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At the age of sixteen, after an indifferent Catholic education, I inexplicably paid a visit to the local priest.

I didn’t know quite why I wanted to see him. It was during the height of the AIDS crisis, and I was scared, because I had recently come out to myself. I was a sad, lonely kid with no male friends or role models. I had abandoned the Catholic faith, but I wanted to talk with a man—any man—and I didn’t know where else to turn. Nervously fumbling on a few simple words, I sat down in the reconciliation room and told the priest, “I’m gay.” He assured me that God understood. God had “made me that way.” His attempt at compassion and understanding brought forth memories of my middle- and high-school “religion” classes, which had emphasized the primacy of the conscience. According to the priest, I should practice “safe sex.” This was the proper role of the conscience: It should lead me to act “responsibly.”

Less than two years later, I walked into the Castro District of San Francisco. For a time, I did play it safe; later, I didn’t. After a few years, at a time when my life wasn’t going so well, I spoke with another priest. He offered the same advice the first priest had, but he added that I needed to settle down with one partner. I tried that, too. But I don’t believe I made any major lifestyle changes on the basis of what these priests told me. For the most part, my mind was already made up: I believed I had been born gay. Whether or not some God had made me that way, I didn’t really care. In one sense, these priests had made my life easier by confirming what I already thought. Yet at sixteen, when I talked to that first priest, I had secretly wanted him to say something else. I had wanted him to be strong—I had wanted him to rescue me from myself.

Today the celebrity priest James Martin, S.J. speaks at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Ireland. The topic of his presentation is “Showing Welcome and Respect in our Parishes for ‘LGBT’ People and their Families.” In his book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, Martin praises the Catechism for saying that homosexuals must be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity” and that “‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ must be avoided.” On the surface, the message of James Martin appears compassionate and sensitive.

In fact, it is conflicted and confusing. Though he praises the Catechism’s call for sensitivity, Martin also denounces it as “needlessly hurtful” toward homosexuals because it describes homosexuality as intrinsically disordered. Martin has proposed that the Catechism instead adopt the phrase “differently ordered.”

But if that phrase had been in the Catechism when I returned to the Catholic Church after years of living in sin, I would have returned only to my death. After living for more than a decade as a sexually active homosexual, I finally sought out Christ as a broken and humiliated man. My health had deteriorated. I had watched my friends die of AIDS and figured I was next. But even then, I was scared to leave. Where could I go? Blessedly, I found I could go home. Though every priest I encountered assumed I should continue in my sin, my parents never did. They gave me a place to heal.

For a while, I wrestled with the Catechism and with God. I came to realize that homosexual activity is wrong. I could see the destructive nature of gay sex in my own shattered body. But I couldn’t accept that, during all those years I had spent in a far country, my suffering had been in vain—that countless gay men had died for nothing, that we had all succumbed to a lie. Yet we had. In my era, some heard the lie through popular culture, in the strains of “Y.M.C.A.,” which promised male camaraderie for those brave enough to follow Madonna and “Express Yourself.”

The superficially caring and compassionate priests I had met in my youth in fact had done nothing to help me. Instead of telling me the truth—that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered—they patted me on the back and sent me on my way. Instead of calling me to celibacy and encouraging me to live a chaste life, they left me as they found me: confused. The words of these priests, spoken to a young man with very little faith, allowed that man to remain in mortal sin for years, unrepentant and separated from God.

If such priestly advice could so damage the life of one young man, imagine the damage Fr. Martin’s words will do to the countless young people who earnestly attend the World Meeting of Families. If the Church wants to show true respect, compassion, and sensitivity to homosexual persons, it must offer them the words of Christ—not Fr. Martin’s false comfort.

Joseph Sciambra writes from Napa, California.

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Image by Kerry Weber via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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