The Truth That Dare Not Speak Its Name — Catholic Teachings on Homosexuality?

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and other Church authorities speak with the Register about how to discuss this sensitive issue in contemporary America


PHILADELPHIA — Failure to celebrate homosexuality has become a 21st-century “hate crime,” in the view of many in contemporary America; and, consequently, even faithful Catholics have become wary of articulating settled Church teachings about the controversial issue.

But Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, where the World Meeting of Families will be held in September, says Church leaders and other faithful Catholics who shy away from proclaiming or defending Church teaching on this subject out of fear or discomfort are making a big mistake.

“We too easily confuse feelings of compassion and tolerance — which are often worthy in themselves — for the real virtue of charity, which is always anchored in truth.”

As anyone who has tried to defend or explain Catholic teaching on homosexuality knows, the climate for conversation is fraught with misunderstanding and misconceptions.

Mere mention of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s characterization of homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered,” for example, is likely to be branded as “hate speech” or, at the very least, as incompatible with a loving Church. The full context of the Catechism’s passages, which call for “respect, compassion and sensitivity” toward those with same-sex attraction, is easily lost on those whose views have been shaped by a media and homosexual-rights movement that cast the Church as mean and uncaring.  

In San Francisco, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has come under fire for his defense of Church teaching on same-sex “marriage” and other questions, most recently in an open letter to Pope Francis published as a full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle April 16. The letter asks the Pope to remove the archbishop and “provide us with a leader true to our values and your namesake.”

Meanwhile, some Catholics, including priests and bishops, have distanced themselves from Church teaching on homosexuality or avoided the topic altogether. In one such case, when a Catholic schoolteacher in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., was put on administrative leave for posting allegedly “anti-gay” comments on her Facebook page, Bishop Paul Bootkoski declined to answer a question from CNS News asking if he agreed with the Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality. He merely said in a statement, “We have never wavered from our traditional Catholic teachings.”


Opening the Discussion

However, those who are writing and speaking on this timely topic say that, no matter how the Church’s teaching is perceived, Catholics must continue to talk about it, even as they seek new ways of communicating with those who consider the discussion closed apart from one point of view — that homosexuality should be accepted in full.

Archbishop Chaput said if in today’s debate about human sexuality “Christian teaching is successfully portrayed as ‘wrong,’ then, sooner or later, it will be branded a form of bigotry. It’s already happening. So unless Christians want to find themselves pushed to the margins of society, we need to speak up and struggle for what our faith teaches as true, even when it’s uncomfortable.”

Archbishop Chaput proposes beginning the conversation with questions about who man is in relation to God and others and whether our sexual lives have a purpose larger than our own wills. That said, he added, “We need to be prudent in the language we choose in discussing homosexuality, guided by the needs of the persons and audiences we’re engaging. The Catholic view that homosexuality is ‘intrinsically disordered’ is factually correct. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore reality. But there are often better ways of beginning a conversation if we’re trying to win souls.”

Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage, which provides spiritual support for chaste living to people with same-sex attractions, said Catholics cannot talk about homosexuality apart from the Church’s teaching on chastity, which can seem severe on a particular group. This teaching, he said, begins with understanding that humans are incomplete in themselves and need relationships for fulfillment. Although the Church recognizes fulfillment is found in human intimacy and love, including sex, it also holds that actions like contraception, masturbation, fornication and homosexual activity are contrary to the human good.

Still, Father Check said, it is difficult to talk with someone about this teaching outside of a relationship of mutual trust and respect. “Two or three sentences or lines in an atmosphere of controversy and, oftentimes, personal hurt and pain will not likely be successful. The promiscuous stance of our culture toward human intimacy has caused a lot of confusion, suffering and harm. To be able to speak thoughtfully and frankly about these things — the effects of promiscuous behavior — it seems very helpful to listen to the testimonials of people who lived one way and now have had a change of heart.”


Personal Experiences

Courage’s film, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, attempts to do this by presenting three such people talking about their lives in relation to what it means to be fulfilled and at peace.

Janet Smith, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said the film and a similar one called The Third Way, are effective in engaging people about same-sex attraction because this is an age in which personal experience is the chief source of truth for many. Smith is currently organizing a summer conference in the Detroit area for clergy and diocesan staff on the pastoral care of those with same-sex attraction.

Father Check said Desire of the Everlasting Hills does not strictly speak about homosexuality, although the people in it share their experiences of that lifestyle.

“The film is really about who we are as human beings, who we are as children of God, who we are after baptism, as disciples of Christ, what our authentic identity is. If we know who we are, if we understand better the desires that are within us, perhaps we will be a little less vulnerable to substituting pleasure or contentment for peace or joy.”

Paul Darrow, who appears in the film, said as someone who was immersed in the homosexual lifestyle for decades and now lives chastely, he feels morally and spiritually obliged to shine light on the love he has found in the Church.  “When I say this, I want to be careful that I don’t sound like a person who just goes in other people’s faces about it. But the subject is on my mind a lot. And it’s such a topic in the world and the media that it’s an easy subject to speak about.”

Whether he is out with friends or sitting next to a stranger on a plane, Darrow said he has many conversations about the Church and homosexuality. “I think that the Lord actually opens up hearts to hear or not to hear.” Often, he said, he has the opportunity to broach the subject with those who think the Church needs to catch up to the 21st century and support “gay marriage.” “If I were to say nothing, I would feel that I am not being true to myself or to the Lord,” he said.

