Saturday, March 2, 2013

What Homosexuality Taught Me About the Catholic Church

I can safely be accused of a great many things, including taking things too seriously, which is exactly and precisely what I did - and for many, many years - with regard to the teachings of the Catholic Church on homosexuality.

The polite version of church teaching on homosexuality is that homosexuals are "intrinsically disordered" because a sexual relationship between two people of the same gender does not offer the possibility of procreation. While the church urges its pastors and followers to be "compassionate" with the poor, sad gays, in no way does it condone homosexual activity, even within the confines of a committed, monogamous, long-term relationship. Any homosexual act is a mortal sin. If not repented and confessed, the homosexual guilty of such act(s) will go to hell.

The impolite version is rather more extreme, and too well known to repeat here.

Catholics are to "love the sinner but hate the sin." Any gay man or woman who falls in love with another gay man or woman is only deceiving themselves because their affections are intrinsically disordered and gravely sinful.


"Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."

Now former Pope Benedict, he said during his recent Christmas message that gay marriage is a "threat to justice."

As a Catholic teenager drowning in hormones, I was faced with a choice: Either believe what the church teaches about homosexuality, or take my chances and risk almost certain eternal hell fire.

Now pushing 50, my life to date has been a long string of phases involving one or the other of these choices.

I don't know that I'm capable of explaining the agonies of conscience and self-recrimination I've put myself through, the years of tortured self-doubt and self-loathing that always and eventually reached the tipping point, at which time I would throw all of it to the wind and sow some wild oats, often losing myself for years at a time in the "gay community."

During my teens and twenties, I was repulsed by my own sexuality, which was like some alien lifeform inside my body that I could not control, could not "pray away," could not escape. I could only laugh bitterly when well-intentioned friends opined that all I had to do was choose not to be gay and it would go away. It was, after all, a choice. I could un-choose it. If I refused to do that, well, they weren't about to feel sorry for me.

The agony I experienced led often to half-assed attempts at suicide, but also a few very serious attempts that fortunately did not succeed. I hated myself with a frightful intensity. I hated myself far more than the folks at the God Hates Fags Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

When this hatred became overwhelming, I went completely in the opposite direction, fully embracing the "gay lifestyle." After thoroughly dousing myself in this moral decay, I eventually wound up feeling shamed, morally compromised, sinful, in need of redemption. I would inevitably find my way back to a confessional when the whole sordid tale would be spilled in the hopes that God would forgive me. I would then try again very hard to be a good Catholic, to be faithful to the teachings of the church.


I used to believe that homosexuality was a cross that God had given me as a test to see whether I really did love Him with my whole heart and soul and mind and body. If I did, I would resist the temptation to get involved with my gay peers. I would accept the loneliness, the sacrifice of my youth and affections, my need to be held, loved, comforted, talked to. I would accept these sufferings in exchange for a crown of glory in heaven, at which time I would be amply rewarded.


"What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross. That Cross, for the believer, is a fruitful sacrifice since from that death come life and redemption. While any call to carry the cross or to understand a Christian's suffering in this way will predictably be met with bitter ridicule by some, it should be remembered that this is the way to eternal life for all who follow Christ."

At some point in my early thirties I came to a strange realization: The Catholic Church could very well be wrong about the matter. That's an astonishing thought for a Catholic. That's heresy. That's playing with fire. It was far more likely that I was a lusty sinner looking for a loophole. Wasn't it? But of course it was.

How could the Catholic Church be wrong about something it had taught for many centuries, going (supposedly) all the way back to St. Paul in the New Testament and his "man working with man that which is unseemly"? Isn't the pope infallible? Doesn't the Holy Spirit guide the church and preserve it from error in faith and morals?

As a Catholic, I was often told that God cannot deceive or be deceived, that the church guards the deposit of faith and cannot err in matters of faith and morals. Protestants can err, and often do. Muslims, Jews, Hindus -- they don't have the divine promise of infallibility and immutability that the Catholic Church has. Everything the church teaches is absolutely and utterly true; to question or suggest otherwise is tantamount to heresy.

But ...

I knew from my own painful experience that homosexuality is not a choice. Teenagers don't wake up one day and decide to be straight, or gay, or transgendered. It just doesn't happen that way. At no point in my life did I decide that I wanted to be attracted to members of the same sex. It just was. It just happened. While other guys were talking about Farah Fawcett, I was thinking about Freddie Mercury. I could no more fathom their interest in female breasts than they could my interest in penises. And because it was so shameful and sinful and shrouded in such disgust, I could never tell anyone what I was thinking or feeling, what was passing through my mind. I could not ask anyone for an explanation.

