Loving a Child With Same-Sex Attraction
Father Check of the Courage apostolate asks parents to be guided by the clarity and authentic compassion of the Gospel message.
Earlier this month, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, endorsed same-sex “marriage.” In a March 15 column for the Columbus Dispatch, Portman reported that he changed his position after his son told him he was a homosexual.
“I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister. Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God,” he wrote.
Portman’s announcement comes in the wake of similar declarations from other public officials who have children with same-sex attraction.
To better understand the challenges faced by families like Portman’s, Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond spoke with Father Paul Check, the director of Courage. Courage is an apostolate for persons with same-sex attraction who seek to live in accordance with Church teaching and the families and spouses of persons with same-sex attraction.
As attempts at the “redefinition of marriage” gain ground, Father Check explains why people still come to seek help from Courage and why the Church will not retreat from its teaching about the meaning and purpose of sexuality and of marriage.
Since 2008, you have directed Courage. You also served as a Courage chaplain in 2003. Tell me about the apostolate’s mission.
Let me say first that I am most edified by the men and women of Courage, whose instinct to trust the Church in something very difficult is such a light in a confused time. They are the ones who have taught me most about same-sex attraction and that the teaching of the Church can be lived in a joyful and peaceful way without minimizing the struggle.
Courage is an apostolate of the Church. In a practical, concrete and personal way, it is an expression of the Church’s pastoral charity toward men and women who have a homosexual inclination and to their parents, spouses or other family members.
The work of Courage is to enflesh the Gospel message in a particular group of people with a certain understanding of themselves and in those who love this group of people.
The word most closely associated with the Catholic Church and homosexuality in the civil order and within the Church is the word “No.” It is true: An erotic attraction to a member of the same sex cannot be acted upon. The Church does say “No” to that.
Yet the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Gospel of “Yes” — yes to all people, yes to a universal invitation to the fullness of life in Christ, while understanding that Jesus told us that there are some actions that are incompatible with that new life.
You also work closely with the families of persons with same-sex attraction. Recently, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said that his son’s admission to him as a homosexual person led him to change his position on same-sex “marriage.” That response has become increasingly common.
The Golden Rule instructs us to treat others as we desire to be treated. However, the Golden Rule is not the foundation of Christian moral teaching. I could have a confused idea of how I would like people to treat me, and so my understanding of how the Golden Rule should be applied could also be confused. A person may seek loving affirmation for choices that are inconsistent with the gift of his or her humanity.
To properly understand the Golden Rule, we must begin with the words of Christ: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Today, people increasingly view sexual inclinations as separate from a person’s sex and the power of the sexual faculty. What do you tell your members and their families who are asked to affirm this new vision?
Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, asks, “How does a man born upside down know when he is right side up?”
There are those who oppose the natural law and say, “We don’t like this idea of a design because it implies a ‘designer’ who would in someway constrain our freedom.”
Salvation history tells us that our first parents also rebelled against God, and said, “You are not our Father, and we are not your children.” They tried to create a new identity. And that has left us with the burden of original sin and concupiscence.
That interior turmoil is still in the heart of man, and it is experienced by all people throughout human history. In The Phaedrus, Plato uses the figure of a chariot with two horses pulling in opposite directions to explain an interior disjunction he feels right down to the core of his being. He lived in 400 B.C., but explains what we know to be true as Christians.
In Romans 7, St. Paul writes that "the good things I want to do, I don’t do. The evil things I don’t want to do, I do." St. Paul echoes Plato’s comments, but St. Paul, with the benefit of Revelation, knows why there is an internal disturbance and that it can be traced back to our first parents, who said, “God, you are not our Father, and we are not your children.”
The Church, then, offers a full understanding of the inner turmoil experienced by all of us, including persons with same-sex attraction. Yet many critics say that Catholic prohibitions against same-sex unions caused that inner turmoil.
The Church tells us that the desire for physical expression in the sexual realm can only be fulfilled in a way in keeping with the gift of our humanity, which is made plain in nature by the sexual complementarity of men and women and the procreative power of the sexual faculty.
