It isn’t easy being gay and Catholic

Church teaching is doctrine, not policy

Early in his still young pontificate, Pope Francis remarked that we should spend a little less time talking about abortion and homosexuality and more time talking about the message of love in the Gospel. For many Catholics, the remarks might have been something of a surprise, as it is not very often that priests or bishops stick their necks out on such controversial issues. Those who continue to talk about these things most ceaselessly are not Catholics themselves but the Church’s critics, including her internal critics. The latest prominent figure to attack the Church on the issue of homosexuality is no less than the former President Mary McAleese.

Mrs McAleese made a variety of points and all reasonable people can agree on one of them. Gay people do continue to face real discrimination and difficulties on account of their sexuality. Most of my gay friends have experienced this first-hand in one or other of its forms and like quite a few others I’ve been on the receiving end of homophobic violence myself. We should not forget about these things just because attitudes are very swiftly moving in the other direction. There would be no difficulty if Mrs McAleese had limited herself to a reminder that the Catechism of the Church teaches that gay men and women must be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity”. She could have added that anyone in the Church who sets out to make gay people feel unwelcome is betraying this very clear point of teaching. However, she went a great deal further than that. Her comments are unfair to priests and the Church and muddled on the nature of the Church’s message.


In alleging that many priests are homosexual, she has done a disservice to the clergy, who like everybody else deserve better than to have to put up with public speculation about their sexuality. She was more intrusive still in speaking about Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who is in retirement after disclosure of a past homosexual affair. Risking amateur psychoanalysis, she diagnosed Cardinal O’Brien as trying to divert attention away from himself by speaking “in the most homophobic way” in defending the traditional understanding of marriage.

This is quite a dangerous approach to adopt towards gay people within the Church. It peddles the charge, often repeated by the Church’s enemies, that gay men and women who uphold what the Church has always taught on sexual morality are speaking and acting not from settled conviction but from self-loathing. At best, this is patronising. At worst, it comes close to saying that a gay person cannot strive to live out their faith fully without hypocritically betraying themselves. That message is untrue and it undermines the many gay people within the Church who remain loyal to Church teaching, sometimes with great joy at the gift of faith, sometimes with quiet heroism and a lot more of a patiently-born struggle.

The central target of Mrs McAleese’s remarks is that teaching itself. In her own words, “I don’t like my Church’s attitude to gay people. I don’t like ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. If you are the so-called sinner, who likes to be called that.” She added, “Things written by [Pope] Benedict, for example, were completely contradictory to modern science and to modern understanding, and to the understanding of most Catholics nowadays in relation to homosexuality”. There is a lot in those short comments that is deeply problematic.

While nobody necessarily enjoys the reminder, it is a basic element of the Faith that we are all sinners. It is an incoherent approach to moral thinking to take the line that any teaching which puts us in mind of that should be revised. ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ applies not merely to gay men and women but to everybody, and not merely to sexual morality, but to all morality. We are not incapable of recognising that we each routinely let ourselves down in all sorts of ways, sometimes gravely. The Church would be incapable of offering any guidance whatsoever if clear teaching on moral matters was precluded for fear of reminding us of this fact.  

Moral thinking

The problems continue with Mrs McAleese’s criticisms of Pope Benedict. Although she did not specify quite what she meant by the words, it is far from obvious how ‘modern science’ could contradict the Pope emeritus’s careful reasoning on homosexuality, which is a moral argument and not a scientific one. Pope Benedict based his reasoning most fundamentally on Scripture, as the Church naturally must. Mrs McAleese invites us instead to base our moral thinking on ‘modern understanding’ and how homosexuality is now widely ‘perceived’.

We should beware the arrogance of the contemporary and the presumption that what is recent is superior, but in any case the idea that the Church should meekly follow the variations of public opinion through the ages would lead to the dissolution of all teaching authority if taken seriously. A religion which merely rubber-stamped prevailing notions would be a pitiable spectacle. It would also be led immediately into self-contradiction. Opinion changes continuously through time but any religion would be incoherent if it taught one thing in one period, its opposite in the next, and whatever followed in the future, according to what is happens to be said at the time. It should be obvious that moral thinking must be grounded with much more rigour.

The central mistake Mrs McAleese makes is to treat Church teaching as a policy rather than a doctrine. Teaching on homosexuality cannot change because it is rooted in the Church’s scriptural inheritance. She is free to repudiate Pope Benedict’s writings if she wishes, but the Church could not repudiate his conclusions unless it were also willing to repudiate St Paul.

Deep challenge

There is a deep challenge to being both gay and Catholic but there is also a deep challenge to being separated and Catholic, to experiencing an unwanted pregnancy and being Catholic, to being Catholic in a land of persecution, and the list goes on. The right response to these challenges is not to wish them away but to renew our efforts to treat each other with Christian love.

Criticising Catholicism on homosexuality has won Mrs McAleese plenty of easy plaudits, but real courage would have been shown by defending the Church. At a time when unborn life is under attack in Ireland and Christians are under attack in many parts of the world, there is no shortage of urgent issues on which a prominent Catholic might better have spoken out.

Richard Waghorne is a journalist and writer.