Same-Sex Attraction and the Catholic Church
Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage International, frames the narrative in Christ and authentic human identity.
Same-sex attraction has become an inescapable issue in modern society — from the political and cultural efforts to mainstream it to fights over same-sex “marriage” and employment in the Church. The extremely clear, humane and rational teachings of the Church on human sexuality have never been more essential and never been more misunderstood and mischaracterized. In particular, the cross carried by those with same-sex attraction who wish to live as faithful Catholics has become heavier as the subject dominates mainstream culture.
Since 2008, Father Paul Check has been the executive director of Courage International, an apostolate providing support to people who have same-sex attraction but want to living chaste lives according to Catholic teaching. Before that, he was the Courage chaplain for the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn.
Father Check entered seminary after nine years in the Marines and was ordained in 1997. He has a baccalaureate in sacred theology from the Gregorian University and a licentiate in sacred theology (moral theology) from the University of the Holy Cross in Rome; he teaches moral theology to seminarians, deacons and religious.
He spoke to Register correspondent Thomas L. McDonald while on his way to Courage Conference 2014, taking place Thursday through Sunday in Villanova, Pa.
You’ve worked with Courage in various capacities for more than a decade. How has your ministry changed in that time?
Outside the apostolate, and of course in the wider culture, there has been a much greater acceptance of the homosexual life than when I first began. Some of that is evident from civil legislation and judicial action. It is prominent in the lives of young people, in terms of those who believe that they are “gay or lesbian” or the ready acceptance of those so-called sexual identities among the young. So that is different.
The polls would tend to indicate that even Massgoing Catholics are more accepting today and consider homosexuality a normal variant of the human condition. It’s more difficult for people to indicate in the way they live and what they say that they embrace the Church’s teaching on the question of homosexuality, as well as the traditional natural moral law. It’s more difficult for people even in polite discourse — among friends, in a family gathering and even in some ecclesiastical settings — to say that they think the homosexual life is immoral and contrary to sacred Scripture and human fulfillment.
Within the apostolate, we’ve grown considerably, and I think that’s a testimony to the veracity of the Church’s teaching. Many people have lived one way and discovered through experience that the promise [of happiness] was not fulfilled, and they’ve had a change of heart. They have looked to the Church to assist in confirming what they’ve experienced interiorly.
And then the other thing is that we have Courage members who are willing to give their testimony in a public forum. Many members have a sense that now is the time to give witness, and at no small cost or sacrifice, by going public. There’s a generosity and courage there that is admirable and edifying. We have more members who feel the love of Christ is urging them this way. They are our best ambassadors and the most persuasive teachers because they have the credibility of lived experience.
The Synod on the Family is meeting this fall, and same-sex attraction is one of the topics addressed in the synod working documents. How can the Church do a better job in ministering to people with same-sex attraction?
A lot of my job is to give talks to my brother priests and other groups who have the care of souls in some way [as part of their ministries]. My objective in giving those talks is modest and comes down to two things.
One is that I just want to share some of the experience and insight into this question that Courage has gathered over 30 years, both in the reflection on Christian anthropology and what we learn through pastoral care: very real, practical ways to help men and women with same-sex attraction to live chastely.
The second goal of those talks is to try to impart a sense of confidence that what the Church teaches about the virtue of chastity is both true and leads to fulfillment, even if it’s difficult to live and even if popular opinion pushes against it. One of the difficulties we have ecclesiastically is the question about whether chastity is part of the Good News. And I want to say to people, “Yes! It’s as much a part as mercy, redemption, eternal life, faith, hope and charity.”
I think many people, including ecclesial persons, understand chastity mainly in the negative: It’s restraint; it’s abstinence; it’s a way of understanding what you’re not doing. Of course, it has that component, because as long as there is fallen human nature, there are things we have to avoid. But the greater part of chastity is the self-forgetfulness and self-possession that leads to self-giving, and that’s what the human person is made for. Gaudium et Spes 23 says that “man discovers himself by giving himself.” That, of course, is a testimony to the life of Christ in the Bible. I think there’s a reluctance to believe this and say it and live it or there’s a lack of confidence that it should be lived.
And then, of course, there’s the whole contraception question, which has made this all the more difficult, because so many Catholics, including, sadly, many priests, have it settled in their minds that deliberately sterile sex promotes the human good. But it doesn’t. We know through Revelation, reason and lived experience.
Once we have the idea that deliberately sterile sex within marriage is good, then it’s a very short step to same-sex union. What contraception does is remove the distinctively male and female aspect, the complementarity, of sex. Once you give up that ground philosophically, you wind up where we are culturally. Some of that has seeped into the minds and hearts of Catholics.
Hypothetically, if you could revise the Catechism, would you replace the phrase “objectively disordered,” and if so, with what?
