Elements of pastoral care for homosexual persons

Fr Jean-Louis Brugues, O.P.
International Theological Commission

Homosexuality is a modern issue. This statement may cause some surprise. It does not of course mean that homosexual practices appeared in modern times. The most prestigious ancient civilizations, such as those of China, Japan, India, Greece and Rome, knew them, although they gave them a different place and cultural meaning. The Bible mentions them several times.

A modern issue

Homosexuality is a modern issue in the sense that it has become the subject of scientific studies in recent times. Today we make a distinction - which was not made in the past - between various types of homosexuality: homosexuality known as "transitory", which sometimes marks the ambivalence of adolescence; homosexuality "as substitution", which can be seen in situations where people of the same sex are forced to live together (army barracks, prisons); finally, "structural" homosexuality. Only the last form deserves to be called homosexuality in the true sense of the term. It indicates the predominant, if not exclusive, attraction - in varied forms, which range from a person's merely psychological expressions ("platonic" relationships) to genital practices (sexual relations) - for others of the same sex. This form must be distinguished from paedophilia, which raises other questions which we do not intend to address here. In the societies of Western culture, persons with structural homosexuality constitute about three to five per cent of the total population (it would also be interesting, by way of comparison, to see whether this proportion is also found in other cultures).

From this we draw a first lesson for pastoral care. A distinction must be made between homosexuality as a structure, that is, as a constitutive element of the subject's psychological personality, and homosexual acts. Moral judgement will necessarily vary depending on whether it refers to the former or the latter.

Homosexuality is also a modern issue because its genesis has been the object of innovative explanations. At the present time two main theories are being debated. The first prevails in the United States and other English-speaking countries: it attributes homosexuality to a genetic cause (we refer here to the works of Dr. Hamer and his biochemical laboratory at the National Cancer Institutes, attached to the National Institutes of Health, which were published in 1993). The second is advanced by a majority of analysts and psychologists on the European continent: they tend to explain this human phenomenon as an "inversion" (without moral connotations). I point out in passing that the use of words here is difficult, since their background is emotionally charged. In 1973, during the convention of the American Psychiatric Association, it was decided by referendum to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. It is doubtless the first time that an allegedly scientific fact was established by vote! According to this theory, in the game of parental identification which is established during the earliest periods of childhood, there appears to be a sort of "routing error", without it being possible to know exactly why.

From this brief note, we can draw three convictions. First conviction: the fact that these theories are opposed to each other shows that neither is truly convincing. It should be honestly admitted that we cannot explain homosexuality. On this precise point, and despite the progress made by the sciences of human knowledge, we have come no further than we were in the past. The humility of the scientist who does not reach full understanding requires a corresponding humility from the pastor, who must guide people whose personal struggles will remain largely mysterious.

Second conviction: despite their opposition, these two theories agree on one important point. For both theories, homosexuality, understood as a structure, appears very early in the formation of the personality, long before the awakening of free choices and personal responsibility. This means that homosexuals did not choose their condition. In most cases, the realization of this peculiarity, which usually occurs during adolescence - sometimes sooner, more rarely afterwards - is experienced as a trial or misfortune of which they are the innocent victims, in a word, as an injustice ("Why is this happening to me?"). Homosexuality would, in this sense, escape moral evaluation. It could not be considered a fault or a sin that prevents reception of the sacraments. Mechanisms and tendencies in themselves are neither moral nor immoral: they exist. It is with the individuals, men and women, who have this characteristic that pastoral care is concerned.

Third conviction: if the homosexual structure is precocious, it will be very difficult to change it. The various biological or analytical therapies effect this change in only a limited number of cases. In other words, the person who discovers a homosexual structure in himself will live with it until the end of his life: he will have to "live with" it.

If homosexuality, as we have understood it, is a modern issue, the pastoral care of homosexual persons must become the object of a renewed reflection. This is not easy, because the context in which this reflection must be made is marked by misunderstanding and often by hostility towards the Church's attitude. In fact, the demands of homosexuals belong to that confusion of ideas about sexuality which is a typical aspect of modern culture. Therefore, without adopting a polemical attitude, we must distinguish, on the one hand, between the rights of the person and the respect he is owed, and, on the other, an alleged right to homosexuality as such. What is demanded is the right to contract unions recognized by society, to enjoy a legal status comparable to marriage and to adopt children. At the same time, while public opinion seems to be increasingly tolerant, the media never fail to emphasize the scandal caused by members of the clergy. Thus suspicion is cast on priestly celibacy, and the Church is accused of hypocrisy. The pastor who seeks his people's welfare must therefore show that these accusations are unjust and, above all, he must make clear that the Church's position is truly at the service of people.

Many questions are asked of the pastor. If we recognize that homosexuality is a particular structure, should we not conclude that (homosexual) acts are to be judged in a particular way? What Christian path can be offered the homosexual person? How should the Church deal with the various requests for recognition that come from "gay" communities and groups? ... Here we would like to limit ourselves to suggesting some elements of a response. It will take time for pastoral reflection to arrive with certainty at a clear, systematic position.

Two ideas will be developed here:

- the acceptance of the homosexual person implies that his psychic-affective difference be respected;

- the homosexual condition does not deprive the individual of his status as a baptized person called to Gospel perfection.


Acceptance of person with his differences

Not everyone can guide homosexuals. The pastor must overcome his apprehensions, perhaps repress the aversion or even repulsion that homosexuality more or less consciously causes in him (cf. Guy Durand, Sexualite et foi: Synthese de theologie morale, Paris, Cerf, 1983, p. 269-270).

Christian communities will take care to abstain from any derogatory actions towards persons who have this particular condition. The contempt with which they were treated for so long has greatly contributed to their difficult situation: they were often isolated and confined to underground meetings; they were relegated to "ghettos", if not openly persecuted. "It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1 October 1986, n. 10).

Modern philosophers, like E. Levinas, invite us to accept others while respecting their otherness: "It is not at all the difference that makes the otherness; it is the otherness that makes the difference" ("L'Autre et son Visage", Entretiens d'E. Levinas avec Emmanuel Hirsch, Paris, Cerf, 1988, p. 92). I cannot say that I respect someone, if I accept only "parts" of him, that is, if I am not prepared to accept - which does not mean approve - the totality of the elements constituting his being, with the exception of his sin. Acceptance of the homosexual person means accepting the burden of all he is, including his affective orientation. We understand that this is not always easy. Parents, for example, find it very hard to assuage what the psychologists call their "narcissistic wound", when they learn that their son or daughter is a declared homosexual.

In this regard the pastor will avoid two pitfalls that are both reductionist views of the homosexual person. The first consists in reducing this person to his affective orientation and seeing him through this characteristic alone. Certainly, in many cases the person experiences his differentness almost obsessively, as if he himself reduced everything to "this". This closure reinforces his distress. He must be helped to emerge from the "ghettos" of self-complacency by being invited to form relationships with married people and families, and to take part with others in political and social activities (charitable assistance and volunteer work), sports, culture and ecclesial life. In this, the psychic-affective element risks stifling his other abilities: he must therefore be encouraged to develop them all. I do not know if this orientation favours the development of particular qualities, such as refinement or sensitivity. It matters little. What is certain is that the homosexual is called, like everyone else, to make his talents bear fruit and to put them at the service of the human community and the building of God's kingdom.

The second reduction is more difficult to explain. It consists in saying that homosexual acts must be the object of a more "understanding" moral judgement, and that, since the temptation to act is greater in these people, they are less able to resist it (compulsiveness). This leads once again to putting homosexuals in a separate moral, social and ecclesial category. Now this characteristic must not lead to partiality.

The Magisterium describes the homosexual act as "intrinsically disordered" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, 1975, n. 8). The expression is often misunderstood and therefore taken badly. It should be remembered that every sexual act has, at least potentially, three values: procreative, unitive and erotic. The first, as far as can be seen, does not exist in the homosexual act. It is not certain that the second is present, because union presupposes the difference and complementarity of the sexes (the homosexual structure has a powerful narcissistic element). The homosexual act is therefore poor, and it impoverishes those who indulge in it. It is limited to the erotic value alone, which would explain both the concern to increase the number of partners in the search for pleasure alone and, correlatively, the instability, that is, the ephemeral nature of homosexual relationships.

Christian pastoral care should therefore insist on these two points. To believe that the homosexual person is less able than others to control his instincts leads to prolonging in a subtler form the age-old contempt: these human beings are weaker than others! On the contrary, these individuals must be given the assurance that, by employing the usual means of the moral and spiritual life, they too will succeed with divine grace in resisting the temptation to act. By encouraging homosexuals to commit themselves to the way of Gospel perfection, the Church defends and guarantees their dignity better than any pressure group.

