“We think primarily in earthly categories.”
These words from John Paul II’s 1985 Apostolic Letter Delecti Amici, addressed to the Youth of the World best sums up criticisms over the group of authors Austin Ruse has recently dubbed the “New Homophiles”: concerning sexual identity, they think primarily in earthly categories.
In the same Apostolic Letter, sharing insights from the Church, “custodian of fundamental truths,” John Paul II reiterated the story of Genesis, whereby “God created human beings: male and female,” with their “special ‘duality’” and “marvelous complementarity, in the matter of the division of the attributes, properties and tasks linked with the masculinity and femininity of the human being,” saying that this sexual duality of man “is necessarily inscribed in the personal ‘I’ of each one of you.”
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To their critics, it has long seemed that the way the New Homophiles speak about homosexuality, and the importance they have given it in their lives, they must believe that homosexuality is inscribed in the personal “I” of everyone who lives with same-sex attraction. It was this continual focus on their homosexuality, and in the case of some authors, a seeming celebration of homosexuality as being somehow good, that led me to begin writing out of concern for their thinking in my essay, “Why I Don’t Call Myself A Gay Christian.”
Though it’s always possible to paint a group of writers and thinkers with too broad a brush, their position concerning homosexuality can probably safely be summed up in a comment by one of their number, Ron Belgau. Writing about his criticisms of aspects of the Canadian Bishops’ document “Pastoral Ministry to Young People with Same-Sex Attraction”, he said, “to be clear, I am addressing only the manner in which the Bishops present the Church’s teaching: I am not questioning the content of the teaching itself.” On the most basic level, this group of writers desire to transform the Church’s approach towards evangelization and pastoral care of those with a homosexual inclination, not her teaching. I take them at their word and have no doubts of their love for the Church. They are motivated by a desire to more effectively reach those who are lost, and I agree that, in some ways, they are correct that the Church’s outreach can be improved.
That being said, I believe there are reasons to be concerned about much of their thinking about human sexuality, homosexuality in particular, and their novel approach to pastoral care and evangelization.
Austin Ruse has wisely called for their positions to be examined by Catholic theologians. This examination must be guided by the Church’s understanding of human sexuality in light of the created nature of man. The primary question is one of anthropology, and the fullness of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God, as male and female. On the topic of homosexuality in particular, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1986 Letter On The Pastoral Care of the Homosexual Person must be the measure for weighing the value of what the New Homophiles propose, where the litmus test is established: “Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral.”
Of primary concern for their critics is the use the New Homophiles make of the sexual identity language of the culture around them, a language that seems at odds with Church teaching on sexuality. On the issue of sexual identity, it seems they “think primarily in earthly categories.”
It is easy to find examples of this in their writing. One of the prominent voices in this group of writers, Melinda Selmys, chooses for herself the sexual identity of a “queer” woman, and though married, she describes herself as being in a “mixed-orientation marriage.” This choice of terminology serves to emphasize not the fulfillment of her complementary nature as a woman made for a man, but rather her subjectively experienced “queer” inclinations. Although Eve Tushnet, another prominent voice in this collective, writes, “I can have romantic relationships with men, and have,” she nonetheless consciously chooses to refer to herself as a “gay” or “queer” woman because of her primary attraction to women.
In contrast to these chosen sexual identities, paragraph 2333 of the Catechism teaches us that “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.” For the Church, there is only one sexuality, emanating from the “marvelous complementarity” of the two sexes: male and female. All other labels are false distinctions, resulting from earthly thinking.
Aaron Taylor, one of the authors at the Spiritual Friendship blog has a novel take on paragraph 2332 of the Catechism that teaches “sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.” Referencing this paragraph, he writes:
Meanwhile, the Church recognizes that sexuality “affects all aspects of the human person.” It concerns not merely the desire for sexual acts but also “affectivity, the capacity to love,” and “the aptitude for forming bonds of communion” with others.
The Church is not, therefore, claiming that the sexuality of gay people is disordered in toto. What is disordered is “homosexuality,” and this is defined very narrowly as a specific inclination toward sexual relations with same-sex partners. It is this and only this that merits an unequivocally negative moral judgment.
Taylor thinks of homosexuality as something which “affects all aspects of his human person.” Yes and no. Human beings are inherently sexual beings. This means that we are by nature ordered to our complementary opposites. So the thing which “affects all aspects” of our personhood is not homosexuality, but sexuality. If homosexuality touches everything, it does so only because it disorders that which touches everything. Just how far Taylor misses the point is revealed by his omission of the Catechism’s discussion of procreative potentiality—the very thing in which our ordering to our complementary opposites is most strikingly displayed.
Taylor believes there are positive aspects about “being gay” that “contribute to the flourishing of gay people.” But is this so? Not only is the suggestion that there is something positive about homosexuality absent from the Catechism, this thinking is in direct opposition to the teaching given us in the 1986 Letter, which teaches that there is nothing good about homosexuality, while making the important distinction that the inherent good and dignity of persons stands above and outside of their homosexuality.
