I take my faith seriously, and still in my heart I believe that homosexual people are children of God, and that God would want them to express their love for each other in a committed monogamous relationship. Am I a bad Catholic because I feel compelled to follow my heart on this one?

From the quality and concern of your question, I would judge that you are a conscientious and compassionate person of faith.I wish that there were an easy and equally straightforward way to answer your question, but there isn’t.We have to consider many factors that don’t bump up easily against each other.

The Catholic church (in its official teaching) has a problem with same-sex marriage for at least two reasons. First, the church has maintained an opposition to sexual relationships between people of the same sex dating back to the prohibitions found in some of the letters of St. Paul. Since marriage of its nature involves a sexual relationship, two persons of the same sex cannot enter into it. A longterm committed celibate friendship between persons of the same sex might be permissable in theory, although in reality few would find this an attractive option. Gay marriage also contradicts the Catholic understanding of marriage as a sacrament, which is that a man and a women enter into a covenant which promises both mutual love and an openness to children. Both these conditions are necessary for a sacramental marriage. Since a couple of the same sex are unable to conceive children,they cannot celebrate this sacrament.Opposition to gay marriage is not unique to the Catholic church: it is a belief that has been shared by other Christian denominations and in fact other religions, although some have begun a process of reconsidering the issue.

A teaching of the church that has been consistent for over 2,000 years needs to be taken seriously. However, even longterm teachings of the church have in fact evolved into something new: for example the church’s condemnation of taking interest on money loans, attitudes toward war and peace and teaching concerning the church’s relation to the Jewish people.Is there room for change with the church’s teaching about gay marriage?

Here are some of the factors that may impact this question.

The Catholic Church (and some other churches)have in recent years distinguished between sexual activity and sexual orientation. The church now teaches that while sexual relations between people of the same sex are sinful, a homosexual orientation in itself is not. This distinction enables the church to forbid prejudice and discrimination against gay persons and to support their civil rights. It also has encouraged the church to welcome gay and lesbian Catholics as good, faithful and loving members of the Christian community. As a result, in recent years many Catholic parishes and dioceses have inaugurated pastoral ministries to support gay Catholics in living a good Christian life. The qualification in all of this is that gay and lesbian Catholics are expected to conform to church teaching by living a celibate life. Thus marriage is not considered to be among the civil rights to which gay and lesbian persons are entitled.

A second fact to consider is the way in which science is changing our understanding of sexual orientation. This was once considered a choice that a person could make, as inferred by the term “sexual preference.” Research is providing some indication that sexual orientation may in fact be determined by genetic factors. It’s a reality about oneself that is “discovered” rather than “chosen.” Catholic teaching is already acknowledging this to some degree in its distinction between sexual activity and orientation. Sin involves a free choice of the will, so something predetermined cannot be sinful. However these scientific studies are still in process and much about the causes and factors involved in sexual orientation reminds unknown. If it is proven beyond doubt that sexual orientation is genetic in origin, in what sense could it be considered “unnatural?”

A third factor is provided by contemporary biblical scholarship. Our understanding of the bible has grown considerably in the past century as a result of new methods of biblical studies. As you mentioned in your explanation of your question, one of the areas where recent studies have focused has been that of the bible’s teaching on homosexuality. It appears not as easy as it once did to pinpoint exactly what the biblical texts mean. Some of the passages which appear to condemn homosexuality may refer to other realities such as rape, sexual relationships with young boys, violations of purity laws or sins against hospitality. It would be hard to mount a case that the bible has anything positive to say about homosexuality. Yet it would also seem to be true that none of these passages address the concept of a loving, committed relationship between two adults of the same sex.

A fourth factor is that provided by our own human experience. Today many gay and lesbian persons have become more open in sharing their lives and feelings with others. Many of us have friends or family members who are seriously committed to a same-sex relationship. We see them to be good, loving, sincere people. We may attend Mass each week with fellow Catholics who are prayerful and mature and who are sruggling to live their faith in an authentic manner while feeling called to commit their love to a person of their own sex. While church teaching tells us such relationships are wrong, our heart and our common sense lead us to a different conclusion.

It’s quite possible that we’re in the midst of a change in the Church’ understanding of how we live our in the world as sexual beings, much as we have changed in recent years our understanding of how we are to relate to the Jewish people, for example. As a church we are called to be
responsive to the “signs of the times”, yet also faithful to the richness of our tradition. In the case of sexuality, both the church and our culture have left us with a mixture of both useful and unhelpful messages, which confuses us even further! A time of change always brings some tension, ambiguity and pain. There’s no guarantee as to how the church’s understanding will change, how how quickly it will change, or even if it will change at all. That’s the reality of where we are.

Now I’d like to address at least in some fashion your actual question: “am I a bad Catholic because I feel compelled to follow my heart on this one?”

I would respond that if you carry the following items with you as you confront this and other questions in your life as a Catholic, you can feel confident you are on the right path.

First, humility. Scientists, biblical scholars, church leaders, and advocates within the gay and lesbian community can all appear quite confident and certain when they speak about the subject. But in fact, there is much we don’t know. As good Catholics, we need to inform ourselves about church teaching and the reasons behind that teaching. We also need to be attentive to facts and our own common sense. We need to be clear about what we know, and what we don’t. If we always seek the truth, it will set us free.

Second, love. The gospels call us to move from a fear-centered to a love-centered life. We need to honestly examine where our teachings may be based on an uninformed fear of “the other” and open ourselves to a daily conversion to the gospel call to place the needs of the poor and the outcast before our own.

Third, unity. The Pentecost story (in the Acts of the Apostles) tells us that unity in diversity, not uniformity in sameness, is what the Holy Spirit brings. In the church there are no first and second class citizens. In practical terms this means that when you express your honest convictions you are a gift to the church. We need more such honest conversation with one another if we are ever to find the Spirit’s way through the challenges that face us. At the same time, our honest convictions need to be expressed in a way that is respectful of others and seeks the unity of the church as a whole.

Fourth, hope. We do not live in a perfect world. We are members of an all-too-human church. Yet we believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in all things, to bring about the union of all creation. We try to cooperate with that Spirit in the choices we make and the lives we lead, and leave the results to God.

I hope these reflections help you to think more about the excellent question you raised.

God bless you,
Fr. Joe

Update: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently drafted a new document on ministering to those with a homosexual inclination. You can find that document here.