Can Your Son Be Gay and Catholic?

Discussions around the challenges presented by the disordered Vatican doctrines on same – sex affectional orientation usually focus on the problems they present for the people who are themselves lesbian or gay, difficulties I discussed last week in an email conversation published on the BBC website.

Some LGBT Catholics resolve the difficulties by embracing the Catechism prohibitions on any genital sex, but many more respond by simply walking away from the Church, joining more accepting denominations, or by rejecting religious faith completely. For the loyal Catholics who are parents of gay or lesbian children, the challenge is more acute. Especially for the most loyal Catholics, moving away from it is simply not an option – and in some cases leaves them agonizing over the implications for their offspring in eternity. For instance, I read recently of an American bishop with a gay brother, who found himself quite suddenly rethinking and modifying his own ideas on these issues when his mother asked him plaintively, “Will Daniel go to hell?” Other parents have  often posed similar questions.


When I wrote last week about my thoughts on the subject, I had a prompt email response from one of the most prominent fathers of a gay son, Casey Lopata, co-founder with his wife of “Fortunate Families“, who sent me a link to a piece he wrote on the subject some time ago, and published in the Fortunate Families newsletter, back in October 1998. The piece is written for parents, from a parent’s perspective, but the conclusions and reasoning are equally helpful to those who are themselves gay or lebian, and struggling with a perceived conflict between two dimensions of their identity – their Catholicism, and their orientation. Lopato’s observations and conclusions are similar to those that helped me in my own journey to reconciliation, but what sets this apart is the clarity of the reasoning and exposition, backed up by some solid theology. He describes himself as a “theology junkie”, and as one who nearly “falls off the thinker side of those thinker-versus-feeler scales”.

In the firm belief that his clear description of his journey will be helpful to both the parents and their loved ones, I present here his article in full, republished from “Fortunate Families”, with some  additional commentary of my own (in italics, and brackets).


Can Jim be gay and Catholic? That became the big question for me after I  got over the initial shock and confusion of learning our son is gay. While Mary Ellen (my wife and Jim’s mother) rode the emotional guilt/doubt/grief roller coaster typified in many stories about parents’ journeys, I logically stepped my way through the theological mine field. That’s what you do when you’re a theology junkie (Vatican documents are beach reading), and nearly fall off the thinker side of those thinker-versus-feeler scales.

“Dad, I’m gay.” Those words from Jim were unthinkable for me. All I could say was, “Are you sure?” I didn’t know any gay people (so I thought). I knew virtually nothing about homosexuality. And my vague understanding of church teaching was: homosexuality was wrong. Period. So wrong–you couldn’t even talk about it. Like osmosis, this silence  surrounding homosexuality seeped into my consciousness and left me with the notion that no sin was worse than homosexuality. As a thinker, I was forced to bring some rationality to this irrational belief, and to the feelings that were there, though unacknowledged. I had to know: Can Jim be gay and be Catholic?

(Unfortunately, far too much of what passes for Catholics’ perceptions of Church teaching, fuelling much of the hostility, does not go much further than this. Many of those who insist that LGBT Catholics are obliged to follow the doctrines on genital acts to the letter, themselves conveniently disregard the other parts of teaching, on respect, compassion, and understanding, and the clear prohibition on any malice or violence, in actions or in speech).

My first logical step was to think back to the day when I decided whether I was going to be homosexual or heterosexual. I never made such a decision,  nor did Jim, nor anyone else I’ve talked with about this. And I discovered that church documents support the unchosen, fixed nature of sexual orientation. The US Bishops refer to “those persons for whom homosexuality is a permanent, seemingly irreversible sexual orientation,” [HS, p. 54-55] and their Committee on Marriage and Family says, “Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen.”[AOC, p. 6]

Learning that Jim didn’t choose his homosexuality was a giant first step for  me. But, I wondered, “Why does Jim have this orientation?” I readily dismissed a 19th century theory that said homosexuality was caused by the habitual drinking of English tea and the pernicious influence of Italian opera! How ill-informed we’ve been! Yet that’s understandable, considering that scientists didn’t start studying this concept until the mid 1800’s, and the Catholic church didn’t officially acknowledge sexual orientation until 1975. “OK, that helps,” I thought. But I was sure my next step was going to into quicksand! Is homosexuality a sin? Surprise! The Vatican unequivocally states: “The particular inclination of a homosexual person is not a sin” [PCHP, #3] Of course! A homosexual orientation can’t be a sin if it’s not a choice. In fact, church teaching says sexuality is a gift, and “Sexual identity helps to define the unique persons we are, and one component of our sexual identity is sexual orientation.” [AOC, p. 7]

(Some opponents of LGBT inclusion insist that it is not “proven” that a same – sex orientation is not caused by genetics, and then leap to the conclusion that it is a choice. In fact, there is no single “cause”, and there is no point in looking for one, any more than there is in looking for a “cause” of left-handedness. There is certainly evidence (from twin studies, among others) that genetics is a factor, but not always a determining one. Other factors are also involved.  What is clear from all the evidence, scientific and anecdotal, is that orientation is fixed extremely early in life, possibly even in the womb. There is no evidence at all that it is a matter of choice – so Lopata makes an excellent point, in stating that he did not choose to be heterosexual.)

 But what about what these feelings might lead to? What about homogenital acts? As I expected, the Vatican says: “It is only in the marital relationship that the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good.” [PCHP, #7] And the U.S. Bishops say: “Homosexual activity . . ., as distinguished from homosexual orientation, is morally wrong.” But, they continue: “Like heterosexual persons, homosexuals are called to give witness to chastity, avoiding, with God’s grace, behavior which is wrong for them, just as nonmarital sexual relations are wrong for heterosexuals.” [ICJ, #52]

(If homosexuals are called to “chastity”, it is appropriate to ask, what that is? It is not, in general, the same as sexual continence, which means complete abstinence from sex. The Catechism states, 

2337. Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another….

Elsewhere, the Catechism states, 

2333 Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.

Both clauses continue to insist that this can only be done in a marital relationship between a man and a woman – but this simply illustrates the internal contradictions in Vatican doctrine. The Church is clear that we must take account of the finding of human and natural sciences, and does so in accepting that for some people, a same – sex affectional orientation is natural and deep-seated. But by going on to insist that expression of this orientation must be inside a heterosexual relationship contradicts its own declaration of chastity as the successful integration of sexuality within the person).

Whoa! What hit me, probably because I’m heterosexual, is the part that says: “just as nonmarital sexual relations are wrong for heterosexuals.” This tells me if Jim has sexual relations outside of marriage, he violates church-established moral norms; just like my heterosexual son Andy, if he has sexual relations outside of marriage; just like my married daughter, Linda, if she uses artificial birth control; and just like me if I masturbate.

OK, but logically I thought: “Since church law restricts marriage to a man and woman, doesn’t this mean homogenital behavior is always a sin?” Well, the Vatican says: “In fact, circumstances may exist, or may have existed in the past, which would reduce or remove the culpability of the individual [engaged in homosexual activity]. . . in a given instance.” [PCHP, #11]  Wow! The Vatican says homogenital acts are not necessarily for mortal sin:  1) the thought, desire, word, action or omission must be seriously wrong 2) the person must know it’s seriously wrong, and 3) the person must fully consent to it. And only God knows how knowledgeable and how free we really are.

Along with all this I learned the church recommends a pastoral approach. For example, a Vatican theologian and author of one of its documents, in a newspaper interview, said: “When one is dealing with people who are so predominately homosexual that they will be in serious personal and perhaps social trouble unless they attain a steady partnership within their homosexual lives, one can recommend them to seek such a partnership and one accepts this relationship as the best they can do in their present situation.” [JV] I later learned this is based on the moral principle that no one is obliged to do what is impossible for them to do. During my journey, I read that Catholic church teaching says six biblical texts clearly say homosexual behavior is immoral. But my journey also led me to Scroggs, Furnish, and many other biblical scholars, who convincingly argue the bible is not really so clear on this.

(During the decades since the CDF letter and Catechism pronouncements on same – sex orientation were published, probably the majority of writers on the bible and homosexuality have either rejected outright the traditional idea that scripture opposes such relationships, or accept that the evidence is not as clear as previously believed).

So at this point in my journey–and it was a meandering 14 year process, not the series of logical steps I’ve presented it here–I’d learned that it is not a sin for Jim to have a homosexual orientation, and that Jim can be gay and a faithful Catholic, just like any other faithful Catholic who struggles with objective moral norms established by the church. The U.S. Bishops say it well: “Homosexual [persons], like everyone else, should not suffer from prejudice against their basic human rights. They have a right to respect, friendship, and justice. They should have an active role in the Christian community.” [ICJ, #52; and HS, p. 55]

Through this process, I also learned a thinker has feelings too! Since my son is gay, I’m personally affected by this teaching, and I would like some of it to change. I learned that’s OK too. Why? Because none of this teaching is infallible . . . which means, of course, it can change. But will it? Change springs from unresolved tensions. Here are three:

1. The Catholic church says it’s OK for gay people to be gay as long as they’re celibate, yet the church also teaches that celibacy is a gift. Are all gay people gifted with the ability to live a celibate lifestyle?

