Three stories in the news last week have highlighted an ongoing problem in public dialogue about homosexuality. People of differing opinions seem to be using important terms interchangeably and this leads to confusion and miscommunication. The terms “gay” and “homosexual” seem to be used to connote either unchosen orientation/attraction (how someone feels) or chosen sexual behavior (how someone acts) in various contexts. But as I'll discuss, a distinction is very important.
The first story reported the Pope's comments regarding non-judgement of gay priests, and the comments received the standard media treatment which seemed to imply a change in outlook or even Church teaching about homosexual behavior. In reality they were nothing of the sort. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear that “under no circumstances can [homosexual acts] be approved.” (CCC 2357) However, of persons who experience exclusively or predominantly same-sex attraction it says, “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” (CCC 2358) This points out that acceptance of a person does not imply acceptance of every action that person might choose. We unconditionally love and accept our children and therefore correct them when they choose something harmful. The Pope was saying that this acceptance must extend to priests with same-sex attraction who are seeking and obeying the Lord, even if they have sinned (with homosexual behavior) in the past, and that we can't be judgmental of them as persons because we're all sinners.
The second story discussed San Antonio's proposal to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the city's discrimination ordinance, a change which some claim would be a danger to religious freedom and a violation of the Constitution by preventing disapproval of homosexual behavior. As a person who experiences same-sex attraction, I support legislation that prevents unjust discrimination based on sexual orientation. I didn't choose my orientation and I don't want to be discriminated against because of it. It is entirely appropriate to add sexual orientation to non-discrimination laws and ordinances, as long as the terminology involved is understood correctly. This action is distinctly different than seeking legislation (such as same-sex marriage law) which accepts, approves and attempts to equalize the choice of homosexual behavior. It's quite possible that those who drafted this change to the city ordinance mean to vilify those who oppose homosexual behavior, so great care must be taken when making general sounding laws and ordinances.
Finally, the third story reported that gay athletes may face prosecution at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia because it's illegal to display gay pride there. This falsely implies that all those who experience same-sex attraction support homosexual behavior. Every person has the ability to choose their beliefs about sexuality and to order their life and behavior accordingly. A person's sexual orientation does not determine or dictate their beliefs and actions. It is possible and legitimate to reject homosexual behavior as immoral while still maintaining “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” toward those with same-sex attraction. In fact, it's so possible that a person such as myself who experiences same-sex attraction chooses to think this way.
All this confusion highlights the need for better care and clarity in public dialogue when distinguishing between same-sex orientation (or attraction) and homosexual behavior. If we're to make progress in the language of love and respect while at the same time upholding traditional morality, we must grow more precise in how we speak about these things.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.