Universe of Faith interviews Fr James Alison and Fr Mark Sultana, two Catholic priests who offer different perspectives on questions regarding homosexuality yet both agreeing that the Church cannot and does not want to speak about homosexuality as an illness.
1. You believe that the Church's teachings on homosexuality are false. On what bases do you say this?
FR JAMES: I believe the third order teaching of the Roman Congregations, which claims “the homosexual inclination… must be considered as objectively disordered”, to be false. And I do so because many years of research have yielded overwhelming scientific and human evidence showing that what we call being gay is a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, and not some pathology, vice or disorder that is a defective form of heterosexuality. Furthermore, the more gay and lesbian people are visible, the clearer it is to our friends and family that there is nothing inherently self-destructive about being who we are. There are other elements of teaching in this area, for instance, on the importance of sensitive treatment, avoidance of violence and so on, with which I am wholly in accord.
"the more gay and lesbian people are visible, the clearer it is to our friends and family that there is nothing inherently self-destructive about being who we are."
2. Why does the Church keep maintaining that the inclination of homosexuality must be seen as an "objective disorder" when with a few exceptions from some professionals, we can say that there is consensus from behavioral and social sciences and mental health professions globally that homosexuality is a healthy variation of human sexual orientation?
FR MARK: I believe that the Church – perhaps somewhat clumsily – is trying to accompany persons in our journey of faith. This journey is one which involves the entire human person – with our spiritual, personal, physical, moral and relational facets. I believe that through such an expression, which is not among the most helpful of phrases, the Church is trying to say that a homosexual genital relationship is not conducive to moral and spiritual growth.
Of course, there are aspects of such a relationship that are helpful – one can mention the virtues of patience and forgiveness which must be involved in any relationship. But one must also see that the meaning of a genital act cannot be completely arbitrary. Of course, it can express love, patience, forgiveness, empathy, sensitivity and much more. However it can only do so if one considers that the genital act has a grammar of its own. And that grammar includes the reciprocity of the sexes and the possibility of new life.
When the Church says that a homosexual genital relationship is intrinsically disordered, the Church is trying to point out that, in itself, it cannot fulfil the meaningfulness of such an act.‘Objective disorder’ here has to do with the moral and the spiritual sphere. It is a textbook way of speaking, which is why it often comes across as being insensitive.
‘Objective disorder’ here has to do with the moral and the spiritual sphere. It is a textbook way of speaking, which is why it often comes across as being insensitive.
But the Church says this to accompany, to illumine, and to help each person’s conscience. The Church does not – and cannot – use the term to impute personal guilt. That is for God alone to do … who are we to judge! After all, we all know how hard it is to understand and to make decisions in this, and in other, personal areas. We all know how sensitive and personal the question of sexual identity can be. In all areas – perhaps including particularly the area of sexual activity – so many of us can look back and see that certain decisions we made, perhaps in good faith, were actually misguided. It would be helpful for us all to try to understand more deeply why the Church – that has so much experience in human affairs – is saying that such a genital relationship is not in and of itself conducive to moral and spiritual growth. I believe that this is nothing but an expression of the Church’s care for each person… But I also believe that it could be expressed far better – with more love, compassion and understanding. After all, we are called to communicate the faith personally, accompanying one another in a journey which is sometimes fraught with doubts and difficult emotions. But we are accompanied by the Lord who is understanding, and merciful … who tells us the truth with love.
3. So how do you explain the inclination of homosexuality, which the Church says "must be seen as an objective disorder"?
FR JAMES: If you mean by this “why are there some people who are gay or lesbian?”, then the answer will eventually come from the scientists who are working out what configuration of genetic, hormonal, and neurological matters underlie this variant. But that is what it appears to be: a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, much more analogous to left-handedness (which we would all now agree to be non-pathological) than to anorexia (which we would all agree to be an objective disorder). The acts proper to anorexia, left unchecked, will tend to the self-destruction of the person, and so can be considered intrinsically wrong, or disordered; the acts proper to left-handedness will be good or bad according to circumstance.
"the answer will eventually come from the scientists."
