I am a part of the LGBT community. And it is a part of me. It does not define me, and is not all I am or think about. But to suggest it is not part of me is to be intellectually and otherwise dishonest.
Having said the above, I am, first and foremost, a Catholic Christian with a commitment to seeking towards chastity and a pure heart. Some of you reading this have already challenged my reference to myself as “part” of this group, but I am. And so is every same-sex attracted person, whether active sexually or not, and whether they choose to identify as such with other LGBT persons.
To me that is lesson # 1 here. In the recent book by Father James Martin, SJ, “Building a Bridge,” he suggests that we begin to eliminate from our vocabulary the term SSA (same sex attraction) and that it, among other things, can cause an unnecessary rift with those we are part of if that happens to be our orientation. At first I challenged that idea, and strongly. In further thought, however, I think he is right. The reason many of us have used SSA rather than LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) is precisely to differentiate or distance ourselves from what many call the “gay identity.” Instead I fear it is causing more confusion than it could ever be worth. For starters how many people do you know (outside of the more traditional Catholic world that is) who even know what SSA means? Probably none. We thus are distancing from the very people we say we are attempting to reach out to.
To be clear, SSA is not an improper term by any means, and I would not criticize any who continue to use it. But, like so much of “Christianese,” it does not clearly identify the topic at hand, which is homosexuality, without an easily distracting sidebar chat that can derail the entire conversation if we are not careful. The purpose many of us have used it in the past is to emphasize that being SSA or LGBT does not need to define us, as I suggested in the very first sentence of this essay. That is valid. But very often that same sidebar causes it to do exactly that. I have personally found it far easier to simply say I am gay or LGBT but “celibate for religious reasons.” People get that, even if they disagree, and one can then move forward in what is already most likely a very sensitive discussion overall.
The above point, however important, only lays the groundwork for the actual pastoral approaches in question though. I would like to deal with each of them briefly and then allow both myself and the reader to digest the idea that the Church can reach out far better to the LGBT community than we have done, both collectively and individually, in the past. I would suggest 3 valid paths to the topic, both doctrinally and in approach. I would mention here, in using the term “pastoral,” I am not limiting my terminology to priests or ministers. We are all “pastors” at times to those we know and love.
First is what I would call the “Courage approach.” Within the Church, and approved by the Vatican, is a vibrant ministry to those who struggle with homosexuality. I link to the Courage website here, and have suggested to more than one person, including me, to utilize their fine services. I can say nothing against it nor is that my intent today. https://couragerc.org.
As an important aside, it is crucial to note that Courage does not reach all however. For some, the struggle is in making peace with themselves and their sexuality in order to even accept the possibility of a celibate life. For others, there is an in-between or middle path that sees ways for us to have in-depth and possibly even legal commitments which do not involve sexual activity but allow for the love which so many of us crave, and as perpetually single people in the Church do not tend to find easily. For yet others, it may involve a very honest but fundamental disagreement with Church teaching on the topic. Each of the three groups mentioned are real Catholics and real human. All deserve consideration.
In any case, Courage believes strongly in using the term SSA and for the reasons I have mentioned already, among others. Having had at least some association with them over the last several years, I would observe that, while none of the 3 paths here are easy, this one can be very good for some and extremely painful for others. I have spoken to people who have wept after viewing pornography, for instance. You might say, and in many cases I would agree, that this would indeed be a good reason to weep. But…
I have also known those same people to be literally threatened with hellfire during what is already a difficult and humbling time of confession with their priest, and I do not see that as the answer most often. Imagine being a person of 21 years and having been told by the Church you love and the Christ you wish to follow that you will never, under any circumstances, be allowed to express your sexuality to any other human in this lifetime. Further imagine that one day you turn on your computer to do school or other work and quite unexpectedly you are sent a link to some, in this case, gay porn. What would you do? If you are hormonally within the norm, you will most likely view that porn, particularly if you are in other areas denying yourself from being sexually active. Then you go to confession and the priest tells you, in no uncertain terms, that had you died that day or night you would have gone straight to hell and burned for eternity due to that one act. It might just cause you to never enter a confessional again.
While the Catechism of the Catholic Church does delineate this as serious sin, and I am not here to argue that point, more often that not you likely were not in serious sin but simply tripped up temporarily. For a sin to be serious or mortal, we as Catholics are taught that it must be serious, we must know it is such, and we must freely choose to do it anyway. Most people at their hormonal heights, alone on a lonely night, denying themselves as mentioned from direct sexual contact, would not fit the last of the 3 listed here. A priest who does not realize this when someone is weeping in the confessional is simply not getting it.
