In April of this year, the Minnesota-based Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (the organization with which I serve as executive coordinator), planned and hosted a two-part presentation by renowned theologian and author Daniel Helminiak. This event served as CPCSM's inaugural Bill Kummer Forum, and was entitled “Gay Body, Gay Soul: A Catholic LGBTI Perspective on Sexuality, Spirituality, and Marriage”.
It was a wonderful event – and one which coincided with the publication of Daniel’s latest book, Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth, a book which proved very popular among those in attendance at April’s CPCSM-sponsored presentation.
I brought a copy of the book with me to Australia and have found great wisdom and compassion within its pages. Basically, Sex and the Sacred is an anthology of essays and articles that Daniel has written and published over the past twenty years. As he notes in the book’s preface, “[These] papers are still relevant, perhaps more so today than when I first wrote them. So I took them out and dusted them off. I updated and refurbished them, and I present them in this book.”
Organized into 15 chapters, Helminiak’s highly readable collection of “papers” focus on a diverse range of topics, including “The Spiritual Dimension of the Lesbian and Gay Experience”, “Sexuality and Spirituality: Friends Not Foes”, “Jesus: A Model for Coming Out”, “The Right and Wrong of Sex, Queer and Otherwise”, and “Gay Bashing and 9/11 Terrorism: Religious Perversion”.
Throughout, Helminiak acknowledges and addresses the God-given hunger for spirituality that is found in each one of us, and compellingly makes the case that this intrinsic spiritual dimension needs to be integrated with one’s sexuality.
Recently, I completed chapter 11, “Homosexuality in Catholic Teaching and Practice”, of Helminiak’s latest book. Given my pastoral and educational work with CPCSM, I found this chapter particularly interesting. It’s also a topic that, in Helminiak’s hands, is imbued with positiveness and hope – qualities which, to be honest, are not always readily associated with Church teaching on sexuality, especially homosexuality.
Following are excerpts from chapter 11 of Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth by Daniel Helminiak.
Homosexuality in Catholic Teaching and Practice
Excepts from Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth
By Daniel A. Helminiak
Harrington Park Press, 2006
Overall, the official Catholic position on sex is not what most people think it is. Similar to so much else in the Catholic Church, appearances reign supreme. [. . .] Where does Catholicism stand on homosexuality? Actually, all over the map. Catholic teaching on homosexuality is complex and nuanced, and it allows for differences between teaching and practice. Conscience is supreme in Catholicism: When individuals act for solid reasons and in good conscience, Catholic teaching defends their right to quiet dissent.
[. . .] On the inside, Catholicism is actually a very humane and tolerant religion. [. . .] The Catholic emphasis on sacramentality – the use of water, oil, bread, real wine, music, candles, incense, bells, statues, medals, rosary beads, relics – hallows earthy things, and this “gut” teaching talks better than the heady kind.
[. . .] The official position is tolerant, as well. It does not regard homosexuality as a choice and does not see such an orientation as likely to change. Though it is called an “objective disorder”, simply being homosexual is not, in any way, considered sinful. (Of course, one is not supposed to act on one’s homosexuality.) Moreover, Catholicism condemns prejudice and injustice against lesbian and gay folk.
Catholicism even allows for gay and lesbian sex. The Catholic position includes what is called “pastoral application of official teaching”. The notion is that, in practice, the general principles of official teachings need to be prudently applied to fit individual cases. People are different. No two cases are exactly alike. What is ideally required is not always attainable, so allowances need to be made in pastoral situations, in one-on-one counselling, or in the privacy of the confessional. People can be required to do only what they are able.
The Vatican mentality follows the Roman notion of law. Laws are thought to express ideals that people should strive to achieve. Laws do not, as in English and American traditions, express minimum requirements that must be met. Catholic ethics propose ideals, and these apply variably in individual cases.
