Most of us are forced by cultural circumstances to say far more about homosexuality than we would like. Because of the persistent moral challenge presented by gay advocacy, most of what we have to say is negative. This troubles me because it is just another burden for those with homosexual inclinations who are committed to living chastely in accordance with the teachings of Christ and His Church. So I’d like to take time out from the culture wars to look at things from the perspective of these courageous men and women, to whom I believe we owe a significant debt.
Sexuality is an important part of our identity as persons. By this I mean primarily the question of whether we are male or female, which is part of the core definition of who we are. I do not mean that our sexual inclinations are part of our self-definition in the same sense. Inclinations, however deep-seated, do not define us for the simple reason that we can master them. For example, I cannot change the fact that I am male no matter how much self-mastery I attain, but I can control to a considerable extent how my maleness expresses itself and I can even alter over time the degree to which I am subject to the temptations that typically afflict males. Yes, my inclinations are part of me. But they do not define me.
At the same time, sexual inclinations play a huge role in our lives because they are so closely linked to our core identities. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts this nicely in number 2332: “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.” The Catechism goes on to say that we should “acknowledge and accept” our sexual “identity”— that is, our maleness or femaleness:
Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out. (2333)
Trial and Cross
For the overwhelming majority of men and women, it is one of the more significant moral, spiritual and psychological projects of life to integrate, control and channel a broad set of sexual inclinations which essentially fit this natural model, this model of complementarity and mutual support between men and women. Some may voluntarily deny direct physical expression of this complementarity, adopting virginity for the sake of the Kingdom; others may do so because they do not have the opportunity for marriage and they wish to be chaste. Clearly, both situations can be challenging, and the acceptance of an involuntary single state can be a heavy cross.
But a person with homosexual inclinations faces an even greater challenge. He or she must not merely integrate, control and channel sexual inclinations, but must largely deny them altogether, not only in their physical expression, but also in a far broader range of affectivity which is conditioned even in small ways by sexual interplay: Heightened interest, a sense of romance, a special tenderness. It is true that a celibate priest must be very careful of what we might call sexually-tinged affectivity, on the altogether sound theory that one thing leads to another. But the person with persistent homosexual inclinations must suppress or redirect such inclinations to an even greater extent. This is an enormous challenge.
Now consider such a person in a culture which is pressing full tilt for the embrace, approval and even glorification of this same affectivity which he is called by Christ to suppress or redirect. And finally, consider him (or her) in a subculture of chastity in which he must constantly hear arguments against the positions of gays (i.e., those who advocate a specifically homosexual lifestyle), arguments which are sometimes clumsily expressed in ways which denigrate “homosexuals” generally and which, even if they are not clumsy, keep his conflicted sexual inclinations ever before his mind. In this subculture of chastity—hopefully a Christian subculture—others may find relief from their long, wearying preoccupation with their sexual defenses, but not he.
Which of us, in our wildest flights of sacrificial piety, would beg God for this particular cross?
Perception and Disorder
In a cultural vacuum, it ought to be relatively easy to understand intellectually that homosexual inclinations are disordered. It ought to be fairly clear that the sexual faculties are both naturally ordered to the propagation and preservation of the species and supernaturally ordered toward a kind of union among man, woman and child which mirrors the essential fecundity of Divine love. When one notices that one’s own sexual inclinations do not tend toward this sort of union and fecundity—or even this ability to reproduce—then one can perceive a very definite disorder in those inclinations. There may be something one can do to alter them; they may be a very confused set of inclinations which are bound up with past experiences or habits, and so amenable to change as one comes to terms with these experiences or habits. Or there may be no way to eliminate the inclinations at all. Nonetheless, that they are disordered can be intellectually grasped.
But we are fallen, and our intellects are dark, and the predominant ideas of our surrounding culture often darken them even more. It can be very difficult to see what ought to be obvious. In our own culture, sexuality is commonly viewed from the point of view of the immediate pleasure it can provide; its deeper meanings and longer-term consequences are typically ignored. Most people slip into a lifestyle based on this relatively superficial understanding of sexuality through the practice of contraception, which distorts the nature of sexuality and seems to permit a more casual definition. This is why, in treating the question of contraception within marriage, the Catechism quotes John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (On the Family):
Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality…. The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle…involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality. (Cat 2370; FC 32))
A culture which is built upon the premise that the meaning of sexuality is exhausted by its ability to be manipulated for immediate pleasure does not lend itself to informed intellectual judgments about what is or is not disordered. The question simply doesn’t arise. Our culture, therefore, is an enormous barrier to the self-understanding of all men and women, and it places particular obstacles in the paths of those who are trying to understand, alter or at least live at peace with their inclinations toward other persons of the same sex.