The 1986 Document was written in part to counter serious misinterpretations of the Congregation’s 1975 document on sexual ethics which the 1986 Letter says led to situations where “an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good.” The Letter addressed those who erroneously promoted the “concept that homosexuality is at least a completely harmless, if not an entirely good, thing.” We can see such thinking in a post at Spiritual Friendship, by Chris Damian who wrote that he “began to realize that God had given me gifts that many of my ‘straight’ friends didn’t have in quite the same way: a particular kind of empathy, an acute understanding of others’ personal sufferings and loneliness, intense loyalty, a strong desire for emotional intimacy, a unique appreciation for certain forms of beauty.” In a post at his personal blog, he further argues that Michaelangelo and Cardinal John Newman lived with same-sex attraction, and that “these attractions contributed to their greatness and to their contributions to the Church.”
New homophiles say homosexuality is a source of good things like empathy, loyalty, and love of beauty. If homosexuality is disordered, this cannot be correct, because privation of good cannot produce good. St. James teaches us rather that “every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” The only good that can come from homosexuality is the result of God’s redemption and grace. As St. Paul says in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.”
Perhaps because some of them see homosexuality as a source of goods explains why so many of the New Homophiles view “coming out” as positive. Aaron Taylor this summer described what he called “a ‘coming out’ pandemic amongst celibate gay Christian bloggers” and argued “this trend is good news for both the Church and the world.” Yet this phenomenon is at odds with pastoral advice given by the Church.
The Church has a nuanced teaching on the advisability of “coming out.” Responding to the 1986 Letter which gave directives to the Bishops to develop, as needed, “appropriate forms of pastoral care for homosexual persons” guided by being “in full accord with the teaching of the Church,” in 2006 the U.S. Bishops issued this teaching on public self-disclosure:
For some persons, revealing their homosexual tendencies to certain close friends, family members, a spiritual director, confessor, or members of a Church support group may provide some spiritual and emotional help and aid them in their growth in the Christian life. In the context of parish life, however, general public self-disclosures are not helpful and should not be encouraged.
Ron Belgau, who has done much to instruct others on the wisdom of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, is another who seems to disagree with the bishops’ pastoral advice on public disclosure. Belgau criticized a same-sex attracted man who chose not to show his face in a video in which he shared the hope he found in the Catholic Church. Belgau suggests that such an approach leads to the belief that “the Church is not a place where those with same-sex attraction are welcome, where they can show their face, or speak and be heard,” and suggests that “this just reinforces suspicion that the Church’s teaching itself is impersonal and depersonalizing.” Yet, it seems Belgau’s approach is the one that is “depersonalizing”; the Church, in her pastoral solicitude, looks to the well-being of each person, and it is for this reason that they say that in most cases, public self-disclosures should not be encouraged.
It is right to have serious concerns about how the thinking of these authors will impact people in the Church, especially the young. It is very unwise to lead young people to believe that homosexuality is in some sense good, or that there are positive gifts of homosexuality, or that anyone should “come out” as being gay. If they are not cautioned against embracing sexual identities other than being male or female, what is to prevent those with a homosexual inclination from taking the logical step and embracing their homosexuality as good, and acting upon it? For if something is good, they would rightly reason that it is good to act upon it. If homosexuality is in anyway good or positive, and “affects all aspects of the human person,” on what basis does the moral dictate of the Church against homosexual acts make any sense?
We can see the potential dangers of this kind of thinking in words written by Cardinal Ratzinger in an examination of Fr. Andre Guindon’s book The Sexual Creators: An Ethical Proposal for Concerned Christians. Writing in his capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger said, “Father Guindon states that homosexually oriented persons should act homosexually since agere sequitur esse.” The phrase “agere sequitur esse” means that things act in accord with their essence. But since homosexuality is a disorder it cannot be a part of a person’s essence. Ratzinger notes that for Guindon, “esse seems to be reduced to subjective inclination. The truly revolutionary aspect of the book is to be found precisely here in the way it ignores the anthropological bases required by any objective morality, and by Christian morality in particular.”
It all comes back to anthropology: Who is man? Young people especially are easily swayed by their subjective inclinations towards the same sex into believing that this is “who I am,” catechized as they are by earthly thinking on human sexuality. Without reliance on the sole sexual identity of our complementary nature as male and female, and a firm rejection of “earthly categories,” the Church’s teaching appears to be arbitrary moralism with no objective base in reality.
Though the goals of the New Homophiles are well intentioned, and there is much of their writing I agree with, on the issue of sexual identity especially, the Church is wise to have concern for their thinking. The Church should discourage a young man from embracing a sexual identity based on his subjective inclinations for the same sex. Instead, the Church must proclaim that “only what is true can ultimately be pastoral,” and tell him the truth: “You are not your sexual inclinations. You are not ‘gay.’ What you are is a man and a Son of God.”
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Adam and Eve in Paradise” was painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1530. In the foreground, Adam and Eve speak with God; in the background are scenes from the life of our first parents in Genesis.