A lot of people are asking really difficult questions about the Church’s teachings on homosexuality. Here is an excerpt on the subject from one of our favorite books, A Case for Chastity, by Heather Gallagher and Peter Vlahutin.
Making a Distinction Between Homosexual Orientation and Behavior – I Can’t Help It; It’s Just How I Am
This chapter can be summed up in this statement: While human beings are “animals” (biological classification), they are not “animals” (in terms of their behavior). I, Pete, don’t remember much from my sophomore biology class—it was one of my least favorite subjects— but I remember learning that one thing that separates humans from all the other animals is the ability to do higher reasoning. For this chapter, I will focus on two components of higher reasoning, making judgments and using self-control. Both qualities are essential to understanding the Church’s teaching on sexuality and homosexual attraction.
Having good judgment is one of the key signs of a mature person. It is the ability to look at a situation, analyze the options, and choose the one that is best. One cannot function as a responsible person in our world without this ability. It is possible to function while repeatedly making bad judgments, but people who do, I think, are probably quite miserable. However, we do not have the option not to judge. My students often get angry when I tell them they cannot avoid judging.
What most people mean when they say we shouldn’t judge is that we shouldn’t be judgmental. Jesus himself said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Mt 7:1). Jesus, I’m sure, didn’t mean we should not evaluate whether one behavior is better, more kind, or more loving than another. Rather, he was talking about not condemning people for their actions. He did not say that we shouldn’t judge whether their actions are good. Morally speaking, we can judge behavior as good or bad, but we aren’t to judge the person; that role belongs to God alone.
Some people profess to be judgment-free when it comes to ideas and values. That is, all ideas and all values are equal in merit and worth. (Paradoxically, this is a judgment in its own right.) I am saying the opposite. The sign of a mature adult is the ability to judge which ideas and values have worth and which belong on toilet paper.
A second key sign of a mature person is self-control. This is the ability to refrain from acting on every impulse that comes to mind and body, a characteristic that distinguishes most adults from children. Sadly, many adults do not have this ability. Since I am assuming that most young people wish to become mature adults, it is important for them to develop this self-control.
Attraction Is Not Behavior
There is a distinction between sexual attraction and sexual behavior. We, as human beings, need not act on every sexual thought or attraction that we have. When I married my wife, I did not promise that I would never be sexually attracted to any other human being. What I did promise was that I would never act on an attraction to another human being. Two logical consequences follow this conclusion.
One, we can be sexual beings without having sex. No one denies that sexuality is a part of who we are. Yes, some people try to deny their sexuality, but psychologically, those people are unhealthy, perhaps repressed. Our genitalia—our physical sexual organs—are not the same as our sexuality—the sexual nature of our being.
Often, the expression of our sexuality is defined as a genital act and a genital act only. Sexuality, however, is expressed in many ways, only one of which is intercourse. Not having sex on a regular basis, or even at all, doesn’t contradict our sexual nature. Rather, it means we are simply exercising self-control—not acting on every sexual thought and attraction—which expresses our sexuality as a gift of committed love alone. This is important because many people—perhaps even some parents—expect teenagers to have sex because they think teenagers are incapable of self-control. Personally, I know too many teenagers to think that poorly of them. Sure, some teenagers exhibit no evidence of self-control, but many do.
Two, we can have a sexual orientation without having sex. Our sexual orientation, that is, who and what type of people we are attracted to, is a part of our sexuality. This, as I have said before, can be expressed in ways other than through a sex act. This distinction is key to understanding the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, and it contradicts what our culture and society say to us almost every day.
Homosexual desires for union are unhealthy because they can never be fulfilled by acting on them. In God’s plan of creation, our sexual identity comes from our biology: we are either male or female. As such, we are called to “complete” one another, physically and in other areas as well. Though there are some—priests, sisters, brothers, singles—who give up this natural inclination to be united completely with another human being, 28 we are biologically designed to “fit” with a member of the complementary sex. A man prepares to give when aroused; a woman prepares to receive. It is beautiful and fulfilling. Anything less is outside of God’s plan for union. A homosexual union, even if called a “marriage,” can never be completed in this way.
Homosexual attractions themselves are not immoral. The Catholic Church does not discriminate; it holds all people, regardless of sexual orientation, to the same moral standard for their sexuality. That is, the purpose and role for sex does not change according to one’s orientation. The proper place for sex is in a sacramental marriage between a man and a woman. Whether we are homosexual or heterosexual, we are called to chastity, which respects our sexuality so much that we participate in sex only in marriage.
There are many who will claim that homosexual attraction is a completely genetic phenomenon, much like eye color or lefthandedness,29 that is, it cannot be helped and therefore acting on those attractions is acceptable, or moral. While there are people who are thoroughly convinced of this, there is no clear evidence that supports the fact that homosexuality is genetic in this way.30 Even if a person’s same-sex attraction was completely genetic, that would not be an excuse to act on the attraction. In different ways, we are all tempted to behave poorly, regardless of our attractions. Heather, for example, may never marry, but is strongly attracted to men. If God doesn’t call her to marriage, this attraction is a cross she will have to bear for life; but it is worth it for the sake of real love, the kind of love that ultimately wants the best for everyone.
