Homosexuality, Identity, and the Grace of ChastityCARRIE GRESS
St. Augustine is famous for having prayed, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." Father Paul Check, the director of Courage, suggests that chastity, like justice and mercy, is indeed part of the Good News of Christ and to ignore it is self-defeating.
Father Check, who served as an officer in the Marine Corps prior to being ordained to the priesthood in 1997, spoke recently with Catholic World Report about the Church's wisdom in not reducing persons to an identity based solely upon their sexual appetites, and how the average Catholic can respond to the aggressive social agenda of the gay lobby.
Father Check: The most important question ever asked in human history was asked by Our Lord when he said to the apostles, "Who do you say that I am?" It is the question of identity, because it is from an understanding of identity that we then know how to live in a way consistent with that identity. I won't say that it is always easy, because we have concupiscence, but in order for us to understand the proper way of asking, we first have to clearly answer the question of being.
With regard to the human person, the question of "Who am I?" is best answered with the understanding that we are children of God redeemed by the blood of Christ and called to be his disciples, and we are invited to grow in this life of grace and glory in the life to come. There is the foundation of the most important or essential part of our identity.
Now there are other things that make up our identity as well. Our human family, and where we are from geographically. These things are also important but not as important as the fundamental question of our identity, our being children of God.
We are created as sexual beings and this story is told to us in the book of Genesis, which is not a science book, of course, and does not tell us in precise terms how man came to be but rather precisely who we are and who we are intended to be and to whom we are to look for an understanding of our identity. In that Genesis story it is made plain that God in his wisdom divided the human race in such a way that human nature is expressed in the masculine and the feminine. This is a very rich theological and anthropological question. But for our purposes here, while there is such a thing as human nature, that nature is always expressed very concretely in a person — a person that is either masculine or feminine, so that sexual identity is also something that is integral to who the person is. And in order to know who we are and how that sexual identity is properly expressed we go back to the Genesis story and learn about the union of man and woman, the fruitfulness of God in his plan, and how his gifts of fertility are associated with the sexual faculty and are inherently bound up with sexual intimacy.
With that preamble, the reason that the Church, it seems to me, avoids the labels of "gay," "homosexual," and "lesbian" as nouns is because in her maternal wisdom and charity, and in following the story of who man is, she does not want to collapse someone's identity into only their sexual appetite. That seems unjust and uncharitable. It takes a bit more charity to say that a person has same-sex attraction than to use the labels that are very popular in the culture today.
In saying this, of course, I am not in any way minimizing the strength, the intensity, the duration or the frequency of the feelings of same-sex attraction and how important these feelings are to someone's self-understanding. We only want to give same-sex attraction its proper label. Not too much, but clearly not too little.
Father Check: Any action that is contrary to the design or the gift of our humanity is going to put us at cross-purposes with ourselves. Some things are easy to see and they are not at all controversial...for instance, if someone consistently tells lies. Not only are they doing an injustice to the person to whom they are lying, but they are also at cross-purposes with their own humanity, in the sense that the power of communication and speech has been given to us to establish trust, and to form relationships — relationships of friendship and relationships of love. So, if I am consistently lying, then I am at cross-purposes with myself and I will frustrate the very desires that I have for human intimacy and for human affection and to know and be known in a personal way. It is easy to see this with regard to speech. It is also easy to see it with regard to eating. If I'm hungry and I eat an entire chocolate cake and wash it down with a bottle of red wine, it is going to put me at cross-purposes with myself. There is something self-defeating about my own actions.
By analogy, I want to suggest the same thing about the sexual realm. It is very easy for our sexual desires to become misdirected because the fundamental desire of the human heart is for affection, to love and be loved in a personal way, to be known in a personal way. Because that drive is so strong, as it should be, according to the wisdom of God, then we also have to give our own actions and feelings a proper reflection to make sure that we are not engaged in a self-defeating search for happiness in this way. And what makes that difficult, of course, is that the drive for intimacy is strong within us and it is also, like all of the other human faculties, touched by concupiscence, that weakness in the will that can lead us to attempt to fulfill our desires in the wrong way.
