I find myself the mother of a homosexually active son. The youngest of five children, he now is in his early twenties. In all respects except his sexual orientation, this young man is very normal and masculine in manner; he also is a caring and responsible person. Because he feels that the Church scorns homosexuals and encourages discrimination against them, he is very alienated. I’ve talked with two priests who encouraged me to soften the Church’s official message to him, but despite my attempts to do so, he no longer goes to Mass.
While my first reactions on learning about his homosexual activity were dismay and guilt, the reading I’ve done has convinced me that homosexuality is a predetermined condition. I’ve been told that the Church did not always distinguish between the homosexual condition and homosexual acts, and all homosexual acts used to be regarded as if they were freely chosen by perverted heterosexuals. Today, many Catholic writers seem to realize that people do not freely choose to be homosexuals, but even they refuse to deal with the realities of a homosexual’s life.
As I understand it, the Church’s position is that the homosexual condition may be accepted as a given but should never be acted upon—those who find themselves in this condition are required under pain of sin to live totally celibate lives. That would be ideal, I’m sure. But how can I as a mother make my son feel guilty about wanting a normal sex life? How can I tell him his desire for a loving, committed relationship with another man is a sin? Were he to accept a celibate lifestyle voluntarily by becoming a priest or religious, that choice would be his. As it is, he had no choice; causes beyond his control have made him naturally homosexual in orientation, just as they have given him naturally wavy hair.
What position do I take? I would truly like to know how far I may go in supporting my son and where I must draw the line.
This question concerns the responsibilities of parents toward adult children who habitually engage in homosexual behavior. While the questioner should continue to love her son and work to promote his true good, she may not condone his homosexual activity. She should encourage him to live chastely, and should not encourage him to try to establish a so-called committed relationship. An adequate reply must criticize the considerations proposed to rationalize habitual homosexual behavior and to distinguish it from other habits of objectively immoral behavior, such as alcohol abuse.
Your question indeed is difficult, and the anguish you feel, torn between love for your son and conscientious concern to avoid going too far in supporting him, deserves and has my sincere sympathy. If I could truthfully offer reassuring advice to make the problem easy for you, I would. But I cannot, for I believe what the Catholic Church teaches about sexual acts outside marriage, namely, that they are always grave matter.78 This teaching not only is grounded in divine revelation but understandable, since people who engage in sexual acts outside marriage inevitably bring serious harm upon themselves and others.79
This teaching should not be softened in any way, but it must be understood in proper perspective. To begin with, the Church’s teaching regarding sexual sins does not single out sodomy; it refers as well to all the unchaste acts of heterosexual couples and to masturbation. Moreover, though this moral teaching is part of our faith, it is not so central as the more fundamental truths that God loves each and every person as the unique individual he or she is, that he calls all of us to everlasting happiness in his kingdom, that all of us sin and need the salvation Jesus won for us, that everyone who repents and asks for forgiveness will receive it, and that Christians should love one another, have compassion for one another, and support one another’s struggles against temptations to commit any serious sin, whether of pride, avarice, lust, revenge, or any other sort.
It seems that your reading has given you an inadequate view of homosexuality and the Church’s teaching about it.80 Though it is true that theologians until recent times paid little attention to predispositions to homosexual behavior, alcohol abuse, violence toward others, and so on, confessors certainly always realized that not everyone exercises the same freedom in these matters. They recognized that human nature, wounded by original sin, leaves every human being with moral handicaps of one kind or another. But they thought that, just as all of us must struggle to overcome natural tendencies to self-centeredness, so those afflicted with less common moral handicaps may not affirm and yield to them, as if their naturalness made them good.
Still, you are correct in noting that the Church today clearly distinguishes between homosexual acts and the homosexual condition—that is, the stable disposition of an adult toward sexually arousing and gratifying bodily contact with persons of the same sex. The homosexual condition is subject to degree. While most people are exclusively heterosexual, only a very small minority is exclusively homosexual; between the two groups is a spectrum of people. Thus, homosexual acts sometimes are chosen by people with a predominantly heterosexual condition, and some adolescents and young adults who experience homosexual attraction and engage in some homosexual acts later become entirely heterosexual.