Those of us whose human affectivity is not rendered fundamentally problematic by the disorder of homosexual inclinations may find it difficult to perceive just how deeply and in what a far-reaching way our affectivity colors our entire lives and all of our relationships. We all must learn to control our likes and dislikes, our emotional reactions, our tendencies to favor some persons and ignore others, the way we pay compliments, the amount of flirting that is acceptable, and the degree to which we permit attractions that are at least partially sexual to color our behavior. We also learn to shape the expression of our masculinity or femininity in various ways, smoothing rough edges, exercising restraint, suiting ourselves to the situation.
For those with a properly ordered heterosexual affectivity, there is a general subconscious delight in the interplay between male and female, a sense of difference and complementarity and joyful mystery. On those occasions when we act inappropriately, the consequences may be unpleasant, but both our affective range and our mistakes are generally understood. We may have to learn to behave differently—to guide and channel our affectivity more suitably and more productively—but we do not have to suspect, reject or alter its basic orientation. Though our sexuality colors and influences much or most of what we do in subtle ways, there is nothing about it that we must fundamentally call into question or doubt.
This is not the case for those whose affectivity is persistently imbued with homosexual inclinations. The attractions they find natural, mysterious or even exhilarating will be perceived by most people as inexplicable or even repulsive. If one seeks comfort and solace in the company of the small minority who share these attractions, the dangers are obvious. Yet not to do so can force one to question one’s affectivity at nearly every level. Why is so much of what I feel and how I interact with others imbued with a sexual pattern that others cannot understand and are likely to reject violently? Is my entire outlook, my entire attitude toward life and love fundamentally broken? Am I therefore incapable of love? Am I even unworthy of it?
Am I worthless? If our affectivity itself is suspect, how can this question fail to arise? I do not wish to exaggerate the issue. Even though every human difficulty can be assigned to some class, each difficulty remains above all personal. The depth and consistency of our feelings are very personal, and different people will surely experience the problem of homosexual inclinations in different ways, to different degrees, and with greater or lesser impact on larger concerns about their fundamental integrity and worth as human persons. In general, however, it seems fair to say that the question of self-worth must surface whenever the fundamental nature of one’s own affectivity is called into question. Therefore, with this particular cross, the question is very likely to come up.
Affirmation and Mission
Some wonderful supporters of CatholicCulture.org have written to me about this, expressing something of their trials, their struggles, their hope and their faith. This has been inspirational for me, and I am even more convinced from such exchanges that whenever devastating questions arise in the mind and heart of anyone with persistent homosexual inclinations, these questions must be answered decisively—and without a moment’s hesitation—in a way which affirms the person as one who is so beloved by God as to have been entrusted with a special mission.
The Catholic tradition is rich in understanding of victim souls, those who seem to have been put on this earth primarily to suffer physically, perhaps being ill or even paralyzed their whole life long, yet embracing a mission of love for souls, and growing into an intense and fruitful union with God. All of us, of course, are victim souls in smaller ways in that we each have our own crosses, which are so many opportunities for spiritual growth and cooperation with Christ: “In my flesh,” says St. Paul, “I make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church” (Col 1:24). So must we all, if we are Christians, and we should rejoice in the opportunity. Nonetheless, it is clear that some souls are singled out for a particularly obvious mission of redemptive suffering.
All of us are afflicted by deficiencies, defects and disorders in our human nature as a result of the Fall, but no deficiency, defect or disorder comes to any one of us by chance. In every case, then, these things are crosses to be embraced for our own good and the good of others. And in some cases, the particular deficiency, defect or disorder provides a signal opportunity. It is an opportunity to bear the cross as a witness to a particular aspect of Christian life which needs strengthening if souls are to grow and prosper in the love of God.
Now again, some persons may find that they can free themselves of homosexual inclinations through a change in lifestyle, through therapy, and through prayer. But it is nonetheless clear that as long as they are afflicted by this disorder, they are called to be chaste. Let us again consider the Catechism:
Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teaches them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection. (2359)
But note that something precious follows from this. Homosexual persons, by the very nature of their particular cross, must raise chastity to a special height, dealing not only with physical temptation but with the broad range of their own human affectivity. It follows that those who must suffer this disorder throughout their lives have been chosen by God to give a particular and exalted witness to the virtue of chastity. This is vocation as beautiful as it is arduous, and it is doubtful that its importance to our sex-saturated age can be overestimated.
One must be wary of using single terms to describe anyone, for such terms obscure more than they clarify even as they minimize the rich diversity of the human personality. But I will use the single term here for the first and only time in this essay: The homosexual is called to be a special and extraordinary witness to the triumph of love over feeling. There is in this, I think, an analogue to the dark night of the soul. It is Love Himself who calls the homosexual, perhaps in a special kind of darkness, and it is in Love alone—and not in feeling—that he will bring many souls to heaven in his wake.