Catholics seeking to follow Church teachings about sexuality sometimes encounter confusing messages.
As someone who was immersed in a homosexual lifestyle for years, Paul Darrow applauds efforts to reach out to Catholics who feel marginalized because of same-sex attraction.
But his and others’ experiences with some Catholic ministries illustrate the uneven — and sometimes spiritually perilous — terrain those who experience same-sex attraction and embrace the Church’s call to chaste living tread when they seek direction from the Church.
Many groups bearing the name “Catholic” claim to offer support, but in their efforts to be compassionate, welcoming and accepting to men and women with same-sex attraction, they sometimes avoid, understate, distort or even dissent with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.
Darrow, for example, found that in some groups and parishes he visited, he would have felt more at home had he been in an active homosexual relationship — something the Church teaches is contrary to God’s plan for human sexuality. Those living an active homosexual lifestyle were warmly welcomed and often served as lectors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. “[They] were embraced by the Church, and I felt like an outsider,” he recalled.
Known for his appearance in the documentary film Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Darrow said it seemed that most of the members in the ministries and parishes he visited were focused on a political agenda.
“They were more interested in changing the teachings of the Catholic Church than they were in changing their own habits in order to honor Jesus and his Church,” he said.
Such ministries have developed and been allowed to flourish despite clear guidelines on pastoral care for homosexuals from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Both stress the need to unambiguously communicate the Church’s teaching on chastity and sexuality to those with same-sex attraction and also discourage identifying people primarily by sexual orientation.
In its 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” the CDF says the Church refuses to consider someone as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual,” insisting instead that every person’s fundamental identity is as a “creature of God and, by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.” The USCCB’s 2006 “Ministry to Persons With a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care” concurs, saying that those with homosexual inclinations should not be encouraged to define themselves primarily in those terms.
The CDF letter also warns against leading men and women who experience same-sex attraction “to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.” It goes on to ask bishops “to be especially cautious of any programs which may seek to pressure the Church to change her teaching, even while claiming not to do so.”
The USCCB guidelines add, “All ministry to persons with a homosexual inclination must be guided by Church teaching on human sexuality,” and, quoting the CDF document, “departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral.”
Groups that convey a “studied ambiguity” also are mentioned by the CDF in its 1986 letter. These, the congregation says, “may present the teaching of the magisterium, but only as if it were an optional source for the formation of one’s conscience. … Some of these groups will use the word ‘Catholic’ to describe either the organization or its intended members, yet they do not defend and promote the teaching of the magisterium.” And even more strongly, the CDF document states, “No authentic pastoral program will include organizations in which homosexual persons associate with each other without clearly stating that homosexual activity is immoral. A truly pastoral approach will appreciate the need for homosexual persons to avoid the near occasions of sin.”
Although these guidelines have been in place for years, their uneven application has resulted in a panoply of ministries that, at one extreme, includes groups like Dignity USA, New Ways Ministry and Fortunate Families, which have joined with the reform group Call to Action under the Equally Blessed banner to “make the case for LGBT equality” theologically and politically, in open opposition to Church teachings. At the other end is Courage International, founded by Father John Harvey in 1980 as a spiritual support system to assist men and women with same-sex attractions in living chaste lives, a mission that is clearly stated in the apostolate’s materials.
Falling in between are many other ministries that seem to support Church teaching but fail to even mention chastity in presenting their mission. Instead, these focus on being affirming and employ the language and symbolism of the “LGBT” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) movement, which can be confusing to those seeking to find a way to reorient their lives to Christ and Church teaching. For example, Anne (not her real name), a woman whose adult son had told her he was same-sex attracted, said she was dismayed not to find a clear presentation of Church teaching on homosexuality when she sought help from a Catholic ministry.
There was nothing on the group’s website from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the CDF or the 2006 USCCB guidelines, and no mention of the word “chastity,” she said.
“It was all about welcoming and social justice, but not about the most difficult challenge I was facing — that of continuing to love my son while simultaneously calling him to the goodness and truth that our faith, in its fullness, has to offer,” she said. “It seemed to disregard some key teachings of the Church on homosexuality, even if it didn’t openly oppose them. … I needed a life raft, but when I looked at this website, I felt as if all the Church was offering me was a millstone to drag me right down to the bottom. It was profoundly, desperately disappointing.”