Back to Courage–while much hope is offered, there are more than a few within that group who live in constant fear and misery due to their lapses such as the above. And that can actually lead to a form of sexual binging and purging, which then becomes a habit and finally a total oppression within even the most sincere individuals. Please note I am not suggesting to bypass Courage here. I am saying one needs to know what they are in for if they choose that route however.
Second would be the “spiritual friendship” approach. This would be Christians, primarily Catholic but others as well, who accept and even embrace their LGBT side and identify as such but who nevertheless choose celibacy. At one point I challenged this idea–I do not anymore. Some in those circles choose partners, even having life commitment ceremonies, but choose to not become sexual with that person. The pitfall of course is to live under the same roof with someone you are attracted to and love deeply and to avoid ever having sex. How far can a person go? Is kissing okay? Is emotional “marriage” okay? What if one or the other chooses to marry sacramentally to a person of the opposite sex? How devastating could that be for the partner left behind? Again there are blessings and pitfalls in this approach. But it at least has some honesty. A website to learn more of the thoughts and ideas behind this concept would be https://spiritualfriendship.org.
Finally what about those who are within the Church but are not at the place where they choose to give up full sexuality and possibly even marry those of their own gender biologically? The Church as we speak is having many conflicting ideas and discussions in regards to the place of such people in the Church, as to whether they are allowed to receive Holy Communion or even have a Christian funeral. This one to me is the most heartbreaking–and in fact the one that the vast majority of LGBT Christians, whether Catholic or other, find themselves dealing with.
A high-profile priest who in the past worked closely with Courage suggested publicly that it would be allowable to have such couples in one’s home, for example at Thanksgiving or other holidays, but never to refer to them as a “couple.” Really? People who are committed to one another, who share a home and bed, and who are faithful to one person rather than being promiscuous, but we are told that the “truly Catholic” approach is to pretend none of that is the case and to make the partner of one’s beloved son or daughter feel slighted due to what the Church terms as an irregular relationship? I cannot believe that this type of thinking still goes on. But it does and regularly.
Let me use a slightly different example from my own life many years ago. A friend of mine (straight) was dating a woman, and they suddenly broke up. A couple of short weeks later his former girlfriend arrived on the scene and he decided rather suddenly to marry her. Then, he asked me to be best man at the ceremony. I prayed on it, and finally decided that the best approach was to speak to him privately about my concerns. I did so, and then agreed to accept the supreme honor of standing up for him, and have never regretted doing so. It has been years since we have been in contact, but I am pretty sure from all indications that this marriage was a lasting one. And, even if it had not been, I had clearly shared my suggestions regarding waiting so I knew he could never say I had not done so. We remained wonderful friends, even after their first child was born, and that simply would not have happened if I had pushed him away at that moment. There are no easy answers in such scenarios, whether gay or straight, but turning from him and his bride-to-be would not have prevented that marriage from occurring. It would however have estranged us, possibly forever. Supporting him did not mean agreeing with him. Nor does it with same-sex couples.
How this fits with same sex marriages is simple–I do not agree with the priest from Courage who suggested that we distance ourselves from loved ones who choose another path. Expressing initial concern is one thing, but I believe that being there for them in that crucial hour could make all of the difference later on in regards to them coming back to the Church or not. Again I probably have horrified a few readers by this view, but to me that is the far more pastoral approach. And, by the way, it is no longer “so-called same sex marriage.” Legally it is marriage, whether one agrees with the concept or not. In the same vein Bruce Jenner is now legally a woman and her name is Kaitlyn. If you cannot acknowledge that or must make light of it, as so many Catholics and other Christians are absolutely fond of doing, you do neither her nor your cause any service. I am not sure what we are attempting to prove by calling someone else’s sexual identity by other names than they prefer. We do not have to agree with them. But pretending their perception or legal identity does not exist, or for that matter spending time fighting to reverse the law, whether one fought for it or against it at the time, is a waste in my view, and a good way to turn away some very good LGBT people from the very place they should feel most welcome–the house of God. A great place to learn more about Catholics on this particular path would be https://newwaysministryblog.wordpress.com. I would say succinctly that this site is not endorsed by the Church. But it is a great place to become educated on the feelings and concerns of those you may at times disagree with and yet who have struggles more similar to yours than you may expect.
I am sure this post brings more questions than answers to many of you. And there is much more I could add to the 3 approaches discussed here. But the Church does not need to choose between defending her doctrine and accepting those who do not. To me that is the bottom line here. And I think it is a crucial one for the day we live in.