Rebuking our former governor (and current Vice President), our mayor in South Bend tells us that it is his Creator who made him gay. Although he cites neither Scripture nor philosophical argument, Mayor Buttigieg bases this assertion presumably on his own experience. The common argument, which the mayor alludes to, is that having discovered strong homosexual desires which were not chosen, one realizes that God made him this way. This is an important claim. If God created someone to be gay, then to act on homosexual desires cannot be wrong. However, God cannot have created someone to be sinful by nature. We ask, then, what has God created Pete Buttigieg (and others like him) to be?
In the first chapter of the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, titled “The Dignity of the Human Person,” we read that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and that this image is evident in the twin powers of a spiritual and immortal soul: the powers of reason and conscience. Although the material constitution of every human being shares in the features of the visible world (and ought not to be disdained), it is by these spiritual powers that the human person, sharing in the image of God, rises to his or her destiny. By these powers the human person enjoys freedom and is not to be governed by internal impulses. This freedom is, according to the Council, a distinctive sign of human dignity, a dignity that is ultimately constituted by one’s destiny to communion with God. “From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by God’s love” (GS §19). This is true of me, of Pete Buttigieg, of Chen Jining (the mayor of Beijing), of our Holy Father Pope Francis—of every human person—whether he knows it or not.
If this is the objective truth of the matter, then what can we make of the powerful experiences that lead Mr. Buttigieg to attribute his homosexuality to his Creator? The Catechism acknowledges that the origins or causes of homosexuality are not fully known, but this does not mean that we are unable to say anything meaningful about them. In particular, we know that homosexual orientation—the persistent, strong desire for sexual contact with a person of the same sex—is not rooted in the soul as such, i.e., in its spiritual powers.
Desires and behavioral orientation are strongly influenced by the body and its qualities. Were LeBron James only 5’6” tall and clumsy, he would not have chosen basketball for a career, even if other factors were to render him a fierce competitor. Born in Austria in the late eighteenth century, Mozart had acute hearing and unusual manual dexterity. It is not surprising that he became a musician. Many of our deepest affections and loves are formed by our social context. To punish Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, a dissident writer too well-known and respected to imprison or kill, Soviet authorities exiled him from the Russian fatherland. As soon as the Communist regime fell and the U.S.S.R. dissolved, Solzhenitsyn (who had learned tolerably well to live amicably among Vermont farmers) returned to his Russian homeland. Russia had his heart. However, important as physical (including genetic) and social factors may be, they do not determine the exercise of reason and will. They do not determine freedom. They are not the spiritual powers of the human person.
We all know how powerful feelings and emotions can be. Where deep loves—whether of country or God or of another person—are concerned, emotion can seem almost irresistible. Compelling as they may be, feelings, impulses, and emotions do not reliably guide us to our true good. Anger in defense of one’s honor—think of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr—moves human beings to regrettable outbursts. So it is also with romantic feelings. Anna Karenina’s passionate love for Vronsky led her into adultery and tragedy. We who are parents (try to) teach our adolescent children how to use good sense in their conflicts and sexual attractions.
Here we do well to look at St. John Paul II’s early writings from before his papacy. In every human being there are events and feelings that happen in the person, ranging from organic processes (such as the beating heart) to emotional feelings and desires. In his Love and Responsibility, he studied the power and importance of sentimentality, attraction, and sexual desire, all of which happen in the mind or consciousness of the person. No one is ordinarily responsible for what happens in him. One is not responsible for spontaneous feelings, even if they are very strong. However, the person is responsible for what he does, because acts arise not simply from feelings but from the will. Once the person chooses to act—to exercise his will—he is responsible.
Feelings, desires, and emotions are ordered to limited, perceptible goods. Fr. James Martin’s assertions notwithstanding, sexual desire does not arise from “the part [of a person] that loves.” Rather, love is an act of the will, which is the power to choose the true good. Will, by its very nature, is guided by reason (also a spiritual power), which is ordered to truth. The responsibility of every human being is to seek out the truth of the good as known and pursue the authentic good. We are called, all of us, to live not only or primarily by feelings, but by the truth about the good.
This can be hard—very hard. Unless we are unusually lucky, we all experience powerful desires that we dare not satisfy. It is often very hard to say “no” to illicit desire, whether this involves the allurement of another’s spouse, an unchaste liaison, or homosexual contact. John Paul II notes that to deny such a desire generally brings regret, a sense of loss, even though virtue demands such loss. Sexual purity, or chastity, is hard to attain and to maintain. Everyone—whether gay or “straight,” whether a hot-blooded Latin or an allegedly lethargic Irishman (full disclosure: half my ancestry is Irish)—is called to chastity, i.e., to govern their lives by reason and will and not by feelings and desires.
Pete Buttigieg has said that discovering that he is gay was very hard; he did not want it. A gay friend of mine calls his homosexuality a “hell” that he would not wish upon anybody. Hard as having homosexual desires may be—and we must acknowledge that it is hard—the homosexual must deny his desires. So, too, must the young wife abandoned by a faithless husband to whom she is validly married. So, too, must the adolescent whose momentary curious opening of a pornographic website which implanted images that he cannot erase or escape, creating compelling desires to return to the website in search of another sexual “hit.” Hard as it may well be, every human person must work to control his sexual behavior—often in defiance of deep-seated desires that claim to be “natural”—and learn to live according to the truth about the good.
Whether there is a “cure” for homosexuality and related conditions, I do not know. But that is not the point. There is a cure for sin. To overcome sin—there are seven deadly sins and not just one—requires prayer, self-denial, honesty, self-denial, asceticism, self-denial, and sacramental confession. God did not make the mayor of South Bend gay any more than he made the mayor of Beijing a dedicated Communist. As spiritual beings—and this includes you and me, the local bishop, and Pope Francis—these mayors are obliged to seek out and embrace the authentic good. God gave Mayor Buttigieg the spiritual powers to know the truth as such and to pursue the highest good in itself. Indeed, he gave these powers to each of us. And each of us is responsible to use these powers to love in truth.
Editor’s note: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg waves as he takes the stage to deliver a keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign’s 14th annual Las Vegas Gala at Caesars Palace on May 11, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)