Changing how we think about gay people

Church’s teaching on homosexuality is difficult to accept

Few issues create as big a gulf between the Catholic Church and the modern world than the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. In the mainstream media, the blogosphere, and my own conversations with non-Catholics, it comes up again and again. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin hears it every time he talks to young people. Even practising Catholics disagree – 53% of weekly massgoing US Catholics support gay marriage.

In truth, the Church’s teaching in this area has been for a long time the hardest one for me to accept. Even though I read Vatican documents, encyclicals, books and blog posts, and discussed the question of homosexuality with some of the most intelligent and articulate people I know – and learned an awful lot about my faith in the process – I never got a fully satisfactory explanation.

New writers

However, recently I’ve been reading new writers: Eve Tushnet, Gabriel Blanchard, Joshua Gonnerman, Melinda Selmys and others. All of them are orthodox Catholics trying to live out their faith, all of them are gay, and all of them accept the Church’s teaching on gay sex.

And all of them think that if the Church is to both keep its teaching and be a true home for non-straights we need to change almost everything else about the way we think about and minister to gay people.

These ‘New Homophiles’ as they were dubbed by Austin Ruse in a Crisis magazine profile, do not hold monolithic views. But they share a belief that the Church is doing very badly in caring for our gay brothers and sisters.

Cruelty and prejudice

And they’re right. Even aside from the sad fact that Catholics have often used the Church’s teaching as an excuse for cruelty and prejudice, there are many problems. Why is it that we only ever hear homilies about two lifelong vocations, marriage and the priesthood? Why are gay men and women so often spoken about as political opponents rather than people? Why do some orthodox Catholics still scoff at the idea of homophobia and acts like anti-gay bullying is nothing to worry about?

When reading the ‘New Homophiles’ the words ‘friendship’ and ‘vocation’ come up again and again. Joshua Gonnerman believes that the experience of being gay can be a spur to form deeper, more intimate friendships, and Eve Tushnet writes that a rediscovery of friendship as a vocation equal to marriage could help, not just gay people, but the Church as a whole. Intense, sacrificial love is not the preserve of sexual relationships or religious life: it can be present in one-to-one friendship as well as in extended families and lay communities. Cardinal John Henry Newman was buried with his friend Ambrose St John, and wrote about his death: “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone’s sorrow greater, than mine.”

Even the language the Church uses can be a block. It’s true that “intrinsically disordered” means something different to the Church than it does to the world. But this doesn’t give us free rein to sit around and huff, waiting for others to catch up with our theological language. Quite the opposite – it means we must be even more willing to explain and evangelise.

And there’s a deeper problem: how much of ‘gayness’ is reducible to ‘homosexual tendencies’ or ‘same-sex attraction’? For Eve Tushnet, ‘being gay’ is not synonymous with “wanting to have sex with other women”.


She writes: “… here’s my problem with the ‘intrinsically disordered’ language: I think it relies on a mechanistic understanding of eros. If sexual desire can be easily tweezed away from non-sexual longing and love and adoration then yeah, sure, I guess I can see the point of calling homosexual desire “disordered”. But that’s not how eros actually works! My lesbianism is part of why I form the friendships I form. It’s part of why I volunteer at a pregnancy centre. Not because I’m attracted to the women I counsel, but because my connection to other women does have an adoring and erotic component, and I wanted to find a way to express that connection through works of mercy. My lesbianism is inextricable from who I am and how I live in the world. Therefore I can’t help but think it’s inextricable from my vocation.”

Moving away from the language of ‘intrinsic disorder’ would be a development of doctrine, as would a recognition that aspects of being gay could be an aid rather than a barrier to virtue. But they would not be radically discontinuous breaks, but shifts in understanding motivated by love.

* For those interested in reading more on this subject see, where many of these writers blog, or read Eve Tushnet on