How to Accompany Catholics With Same-Sex Attractions
Part II: Those who have found freedom explain why the truth of chastity must inform Church ministries.
Jean C. Lloyd was heartbroken when she walked into a Catholic campus ministry center and saw a banner with a rainbow and pink triangle that said, “Come celebrate your true colors.”
For Lloyd, a Catholic convert who previously lived a “lesbian” life and writes about same-sex attraction for The Public Discourse, her sexual inclinations do not constitute her “true colors.” “My ‘true colors’ are those of a woman made in the image of God and called to union with the Trinity,” she said.
However, Lloyd came to that understanding only after years of struggle and, eventually, with the help of Christians who were willing to be faithful to the truth while loving her and walking, praying and suffering with her.
Raised in an evangelical Protestant church, Lloyd said she knew she was going against God when she engaged in “lesbian” sexual relationships. But when she decided to cease those relationships, she needed help in learning how to live celibately and understanding her same-sex attraction.
“I not only needed to be pointed to shore, I also needed hands to pull me out of the water and help me learn to walk uprightly,” she wrote in an article on making churches safe spaces for Christians with same-sex attraction.
Lloyd found this in a church group in which spiritual friends and mentors both welcomed and accompanied her.
“It was a real pocket of grace,” she said in an interview. “There’s something about a group of Christians who are 100% committed to the truth of Jesus and intensely living for him, but also willing to be vulnerable and walk together.”
In that setting, Lloyd and the other members shared their struggles openly, but appropriately, with the intention of praying for and encouraging each other in virtue and obedience to Christ.
Today, Lloyd knows same-sex attraction is an inclination that will not bring her life: “It does not and should not define me.” She also recognizes getting to that point required the kind of clarity about her identity the Church spells out in its directives for ministries to people with same-sex attraction.
“The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation,” states the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1986 letter to bishops on the pastoral care of homosexual persons. Likewise, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2006 ministry guidelines state, “Persons with a homosexual inclination should not be encouraged to define themselves primarily in terms of their sexual inclination.”
Lloyd and other Catholics who have found life in the Church’s teachings want to see them presented clearly by ministries for those with same-sex attraction, as both the CDF and USCCB guidelines specify.
Yet, many Catholic outreaches, swathed in messages of inclusivity, equality and justice, seemingly disregard this by employing the language and imagery of the “LGBT” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) movement, doing little to help people better understand their same-sex attraction.
In an apparent effort to be welcoming agents of accompaniment, as Pope Francis has encouraged, some ministries also create confusion about Church teachings on human sexuality, depriving people with same-sex attraction of the help they most need.
“Any ministry dealing with LGBT issues in this day and age has got to be unambiguous and clear,” said Lloyd.
“We live in a culture that is fractured at every level and filled with falsehoods regarding sexuality,” she added. “Our society celebrates the ‘gay’ self as the true self, and many churches offer false compassion and encourage active same-sex relationships and sexuality-based identities.”
Although the help Lloyd found for herself did not come from a ministry specifically for people with same-sex attraction, she recommends two such ministries that provide the kind of clarity and accompaniment she received: the Catholic apostolate Courage International and Desert Stream/Living Waters, for people with same-sex attraction and other sexual and relational issues. Desert Stream/Living Waters has evangelical Protestant roots, but its founder is a Catholic convert, and two Living Waters groups currently meet in Catholic parishes in Kansas City, Missouri, and Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
Lloyd would like to see the Church offer even more opportunities for authentic Christian community where people can share their lives and struggles openly and honestly and receive encouragement to understand their identities as children of God and attain their highest good.
“If we’re not encouraged to resist sin and to live within God’s design for sexuality, which is the only way any human being can truly be free and flourish,” she said, “what is intended to be ministry becomes a snare.”
Indeed, that is what happened to David Prosen, when, at about age 21, he sought out a priest he was told specialized in helping people with same-sex attraction. The priest said Prosen could be in a sexual relationship with another man if he loved him.
Speaking to a priests-and-seminarians retreat last summer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Prosen said he tried to believe what the priest told him, ignoring the gnawing feeling in his heart that being in a sexual relationship with another man was wrong, but grew more miserable as he continued in that lifestyle.
“Years later, when I learned the truth and how to live in harmony with it … I was no longer miserable.”
That meant living chastely, he said, yet those with same-sex attraction often are told they will be harming themselves if they try to do anything other than act on their inclinations.
“We need to hear that chastity is possible, that chastity is good and that the Church is not asking us to do something unreasonable,” Prosen said. “We need to be told we can do this. We’re not going to get it from the culture.”
Ultimately, Prosen said in an interview, he found the help he needed from Courage, which gave him the practical and spiritual support to live a chaste life. He said his healing came by realizing that he didn’t choose his inclinations, but that he could choose whether to act on them.
‘The Rest of the Story’
Father Philip Bochanski, executive director of Courage, said ministries to those with same-sex attraction can heed Pope Francis’ language about pastoral ministry by both welcoming people in the name of Christ and accompanying them along the path that God has marked out for them.
“Jesus welcomes everyone, without exception, and he welcomes them so he can help them to hear the Father’s voice, to help them understand the will of God and respond to it,” Father Bochanski said.
