The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons: A Psychological Note

Author: Bartholomew Kiely


Bartholomev Kiely, 
Gregorian University, Rome

On the Recent Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons
A Psychological Note

1.  Introduction

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 [3]).

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 figure.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 relations

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’ relationships".

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 more complete.

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 tolerated.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 homosexual persons

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 mistaken.

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, athird 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 reader (39).


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., 1980.

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 (1973) 151-154.

7. Lesse S., Editorial, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 28 (1974) 1-3.

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. 967).

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, n. 8.

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.

35. Ibid.

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., asin note 20 above, and Kiely B., Psychology and Moral Theology: lines of convergence, Gregorian University Press, 1980.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 January 1987, page 7

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