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 The actual result was a deep freeze on any mention of homosexuality in English schools until the law was repealed in 2003.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 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.