Throughout sacred Scripture, male and female are described in nuptial terms. Christ describes his relationship with the Church, and therefore with individual souls, as a relationship between a bridegroom and a bride. The Church is understood to be feminine, and Our Lady, we say, is the archetype of the Church. The Church follows the example of Our Lady’s fiat in a thoughtful and deliberate “Yes.”
This “nuptial” or spousal relationship — the mystical marriage between God and humanity, Christ and the Church and Christ and the individual soul — has an icon in the complementarity of a man and a woman.
If we reflect upon the distinction in humanity between male and female, we ask ourselves: “Is there a moral and spiritual significance?” The Church has said, “Yes, there is.” She does not approach the question of homosexuality without an understanding of our identity, as it is revealed by nature and sacred Scripture.
So the inner turmoil must be addressed in the light of this truth. Nothing else will bring peace.
When two people enter into a conversation, they presume the other party will respect the goal and purpose of speech and community — to the best of their ability to convey the truth.
If we bring that expectation of true fulfillment to the sexual realm, we have to ask: “What makes that fulfillment possible, and what can frustrate it?” In Matthew 19:5-4, Our Lord tells us that the only authentic way our hope can be realized is if the “two shall become one flesh” in the only manner revealed to us by our humanity: that, from the beginning, God made them “male and female.”
His teaching verifies that we often fail to seek out authentic intimate relationships.
If we open the Catechism to the Sixth Commandment, we see there are different ways that man can act contrary to the gift of his humanity, resulting in great sadness, pain and loss of joy, not only divorce and adultery, but also fornication, contraception and pornography.
The sexual sphere brings with it a distinctively intense satisfaction that is unlike anything else. For that reason, the Church asks for a more thoughtful reflection of how we enter into that sphere.
While many demand that the Church retreat from its prohibition against same-sex unions, Courage continues to grow, and many people seek your counsel and participate in support groups.
Those who seek Courage do so because they feel that interior disquiet in the sexual sphere in particular. More than a few members have said, “Thank God the Church has consistently offered the fullness of truth. I might at times have wanted to hide from it, but the light of truth and the warmth of God’s grace and mercy have brought me back.”
All of us have conflicting voices within us. We need to know how to interpret them and thus to act in a more authentically human and loving way. When we make choices in the light of truth, we act with virtue.
Our members have had to pick themselves up over and over again. They don’t come to Courage because of a condemning or angry voice of the Church. They come because they see the thoughtfulness, the tenderness and the understanding the Church offers to help with the interior struggle that everyone but the Blessed Virgin Mary has experienced. It doesn’t mean they have stopped feeling strong urges, but they do find understanding, charity and fellowship.
How have families of your members been part of this struggle? You offer a separate group for families called Encourage.
Within the family, there is a great deal of suffering, whether the child is a teenager or an adult. No parents want to be estranged from their child, and no child wants to be estranged from his parents. The fear of estrangement causes great sorrow.
When I meet with the family, I try to encourage them to regain a sense of peace, which Augustine calls the “tranquility of order,” and to take counsel from many sources, including the Church.
In recent years, some critics of reparative therapy, which helps persons to overcome their unwanted same-sex attraction, say it’s wrong to connect sexual attraction with family dynamics and thus “blame” parents for their child’s condition. What’s the right approach to this sensitive issue?
There is nothing in our work or in the mind of the Church that says, “Here is the cause and the effect of family relationships that always leads to same-sex attraction.” As human beings, we are far too complex to offer simplistic explanations.
Let me make a few points first before we address family issues per se.
The data show that a person with same-sex attraction is seven times more likely to have experienced sexual abuse as a child or a minor.
I don’t say that everyone who is a victim will grow up to have same-sex attraction. But sexual contact, even when it’s unsolicited, leaves something in its wake. It’s not too much to say that people could have a distorted understanding of themselves if they were initiated into this sphere in the wrong way before they were mature.
Another issue is the question of perception on the part of people with same-sex attraction: How do they perceive themselves and members of the same and opposite sex?