I know that phrase falls very hard on the ears, and not just on the ears of people who are dissenting from the Church’s teaching or inclined to dissent. There are many good people who say that this phrase is difficult. Of course, it is not a moral judgment, but an anthropological judgment meaning the erotic attraction to a person of the same sex can never be fulfilled in a way consistent without nature. That’s what it means: that people are out of harmony with their nature.
But the good in the phrase is that it’s very clear, and while it can be hard on ears, its clarity has brought to many people a deeper or more thoughtful reflection on what the Church teaches and why.
As long as we are careful to make the three-part distinction that the Catechism does make [person, inclination and action], then I think we can use that phrase. Now, that doesn’t mean it needs to be used all the time or from the pulpit on Sunday, but certainly in a Christian anthropology or ethics classes it has its place.
Some Catholics resist the appellation “gay” in favor of the more clinical “homosexual.” Is there any fundamental problem with people who self-identify as “gay”?
I think so, because it’s a false identity. I think it tends to encourage the belief that the identity is either neutral or good or consistent with human nature. I think there is difficulty with that because words have meaning. Language gives expression to a reality.
The reason the Church avoids “gay” or “lesbian” itself is very simple: It tends to reduce the complexity and the richness of the human person to one aspect (which I’m not saying is unimportant by any means) of how they understand themselves.
The question really is, at a foundational level: “Is there such a thing as a gay identity?” And the Church in her magisterial reflection on this, based on the natural law, says, “No.” There are people who feel an erotic attraction to members of the same sex, but the categories are not either “gay” or “lesbian” on the one hand and “straight” on the other.
The proper categories are male and female. We’ve lost that sense of discourse and must do what we can to recover it.
The better category is one of relationships. This is how Jesus spoke: in terms of relationships. He is Son of Man, Son of God, Son of Mary, the Master. These are terms that indicate a relationship. We know, because we’re created in the image and likeness of God, that’s we’re made for relationships.
The more authentic way to describe ourselves is who we are in relationship to God — children of God, sons and daughters of God — and then who we are in our human relationships. This is a better, more accurate, more precise way of understanding the person.
For a year now, we’ve heard Pope Francis’ words — “Who am I to judge?”— taken out of context and thrown back in the face of anyone talking about traditional Church teaching on homosexuality. Has this had any effect on your ministry?
Though I don’t want to pretend I’m an authentic interpreter of the Pope’s words, I think it has been the source of unintended confusion. I think people do a terrible injustice to Francis — whether they understand him to be the Vicar of Christ on earth or not — if they put words into his mouth or attach meaning to his words that he clearly does not intend. We can take him at his own words when he says, “I am a loyal son of the Church” or when he makes reference to the Catechism on the topic of homosexuality, as he did in that same interview. It may be the case that the Pope would like to reformulate some things he has said — as a public speaker, I often do! — but there isn’t anything in his remarks that presents a challenge to the work of Courage or any other apostolate.
Not long ago, he made it very plain that a child had a right to a father and mother, and, therefore, he was speaking very plainly to the subject of same-sex adoptions.
I like the way Pope Francis talks about the importance of establishing relationships with people so we can talk to them about the deeper questions. The example that I use is John 4: the story of the Woman at the Well. Jesus establishes a relationship with the woman to such a degree that when the conversation is over, she goes to town and tells people. That’s important for us as Christians and as ambassadors of the Gospel: to establish a ground for conversation.
Jesus shows us in John 4 what true charity looks like, and Francis is holding this up for our understanding and imitation — especially on controversial questions. It’s a valid way forward so that we can have real hope of sharing the good news.
Can you talk a bit about the upcoming conference? What are themes you plan to tackle, and how do they translate to a more effective ministry to homosexual persons?
The conference is a wonderful expression of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. This is my seventh year as director. It has been a source of joy and grace and reassurance to me, as I see many people struggling to be faithful to Christ and Gospel. They gather in a spirit of fellowship in Christ in order to share experience and give encouragement to each other in this special setting.
In order to help them do that, the Mass is the center of each day, and the sacrament of penance and other expressions of prayer and devotion are available. There are a lot of talks about different topics related to the spiritual life, as well as addressing more nuts-and-bolts questions about subjects like sexual addiction or breaking the hold of pornography.
The people who come are principally our members, both from the Courage apostolate and EnCourage, which is for parents and loved ones. But we also have a lot of priests who participate, so they can know more about the Church’s teaching and what a faithful response to sexuality is.
We have those who are involved in counseling, women from religious orders and lay ecclesial orders, family-life ministries and others. It’s quite a good cross-section of the Church and her universality, and I think it’s a special expression of the trust and confidence these people have that what the Church teaches is both true and leads to fulfillment.
Thomas L. McDonald is a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.
He blogs at God and the Machine.