Thus, Father Jan Visser, a principal author of the 1975 Vatican document on sexual ethics, could write in the January 30, 1976, edition of L’Europa, “When one is dealing with people who are so deeply homosexual that they will be in serious personal or social trouble unless they obtain a steady partnership within their homosexual lives, one can recommend them to seek such a partnership, and one accepts this relationship as the best they can do in their present situation.” This is authentic Catholic teaching. In practice, for the good of individuals and society, in certain circumstances Catholicism may even recommend lesbian and gay relationships.
The same conclusion can be drawn in another way. For Catholicism, doing wrong is not the same as committing a sin. Wrongs are in the objective order. They are violations of natural law [as understood and defined by the Church]. They represent destructive forces unleashed on our world. However, sin is a subjective thing. It depends on human understanding and free choice. It resides in the human heart. In Catholic teaching, it is fully possible that someone can do something wrong being subjectively culpable.
[. . .] Many lesbian and gay Catholics do not understand what is wrong with their loving one another in sexual intimacy, so they do what, to them, is right. Catholic teachings say they are doing wrong, but it does not accuse them of sinning. [. . .] At stake in this Catholic understanding of wrongdoing and sin is a profound respect for personal conscience. This respect is one of the best kept secrets in the Catholic Church – deliberately so, it seems.
In 1997, the National Conference of [U.S.] Catholic Bishops published Always Our Children, a pastoral message encouraging parents to love their lesbian and gay children. Several lines on personal conscience were deleted from the final draft. The bishops feared that those lines might mislead people. Maintaining the clarity of Catholic teaching was the highest priority. Nonetheless, some Catholics, including bishops, still found the document objectionable and protested it. So the document had to be revised in consultation with – that is, under the scrutiny of – the Vatican.
The Catholic Church walks a tightrope in balancing official teaching against individual conscience and private behaviour. The balance is maintained by giving the official teaching top billing and putting conscience in the fine print. Commitment to public order is paramount. For official Catholicism, obedience is the supreme virtue.
Thus, when DignityUSA – a national network of support groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics and their friends – publicly protested Catholic teaching on homosexuality in 1987, bishop after bishop expelled local Dignity chapters from church property. Dignity’s offense was, of course, not so much its endorsement of gay sex, but the public protest, the breaking of ranks, the challenging of authority.
Yet as Dignity saw the matter, the Church’s repeated condemnations were doing severe psychological and spiritual harm to many individuals: teenagers committing suicide, adults repressing their affection and creative potential, people living in unrelenting self-loathing, guilt-ridden compulsives acting out surreptitiously in irresponsible and unsafe sex acts. Counterproductive and downright destructive, the official teaching had to be challenged. Dignity saw itself as prophetic. The situation is symptomatic of tensions within contemporary Catholicism.
[. . .] At the opposite pole from Dignity is a conservative activist organization called Courage, a national network of support groups dedicated to promote celibacy among homosexual Catholics. Of course, unlike Dignity, Courage enjoys the endorsement of the hierarchy. It is built on the assumption that homosexuality is an emotional debility. Based on Alcoholics Anonymous, Courage uses a twelve-step program to help people stop having sex. The ministry may serve a useful purpose for people who want to be celibate or who really are sexually addicted. Yet it can hardly be helpful that Courage, contrary to Catholicism’s official respect for scientific findings, ignores the bulk of scientific evidence and equates homosexuality with psychopathology. In any case, the local Courage groups are small. People are not flocking to this hyper-Catholic association.
Similar to other Christian churches, Catholicism is struggling to develop a new sexual ethic, and inevitably it will accommodate homosexual relationships. Although official Catholicism continues to insist that its sexual ethic is as clear and unchanging as ever, in thinking and practice a shift is occurring. The shape of the new synthesis remains to be seen. In contrast to the old emphasis on procreation, it will probably be built on the interpersonal meaning of sex.
Excerpted from chapter 11, “Homosexuality in Catholic Teaching and Practice”, of Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth by Daniel A. Helminiak (Harrington Park Press, 2006).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Non-negotiables of Human Sex
Reflections on the Primacy of Conscience
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
Somewhere In Between
In the Garden of Spirituality: Daniel Helminiak