Insofar as homosexuality is an inclination arising independently of an individual’s choices, the factors disposing to it, while perhaps in part genetic (like those that cause wavy hair) or otherwise biological, also apparently are at least in part psychodynamic, having to do with inadequacies in the person’s development in early childhood, before he or she can make free choices.81 At least in some cases, moreover, a young person’s sexual tendencies are ambiguous, and the choices he or she makes can develop and confirm either a heterosexual or a homosexual condition.
It also is worth noting that, while about sixty percent of American psychiatrists voted in 1973 no longer to classify homosexuality as a psychological illness in and of itself, many therapists continue to treat it as a psychological problem and report success in helping persons who find themselves homosexual and wish to become heterosexual.82 If people with an inclination to homosexual behavior can afford to seek such help and could change their inclination by cooperating with it, their condition, even if it existed prior to their free choice, is not absolutely determined, and so lies within the field of their moral responsibility.
Those more or less definitely homosexual in condition enjoy diverse degrees of self-control. Like other sexual behavior—compulsive masturbation, pathological heterosexual promiscuity, and so on—homosexual behavior can be compulsive. And like other forms of compulsive behavior, such as kleptomania, any sort of compulsive sexual behavior is a serious and painful psychological illness that calls for therapy. Those suffering from a psychological compulsion are not morally guilty for each instance of the compulsive behavior, but they do have a grave responsibility to seek help and commit themselves to cooperate with it so as to overcome the compulsion.
Persons who have a homosexual inclination but not a compulsion to act upon it can and should freely commit themselves to living chastely. That may not be as hard for women as for men, but, however that may be, I shall consider only men, since your question concerns your son.
Living chastely surely will not be easy for any young man; indeed, many will experience it as part of the cross they are called to bear. Homosexually inclined men are not the only ones called to bear this cross, nor the only ones given it without their choosing it. Until heterosexual boys and men can marry validly, all of them also are called to perfect continence, and married men are morally required to abstain from sexual activity during illnesses, separations, fertile times when birth regulation is appropriate, and so on. Indeed, like men whose homosexual condition resists change, probably at least as many men who are heterosexual are morally required to abstain permanently—for example, because they cannot marry or because, though married, they are divorced or permanently separated, or no longer can engage in marital intercourse due to some health problem of their own or their spouse’s.
Thus, while the frequent and regular experience of sexual satisfaction may be statistically normal in contemporary post-Christian society, that hardly establishes the moral norm for faithful Christians. Indeed, the assumption that people with a homosexual condition are entitled to “a normal sex life” is both confused and misleading.
It is confused because, while many contemporary nonbelievers suppose that everyone is entitled to regular sexual satisfaction, the Catholic Church firmly holds—and until quite recently all other Christian communities also held—that only married couples are entitled to sexual activity and that even they have only a limited right to it.83 And while people today often take it for granted that sexual abstinence always leads to virtually unbearable tension, many Christians know by experience that, with God’s grace and appropriate support, peaceful self-mastery is attainable.84
The notion of a “normal” sex life constituted by homosexual acts is misleading for at least two reasons. First, though human sexuality’s meaning and value transcend the biological, sexual behavior fundamentally pertains to a person’s reproductive capacity. This basic meaning and value of sex grounds every other aspect of its personal and interpersonal significance, so that humans can fulfill themselves through sexual behavior only in marriage—the stable communion of a man and a woman that is appropriate for having children and raising them (see LCL, 553–647).85 So, like other sexual behavior apart from marriage, homosexual acts cannot express and perfect authentic interpersonal communion; those who engage in them at best achieve only an unsatisfying illusion of intimacy and at worst simply use one another as means to self-satisfaction (see LCL, 648–54). Second, the ideal of a “loving, committed relationship” is hard enough for heterosexual couples to realize in Christian marriage; for men who engage in homosexual activity together, its pursuit hardly is realistic. Serious research indicates that, though some such men form couples and share living quarters, few such relationships are lasting, and almost none are faithful, excluding all other partners.86
This conclusion by no means implies that your son must live without love. Like all of us, he may and should love and be loved, since love is not reducible to sexual activity and is an essential part of every good human life. Like all of us, he may and should cultivate friendships, truly committed relationships, with people of both sexes. Love and commitment, far from requiring sexual activity, entirely exclude it, not only from relationships among men, but from every form of interpersonal association except marriage.
