Pope Francis

Credit: Creative Commons/Edgar Jiménez

Many years ago, as I walked back to the pew after receiving Communion, I saw the outline of a man kneeling in another pew, his head in his hands. As Catholics often do when they see someone during Mass that they have not seen for while, I wordlessly tapped him on the shoulder to say the silent hello. I was not prepared for the sight of his face. As he looked up, his face was gaunt, and there were dark circles under his eyes that I had never seen before, not even the time he cried in front of me.

Several months prior to that, I drove him back to his condo after Mass, where he finally opened up to me why he was refraining from receiving Communion: having recently had sex with men, he believed he was not in a state of grace, and therefore not worthy to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

I challenged him to reconsider his self-imposed communion denial, but he would not budge: homosexual acts, not homosexual attractions, were a sin against God, and having sinned against God, he was, at least for the time being, not able to receive communion, according to the teachings of the Catholic Church. I was on the verge of ending our conversation, and motioning for him to get the heck out of my car, as I had heard enough of the right-wing Catholic claptrap. Then, out of the blue, he told me about his deceased Cuban parents. His father, having learned of his homosexuality when he was a teenager, never mentioned the subject again, nor did it affect their relationship one way or another. The father was neither warm nor cold on the subject. His mother, on the other hand, was abundantly clear to her son when he told her of his sexuality as a teenager. She told him, “You are my son, and I love you exactly as you are, and I am so proud of you.”

And in that recounting of his mother’s affection, this very handsome, but now very depressed and gaunt fifty-six-year-old man began crying like a baby in the passenger seat of my car.

After this episode, I confronted a diocesan priest, as I have on way too many pointless occasions in my life, about what I firmly believe is the Catholic Church’s morally absurd teaching on homosexuality. I told the priest that a parishioner was denying himself Communion because of his homosexual relations. The priest, a totally self-confident liberal, told me to bring the parishioner to him, and that he would set him straight – not over his sexuality of course, but over his misplaced feelings of guilt and shame for having sexual relations with men. When I asked this priest if he would publicly challenge the Catholic bishops about the absurdity of Catholic teaching on homosexuality, the answer was a no, but deftly delivered. Indeed, in the Roman Catholic Church, sometimes it’s hard to discern whether some priests and consecrated religious are more devoted to their own pretensions of compassion than their own inner moral convictions – or even Catholic Church teaching itself.

As strongly as I disagree with conservative Catholics on the subject of homosexuality, I empathize with the burgeoning frustration that many of them are feeling and expressing in response to the document issued this week by the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family: The document is a tour de force of clerical manipulation, brimming with pretensions of compassion. For example, the document states:

“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

There are two forms of moral and intellectual belittlement in this passage, the first of which is universal, and the second of which is particular to Catholics who try to live in accordance with the teachings of the Magisterium despite their same-sex attractions. The universal belittlement is the attempt to foist a patently illogical moral construct onto the consciences of all Catholics: namely, a construct that goes far beyond the traditional “love the sinner, hate the sin” construct by actually suggesting that the sexual desire which initiates the “sin” is something that can be “accepted and valued.” It’s a bit like telling a bank robber that his robbing of banks is fundamentally bad for his soul, but there nonetheless might be something purposeful to the community in his desire to put on a ski mask, enter a bank with a gun, and shout, “Everybody put your hands up!”

Arguably, however, the even more astonishing belittlement is the particular: namely, the belittlement of the faith lives of men and women who accept Catholic Church teaching against homosexuality, and who simultaneously struggle to conform their lives to the teachings of the church owing to their same-sex attractions, whether or not they personally identify as gay or homosexual. I’ve met many mature men whose love for Jesus and the Catholic Church runs deep, and they are well beyond any doubts about God’s love for them as His children.

For Pope Francis and this Synod of Bishops to intimate, as they certainly have in this Synod document, that these men need somehow to be cajoled, or emotionally coddled via saccahrine Vatican documents, into accepting Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality is a belittlement of their manhood and of their faith: these are men who have accepted church teaching on its face, and have also stared their own sexual desires in the face, and have offered their personal “yes” to church teaching over and above the fulfillment of their sexual desires. That they may sometimes falter in what they sincerely believe is the path to holiness does not make their belief in the primacy of Catholic Church teaching any less true, any less real.

I would challenge the gay community at large, now that we have marriage equality booming around the country and are in a far more secure place overall than yesteryear, to take a more nuanced view of same-sex attracted Catholic men, and realize that though they may be “aligned” in terms of value systems with oppressive institutions – like the Roman Catholic hierarchy – they are really quite powerless men, many of whom suffer tremendously on the inside. For the sake of physically and mentally healthy manifestations of homosexual love and affection in our society, I’ve personally come to the decision that while I can hug these men and support them in the array of life’s challenges that go beyond sexuality issues, I will not consider sexual intimacy with them because their church-led internalization of homophobia has toxic effects on their approach to homosexual sex.

For gay Christians who do embrace their homosexuality as the extraordinary, beautiful, and naturally non-procreative erotic gift from our heavenly Creator that it is, and yet who happen to be either fallen away Catholics or people of other traditions contemplating joining the Catholic Church, my concern is that they will be swayed by the highly misleading messages coming out of this Synod of Bishops on the Family: namely, that they will get the message that the Roman Catholic Church is somehow now a “safe place” for them to be who they are.

Well, if one’s idea of a “safe place to be” is to be surrounded by priests who lull you into a false sense of security with the ultimate aim of getting you to end your most intimate and meaningful relationships – under the banner of spiritual “gradualism,” – then, sadly, the Roman Catholic Church of 2014 might be a fit.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexual activity between consenting adults is a sin – an offense to God – and at present, there is no major, and certainly no transparent, movement within the Catholic priesthood to change that fact. Believe you me, I deeply wish there was such a movement among Catholic priests and bishops, but there isn’t. That’s the reality.

Until such a movement emerges, it would be far better for Catholics who reject the notion that homosexual relationships are sinful to keep their eyes on the horizon – a time when there will be such a movement to change core church teaching on homosexual acts – while staying true to the Sacred Heart of our Lord: A heart that surely wants us to build and grow authentic relationships of brotherhood and sisterhood with one another.


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