Many Catholic writers insist that the simple identification of one’s sexual orientation is contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Catholic writer Marc Barnes has stated this view with particular force and consistency, rejecting not only the use of “homosexual” but also of “heterosexual”: “It is by the urging of the Catholic Church that I refuse, reject, and trample on the label heterosexual.”
I hesitate to invest much in this semantic discussion, which is fundamentally the wrong way to frame the question of gay issues in the Church. I also don’t want to be seen as suggesting that a person must use a particular term to discuss his sexuality, thus undermining the experience of those who find other framings more helpful. I prefer to let people describe their experience of sexual orientation (or, for those who insist, disorientation) in the ways they see as most resonant with that experience.
But the claim that the Catholic Church insists that we must “refuse, reject, and trample on” the discussion of sexuality in a given set of terms—as “heterosexual” or “homosexual”—sorely mistakes Catholic teaching.
The standard support offered for this argument is from the 1986 document Homosexualitatis Problema: “Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.”
The most basic problem is that the argument is based on a mistranslation; the relevant text of the Latin reads, “cum renuit in persona unice considerare rationem ‘heterosexualem’ vel ‘homosexualem’”(emphasis added). The unice, which does not make its way into the English, means “only” or “solely;” thus, the Church refuses to consider the person exclusively as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual.”
The document does not posit an absolute divide between describing a person as heterosexual or homosexual, and recognizing that the most fundamental truth that can be told about them is that they are of God. It rather tells us that we must be careful, in recognizing the former truth, not to lose sight of the latter. To say that we must completely drop the category of homosexual orientation in favor of the category of human person, risks implying that one thinks the category of “homosexual” or “gay” incompatible with the category of “human person.”
Indeed, the very title commonly used for Homosexualitatis Problema—“Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”—shows that far from condemning the term “homosexual,” the Church even uses it itself.
Others have claimed that Catholics must object to the label “homosexual” by appealing to a text in which Benedict XVI speaks of bodily identities as male or female. The absurdity of the notion that this would contradict describing oneself as gay should be clear; the description of oneself as gay or homosexual patently presupposes the acceptance that one has a bodily identity as male or female, and that one’s relation to others is mediated through his or her bodily identity as male or female.
In the decree on ecumenism, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council spoke of a “hierarchy of truths” as a hermeneutical key to doctrinal difference. Some of the more progressive interpreters suggested that this meant that there were some truths, more central to the Catholic faith, which were non-negotiable, while those truths which were less central to the faith might be negotiable.
But the proper understanding is not one of what must be kept and what may be thrown away. What is meant is that the more central truths may provide us with a hermeneutical key to understanding other truths. The Immaculate Conception should be understood in the context of Christ’s saving work, and the Assumption of Mary should be understood in the context of the promise of resurrection made to all Christians.
While Catholics are perfectly free to reject the account of “heterosexual” or “homosexual” in their own lives, the Church by no means insists that they must do so. Rather, what the church says is that “the fundamental Identity” of every human being is that of a relation to God; the identity of a Christian is that of an adopted son or daughter. As with the hierarchy of truths, this becomes the light in which we must read the lesser central truths about ourselves.
It is not enough for a person to recognize that he is gay or straight; the conclusions, which his experience brings to him about his sexuality, are taken as data, but they are secondary data. The fundamental datum which must inform his life is “I am a child of God, in loving relation to the Creator, and called to conform myself to the divine plan for human existence which is expressed in the Scriptures and expounded upon in the tradition.”
This is the hierarchy of truths about our sexualities. Our graced relation to God, broken in the Fall and renewed in Christ, is the center point of who we are, and provides the blueprint of the way in which we must develop and re-shape ourselves in order to find who we most truly are; as Christ reveals man to himself, so we know that it is through conformity to Christ that we must find our true selves. The more accidental data of who we are (such as gay or straight) provide the raw material which we are given to use in bringing ourselves into this conformity to Christ. They are not sufficient in and of themselves, and they must be molded, bent, sometimes broken in order for us to mold ourselves, through the grace of God, into what God is calling us to be. But they remain the data we must use in attempting this construction. Without brick, stone, or wood, the house cannot be built.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a doctoral student in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.