While considering it necessary to offer you a view of homosexuality more nuanced than the one you seem to have gathered from your reading, I am anxious not to reawaken the guilt you experienced on learning about your son’s homosexual condition and activity. Some parents, having been grossly negligent with respect to their duties, no doubt are morally responsible for many of their children’s problems. But assuming you have been a dutiful and caring mother, you need not and should not hold yourself responsible for your son’s problems, even if you fully accept the view I have summarized.
You surely never intended that your son have this trait, and you never anticipated that anything you might do or fail to do would contribute to its development. Looking back, of course, you realize that you were not a perfect parent; no parent is, and I myself certainly was not. But, while not perfect parents, we cannot bear grave guilt for anything we neither intended nor foresaw, and this remains true whether the problems and misbehavior of our children result partly from our inadequacies in dealing with them and relating to them, or entirely from other factors, such as genetic defects, the post-Christian cultural environment, and their own wrong free choices.
Though some Catholics, including some priests, have had wrong attitudes toward persons who are homosexual and sometimes treated them badly, the Catholic Church neither scorns such persons nor encourages unfairness to them (see CCC, 2358). Some who claim to defend and promote the rights of people with a homosexual condition spread these calumnies against the Church as part of their effort to coerce her into condoning homosexual behavior and supporting their effort to gain social and legal acceptance for it.
The Church, I repeat, does not scorn people with a homosexual condition, any more than she scorns people afflicted with other psychological deficits that give rise to temptations—a volcanic temper, say, or a tendency toward miserliness. Even those who engage in homosexual acts are no more scorned by the Church than are masturbators or fornicators. Like the loving mother you wish to be to your son, the Church loves all her sinful children, seeking their true good by teaching them what that is, offering them many helps to escape the slavery of sin and grow in holiness, and praying constantly for them.
The Church does not encourage or condone unjust discrimination against persons who are homosexual. She teaches constantly and most firmly that every human being has fundamental rights, flowing from the nature of human persons made in God’s image and called to share in divine life (see CCC, 1929–35; LCL, 382–83). On this basis, she insists that each and every person’s intrinsic dignity always should be respected in words, in actions, and by the law, and firmly condemns offenses against that dignity, including assaults on people identified as homosexuals and unjust discrimination against them.
At the same time, to protect other people’s rights, the Church holds that in some areas, such as the placement of children for adoption and the employment of teachers, an individual’s avowed homosexual condition can be considered, with no unjust discrimination, a disqualifying characteristic. Moreover, the Church rejects the claim that the homosexual condition should be treated as one of those characteristics, like race and sex, on whose basis laws in the U.S. and some other nations mandate special treatment for members of groups so identified, on the theory that this is necessary to overcome disadvantages they have been unjustly subjected to.87
The fallacy in this claim is that, unlike race or sex, the homosexual condition is not a neutral or valuable trait but a tendency to engage in morally excluded behavior. If and insofar as homosexuality results from a natural disposition, it is a handicap, similar to other dispositions to morally excluded behavior. As persons, moreover, homosexual individuals in this country and others like it already enjoy the legal rights to which they are entitled, and the law provides adequate remedies for violations of those rights. To accord persons who are homosexual precisely as such any rights or special protections would not be remedying any injustice they have suffered but contributing to the moral and social harms consequent upon homosexual behavior.
