“An essential dimension of authentic pastoral care is the identification of causes of confusion regarding the Church’s teaching.” Thus begins an early paragraph (no. 4) of the pivotal 1986 CDF “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.”
Said another way, authentic love and authentic freedom can only be ours to the extent that we possess the truth. Yet, we face a difficult problem: the more fully we possess truth, the harder it can be to see any remaining errors in our thinking. Error becomes like a hairline fracture, barely perceptible, in a piece of treasured pottery. Strike the vessel and wait for the audible “ring” that emanates from an intact vase—you won’t hear it because somewhere there hides a harmful flaw.
If such hairline fissures of error are present in our own deeply held truths, we can encounter a great deal of pain and suffering. This seems so in the case of many who self-identify as “gay Christians” or “gay Catholics” even while simultaneously holding that sexual relations are only for man-woman marriage. They hold to a larger truth that God’s plan for human sexuality is about complementarity and procreation, yet they do not quite embrace the full truth that non-genital manifestations of the homosexual inclination are also not in keeping with God’s plan for us.
Rather, as “gay” men and women holding to a Christian ethic regarding homosexual acts, they see their task as eliminating lust for overt sex acts while remaining totally open to intense same-sex friendships that might well be expressed in “taking delight” in another man’s physical beauty, hand-holding and cuddling, and even running fingers through the hair of a man’s head as he rests it on one’s chest. Whether called sublimating, redirecting, or “purifying” one’s same-sex desires, some “celibate gay Christians” see this as a genuine path to chastity.
But is it? Well, not according to the Catholic Church’s understanding of the homosexual inclination. So, let’s unpack what the Church really says is the truth—not to pile on condemnation, God forbid, but rather to help point the way to real freedom from suffering for “gay Christians” who, unfortunately, are experiencing even more difficult struggles with chastity precisely because they cannot see the subtle error in their view.
Forget ‘Disorder’ For a Moment—Let’s Talk About Inclination…
I would suggest that this subtle, fundamental error regarding how some “gay Christians” seek chastity is that they do not fully grasp the significance of the Church’s claim that the homosexual inclination is objectively disordered. I imagine some readers are now thinking: Must we re-hash “objectively disordered” again and again?
Actually, no. In fact, so much has been said about the word “disorder” that all too little has been said about the word inclination. The chastity-seeking celibate “gay Christian” asserts that his primary duty is to avoid desiring and willing homogenital sex acts, and that other forms of the homosexual inclination can be somehow properly ordered toward good ends, like cherishing another man in lifelong “spiritual friendship.” But there is a hairline fracture in that thinking. Rather, the whole truth is that any and every manifestation of the homosexual inclination must be rejected in our pursuit of authentic chastity.
Why? Because the homosexual inclination is not disordered simply because it points a person toward same-sex acts. It’s disordered because it is a distortion of the sexual inclination that God gives to every human person as a part of our human nature—the natural human inclination toward the procreation and education of children. We’re “born that way,” to borrow a phrase.
Sexual Inclination—God’s Gift to Human Nature
This is an indispensable element of natural law and Church teaching. Before everything else—before we think, before we feel, before we choose, God has given human nature certain characteristics that already incline us toward human flourishing and our ultimate good. Aquinas outlines three such very basic inclinations—self-preservation, procreation/education of children, and use of reason. Indeed, the whole realm of natural law is largely extrapolated from the existence of these God-given natural human inclinations—these are the things “written on our hearts” that incline us toward doing good and avoiding evil.
Think of our God-given natural sexual inclination in this way: Imagine the human person as a rocket launcher in a field. Now, whether a rocket can hit its target depends largely upon the angle of “inclination” the launcher starts out with. At the beginning of every human person’s existence, God himself has given us our original angle of inclination to ensure we hit the “target” of sexual love. Turn the rocket in any direction and the angle of inclination will ensure that it is aimed at members of the other sex, with marriage, family, and procreation and education of children as the targeted goal of our sexual attractions.