Courage welcomes people, he said, by first listening to their stories, and then saying, “Here’s the rest of the story. Here’s what we believe God has in mind for you and your relationships.”
For priests, this means knowing why the Church teaches what it does, presenting the whole truth compassionately, helping people appropriate it into their lives, supporting them when they struggle and reconciling them and helping them to keep walking when they fall. “That’s the accompaniment,” the priest added.
Courage also stresses the value of real friendship, as cited in the USCCB pastoral-care guidelines.
“It is not possible to live a chaste life without solid friendships,” Father Bochanski said. “Above all, that was the genius of [Courage founder] Father [John] Harvey in getting people together as a group. Courage becomes an apprenticeship in friendship. Relationships here are not going to be based on how you look or whether you’re sexually available. You’re bound together by the pursuit of friendship with Christ and a deeper relationship with the Church.”
Added Father Bochanski, “A Courage meeting is not about public conversion and beating up on yourself, but about honesty about our feelings, desires, temptations, needs and supporting one another as friends who can talk about serious matters.”
Andrew Comiskey, the founder of Desert Stream/Living Waters, said his group in its approach is a partner to Courage. “We’re just friends in the advocacy of chastity and also in providing practical gathering places for people to work that out in the context of their church commitment.”
Comiskey said Pope Francis’ idea of accompanying people is misinterpreted when it becomes mere tolerance of the “gay self.”
“This is America, and I think our version of mercy, as it’s applied to persons in many kinds of sexual disorders, is mixed, and even toxic in its mixture, so that you hear a lot about mercy but not a lot about repentance,” he said. “You don’t hear a lot about turning into the new and the true.”
Many good and thoughtful Catholics, he said, have subscribed to the culture’s presuppositions about homosexuality so that, for them, it has become a social-justice issue in which their mission is to protect those with same-sex attraction instead of giving them the opportunity to become new creations in Christ.
Indeed, one of Courage’s biggest challenges, Father Bochanski said, is getting its message out in a culture that thinks chastity is unrealistic, discriminatory, an ideal for a few or an undue burden on those asked to live it.
“We’ve bought into the notion, which is not new, that life without sex is life without love,” he said. “It’s hard to break through because we don’t know as a culture what friendship is.”
Guidance for Pastors
As part of its apostolate, Courage also tries to help priests understand Church teaching and give them the confidence to present it well.
“I think priests want to be faithful and compassionate, and the conventional wisdom in the culture is that you can’t do both,” Father Bochanski said. “So priests sometimes exercise misplaced compassion and stay silent or remain ambiguous.”
In a presentation to Courage’s “Truth and Love” Conference in Phoenix in January, Lloyd said that if pastoral ministers want to be truly merciful to those with same-sex attraction, they should consider the spiritual works of mercy, which include admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful and comforting the sorrowful.
She said pastors and friends of those with same-sex attraction have a responsibility to lovingly accompany and gently correct them if they are in error.
“If my conscience is not formed properly, I may feel okay about acts that are objectively evil or that under no circumstances can be approved,” said Lloyd. “Same-sex sexual acts are among these. The fact that I am ignorant does not make these relationships or acts lead to life for me. … If I am ignorant of God’s ways, then you are commanded in Scripture to instruct me and correct me. Educate me. Help me properly form my conscience. Mercy is not letting me go my own way because I feel good about it. Mercy does not pretend that I can have the sinful pleasures of the far country and the joys of the Father’s house at the same time.”
Lloyd said it is good to empathize with the pain and struggle of someone experiencing same-sex attraction, but she pleaded, “Do not apologize for same-sex activity being outside of [God’s] will. This does not help me. This does not strengthen me; it weakens me. … I need you to stand firm where I am wavering.”
Prosen, in his talk to the priests-and-seminarians retreat at Franciscan University, said the most important things pastoral ministers can give people with same-sex attraction are truth, authentic love and the hope and encouragement that living chastely is possible.
Conveying the truth, he said, does not always mean it will be received well, especially in a culture where objective truth about homosexuality has been swept aside and Church teaching reflecting it is labeled as hate.
In his own life, Prosen said, the first time he heard, for example, that masturbation was a grave sin, he became upset and angry and thought he was being lied to. Finally, in wrestling with that truth, he realized he was wrong. “And it was at this point that I could finally ask God for help and … my heart opened up to his grace.”
Men and women with same-sex attraction need to be invited to a life of holiness, added Lloyd, not have their same-sex desire celebrated. “If we’re not actively engaging with Scripture and the truth that is revealed by our bodies and understanding ourselves rightly, through the lens of these, then we’re being conformed to this world, pressed into the mold of this culture.”
In that respect, groups employing the language and imagery of the “LGBT” movement to appear welcoming may be sending confusing messages, especially if their mission statements say nothing about chastity or the spiritual encouragement to live a godly life in keeping with Church teaching. Those images, Lloyd explained, “are cultural icons, symbols that in every other situation in cultural parlance mean affirmation of homosexuality.”
“If you think encouraging chastity is tacitly understood in this day and age, when you’ve got rainbows and pride, ‘safe’ and ‘affirming’ and those types of things on your [web] page, it’s not understood,” Lloyd said.
“It’s confusing and even borders on deceptive. … The generation coming up, they have got to have it made clear.”
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.