In more than 40 years of priesthood, ministering to gay Catholics at Cardinal Nichols’s invitation has been one of my most daunting tasks. This is because of the deep feelings of pain and rejection by the Church I have encountered, as well as the fear and anger of others over the very existence of homosexual people.
Quite conservative senior clerics have told me privately they worry we simply have the wrong approach to the whole issue. Yet if we believe there is truth in the Church’s teaching, however imperfectly it may currently be expressed, then surely one way forward is to offer LGBT people, if they will not accept this teaching on its own authority, some tools to make an authentic discernment of their personal experiences of sex and erotic attraction. Among such tools a sound moral theology and a spiritual discipline are paramount.
I found it strange, therefore, that the Jesuit Fr James Martin’s Building a Bridge, a plea for greater compassion and openness to LGBT people by the Church, makes no reference to Ignatian discernment of spirits, or to any of the moral issues raised by homosexuality. Given the huge variety of attitudes, experiences and behaviour among gay Catholics, introducing them to St Ignatius’s teaching on consolation and desolation, and helping them apply that to their past experiences, present relationships and desires for the future, can be little short of a revelation for them.
The virtue-based ethics of Alastair MacIntyre, or the Biblical-Thomistic emphasis of Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers on seeking true happiness, are similarly valuable tools. Of course, they will only work if a person puts a developing relationship with Jesus at the very centre of his or her life, and judges every moral decision by the way it deepens or threatens that relationship. It was surely this that Pope Francis was getting at in his famous comment about not judging a gay person who is sincerely seeking God.
Fr Martin also, to be fair, includes an exhortation to LGBT people to engage in dialogue with the official Church, but he fails to confront the main issue in such dialogue: why there is so much hostility in the Church to homosexuality, and for that matter in other groups as diverse as psychiatrists, communists, Enlightenment philosophers and Muslims. I often find non-religious but spiritual gay people more courageous in facing these issues and admitting how much work they have to do as a group.
I found myself puzzled also by a book entitled Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay, whose author, Daniel Mattson, bravely describes his early homosexual experiences (frankly rather tame in comparison with those of many people I talk to), before proceeding to relate the longest-lasting, most intense relationship of his life – with a woman he was deeply in love with, but in the end did not marry because she didn’t want children. Why I Don’t Call Myself Bisexual was presumably not so catchy a title.
One helpful section of the book offers encouraging suggestions on the pursuit of chastity, while another section, on the importance of calling things by their right name, I found less relevant, partly because in my experience young gay people are less bothered than older ones about how they describe themselves, and partly because in ministering to gay people, one doesn’t start by calling into question how they name themselves. Neither, incidentally, does one automatically accept what they call themselves, though Fr Martin says we should do precisely that, and stop using terms like “afflicted by same-sex attraction” – a mischievous rendering of “experiencing same-sex attraction” used in groups such as Courage.
I have indeed met people whose self-description as “gay” seems to be an escape from facing the uniqueness and complexity of their particular erotic and sexual make-up, and that seems to me a far stronger reason to avoid the term where possible.
The most telling part of either book I found to be Cardinal Robert Sarah’s foreword to Mattson’s book. When one considers that the cardinal comes from a continent where homosexual people are persecuted and even killed, with little or no apparent protest from the Church, I found his personal testimony about beginning to take them seriously very significant. He goes on to comment, partly quoting the Catechism, “People who have homosexual tendencies … are called to chastity, and we demean them if we think they cannot attain this virtue, which is a virtue for all disciples. Like all members of the Church, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”
If only all those who write and speak on this topic could combine welcome and challenge so inspiringly, we might have a little less anger and hurt on all sides.
Mgr Keith Barltrop is parish priest of St Mary of the Angels, Bayswater, London
This article first appeared in the July 21 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here