Darrow said he is amazed that those who are knowledgeable about the Church’s teachings and capable of expounding on them often remain silent on this topic. Pieces of what the Church teaches are out there, he said, and need to be addressed and explained. “I feel that what has to be done is that we don’t just sweep it under the carpet and pretend it isn’t out there.”

He typically starts conversations by talking about the love he has experienced from members of the Church and “how embracing it has been, how the people who care most about me are from the Catholic Church and how mistaken I was about the Church.”

When a client berated him recently for believing in Catholicism and its message about homosexuality, he said he told her, “You know what: The Catholic Church is so different than most people think it is. It’s open to everybody. There’s no discrimination. If you’re a prostitute or a wife beater, come on in. You might hear something. You might be touched.”


Emphasis on Service

Father Michael Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministry in the Diocese of Duluth, Minn., and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, said he understands Catholics’ reluctance to speak about the issue of homosexuality because he doesn’t particularly like talking about it himself. “I would rather talk about Jesus Christ proclaimed clearly,” he said. “At the same time, it comes up and is part of the culture, so I need to [speak]. If there is truth to be said and love to be communicated, I feel like I’m compelled.”

Father Schmitz, who has recorded a CD for Lighthouse Media and is writing a book for Ignatius Press on the topic, said Catholics can begin by correcting the view that the Church hates homosexuals and doesn’t care about them. “We can address this by speaking gently and with humility. … We need not come from a position of lordship, but service, and let people know in our demeanor as well as our words that we are here to serve and that we believe the fullness of life comes from living according to God’s plan for sexuality.”

He said it is also important not to think of this as an “us and them” issue. “In different ways, we all experience a certain brokenness in our sexuality. So we’re all wounded. ... One of the big things we have to recognize is that some sexual desires shouldn’t be acted on, and all of us experience those to one degree or another.”


Natural-Law Argument

Robert Reilly, author of Making Gay Okay (Ignatius Press), said when he writes or speaks about the issue, he rarely mentions religion. “I simply give the natural-law argument against homosexual behavior and how by nature we are ordered in our sexual powers to the state of [heterosexual] marriage.” He also talks about the family as the foundation of society and the need for chastity to protect both.  

“You can’t bring the teachings of the Church into the public square because people will say, ‘That’s your religion and don’t foist it on me.’ So the only appropriate thing is the natural-law argument. It’s not sectarian. It’s not religious. It relies on how we are constituted as human beings.”

Reilly said the aspect of the Catechism’s teaching that homosexual acts are contrary to natural law is what needs to be taught and explained. Scripture, in the writings of St. Paul, for example, is clear about homosexual acts, but Reilly said, “That’s not going to help your argument in the public square. You have to be able to say exactly in what way these acts are contrary to natural law.”

This requires showing that the ends of human sexual powers are unitive and procreative and that any acts deliberately frustrating those ends constitute misuse of those powers. Reilly added that he believes the homosexual cause has gained support because so many heterosexuals are also misusing their sexual powers, thus sharing in the rationalization that there are no ends or laws in nature and that humans can create their own purposes.

In response to the popular argument that “gay marriage” should be allowed because “it’s about whom you love,” Reilly would say, “It’s not a matter of whom you love, it’s how you love and what expression of love is appropriate to the relationship. What if the person whom you love is a family member? What if an uncle loves his niece or nephew? Should that love be sexualized? Of course it shouldn’t. It’s inappropriate to the nature of the relationship, so it’s expressed another way. There’s nothing wrong with two men or two women loving each other. The only problem is if we attempt to sexualize that love.”


Attraction, Not Promotion

However, Eve Tushnet, author of Gay and Catholic (Ave Maria Press), said she is not personally compelled by natural-law explanations and would advise Catholics who don’t understand those arguments not to attempt to present them. “You can only say what you honestly believe, and if you don’t understand something, but accept it because you’re an obedient child of the Church, say that. Don’t try to make a natural-law argument you don’t understand or believe. It’s okay to say you don’t know.”

Tushnet said that, based on her experience before she became Catholic, she would question introducing the topic of the Church’s views on homosexuality if the other person has not expressed an interest in discussing it. “We often think we have a duty to bother people, instead of witnessing to what God has done for us and kind of trusting that people will see that and bring their questions to us. There’s a phrase Alcoholics Anonymous uses: attraction, not promotion, the idea being that if people see that your faith is beautiful, they’ll start to wonder if it could have any connection to their lives and bring questions relevant to them to you.”

Father Schmitz said an experience he had in 2012 illustrates the kind of approach he thinks the Church has to take. That year, a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman was on the ballot in his state of Minnesota, and his family had posted yard signs supporting the issue. Two same-sex attracted men he knows came to the home for a social gathering and were warmly received, Father Schmitz said, because “we get to affirm everything we can affirm, and we can affirm their friendship.”

Afterwards, he said, one of the men said he was confused because having seen the signs supporting the marriage amendment in the yard he had not expected to be treated with such kindness.

“We, from top to bottom, as Church have to live this. We have to truly live the third way — not acquiescence or a generic ‘who cares,’ but ‘I do care very deeply about you as a human being, not just my issue. … I care about you as a brother or sister in Christ and not just a teaching or being right.’”  

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.