As the mother of a homosexually active son, you undoubtedly suffer vicariously due to the strong antipathy that many heterosexual people feel toward homosexual behavior. Understanding the sources of this antipathy might help mitigate that suffering. Fear is often said to be the source, since many people, having at one or another time experienced homosexual impulses, are insecure about their own sexual identities. That explanation is plausible but other factors also undoubtedly play a part. For example, the revulsion people feel toward contact with feces extends to the anal intercourse usually practiced by homosexually active men. Then too, some heterosexual boys and men have been harassed by an aggressive man who made unwelcome sexual advances.
In an illuminating book, two men, themselves homosexual, argue that persons who are homosexual are victims of widespread prejudice and propose a public relations strategy for overcoming it. However, the authors frankly admit that a public relations campaign by itself is not enough:
But we can’t hide forever beneath a coat of whitewash; we have to step out from behind the façade eventually, and unless we’ve made some real changes by the time we do, people will see that we’re still the same old queers. Straights hate gays not just for what their myths and lies say we are, but also for what we really are; all the squeaky-clean media propaganda in the world won’t sustain a positive image in the long run unless we start scrubbing to make ourselves a little squeakier and cleaner in reality. And as it happens, our noses (and other parts) are far from clean. In one major respect, America’s homohaters have, like the proverbial blind pig, rooted up the truffle of truth: the gay lifestyle—not our sexuality, but our lifestyle—is the pits.88
These authors go on to describe public misbehavior, which they say is not at all uncommon, that provokes revulsion in nonhomosexuals, and also make it clear that sexually aggressive men frighten some boys and men.89 People—not least parents who fear that their children might be introduced into the “gay lifestyle”—naturally generalize from such bad experiences while overlooking men who experience homosexual desires but abstain from inappropriate activities. In short, much of people’s antagonism toward homosexual persons “in general” is provoked by sexually aggressive men who make themselves obnoxious. But if your son lives chastely, few people are likely to know about his homosexual inclination, and those who do are unlikely to be hostile to him.
While you say nothing in your letter about AIDS, it would be wrong not to mention the vulnerability to this deadly disease of those who, as is typical, engage repeatedly in homosexual acts with diverse partners. The risk of transmitting HIV infection through sodomitical intercourse is not removed by the practice of so-called safe sex (see q. 22, above). The only truly safe sex is complete abstinence outside marriage and perfect fidelity in marriage. True, on any single occasion, a condom carefully and correctly used reduces the probability of transmitting the HIV virus. But condoms sometimes break, tear, leak, or slip off entirely, and regularly using them to prevent the transmission of HIV makes it virtually certain that sooner or later those infected will transmit the virus to their noninfected sex partners. Moreover, in anal intercourse, the demands on condoms are especially great and the likelihood that a partner will be infected is especially high—and, as has been noted above, most men who engage in sodomy have, not one or a few, but many different partners.90
How far may you go in supporting your son, and where should you draw the line? Assure him that God loves him, that Jesus wishes to have a committed relationship with him, and that the Church, like you, wants nothing more than to be a good mother to him. Stir up your own hope for heaven and do your best to share it with him, for without lively hope none of us can remain faithful through life’s struggles and sufferings. Encourage him to pray and go to Mass.
You also should encourage him to repent and commit himself to living chastely, and to make a good confession to a priest who believes that every man not only must live chastely but can do so by the Holy Spirit’s grace, always available to repentant sinners who seek it in the sacrament of penance. If you can afford it and your son is willing, help him obtain the professional assistance of a therapist who has successfully worked with others who wished to overcome homosexuality. In many places, there now are groups, somewhat similar to those of Alcoholics Anonymous, for persons with a homosexual condition. Among them are Sexaholics Anonymous, Regeneration, and Courage. Unlike the religiously based “Gay” organizations that try to reconcile sinful practices with faith, these groups offer spiritual and moral support for those who wish to live chastely. Try to locate such a group and suggest that your son participate in it.91
And if your son spurns such support and persists in homosexual activity? Suppose he were abusing alcohol. Very probably you would look back, recall anything you did or failed to do that you think might have contributed to his problem, wish you had been a perfect parent, and feel guilty; but, as has been explained, that reaction would be neither appropriate nor helpful. You would not know how guilty he was, how deeply he understood the wrong he was doing or how free he was to avoid it. You would leave judgment to God, and pray unceasingly that your son be moved by grace to quit drinking. You would realize that condoning his alcohol abuse or helping him rationalize it would be gravely wrong; and while sympathy might tempt you to those wrongs, you would firmly resist the temptation, not only to avoid incurring real guilt for making your son’s problem worse but out of compassion for him, since genuine compassion never is satisfied with anodynes but always seeks true healing.
