Youth and Same-Sex Attraction (Part 1)

Austin Ruse, the President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, is running a series of critical investigations on the work of Spiritual Friendship (or on the “New Homophiles,” as he calls us) over at Crisis Magazine. His most recent article, “The New Homophiles and Their Critics,” takes a look at the arguments of some of the more seasoned critics of our ideas such as Daniel Mattson and Michael W. Hannon. At the end, Ruse poses an important question:

Your 14-year-old son feels different from the other guys at school … He confides this to a counselor who asks him about his sexual orientation. Your son says that maybe the difference he feels is that he is gay …

Now, do you want your son to talk to Chris Damian, one of the New Homophiles who has said he would tell that young man to “Seek to draw yourself more fully into the Church and to discern how this might be a gift in your life and in others’ lives.”

Or do you want him to meet Daniel Mattson and Father Paul Scalia who would tell the boy, “You are not your sexual inclinations. You are not ‘gay.’ What you are is a man and a Son of God.”

At first blush there seems to be very little difference between the two, but as you gaze more closely at all that is packed into the New Homophile Proposition, you realize the difference is immense and may be profoundly harmful.

Ruse cites a priest who claims that the work of Spiritual Friendship is “undermining the pastoral work of the Church” and “undermining the wishes of Catholic families,” and, instinctively, I have a certain amount of sympathy with these concerns. When I was growing up in England, the controversial “Section 28” law was still in force, prohibiting any school from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality.” The actual result was a deep freeze on any mention of homosexuality in English schools until the law was repealed in 2003.

Gay activists loathed Section 28, with one of the more bizarre protests in British history occurring when a group of lesbians abseiled from the public gallery onto the floor of the (rather bemused) House of Lords during a debate on the passage of the law. Looking back, however, I can appreciate how fortunate I was – particularly as a teenager with questions about his own sexuality – to grow up in an atmosphere where homosexuality was neither a subject of public celebration nor open hostility. It was simply not a general topic of discussion.

Sadly, that atmosphere no longer prevails, either in Britain or the United States. Homosexuality is now the most discussed, debated, and talked about issue of the day, and young people are subjected to a constant tug-of-war by and a barrage of propaganda telling them what to think about it. This situation is partly due to the militancy of the secular homosexual rights movement, but it is also due to the fact that right-wing Christians have chosen to fight homosexual rights as if it were the defining political battle of the late-twentieth and early-twenty first centuries, as opposed to, say, divorce, or birth control, or pornography, or the plague of absentee fathers, or poverty. Culture warriors like Austin Ruse – whose preoccupation as a group with homosexuality sometimes borders on obsessive – must shoulder a portion of the blame for creating their own predicament, in which they moan that they now “cannot even watch cooking shows without taping them in advance and having the pause button ready in order to avoid yet another gay back-story.”

That said, Ruse’s basic question is a sensible one. It is a variant of a question I’ve been asked a number of times since I started writing about LGBT/SSA issues, and worth confronting directly. Given that some of the “New Homophiles” (myself included) have been critical of current formulations and presentations of the Church’s sexual teaching, how does this affect what we think young Christians ought to be told about homosexuality? How can the more positive approach to questions of homosexuality, vocation, and friendship, that is shared among many of the writers here at Spiritual Friendship (though there are important differences of opinion among us) be presented to young people in a way that avoids adding to the already profound confusion about sexuality that besets large swathes of the younger generation?

Before answering this, however, there is an important preliminary question. I would be the first to admit that inserting a discussion of “gayness” into our current framework for educating young Christians about sexuality would be confusing. But does this indicate that there is something wrong with talking about being gay? Or might it indicate that there is something wrong with the framework itself?

To demonstrate what I mean, take a look at the following passage from the website of the Courage Apostolate. It’s a fairly standard explanation of Catholic teaching on human sexuality:

The Catholic Church proclaims that … the purpose of sexual expression is the creation of new life and the union of man and woman (CCC 2331). Sexuality is to be cultivated in chastity according to one’s way of life, either conjugal chastity or continence. This is heterosexuality, the natural relationship of one sex to the other in the created plan of God for humanity for procreation and union [emphasis mine].

Sounds innocuous enough to orthodox ears, doesn’t it? But now consider what Cardinal Ratzinger says in his 1986 Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons:

Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life [emphasis mine].

