A conference is being planned in August to ponder an authentic pastoral response in ministering to those with same-sex attraction. Dr. Janet Smith is the organizer; Courage International and the Archdiocese of Detroit are the sponsors. It looks to be a fine gathering of solid speakers. Though I am clearly a “back-bencher” among the fine speakers being lined up, I was asked to submit a paper for possible inclusion in the book that will likely be published by Ignatius Press just prior to the conference.
As a kind of followup to yesterday’s post, I would like to publish a draft of the paper I submitted (Dr. Smith has permitted this). It is only a draft, but I have tentatively titled it “Equal in Dignity and Responsibility.” In it I explore some of the pastoral challenges and opportunities presented in ministering to those with same-sex attraction. Since the article is rather long (3500 words) I include a link to the PDF in case you would prefer to print it and read it later (Equal in Dignity and In Responsibility).
Equal in Dignity and Responsibility: A Pastoral Consideration of Ministering to Those With Same-Sex Attraction
The very public emergence of those among us with same-sex attraction and other self-described orientations presents many pastoral challenges for the Church. To a large degree much of this public emergence has taken up the premise that those with same-sex attraction have been victims of unjust discrimination and unequal treatment. The charges of inequality and injustice are also laid at the feet of the Church.
In this article I would like to argue that the Church does not treat those with same-sex attraction unfairly, either in terms of her teachings or her expectations. On the contrary, we insist on one standard for every person: to live chastely according to our state in life. For the married man and woman this means being faithful to each other in body, mind, and heart. For the unmarried, living chastely means refraining from all genital sexual activity, immodest touching, and lustful thinking rooted in pornography and/or masturbation. There are no exceptions to this standard, which is rooted in a biblical vision and in natural law. This one standard is just and equitable in that it binds all and blesses all. That those with same-sex attraction cannot marry someone to whom they are sexually attracted is unfortunate (there are many unfortunate factors in life), but there are also many who do not have same-sex attractions who for various reasons are not married and may never marry.
As a pastoral stance in ministering to those with same-sex attraction and in addressing our culture, it would seem wise that the Church emphasize the equanimity of our teaching, since allegations of unfairness and discrimination are pervasive. We have one standard and one teaching that is for all and applies to all without exception. We are all equal in dignity and responsibility.
This stance is also helpful in terms of how we handle the increasingly complex situations presented to us. Simply put, we should handle these situations in the same way we handle irregular situations involving heterosexual persons. One standard exists and must be applied to all. We ought learn to see these complex situations more simply and to apply our norms equitably to those who present them to us. They are equal in dignity and equal in responsibility.
Below we will apply this principle in four pastoral examples. But first we do well to examine a couple of things in the culture that make the task of demonstrating our equanimity more difficult.
The first matter is the notion of reducing one’s identity to one’s sexual attraction. Sexuality is an important component of who we are, but surely it is not the only component or even the most significant one. Yet in a hyper-sexualized culture there are increasing numbers who want their sexual attraction to be front and center, and who see this facet as almost the sole way they want to be understood. Never mind that they may like classical music, or be a car mechanic, or even a child of God. Many want to be known first and foremost as “gay” and be identified with a behavior that both Scripture and human tradition see as deeply problematic and sinful.
I leave it to other authors to develop the case for why it is problematic and sinful. The main point here is that if people identify sexual orientation as central to their identity, then they are bound to take very personally the rejection of the behavior with which they identify. This presents special challenges to us who say that we reject the sin but not the sinner.
But this is all the more reason that we in the Church must emphasize the equanimity of our teaching and strive to ensure that our policies reflect what we teach: that all are equal in dignity and responsibility; all are called to live according to the one chaste standard articulated in Scripture and Tradition.
The second matter is the rapidity of the change, the revolutionary quality of the issue. Less than ten years ago our current president spoke against so called gay “marriage” and suffered no political harm; he may even have benefitted from his stance. Even in a generally liberal state like California, a bill to approve marriage for same-sex couples was struck down in 2008. Since that time dramatic changes in the perception of those with same-sex attraction and in attitudes toward recognizing their unions as “marriages” can only be called stunning. Almost overnight, demands, now even coupled with threats of legal sanctions, have been directed at the Church to conform and regularize approval at every level for same-sex activity, same-sex “marriages,” and so forth.
