All of us have a longing to be fully known: by ourselves, by others, and by God. Fundamental to Christian thought is this: We can only know ourselves fully when we know ourselves as we are known by God. As Gaudium et Spes teaches, “In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. . . . Christ the new Adam . . . fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”
In his address on the World Day of Peace a year ago, Pope Benedict XVI wrote about this longing in all of us: “This is the fundamental question that must be asked: who is man?” In his 2012 Advent address to the Roman Curia, he tells us that the truth of mankind is found within the “blueprint of human existence.”
Questions surrounding the blueprint of human existence and the fundamental question of who man is have been much on my mind in recent months because of several essays on homosexuality published in First Things by Wesley Hill and Joshua Gonnerman. As a man who is also attracted to members of the same sex, I find much to applaud in their writing, namely their adherence to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Nevertheless, their embrace of a gay identity (like their claim that they are oriented to the same sex) seems, on my reading, counter to the truth of man and therefore an obstacle to authentic self-knowledge.
In Hill’s otherwise excellent essay entitled “Homosexuality and the Impatience for Joy,” he matter-of-factly uses the phrase “those of us who are gay and Christian,” which seems to be in keeping with his First Thoughts post on the label “gay Christian,” where he speaks of his sexual orientation as “being gay.” His thoughts there echo what he writes in his book, Washed and Waiting, about his adolescence: “I came to realize I was experiencing what was usually called ‘homosexuality.’ I had a homosexual orientation. I was gay.”
In an earlier essay, Hill quotes a writer familiar to readers of First Things, Eve Tushnet, who also embraces a gay identity. In the excerpt quoted by Hill, Tushnet writes, “I do think straight adults often underestimate the loneliness—and fear of even greater future loneliness—of gay Christian teens. But it’s also, of course, very easy for teenagers of any sexual orientation to have unrealistic romantic ideas in which marriage solves the problem of the self.”
Though people may describe themselves by using terms like “gay” or “queer” which are commonly used in today’s culture, as Christians who believe in man created in the image of God, we should ask if these cultural terms are, in fact, true ontological categories of the human person, in accord with the blueprint of human existence.
Gonnerman, for his part, seems to assume that these categories of the human person are foregone conclusions in several of his writings, as well as in his recent discussion of reparative therapy, in which he calls himself “a chaste man who is also gay.”
Our disagreements over identity notwithstanding, there are many areas of agreement between their views and mine. We all promote the same essential moral view of sexuality: Sexual intercourse is moral only between a man and a woman within marriage and only when the spouses respect the procreative end of the marital act. And to be fair, on the issue of gay identity, Hill, Gonnerman, and Tushnet do not see all things the same.
As I understand the differences between them, Gonnerman and Tushnet view homosexuality as a gift from God to mankind. Homosexuality, in their view, is something to be celebrated in their lives as a unique and positive gift to the world. Hill, on the other hand, views homosexuality as a “thorn in the flesh” which nonetheless has brought benefits to him: namely that God has been able to show his strength to Hill through the weakness of his homosexuality.
In this respect, Hill’s view is more akin to my understanding of homosexuality as the Eucatastrophe of my life (borrowing J. R. R. Tolkien’s term). Both Hill and I also refuse to use “homosexual” as a noun. As he explains in his book, he avoids it because he argues that our core identity is as Christians. I refuse to do so because, ontologically speaking, my core identity is as a man, made in the image and likeness of God.
In his book, which in the balance I think is excellent, Hill uses terminology that I find misleading. He explains his chosen terminology this way:
I use “same sex attraction,” “homosexual desire,” “homosexuality,” and related terms interchangeably. Likewise I’ve used a variety of terms for lesbian and gay people. Instead of sticking to one term, such as “homosexual Christian,” I also refer to myself as a “gay Christian” or “Christian who experiences homosexual desires.” These phrases are all synonymous for me, and though they are open to misunderstanding, in my judgment the gains in using them outweigh the potential hazards.
Though I am encouraged that Hill sees potential hazards in the use of terms like “gay Christian” and “homosexual Christian,” he, along with Gonnerman and Tushnet, may not sufficiently recognize the problems with describing or defining a person in terms of his or her affective desire for the same sex (whether that desire is relational, romantic, or sexual), in place of the clear definition of our sexual identity revealed to us by Scripture and the Church.
The danger of this position is that it leaves its adherents as a puzzle to themselves, because their beliefs about themselves will be at variance with their true nature. Further, it does injury to the dignity of what it means to be created “male and female” in the image and likeness of God. And I can find nothing in the Church’s magisterial teaching that would support the innovation they are proposing.
As I have written before, words reveal truths about who we are in nature and in grace, and as such, we believe a falsehood about our nature when we embrace a gay identity, or when we believe that anyone has an “orientation” toward the same sex. I believe there is a natural law, and I believe in the truth proposed by the Catholic Church that my body reveals who (and what) I am. This truth about who I am, stitched into my very embodiedness as a man, supersedes any subjective experience I might have of “feeling (or being) gay,” regardless of whether I view that experience as positive (Tushnet and Gonnerman) or negative (Hill). So too with self-identified “transgendered” individuals who painfully feel themselves to be the wrong sex.
Pope Benedict’s Advent address to the Roman Curia helps clarify how Catholics understand the anthropology of man:
People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed.
The words of the creation account, “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27), no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female—hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned.
Since God is the architect of mankind, it is his blueprint for human identity that we must consult to determine what is true about man. The design of man begins in Genesis, in the binary form of the two sexes: “male and female he created them.”
The Catechism is clear in paragraph 2333 what my response to my sex must be: “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.”
Since I am Catholic, the sexual identity I am called to embrace is my maleness; my true orientation is towards women, my true sexual complement. Insofar as I am attracted to men rather than women, I do not discover a different essential orientation within myself, but rather a disorientation of my sexual attractions. A homosexual “orientation,” no matter how strongly it is subjectively experienced within our person, does not exist within God’s blueprint for humanity. We know this based on the authority of the Church, the custodian and interpreter of revelation.
The Church was established in part to free us from these sorts of false constructs of man, as Blessed John Paul II proclaims in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor:
It must certainly be admitted that man always exists in a particular culture, but it must also be admitted that man is not exhaustively defined by that same culture. Moreover, the very progress of cultures demonstrates that there is something in man which transcends those cultures. This “something” is precisely human nature: this nature is itself the measure of culture and the condition ensuring that man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being.
Embracing a gay identity prevents us from knowing ourselves as we are known by God. Instead, we are kept captive by faulty categories of the human person, created in the mind of man. It is more than mere semantics. In departing from the clear teaching of the Church on our sexual identity, we do injury to our personal dignity as being male or female image-bearers of God and prevent ourselves from resolving the most fundamental question each of us strives to answer: “Who am I?” More problematically, when we defend these false descriptions of man, we go against the clear teachings of the Church and lead others to embrace one of the great confusions of our age.
Daniel Mattson lives in the Midwest, where he has a career in the arts. He takes great interest in the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and from time to time, he is invited to give his personal testimony to groups around the country. He blogs at LettersToChristopher.wordpress.com.