The pastoral care of homosexual persons (people with SSA/LGBTQ…take your pick) has become a topic of increasing interest for many pastors, theologians, and ministers in the Church. This in part is a response to the secular culture’s push to embrace the normalcy of homosexuality, and has been further propelled forward by Pope Francis’ insistence on serving people living in irregular situations. Two recent books by Fr. James Martin SJ [revised and republished in paperback a few days ago] and Daniel Mattson have tried to tackle this question, albeit in rather distinct, if not opposing, ways.
While both books offer important insights, it is important to recognize that their approaches do not comprehensively address all of the factors in play, for they ignore important nuances and variables in the experiences of homosexual persons. Because of this, their indications should not be taken to be normative in themselves for the Church’s pastoral efforts.
The approaches taken in Fr. Martin’s Building a Bridge and Daniel Mattson’s Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay reflect the backgrounds and experiences of their authors. Fr. Martin is a Jesuit whose reading of Scripture and understanding of contemporary society is informed by his Jesuit formation, with a keen eye toward correcting social injustices and a progressive theological sensibility. Mr. Mattson, on the other hand, speaks from his past experience living an active homosexual lifestyle as well as from his involvement in the Courage Apostolate, a twelve step program which seeks to help those who have been damaged by living a destructive and/or addictive homosexual lifestyle.
Building a Bridge
Martin devotes his book mostly to dealing with the problem of homophobia and to seeking ways to welcome LGBT people into Church communities. But what we’re left with is a thin notion of what it means to be welcoming. At what point does welcoming someone involve inviting them to discover God’s plan for their lives, which includes wrestling with original sin and the effects it has on our desires and relationships? If we are truly to be welcoming, we need to be willing to walk with homosexuals toward the truth of what God is calling them to. Part of that means helping them to offer their sexual desires to Christ so that He can integrate them into His plan for their lives. This journey toward the Truth involves sacrifices, for gay and straight persons alike. Leaving it at telling them that their desires are wrong, or telling them that we accept them for who they are, is a cop out…a sorry excuse for true accompaniment.
Perhaps the most significant element that is lacking from Fr. Martin’s book is the testimony and experiences of homosexuals who live in accordance with the Catholic Church’s Magisterial teachings on sexuality. Perhaps it would help to further “bridge the gap” by listening to those for whom the gap no longer exists. As Catholic lesbian writer Eve Tushnet pointed out in her review of the book: “Martin never hints that gay people exist who seek to live in obedience to the Catholic Church. Fair enough — not every book has to be for everybody, and people in my situation are a tiny minority. But we may be able to offer insights into areas this book carefully avoids.” She also questions why Martin skirts around the possibility of gay people finding enrichment and a sense of dignity in adhering to the Church’s Magisterial teachings on sexuality. Assenting gay Catholics are already a minority group, both inside and outside the Church, and it seems like Fr. Martin has no intention of opening more spaces for their voices to be heard. One is left to wonder if Fr. Martin envisions a bridge reaching all the way across the gap toward full communion.
Fr. Martin’s proposal does indeed offer some valuable reflections. One envisions practicing Catholics using his proposal to learn how to open the doors of the Church more widely, but he stops short of offering any concrete suggestions for how to help gay people pass all the way through the doors of the Church, that is, to accompany them in their journey toward sanctity and sexual wholeness.
Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay
The title of Mattson’s book boldly asserts the countercultural idea that one’s identity is not defined by their sexual preferences, but rather by the fact that they are made in the imago Dei. Mattson, whose witness was featured in the short documentary Desire of the Everlasting Hills, very openly and freely shares his stories of having unfulfilling and undignified sexual encounters with other men. Upon discovering Courage and renouncing his sexual past, he found the wounds that his violent gay lifestyle inflicted upon him were being healed.
What’s concerning about Mattson’s conclusions is that it seems as if he assumes that all people who ascribe to the label “gay” have had a more or less similar experience to himself, and thus should not call themselves gay. Tom him, calling oneself gay reduces the person to their sexual temptations and keeps them associated with a dangerous lifestyle and culture. Mattson also acknowledges that many so-called gay men will discover underlying heterosexual tendencies once they detach themselves from the gay lifestyle. While this may be true for many people with SSA, there are many others whose homosexual tendencies are deep seated and unlikely to change. There are also plenty of gay people who have never had a sexual addiction, and many more who have never even had sex at all.
Toward an Integral Vision
While an obedient Catholic ought to affirm that the desire to engage in homosexual acts is in itself “intrinsically disordered,”(on a moral level, not necessarily on a psychological level) it is also possible for homosexuals to experience their same sex attractions in positive and fruitful ways. On that note, it’s necessary to clarify that the disordered aspect of homosexuality is not the desire to be intimate with others of the same sex, but rather to engage in sexual intercourse with people of the same sex. There are plenty of biblical images of same sex intimacy. One wouldn’t assign the label of intrinsic disorder to the intimate love of Ruth and Naomi, or Jesus and John the Beloved.
Many people with SSA learn how to sublimate the disordered aspects of their homoerotic desire by channeling them through disinterested friendships and offering Corporal Works of Mercy toward people of the same sex. Further, the alienation, persecution, and marginalization that homosexuals experience often help them to develop a selfless sensitivity to the needs of others who also carry heavy crosses.
Eve Tushnet speaking about sublimation and Corporal Works of Mercy
Others may channel that desire in other forms of self-giving like education, nursing, or the arts. This brings us to the issue of “gay culture,” which members of Courage often reduce to its sinful and destructive dimensions. Perhaps it would be helpful to point out the positive and holy aspects of gay culture. Catholic artists, mystics, and writers who have incorporated homoerotic themes into their work in ways that rather than distracting from God, point us closer to Him. Take Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Marc Andre Raffalovich, just to name a few.
The Quiet Voice of Spiritual Friendship
The reality is that Mattson and most of Courage’s other members were/are in need of a program that will help them to distance themselves from the destructive elements of gay culture. Courage’s reliance on Freudian psychology and simplistic theologies of sin and redemption has benefited many of its members. And shedding the “gay” label can be an important and necessary step in their path to redemption and sanctity. But for homosexuals who have never had a sexual addiction, who are attracted to the positive aspects of gay culture, and who are more intellectually and theologically inclined, Mattson’s and thereby Courage’s pastoral approach may not be helpful, and may even prove to be detrimental to their spiritual growth. The proposals offered by the writers at the Spiritual Friendship blog, most of whom have never engaged in destructive sexual activities and have a background in theology or philosophy, might be more helpful for those who are not helped by Courage’s model.
If the Church’s pastors are going to take the question of caring for homosexual persons seriously, they must take into the account the diversity of experiences of those for whom they seek to care. Rather than a “one-size-fits-all” model, perhaps what is most needed is-in the spirit of Pope Francis’ pastoral directives-a model of accompaniment. Each person has a unique history and vocation, and only an attentiveness and open ear to the complexities and nuances of each person’s story will allow for their needs to be adequately tended to and integrated into the life of the Church. Fr. Martin and Dan Mattson’s books offer some important insights to the conversation. Hopefully there will be room for more at the table.