Realizing Our True Identity

COMMENTARY: The hardest thing for us to believe may be this: that God is good, even when things are not as they should be.

Detail of The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni
Detail of The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Coming to his senses … he got up and went back to his father (Luke 15:17, 20).

The Prodigal Son is the most beloved of all Jesus’ parables, perhaps because it is the story, or at least the hoped-for story, of many human hearts. There is great drama in this story: a father’s generosity, a son’s willfulness, division within the family, a waste of gifts, self-inflicted suffering, humility, a moment of grace and truth, a change of heart, contrition, forgiveness and reconciliation. These themes suggest this parable, so central to the teaching of Christ, offers the spiritual foundation for questions regarding the pastoral care of families that the Church continues to consider. 

A decisive moment in the parable comes when the son realizes his true identity: the child of a loving and generous father. “We know,” St. Paul writes, “that all things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). “All things” … for those who believe that they are children of a loving and generous Father.

The hardest thing for us to believe may be this: that God is good, even when things are not as they should be — for example, when someone we love is in difficulty, confused about the truth and perhaps acting on this confusion. But this parable reassures us that nothing falls outside of God’s providence or the reach of his grace.

I am often asked a question I cannot answer easily: “Father, what do I say to my son, my daughter, my friend, etc., when he or she has told me, ‘I am gay.’”

It is not an easy question to answer because much depends on the relationship the speaker has with the person, to what degree the person understands himself or herself in the light of his or her sexual attraction and other considerations.

Yet there are some things we can do as we prepare to respond to the self-revelation described above. The first might be to return to the Parable of the Prodigal Son and to the strength of the love and grace of Our Father in heaven. I am not saying that every person with same-sex attractions (SSA) is a prodigal, willful son or daughter. Not at all. The homosexual inclination itself is not sinful, the Church teaches; only the act is.

While I am certainly not proposing a strict analogy between the question of homosexuality and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I do find aspects of the parable helpful in this context.

When the boy initially goes to his father, something has caused him to be confused about who he really is. In that moment, he is not thinking of himself first as a “beloved son.” Another identity has superseded the truth. In time, the truth will return to him, but that clarity has come through suffering. Grace has been at work in “all things.” The role of the priest in a time of trial is to steady hearts, to help deepen peace and to encourage people to believe that, during the trial, God is still good and that his grace is still at work. In these moments, the Paschal Mystery — the salvific life, death and resurrection of Christ — becomes less notional, less of a theological principle and more of a lived reality of grace in the life of the soul. The Catechism has taken flesh.

This may seem a long preface in answer to the question a family member or friend poses about how to respond to someone who describes himself or herself as “gay.” In my experience of more than 10 years in the Courage apostolate, however, I believe it preserves the right order of things. Sound pastoral practice follows sound understanding of identity — or what is called “Christian anthropology”: knowing who we are, what we are and why we are. And those questions can only be fully answered by the Gospel and the Person of Jesus Christ.

“The Church’s teaching makes this hard, Father,” one parent said to me. I understood the point, but I gently suggested that it was not the Church’s teaching that made the situation difficult; it was, in part, his son’s confusion about himself that was causing the tension. Our Savior did not promise that the truth would be easy to accept or to live, but that it would bring us freedom and peace (John 8:32, 14:27).

In my opinion, homosexuality is not first a question of sex or of relationships. It is first about identity and, in particular, a misperception and confusion about who someone understands himself or herself to be.

What has brought that person to that understanding is, of course, important. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the “psychological genesis” of homosexuality (2357), which reminds us of what we know: that we live in a world of cause and effect. But at the moment of the self-revelation, the cause or causes are not the first concern, nor is an intervention intended to address or counteract them, well-intentioned though it may be.

First, we look to the Church, which is, in the words of Blessed Paul VI, “an expert in humanity.” Through sacred Scripture and her magisterial reflection on man’s identity in Christ, the Church assures us of something else we know: that the twofold expression of human nature is not heterosexual and homosexual, but male and female.

If man is made for woman, and woman is made for man (Genesis 2:18; Matthew 19:4, 5), then a person with same-sex attraction suffers from a privation of a good, i.e. the natural attraction to the opposite sex.

The words “gay,” “homosexual” and “lesbian” would seem to collapse someone’s identity into his or her sexual attraction. Measured either by justice or charity, that vocabulary is, at best, incomplete, if not a disservice to another person’s dignity.

Though we may hear one of our shepherds occasionally use this terminology so common in popular discourse, we should not assume that the Holy Father or any Church leader is implying the existence of a “third gender.”

The Church, in her magisterial documents, avoids these terms. Those words will also leave the person a puzzle to themselves, because, the intensity of his or her SSA notwithstanding, that person shares the same human nature every child of God has. Therefore, to accept a false story about oneself is to come into collision with oneself. No parent wants a child to suffer, especially if anything can be done to prevent it. By its nature, love tries to protect the beloved from harm, from pain and from sorrow. Doesn’t Jesus himself say, “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13)? The lover stands between the beloved and danger.

And yet, did not the Father say to the Son (Luke 22:42), “Will you drink the cup?” Did not the Father send the Son to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28)? While at the same time, did not the Son always remind us “poor banished children of Eve” of the goodness of the Father (Matthew 7:11; Luke 12:32)?

The life of Jesus and the Parable of the Prodigal Son give us confidence that suffering can be the source of redemption, of freedom, though it does not have the last word; that truth will prevail; that nothing lies outside the reach of grace; and that our Father is always good.

Father Paul Check is the executive director of Courage.