Herein lies the problem for ecclesiastical logic. For in Catholic theology you cannot properly derive knowledge of what is from a prohibition: “Because it is forbidden to eat pork, therefore pigs must be seen as somehow improper”. Instead, true prohibitions flow from proper knowledge of what is: “Because heated frying oil is dangerous to human skin, you should never use naked fingers to stir chips while they are being fried”. So ecclesiastical logic cannot say “even though we know that being gay or lesbian is a neutral or positive way of being, nevertheless same sex acts are intrinsically evil”, for that would be the equivalent of saying “While we know perfectly well that pigs are no more or less clean or unclean, proper or improper, dangerous to human health, than any other animal, nevertheless, to eat pork is always and everywhere prohibited”. It would be an arbitrary command, one that had no particular regard for the good of the people on whom it was enjoined. There are religions for which such logic, the claim that a supposed divine command trumps human learning about what really is, would be appropriate but Christianity is not one of them. So, if Church authority concedes what appears to be true concerning the inclination (that it is a non-pathological minority variant), it can longer maintain what it wants to maintain: that all same-sex acts are intrinsically evil. This is why they use the phrase “must be seen”: the link between what really is, and any prohibition flowing from it, is vital in Catholic Christianity. But if what “must be seen” turns out to be false, then the accompanying absolute prohibition falls as surely as does that concerning eating pork.
4. The Church speaks of gays as "those who have this condition". She says it accepts the person but not his acts. Many gays feel offended and unaccepted by this. How can a gay person reconcile his sexual inclinations/feelings with his faith and feel welcomed in the Church?
FR MARK: The term ‘condition’ can be misleading because it connotes illness. I don’t think that the Church wants to – or can – speak about illness. That is for others to do in their own areas of expertise.
I believe that the moral and spiritual questions have to do with our combatting the roots of sin within us – whether these involve envy or pride, greed or acedia, lust, anger or gluttony … probably the whole lot! These are tendencies which are not sins – but which incline us to sin.
And they are tendencies which we battle continuously. So, life is a continuous battle in this sense – a battle where we are not alone! A battle where we have continuous and instant access to an excellent medic. I believe that lust is a sinful root which we all experience – whatever our sexual tendencies. I believe that we all need forgiveness. I believe that no one saves himself or herself. I don’t see any difference in this sense between persons –whether bishops or lay persons whether gay or straight, whether female or male. We are all sinners on a pilgrimage. We are all wounded. We are all welcomed by God.
"I don’t think that the Church wants to – or can – speak about illness. That is for others to do in their own areas of expertise."
5. The Church speaks of homosexual acts as intrinsically evil. What about those who live in a loving committed gay relationship and those who lead a promiscuous gay life, can these acts be put on the same level?
FR MARK: Obviously there is a world of difference – even morally and spiritually – between those who are in a committed and loving gay relationship and those who live a promiscuous life. At the risk of sounding pedantic, the sexual acts of the former persons are fuller with respect to personal meaning than those engaged in by the latter. One must say however – with a great deal of love and respect that those who live in a loving committed gay relationship still cannot enjoy the full meaning of sexuality … where this openness to the other involves a sexual reciprocity and a connotation of life which is immersed in a vital relationship with the creator. But they are all still members of the Church! They are all our brothers and sisters. We all have a spiritual life – that is, a connection with God – and the Lord does work in mysterious ways. We are all called to ask the Lord continuously “Lord what do you want of me?” … a question which is not always easy to ask but which always leads to life. And we are all called to encourage one another (and not sit in judgement!) to grow – perhaps very slowly – as disciples of the Lord.
"One must say however – with a great deal of love and respect that those who live in a loving committed gay relationship still cannot enjoy the full meaning of sexuality."
6. If you are gay are you automatically called to be chaste? I mean is chastity the only way to lead a morally good life for a gay? From your experience have you encountered chaste and happy gay people? How easy/hard it is to live it out?
FR MARK: We are of course all called to be chaste – just as we are all called to be loving and integral and just and honest! I do know gay persons who are serenely doing their best to be chaste. It is, of course, not easy … and it may be more difficult for gay persons (and therefore, I feel great admiration for these brothers and sisters and I believe that their efforts are often greater than they could be for most people) but it appears to be possible. Of course, the sacrament of reconciliation renews our chastity – as it does our honesty, justice, love and integrity – if it is wounded. So we can always hope!
"We are all called to be chaste."
7. Pope Francis said: "Experience teaches us: in order to know oneself well and develop harmoniously, a human being needs the reciprocity of man and woman." (April audience 2015) If a child is up for adoption and a gay couple and a straight couple with the same skills & interests are short-listed to adopt, what do you think the best interest of the child would be - to go with the gay or the straight couple?
FR JAMES: Bit of a trick question this, since when Catholic authorities have got involved with the precise legal issues surrounding adoption by same-sex couples, they have tended to take the line that Catholic adoption agencies must be exempt from even considering the possibility that in certain, rather limited cases, the most suitable adopting couple might be a same-sex one. For my part, I wouldn’t dispute that in the huge majority of cases, the best arrangement is for a child to go to a straight couple, where one is available. But I would also insist, along with many highly responsible adoption workers, that there are particular occasions when the best option for a particular child, even given the possibility of a straight couple, is a particular same-sex couple, and that to refuse even to imagine that possibility is a triumph of ideology over the best interest of the child. Certainly there is no reputable evidence to show that children brought up by stable same-sex couples fare worse in any way at all than children brought up by stable opposite-sex couples.
