The pastoral care of homosexual persons (people with SSA/LGBTQ…take your pick) has increasingly become a topic of interest for many pastors, theologians, and ministers in the Church. This is in part a response to the secular culture’s push to normalize homosexual behaviors, and has been further propelled forward by Pope Francis’ insistence on the question of pastoral care for people living in irregular situations during the Synod on the Family in 2014. Two recent books by Fr. James Martin SJ and Daniel Mattson have tried to tackle this question, albeit in rather distinct, if not opposing, ways. While both books offer important insights to those who are seeking to develop a more adequate method of responding pastorally to the needs of homosexuals, it is important to recognize that their approaches do not comprehensively address all of the factors involved in this question, for they ignore important nuances and variabilities in the experiences of homosexual persons. Because of this, their indications should not be taken to be normative in themselves for the Church’s pastoral gestures toward homosexuals.
The approaches taken in Fr. Martin’s Building a Bridge and Daniel Mattson’s Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay reflect the backgrounds and experiences of their authors. Fr. Martin is a Jesuit whose reading of Scripture and understanding of contemporary society is informed by his Jesuit formation, with a keen eye toward correcting social injustices and a progressive theological sensibility. Mr. Mattson, on the other hand, speaks from his past experience living an active homosexual lifestyle as well as from his involvement in the Courage Apostolate, a twelve step program which seeks to help those who have been damaged by living a destructive and/or addictive homosexual lifestyle.
The most significant factor that is lacking from Fr. Martin’s book is the testimony and experiences of homosexuals who live in accordance with the Catholic Church’s Magisterial teachings on sexuality, and thus are fully in communion with the Church. Perhaps it would help to further “bridge the gap” by listening to those for whom the gap no longer exists. As Catholic lesbian writer Eve Tushnet pointed out in her review of the book: “Martin never hints that gay people exist who seek to live in obedience to the Catholic Church. Fair enough — not every book has to be for everybody, and people in my situation are a tiny minority. But we may be able to offer insights into areas this book carefully avoids.” She also questions why Martin skirts around the possibility of gay people finding enrichment and a sense of dignity in adhering to the Church’s Magisterial teachings on sexuality.
The main argument behind the title of Mattson’s book boldly asserts the countercultural idea that one’s identity is determined by neither their sinfulness nor their sexual inclinations. The most essential foundation of one’s identity can only be the fact that they are made in the imago Dei. Mattson, whose witness was featured in the short documentary Desire of the Everlasting Hills, very openly and freely shares his stories of having unfulfilling and undignified sexual encounters with other men. Upon discovering Courage and renouncing his sexual past, he found that the wounds that his violent gay lifestyle inflicted upon him began to be healed.
What’s concerning about Mattson’s conclusions is that it seems as if he assumes that all people who ascribe to the label “gay” have had a more or less similar experience to himself, and thus should not call themselves gay. Calling oneself gay reduces the person to their sexual temptations and keeps them associated with a dangerous lifestyle and culture. Mattson also acknowledges that many so-called gay men will discover underlying heterosexual tendencies once they detach themselves from the gay lifestyle. While this may be true for many people with SSA, there are many others whose homosexual tendencies are deep seated and unlikely to change. There are also plenty of gay people who have never had a sexual addiction, many of whom have never even had sex at all.
While an obedient Catholic ought to affirm that the desire to engage in homosexual acts is in itself “intrinsically disordered,” it is also possible for homosexuals to experience their same sex attractions in positive and fruitful ways. For example, many people with SSA learn how to sublimate the disordered inclination to express their desire through sodomy, and channel it through committing themselves to faithful and self-sacrificing same sex friendships. The alienation, persecution, and marginalization that homosexuals experience often help them to develop a sensitivity to the needs of others who carry heavy crosses, allowing them to embrace those they encounter with a disarming sense of charity and mercy.
Others may channel that desire in other forms of self-giving and sacrifice like education, caregiving careers, or the arts. This alludes to the issue of “gay culture,” which members of Courage often reduce to its sinful and destructive dimensions. Perhaps it would be helpful to point out the positive and holy aspects of gay culture. Catholic artists and writers who have experienced homoerotic tendencies, by the likes Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde, John of the Cross, and Marc Andre Raffalovich, have found ways to channel their sexuality through creating beautiful works. In certain regards, gay culture can offer a unique witness of beauty and richness to homosexuals and heterosexuals alike.
The reality is that Mattson and most of Courage’s other members were/are in need of a program that will help them to distance themselves from the destructive elements of gay culture. Courage’s reliance on Freudian psychology and simplistic theologies of sin and redemption has benefited many of its members. And shedding the “gay” label can be an important and necessary step in their path to redemption and sanctity. But for homosexuals who have never had a sexual addiction, who are attracted to the positive aspects of gay culture, and who are more intellectually and theologically inclined, Mattson’s and thereby Courage’s pastoral approach may not be helpful, and may even prove to be detrimental to their spiritual growth. The proposals offered by the writers at the Spiritual Friendship blog, most of whom have never engaged in destructive sexual activities and have a background in theology or philosophy, might be more helpful for those who are not helped by Courage’s model.
If the Church’s pastors are going to take the question of caring for homosexual persons seriously, they must take into the account the diversity of experiences of those for whom they seek to care. Rather than a “one-size-fits-all” model, perhaps what is most needed is-in the spirit of Pope Francis’ pastoral directives-a model of accompaniment. Each person has a unique history and vocation, and only an attentiveness and open ear to the complexities and nuances of each person’s story will allow for their needs to be adequately tended to and integrated into the life of the Church. Fr. Martin and Dan Mattson’s books offer some important insights to the conversation. Hopefully there will be room for more at the table.