On the Recent Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
The Pastoral Care of Homosexual
A Psychological Note
The purpose of this short article is to communicate to the reader
(presumed not to be a specialist in psychology) a synthetic view of the
homosexual condition as seen by contemporary psychology. Some
bibliography is also provided. It is hoped that the article will be a
help towards a better understanding of the Letter referred to in
the title. This task is not easy. Among contemporary psychologists, some
are empiricists in the most mechanical sense, while others follow the
philosophy of Plato; and between these two extremes one finds a whole
range of intermediate positions. The "crisis of values" of the
past twenty years has affected the world of psychology also, and many
psychologists do not accept the existence of an objective moral order
(1). Further, there is a debate going on among psychologists and
psychiatrists as to how homosexuality should be evaluated. Some think,
more or less, as follows: the gratification of a person’s more
strongly felt needs is of central importance for the person’s
fulfilment; there is no objective criterion for discriminating between
needs that are morally acceptable and needs that are not acceptable, but
all depends on the subjective preference of the individual; so a person
with homosexual tendencies has a right to sexual fulfilment no less than
that of the person with heterosexual tendencies. Such relativism is to
be found even in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, third edition
(2), in which homosexuality is considered to be a disorder only when the
person concerned finds it "ego-dystonic", that is, does not
want to be homosexual (Manual, pp 281-282). (The process which
led to this position on homosexuality, one which involved a notable
amount of political pressure, has been criticized by Socarides ).
The position of the Manual on homosexuality is based, in the
last analysis, on a general presupposition that the values involved are
subjective; it is not a purely scientific position. An independent
survey among American psychiatrists, carried out while this edition of
the Manual was in preparation, showed that a majority still
considered homosexuality to be a disorder (4).
Among contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists, those who
recognize the objectivity of at least some values, especially
motivational maturity and freedom from "over-determination" in
motivation and behaviour (5), generally consider homosexuality as being
objectively a disorder; more precisely, as being a strategy or mechanism
of defence which the person uses against deeper problems which have
resulted from his or her developmental history; for example, Socarides
(op. cit.), Lesse (6, 7), Barnhouse (8), Moberley (9) and Bieber and
Bieber (10). In the following paragraphs I shall try to outline this
more critical view of the homosexual condition, along with some of the
main reasons for considering homosexuality as an objectively disordered
condition. It should be noted that at this point the term
"disorder" is being used in a psychological or psychiatric
sense, and not yet in a moral sense.
2. The origin of male homosexuality
The easiest way to approach the problem of homosexual condition is to
consider its origin.
The question of a possible biological predisposition to homosexuality
has not yet been fully clarified (11). But even if it does emerge that
there exists such a biological predisposition, it would not follow that
homosexuality should then be considered normal. The available evidence
indicates that the psychological development of the person, during which
symbolic processes are formed, is of central importance in the emergence
of a homosexual orientation.
The most solid and extensive research which (to the best of my
knowledge) has been done in this area was summarized by Bieber and
Bieber in an article of 1979 (10). The article deals with homosexuality
in males; this has been more closely studied than homosexuality among
females. These authors base their conclusions on interviews with more
than a thousand male homosexuals, also on interviews with about a
hundred couples having a homosexual son.
In the majority of cases (not in all) they found the homosexual son
to have had too close a relationship with his mother, a relationship
having also a more or less hidden erotic quality. Often the mother
preferred this son to her husband. At the same time, the relationship
between father and son was always difficult and generally characterized
by an attitude of aggression and competitiveness on the part of the
father; at times in a hidden way, more often overtly. "Covert
hostility may be screened behind detachment and apparent
disinterest". Such a difficult relationship with the father hinders
the psychosexual maturation of the son. The young male’s task of
emerging from his early close bond to his mother and establishing a
preferential identification with his father becomes too difficult.
"A boy who becomes homosexual leaves childhood with a profound
hatred and fear of the father, yet has an overweening desire for
paternal affection and acceptance. We have never interviewed a male
homosexual whose father had openly loved and respected him. We have
repeatedly stated and written that a boy whose father is warmly related
and constructive will not become homosexual"… while it is not
true that the son of an aggressive father will always become homosexual
(Bieber and Bieber, p. 411). The fact of having found no exception to
this pattern, in the study of more than a thousand homosexuals, lends
considerable weight to he conclusions of these authors (12). They note
also that while a good father can neutralize the effect of a mother who
is too intimate (when this problem exists in the mother-son
relationship), and favour the growth of the son towards a mature
masculinity, a harsh father will on the contrary reinforce the effects
of the pathogenic relationship with the mother. The sense in which
homosexual behaviour can have a defensive meaning begins to emerge;
since sexuality in general is a highly plastic reality, able to carry
many different symbolic meanings (13), it can also express the desire
for affection from a father-figure, as also aggression towards such a
3. The origin of female homosexuality
The development of homosexuality in females has not been studied as
closely as for males; it seems that among women homosexuality is rarer
than among men. According to Ruth Barnhouse (8, chapter 7), the girl,
while continuing to be identified with her mother, has to separate from
her mother enough to acquire a solid identity of her own. She hs to
acquire from her mother a sufficient sense of the value of being a
woman. And she must also acquire sufficient security in relating to
males (especially to her own father). Any of these things can go wrong.
