Fr. James Martin, S.J., avers that his advocacy does not challenge Catholic doctrine on homosexuality. He has made a point of delineating Church teaching on the subject. I am happy to take Fr. Martin at face value: If he says he does not wish to challenge the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, even if there is some evidence that this may not be true, I am willing to believe him.
But there is a difference between choosing not to defy Catholic doctrine and choosing to teach it in its fullness. And the doctrine of the Church extends far beyond issues of sexuality. While Martin may not be teaching error on that subject, his work fails to express, or even take into account, Catholic teaching on a fundamental issue: what it means to be a person at all. The consequence of that failure is confusion.
His speech does not state that homosexual activity should be condoned, or that Church teaching on the matter should change. But it does present a vision of the human person at odds with Catholic teaching, and it urges a set of pastoral practices that will lead to heartbreak and disappointment, not to the freedom of Jesus Christ.
Fr. Martin begins by comparing college students who are refugees to college students who identify as homosexual. Just as we should treat refugees with compassion and sensitivity in light of past harrowing experiences, so should Catholic colleges treat with respect and pastoral care those who have faced stigmas, pain, or rejection because of their homosexual inclinations. This seems true, and worth considering.
There the similarities end. Refugees on a college campus have left captivity and come to a place of freedom. But Fr. Martin does not go on to argue that students who identify as homosexual should be led into freedom. Rather, he suggests a plan that compounds a captivity of confusion about true human identity—about who we are, and who God made us to be.
Every initiative that Fr. Martin recommends in his address—from “Lavender graduations” to “L.G.B.T.-affirming spiritualities, theologies, liturgies and safe spaces”—is designed to affirm the lie that sexual inclination or orientation is, in itself, identity. Fr. Martin seems to be arguing that, to be compassionate, the Church must encourage young people to see themselves as the world sees them: as the sum of their desires, rather than as children of God, beloved sons and daughters of the Father.
Contemporary confusion about sexual orientation today stems from conflating appetite with identity. We are more than the sum of our appetites. And our appetites—however strongly we feel them, however much they have shaped us, however much we have suffered for them—are not often ordered, absent grace, to our flourishing. That confusion extends beyond sexuality; it is the cause of insatiable consumerism, of technology addictions, and even of our nakedly dysfunctional political arena.
The Church believes that knowledge of our true identity as children of God can free us from the slavery of defining ourselves by our appetites, from confusion about who we are and about what will bring us happiness. That is why the Church says that Catholic colleges ought to teach that students are made in the image of God, and that by the grace of God they can live in the freedom of their creation and flourish in this life and the next. That message defies biological or psychological determinism; it defies postmodern inclinations to define reality according to experience; it defies a technocratic culture that says we are what we do.
Instead of teaching college students that their identity is found in their appetites, and instead of affirming this mistaken view of the human person in “L.G.B.T.-affirming spiritualities,” Catholic colleges should comfort students with the knowledge that we are made for freedom, and that the Church offers both the way to freedom and the grace to get there.
This does not mean that Catholic colleges should ignore the challenges faced by students who identify as gay, transgendered, or queer. It does mean taking into account their trauma. But it also means teaching the truth that leads to happiness, proclaiming the source of that truth, and proposing meaningful ways to live it. It means offering resources like, along with compassionate confessors, competent counselors, and witnesses of men and women who have discovered the fullness of human identity in Jesus Christ. All students, regardless of what they’re struggling with, actually need those things.
Fr. Martin is right that students who identify as homosexual have suffered greatly because of that identification. They have faced confusion and rejection. And they often feel isolated and alone. But the answer is not to affirm the world’s lies about who they are. Rather, it is to show them how God the Father sees them, and how much he loves them.
J. D. Flynn is editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency.