For a few reasons. It's a really complicated topic, and I'm not sure how to distill what is offensive about it. One, is that it's offensive to be told what you ought to be allowed to call yourself. And in fact, I rarely feel strongly about whether I should use the word gay or not, but the one time I do feel strongly about it is when somebody starts upbraiding me for it. Because it feels incredibly intrusive.
This is a topic that gets very political very fast. It's the sort of thing where people feel, and I think rightly, that they have been constrained to keep silent for most of their lives – and a lot of people have, whether it's constrained by actual explicit homophobia among the people that they love and/or are related to, or whether it's just sort of a general culture understanding that you don't talk about this sort of thing. So you have a set of people who have felt this way for most of their lives, and then you have people saying 'oh, well it's sort of cool now if you talk about that, but just be sure you talk about it in this or that way.' This is frustrating and comes across as very patronizing because these are people who don't have any insight into the experience of what it is to be gay telling you what it is or is not ok to talk about, and what it is and is not ok to call yourself.
Would you also apply that criticism to the Church who never uses the word 'gay' in her documents?
I understand why She (the Church) doesn't. I don't know if that will continue to be the case. I don't have any bitterness towards the Church as a whole in that way.
This is reason that I haven't yet come to a solid opinion on this question – because the problem is that secular people and Christian people mean two different things by the word 'gay.'
Could you explain that a little more?
It's really hard to distill. But you know what's at the heart of it?
When I told my roommate I was gay, the first thing that he said to me was, 'do you mean same-sex attracted?' And that was actually the precisely wrong thing to say, and I don't hold it against him. (Laughs) But the heart of it is that I was telling him this incredibly personal thing, and he was instructing me in the right way to feel about it, immediately, from the get-go.
Now I think that one reason Christians tend to dislike the word 'gay' is because if somebody says that they are gay, then they are usually implying that it is an unchangeable aspect of their personality. Whereas the sort of default position among a lot of Christians is that homosexuality is changeable. The unspoken implication is that if you identify yourself as 'gay,' then you're probably not trying hard enough to be straight. And I believe that this why it is so offensive to be told that they shouldn't use the word gay.
It might be true that some people can change to some extent, but it's extremely offensive to assume that the only reason somebody hasn't changed is because they haven't tried. And even though very few people would have the chutzpah to make that explicit, I do believe that that's the belief that's behind it.
What do you think we should be doing as a Church, as a Christian community, to be helping people who struggle with homosexuality?
That's a really good question! I'll start first by saying that I'm extremely grateful for the organization People Can Change, which is an organization founded precisely on the idea that radical change with respect to homosexuality is possible. I'm grateful for them not because they 'made me straight' or something, but because they gave me a space in which to work out some of my issues, many of which turned out not to be related precisely to homosexuality in particular, but were just sort of emotional issues that needed dealing with.
I think a lot of gay men and women do have emotional issues that aren't going to be dealt with if they're told that everything is already ok. But on the other hand, this is dangerous because you have a lot of Christian people already assuming from the get-go that if somebody is homosexual, then they must have various and many emotional issues that need working on, and that's not necessarily the case. (Laughs) So you see why this is difficult!
If the understanding in the Christian world is that homosexuality is a "disorder," and homosexual activity is a sin, then logically it would seem like as Christians, we would want to help our fellow Christians who are "dis-ordered" to be "ordered." Do you think there's a problem with that logic?
I think there's a problem with that phraseology. There's a subtle but importance difference in saying that somebody has a disordered inclination and saying that somebody is disordered.
The Church has to be clear with respect to 'what is the nature of homosexuality itself,' but can't make a pronouncement on whether it is a mental disorder, for example. Many people assume that when the Church says 'homosexuality consists of a disordered inclination,' they take that word 'disorder' and assume that She means 'mental disorder.' But I think the Catechism has purposely phrased it in such a way that you can't actually conclude that if you're reading carefully. But it takes careful reading.
The Church never changes her underlying principles, but when something new happens, it's always a question of, 'well, what do the underlying principles dictate in this particular situation?' And a lot of the times it turns out that it doesn't dictate what we thought it did but it takes a while to figure that out.
What do you think the underlying principles are that are dictating what the Church is saying about homosexuality?
That men are men, and women are women, and the two are not the same.
Do you want to expound on that at all?
Well, what I think is that one, at the bottom of it, men and women are different. Number two, that eros is different from friendship, and number three, that physical acts have spiritual meanings.
I think those things are the fundamental axioms that we have to work with here. And I think those things are precisely the things that are being argued about. I don't think the Church is arguing about them, and I don't think She should, because as far as I'm concerned, those things are absolutely essential to what the Church believes about people. But those things are very much being debated in the broader culture.
I'll tell you how I see myself and what I do, which is not only with respect to homosexuality but with how I try to live the Catholic faith in general. I try to live my life by those principles that make sense to me as a human being, and are consonant with what I know about human nature and with what the world at large has discovered about human nature. However, I also believe that if anything is true, it is Christian: that every truth is a Christian truth, and that there can be no truth about human nature which is not consonant with what the Church teaches about human nature.
This article was originally published on CNA June 30, 2015.