"I wouldn’t dispute that in the huge majority of cases, the best arrangement is for a child to go to a straight couple. But I would also insist...that there are particular occasions when the best option for a particular child...is a particular same-sex couple."
8. Pope Francis said: "I ask myself, if the so-called gender theory is not, at the same time, an expression of frustration and resignation, which seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it." (April audience 2015) What is your reaction, is gender theory afraid of difference?
FR JAMES: To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what is meant by “the so-called gender theory”. The phrase you quote seems to be a sort of blanket calumny which casts something undefined in a negative light, without ever specifying exactly what, or why. I was sad that Pope Francis, who can call a spade a spade when he wants to, resorted to this sort of language. If ecclesiastics have something to criticise, they should do it clearly, exactly, and in a reasoned way, with a view to convincing those who have got something wrong, rather than preaching pabulum to the choir.
"I was sad that Pope Francis, who can call a spade a spade when he wants to, resorted to this sort of language."
9. Some people say that heterosexuals do not talk in public about their sexuality, come out, and make an issue about their sexuality like gays do. What do you have to say about this?
FR JAMES: In our western world, public life speaks very loudly about the heterosexuality of those involved, with people taking this for granted as the assumed background of everything, and so not noticing it. You only notice this if you are a minority that doesn’t share the same background assumptions. Imagine a world in which the standard presumption was that your significant other is of the same sex. So invitations, school dances, courtship, family events, holding hands on the street, photos on your desk at work, all reflect that assumption. I suspect that in such a world heterosexuals would want to stand up and insist on their right to be honest about bringing their other-sex partner to a dance, a family event, holding their hand or giving them a kiss on the street, having a photo of them on their desk etc. Initially, this might produce a frisson of objection that they were making too much of a fuss about something that should really be private. But with a bit of luck, their need to “come out” as straight would eventually be accepted. This can be appreciated quite clearly by anyone with a sense of what it was (and often still is) like to live with the background assumption of the naturalness of male domination, where women who insisted on pointing out where they do not share, and are being unjustly treated by, the dominant background assumptions, were regarded as being uppity, excessively ideological, or men-hating “feminazis”, rather than simply truthful.
"You only notice this if you are a minority that doesn’t share the same background assumptions."
10. What's your advice to young people who are gay and feel they have a vocation to become a priest or nun?
FR JAMES: The more young people, gay, lesbian or straight, grow up with an expectation of straightforwardness and honesty in this field, the more the burden falls on religious authorities to be able publicly to match that honesty in their decision-making processes, and especially, in their treatment of their own recruits. So, I would say to young people with a vocation of this sort: “Seek out a Bishop or religious order of proven honesty. One whose formators in charge of the route to ordination or vows are not afraid to show public understanding that it is the their responsibility to offer a shared context of truthfulness within which you may develop into an obedient and truthful priest or religious. This is vital, whether you happen to be straight, gay or lesbian. Avoid like the plague those Bishops and religious formators who will want you to play some sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” game. These will bind you into the practices of polished mendacity which so often characterise seminaries, houses of religious formation and clerical culture in general”.
"Seek out a Bishop or religious order of proven honesty... Avoid like the plague those Bishops and religious formators who will want you to play some sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” game."
11. What do you think is an appropriate way of supporting gay people become who they are?
FR JAMES: You are dealing with vastly different people, with a huge range of talents, qualities, problems, character defects, life-projects and so on. Such people will flourish in just the same ways as everyone else if given the chance to do so. For instance, we will soon have the first generation of young men and women for whom the real possibility of eventually being married to someone of their own sex will have been available to their imagination from earliest childhood. I suspect that they will be the generation who will be able to teach us what “sanity”, “appropriateness” and “flourishing” look like in this matter. Since for them, being gay or lesbian will be a relatively small and not very remarkable, part of what makes their lives interesting, useful, frustrating, difficult, and open to the heavy challenges in so many other fields which we are bequeathing them.
"Such people will flourish in just the same ways as everyone else if given the chance to do so."
12. What do you think is the appropriate way of supporting gay people become who they are?
FR MARK: I believe that the only way is through acceptance, love, respect and a process of accompaniment and listening. But this applies to all of us! The Christian life is a process where we recognize more and more deeply how precious we are in God’s eyes and how far the Lord trusts us. It is a process where we realize that we are not loved by God because of our successes or achievements but we are loved regardless of these. This is a profoundly freeing love.