Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Catholic community here.
One challenge for American Catholics is forming a coherent, responsive, and specific outreach to gays and lesbians that is respectful of Church teaching and yet not so alien to society at large that it forecloses evangelization. Society is shedding, with ever-growing speed, the biases and animus of the past that excluded gays and lesbians from open participation in American daily life. To the extent the Catholic community cannot do the same, it will be perceived as persisting in the casual exclusion of gays and lesbians that so often stands in the way of sharing the Gospel with them.
In no other issue relating to gay and lesbian Catholics is this more troublesome than the question of whether gays and lesbians are "born this way." There has been in America a tendency, fueled by politics, to place great weight on whether gays and lesbians can choose to be straight or whether their attraction to members of the same sex is in fact immutable. Those who believe that same-sex attraction is a choice have occasionally expressed that belief by requiring gays and lesbians to "convert" to being straight. To the extent these ex-gay conversion ministries are present among Catholics (as one is in my local parish), it represents an unbridgeable barrier for most gays and lesbians. And, more importantly, the belief that sexual attraction must be regarded as a choice is inconsistent with the teaching of the Church.
The Catechism instructs that homosexuality's "psychological genesis remains largely unexplained," and that gays and lesbians "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity." Ex-gay conversion disregards the former instruction and disobeys the latter, with potentially adverse results both for well-meaning parishioners and for the gays and lesbians they hope to minister to. In a time when the Church is too often portrayed as "anti-science," this is an issue in which Church teaching aligns with a scientific consensus that some individual members of the clergy and laity are disregarding. For example, in research examining "genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences," the American Psychological Association has found no "particular factor or factors" that determine sexual orientation. Moreover, the APA has confirmed the experience of most people, in that, whatever sexuality's origins, it is not a choice.
Evangelization efforts to reach gays and lesbians that start from the belief that they can or even must change their attractions are thus dubious both as a matter of Church and scientific teaching. Moreover, where such efforts exist, they give the false impression to gays and lesbians that to be Catholic, they must be ex-gay or ex-lesbian. These efforts also reduce the gay and lesbian experience to one merely of sexual activity, when in reality gays and lesbians are as complex and face as varied challenges in their daily lives as any other Catholic. Evangelizing to gays and lesbians with the suggestion that they chose or can choose their sexuality erects an unnecessary barrier to understanding and acceptance.
This is not a one-sided problem. The "born this way" question also presents a difficulty from the other direction: what about gays and lesbians who wish to participate in the Church, but who, perhaps relying on the belief that attraction is immutable, do not fully embrace the Church's teachings? This issue is especially present for gay couples who are Catholic, including couples who may be raising children. As civil recognition of gay unions continues to grow, the Church must elaborate a unifying, clear response to these Catholics and their children, who surely are not beyond the reach of the Gospel.
To journey with Christ is to be healed, and to be fed, and to sometimes carry a challenging cross, too. The church knows this truth, but the clergy and laity have too often fumbled its delivery when it comes to gays and lesbians. This unnecessary struggle has gone on for too long, leaving too many souls to seek healing and food elsewhere.