From a small town, I was alone. There was no Google search engine to turn to, no gay book store on the corner, no from which to discreetly order gay books, no possibility of making gay friends. It was just me and inexplicable feelings that would not go away.

Why would anyone in my position choose such a confused, painful path in life?


In my early twenties, I fell in love for the first time with a man named Bobby. It was a mad, crazy thing. When I was away from him, I felt like I couldn't breathe. When I was with him, I had to be touching him, sitting with him, talking to him -- he was like a drug. The feelings of happiness and intimacy I experienced were quite beyond anything I had ever hoped for.

How could those feelings be "sinful"? What did it mean when something was "sinful?" These questions led me to ponder for many years the question of sin. What, exactly, was sin? Of course, I knew the definition given in the catechism, taught by the church. I also knew the definitions to be found in the dictionary. But what, I wondered, was "sin?"

To hurt someone, to stab them, to steal their property, to kill them, to cheat people, a man beating his wife or kids, a man drinking up his pay and letting his family starve -- that was sin. It was sin whether or not the church said so. In fact, to my mind, it made no difference what the church said about such matters. To hurt others was sinful. Didn't matter what your religion was, what your beliefs were, what god you worshipped. If you were hurting other people, you were sinning.

Who was being hurt by the fact that I had fallen in love with a man? Me? Bobby? The neighbors next door? Society at large? Who, exactly, was being cheated, or robbed, or beaten? What possible sense could it make to say that the love I felt for a man was somehow hurting someone, when clearly it had nothing to do with anyone else except me and the man I loved?

At this juncture, I was introduced to the church's concept of "self-harm." Something is sinful when it hurts others, or ourselves, the church said.

With regard to my love nest situation with Bobby, I was hurting myself because I was sinning and therefore I would lose my immortal soul and spend an eternity in hell. I was choosing temporary, fleeting physical pleasures rather than the good of my own soul.

The same argument is made in regard to masturbation, which Catholics often call self-abuse. It's not that anyone is being physically (or in any other way) hurt by an act of masturbation; it's that we're sinning and risking our eternal salvation.

I was not mature enough to realize this was a circular, self-referencing argument that ultimately made no sense. On the other hand, I was smart enough to know that loving another man -- bringing him breakfast in bed, or cuddling up with him to watch a soap opera -- was not the same as a husband beating his wife. It was not the same as a serial killer beheading his latest victim.


Like most young Americans, I knew about our history of slavery and I had some vague notions about the Civil War, but at college, I began to study American history with much more seriousness. I stumbled across Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a book that had a tremendous influence on me. This history of the treatment of Native Americans literally broke my heart. From there, I moved on to the Civil War and the issue of slavery, and for the first time I began to get a glimpse of what slavery actually was -- and again, my heart was broke. Not for myself, but for all those people who had gone down these terrible paths at the hands of my ancestors. It was unspeakably evil, I thought, what we had done. It disgusted me.

Study of these matters destroyed my illusions about the founding of my country, those carefully perpetuated bits of nationalistic pap that pass for high school history. I could never again view Columbus Day in the same light.

For years I could not understand why these things distressed me so much. I tried to talk about them to other people only to receive odd looks or rolled eye balls. My interest in such matters was not shared by anyone else I knew.

I identified with Native Americans, with slaves, with the oppression they experienced, the sadness of their lives, their constant struggle for dignity, but I could not understand why.

At some point I came across an odd thought: If the Bible was wrong about slavery -- and it was -- then could it not also be wrong about other things?

This thought was like a thunderbolt. It seemed to me that I had searched my whole life for this thought, this idea, this sentiment, because slavery was clearly a moral matter. And the church had gotten it wrong. The church had changed its mind. The church no longer told slaves to be "subject to their masters," to quote St. Paul. The church had decided that slavery was immoral, was a violation of a very basic human right.

There was more. Jesus himself had never said a word about slavery. How odd. Slaves were common in the old Roman Empire, under whose heel Jesus lived. Did he truly have nothing to say about it? Nothing to say about the idea that people could own other people, could breed them like cattle, could work them until they dropped dead in the fields, could take their babies away, sell of their spouses, their kids, could trample on their dreams, crush their hopes, whip them, abuse them, annihilate their dignity and self-respect?

