The media-manufactured brouhaha over Pope Francis’s impromptu remarks on homosexuality has finally begun to die down, and there must be few, if any, Catholics who still think that the Holy Father’s words represented a departure from 2,000 years of Christian teaching on the immorality of homosexual activity (not counting those, of course, who have let themselves be misled by their wishful thinking). While many may still not fully understand the context in which he made his remarks—he was, as I explained elsewhere, addressing primarily the case of a specific priest accused of homosexual activity years ago, and more broadly the question of priests in the Curia who have homosexual inclinations—everyone should, by now, at least realize that Pope Francis was not condoning, much less endorsing, homosexual activity. “Hate the sin but love the sinner” remains the rule of charity of this pope, as of every pope on back to Saint Peter—who, as the Holy Father recalled, “committed the biggest sin of all, he denied Jesus.”
Yet Pope Francis’s remarks point to a discussion that still needs to be held. There is indeed something in what the Holy Father had to say that requires deeper examination—not because he contradicted the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but because what he said was in conformity with a perplexing part of it.
That something was summed up in the title of a provocative article by Fr. Hugh Barbour, O.Praem., written months before Pope Francis’s press conference and published in the July 2013 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture: “Do Homosexuals Exist?”
Father Hugh, the prior of St. Michael’s Abbey in Trabuco Canyon, California, zeros in on “a change in tone” in how the Catechism (in paragraphs 2357 and 2358) treats “the sin of sexual relations with one’s own sex” versus every other sin. The Catechism, of course, upholds the traditional teaching that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” “are contrary to natural law,” and “[u]nder no circumstances can … be approved,” but whereas (in Father Hugh’s words) “[t]raditional moral theology evaluated acts,” the Catechism speaks of the “experience” of “sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex” and the “psychological genesis” of homosexuality, as well as “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” What Father Hugh does not note, though it is more evidence for his argument, is that paragraph 2359 goes on to refer to “homosexual persons,” which seems to place these “tendencies” and “attraction” at the very heart of such a person. Indeed, we might say that he or she becomes defined by them: He or she is no longer a man or a woman (with all that those words imply) but a “homosexual.”
I have read these paragraphs in the Catechism many times over the past 20 years without any alarm bells ever going off. That, I now realize, is because the labels homosexual and heterosexual have become so much a part of our culture that we rarely think about what their usage implies. I am a man; my wife is a woman. Through our relations to each other, at every level, we have become a husband and a wife, a father and a mother. We are not “heterosexuals”; we are simply male and female, particular instances of the two sexes God created in the Garden of Eden for the purpose of populating the earth.
We hold endless debates today about whether “homosexuals” are the product of nature or nurture, but in doing so we beg the question that Father Hugh raises: Is it proper to speak of “homosexuals” or “heterosexuals” at all? Is man really nothing more than the sum of his sexual “attractions” and “tendencies”? Are these not simply one aspect of what it means to be a human being—and, taken in the context of our biblical three score and ten, not even the most important aspect? Indeed, speaking in terms only of our bodily instincts, any man who spends more time copulating than eating, much less sleeping, will not be long for this world—no matter which sex his “attractions” and “tendencies” are directed toward.
The Catechism is clear: “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered”; “[u]nder no circumstances can they be approved.” Why, then, would we even consider defining someone in terms of his propensity to commit such acts? When we say that someone is an adulterer, we do not mean that he is merely sexually attracted to a woman other than his wife, much less that he has “deep-seated tendencies” to finding other women attractive (a condition that describes the vast majority of married men). We mean, rather, that he has engaged in adultery. Should he quit engaging in adultery and return to chastity, only those who regard him with spite would continue to call him an adulterer. Adultery is something that he did; it is not who he is.
Yet today we accept as undisputed truth the odd idea—which seems even to have inserted its nose under the tent of the Catechism and into Pope Francis’s press conference—that a homosexual is not necessarily someone who has committed particular immoral acts (as an adulterer has) but can be someone who has never participated in a single homosexual act, no matter how strongly he or she may have been tempted to do so. Unlike the adulterer, the temptation itself, we are told (though not, of course, in that language) is what defines the homosexual. Once such a label is applied to (or adopted by) a man or a woman (or, worse yet, a girl or a boy) who up until then has remained chaste in the face of temptation, our culture loudly proclaims that he can no longer be expected to remain chaste because (in a near-perfect example of circular logic) he is a homosexual, and homosexuality is defined by a propensity toward sexual activity with people of his own sex.
The cruelty of this reductionism is astounding. Saddled with the label homosexual, the man or woman—or, increasingly, boy or girl—finds himself bound tighter to his temptation and, eventually, his sin. This is who you are, he is told; and left unstated, but strongly implied: This is all that you are. Homosexuality, we are told, is prior to, and separate from, homosexual activity; but once you have accepted the identity—and you must, because of your “attractions” and “tendencies”—it is foolish for you, and cruel for anyone else, to expect you to refrain from homosexual activity.
The Church, however, calls the person with such “attractions” and “tendencies” to a different life, a better life—a life of chastity united to Christ, the model of all chastity. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it (paragraph 2359), “By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” That, of course, is what Pope Francis meant when he talked about a “gay” priest who “seeks God and has good will.” And yet, by prescinding from the language of traditional moral theology and referring to “gays,” the Holy Father, like the Catechism itself with its reference to “homosexual persons,” may have unintentionally obscured the message of hope found in the Church’s insistence that man is more—far more—than the sum of his desires, and that Christ Himself will help him resist the temptations that arise from his sexual “tendencies” and “attractions.”
(Photo credit: Luca Zennaro / Pool via EPA)