As many look for signs of change in Pope Francis' comments on people with same-sex attraction, the leader of a ministry for those with homosexual inclinations instead believes the Pope's words hearken back to Christ himself.
“I don't think there's any reason to believe that anything our Holy Father is saying now is inconsistent with 2000 years of Church teaching, so I would hope people could be at peace and at rest about that,” said Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage International.
Fr. Check, who has led the Roman Catholic organization dedicated to offering spiritual and practical support to people with same-sex attraction since 2008, spoke with CNA on Jan. 25.
Touching on remarks like those made in July of 2013 – when the Pope said, “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” – Fr. Check pointed to Jesus' own method of preaching the gospel.
In the Scriptures, Jesus does not hesitate to teach doctrine and basic truths to large groups, as in the sermon on the mount. Yet he also “engages people in another way, a very personal way, one at a time.”
“I think that the emphasis Pope Francis is bringing to us right now is on the second way: very personally, listening to people and speaking with them and 'walking with' them, guiding them, bringing them to Christ,” explained Fr. Check.
“I am not an authoritative interpreter of the Pope's comments,” he cautioned, “but here's the way I understand them.”
The priest then turned to the story of Jesus' meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well who has had five husbands.
“Our Lord knows well that there is a moral question here that's involved, and indeed it's a chastity question. The woman is living in an 'irregular' way. But he doesn’t begin the conversation with her about the moral problem. Instead, he talks with her about her interest – and more than her interest, her desire for God.”
“So he engages her in a very personal way about something that is already resident in her heart…he speaks with her about God, and then he speaks with her about the life of God…(and) also about her desire for eternal life, which is something that we all have,” Fr. Check continued.
Jesus “engages her in this very lovely sequence, and he keeps the conversation going with her until he reaches that point when it is appropriate to say, and when she can receive, what it is that she’s about to hear about the irregular condition in which she’s living, and she doesn’t deny it.”
“But he has established a relationship with her, and I think this is very much what our Holy Father is suggesting: that we are to walk with people, to get to know them, (although) of course, we don’t have the benefit of knowing what’s in someone’s heart the way that Jesus does, so all the more reason that we have to take care,” Fr. Check noted.
“I think that personal engagement, the walking with, is something that he is proposing,” and “I think the Holy Father is very prudent and charitable in wanting to think about how people receive the message of the gospel today and to find ways in which that teaching can be announced in a way that people can receive it.”
And what is the Church's teaching about homosexuality?
“We have to distinguish the person, from the inclination or the desire or the attraction; and thirdly, from the action,” explained Fr. Check.
“The person is always good, because everyone is created in the image and likeness of God,” he affirmed.
Homosexual activity itself is a “grave violation of chastity which means it's gravely contrary to the human good and cannot lead to joy, peace, and fulfillment because there is a human nature which guides us and directs us with regard to the expressions of physical intimacy.”
Perhaps most difficult to understand is the Catholic position concerning “the (homosexual) inclination or the desire or the attraction,” noted Fr. Check.
“This the Church terms, 'objectively disordered.' Those words are difficult words to hear, they can fall very hard on ears and understandably, but the phrase objectively disordered does not apply to a person.”
“It means that the desire or the attraction in an erotic way, for a romantic, sexual encounter, relationship with a person of the same sex – that that desire is out of harmony with our human nature as we have been created by God, when we look at the complementarity of the sexes and the procreative power of the sexual faculty.”
The phrase “‘objectively disordered' relates to the appetite or the desire. It is not a moral judgment, let alone a moral condemnation of the person,” he emphasized.
The priest then went on to add, “the soul of someone, because of their experiences, shapes or filters or understands messages in the way that it receives it.”
“Every heart is made for fulfillment in Christ: some hearts just don’t know that yet, or haven’t been told that yet. Or haven’t found a way in which they can move past some of the preconceptions and the misunderstandings and even some of the very real hurts that may have happened,” he explained.
Thus, rather than the gospel message itself being changed, Fr. Check believes Pope Francis is offering a new emphasis on methodology.
“In that sense I think it’s the question of the how of the announcing of the gospel, and we’re certainly prepared to assist with that effort.”
Courage International, which operates in over 100 diocese in the U.S. and 12 foreign nations, offers spiritual support and practical help for men and women experiencing same-sex attraction who want to lead chaste lives.
The apostolate holds private chapter meetings, conferences, days of recollection, and retreats, in addition to a 12-step program when it may be helpful.
“The most important aspect of the Courage apostolate is the relationship between the individual person and Jesus Christ,” emphasized Fr. Check. “No one understands the struggles of all of us, whatever they may happen to be, more than Jesus Christ.”
Courage “is that very particular, very concrete, very practical expression of the Church’s pastoral concern” for persons with same-sex attraction.
The initiative aims for them “to know that they are not only not outside of the Church, not outside of the heart of Christ, but warmly embraced...and that all the means they need to live and to fulfill the deepest and most authentic desires of their heart, given to them by Christ are there for them.”
Returning to another of the Pope's remarks in which he described the Church as a “field hospital,” Fr. Check added, Courage is “like a wing in the Church’s hospital. We are one of the rooms where those who are wounded by sin in a particular way can come and receive healing.”