Nothing to say?



Sketched above, briefly, is the path I followed in my understanding of homosexuality, which led me from long meditations on the nature of sin, to the study of actual sin, such as accounts of the treatment of Native Americans and slaves, but also true crime accounts of serial killers (I spent many years being fascinated by such tales).

I was also fascinated by religion, in general, and began a lifelong study of the various religious traditions. Catholicism and Christianity, of course, but also Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. At one point, I even became a Muslim. Later, I got involved with the Hare Krishnas. These days, I'm basically a Buddhist who is still open to the question of God.

In my sometimes very intense religious wanderings, I inevitably found myself asking what each particular religion had to say about homosexuality. It was all of a piece. Homosexuality was sinful, shameful, to be avoided. It was unmanly, unseemly, selfish. Its presence signified a troubled, disturbed soul. Even the Buddha, as enlightened as he undoubtedly was, did not want homosexuals to follow him in the homeless life as monks.

Yet none of these religions could provide convincing reasons for this almost universal condemnation.

We tell men not to kill each other. No explanation needed for why we do this, or why we call it sin.

We tell married couples to stay away from adultery because our collective experiences have shown that adultery threatens not only the marriage but the children involved - the safety and stability of the family itself. Adultery has real potential to do harm.

We tell people to avoid incest. It's taboo. Any study of the matter will quickly reveal why, and our current understanding of genetics only adds more proof to the table of the harmful effects of incest.

Do not steal. Do not lie. Don't mug old ladies on the street. Yes. Of course. Did God really have to explain such things to the Israelites?

But two men who love each other? Who is being harmed?

If society is being harmed, how and in what fashion, exactly?

Surprisingly there are no answers to these questions.

How can this be?

The only possible arguments left are perceived threats to the community, or to the "sacred institution" of marriage, or the supposed injustice of two people loving each other but not producing babies. These are pretty rarefied arguments, and very tenuous. They are of a similar nature to the pope declaring that gay marriage is a "threat to justice," whatever he might mean by that.

But approaching this question from the other side sheds some illumination. Many Christians are appalled at gay marriage, which they see as something of a mockery of what they consider a holy state. Some, like Rick Santorum, suggest that if we allow gay marriage, then pretty soon people will be marrying their pets.

In other words, these people are worried about what gay marriage might mean for them, for their own marriage, for their own sense of self-esteem as married people. It's all about them. It's not a question about whether two people of the same gender can love each other and make a marriage work. It's about the reaction of others, mostly Christians: How they feel about it. How it threatens their bigotry. How it frightens them. How it calls into question the entire idea that marriage is holy sacrament instituted by God himself and can never be changed or modified.

At this point, we're arguing subtle abstractions which, in the light of history, are going to prove not very satisfactory.

They are not so different from the arguments used to justify our treatment of Native Americans, whom we dismissed as illiterate savages desperately in need of the civilizing influence of white folks.

Did we take away their land, cheat them out of their land, violate our treaties? Well, never mind, because God gave us America as the promised land. It was God's will. A handful of naked savages had to get out of the way. No matter. It was our manifest destiny to colonize America and create a glorious society for the glory of God. Or whatever.

We used the same arguments on African Americans. They needed our civilizing influence, our religion, our culture. They were backward, sinful, savage. They needed Christianizing. Besides, the Bible doesn't condemn slavery. St, Paul even told slaves to be subject to their masters, to obey the lawful authorities placed over them.

In all such arguments, the good of the people being harmed is not considered. They are helpless bits of flotsam caught up in the tidal waves of history. Too bad for them.

It's only when we begin to personalize the matter, to consider slavery from the point of view of the slave, to consider what it was like for Native Americans when the white guys landed on their shores, that we begin to see the injustice being perpetrated. At this point, we leave off from the pretty abstractions and deft rationalizations and begin to confront cold, harsh realities.

Now, it seems to me, the same is being done with homosexuality. We are beginning to tire of the abstract arguments put forward by popes and priests. We see two men loving each other, living together, eating dinner together, even raising kids together, and there does not appear to be any great harm being done to anyone at all. The only people who are suffering are the bigots.


Slavery was a moral matter, about which the church had nothing to say for many centuries. In fact, it did not really begin to condemn slavery until the 15th Century -- rather late to the party, one might say. Only at Vatican II did the church take a firm stand declare that slavery was a poison to society.

