Last November, I was invited to the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, to speak to priests and others in parish and diocesan ministry. I got up early on the morning of the event to visit the site of Pulse Orlando, the “LGBT” nightclub where a gunman had murdered 49 people, and injured dozens more, the previous June. I spent about a half-hour there, offering a Rosary for the happy repose of the victims and for the consolation of the survivors and their families, and taking in the impromptu memorials that had been placed on the site.
Human words often fail us in the face of senseless tragedy like the Pulse massacre. Still, certain questions tug at the heart of a priest in the midst of such a scene: “What would I have done, if I had been here? What could I have done? What could I say to those who were victimized, singled out by hatred toward their community? What consolation could I offer to their families and friends, to all who mourned for them? What do I do now?”
Answers were not easy to find that morning, but the rest of the day’s activities pointed me in the right direction.
My talks were about providing pastoral care to Catholics who experience same-sex attractions and to their family members and loved ones. Pastoral care means the care of a shepherd, imitating the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
Though a pastoral minister may not know what to do in every situation, we know what the Good Shepherd would do.“I myself will search for my sheep,” he says. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak” (Ezekiel 34:11-16).
Of course, pastoral care takes for granted that there is a flock that needs pastoring, that needs seeking, healing and strengthening. This is not pessimism, but realism: Original Sin, G.K. Chesterton once wrote, is “a fact as practical as potatoes,” and its consequences affect the world and everyone in it, every day.
All of us grew up in imperfect families, had imperfect childhoods and formed imperfect friendships. We have an imperfect understanding of ourselves and an imperfect appreciation of God’s gifts. We have imperfect control over our minds, hearts and bodies, and we make imperfect responses to God’s will.
Yet the Catholic faith teaches another undeniable fact: No one needs to be perfect to be loved by God. Quite the contrary: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The Perfect One suffered for the sake of the imperfect, “the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
This reality — that happiness in this life and the next depends not on perfection but on redemption — is the foundation of pastoral care.
“In life, God accompanies persons,” Pope Francis advises, “and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.”
By welcoming every person in the name of Christ, and sharing with them the Good News of salvation, we assist imperfect human beings to strive for the perfect happiness that has its origin and its destination in God.
The key word here is striving: The Christian life is a journey that proceeds in stages; the earliest Christians were known as those who were on “The Way” (Acts 9:2).
A Christian is not a perfect being, but a work in progress; he progresses by pursuing virtues, good habits that point him in the right direction. God has a plan for human life that is not derailed or made irrelevant by sin or imperfection, and the virtues orient heart, mind, body and soul along the path marked out by this divine design.
The virtue that directs the profound experience of sexual attraction and desire is chastity. The world tends to balk at the word, which conjures up images of sterile monasteries devoid of emotion or vitality. Yet the Catechism proposes a way that leads to freedom and self-understanding.
“Chastity,” it says, “means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” The result of this integration is that “sexuality … becomes personal and truly human,” situated in the divine plan for human relationships (2357).
Chastity does not repress feelings or deny the reality of sexual desire. Chastity begins with honesty — “This is how I feel; this is what I want” — but it doesn’t end there. The world says, “If I feel it, I ought to do it”; the implication is that every desire or thought a person has must be perfect and complete in itself.
Chastity is more realistic. It considers the origin and goal of a sexual desire, in light of the individual’s identity and history and of God’s plan and vocation, to arrive at a good decision about whether or not to pursue or act on a given desire.
A virtuous person will only pursue a desire that is part of God’s plan for sexuality, in which sexual intimacy is ordered and directed to a relationship that is permanent, faithful, based on the complementarity of man and woman, and open to the procreation of human life — that is, to marriage.
Therefore, chastity — which is a universal call to every person — is likewise the cornerstone of the Catholic Church’s pastoral approach to people who experience same-sex attractions. The hallmark of an “authentic pastoral program,” according to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), is that it honestly faces the truth that homosexual intimate acts are immoral, for they are not ordered to the complementarity and procreativity that give sexual union its meaning and purpose. But if our pastoral practice stopped there, it would be woefully incomplete. Instead, the CDF calls for a “multifaceted approach” that helps people to live chastity and to grow “at all levels of the spiritual life: through the sacraments … prayer, witness, counsel and individual care.”
Perhaps the greatest privilege of my priesthood has been to participate in such an approach to pastoral care, first as a Courage chaplain in my home Archdiocese of Philadelphia and now as director of Courage International. The opportunity to be a real spiritual father to people who have made a choice to pursue chastity, often at the cost of being misunderstood and even losing friendships, has transformed my understanding of the human heart and my estimation of just what people are capable of when they are motivated and sustained by grace.
My only regret is that their stories are not more often told, for they testify to the freedom and joy that is found in a wholehearted embrace of God’s plan.
When I give talks like the ones I presented in Orlando last year, they always include personal testimonies from Courage members, either in person or on video. It is vitally important for the Church’s ministers to hear the real-life experiences of people who live with same-sex attractions, and I’m happy to bridge the gap that often exists between them.
The most poignant testimony I have heard came from Bob, a longtime Courage member from New York, who said, “God loves me, and he has given me a Church to help me have a happy life.”
He then shared the secret of his happiness: “[God has] given me a Church that teaches me that chastity is the way to happiness. And it’s not to deny me sexual pleasure; it’s in order to open me up to being a happier person.”
Here is the heart of the Church’s teaching and of the pastoral care that the Church proposes and expects.
Pursuit of virtue opens a person up to real happiness, because all virtue is rooted in the reality of the human being. People who have had a glimpse of that happiness, and have started to understand their identity as sons and daughters created in God’s image, want to pursue the virtues that will lead them to fulfillment. They want to hear what the Church has to say, even when it is difficult to put it into practice. This means “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) about the meaning of human sexuality and helping people to understand and embrace that truth. “Departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it,” the CDF wrote, “in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral.”
These brothers and sisters of ours want to immerse themselves in the sacraments, because they find there the unconditional love, acceptance and mercy that comes from God alone. They want opportunities to share their stories with people who they know will understand, because they’ve been there, and they want to support and encourage one another.
Perhaps most of all, they want to build authentic relationships. At the heart of the Church’s response to same-sex attraction is the acknowledgement that “friendships of various kinds are necessary for a full human life, and they are likewise necessary for those attempting to live chastely in the world,” as the U.S. bishops explain.
Chaste friendship is not a privilege of those of us who have it all together, but the birthright and defining characteristic of every disciple.
“I call you friends,” Jesus says at the Last Supper, and he explains what he means. “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15), and “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).
Friendship with Christ means hearing the truth from him about our identity and his plan for us and responding to it in freedom and with generosity. Chaste friendship — based not on labels or identity politics, but on a common pursuit of holiness and all of the virtues — is the driving principle of Courage and ought to characterize every Catholic ministry and pastoral minister that reaches out to this community.
Father Philip Bochanski is the executive director of Courage International.