Consider the following two men:
The first started to look at heterosexual pornography at a young age, eventually graduating to hiring prostitutes. At some point he realized that if went with male partners he could have more sex, and more extreme sex, for free. He was plunged into what he calls the “gay lifestyle”: he made Nazi porn, almost appeared in a snuff film, and attended Satanic gay orgies. He saw friends get AIDS and die, suffered severe health problems as a result of his sado-masochistic practices, and eventually, after some particularly rough sex that resulted in a near-death experience, he repented and came to Christ.
The second was raised in a hard-line Protestant community, and became aware that he was emotionally and sexually attracted to men sometime in his late teens. He was briefy tempted to reject the Biblical teaching on homosexuality, especially after developing a crush on a male friend, but in prayer he discerned that this was not God’s intention for his life. He converted to the Catholic Church and studied theology with a specialization in natural law. He’s never had sex, has never been in a homosexual relationship, and does not struggle with porn – but he has been the victim of anti-gay bullying and discrimination, including discrimination based on his sexual orientation within a Catholic institution.
These are both real people. I offer their stories in order to highlight one of the crucial difficulties in providing pastoral care to homosexual persons: that two people who are both same-sex attracted converts to Catholicism may have literally almost nothing in common. In this case the only point of commonality – and it’s ultimately a superficial one – is that both have been, in some sense, attracted by the idea of having sexual relations with other men.
For one, the word “gay” means the lifestyle that he left behind. It means sado-masochism, Satan worship, AIDS and sexual violence. For the other, the word “gay” means a deep-seated desire for intimate communion with other men. We’re talking about two completely different psychological and experiential frameworks that are both being described by the same set of words. Both are equally real and equally valid, and both of these men deserve adequate pastoral support. But they have very different needs.
Understanding this is really important in trying to untangle the controversies surrounding pastoral care and outreach to people with SSA, or to those in the LGBTQ community. Too often, the debate is shaped by the belief that what the Church needs is a kind of one-size-fits-all approach. We act as if there is a single right answer to questions like “can a Catholic call himself gay” “should a person come out of the closet?” “is it appropriate to send homosexuals to psychotherapy?” “can a homosexual Catholic attend a ‘gay’ party?” or even, on the extreme end, “can gay people be cured by exorcism?”
The simple fact is that like so many things in the spiritual life, it depends. It’s kind of like the question of whether a married woman can have a close friendship with a male friend. If there’s mutual attraction, the woman is tempted adultery, is easily seduced, has functionally no emotional relationship with her husband, and is a nymphomaniac, then it’s probably a bad idea. If the woman is in a really strong marriage, the friend is close to both her and her husband, she’s borderline asexual, and the friend is gay – you’d have to be insanely paranoid to see that as an occasion of sin.
People are different, and their situations are different, which is why we need a multiplicity of approaches. The healing that is needed by a former sex-addict is not going to resemble the healing that is needed by a gay virgin who has been kicked out of the house by his fundamentalist parents. Someone who has literally had sex with demons might very well need prayers of deliverance, but we know from experience that if you try to exorcise same-sex attracted Christian kids the result is usually that they become terrified – not of homosexuality, but of Christians. I know there are some gay men who can’t go to any gay event without falling prey to sexual temptation. But I also know that I am completely repulsed by the idea of casual sex, and there’s no way I’m going to end up in bed with a stranger if I attend a lesbian book club.
The bottom line is that in order to provide proper pastoral care, we need to look at the whole person rather than just a single factor. We can see this really clearly in other kinds of ministry. For example, the approach that we take to prison ministry would be really different for a serial killer on death row than for a Christian imprisoned for their faith in a Muslim country. Someone who came to Jesus while awaiting the death penalty might talk with great passion about how important it is to get the prisoner to really confront their sin and to grapple with their responsibility for their situation – but it would be obviously ridiculous and unjust to apply this maxim in the case of an innocent person who has been falsely convicted.
So it is with same-sex attraction, homosexuality, queerness, whatever you want to call it. There are a variety of experiences that require different approaches. Pitting one person’s story against another, one ministry against another, one voice against another, produces the kind of contention and division within the body of Christ that wastes resources, fosters scandal and prevents the development of a coherent, sophisticated and multi-faceted pastoral strategy. We are one body. We have different callings, different strengths, different talents. We need them all.
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