With the legalization of same-sex marriage and the growing push for the social acceptance of homosexuality in our country and around the world, the Church has been challenged to respond in a way that is both pastoral to individuals and faithful to Church teaching. Because homosexuality as a moral question is so charged with emotion and tension for many people, I offer my reflections on the subject from a place of prayer and love, asking the Lord to guide our thoughts, beliefs and actions in the face of the challenging situations that affect many of our brothers and sisters.
We all know individuals among our friends and/or in our families who experience a homosexual orientation. We love and value them as significant people in our lives, and like all of us, they struggle to find meaning, peace, love and sanity. Some may be in a romantic and sexual relationship, while others may be living celibacy; some have embraced a gay lifestyle, while others try to live the Church’s teachings. Some feel the stance of the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality is harsh and cruel; others respect what the Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses.
As followers of Christ, we seek to love and respect every single person as our brother or sister, regardless of their situation or circumstance. If some people who identify as gay feel that the Catholic Church hates and condemns them, we should examine our own consciences and hearts, seeking to root out any prejudice, bias or lack of love we may have toward anyone. The first message everyone should hear from the Church is that he or she is created in the image and likeness of God, is loved by Christ and carries an inestimable worth and dignity as a child of the Father.
With love and respect as a fundamental basis for all human relationships, the Catholic Church has always taught a moral law, built on the divine revelation found in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament and inscribed within our embodied human experience. Both the divine law and natural law have viewed homosexual activity as sinful because, like any sexual expression outside of marriage, it falls outside God’s intentions for man and woman, who are created for each other in a sexual complementarity which reaches its beauty, truth and goodness in an exclusive, permanent marriage and is open to new life through the gift of children.
Today, many question this moral stance, which the Church has embraced through its long 2,000-year history. People should be free to love and marry whom they choose. Many people say they were born gay, that their homosexuality was not a choice but a reality they knew, even as young children. The nature or nurture debate continues. Many no longer accept the Church’s moral distinction between a homosexual orientation, which is not inherently sinful, and homosexual activity, which has always been seen as sinful.
Even with all the developments and insights psychology has given us, sexuality in general and sexual orientation in particular remain profound mysteries which we do not fully or readily understand. While seeking to know, understand and love all people, including those who experience homosexual attraction, I struggle with the current societal pressure to simply jettison our consistent and long-standing Catholic teaching regarding homosexual behavior. Today, if you dare to even question the morality of same-sex marriage or sexual activity, you will be labeled as intolerant, a hater, as someone on the wrong side of history.
As a bishop, I made a solemn vow on the day of my episcopal ordination to embrace, uphold and defend the Church’s moral teachings. Catholicism has never accepted sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage as complete or good. Should we now simply acquiesce and surrender the full weight of our Catholic tradition on this subject without question, analysis, reflection and prayer because our prevailing culture tells us to? Should I timidly remain silent for fear of offending? Many of us may live in the tension between a sincere desire to love and accept everyone and to proclaim the “hard” teachings of the Church that fly in the face of today’s prevalent social norms. But that tension is not a bad one.
Does loving someone imply that we can never question any of their actions or decisions? Does accepting another person require that I accept everything they believe and practice? I know individuals who have embraced a gay identity and lifestyle, only to find it extremely damaging to their soul, psyche and heart. Many people with same-sex attraction find hope and peace in the Church’s traditional teaching and loving embrace. Yet this does not imply there is neither struggle nor difficulty. Many find strength and healing through deep prayer and recourse to the sacraments. We should listen to their experience as well.
This cultural moment asks us to listen to, respect and love one another more than ever before. The experience and reality of homosexuality is part of the human situation. The Church’s teaching on homosexual activity has always been clear. Can we dialogue and engage one another without surrendering genuine charity, respect and kindness, on the one hand, nor facilely rejecting the teaching of the Church, on the other? What is God asking of us in all of this? An embrace of love and truth, a genuine dialogue built on reverence and attentiveness, a willingness to move beyond slogans and labels, the courage to live in the tension that always exists between the teachings of the Scriptures and the Church and the reality of people’s struggles. May the Lord help us all to listen, learn and love.
Bishop Donald J. Hying is the Bishop-elect for the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin.