of same-sex attractions uniquely share in the sacrifice of Christ and should be assisted in their labors by the prayers, pastoral support, and friendship of all the faithful.
Rejecting the Cross, however, is not an option. Let’s look at it this way: Some people are clearly born with the genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Does this fact mean that laws against public intoxication, drunken driving, and the like unjustly discriminate against such people? Do we relax our laws and standards regarding sobriety because they were born that way? Of course not, even though it means that they must exercise far more diligence and restraint regarding alcohol than the rest of the population.
St. Thomas said that action follows being. In this context, pastoral charity must follow the nature of homosexuality. If homosexuality is a neutral or even good condition, we might be inclined toward “tolerance.” Such an approach reflects a lesser love, the love of a coward or an enabler, the love of one who wants above all to be liked or to not make waves.
But if homosexuality, as the Church has always taught, is a disorder that inclines a person to grave sin, pastoral charity is reflected not only in calling people out of the homosexual lifestyle, but also by assiduously searching for new therapies and encouraging those who have successfully overcome the condition itself to tell their story. Unlike mere tolerance, this form of pastoral charity refuses to let a person define himself as “gay,” but rather offers a message of salvation and hope, a message reflected in a genuine love that sees the person as God sees him.
This love should ultimately lead homosexuals out of the closet and into the confessional. But they may have to wait–I’ll already be in line.