The second point consists in supporting, on every occasion, "in season and out of season" - as the Apostle Paul said (cf. 2 Tm 4:2) - the cause of chastity in continence.

The discovery of Christ can bring radical conversion to one's life and the immediate commitment to the way of perfect chastity. For some, the journey is demanding. With prudence and discernment, the pastor who guides them will help them reach this state, without ever being discouraged, by relying on prayer and the sacramental life.

No sexual differences in common call to holiness

It should first of all be acknowledged that some aspects of the situation of homosexual persons make it more dangerous because it is more exposed,

In fact two obstacles particularly hinder them. The first consists in self-deprecation. The homosexual often endures his particular affective orientation as a burden, a source of inner guilt, in a word, as a disgrace. He regrets that he is "like that". The fact that he appears to be indifferent and sometimes parades this characteristic with a certain arrogance only deceives the naīve. How many homosexuals, in the intimacy of their conscience, would change their structure, if they had the possibility?

Christian tradition offers them a suitable virtue: self-esteem or self-love. Every human being has been created in the image of God; he has been loved with passionate love, because Christ offered his life for him on the Cross; he is called with all his being to salvation, not in spite of, but with the particular features of his personality development which do not depend on him; one day, if he wishes, he will enter into the fullness of Trinitarian communion. The Father loves each of his creatures made in his image, in the totality of each one's being, and calls each one to follow his Son, under the impetus of the Spirit.

wounds, which can become paths to holiness. Love of self is combined here with the virtue of humility, which urges us to present ourselves before God in truth without any subterfuge. For the homosexual person, as indeed for others, humility is not a sad virtue; on the contrary, it is the joyous virtue of the hope that reminds man of his "nothingness", but also of his capacity to be raised up.

Loneliness is the second obstacle. The grace of youth and the period of repeated seductions pass. While others form close relationships and establish families, the homosexual realizes, with terror or resignation depending on the case, that he will remain irreparably alone. He needs to live deeply the "virtue" of friendship. The Magisterium was right to warn against the creation of homosexual groups which would act like pressure groups in the Church (cf. The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons nn. 9, 17). We should, as a philosopher has written, rediscover an "ethic of friendship, insufficiently recognized in our culture, which is fixated on love. Many of the values of love can be experienced in friendship, which in ancient thought was one of the highest names of love. And there can be a whole range of intermediate states between the love experience and friendship. Even if ethics requires clarifications in this regard ... all the intersections, transitions, even confusions that we can empirically find on the subject are themselves capable of assuming an ethical meaning" (cf. X. Lacroix, "Une parole ethique recevable par tous?", in L'amour du semblable: Questions sur l'homosexualite, Paris, Cerf, 1995, p. 165).

We have insisted on the particular characteristics of the homosexual structure. It is time to stress that they cannot justify any partiality within the Christian life. One faith, one Baptism, an identical call to the same holiness offered to all Christians (cf. Lumen gentium, chap, V): the common status of baptized persons does not admit exceptions. Like the other members of the Church, the homosexual person is invited to have recourse to the traditional means of sanctification: prayer, asceticism, self-denial, self-control, spiritual guidance and reception of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance-Reconciliation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church recalls, "the virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift" (n. 2337).

For this reason the Church cannot understand difference to mean equivalence. The homophile relationship without sexual activity, as we have said, belongs to friendship. Only marriage, with the difference and complementarity of man and woman, is the sign of the divine covenant. Outside this complementarity, every imitation would be a counter-witness. The Church has received the mission of safeguarding the purity and specific nature of the sacrament of marriage; she cannot fail to denounce everything which, by trying to imitate it, is necessarily its caricature. In a certain way, the chastity of continence which is asked of homosexual persons, as indeed of all unmarried baptized persons, can be interpreted as a tribute paid to the holiness proper to marriage.

"What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross. That Cross for the believer is a fruitful sacrifice, since from that death come life and redemption. While any call to carry the cross or to understand a Christian's suffering in this way will predictably be met with bitter ridicule by some, it should be remembered that this is the way to eternal life for all who follow Christ" (Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, n. 12).


With this essay by Fr Jean-Louis Brugues, O.P. we conclude our series on "Christian Anthropology and Homosexuality".

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Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 June 1997, p.14


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