We need to consider this very carefully. I can't think of an all-encompassing evil quite like slavery, the thought that one can own another human being, can exploit them their entire life, can take their babies, can treat them like cattle. If this is not evil, then what is? Are we to understand that such a grave evil, such a serious violation of the human person, did not attract much attention from the Catholic Church until only very recently?

What are we to make of this? The church was willing to kill heretics like the Arians - but it had nothing to say about a genuine evil like slavery? It has been willing, almost from the start, to condemn gay people out of hand, for reasons which are hard to fathom - but it had nothing to say about slavery? It had no problem going after fornicators and adulterers - but somehow owning slaves was okay?

It's not hard to conclude that the church has gotten the moral issue of slavery complete wrong, that it has, in fact, done a massive face plant on the issue.

If it can be wrong on slavery, what else might be it be wrong about? Might it be wrong about homosexuality?

The next conclusion I reached was that an institution like the church, or even the U.S. of A., has an infinite number of ways to justify and rationalize its excesses and the evil it does. If the treatment of Native Americans and slaves could be so easily justified, and rationalized, and excused away, and trivialized on such a massive level, might not its similar rationalizations for its treatment of homosexuals be also called into question? Might we not be able to now pull the curtain back and reveal the wizard behind this particular sad chapter?

Another book that literally changed my life was Foxes Book of Martyrs, stories about the treatment of Protestants at the hands of Catholics. You cannot read such a book and fail to understand the horror of inter-religious squabbling and the massive murder and death it led to. And you cannot read such a book then look at the Catholic Church in quite the same way as you used to.

But this, too, has been rationalized and explained away, and is now nothing more than a footnote in history. Does the church now claim the divine right to kill heretics? But of course not. Is not the killing of heretics a moral matter? So it was once okay to set a Protestant on fire, but now it's frowned upon?

Finally, I realized in a very concrete way that loving another human being was not -- and could not be -- wrong. When I loved, I was the happiest I'd ever been. I felt complete, healed, energized, hopeful, happy, joyful.

To tell another human being that he or she must not love someone else in a way that seems natural and right to them is monstrous, and is, itself, a far greater evil than homosexuality could ever be. I know that because I experienced both love and the absence of love. I know, from experience, what it's like to be lonely, to hurt, to want to be held, to want to share my life with someone. I know what it's like to be denied that possibility, to be forced to consider the crazy-making idea that my "love" is intrinsically disordered when it very clearly is no such thing.

The idea that a church that professes to worship the "God of love" would tell some of its members not to love each other is preposterous.

To tell God's homosexual sons and daughters that they must violate one of the 10 Commandments and bear false witness against their true selves .., what sort of madness is that?

Homosexuality has taught me that the Catholic Church is sometimes wrong about moral matters. It was wrong about slavery and killing heretics and pretending that kings had a divine right to their often despotic reigns. It has, in recent years, quietly shifted gears on divorce and remarriage. It no longer claims that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, which it once used to do, and quite vociferously.

It may, in future years, quietly shift gears on issues like contraception and sexuality as more information becomes available and ignorance on these topics is overcome. It is not the all-knowing completely Divinely-inspired and utterly unerring entity that it claims to be. It can -- and sometimes does -- fall flat on its face.

For my entire life, the church has asked me to deny what I know to be true about myself, and to pretend that there is something wrong with me, when there isn't. It has told me my love is harmful. It ain't. It has told me I'm incapable of genuine love. That's a lot of hooey.

At the same time, it has asked me to not bear false witness, to not lie. It has told me, over and over, that honesty is the best policy.

It has also told me that I must someday stand before God and render an accounting of my life, which I am quite prepared to do.

Homosexuality has forced me to realize that the truth is worth fighting for, no matter how many forces are arrayed against you. The truth is found in one's heart. That is the only truth one can actually know for certain. If the church asks me to turn my back on that truth because that truth makes it uncomfortable, I am not doing either the church or myself any favors by complying. If I were the only one in this position, the only gay man in the world, the possibility of my being in error would be very great. But I am not the only one, not by a long shot. All throughout history there have been people like me, saying the sorts of things that I have been saying.

Instead of frightening us into silence, the church might consider listening.


