Catholic teaching often speaks of the experience of being gay as a “cross” or “trial”:
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination … constitutes for most of them a trial … These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358).
Or, again, in Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons:
What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross. That Cross, for the believer, is a fruitful sacrifice since from that death come life and redemption.
The idea that carrying our cross is an essential part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus is a way of speaking with deep biblical roots (Luke 23:26; Matt 16:24; Matt 23:24; Gal 5:24). Jesus himself tells us that whoever refuses to bear the cross cannot be his disciple (Luke 14:27). Ratzinger notes that “any call to carry the cross or to understand a Christian’s suffering in this way” is likely to be met with “bitter ridicule” by many, yet the fact is that “this is the way to eternal life for all who follow Christ.” The Cross, after all, has always been a “stumbling block” (1 Cor 1:23) because its wisdom defies human logic.
Yet I think there is more that can (and should) be said about the role of the Cross in the lives of LGBTQ people. A closer read of the Magisterial texts shows that the purpose of crucifixion language is to describe the subjective experience of homosexuality. This is why Ratzinger’s letter speaks, for example, about the “difficulties” that gay people “experience,” and the Catechism’s reference to homosexuality as a “trial” is clearly an attempt at describing what it feels like to be gay.
I do think the language of the Cross is a helpful part of the lexicon that can be used to describe the experience of being gay, but the way in which the Cross is seen as manifesting itself in the lives of gay people is often far too narrow. For example:
Just as the Cross was central to the expression of God’s redemptive love for us in Jesus, so the conformity of the self-denial of homosexual men and women with the sacrifice of the Lord will constitute for them a source of self-giving which will save them from a way of life which constantly threatens to destroy them.
Here—and throughout most of the Magisterial texts that speak about the experience of homosexuality as “cross”—the arena of crucifixion is seen almost solely as a battle against homosexual lust.
The Magisterium is not wrong. But the perspective offered is limited, and needs to be built upon. Yes, gay people sometimes experience lust. Some struggle with it mightily. So do a lot of straight people. We don’t, however, think that the only “cross” in the life of an unmarried straight person is their battle against the desire to immerse themselves in a sexual lifestyle “which constantly threatens to destroy them.”
For many gay Christians I know, their primary experience of the Cross is loneliness. It’s no coincidence that Spiritual Friendship has an entire category of posts on this subject. Loneliness is certainly something Christians can unite “to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross.” Jesus experienced loneliness during his Passion (Matt 26:38-40; Mark 15:34), and he is close to the lonely. But our reaction as a Church to the suffering caused by loneliness cannot end with telling people to unite it to the Cross.
The Church has, for example, always seen value in the sufferings of the sick, and encouraged them to “offer up” their sufferings as a means of participating in the suffering of Christ for the salvation of souls. But this has never stopped Christians from establishing hospitals and charities for the care of the sick, and from attempting to ameliorate their suffering wherever humanly possible. Sickness can be a source of spiritual growth. It can also be a serious spiritual danger, a temptation to curse and revile God for allowing us to suffer (Job 2:9). Followers of Jesus therefore seek to eradicate sickness rather than merely encouraging people to endure it passively (Jer 30:17; Ezek 34:3-4; Matt 25:31-46).
The recognition that patient endurance of the pain of loneliness can bring some people closer to Christ should not distract us from the importance of trying to ameliorate loneliness wherever possible through a greater emphasis on friendship and on the importance of genuine Christian community.
Perhaps the main way in which the Cross manifests itself in the lives of LGBTQ people both inside and outside the Church is homophobia.
Conservative diehards tend to think “homophobia” is just something invented by militant queer activists who want to destroy Western civilization and throw all Christians to the lions. The Church, on the other hand, while it does not use the term “homophobia,” recognizes that homosexuals have been, and still are, the object of “malice” in both “speech and action.” It teaches that such malice is “deplorable” and “deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs.” Homophobia “reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society.” In other words, homophobia is not something made up by liberal activists to shame Christians. It is real, and Christians have a moral obligation to oppose it, even to repent of involvement in it.
Like sickness and loneliness, the suffering caused by homophobia can under certain circumstances bring a person closer to Christ. But it should still be eradicated wherever possible, and Christians should be in the forefront of the movement for its eradication. Our reaction when LGBTQ people are bullied, beaten, tortured, murdered, imprisoned, sexually abused, disowned by parents, made homeless, denied employment, discriminated against in the workplace, fired, driven to suicide, and robbed of human dignity in both word and deed, should not be simply to tell them to “unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter.” This may be a beneficial spiritual practice for persecuted sexual minorities to cultivate in addition to proactive work to combat homophobia. But it would be wrong to encourage sexual minorities to develop “victim soul” spiritualties unless we are willing to work to overcome the stigmatization and hatred which turns them into “victims” in the first place.
My point here is not primarily political. Yes, if homophobia is a serious problem in any given society, this may give rise to the need for means aimed at combating it specifically, since the dignity of LGBTQ people is something which “must always be respected in word, in action and in law.” When Proposition 6 – a ballot initiative which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools – was proposed in California in the 1970s, local Catholic bishops joined gay rights activist Harvey Milk in opposing it, arguing that it would “violate and would limit the civil rights of homosexual persons.”
But Christianity is not a political program, and so the Church’s response to the social scourge of homophobia cannot be that of an NGO, endlessly balloting and lobbying. After the Proposition 6 debacle, for example, the Archdiocese of San Francisco argued that the Church should inculcate “a full and deep respect for the human and civil rights of homosexual persons,” and promote “respect for and acceptance of people of all sexual orientations” within the Christian community. In other words, the Church’s main weapon against homophobia is not to lobby for more inclusive attitudes toward LGBTQ people in wider society but to be itself the kind of society within which LGBTQ people find full acceptance and inclusion.
It is possible to become holy despite, perhaps even, in some way, through experiences of loneliness, ridicule, and homophobic persecution. But for those who experience these “crosses,” Christians cannot limit themselves to merely encouraging people to endure suffering patiently. Rather, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, we must develop ways of taking the “victims” down from their Cross, and anointing them, tenderly binding their wounds (John 19:38-42).
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.