Here is the special challenge presented by issues related to same-sex attraction: its sudden appearance on the scene with a “take no prisoners” approach. The message seems to be this: “Comply quickly or experience condemnation, possible legal action, and/or being labeled unkind, intolerant, and ‘homophobic’.”
This rapid change of climate is important to acknowledge because to some extent it also helps explain why our simple, equal standard for everyone is not up and running in every diocese. There are many complicated rules and exceptions that seem to set up, which are interpreted as either unfairly targeting those with same-sex attraction, or as bending over backward to make exceptions for them in a way that compromises the moral requirements of Scripture and Tradition.
In contrast other matters such as single motherhood, divorce and remarriage, and cohabitation (all “common” sins among heterosexuals) showed up more subtly and gradually over the course of several decades. First there was one “single mother” and we handled it quietly; then there were a few, then dozens, and so on. But this occurred over time, decades. The awareness that we had a problem was (sadly) very slow in coming. The same can be said for cohabiting couples and for divorce and remarriage. In these cases as well, the effects extended over a longer period time, disguising the fact that we had a real problem on our hands.
Some with same-sex attraction claim that it was only when they appeared on the scene that the Church suddenly concluded we were in a crisis. I believe this is a fundamentally unfair accusation. I do, however, understand what has given rise to this charge. For decades now “divorce and remarriage” has gone on with relative silence from Catholic pulpits. Cohabitation, fornication, contraception, and pornography are also seldom the subject of sermons or statements from the Church. But enter gay “marriage” and suddenly it would seem the hierarchy has awakened and statements, court briefs, and other concerns abound. The “gay community” is cynical that our level of outrage is consistent across these issues. Fifty years of heterosexual misbehavior and redefining of marriage (through no-fault divorce and contraception) have seemingly been ignored. But the sleeping giant of the Church suddenly awakens when homosexual misbehavior appears. Or so the charge goes.
There are priests and bishops who have consistently preached against all sexual misconduct and spoken about the complex issues of divorce, but in general our pulpits have been too silent.
Our stance now cannot be to continue or deepen our silence but must be to proclaim without ambiguity the one chaste standard that binds and blesses us all. Bishops, priests, and deacons who preach on issues related to same-sex attraction must carefully present it as part of a whole teaching. I do not think I have ever preached or taught on the sinfulness of homosexual acts without also laying out the sinfulness of fornication and adultery. No one is or should be singled out. The point is that there is one standard.
If we have been sleepy and silent, shame on us. But the task before us now is to be clear, consistent, and charitable, announcing equal dignity and equal responsibility to follow the one standard for sexuality and marriage given to us all by God.
Some in the Church will also argue, with proper concern, that homosexual acts are not only sins against purity but also sins contrary to nature (St. Paul calls them “paraphysin” (Rom 1:26-27)) and that Scripture consigns them to the category of sins that “cry to heaven for vengeance” (cf Gen 17:20-21). And this is true and surely valid in a theological discussion.
But from a pastoral point of view, fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts are all serious violations against purity and are all objectively immoral. None of these acts can be reconciled with a proper understanding and living of the Catholic faith. Pastorally and practically when such situations arise in our parishes and schools, the decisions we make about giving sacraments, accepting children in our schools, employment issues, etc. are going to be handled in a similar manner.
As we go forward, I would argue that this is the key We must do a better job of presenting our objections to issues related to same-sex attraction in the light of our received teachings on sexuality, teachings that bind and bless everyone equally. There are not different standards for homosexual and heterosexual persons, neither are there different versions of human nature at work. Sexuality has a proper purpose and place; this vision, given to us by God and Natural Law, applies to all of us without exception.
Having set forth the principles of equality and simplicity, and having acknowledged the difficulties of the current climate, let’s look at some real-life situations and see how our teachings, properly applied, are fair and respectful to all involved.
Scenario 1: Two men present an infant they have adopted for baptism. The men are living in a same-sex relationship and have had their “marriage” recognized by the State. They claim to be parishioners and the pastor does recognize them, though he never knew of their relationship, living arrangements, or the existence of their civil “marriage” license. In the baptism of infants and young children there is to be some well-founded hope that the child will be raised in the Catholic faith (cf Canon 868.2). This highly irregular situation makes the pastor wonder as to the proper course of action.
