WASHINGTON — If the message to the Catholic Church from the recent referendum in Ireland redefining marriage could be expressed in several words it might be “Rome, we have a problem.”
Dublin Archbishop Dairmiud Martin effectively summed up the Church’s communication problem over its teachings on marriage and same-sex attraction: “The Church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and get its message across to young people.”
Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage International, believes his organization has an effective approach in speaking this language to the modern world. Courage’s members are seeking to showcase their approach at the upcoming World Meeting of Families and the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family and provide pastoral resources through the film documentary Desire of the Everlasting Hills and accompanying study guide — available in nine languages at that point — their five-part catechetical series and two volumes of essays published by Ignatius Press.
In this interview with the Register, Father Check discusses how the Church’s pastoral care for persons with same-sex attraction must navigate between the extremes of severity and sentimentality to show the authentic love and patient example of Jesus speaking with the Woman at the Well.
What image of the Church’s care for persons with same-sex attraction do you wish to show people at the World Meeting of Families?
It’s that the Church understands this question, because she understands the human person: both in terms of how God has created us in his image and likeness and who he has created us to be, and she also understands it from the standpoint of lived experience of those who have same-sex attraction, those who have found their way to, or been drawn to, the heart of Christ in the Church. Because the truth of the Gospel and the love of the Gospel apply as much to that part of our community as any other part, I think the Church is eager to demonstrate that that is the case in very practical and personal ways.
Is there a way of talking about homosexuality that can drive people away from the Church and the care the Church offers for persons with same-sex attractions?
Unfortunately, yes. We probably have some experience of that in the Church, where there has been a lack of proper understanding, welcome and consideration for individual people. I think one of the challenges that the Church faces is that she almost has to deliver two messages at the same time. One is that the forces that are at work widely in civil society are contrary to the human good: say, for example, the approval of same-sex “marriage.” So she has to say that message [on the truth of marriage] for the benefit of the common good.
But as the same time, she has to announce the mercy and understanding, the love of truth, of the Gospel and Jesus Christ, to individual people for whom this is a reality in their lives. So I am afraid that sometimes the first part of the message is heard as a resounding “No,” but there isn’t always understood or received the outstretched hand in pastoral charity. That is a particular challenge.
How do you address the challenge resulting from people who take a severe attitude engaging others on same-sex issues in the name of “charity”?
I think we have to look at the example of Jesus Christ and how we’re supposed to live out the Gospel. There’s a clarity with which Jesus announces the truth. But the proof that he is announcing it in an engaging way — and it’s a criticism of him! — is that he’s always surrounded by the sort of people that, from our [Catholic] point of view, need him the most.
I think there’s a way to encourage people to trust that the Church understands them, understands the tangle of the human heart and knows how to move forward from that. But it’s not done from a position of condescension or severity. Jesus tells us that the truth is to be liberating. What’s it supposed to liberate us from? Confusion, ignorance, self-centeredness, sin. It’s intended to liberate us so that we are able to renew ourselves. And that’s where we find fulfillment.
The Church has been able to announce the Gospel for 2,000 years, and it has not always been done perfectly in every case. But, certainly, we know it can be done, because we see people responding to grace.
But there are other problems on the opposite extreme, correct?
You’ve mentioned severity, and that’s a real danger, but I think the real problem is “sentimentality.”
The wider-spread problem is that we have separated a thoughtful, compassionate response — a sensitive response — from the truth.
In the opening paragraphs of his last encyclical, the pope emeritus makes a distinction between “sentimentality” and “compassion.” He indicates that the former is a counterfeit and that compassion is something based on the truth. I think a question that all Christians need to ask themselves is something very simple: “Do I believe that chastity is part of the good news of the Gospel?”
I’m not sure how widespread that conviction is, especially in an age where sexual promiscuity (in many forms) is responsible for a lot of broken hearts, a lot of sadness, a lot of regrets, a lot of disappointment, pain, suffering. … Why is that? I think we, individually, can test our own conviction about whether chastity is a virtue and something that prepares us for fulfillment in a way that God, in his wisdom for our nature, is very intense for us.
How would you describe the kind of pastoral approach — the language and the tone — that Courage takes with persons who have same-sex attraction? It seems very deliberate.
We try to be very thoughtful about the words we choose, because we want to be thoughtful about how they’ll be heard. One of the great points of St. Thomas Aquinas’s pedagogy is that “Things are received in the mode of the receiver.” So [human beings] have experiences and perceptions that color or filter or influence the way we hear things.
We [at Courage] are trying to be alert to that, so we don’t sound like we’re poking anyone in the eye. I use John 4 as a guide, because I think what Jesus did there will show us what the New Evangelization should look like. And I think it’s also what Pope Francis is going for as well. It’s how Jesus builds a relationship with the Woman at the Well. He doesn’t begin with a discussion of morality. He doesn’t avoid the moral problem — he will get to it in time — but that’s only after he has built a relationship with the person. He has a common interest — a couple of them — that will be the foundation on which the relationship will be built. She’s interested in God, in knowing more about how the life of God is given to her through grace, and she’s interested in eternal life. And Jesus, of course, knows that.
Maybe this is part of that “law of gradualism” that has been brought before us for our consideration in evangelization. And I think it’s a very good model. We can’t expect that everyone will understand everything right away and, of course, instantly accept that they’re being told to change their lives. That doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t seem to take into account the patience and goodness of Christ and the way he approached people.
So I think in Courage we’re very interested in forming and building relationships and letting grace do its work: so that people can come to the truth, in their time and according to God’s providence, in a way that is peaceful for them.
What are some practical steps that individuals and parishes can take to actually be authentic and welcoming toward persons with same-sex attraction?
I think a good place to start is to watch our movies. My conviction is that our best ambassadors are our members. They put a face on the Church’s anthropology, on the Catechism, on the nobility of the human spirit, on virtue and on the efficacy of grace. And so now those categories of things that we know are part of the teaching of the Church achieve a lived expression in the lives of individual people. So to watch the movie is to learn about what this means from the point of view of a person who knows what same-sex attraction is, because they live it. But they’re also drawn to the heart of Christ and believe that the message that the Church offers on this topic is the message of Christ. So I would start there.
Regarding the synod on the family, what are the opportunities for developing the pastoral care of persons with same-sex attraction?
We can’t live without friendship, we can’t live without relationships, and we can’t live without people who know us, understand us and value us for who we are. This is an area in which I think we can do more. We need friends to listen to us and to value us, but if they’re real friends, they do all those things out of love for Christ and love for us, and with no sacrifice of the truth.
What is the one thing Courage hopes to contribute to the bishops’ discussion?
I don’t think we can improve on the testimonial of so many of our members. We have a section on our website that is dedicated to them. It’s where I first point people — and to our films. Those people know something about this life, their feelings and what it has brought them to, in terms of their self-understanding: that they now see in the light of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church.
In another realm, we talk about the importance of the communion of saints as a way to help people to understand the reality of the Gospel. Well, here we’re talking about the reality of the Gospel through the eyes of people who are striving to be saints. They have a lot of credibility, it seems to me, especially in a culture where the “personal narrative” or “lived-story experience” is accorded a certain deference. No one says, “That’s not your experience!” So I think that’s a grammar the world understands. It doesn’t understand Christian anthropology, to an extent, and I can see that. So here’s a grammar we can use.
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.