At first blush, there seems to be a sharp contradiction here between what the Church is actually saying (via Cardinal Ratzinger), and what many orthodox Catholics (like the Courage writer) claim the Church is saying. And it seems that way because that’s the way it actually is. Many Catholics think of “heterosexuality” as the zenith of human sexual development, and even as something to be “cultivated.” Yet the Church teaches that heterosexuality is not the appropriate lens for analyzing Christian sexual ethics.

In Catholic teaching, human sexuality is ordered not toward “heterosexuality,” but toward the gift of one’s self to another, a gift that can be made either in dedicated celibacy, or in holy matrimony – the union of a man and a woman “signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one, and to see what happens when it is misunderstood, one need only look at the work of some of our critics.

Daniel Mattson, for example, points out that “sexual acts between members of the same sex are intrinsically disordered, for the reason that there is never (and can never be) any positive reordering of the sexual faculty to what is true, good, and beautiful between two members of the same sex.” Correct, as far as it goes. But then he argues that a “man who is sexually active with his girlfriend is acting in a disordered way – but not intrinsically so.”

On the other hand, Thomas Aquinas – from whom the Church in fact inherits its language of “intrinsically disordered” acts – argues in his Disputed Questions on Evil that “all sex between men and women outside legal marriage is intrinsically disordered.” The difference between Mattson and Aquinas comes from the fact that Aquinas sees human sexuality not as ordered toward “heterosexuality,” or to male-female union in general, but to the specific male-female union of marriage. Marriage is the sacrament instituted by God, not heterosexual sex in general. This is why Aquinas thinks heterosexual sex outside of marriage is “intrinsically disordered” but Mattson does not (I should point out that Mattson does believe fornication is a sin, he just gives no reason why it is so, thus fatally compromising the rational integrity of Catholic sexual teaching).

By displacing matrimony as the centerpiece of our Christian understanding of human sexuality in favor of the concept of heterosexuality, writers like Daniel Mattson have (no doubt unintentionally) placed the Catholic Church on the path to becoming like some conservative Protestant denominations that have compromised their moral witness by strenuously opposing gay sex and gay marriage while accepting the contraceptive revolution and the culture of easy divorce and remarriage.

Ruse is right to suggest that inserting a discussion of gayness into this framework would be “profoundly harmful” to young people. But it is a bad framework anyway. The correct lens through which to analyze the Church’s teaching on human sexuality is not the heterosexual lens, but the lens of self-gift through celibacy or marriage.  Christian sexual wholeness, therefore, does not consist in the experience of sexual desire for the opposite sex, but in the capacity to make this self-gift in purity of heart. A lesbian virgin who decides to follow God in celibacy may have a much greater capacity to make this donation of herself than, say, a newly-married heterosexual man whose ability to relate to women has been distorted through frequent consumption of hardcore pornography. Merely having heterosexual desires is not in and of itself a sign of sexual maturity, wholeness, or sanctity.

With this in mind, we can re-frame the question. The correct question to ask is not, “what do parents want their teenagers to be told about homosexuality?” Nor is it, “what do Catholic teenagers want to hear about homosexuality?” The Church is not a religious version of MSNBC or Fox News whose function is to tell people what they want to hear.

The correct question to ask is: “Given that same-sex attracted Christians exist who are following Christ in celibacy and in holy matrimony, what can the Church learn from their experience about what it means to pursue holiness in these states of life, and what might this tell us about the possibilities open to young people who discover themselves to be same-sex attracted?”

In Part 2, I will explore the answer to this question.

Aaron TaylorAaron Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at Boston College. He previously studied at the Universities of London and Oxford, and worked for a London-based research institute dedicated to raising the quality of thinking about public policy in civil society.

19 thoughts on “Youth and Same-Sex Attraction (Part 1)

  1. Aaron —
    I think your basic point is very well taken, but there is a preliminary question which needs to be considered. You begin by quoting the example given by Austin Ruse in which “Your son says that maybe the difference he feels is that he is gay,” and you end by talking about “young people who discover themselves to be same-sex attracted.”

    I think it is important to realize, given the widespread discussion of homosexuality, that it is entirely possible that a teenager could well mistake normal attraction to members of the same sex or even sexual “experimentation” with one or more of them as indication that he is homosexual. The younger the individual, the more important it is to suggest at the outset that these feelings or actions may not mean that the individual has a homosexual orientation, and that he should allow himself plenty of time to let feelings of attraction to the opposite sex develop — keep an open mind on the question, in other words. Meanwhile, he can continue to learn the Church’s teaching on the meaning and proper use of sexuality.