Reply: In a fairly straightforward way, this scenario can be handled like that of a cohabiting heterosexual couple or a couple in an invalid marriage. When irregularities exist in the presenting family, the pastor must balance the fundamental need of the child for baptism with the likelihood of him or her actually being raised in the faith given those irregularities.
Some irregularities, such as validating a marriage, can be easily resolved; others cannot. Some cohabiting couples are planning to marry, but for others marriage is either not in the near future or is unlikely to occur at all. The faith of some heterosexual couples is vigorous despite the irregularities, but for others their faith is tepid and their practice of it is tangential to their lives.
And then there is the large number of single mothers presenting children for baptism. Some have had a one-time fall, others are prone to promiscuity or serial relationships that are unhealthy. Some are actively practicing their faith; many are not.
And yet here is a child in need of baptism. Given the urgent need for baptism, the historical tendency of the Church has been to baptize even the children of prostitutes. The “well-founded” hope that children will be raised in the faith has more often been understood to mean even a glimmer of hope. The fact is, whatever the irregular situation, the parent(s) are coming to the Church and requesting baptism. That means there is some faith.
Some pastors are far more restrictive in their interpretation, but the usual and historical stance has been to be generous in seeing a well-founded hope, given the necessity of baptism for salvation.
My own approach in cases of irregularities among heterosexuals is to use this as a teachable moment, a call to repentance; I use it as an opportunity to summon the parent(s) to faith. I don’t just stay silently “nice. ” I exhort cohabiting couples to separate if reasonable and not deleterious to the child. I tell them that they should prepare to marry if this is advisable, and that they should most certainly stop fornicating right away. I tell those in invalid marriages that they should be validated. I tell those who are not coming to Mass to do so faithfully starting right away.
I also instruct them that they are going to be making a promise to God (and I read it right from the baptismal rite) to raise their children in the faith. This means that they cannot go on living in a way that is at odds with that faith. I ask them to soberly consider whether they are really ready to make this promise (which includes working to eliminate the irregularities). I tell them that if they are not, they should delay the baptism. It is difficult to imagine how they can avoid being sentenced to Hell if they fail to follow through on such a promise; I am very clear with them on this.
I would not change a thing with a same-sex couple. It is unlikely that I would refuse to baptize the child. However I would make it clear that they, too, have a decision to make in terms of the promise they will make to God. If they are going to raise this child in the Catholic faith, like any cohabiting couple, they need to stop having sexual intimacy, possibly separate entirely, and most certainly never teach the child that homosexual acts are anything other than sinful, as God’s Word teaches. If they are not able to make these changes and begin to conform to Catholic teaching (which their promise in the baptismal rite indicates) I recommend they delay the baptism until they are ready. But the decision is theirs.
In cases where baptisms involving any of the irregular situations described above go forward, I recommend that every parish handle them discreetly. In other words, celebrate them more privately, at times other than Masses or regularly scheduled baptisms. They ought not to be done alongside baptisms where properly married parents present their children. If such a practice has developed it should be discontinued so that further scandal and desensitization to irregularity are avoided. The baptism of a child presented by a same-sex couple at Mass or alongside proper situations would shock most congregations. And while unmarried heterosexual parents at baptisms are less apparent (and so cause less shock) these sorts of baptism also ought to be done more discreetly.
This may mean more work for clergy, but it must be done going forward if we are to assert, as I think we ought, that those with same-sex attraction are treated with equanimity.
Scenario 2: A reliable parishioner has reported to the pastor that a long-time, popular teacher in the parish school has begun living with a same-sex partner. How should the pastor deal with this situation?
Reply: No pastor should ever handle such a situation alone. Consultations with the diocese and with legal staff are important in any decision that results in the termination of employment. Even apart from matters related to same-sex attraction, hiring and firing have become highly litigious matters. Clear evidence, including an interview with the teacher, must be assembled. Policies and procedures will have to be carefully followed.
There are also different expectations of those in roles of teaching and ministry as compared to other staff such as maintenance employees. Given the complexities, a pastor or principal who foresees a possible termination of employment must never do this alone at any stage; the diocese should be consulted.
However, from a moral standpoint, how is the situation described above any different from a teacher openly living together with her boyfriend? We reasonably expect the teachers in our Catholic schools not to live in open opposition to the teaching of the Church. If perchance a teacher has a disagreement with our teachings, we cannot force him or her to believe, but we can rightly insist that he or she remain discreet and not openly support or do what the Church teaches against. This applies to every person and to all our doctrinal teachings equally. So again, equality is essential. The standard is the same for heterosexual persons and homosexual persons.
Several major dioceses in this country have already undertaken measures to spell out reasonable norms and apply them equally to all teachers. Such norms have also been carefully crafted to avoid legal challenges and to respect the civil and constitutional rights of employees, even as the Church legitimately seeks to ensure that our schools hand on the faith in word and deed.
Scenario 3: A known lesbian “couple” want to enroll their adopted daughter in kindergarten at the parish elementary school. The principal approaches the pastor for guidance. Perhaps it will good for the child to be in be in a religious environment where the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family are upheld. But perhaps, too, it could cause harm to the other children who would be exposed to a confusing situation that might imply the Church’s approval.
Reply: Here, too, no pastor or principal should ever handle this alone. A proper and equitable response is going to require a diocesan-level decision that is followed in all our schools. Different schools with different policies convey the message that the teaching is really up for grabs or that it just represents personal opinion.
A situation like this occurred recently in a large archdiocese in this country. The diocese had reason to suspect that homosexual activists may have orchestrated this as a “set up” since three same-sex couples all applied at once, to three different schools in the archdiocese.
The archdiocese convened a panel of pastors, principals, legal experts, and others to consider the applications and develop a response to them and a policy going forward.
The solution was essentially to place the matter squarely in the hands of the applicants. Application forms for every school were enhanced to indicate that, in enrolling their children in the archdiocese’s Catholic schools, parents were expected to live in a way that did not express opposition to Catholic moral teaching. Currently they are asked to sign a statement certifying that they can meet this requirement. This puts the onus on the applicant and does not require principals and pastors to go down some sort of checklist that, no matter how long, might be called selective and be subject to the parsing of every word.
Again, everyone is treated equally: equal in dignity, equal in responsibility.
Scenario 4: A student preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation has just publicly supported same-sex marriage. After ongoing discussions, his pastor advises him that he is not ready to receive the sacrament and should delay it until he can resolve his differences with the Church. Further, the student intends to make public the intervention by his pastor, according to his side of the story.
Reply: Confirmation is a Sacrament of Initiation given by the Lord to strengthen one in the proclamation of the Faith. As such, those who are confirmed publicly affirm the Creed and by extension whatever truths the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. The public support of same- sex marriage is directly contrary to biblical and Church teaching. Hence the student would, in effect, be publicly lying were he to proceed with the Rite of the Sacrament of Confirmation. Nothing is being denied the student. He is excluding himself from being able to receive the sacrament since he does not share the faith in which he seeks to be confirmed. Further, unlike baptism, confirmation is not necessary for salvation.
The student is free to make public his side of the story and to relate what the pastor said. The pastor is not free to report what the student said in their meetings but he can issue a generally worded statement about what confirmation is (and what it is not) and what the recitation of the Creed means in the context of the celebration of the sacrament.
This might also allow the pastor an opportunity to teach the congregation that the reception of Holy Communion each Sunday also involves an affirmation of communion with the Church and with her doctrinal and moral teachings.
So the priest can use this as a teaching moment but would be advised not to allow the matter to be reduced to the questions surrounding same-sex attraction. Instead this can permit him to apply the principle of equality and remind all Catholics to seek communion with the Church on all matters, doctrinal and moral.
So again, here is a clear application of the principle of equanimity wherein Church teaching on matters related to same-sex attraction is seen in the light of wider teaching that applies to all.
In summary, though a new landscape confronts us, our teachings have not changed. They continue to apply to all equally. We do not single out certain groups or acts for special condemnation or praise. In such matters as our moral teaching on human sexuality and the call to purity, no one is exempt; no one exists in a special category. There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. It applies to us all; it binds us all; it blesses us all. We stand before God as equals. We all receive the grace to be holy whatever temptations particularly assail us, whatever sinful attractions draw us. We are equal in dignity and responsibility.