by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio
My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
This is the fourth of a series on the Theology of the Body.
This week, President Obama thrust the issue of same-sex marriage into the headlines. Given that we are six months away from a national election, that he would choose now to flip-flop on the issue of marriage, can only be described as political expediency. Perhaps, we can take this as an opportunity to examine the fourth and final topic as we address questions related to the theology of the body.
The spousal meaning of the body, as articulated by John Paul II, reveals that the human body and human sexuality were purposely designed by God to enable man and woman to enact their complete self-donation and self-surrender in love in marriage. This giving and receiving of oneself in the marital embrace also, by God’s design, has the potential of bringing about new life. Thus, the deepest purposes of the sexual act and marriage are revealed: the self-surrender and union of the spouses in love and the possibility of new life flowing from that act. Any use of our sexuality that does not respect those two inseparable dimensions is a misuse of the God-given gift of human sexuality.
The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons states, “Homosexual activity is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living. This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves; but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.”
It is not easy to state in just one paragraph the fundamental principle on which we base our belief and teaching. Yet, it goes beyond mere belief or doctrine. It is based on the nature of the human person. It is from here that all Catholic moral teaching, even in the area of social ethics, takes its beginning: the fundamental dignity of the human person. The human person lives on many levels: biological, psychological, and spiritual. Human sexuality pervades each one of these levels of existence. It is, however, the integrity of the human person that must be the guiding principle for moral behavior.
If the dignity of the human person is our beginning point, where must this take us when we apply it to those who have a homosexual orientation and find it difficult to abstain from homosexual acts? This is a pastoral concern. However, some distinctions must be made regarding the intrinsic evil and distinct disordering of homosexual acts as distinguished from persons themselves.
No person is evil; however, certain acts in themselves can be evil. Nevertheless, the person’s moral responsibility for that act is not judged solely on the basis of objective criteria. Rather, any culpability must be judged through the lens of the person who acts, even if those acts are disordered.
The Catholic Church recognizes the fact that persons with same-sex attraction have often been the object of violence in action and in speech. The Church declares clearly and forcefully that these persons should not be the object of any discrimination or violence. At the same time, we cannot equate sexual orientation with race, nationality or other characteristics that frequently give rise to unjust discrimination.
The Church warns that we cannot generalize in judging cases or individuals. We cannot assume that the sexual behavior of homosexually oriented persons is always and totally compulsive and therefore inculpable. What is at stake is the fundamental liberty which characterizes the human person and gives him or her dignity, a dignity to be recognized as belonging to the persons themselves.
This brings us to the question of the origin of homosexuality. There is no conclusive scientific evidence, one way or another, that homosexuality arises from genetic, hormonal, or psychological causes. At the same time, the issue of nature and nurture leads us to understand that certain influences can lead a person to act in ways for which they are not totally responsible. Today, some advocates of homosexuality believe that homosexuality is a choice and therefore it is fruitless to seek an outside determination of the homosexual orientation. They conclude that the homosexual lifestyle should be respected as are any other lifestyles.
The pastoral care of homosexuals is a great concern for the Church. The Bishops Conference of the United States issued two separate documents aimed at discussing these matters. First in 1997, “Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers” was issued, and then, in 2006, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclinations: Guidelines for Pastoral Care.”
Today, some persons refer to themselves as “LBGT,” or gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. This pneumonic seems to have found its way even into our Church parlance. These labels do damage to individual persons. To label a person as straight or as gay, or any other label, is to see only one aspect of their personality as determining all that they are. This truly does not respect the full dignity of the human person. Whenever we try to concentrate on labels or use the same categories that are used by the advocates of any lifestyle, we fall into traps that are inescapable. The pastoral care of persons with same-sex attraction must be directed to their spiritual well-being in a non-discriminatory fashion. They are welcome always to the Church and should be welcomed by all. But at the same time, we cannot condone homosexual activity.
The second document of the U.S. Bishops Conference mentioned above, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclinations: Guidelines for Pastoral Care,” deals with more of the doctrinal matters involved in pastoral care. It states, “Sometimes the Church is misinterpreted or misrepresented as teaching that persons with homosexual inclinations are objectively disordered, as if everything about them were disordered or rendered morally defective by this inclination. The disorder is in that particular inclination, which is not ordered toward the fulfillment of the natural ends of human sexuality.” This must be the touchstone for understanding the compassion towards a person of homosexual inclination, while at the same time the Church must resolve to assist persons to deal with their inclinations, and, with the help of God’s grace, to overcome them. We cannot abandon those with these inclinations; we must support them to live a life of chastity and integrity and to find the road to happiness which is available to everyone who seeks to do the will of God.
We are reminded of the sacredness of the human person and the intended ends for which God has created us, male and female, in our individual sexuality. At times, an individual struggles to integrate and exercise sexuality properly according to his or her state in life, whether it be married, single or celibate. As sexual persons, we put out into the deep. There are a few contemporary guideposts that seem to point in the right direction. Hopefully, a deeper understanding of the theology of the body will not only give guidance and support to all who struggle, but also a way of trying to understand that the God-given sexuality is a gift.