When I speak about this, of course — and most of my work is to present to priests and seminarians on the topic of homosexuality — I try to situate it fully in the context of the virtue of chastity. I think that we have to ask the question: do we believe that chastity is part of the Good News? I know we have it magisterially, but do we have that conviction personally and institutionally, or ecclesiastically?
Now, I think that people believe that justice is part of the Good News, and mercy is part of the Good News, and salvation and eternal life are part of the Good News, but what about chastity? Do we see and understand that as a virtue chastity is essential, not only for our salvation, of course, but for our human fulfillment consistent with the Genesis story? The way that we have been told we have been made? So that opens up the question widely — and we can then speak about contraception and cohabitation and many other things related to the virtue of chastity, and indeed we must, in order to situate the topic of homosexuality in its proper context.
Father Check: Here I very much want to speak as a layman. We are entering the realm of the natural and social sciences and I'm happy to try to give some perspective based on my experience but it is not in a strict sense my competence. I'm guided by the Church's own reflection.
In the three paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on homosexuality, the Catechism speaks of the psychological genesis of homosexuality, thereby locating the question within nature, as some disturbance in nature. Therefore, in God's providence, the reflection on this question properly belongs to the human sciences, in particular the psychological sciences. And we have to think a bit carefully about that word today, because up until very recently in history if we used the word "psychology," people didn't immediately think of those suffering with some sort of malady that needed to be cured. If you said that to St. Thomas Aquinas, that wouldn't come to his mind. Classically, when we think about psychology we think about the powers of the human soul and what is the nature of man, so we are not immediately speaking about therapy or people needing counseling, but about human nature. We are thinking about what is the gift or the design of the person or the human soul in such a way that he or she can realize those deep desires for goodness, truth, and beauty that are imbued.
So the psychological genesis suggests there is something in the human order that has not yet reached its proper fulfillment. I think we can discern from the context that whatever it is that has not reached proper fulfillment is something not good. Here is what I mean by that. We live in a world that is governed by cause and effect, so things don't come out of nowhere — they have something that precedes them logically and temporally to bring them about. The Catechism describes the same-sex inclination as objectively disordered. Now, we need to be plain, those words fall very hard on some ears because when they are heard it immediately sounds as if, or can sound as if, we are talking about a person — that a person is somehow disordered, not whole, not complete. But from the context of the Catechism, we can see that is not what is being said at all. What is being said is that the appetite, the erotic attraction to a member of the same sex, is out of harmony with human nature, it is misdirected. And because it is misdirected, and because we live in a world governed by cause and effect, then perhaps with some careful reflection we might be able to ascertain what it is that has caused that disordered attraction.
But the complexity and very personal nature of this make it difficult to draw straight lines and say what the reason is someone has the homosexual inclination or desire. There are patterns that tend to repeat themselves, but I think what we can say is the tree is known by its fruit, and as Our Lord tells us, bad fruit is going to come from a bad tree. So the objective disorder has a provenance in something that has not been in harmony with the proper development of the person in the affective sense. It doesn't mean that the person has less value.
Now it is true that when it comes to the development of the masculine character the role that example plays in a boy's life, i.e., the role of adult men in his life is something that is very, very important. I love St. Paul's words to Timothy about fatherhood. He says it is strong, loving, and wise (2 Tim 1:7). And that is exactly right. It is all those things. Strong is protection, discipline, sacrifice, leadership, holding to standards. Loving is benevolence, warmth, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, the proper kind of male sensitivity. And wise — wisdom — is really the virtue of prudence, how to live well. All of us want that from our fathers and we do also from our mothers, but in a different way.
