One of the most consistent criticisms of Spiritual Friendship by those associated with Courage has been our use of language, particularly the word “gay.” One of the earliest criticisms was Dan Mattson’s July, 2012 First Things article, “Why I Don’t Call Myself A Gay Christian.” This article launched Mattson’s career as one of the most visible spokesmen for Courage, until they parted ways in January.
The criticism which has frequently been directed our way, by Mattson and others who speak for Courage, is that by using the word “gay,” we were making our sexuality the defining aspect of our identity. We have explained that this is not our intent on numerous occasions (see below for further examples).
I recently read Courage founder Fr. John Harvey’s 2007 pamphlet, Same Sex Attraction: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice [PDF], and thought the following paragraph shed valuable light on the rather absurd mentality behind Courage’s critique:
The time has come, however, to refine our use of the term homosexual. A much better term than “homosexual person” is the following: a person with same-sex attractions. The distinction is not merely academic. Instead of referring to “homosexual persons,” which implicitly makes homosexuality the defining quality of the people in question, we can put things in clearer perspective by referring to men and women with same-sex attraction. A person, after all, is more than a bundle of sexual inclinations, and our thinking about same-sex attraction (hereafter SSA) is clouded when we start to think of “homosexuals” as a separate kind of human being. “The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation . . . every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God and by grace, His child and heir to eternal life” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986, no. 16)
This criticism illustrates, I think, just how radical Courage’s view of language is, and how far it has departed from the language of the Church itself.
Fr. Harvey’s first book on the pastoral care of “persons with same-sex attractions” was titled The Homosexual Person: New Thinking in Pastoral Care. I presume that he did not intend to implicitly make homosexuality the defining quality of the people he was ministering to. It’s fine, of course, if his own thinking had changed since 1987, when The Homosexual Person was published, and if by 2007 he preferred to talk about persons with same-sex attraction.
However, we are not just dealing with Fr. Harvey’s own language choices, but with an argument which implicates the language of the Church’s official documents. As the authority for his argument against the term “homosexual person,” Fr. Harvey cited the 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, which uses the phrase “homosexual person” in the title and repeats it 22 more times in the body of the document. The phrase also appears in the title and body of Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons (2003) from the CDF, and in the body of Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care (PDF, 2006) from the USCCB. The phrase is also used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2359).
All of these Church documents were promulgated before Fr. Harvey published the paragraph above. Can he seriously have argued that in so many Church documents, the phrase homosexual person really “implicitly makes homosexuality the defining quality of the people in question”?
Part of the problem is an issue with the English translation of the 1986 Letter. An important section of the paragraph (which Fr. Harvey partially omits) would have been better translated:
Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person only 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.
Adding “only” to the translation agrees with the Latin original, as well as the German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese translations. Only the French translation agrees with the English in omitting “only” from the paragraph above. In terms of authority, the Latin text is the official text promulgated by the Church. German is the native language of Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time the Letter was drafted and promulgated. And Italian is the most commonly used working language in the Vatican. So the agreement of these three languages is strong evidence that the revised translation better reflects the intended meaning of the document.
Had the English version of the Letter been clear—as the Latin, German, Spanish, and Portuguese versions were—that the Church does not consider the person only as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual,” it might have been clearer that this paragraph should not be taken as a prohibition on referring to “homosexual persons,” but only to doing so in a reductive way.
The fundamental point, however, is not about words or phrases but about meaning. Spiritual Friendship writers have repeatedly asserted that we do not regard our sexuality (whatever that modern word means) as the defining quality of our personhood. But it’s not just that we do not speak precisely enough to satisfy Courage’s strange linguistic hobbyhorse: even Cardinal Ratzinger did not live up to Fr. Harvey’s exacting expectations about language!
Thinking about this focus on “same-sex attraction” versus “gay” reminds me of an incident that occurred back when I still attended Courage meetings. One day—quite unusually—we had two new visitors the same week.
One was a middle aged man. He told his story: he was married, but was compulsively cheating on his wife by hooking up with men. Everyone wished him welcome, said that he had a really tough struggle, and assured him that he would find welcome and support there. He became a regular member of the group, and continued to confess compulsive hook ups.
The other was a college undergraduate, from a very conservative family. He said that he was gay, but had never had sex and wanted to follow Church teaching. Immediately, the group challenged his use of the word “gay.” I spoke with him afterwards, and he expressed frustration with the way the group had lectured him about language. He never came back.
The first man, who was welcomed without challenge, was unquestionably engaged in habitual, sinful activity. I certainly don’t think it was necessary to immediately confront him with his sin—it might easily just push him away. But Catholic teaching is very clear about the sinfulness of cheating on one’s wife and of any sexual activity with other men.
Despite using the phrase “struggling with same-sex attraction,” the older man’s life was much more defined by his sexuality and the sinful habits he had formed around them. And despite using the word “gay,” the young man had done far more to resist allowing his life, choices, and habits to be defined by his sexual attractions.