Our culture has developed, over the past forty years, a “who cares?” attitude toward sex. Visual images once reserved for R-rated movies can now be seen in some TV commercials. In this social climate, homosexuality has not only become acceptable behavior but also an issue of tolerance. Those who do not accept this behavior have been called intolerant, hatemongers, ultraconservatives, or even homophobic. True, some who oppose homosexuality do treat others poorly. But opposing homosexuality can be opposition to behavior, much like opposition to drug use, rather than to personal characteristics or qualities, which would be more like discrimination on the basis of race or gender.
At the same time, our culture has adopted a relativistic understanding of morality. Moral relativism denies the existence of objective truth and holds that determining right and wrong can only be done in the context of the people involved, the situation, and a myriad of other social and personal factors. While this book is not the place for an in-depth look at moral relativism, we can acknowledge that moral relativism affects the way our society views sex. The difficulty with being a moral relativist is that objective norms for our behavior do, in fact, exist. Can you think of a situation in which rape would be morally acceptable? I cannot. If objective norms exist, then we can apply them to behaviors (ours and others), and judge appropriately whether the acts are moral or immoral.
It is wrong to be intolerant of people, to hate them, and to be closed to loving others who are different from us. BUT it is not wrong to judge behavior as unacceptable or immoral. It is not wrong to look at a behavior and judge that it is unhealthy. It is not wrong to say that an immoral action for me is also an immoral action for you.
We know and love many people who are choosing a homosexual lifestyle. But we also know that true peace, freedom, and love comes from God’s plan for our fulfillment. For those who struggle with same-sex attractions and living chastely, listen to this message from Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, given in an address to the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries:
It is possible, with God’s grace, for everyone to live a chaste life, including persons experiencing same-sex attraction. To deny that the power of God’s grace enables those with homosexual attractions to live chastely is to deny, effectively, that Jesus has risen from the dead.31
There are resources and organizations available for those with same-sex attractions seeking to live chastely. Check out Appendix A (below) for a list of some of them.
When Andy was in junior high, a number of high-school students in his neighborhood befriended him. Andy, who was often ridiculed at school, found acceptance from this group of guys. Soon, however, Andy’s friends introduced him to the homosexual lifestyle. Because of these experiences, Andy began to think of himself as gay and began to experience sexual attraction for other guys. During his junior year of college, Andy began to practice chastity – refraining from sex and sexual encounters. In choosing chastity, Andy began to explore some of the reasons for his behavior. He learned that his homosexual attractions developed from his experiences and behaviors. As a result, he underwent counseling to help him deal with the hurt and rejection that was the source of many of his unhealthy behaviors.
More than any other moral issue, homosexuality requires a delicate response. It is difficult for people to hear “I accept you, but I don’t accept your behavior.” Many people have been led to believe that accepting me means accepting my behavior. In the gospels, the Pharisees confront Jesus with a woman who was caught in adultery (Jn 8:2–11). Much is made of the many aspects of this story, but I will touch upon two things. First, Jesus cares for this woman and shows her tremendous respect and love. He truly accepts her. Second, he calls her behavior sinful. Sometimes we are really good at one aspect of our actions and not so good with others.
The Church’s teachings about many things are difficult because they contradict what society and culture tell us. It is a challenge to support and live ideas that are truly countercultural. However, recognizing the distinction between our sexual desires and our sexual behaviors empowers us to embrace chastity with the fullest respect for our sexuality.
28. Though we have not touched upon it in depth, this is where the Church’s teaching on celibacy takes on meaning. Our natural desire for union mirrors and reflects that union with God which we are all called to by virtue of our baptism. Some people are called to skip the reflection and go straight to the union. Priests and religious live out the union with God that marriage points to. Both aspects are healthy understandings of our sexuality and its purpose in our spirituality.
29. A different genetic influence would be a predisposition to behavior, for example, as is sometimes the case with alcoholism. Those with alcoholism in their families are not condemned to be drunks, but they may have a stronger tendency toward that behavior than those without the genetic background.
30. Catholic Medical Association. “Homosexuality and Hope.” <www.cathmed.org/publications/homosexuality.html>
31. As cited in “Homosexuality and Hope.”
Appendix A Materials
Free To Be Me <http://www.freetobeme.com> is sponsored by New Direction for Life Ministries, an organization which works with men and women who choose to leave homosexuality. It offers resources for those who work with youth and also discusses homosexuality issues.
Courage <http://couragerc.net> is an apostolate of the Catholic Church and ministers to those with same-sex attractions and their loved ones.