We are born male and female, but we grow into a masculine or feminine character based on a number of different things. I think, in some ways, the most important and really the first one is the way our fathers love our mothers and our mothers love our fathers. Many priests will come to me and ask during a clergy conference, "What can we do about this situation?" Well, we have to do more and better pre-Cana. If we help couples understand more about the sacrament into which they are about to enter, then not only do we perhaps forestall a number of problems we can see from sociological data and the rest, but we enrich the lives of the couple, and therefore of their families. And I think that will also help forestall some of the difficulties we are seeing.
A boy very naturally wants the joy of his father and to be able to see in his father's eyes that his existence, the son's existence, is able to produce that joy. I would say one of the common themes among our Courage members — and I'm being very careful not to paint with too broad a brush, but I'm just suggesting a pattern that tends to repeat itself and is therefore of interest — is that a lot of our men didn't have that sense. And I'm not trying to demonize their fathers. I am not trying to say that they were bad fathers or didn't love their sons. A lot of the work that I do and that Courage does addresses the issue of perception and how a relationship is perceived. And perhaps someone with a certain type of temperament could perceive something that was not entirely consistent with the reality of the situation, but nevertheless, that perception could have left an acute wound.
Father Check: This addresses the issue of manhood in general. There are a number of things that would bear on this impeded development of the human person such that adolescence is prolonged. As an aside, it is an interesting statistic that the average age of a video-gamer in the United States is a 33-year-old-man. I'm not on a campaign against video games, although I have a lot of reservations about them, but a 33-year-old-man, it would seem, according to nature, would have others things engaging him at that point in his life.
The ready availability of pornography which is accessible, anonymous, affordable, and addictive — the four A's — retards the emotional and moral development of the character and, like video games, turns the person in on himself, where he becomes the center of attention and of action. You can see we are at cross-purposes with ourselves again. I love the phrase from J. Budziszewski, a splendid natural law philosopher who was our keynote speaker at the Courage conference this year, who describes the human person as being "blessedly incomplete." I like that very much and think it's right. What it means is that in order to find fulfillment we have to possess ourselves, forget ourselves, and give ourselves in a way that is the exact opposite of the tendency to selfishness and self-preoccupation.
Father Check: My first concern is the boys who self-identify as "gay" or "homosexual." And the question is: why are they doing that? If we go back to our prior discussion about identity, the Church is reluctant to label people in this way, and I think we want to do anything we can to avoid encouragement of that label, particularly for adolescents. The teenage years are a period of discovery and adventure in a certain sense and a time of coming to know oneself. And that has to be guided properly so that self-entanglement doesn't take place. Many different things are happening at this age and it seems, at best, premature in that stage of development for someone to take a label for himself that is not reflective of his entire being.
There are a couple of Church documents — one is from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the other is from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — that address the question of identity. With regard to young people, those documents state that they should avoid the label and that they could receive the proper spiritual counseling as well as the help of a mental health professional who has a sound Christian anthropology in order to investigate why these feelings have arisen. Again, I think the reliable research indicates that same-sex attraction is a symptom of, or a response to, a kind of emotional wound or deficit. This wound could also be sexual abuse. There is very good data indicating that those with same-sex attraction are seven times more likely to have been the victims of sexual abuse than the population at large. Now, I must quickly say that not everybody who is a victim of sexual abuse winds up having a homosexual inclination — clearly that is not the case. However, that should be of interest to us because if a young person is self-identifying as having same-sex attraction, that may be, may be, an indication that there was an introduction into the very special and unique realm of sexual intimacy that was either forced or was entered into, clearly, unknowingly and unwillingly, because the emotional development of the person was not ready for such intimacy at that delicate age. A lot of that does happen, unfortunately, and can misshape someone's understanding of who he is.
Father Check: Another reason that I think the Church has been very prudent in the way she avoids using the words "gay," "homosexual," or "lesbian" as nouns is that there is not one profile.