Yet this was not the point that other members of the group felt needed to be made: the point that they decided to focus on was the undergraduate’s choice to describe himself as “gay,” despite saying he had never had sex and that he intended to follow Church teaching.
Remember, this was a kid from a very conservative background, and this was almost the first time he had tried to open up about his struggles in a Catholic setting. If it’s not necessary to shame the older man for adultery and sodomy, why shame a kid who’s trying to obey Church teaching for using a three-letter word, rather than a three-letter acronym, to describe his struggle?
I don’t fully understand Courage’s obsession with language. It may be that for men who have been sexually active, “gay” is more closely associated with sinful sexual activity, and “same-sex attraction” shifts the focus to attraction; whereas for those who have not acted on their attraction, “gay” is associated primarily with their experience of attraction. I also sometimes wonder if it stems from the fact that it’s easier to change the language you use to describe yourself than it is to break sinful habits and live chastely.
In the end, I don’t care much if someone else feels more comfortable with “person with same-sex attractions” and wants to use that terminology. As long as they are trying to promote an understanding of homosexual attractions and activity that follows the Bible and Catholic teaching, I regard debates about language as secondary (though I have made my own choices about language based on thinking fairly carefully about who I’m trying to communicate with and what I’m trying to communicate).
Different words communicate better with different audiences. I’m happy to describe myself as same-sex attracted if I’m speaking to a predominantly conservative audience and believe that doing so will communicate my meaning more clearly. But I think that particularly speaking to younger audiences—and many of the venues I have spoken at have been Christian colleges and universities—it’s easier to communicate by just saying I’m gay and celibate and talking about why I do that out of love for and obedience to Christ.
But in dogmatically asserting that everyone must use variations on “same-sex attraction,” Courage is not just criticizing the writers of Spiritual Friendship. It’s criticizing the language of the Church itself.
I’ve included a number of links to posts below which will help interested readers to clarify our thinking on language. It is profoundly saddening to me to survey all these posts, and consider how much effort we have had to spend clarifying the confusion spread by those who, like Fr. Harvey and Dan Mattson, had an unhealthy obsession with language. How much time and energy has been wasted, and how much unnecessary conflict created, by these futile debates about mere words and phrases!
More importantly, I have also linked to a number of posts that engage with—and attempt to understand and explain—Catholic teaching, including terminology like “disorder,” “disinterested friendship,” and the like. Ultimately, fidelity to the substance of Church teaching matters much more than the particular language we choose to make that teaching comprehensible to a particular audience (though language does matter for communicating substance).
Selected posts on language:
- Sexual Orientation: Is That Even a Thing? (Aaron Taylor)
- On Bilingual Pastoral Theology (Wesley Hill)
- Ontology and Phenomenology (Ron Belgau)
- What is “Gay”? (Ron Belgau)
- What “Not Reducible” Means (Jeremy Erickson)
- The Problem with Same-Sex Attraction (Ron Belgau)
- “Gay”: Clarity or Obfuscation? (Part 1) (Ron Belgau)
- “Gay”: Clarity or Obfuscation? (Part 2) (Ron Belgau)
- Whose Gayness? Which Homosexuality? (Aaron Taylor)
- Is It OK for Christians to Identify as Divorced? (Ron Belgau)
- This Is “Gay” (Chris Damian)
- This Is Me (Chris Damian)
- Gay Identity (Ron Belgau)
- Identity Questions (Ron Belgau)
- What is My “Identity?” (Jeremy Erickson)
- How to Evade the Real Issues (Jeremy Erickson)
- Once More: On the Label “Gay Christian” (Wesley Hill)
- Some Clarifications Regarding Sexual Orientation and Spiritual Friendship (Ron Belgau)
- And Again…More Thoughts on LGBT Terminology (Nick Roen)
- Label Makers (Matt Jones)
- Spiritual Friendship and Christian Ministry (Ron Belgau)
- One More Reason to Avoid “Gay”? (Wesley Hill)
Selected posts on Church teaching:
- “Always Consider the Person”: Homosexuality in the Family (Ron Belgau)
- Friendship and Catholic Teaching about Homosexuality (Ron Belgau)
- What Does “Disinterested Friendship” Mean? (Ron Belgau)
- Translating “Disinterested Friendship” (Ron Belgau)
- Intrinsically Disordered? How Not to Talk About Homosexuality (Aaron Taylor)
- Intrinsic Evil and Disorder: How To Misunderstand the Catholic Catechism (Daniel Quinan)
- Positive and Negative Precepts (Ron Belgau)
- LGBT Rights and the UN: What the Church Does Not Teach (Aaron Taylor)
- The Synod on the Family and the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (Ron Belgau)
- An Incomplete Thought about Beauty and “Sexuality” (Ron Belgau)
- “Organic” Developments in Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality (Aaron Taylor)