In the popular mind, there is a great deal of confusion about what the Catholic Church actually teaches about gay and lesbian people. This is hardly surprising – the teaching itself is confused and confusing, and even many bishops seem oblivious of a clear directive in the Catechism and elsewhere that gay people should be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity”. (There is none of that on display in recent declarations that the Irish referendum result approving gay marriage is a “defeat for humanity”). Nor is there any shown in the Vatican documents’ language of “gravely disordered”, which is widely understood to mean that gay people are themselves disordered. That this is not the actual meaning of the words is not the point: the failure to anticipate that they would be so understood, represents a serious failure of sensitivity.
More serious though, is that there is a central contradiction at the heart of Church teaching on actual sexual behaviour, for gay men and lesbians. On the one hand, we are told in the Catechism that our sexuality must be accepted and integrated into our personality – on the other, that it must be suppressed. We are told that our sexuality must be acknowledged honestly – and also that it must be hidden, safely tucked away in the closet.
Sexuality, Integrity and Chastity
For gay and lesbian Catholics, coming out and publicly acknowledging our same – sex affectional orientation is an act of personal honesty and integrity, consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2332 Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love …………. and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.
2333 Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.
What does this mean, in practical terms? The Catechism expresses it in terms of “chastity” – which is NOT the same as sexual abstinence, or celibacy. Indeed, it is expressed, says the Catechism, in the “bodily and biological world”, and “in the relationship of one person to another, in lifelong mutual gift”. The language is coy, but this is clearly a recognition that “chastity” includes intimate physical relationships – sex.
The Catechism defines chastity as
2337 Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another.. in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.
The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.
2338 The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behaviour that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech.
Quite obviously though, not all sex counts as chastity. (The Catechism lists as offences against chastity, lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution and rape).
So, if chastity includes living in loving and faithful self-giving to another person, and “everyone” is encouraged to acknowledge and accept his sexual identity, then surely there is nothing there that a gay man or lesbian could take exception to?
Well – not quite. “Everyone” in CCC 2333 and the integration of sexuality by bodily expression in a “relationship of one person to another”in CCC 2337 apply only to heterosexual married people. For us, not even simple honesty is encouraged, although for most people, a double life is deplored (CCC2338).
In two of the clauses quoted above, I left out a few key words. I now restate the relevant sentences, with the omissions restored (in bold):
2332 Sexuality …… especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.
2337 …………..when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another.. in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.
Does this mean then, that the Church expects us to enter conventional, heterosexual marriage, and express our sexuality with a spouse of the opposite sex? Well, no. The Church also acknowledges that a same – sex orientation is entirely natural and not sinful in itself, and does not recommend attempts to change our orientation, or that we should enter into heterosexual marriage.
How then are we to achieve the proposed “successful integration……..in the relationship of one person to another?”
Not even full honesty is compatible with Church teaching. For all the fine words about avoiding duplicity and dishonesty, this is explicitly discouraged in a key Vatican document on discrimination. Although the Catechism states that “unjust” discrimination is to be avoided, the Church does not support legislation against it – because we can avoid discrimination, the document claims, simply by not disclosing our orientation – that is, by remaining firmly in the closet.And so, the actual experience of many LGBT Catholics is that pastoral support is available, this is only conditionally, on not acknowledging our gay or lesbian identity. Vatican documents, and far too often, pastoral practice, simply encourage precisely that “double life” that is a contradiction of chastity.
Respect, Compassion, Sensitivity
The Catechism also reminds us that
2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.
The experience of many of us is that it is not our orientation itself which “constitutes a trial”, but the treatment we have at times experienced at the hands of the Church, its representatives, or those claiming to speak on its behalf. Frequently, there is little evidence of the professed “respect, compassion and sensitivity”, but quite often, the reverse, Similarly, there is at times a perception that the Church itself is practicing the very discrimination that it says should be avoided.