One Church document, the 2005 text from the Congregation for Catholic Education in Seminaries, addresses this distinction between deep-seated and transitory homosexual feelings. This suggests that the Church recognizes there are those for whom the question is a bit more settled, or is not fluid, but clearly that is not true for everyone. There is the question of fluidity and particularly with regard to adolescence. In Veritatis Splendor, Blessed Pope John Paul II says that we are in some degree changed by our actions, although we have a fixed human nature. The more a young person self-identifies, the more he is already making a choice in order to firm up that identity in his mind. The better hope is to caution a great reserve in this and to charitably and prudently establish trust with the young person and see what may lie behind the same-sex attraction, so that very real help can be given. But encouragement to act out, even if it is just self-identification — certainly encouragement to act out sexually — is not going to be good, but is going to reinforce what is in fact a false identity which can only lead them to unhappiness. The point is that the same-sex attraction or desire can never be acted upon consistent with our human nature and therefore it will always put the person at cross-purposes with himself or herself.
Father Check: Yes, law has a pedagogical purpose to it. And one of the things the law does is to instruct us about natural relationships in the community. So if a law adopts a position that is contrary to human nature, contrary to the law and gift of our nature (to what the philosophers call the natural law), because of human weakness and concupiscence it is likely to have a very bad effect because it will encourage some to make choices that are contrary to their own good. This has proven to be true with regard to contraception, it is true with regard to abortion, it is true with regard to divorce, and it is true with regard to homosexual unions.
Father Check: The first thing is to find great strength, consolation, and hope in the words of St. Paul: "Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more" (Rom 5:20). And secondly, "God works good in all things for those who love him" (Rom 8:28).
Our first response must be a response of faith. Nothing is outside of God's providence. That is not the same thing as saying that God directly wills certain things, because clearly he does not. But for reasons we may not always be able to see or understand right away, mysteriously God permits certain things to happen, but even those things are not outside the reach of grace. So we need a response of faith in order to trust in the presence of the Lord.
At the final Mass of the Courage conference this year, the sermon I gave was about the Lord being asleep in the boat. Our Lord slept three times: he slept in the crib, he slept in the boat, and he slept on the cross, but on all three occasions he was with us and knew well the circumstances by which we are influenced for good or ill. So a response in faith is very important.
We have to want to live chastely, cheerfully, and joyfully. The problem of pornography and the problem of contraception are things that are wide-spread within the Catholic community, including Mass-going Catholics. We have to examine our own conviction that chastity is essential for the joy of human relationships. We cannot expect that other people are only going to do what we say they should do, such as, "Don't marry someone of the same sex." We can hardly expect to be a compelling voice if we are not already convinced of the veracity of all that the Church teaches us, so we have to live that virtue cheerfully and joyfully. And if we do, other people will see it and be attracted to it.
We have to return to that kind of thinking of the early Christians, knowing full well that the current culture will be hostile. It gives us a spirit of purpose. We know it will be hard. Chesterton said, "Christians go gaily into the dark." Now maybe we have to change that to "Christians go cheerfully into the dark" because of the way that word has been distorted, but Chesterton was right. A down-faced, angry Christian fulminating at the world is not going to be a good instrument of evangelization. We need that trust and confidence in God that St. Thérèse had and showed us so magnificently. We need that now and to try to live it, and we can! God's grace will make it possible.
Carrie Gress. Homosexuality, Identity, and the Grace of Chastity ." Catholic World Report (September 16, 2013).
Reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report.
Catholic World Report is an online news magazine that tells the story from an orthodox Catholic perspective. After more than 20 years as the leading Catholic journal of news, analysis, and commentary, CWR moved its hard-hitting content entirely online, free to all readers without a subscription, in January 2012.
Carrie Gress has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She has worked as the Rome Bureau Chief of Zenit's English Edition and a Junior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, serving as the assistant to George Weigel. She lives with her husband and three children in Virginia.
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