Catholic doctrine preserves the life of LGBT members of the Church

An LGBT rally in Portugal. Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr  (CC BY 2.0). An LGBT rally in Portugal. Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Is it possible to be gay and Catholic? After extensive interviews, CNA has found that to a silent majority, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. For those who experience same-sex attraction and want to live in accord with the teachings of the Church, there are active apostolates, support groups, and therapists who provide counsel on the integration of spirituality and sexuality to live fully in communion as a practicing Catholic.

Yet, what is often presented in secular and some faith-based spaces is that happiness is tied directly to the unrestrained expression of human sexuality, and any attempt to prevent sexual expression is rendered harmful. 

Remiss from articles such as Eve Tushnet’s recent piece in America magazine is the nuanced understanding of God’s gifts of human sexuality, intimacy, and sexual expression, experts told CNA. 

“This article could have been a beautiful opportunity to reveal the joy and freedom in chastity—a virtue proposed (not imposed) by the Church for all people in all states of life, and which can bring the realization that people who experience same-sex attractions are not automatically excluded from Holy vocation,” said Hudson Byblow, a Catholic speaker and consultant on human sexuality.

Instead, Tushnet proposes that life with same-sex attraction in the Church is at best misery living without marriage, and at worst, traumatic when seeking to understand one’s own desires. She purports a false dichotomy where the choices are either to choose your sexuality and forego living in communion with the Church, or to choose your faith and forego happiness. 

“Catholics who experience same-sex attraction who want to live in accordance with Church teaching may be irresponsibly harmed by such a blanket condemnation of professional care for unwanted same-sex attraction,” said Philip M. Sutton, a current licensed marriage and family therapist, clinical social worker, and psychologist.

Elusive in Tushnet’s article is what many voices called “ the viable third way” of living with same-sex attraction and living in accordance with the Church.

“Any approach to sexual gratification besides chaste marriage or abstinence—including celibacy—is considered unacceptable, contrary to the natural law and genuine human flourishing, ultimately frustrating for the genuine peace and joy which human beings seek and need,” Sutton said. 

Avera Maria Santo writes about living with same-sex attraction as a faithful Catholic and has given her testimony at the Truth & Love Conference, the Courage International Conference, and with various other apostolates. 

“I wish people would see is that the experience of same-sex attraction is a cross like any other—this is a circumstance of my life—and if it wasn't this, it would be something else,” said Santo. “In the midst of my experience, I came to know God in a very real way. I wish people would see beauty, especially the beauty of self-sacrifice, of self-sacrificial love.” 

Central to the conversation is the idea that there is a difference between the experience of same-sex attraction and acts based upon those feelings, wherein the first is permisible and the second violates the moral teachings of the Church.

“The Catholic Church does not teach that the experience of same-sex attractions is in itself sinful,” said Father Philip G. Bochanski, executive director of Courage International, an apostolate for men and women who experience same-sex attraction and who have made a committment to strive for chastity. “Neither the Church nor Courage International place any obligation or expectation on a person to ‘become straight,’ so to speak, or to eradicate his or her same-sex attractions.”

Acting on same-sex attraction is considered a sin because it reduces human sexuality to pleasure. The true purpose of erotic or sexual love, Father Bochanski said, is procreation.

“God has a clear plan for marriage and sexual intimacy, which is revealed in the Word of God (both Scripture and sacred Tradition) and which has been taught consistently by the Church through the ages,” Father Bochanski told CNA. “This plan or ‘ordering’ of sexuality is that sexual intimacy belongs only in a life-long, exclusive relationship between one man and one woman, whose sexual relations are open to having children.”

This idea, however, does not condemn those who experience same-sex attraction to a life of misery or unfulfillment. 

“I feel like people might see me and think I spend my days miserably pining over wanting to be in a relationship, but I've got too much to do to be caught up in that,” said Santo. “There's too many graces to receive, too much joy to radiate, too much life to live than to be stuck in a place of longing for a gift that was never mine to begin with.”

For Santo, a commitment to chastity and the constant pursuit of Christ has become the focus of her life.

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“Healing comes in the knowledge that I'm loved, that there's nothing wrong with me, that I'm not being punished or tormented by God, but that this is a circumstance of life that God holds my hand in the midst of,” she said. 

Chastity is good

Several of those interviewed by CNA and who identify as LGBT wonder why chastity makes no appearance in Tushnet’s article, whether related to single persons or married couples.

“As someone experiencing same-sex attraction, my Catholic identity of being a son of the Father remains the same, however the outlook on chastity and healing are definitely different,” said Austin, who is 23 years old. “That presents a couple new challenges, but also a lot of unique ways to be pursued by Jesus in prayer that a lot of people probably don’t experience.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, chastity is the “successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being”. Chastity, then, is both thought and action, where some people “profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner.”