But what if some external influence ends up distorting or shifting the God-given natural sexual inclination such that the person is no longer aimed at the right kind of target—a human person of the other sex? Then, objectively speaking, this inclination is no longer properly “ordered” toward the same goods that God was originally designating for the human person. The angle of inclination is “disordered” because it directly contradicts God’s original gift of the right inclination.
This is why the homosexual inclination is called objectively disordered. Regardless of whether this inclination ever leads to concrete homogenital acts, its entire trajectory is off the mark—before we even can think, feel, or act. This interferes with our God-given inclination for the other sex and inclines us instead toward inappropriate attraction to members of the same sex. Consequently, this distorted inclination confuses not only our desires for sex acts, but also confuses our desires for self-giving, for spousal relationship with another person, and for family itself.
The Temptation of Inordinate Pleasure
It should be evident by now that the homosexual inclination, because it is opposed to a God-given gift of human nature, is not capable of being affirmed, redeemed, or purified. The only response to an experience of same-sex attraction must be a willful “no.” Pain and suffering will arise whenever a person says any kind of willful “yes” to same-sex attraction. While seeking to avoid homosexual sex acts is a hugely important step in discipleship, true chastity will not be possible for a person if he continues to cling to this inclination both as an identity and as a source of intense friendship or intimate relationship with others of the same sex.
One vital reason why the homosexual inclination always requires a willful “no” is because the inclination itself, when experienced, is actually an immediate source of some level of inordinate pleasure. Here is what I mean: Aquinas teaches that we experience pleasure to the degree that we possess a perceived good that we desire. Even our incomplete possession of a desired good—such as what can occur in our imagination when we begin to think of our beloved—can give us some degree of pleasure.
Thus, even a person who thinks homosexual sex is wrong but still thinks it is okay to “delight” in the beauty of another man he finds sexually attractive is interiorly playing with fire. He is saying yes to the inherently inordinate pleasure that comes with partially “possessing”—in his own mind and imagination—the man and his sexual values. Anyone with an ounce of pastoral concern should be able to see that this can cause a spiritually devastating cycle of unhealthy temptation and falling into much more serious sexual sin. Taking “delight” in another man’s beauty when that delight is itself an inordinate pleasure is a tempting short step away from desiring the even greater pleasure that accompanies actual bodily sex acts.
Crucify the Temptation—And Then Pray
As such, this is where real compassion for real persons must kick in. It’s realistic—not pessimistic—to say that the “gay Christian” seeking to “purify” same-sex attraction is engaging in an impossible endeavor that can only bring them pain. Sadly, in recent weeks I’ve personally observed the fallout from this thinking among some struggling for chastity who are failing because they are saying a partial “yes” to their experience of same-sex attraction.
Amid being realistic, however, there is great reason for genuine hope that authentic chastity is attainable even if we cannot “purify” the homosexual inclination itself. Instead we can, with hope-filled hearts, ask our Lord not to purify but to crucify our same-sex attractions upon his Holy Cross.
We can let go of the false identity labels, seeing our sexual identities instead as God does—in their twofold reality as “man” and “woman”; we can open ourselves to at least the possibility of restoration and healing that may give us again a glimpse of God’s gift of our inherent and natural inclination for the other sex. We can distance ourselves from smaller inordinate pleasures that come our way so we can indeed experience authentically chaste same-sex friendships. We can ask God to surround us with even greater support for the spiritual combat necessary to keep same-sex attraction from dominating our lives.
And, dear readers, we can and should pray always. Yes, let’s fulfill our obligation to truth by pointing out and even despising error when we see it, but let us never ever despise those who may be in error. You and I may be the only ones who can compassionately help our brother and sister Christians see the hairline fracture in their thinking on same-sex attraction. Our prayers and words may be the only antidote that can prevent greater confusion and deeper suffering among those infinitely loved by the Lord, those whom we should hope to see at our side someday in the everlasting bliss of Heaven.