Joseph Sciambra, a Catholic who lived an active homosexual lifestyle during the 1990s in San Francisco before returning to the Church and subsequently living chastely, has written extensively about so-called gay-affirming parishes and ministries on the blog that bears his name. In a post from Dec. 14, “Gay Bingo and Rainbow Cupcakes: The Disaster of Catholic LGBT Outreach,” he said many of these “often cross the border between ‘accompaniment’ into cooperation and collusion” with the “LGBT” movement.
Among the groups he has criticized as supporting the “LGBT” community is the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Persons (CMLGP). The group uses a rainbow-themed logo on its website, paired with the archdiocesan logo, and says its ministry is “shaped by Church teachings and pastoral practice,” providing “a safe and welcoming environment for lesbian and gay persons, their friends and family through liturgy, outreach, education and fellowship.”
The CMLGP website includes links to the 1986 CDF and 2006 USCCB documents and the Catechism of the Catholic Church and invokes Archbishop Jose Gomez in stating its purposes, yet it contains no specific mention of the Church’s call to chastity. And a post by the group on its Facebook page highlighted an article expressing hope that Pope Francis’ document on the synods on the family would contain “positive language regarding LGBT Catholics, especially for same-sex couples in long-term relationships.”
Another post, in mentioning the ministry’s participation in the annual Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, California, heralded the moment at the closing liturgy when a same-sex couple and their son helped present the gifts to Archbishop Gomez. A similar ministry, Chicago’s Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach (AGLO), has operated with the approval of local archbishops since its inception under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who sought such a group after Dignity/Chicago was denied use of Church facilities because it was not considered in communion with Church teaching.
AGLO meets for a weekly Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, home of the city’s annual “Gay Pride Parade,” and its rainbow-themed logo and much of its language reflect and even celebrate the agenda and lifestyle of the surrounding “LGBT” community. For instance, when AGLO marked its 25th anniversary in 2013, a banner proclaimed, “A Quarter Century of Faith and Pride.”
Father Pat Lee, archdiocesan liaison to the group and pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, said the word “pride” is an expression constantly in use in the neighborhood. It mainly says that members are proud of themselves, he said, “and coming out of the shadows is an implication of that.”
Although, like CMLGP, AGLO has no references to chastity on its website, Father Lee said everyone in the group knows the Church’s teaching on sexuality. “That’s the goal that we’re moving towards, that they can embrace and find meaning and fulfillment in.” He added that members are told promiscuity is not acceptable and that the idea is to work toward embracing the role of a disciple. Acknowledging that there are likely people in the group who are in same-sex relationships, he said, “I don’t judge them, but I also don’t encourage it.”
A visitor to a recent AGLO liturgy noticed little that marked it as an “LGBT” gathering, apart from some same-sex kissing at the opening of Mass and at the sign of peace. Father Lee, who was not at the Mass, said he typically sees people hugging, but never kissing, and that, had he observed kissing, he would have said it was inappropriate.
He added that he believes AGLO primarily provides men and women who experience same-sex attraction with friendships with people like themselves who can support them in the effort to be Christian and good Catholics. “I don’t see a lot of sexual attraction going on between members. It’s more like friendships.”
The group Courage also seeks to foster friendships among its members to support them, but clearly states in the five goals published on its website that these relationships are to be chaste and that the group is about helping people live chaste lives. Courage makes a point, as well, of using the term “same-sex attraction” rather than “gay” or “lesbian,” to distinguish sexuality from identity.
David Prosen, who appears in the film The Third Way, a documentary about the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, said he did not initially understand when he got involved with Courage why that distinction was important, but eventually it made sense to him.
“I’m not same-sex attraction,” Prosen said.
“I am a person, a son of God, David, a Catholic man. That’s who I am, and there’s freedom in that.”
Courage, which is endorsed by the Holy See and uses a crucifix for its logo, currently has more than 100 chapters worldwide. Anne, who was discouraged in her initial attempts to get help in dealing with her son’s same-sex attraction, eventually found what she needed from Courage and EnCourage, its apostolate for family members of those with same-sex attraction.
She worries, though, that people are being led astray by groups that do not make Church teachings clear. “When anguished people are looking for help that embodies the liberating fullness of the Catholic faith and they can’t get it, it’s heartbreaking. … I really believe many of the people who run these ministries are well-intentioned, seeking to love those whom they serve, without an explicit agenda of overturning Church teaching, but it’s still very frustrating. Love without truth is not really love at all.”