(Referring to priestly celibacy, Pope Benedict accepted that it is “difficult”, but noted that it “becomes easier” when lived in a community of like- minded people. If it’s difficult for priests, who may be assumed to have a special calling to the life, how much more difficult for lay people who lack this particular calling. Yet the Vatican continues to oppose even legal recognition in civil partnerships, effectively condemning gay men and women to solitary lives, deprived of that companionship and community which he says makes a celibate life easier).

2. Catholic church teaching considers homosexual orientation to be a sexual deviation, a “disorder.” The church also teaches there can be no conflict between faith and reason, yet the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association consider homosexual orientation to be a natural sexual variation.

(It is widely accepted that there is no basis in science or medicine for this labelling as “disorder”. The standard response is that the word is intended in a precise theological sense, intelligible only in a theological context. But theologians James Alison and James Nickloff have pointed out that even theologically, there is in fact no defined meaning for the word. It is nothing more than a pejorative label, used to justify an intended conclusion of condemnation. It is not the orientation that is “disordered”, but the doctrine itself).

3. Not only was church teaching formulated without the participation of openly gay and lesbian people, but the teaching doesn’t take into account the lived experience of many faithful, gay and lesbian Catholics–real people–made in the image and likeness of God, who,  like all of us, struggle to do what God calls us to do. Change in church teaching is possible, but the official church tends to move very, very slowly. So, what do I do today? Well, that brought me to another teaching that surprises many Catholics–the primacy of conscience. The Catechism puts it very simply: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his [or her] conscience.” [my emphasis, CC, #1790]. “Wow!”, I thought, “That’s pretty clear!” Does that mean we can do anything we want? Theologian Charles Curran answered that for me– quite concisely: We must obey our conscience, but our conscience might be wrong.

(This emphasis on conscience is crucially important, not only for LGBT Catholics, but for all Catholics. Ever since the publication of Humanae Vitae, it has been public knowledge that the majority of married couples do not accept its insistence that all artificial contraception is prohibited, and disobey its prohibition in good conscience. This they have done, with the active encouragement of many priests, bishops and theologians. If the principle of the primacy of conscience applies to heterosexual married people, it must apply equally to homosexual and other unmarried people).

This led me to the concept of moral discernment in the Catholic moral tradition. The church suggests looking at experience, reason (including the sciences), tradition (church teaching), and scripture. Why all four? Because each has been wrong. Consider the flatness of earth (experience), the theory that babies came only from the man (reason), the excommunication of Galileo (tradition), or slavery (scripture). But what if church teaching and our conscience do not agree? Church teaching itself says we should start with the presumption that church teaching is right. Then, consider scripture, reason, and our experience, and return to the ultimate question: Are we responding to the God revealed in Jesus Christ?

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton gave me an example of how to balance church teaching and conscience when he said: “I don’t make judgments about a gay person’s conscience any more than about the military man at a SAC air base or on a Trident submarine who would fire a nuclear weapon if ordered to. I think in some ways the church teaching on that is clearer than on homosexuality. . . . Anybody who has the intention of using such weapons is, in my judgment, in a situation that is drastically evil. And yet I cannot judge another person’s conscience. If that person comes to communion, I cannot refuse.” [TG]

Church teaching, personal sin, conscience, discernment. Intellectually, I found Jim can certainly be gay and Catholic. But this discovery was still in my thinker’s world of theology and homosexuality until I heard Bishop Kenneth Untener. Speaking to a largely gay and lesbian audience, he said: “When we die, and as a moral theologian I don’t say this lightly, the only thing that will matter is how we treated each other.” [KU] That’s when I realized the final step of my journey was getting to know and love many faithful Catholic gay people who like our son, Jim, are made in the image of God and are loved by God, who love God and love their neighbors as themselves. That’s how I really know Jim can be gay and Catholic.

  • AOC = National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on Marriage and Family, Always Our Children, 3rd printing, revised June 1998.
  • APA = American Psychological Association, Answers to Your Questions About Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality, 1993
  • CC = Catechism of the Catholic Church, U.S. Catholic Conference, 1994.
  • HS = National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning, U.S. Catholic Conference, 1991.
  • ICJ = National Conference of Catholic Bishops, To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life, 1976.
  • JV = Jan Visser, in The Clergy Review (London), 1976, v. 61, p. 233.
  • KU = Bishop Kenneth E. Untener, Hallmarks of the Church [Address delivered at a New Ways Ministry Symposium, March 28, 1992], in Voices of Hope, Eds. Jeannine Gramick & Robert Nugent, (New York: Center for Homophobia Education, 1995), p. 151.
  • PCHP = Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986.
  • TG = Tom Roberts, He’s not disordered, he’s my brother, National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 4, 1994, p. 6.
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