The mother can fail to allow the girl to become a separate individual.
The mother may in various ways communicate the belief that to be a woman
is a misfortune and that a relationship with a male can cause only
suffering. The father may be harsh or cruel, and produce in the daughter
a fear of men in general. In consequence, the girl, trying to reconcile
her sexuality with her fear of men and her desire for security, may
enter a homosexual relationship, using homosexuality as a defensive
strategy in a way analogous to that of the male homosexual.
4. The defensive character of homosexual
Moberly (9, p. 178), discussing homosexuality in general, observes:
"From amidst a welter of details, one constant underlying principle
suggests itself; that the homosexual—whether man or woman—has
suffered from some deficit in the relationship with the parent of the
same sex; and that there is a corresponding drive to make good this
deficit—through the medium of same-sex, i.e. ‘homosexual’
In simpler terms, then, one may say that the homosexual encounter, as
described by a homosexual person perhaps in the course of psychotherapy,
seems to be an encounter between two persons, each of whom feels
incomplete (as a man, or as a woman). Each person is using the other to
complete the self; seeking not only sexual gratification in the narrow
sense, but also a sense of security, protection, self-esteem,
domination, or something else of the kind. At the limit, the two persons
seem to make believe that together they form one single person who is
In this sense a homosexual encounter is different from a heterosexual
encounter. A heterosexual encounter is between two persons who are
different, differing from each other physically and also
psychologically, and complementary as man and woman. The very
differences are a source of joy. If Romeo has a deep bass voice, while
Juliet is a soprano, they need not envy each other; they can sing in
harmony. But in the homosexual encounter, such difference and
complementarity are missing. At times even the numerical difference
between the partners seems to become blurred (14). For each partner, the
other becomes a part of the self’s defensive system (15). While a
homosexual relationship continues, it is usually marked by tension,
overt or latent (16). At times one gets the impression that such a
relationship is being carried on mainly on the basis of a cycle of
offences and reconciliations, as if the happiness or peace of either
partner could bring the relationship to an end, and so cannot be
5. Variety in the homosexual condition
To avoid simplifying to excess, it should also be said that the
homosexual condition is not a uniform reality to be described in
univocal terms. There exist different kinds of homosexuality, with
different degrees of irreversibility; and the homosexuality may be
accompanied by other psychopathology in varying degrees.
Following Oversey (17) one may distinguish three components in the
motivation of homosexual relationships or tendencies, affective
dependency, power, and sexual gratification in the narrow sense. In the
overt homosexual, sexual gratification is the primary motive, although
dependency and power are also important. The pseudohomosexual, in
contrast, is motivated mainly by dependency and or power. The force of
these motivations in the person can lead him or her into a relationship
with another of the same sex, of a kind which then takes on, as a
secondary characteristic, an erotic quality. To the two types described
by Oversey, it seems necessary to add a third, that of imaginary or
feared homosexuality. This most affects young males at times when they
are feeling especially depressed or insecure. They fear that they are
homosexual without ever having felt a clearly homosexual attraction, or
at most a transient attraction. The problem is a form of psychological
hypochondria, so to speak.
The homosexual condition also shows different degrees of
irreversibility. Imaginary or feared homosexuality will probably be no
more than a passing worry. Pseudohomosexuality should be relatively easy
to overcome, provided that the non-sexual part of the problem can be
dealt with. But overt homosexuality (in Oversey’s sense) will in
general be more resistant to change. There are homosexual persons,
especially males, who have been exclusively homosexual in their
orientation ever since puberty, and such persons may be expected to have
great difficulty in changing their sexual orientation. For some it will
probably be impossible to change in this sense.
Finally, the homosexual person may be practically free from any
disturbance other than those summarized in the homosexual tendency, or
may also suffer from other problems, mild or severe (18).
These concrete variations in the homosexual condition should be
remembered so as to avoid the impression of a homogeneity that does not
exist. But with these qualifications one can also say that the symbolic
meaning of homosexual relationships or tendencies will be in general as
described above in sections 2-4, although with consider variations of
emphasis and nuance.