“We often hear people suggest that the Church's teaching somehow condemns people who experience same-sex attractions to a lonely, loveless life,” said Father Bochanski. “This stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of love itself.”

Sexual, or erotic love, Father Bochanski said, is an important part of the human experience because it guides the formation and growth of the human family, but it is not the only authentic, meaningful type of love.

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“The affection that we feel for family members, the divine love of charity that allows us to receive God's love and love God and others, and, especially, the sometimes-forgotten love of friendship, are all necessary parts of a full, Christian life,” he said. 

“When the Church asks people who experience sexual attractions to a person of the same sex—or, indeed, to anyone who cannot be one's spouse—to sacrifice erotic love, it is so that the person may be free to live the other types of love freely and authentically,” he said.

John experienced same-sex attraction while living in New York City. One suggestion he heard was to find a boyfriend and remain monogamous to satisfy his desire to live a chaste life. This, he said, was mentioned as an exception to following the teachings of the Church, and he was appalled. He had no interest in living outside of full communion with the Church. 

“Chastity is for everybody, whether you’re married or unmarried, homosexual or heterosexual,” John said. “If the homosexual community wants to live a gay lifestyle, there’s an inherant conflict right there. I wanted no part of that.” 

John joined Courage when he was in his 30s. He also went to therapy to address traumas and complicated family dynamics from his youth. Before they were married, John shared his experiences with his wife, who thought it was both brave and pious to seek support. He continues to participate in Courage meetings 30 years later.

Reasonable therapy v. ‘conversion therapy’

John is not alone in seeking therapy to better understand the origins of same-sex attractions and to resolve past hurts.

“A guiding principle for all mental health professions is honoring the ‘self-determination’ of all clients,” said Sutton, who is also the founder and first director of the graduate counseling program at Franciscan University. “In my experience, those who engage in professional therapy to help persons manage and resolve same-sex attraction, honor their clients’ wish for this. If a client does not want to do this, the therapists whom I know and know of—and all ethical therapists—never force or compel a client to do so.”

The Catechism clearly articulates the Church’s teaching, said Sutton, that “persons with a homosexual inclination ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity’”.

“This may include referring them for professional care,” Sutton said.

David saw a therapist for about six months to discuss his past relationships and life experiences. He also experiences same-sex attraction. He found great healing, he said, in being able to talk about personal experiences with a Catholic counselor who could integrate his faith into the conversation.

“To have counseling through a Catholic lens and to be able to see someone that respects my choice of how I’ve chosen to live in accord with the Church’s teachings with same-sex attraction, I find very helpful,” he said.

David pursued counseling to deepen his relationship with Christ as well as to navigate what it means to live with same-sex attraction as a practicing Catholic. In doing so, he developed a greater understanding of his desire to find purpose and love in his life, and to give himself in love within the context of the Church’s teaching, he said. 

“As a person strives for virtue, including chastity, he or she needs to be aware of the experiences in his or her life that have shaped his or her sense of self, expectations, desires and thoughts,” said Father Bochanski. “When a person has experienced trauma, been hurt in family or other relationships, or is dealing with emotions or behaviors that he or she doesn't understand and can't control, it is often very helpful to seek the support and guidance of a professional trained in psychology and counseling.”

Michael Gasparro, registered associate marriage and family therapist, provides counseling from a Christian perspective to help people work through unwanted sexual behaviors, including sexual addiction, fetishism, sexual brokenness and sexual dysfunction in marital relations. He sees patients who are married, single, heterosexual and homosexual.  

“We get hung up on same-sex sexuality sometimes and forget that a lot of people have wounds around sex and wounds around how to live that out that make it harder for them to live their vocation,” he said. “Therapy for many people is a place to talk about this without judgement and seek healing for the things that contribute to their sexual brokenness.” 

For some patients, the process of working through past traumas and sexual chaos can result in a byproduct of reduced same-sex attraction, though that is not the goal of therapy, Gasparro said. The outcomes are up to the patient, with healing from previous experiences at the forefront of the discussion.

Austin originally went to a couple of counselors looking for advice on experiencing same-sex attraction and didn’t find what he was looking for. Then, he was referred to a therapist who focuses on reintegrative therapy. 

“He explained to me that I was in the driver’s seat, I was in charge of setting the goals for what I wanted to get out of therapy,” he said. “He was clear in explaining that this was not a ‘conversion therapy,’ this was not to ‘fix me’ or supress my attractions.” 

Instead, Austin engaged in a process of using therapeutic protocols based on empirical data to trace a fantasy or unwanted behavior, and tie it back to any kind of past unmet emotional need. 

“I was desiring to be seen completely and known by other men, and that desire was eroticised and sexualised,” he said. “The goal of the therapy and the success was all about going back to that unmet need—that was the issue for me—not the attractions themselves … what needed fixing was the underlying roots behind them.”