  1. I grew up a a devout child in the Catholic Church. Your story reads much like mine except I was so repressed that I didn't discover my true self until I was 32. But at about age 7, in preparation for "first communion, the nuns were teaching us about "the one true faith"and how those not baptized in the Holy Roman Catholic church would never see heaven. Well, my dad's sister was the nicest, kindest, most "christ-like" person I have ever known. If the Church said there was no heaven for her then THEY must be wrong. That led me to a life of asking authority figures - uncomfortable questions. I was churchless from 1973 until in 2008 - I discovered the Episcopal church....they are the exception to the "christian crazies" -- they are spot on about acting as christ taught. I call my self a "recovering catholic" What we were taught as the heresy of the reformation period was actually liberation from Rome.

  2. I was raised in a church that considers itself diametrically opposed to the Catholic Chirch, but in reality is just as narrow in its thinking; the Church of Christ. After growing up hearing of deacons and elders telling my mother it was HER fault my father hit her and us, I lost my faith entirely in any concept of God. Years later, while traveling to the funeral of my dear cousin, who despite being the kindest and most loving individual I knew, I discovered from my mother that he was surely going to hell because he was gay. I spent years so angry at these beliefs that marginalize & judge people for daring to be who they really are. I'm beyond angry now. I am sick of religious doctrine in the making of laws. The church is no longer relevant to our time. It needs to go.

  3. Beautifully written, Nick. I grew up in a very tolerant (relatively speaking) Methodist faith, but began questioning in my early teens. I think my breakthrough was when my genuinely kind and well-meaning, but utterly brainwashed, Sunday school teacher stated that non-Christians could never go to heaven. "Not even if they are otherwise good and moral people who live in an isolated jungle where they have never heard of Jesus Christ?". There was sputtering and true confusion on his part. I don't think he had ever even considered the possibility. I was attracted to the Catholic church in my teens through a devout boyfriend. But lost it when the fat old priest started blathering about the "one true church" and the impossibility of salvation if one was not Catholic. Well, fast forward through 50 years of scorning most organized religions, and a dear friend persuaded me to try RCIA (Roman Catholic Indoctrination for Adults). I love Walker Percy, and thought that if it was good enough for this brilliant writer, perhaps I should rethink. I was once again repelled by the rigidity and absolutism of Catholic doctrine and the group leader's (not a priest) fascination with saints. Really? Superstition, dogma, and positions on homosexuality, abortion, contraception, not to mention pedophilia and a corrupt (as I see it) Vatican could not overcome the genuine goodness of the actual parishioners I knew. Hate the church, love the practitioner? Sorry for the long reply, but your post hit a nerve. I agree with everything you wrote, and am sincerely sorry for the pain you have had to go through due to an organized body that has gotten so many things so wrong. I, too, consider myself an agnostic Buddhist, leaning towards atheism. Peace and love, brother.

  4. I also grew up in the Catholic church, and still practice in my small way. I grew up in the military base culture...extremely tolerant of racial and cultural diversity, but pre-DADT, so I was a fully grown adult before I met my first out gay person. My priests were mostly silent on the subject. I cannot remember a single childhood homily about it.

    One of my earliest exposures to the issues surrounding homosexuality was a research paper I was assigned to do for Contemporary Moral Issues. In the library, searching for a topic for which I could find enough sources to meet the requirements, I happened upon gay-bashing. I couldn't believe the violence people had endured simply for being gay, and I could not believe people would endure that violence, or even the potential of it, by "choosing" to be gay. So by the time I met my first out person, I had already discarded any bits of anti-gay Catholic doctrine that might have made their way through to me during my childhood years.

    There are a lot of areas in which I disagree with official Catholic doctrine. In my adult life I have had opportunities to speak with priests about some of them, and I have discovered that they often disagree with the hierarchy, especially when it comes to things like contraception and homosexuality. I have recently come to the conclusion that the church is also wrong on abortion, but I suspect that significantly fewer priests would agree with my position on that.

    In the end, I still find there is much in the Catholic religion to be thankful for. I appreciate my upbringing, and I appreciate the church for continuing all the teachings that make the world a better place. The Catholic focus on good works, for instance...many protestant religions espouse the view that once you "accept Jesus as your personal savior" you are guaranteed heaven and no longer need to worry about treating other people right. This seems to be the root of a lot of the nastiness in our culture, with people spouting bible verses as they vote away food dollars from impoverished children. Witnessing with bible verses and loud prayer is more important than aid and compassion to those in need. This is where Catholicism shines: you witness your faith in your actions, not your words. You will be judged by how you treat your fellow human.

    The Catholic church has been wrong on several things, and their position on homosexuality has hurt people. But I believe that position can be changed, and I believe there is enough good in the church to make it worth saving.