6. Transition to an objective moral evaluation
The analysis that has been outline vies homosexual behaviour as the
expression of a strategy by which the homosexual person attempts to
defend himself or herself against underlying problems, more or less
unconscious, for which another resolution has not been found. In
homosexual behaviour, one person is trying to use another as part of a
defensive system. Such a way of acting obviously contradicts the
Christian meaning of human sexuality as reciprocal self-giving involving
the complementarity of the sexes, as self-transcendence in love of the
human other and the Divine Other (19). Homosexual behaviour, like other
ways of defending, can bring a person temporary relief; but in the long
run, it does not meet or solve the person’s deeper problems, and does
not help towards self-transcendence (20). Homosexual behaviour can
represent a search for some partial good; but it does not correspond to
the integral good of the person (21), in the last analysis because it
does not correspond to the plan of God the Creator for human fulfilment
(22). At this point, the psychological reflections that have been
presented finally come to coincide with the moral evaluation of
homosexual acts as "intrinsically disordered" as "lacking
an 'essential and indispensable finality'", and "in no case
(to) be approved of" (23). It may be noted that, in terms of the
analysis offered here, the finality that is missing does not have to do
only with the procreative meaning of sexuality (it does not lie only in
the fact that homosexual behaviour cannot produce children); it involves
in the first place the integrity of the unitive meaning, since
homosexual behaviour is basically defensive and not self-transcending.
7. Some implications for the pastoral care of
The distinction between a homosexual orientation and homosexual acts
(24) is obviously important in this context. The person will typically
not be responsible for homosexual tendencies that are experienced, in so
far as these are the result of a difficult developmental history which
was not chosen by the person involved. The person’s responsibility
regards what he or she does in the face of such tendencies.
The two main implications for pastoral care which follow from the
analysis given above correspond to two central themes in the Letter
to the Bishops. In brief: that one should help the homosexual person
in every possible way, which does not mean encouraging the person to act
out homosexual impulses, but the contrary.
First, since homosexuals are persons whose self-esteem is already
bruised, they should always be treated with much respect and charity.
Their rights as persons are always to be respected (25). They have a
special need of encouragement to carry their own special cross and so
share in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ (26). Appropriate
programmes of pastoral care should help them to deepen their spiritual
and sacramental life (27). They also need particular support from the
Christian community (28), in order (among others things) not to define
their identity exclusively in terms of their sexual orientation (29).
Among the possible forms of help that may be provided by psychology,
sociology, and medicine (30), one may suggest in particular the
possibility of encouraging homosexual persons to undertake a suitable
depth-psychotherapy when this is possible. Bieber and Bieber (31) report
that from 30 to 50 per cent of male homosexuals can, with the aid of
such therapy, overcome the problem of homosexual orientation. Even
if a person does not succeed in changing sexual orientation, such
therapeutic assistance can be a help in achieving greater
impulse-control and to living more at peace with oneself.
Secondly, it is clear that all the forms of help suggested are aimed
at helping the homosexual person to overcome his or her problems. This
is the opposite of accepting homosexuality as normal and. then
permitting or encouraging its expression at the level of homosexual
behaviour. That would be like giving, drink to an alcoholic; it would
favour a defensive strategy that is intrinsically disordered both
morally and psychologically, which does not resolve a person's deeper
problems, but will only make the person's situation more difficult in
the long run. To do that is neither charitable nor wise, but simply
Since homosexual persons are already in difficulties, it is important
not to make their situation yet more difficult by presenting a moral
teaching that is false or ambiguous (31), perhaps yielding to various
forms of social pressure (32). Anyone who is faced with a difficult
duty, but doubts that it is really a duty, does not have a good chance
of overcoming the difficulty.
Along with these two principal themes of the Letter to the Bishops,
a third point may be suggested, which lies in between these two
themes. In dealing with the weakness that may be found in some
homosexual persons (as in other persons also), it will be helpful to
keep in mind the ideal of the "law of gradualness, or step-by-step
advance" (34). The "law of gradualness" may be applied by
analogy to the problems of homosexuals, at least in the opinion of the
present writer. This is different from the idea of a "gradualness
of the law" (35), also encountered under the name of "proportionalism".
Without presuming that all homosexual persons are without essential
freedom in the sexual area (36), one must take it as probable that for
some of them the way to freedom will involve considerable difficulties.
Although their essential freedom is not eliminated, their effective
freedom may be impaired to different degrees (cf. note 20). The
"law of gradualness" implies that when there exists a genuine
(unfeigned) weakness in following a moral norm, the person is obliged to
"endeavour to place [or establish] the conditions for its
observance" (37). In other words, a person must be protected from
discouragement even if the journey towards a life of Christian chastity
involves special difficulties and is accompanied by repeated failures.
"A problem like the pastoral care of homosexual persons
highlights the general importance of an integration of the human
sciences with the sacred sciences in order to attain a more complete
vision of the human person in his or her greatness as a child of God and
also in his or her internal division (38). Such internal division, which
has roots that are in part unconscious, perhaps becomes more evident
when one is faced with a problem such as homosexuality, but it is not
confined to such dramatic problems, nor to the area of psychopathology
in the usual psychiatric sense. It comes to light also in ways that are
not psychopathological: difficulties in living a vocation to the
priesthood, the religious life, or marriage; defections from these
vocations; tendencies to act the "prima donna" with related
difficulties in collaboration or obedience; and in various other
difficulties which people meet in trying to "live by the truth and
in love" (Eph 4:15), difficulties which the person involved often
cannot fully understand. An appropriate integration of the sacred and
human sciences can illuminate many of the problems we meet. Three recent
works which contribute to meeting this need may be of interest to the
1. Moral relativism is not necessarily a characteristic of psychology
as such. Psychology can also serve a valuable function as an ally of the
sacred sciences. It depends on how the necessary integration is
structured. This point will be taken up again at the end of the article.
2. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders, third edition. A.P.A, Washington D.C.,
3. Socarides C.W., The Sexual Deviations and the Diagnostic Manual, American
Journal of Psychotherapy, 32 (1978) 414-426.
4. Lief H.L., Sexual Survey no. 4: current thinking on homosexuality,
Medical Aspects of Human sexuality 11 (1977) 110-111.
5. Cf. Socarides, op. cit., pp. 415-418.
6. Lesse S., Editorial, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 27
7. Lesse S., Editorial, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 28
8. Barnhouse R.T., Homosexuality: a symbolic confusion,
Seabury Press, New York, 1977.
9. Moberley E., Homosexuality: structure and evaluation, Theology,
83 (1980) 177-184.
10. Bieber I., Bieber T.B., Male Homosexuality, Canadian Journal
of Psychiatry, 24 (1979) 409-421.
11. Green R., Homosexuality, in: Comprehensive Textbook of
Psychiatry, third edition, ed. Freedman A.M., et al.,
Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1980, vol. 2, pp. 1762-1780.
(The existence of cultures where homosexuality is virtually unknown
strongly suggests that homosexuality does not depend on a biological
cause, since innate biological alterations may be expected to occur at
random. Cf. Barnhouse, pp. 157-8, and Bieber, as in note 16, below, p.
12. Socarides (op. cit., pp. 419-420) reports the conclusions reached
unanimously by a commission of eleven psychiatrists in New York, after
two years of intensive work (1970-72); these conclusions are very close
to those of Bieber and Bieber.
13. Friederich M.A., Motivations for Coitus, Clinical Obstetrics
and Gynecology, 13 (1970) 691-700.
14. Krepstan J.A., Bepko C.S., The Problem of Fusion in the Lesbian
Relationship, Family Process, 19 (1980) 277-289.
15. Khan M.M.R., The Function of Intimacy and Acting Out in
Perversions, in: Sexuality and Identity, ed. H.M. Ruitenbeek,
Delta Books, Now York, 1970, pp. 372-389.
16. Bieber I., Homosexuality, in: Comprehensive Textbook of
Psychiatry, ed. Freedman A.M., Kaplan H.I., first edition
Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1967, pp 964-5.
17. Oversey L., Homosexuality and Pseudohomosexuality, Science
House, New York, 1969, pp. 28-31.
18. Kernberg O.F., Borderline Conditions and Pathological
Narcissism, Aronson, New York, 1975, pp. 328-331.
19. Cf. Letter to the Bishops, nn. 6, 7.
20. Cf. Rulla L.M. et al., Antropologia della Vocazione
Cristiana, II: conferme esistenziali, Edizioni Piemme, Casale
Monferrato, in press, chapter 8. (An English edition is expected from
the Gregorian University Press late in 1987).
21. Cf. Humanae Vitae, n. 7; Familiaris Consortio, n.
32, par. 3.
22. Letter to the Bishops, nn. 2, 6, 7.
23. Ibid., n. 3, par. 1; Declaration on Certain Questions
concerning Sexual Ethics (1975), n. 8, par. 4.
24. Letter to the Bishops, n. 3, par. 1: Declaration,
25. Letter to the Bishops, n. 10.
26. Ibid., n. 12.
27. Ibid., n. 15,
28. Ibid., n. 15.
29. Ibid., n. 16.
30. Ibid., n. 17.
31. Bieber and Bieber, op. cit., p. 416.
32. Letter to the Bishops, nn. 13, 14, 15.
33. Ibid., nn. 8, 9, 14.
34. Familiaris Consortio, n. 34, par, 4.
36. Letter to the Bishops, n. 11.
37. Familiaris Consortio, n. 34, par, 4,
38. Gaudium et Spes, n. 10.
39. Rulla L.M., Anthropology of the Christian Vocation I:
interdisciplinary bases, Gregorian University Press, Rome,
1986; also Rulla et al., as in note 20 above, and Kiely
B., Psychology and Moral Theology: lines of convergence, Gregorian
University Press, 1980.