We have filters through which we perceive reality. Some may not be helpful, and some may be truly distorting. We need humility, the virtue most closely associated with truth; otherwise, our perceptions may be inaccurate.
Family relationships can be decisive in the life of a child: the way the father loves the mother and the mother loves the father. That is formative for our own identity and for our relationship with members of the opposite sex.
Then there is the relationship between parent and child and how perception can influence the child’s understanding of it. For example, do they feel they have not lived up to their parent’s expectations? Please understand that I am not blaming parents, but, in humility, we can see why people ask questions about familial relationships because they are so important to us.
When we are dealing with parents, we try to keep them away from two poles — self-condemnation and self-justification. Neither extreme is useful, nor does it express humility or the truth.
The mind is searching for connections all the time. There is nothing wrong with asking: “What caused this?” But in a realm of deep emotion and complexity, we need peace of mind and heart before we can thoughtfully address anything.
I also try with parents to guard against the “emergency room” model.
When a child is injured or ill, it is a natural response for the parent to say, “I will take you to the emergency room to get this fixed.”
But if a young man or woman says to the parent, “This is who I am,” it is not good for the parent to say, “Don’t worry; we can fix you.” The child is not a problem to be fixed, and the child may also say, “I don’t need to be fixed.”
How should parents approach this challenge in a loving and respectful manner?
Christian parents seek to form their children after the mind and heart of Christ, so that the child will choose to live in a manner consistent with the Gospel, embracing the new life it proposes.
The parents’ example is critical. At the outset, parents must bring themselves to the foot of the cross and ask for the comfort of Our Lady, who stands there with them, and to appeal to the goodness of her Son to give them grace.
This struggle can go on for years, even decades. Without the grace of the cross, an authentic sacramental life, a commitment to prayer and a deep and personal relationship with Jesus Christ, this will be tremendously difficult.
It is easy to see how parents become discouraged and angry, so we cannot approach this challenge without deepening the foundations of our spiritual life. We cannot give what we do not have.
Has the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships and advocacy of same-sex “marriage” influenced young adults' choices to act on their same-sex attraction?
One particular challenge is social media. I am not condemning it, but when I was a child, my parents knew my friends and were aware of the outside influences in my life and in the house.
Today, children are growing up in a different world, and they are exposed to a lot of people that their parents know nothing about.
By the time parents come to us, their teenage child has often heard a chorus of voices from outside the family and the Church through social media. A higher degree of vigilance is necessary because there is more vulnerability and access to a wide range of voices.
Still, we can say to young people, “Do you want to go to heaven and be with Jesus?” Man has a supernatural end that cannot be satisfied by the goods of this world. If we have a desire for something that lasts forever, that is the pearl of great price, and we have to go to that Voice that can tell us how to preserve our inheritance. We have to elevate the conversation.
It must be hard for parents to affirm Church teaching when it may cause their child to turn away from them. Some come to believe they must support same-sex “marriage” to show their love for their children.
There can be a misplaced compassion and sentimentality that does not acknowledge the nuptial nature of man and the fullness of the Gospel teaching with regard to chastity. Chastity is part of the Good News!
When a child tells his parents he is attracted to members of the same sex, some parents respond by saying, “If this is how you feel, I can’t say your feelings are wrong, so you are free to act on them.”
In John 8:3-11, the Lord spoke to the woman caught in adultery, which is one of the acts against marriage. Our Lord forgave her, but also called her to conversion.
Our charity for any people with same-sex attraction should lead us to listen to why they feel as they do and to help them to try and understand themselves in a way consistent to the Gospel.
In John 8:32, Jesus says, “You can know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That truth is not just about our eternity; it is also about the real source of joy in this life.
To abandon that truth will not bring us to authentic human freedom. The Lord established that the good of freedom is preserved by the good of truth. Our desires must be purified and properly directed according to reality. We will not move in the direction of freedom if we shun that reality.
The men and women of Courage have changed my priesthood. They have given me a greater understanding through their own example of the heart of Jesus Christ.
For more information: Courage/ Encourage holds an annual conference.
The 2013 conference is July 25-28 at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill.