Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life. ~Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Person,” 1986.
St. Thomas Aquinas referred to homosexuality (sodomy) as the “unnatural vice.” In the sixteenth century, Pope Pius V repeated Aquinas’ horror by judging sodomy to be “…the execrable libidinous vice against nature.” Then, as recent as the 1917 Code of Canon Law: “Lay persons who have been legitimately declared guilty of the commission of crimes against the sixth commandment with minors under sixteen years of age, or of rape, sodomy, incest, or traffic in vice, are automatically branded with infamy, besides incurring the other penalties which the Ordinary may think proper to impose.” (Canon 2357) In the past, there was no distinction made between the vice (sodomy) and the person performing the sinful act. In Victorian England, famed author Oscar Wilde was simply referred to as a “sodomite.” A dramatic shift took place in the nineteenth century with the emerging science of modern mental health: at that point, the vice (sodomy) was separated from the “disease” or “perversion” of homosexuality. In the twentieth century, the concept of perversion became the “dominant way of organizing our thoughts about our own sexuality…It is perversion as a possible way of being, a possible category of the self, that is the legacy of nineteenth century psychiatry.”* In other words, the homosexual perversion solidified into an image or a thing; the perversion of homosexuality became the “gay” orientation. Hence, the modern notion of “gay” is a rather recent social construct.
This dichotomy between vice and perversion, and the resulting deconstruction of homosexuality, has caused an entire generation of Catholics to fatally misread not only “The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” but other Church documents as well: while “The Catechism” clearly states that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” some have also picked up on this line from a 1986 “Letter to the Bishops” as a signal that the orientation or inclination itself, while highly problematic and certainly not the ideal, is passingly tolerable: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” Therefore, both the act and the inclination are mutually “disordered” and should be avoided. But, partially because “The Catechism” seems to be making two separate pronouncements: one on homosexual acts and another on the inclination (or the orientation) there are those who have superimposed a modern psych interpretation that once again separates the vice from the perversion; with perversion transformed into “a possible way of being;” hence their continuing discomfort with homosexuality tagged as “disordered.”
Just because the inclination is not a sin, does not automatically make it morally benign or neutral, or even allowable; only, that is precisely what a new cadre of openly “gay Catholics” have done; as well as those who are endlessly “stuck” within a framework of chastity that simultaneously locks in the orientation as something inborn, incapable of being healed, or simply too painful to approach. As someone who fell into this error myself, I can sympathize with those who find it difficult to give-up the “gay” part of themselves. For example, after I left the gay lifestyle, one of the first books I read was indeed “The Catechism.” Although raised a Catholic, having gone to parochial schools for 12 years, I had never seen it before; “The Catechism” was published in 1992 when I was deep inside the gay world. What was immediately apparent, about 5 minutes after opening the book, was the unequivocal calling-out of a “grave depravity” with regards to all homosexual acts. What was less clear, at least to me, was the Church’s stance on the homosexual orientation. Probably not so much an issue with wording on the part of “The Catechism,” but, now I can see that my confusion was partially a self-imposed delusion of gay-acceptance that allowed me to acknowledge chastity, but to remain wholly “gay;” also, I persistently held to a keen desire to find nuances in the teachings I found personally troublesome; and, this is where, especially in terms of the Church’s approach to homosexuality, clear and precise language is a necessity. For, my interpretation went this way: the idea of being “gay” only swerved into the sinful, or even the “disordered,” when I acted upon those homosexual inclinations. So, I didn’t have to give up who I was; after all, I “came-out” to myself at around age 14; I had been “gay” most of my life. It was ingrained in me. Altogether, I chocked a lot up to that supposed “gayness:” my love of art, my sensitive nature, my empathy towards the downtrodden; that was because “I am gay.” Right? Yet, the Church did state that: “The homosexual inclination is however ‘objectively disordered’ and homosexual practices are ‘sins gravely contrary to chastity.’” Only, for many years, I could not reconcile the two: the “inclination” and the “practices.”
Therefore, how can one embrace, or become reasonably comfortable, with one disorder while rejecting the other? You cannot…and for that reason, I think it’s incredibly and needlessly confusing for those in the Church, ordained and lay alike, to continually stress, perhaps as a way to appear sympathetic and “pastoral,” that homosexual acts and the inclination are two highly distinct principles. For example, this particular section from a USCCB statement (2006) regarding “pastoral care” to those with a homosexual inclination, I find unhelpful and frustratingly confusing:
Above the first paragraph in the section, headlined in bold: Homosexual Inclination Is Not Itself a Sin, then, they describe how the homosexual inclination is not “sinful,” afterward, in the very next paragraph – they go on to state that it’s nevertheless “objectively disordered.” Because of this seeming ambiguous double-speak, I was incredibly perplexed, while others took it as a license to radically free-think, hence statements such as this: “Many of us emphasize the need to move towards self-acceptance and away from shame. For this reason we often stay away from the language of ‘disorder’ and ‘brokenness’ that often surrounds the issue…” But, with that fuzzy logic as a centerpiece to any form of recovery, or program for a future life beyond the gay lifestyle, there’s an almost inevitability that a certain amount of fracturing within the person will occur, often into a “gay” chaste Catholic who is incessantly trying to fuse two divergent ideas; hence, the often frantic preoccupation and search for “new ways” to keep the gay brain while ignoring the signals it sends out to the body. In this imagined universe, you get weird pronouncements like this: “I found myself delighting in certain men in a way that was distinctly gay but also chaste…” I find this incomprehensible, but, in their mind, the two identities: the guy who is “delighting in certain men in a way that was distinctly gay” and the other one who is “chaste” are separate, but really they are the same person; a muddled and dysfunctional person, but the same person. In a sense, I am reminded of a “Star Trek” episode from the 60s original series where, after one of those recurrent transporter malfunctions, Kirk is split into two living beings: one, who is good, but feckless, another, who is passionately evil. Separated, the two Kirks are inconsistent and a mess. Yet, I did this Jekyll and Hyde act myself: I will never forget, probably within a few months after “getting-out” of the lifestyle, I went to visit with some “gay” friends. I thought I could handle it – they were “gay,” but, somehow, I was above them – for I was “gay and chaste!” I put a Rosary over my head, wearing it under my clothing, and headed out to see my former comrades. I thought I was a gay-Catholic superhero; performing some strange circus balancing act – always keeping “gay” and my new Catholic identity in constant midair; then, like something out of Adam West’s “Batman” – “SPLAT!” –and I was down. I was not impervious; after all, I was still gay too. The holding on to “gay,” was merely an attempt to rationalize a part of me, that was far from “gay,” but deeply wounded: the petulant, demanding, and desperately lonely child who never felt loved. Calling it “gay,” not dealing with the hurt, and then attempting to attach Catholic to the whole project literally remade me into a borderline neurotic. In the end, I had to admit that I was broken: and that meant recognizing my “gay” self as equally “disordered” and wrong-headed as the homosexual act; only then, could everything begin to heal when I finally saw that ugly part of myself.
*“Homosexuality and psychoanalysis,” edited by Tim Dean and Christopher Lane.
The University of Chicago Press, 2001.