In short, you would love and support your son in many ways. But you would never supply him with alcohol or do anything else to contribute to his continuing self-destruction. For example, you would not tell lies to cover his alcohol abuse or allow him and his drinking buddies to use your home for their “parties.” Probably you would do well not to nag your son about his drinking, since that would be unlikely to lead him to repent and seek the help he needed. You would be concerned about his missing Mass, but would recognize that omission as a sign of his moral and spiritual deterioration rather than regard it as the result of harshness in the Church’s teaching on drunkenness or of defects in her pastoral stance toward alcohol abusers.
As the mother of a son who engages in homosexual activity, your problem is not very different.92 You certainly should continue to love him. You should pray constantly for him, welcome him to your home, encourage his good aspirations, share his sufferings, and treat him with kindness and motherly affection. But love requires more of you: that you do what you can for your son’s true moral and spiritual good. Condoning homosexual activity and supporting attempts to establish and maintain a “committed relationship” that involves such activity will not contribute to his true good. Gently and firmly maintaining the truth of the Church’s teaching, without softening it in any way, will not make your son feel guilty, but may help him acknowledge the guilt he appropriately feels, while pointing to the only effective way of dealing with it: sincere repentance and amendment of life. Thus, by genuinely loving your son and avoiding the softheartedness that obscures truth, you will do what you can to help him acknowledge that truth, resist temptation, live chastely, abide in God’s love, and arrive at last in heaven, where there will be no more people who are heterosexual or homosexual, but all who have persevered will be one in Jesus.
78. See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Persona humana, 10, AAS 68 (1976) 89, Flannery, 2:494; Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 2–7, AAS 79 (1987) 543–47, OR, 10 Nov. 1986, 2. The Congregation’s use of Scripture regarding sodomy often is criticized, but there are cogent replies to the exegetical arguments offered in defense of sodomy. Besides the works cited in LCL, 654, n. 194, see Thomas E. Schmidt, Straight and Narrow: Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexual Debate (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 39–99; Dennis Prager, “Homosexuality, the Bible, and Us: A Jewish Perspective,” Public Interest, 112 (Summer 1993): 60–83.
79. The wrongness and seriousness of sexual sins outside marriage are treated at length in LCL, 648–68; dissenting theological views were examined and answered in CMP, 141–71, 381–90, and 831–916. John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, 28–83, AAS 85 (1993) 1156–1200, OR, 6 Oct. 1993, v–xiii, examines dissenting theological views, finds them in some respects incompatible with divine revelation, and reaffirms the exceptionless moral norms contained in the Church’s most firm and constant teaching.
80. For a more adequate view, see John F. Harvey, O.S.F.S., The Homosexual Person: New Thinking in Pastoral Care (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987); The Truth about Homosexuality: The Cry of the Faithful (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996). Harvey, a priest, has devoted many years to helping homosexual persons; his books are both sound and compassionate.
81. While genetic and other biological factors perhaps predispose toward a homosexual condition, it also appears to depend on social experience affecting the individual’s development. A sound treatment of this issue: Jeffrey Keefe, O.F.M.Conv., “Key Aspects of Homosexuality,” in Harvey, The Truth about Homosexuality, 31–67. For a detailed study of the issue with no theological presuppositions: Michael Ruse, Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 21–175, esp. 164–65. J. Michael Bailey and Richard C. Pillard, “A Genetic Study of Male Sexual Orientation,” Archives of General Psychiatry, 48 (1991): 1089–96, studied fifty-six homosexual or bisexual men having identical-twin brothers and found twenty-seven heterosexuals among those twins. Since these pairs of identical twins not only had exactly the same genes but also were affected similarly by many other common conditions before birth and during childhood, this study shows that the homosexual condition is neither straightforwardly inherited (as wavy hair is) nor determined by the many environmental factors common to identical twins. All those factors and the common heredity together only predisposed toward homosexuality in ways that allowed other factors to exclude it from almost half the identical twin brothers. In support of this point, Schmidt, op. cit., 131–53, summarizes additional evidence.