    • I don’t think it works that way. I’m pretty sure that if the adolescent isn’t “really” gay…mistakenly identifying as such for a while isn’t going to cause him to get “stuck” on gay. That’s a patronizing Freudianesque model of the nature of homosexual orientation which is not something I can respect.

    • Naturesgetz, that’s a very good point, thank you. I agree entirely with what you’re saying about not assuming that a passing phase of same-sex attraction in adolescence means someone is “a homosexual.” I don’t think anyone here at Spiritual Friendship would advocate anything else, and I hope that no responsible Catholic priest or parent would send a teenager to a counselor who is going to try and encourage them to identify themselves as gay. To me, all of this just goes without saying from the point of a view of a faithful Catholic approach to dealing with youth and same-sex attraction, and so the question of what to do about *confused* teenagers isn’t really the issue here. The obvious answer is there is very little you can do apart from love them, make sure they know the truths of Catholic teaching, and wait and see if their confusion works itself out or not.

      I’m trying to take Ruse’s example in a slightly different direction here, by assuming a case where we have a teenager who has been experiencing same-sex attractions for a considerable period of time, and is coming to the realization that this is probably going to be a permanent feature of their character whether they like it or not.

  2. I continue to be deeply disturbed by Ruse.

    His question about the 14 year-old at the end of his piece is an example of severe manipulation. Firstly, he chose an emotional example guaranteed to upset people. Then he put words into the mouth of Chris Damian that were a complete fabrication on the part of Mr. Ruse. I would strongly think that any of the “new homophobes” (as he terms those here and on other sites) would say to the kid, “you are awfully young to be determining that you are gay and, in any case your identity is in Christ, not your sexuality.” It is a complete fabrication on Ruse’s part that any of those he is “critiquing” would encourage the kid to, essentially, explore his sexuality.

    The irony is that this “all or nothing” kind of thinking that prevents Ruse from having any real compassion or intelligent understanding of what the “new homophobes” are actually saying is the primary factor in winning the day for the gay rights movement.

    I meet more and more people every day who support same sex marriage, not because they think it is right in and of itself, but because they are repulsed by the attitudes of those like Ruse who stand against it. That people like him not even willing to consider celibate and faithful gay people with respect and compassion creates a tremendously powerful back lash that works against the very things he is trying to accomplish.

    Unfortunately, I see this happening in many denominations, pastors who, thinking they must take a strong stand to combat homosexuality, wind up glorifying the benefits of “heterosexuality” and demonizing homosexuality to the point where friends and family members reach the conclusion that, in order to love their gay friends and children, they must reject the Church.

    His latest little rant now has 806 responses, most of which are guaranteed to turn the tide away from Christianity and toward the continued popularity of the gay rights movement.

    I’m not sure what to do about it. Just pretty disturbed by it.

  3. Ah yes, “it’s just phase and you’ll grow out of it…”

    If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that I’d be a rich man. Only it wasn’t a phase and I didn’t grow out of it. By the time my parents and teachers and priest figured that out, all they’d succeeded in doing was to inculcate a visceral rejection of them and their belief system in me.

    In the past you could force children to hide their true nature because they had no alternatives and nowhere else to turn. But now they do. Things have changed and the Church is no longer the only show in town. So try to force your children to reject being gay and all you’ll succeed in doing is to drive them away.

    In my case it was a hard lesson to learn that my parents cared more about being right than they did about their own child. But understanding that they were perfectly willing to sacrifice me and my life on the altar of their own fanaticism certainly made me realize just how dangerous religion can be. So the lesson I learned was worthwhile no matter how much it might have hurt. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, after all. And on a more practical level it certainly lets you save on Christmas and birthday presents. Every penny counts when you’re disinherited until “you come to your senses and come back to the Lord”…

      • Thanks, but everybody hurts, Daniel. And who’s to say that I hurt worse than anyone else?

        We all have pain to deal with. And perhaps their own personal pain is what prompts people who call themselves Christians to justify their own hard-heartedness by calling it “truth in love”. “Opinion in disdain” would be a more accurate description.

      • ” … [some Christians] justify their own hard-heartedness by calling it “truth in love”. “Opinion in disdain” would be a more accurate description … ”

        You nailed it!

  4. I am just going through’s articles and they are rocking my world. I will be a better youth minister because of the thoughtful musings contained in them. Thank you.

  5. There is very little pastoral helps out there for how to minister to youth who are experiencing same-sex attraction. Fortunately, Dr. Mark Yarhouse just wrote a book geared toward youth ministers that I think is a great resource to consider for how to respond. It is called “Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry.”

    Stephen, I am also sorry that your parents have treated you in such a painful way. It is sad when Church teaching/culture makes parents feel they have to choose between either doctrine or loving their own children.

    • It seems to me that the only parents who will choose between Church teaching and their children are the kind for whom children come a poor second to their own ego. I mean, what is religion but an attempt to extend the self into the infinite anyway? And what are children for many parents? Pretty much the same thing, I think.

      I don’t blame the Church for my parents’ self-absorption. They would have been just as self-absorbed had they been Protestant or Muslim or Hindu or Communist. What I do blame the Church for is doctrine that allows parents to reject their children and even sanctifies such acts as “truth in love”. That’s the real abomination.

  6. “Christian sexual wholeness, therefore, does not consist in the experience of sexual desire for the opposite sex, but in the capacity to make this self-gift in purity of heart.”

    YES. Well said. I’m a high school religion teacher and if I ever have to teach morality again, this is going to be my starting point when we get to the Church’s teachings on sexuality. Thank you!

  7. @Stephen, As you noted, the ‘Church may not be the only show in town’ anymore, but the teachings of Jesus concerning loving your neighbor are here forever.(‘. . .My word will not pass away.”)

    I relate to your experience first hand because the same thing
    happened to me concerning my best boyhood male friend,
    whom I loved deeply. It didn’t even matter to my father that I was by then dating an attractive young woman, and I had a memorable sexual relationship with her. Phobias are dark, scary things that come out of fear,and it just happened during that whole era of McCarthy, hidden sexual abuses, and Paul VI.
    When my father passed away, he told me he loved me, no matter what I did with my life. I have a son and 2 daughters and they remember him with love.

    Jesus of Nazareth is not a ‘belief system.’ No matter what state or frame of mind you find yourself in, the very mention of his name is the very answer to whatever plagues your life.

    I would also hope that “you have come to your senses and returned to the Lord.” You can only return to Jesus by completely forgiving your parents for what they did -or failed to do. G-d will not forgive you until you have forgiven them.

    + In His Everlasting Love +

    • If Jesus of Nazareth existed then he was a person, not a belief system. The belief system I was talking about is Christianity, which I think has very little to do with the historical individual (if historical individual there was) called Jesus of Nazareth.

      And no, I have not “come to my senses and returned to the Lord” because I was never with the Lord in the first place. You cannot return to a place you’ve never been.

      I probably believed in God as a very young child, although I have no memory of it. But then I believed in Santa Claus too and can’t have been more than 4 or 5 years old when my elder siblings disabused me of that notion.

      Since I’ve been able to reason, I’ve reasoned that the Church has nothing to offer beyond a pie-in-the-sky vision of perfection that bears no relation to real life. That’s all the name of Jesus of Nazareth means to me: a personification of the dreams and imaginings of those not content with real life.

      And as for forgiveness, you don’t have to be a Christian in order to forgive. I realized long ago that my parents were the way they were because they’d confused fantasy with reality and were therefore not fully responsible for their actions. I feel sorry for them, but I don’t hate them or think they were evil. Just deluded, and deluded is sad rather than bad, or at least it seems that way to me.

  8. I’ve been disturbed by Crisis in the past. It has vilified liberal “elites” and activists as totalitarian, hateful, nature-destroying demons. It has also insulted modern humans in general as robotic, selfish, barely-human barbarians. It has whitewashed right-wing politicians and activists. It has whitewashed and waxed nostalgic about the “olden days” in every possible manner, deflecting criticism with “men are sinners” or even “liberals are liars “. It has published extremely questionable authors who have been cited as true right-wing extremists. It has It has It has even allowed white-nationalist, anti-Jewish, ultra-traditionalist, and violently anti-gay comments to be posted without challenge.

    I could go on and on, but I have to leave for mass fairly soon and I don’t want to overload this board. The point is that Crisis is doing much to provoke the coming backlash. Mark my words. The paranoid screeds about big bad liberals persecuting Christians are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the liberal backlash begins in earnest–in spite of Pope Francis’ best efforts to foster peace and reconciliation–Crisis is very likely to be cited as Exhibit A. Let us pray for peace and reconciliation among all of us.

  9. Pingback: Youth and Same-Sex Attraction (Part 2) | Spiritual Friendship

  10. Pingback: My Early Teen Years Part 1: What I Went Through | Spiritual Friendship

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