Before Austin began therapy, he recognized that he had to desire healing for himself. It couldn’t come from his parents or anyone else wanting him to change his attractions.

“Having same-sex attraction is not immoral and it does not make you a bad person,” Austin said. “Acting on those desires in whatever way is going to be immoral. If someone is acting on these desires, this is one unique way they are falling to sin, and all of us fall to sin daily in different ways.”

One side effect of therapy for Austin was that his same-sex attractions did diminish, though not entirely. When they do surface, they do not distress him as much as they did in the past. He is able to see, he said, that he is not bad for having these attractions.

“I was able to see that I am desirable, and I do have men in my life who see and know me,” he said. “The attractions started to go away because I didn’t need to turn to sexual fantasy or behavior to fill that need that I was having.”

Scott (a pseudonym), who is 29 and works in ministry, is currently seeing a therapist to talk about life experiences in the present and life experiences in the past, including learning how to grieve past traumas appropriately. Rarely does the topic of homosexuality come up in his therapy sessions. 

“The therapy that I’m undergoing right now is like any other therapy that anyone else would undergo,” he said. “It has nothing to do with ‘praying the gay away’ or other things you hear. It is not conversion therapy.” 

Unfortunately, many types of therapy that address unwanted sexual behavior from a Christian or Catholic perspective get lumped together under the term “conversion therapy,” a broad and ill-defined term, said Gasparro. The term, in its common, secular understanding, refers to changing a person’s behavior from homosexual to heterosexual, and is the subject of legislation and a forthcoming documentary on Netflix. 

“Many people care and they get angry surrounding the topic of conversion therapy because, maybe they’ve rightly heard stories of when it’s been harmful for someone, but they wrongly perceive that all therapies are conversion therapy,” Scott said.

He offered that there are harmful therapies out there from different groups, specifically in Evangelical Christian communities, where the focus is behavior modification and willing yourself to not have the attractions you are having. Scott also shared that it is important to remember that not all therapies—or therapists—are the same.    

“Good therapy must have that same integration in mind, and treat the whole person as a unity of body and soul,” said Father Bochanski. “A good therapist will respect the client's whole story, rather than isolating just one part of the client's experience, whether sexual attraction or anything else.”

The push to change Catholic doctrine 

When asked if the teachings of the Church need to be changed or adjusted to better accomodate people with same-sex attractions, the answer among interviewees was a consistent ‘no’.

“Nothing about Church teaching needs to be changed surrounding this topic, absolutely nothing,” said Santo. “I will say, what I think honestly needs to change is the way that these teachings are read. When I look at Church teachings with the knowledge that this Church, the Bride of Christ, loves me dearly and unreservedly, it all makes sense.”

Scott agreed about a deeper understanding and encounter with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. He said he is “100 percent on board with the Church’s teaching on everything,” and that it is important the Church does not “bend to the outcry of one particular group.” 

“I wouldn’t want to be part of a church that listens to the whim of society,” he said. “To bend to whatever philosophy is popular right now or that’s sort of a ‘hot topic’ is to contribute to one's own demise.”

In today’s society, attempts to change the teaching of the Church are presented regularly, as is the case in Tushnet’s article, which failed to interview a single, living Catholic theologian or therapist. This advocacy for change is typically influenced by a specific group that wants to change a teaching to conform to an ideology, instead of realigning their hearts to Christ.

“When clergy or others in ministry suggest that the teaching can change or should change, at best they are raising false hopes in the hearts of the faithful, and distracting them from seeking the support they need to understand and embrace the teaching and to live by it,” said Father Bochanski. 

“This is a serious scandal and, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained in 1986, it ‘prevents homsexual men and women from receiving the help they need and deserve,’” he said.

Father Bochanski referred to this scandal as the oldest trick in the Bible. 

“Consider the original sin—the serpent tempted the woman to lose trust in God's plan by distracting her attention from all the blessings that surrounded her in paradise, and getting her to focus on the one thing that she did not have,” Father Bochanski told CNA. “It is still the devil's agenda to shake our trust in God's plan and in the Church that teaches it, by putting our focus on what seem like restrictions and distorting our vision of what God actually provides for us.”

There is room for growth, however, in how the teachings are communicated and received, shared Austin.

“Practially, I would desire for priests to not just know the teachings, but to know the ‘why’ behind the desires, to have an understanding of why people experience same sex attraction,” he said. 

David agreed that being comfortable with conversations in the Church, whether it be from Church leadership or the lay community, could be better. He emphasized that the Church is still learning the best ways to share teachings and to bring the teachings to others.

“One thing I’ve recognized is that sometimes well-intentioned people, poorly catechized, might not know the difference between living out same-sex attractions versus just experiencing them,” he said. “It’s not always well differentiated or taught.” 

“People need to know that they have a place within the Church, and to know that they are welcome, their presence is desired, and they are loved and cared for,” he said.

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