82. See, e.g., Elizabeth Moberly, Psychogenesis: The Early Development of Gender Identity (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983); Gerard J. M. van den Aardweg, On the Origins and Treatment of Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Reinterpretation (New York: Praeger, 1986); Irving Bieber et al., Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1988); Charles W. Socarides, Homosexuality: Psychoanalytic Therapy (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1989); Joseph Nicolosi, Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality: A New Clinical Approach (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1991).
83. The belief of Christians—universal until quite recently—that all sexual activities outside marriage gravely violate God’s law cannot have been mistaken, for, as Vatican II teaches: “The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. Jn 2.20, 27), cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith that characterizes the People as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when, ‘from the bishops down to the last member of the laity,’ [note omitted] it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” (LG 12).
84. A sound work offering helpful insight and many suggestions for nurturing the virtue of chastity: Benedict J. Groeschel, O.F.M.Cap., The Courage to Be Chaste (New York: Paulist Press, 1985).
85. G. Robina Quale, A History of Marriage Systems, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 305, summarizes the anthropological data: “Marriage is an alliance before it is anything else. It is an alliance between the two who are marrying. It is an alliance between families who become more closely linked . . .. Marriage is the means by which the larger social system recognizes not only the mother, but also the father of the children whom the mother bears. Marriage acknowledges each as the other’s partner in bringing children into the world and raising them. Marriage is also the means by which the larger social system seeks to control the expression of the powerful instincts of sexual attraction.” Thus, homosexual marriage is a self-contradictory expression; of course, like certain other absurdities, it could be used to name a fiction by which the advantages of the legal status enjoyed by married couples would be extended to certain pairs of persons of the same sex.
86. Alan P. Bell and Martin S. Weinberg, Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity among Men and Women (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 81–93, 308–9, studied 574 white male homosexuals, 100% of whom had already had at least three sexual partners, 97% at least ten, 75% at least one hundred, and 28% at least one thousand. David P. McWhirter and Andrew W. Mattison (both homosexual), The Male Couple: How Relationships Develop (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1984), 252–59, studied 156 male homosexual couples, most of whom once expected to have a sexually exclusive relationship, and found that only seven of these couples—none of whom had been together five years—claimed to have succeeded. Many apologists for the moral acceptability of homosexual behavior blame such promiscuity and failure to maintain stable relationships on society’s mistreatment of, and negative attitude toward, people who are homosexual; however, Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen (again, both homosexual), After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ’90s (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 302–7, 318–32, honestly and clearly explain the psychological causes within such people that account for those phenomena.
87. See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Some Considerations Concerning the Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons,” OR, 29 July 1992, 5.
88. Kirk and Madsen, op. cit., 275–76; their description (280–356) of the lifestyle common among active homosexual males is both frank and detailed.
89. Ibid., 307–12.
90. Schmidt, op. cit., 100–130, summarizes available evidence about diseases transmitted by homosexual practices, and concludes (130): “For the vast majority of homosexual men, and for a significant number of homosexual women—even apart from the deadly plague of AIDS—sexual behavior is obsessive, psychopathological and destructive of the body.”
91. One may obtain more information about Courage, including suggestions for setting up a group, by writing to: Courage, St. Michael’s Rectory, 424 West 34th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001. Schmidt, op. cit., 153–59, cogently defends the potential of therapy and healing against some common criticisms.
92. There are some disanalogies between homosexual behavior and alcohol abuse, but they do not undercut the point being made here. That point does not concern the responsibilities of active homosexuals and alcohol abusers; it concerns the appropriate response of parents and others to such persons, given their behavior.