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What is True Compassion for the Person with Homosexual Tendencies?


Homiletic and Pastoral Review

January 1988

About six months ago Phil Donahue devoted his show to the fashionable topic of homosexuality. Donahue's guests included the outstanding moral theologian, Msgr. William Smith, who defends the Church's teaching regarding homosexual activity, and Rev. John McNeill, S.J., who, in the name of compassion, defends the moral legitimacy of homosexual activity. He also wants the Roman Catholic Church to change her teaching on this topic.

It was a typical Donahue show, devoted (with a couple of exceptions) to passionate and often incoherent statements by very emotional people.

All through the hour, Donahue took great pains to portray Fr. McNeill as the compassionate Catholic (is not the Church supposed to teach and practice love?) while repeatedly implying that Msgr. Smith's insistence on the teachings of the Church was legalistic and basically hardhearted.

Donahue clearly considers Msgr. Smith (and the official Catholic Church) to be more interested in abstract laws than in showing love and compassion for persons with homosexual tendencies. Yet, although Donahue never once discussed the question of what constitutes true compassion, this question is essential to determining the appropriate Christian response to homosexuality and the claim by some of them that a truly compassionate Church would approve of homosexual activity.

Many people equate love with yielding to the wishes of the person who is loved (whatever those wishes may be) and with helping him to escape suffering. Two examples will show that this is a very superficial and misleading conception of love.

First, consider the mother who does not give medicine to her child because he dislikes its taste. Obviously, she is not a good mother. She has sacrificed the greater good of the child's health for the lesser good of his avoiding bad tasting medicine. True love requires her to contradict the child's desires in this instance since his desires conflict with that which is truly good for him.

Imagine a worse case: a child is born with a severe physical defect which can be repaired only by a series of extremely painful operations, but which will kill him if it is not soon corrected. The parents of this unfortunate child feel they love him very much—so much that they abhor the thought that he might be subjected to severe pain. Therefore, they refuse to allow the lifesaving operations and the child dies.

Compare their "love" to the love of parents who let their child suffer the painful operations because this is the only way his life can be saved.

Good parents sometimes cause pain

Clearly, such parents also do not want their child to suffer pain. Were they able, they would themselves suffer the pain for him. However, since they cannot, these good parents suffer with him and pray that the operations that bring about his suffering will also lead to his healing. Which set of parents has greater loving compassion?

True love requires us to desire good for the person we love. The greater the good that we desire for him, the greater is our love. In this case, the good of saving the child's life outweighs the temporary pain that he will suffer, and true love calls us to allow the operations that cause his suffering.

With this background, we can now turn again to the question of what constitutes true loving compassion toward persons with homosexual tendencies.

Note that it is not my purpose here to address the question of how people develop homosexual desires nor whether they are morally responsible for their condition. I seek only to answer the question of what we must do if we are to truly love a person with homosexual tendencies.

Should we approve of homosexual activity because someone strongly desires it and may suffer without it? Or should we urge him to tread a path which, although it may cause him much suffering, can ultimately lead him to sanctity? (The path is chastity, and like the painful operations discussed above, it can at first cause much suffering while it is bringing health.)

As I said above, the greater the good that we desire for a person, the greater is our love. Therefore, to determine which path the Church should recommend for a person with tendencies towards homosexuality, we must discover which would be the greatest good for him.

It has been Biblical teaching from the very start that sodomy is a great sin. In spite of Abraham's pleading, Sodom was destroyed because the actions of its inhabitants were abominable to God. Nor is this condemnation only Biblical: the great pagan philosopher Plato also repudiated homosexual activity in the strongest terms, indicating thereby that one does not need Revelation in order to see that homosexual activity is immoral. No one can accuse Plato of being captive to the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Since condemnation of homosexual activity is found in both Scripture and the natural law, homosexual activity constitutes a grave offense to God and brings great moral harm to the persons engaging in it.

In light of this, who is the more compassionate? Someone like Fr. McNeill who encourages persons with homosexual inclinations to live according to their unfortunate desires, or the Church, which cares about the eternal welfare of the person and about the offense against God that homosexual practices imply?

Because it seeks to avoid the loss of souls and to prevent offenses against God, the Church calls on all persons to live lives of chastity, by which sexuality is rightly ordered according to each person's state in life.

Different states in life call for chastity to be achieved in different ways: chastity for the married permits sexual relations between the spouses, but requires that they must never use each other sexually. Rather, in the sexual sphere they must always approach each other with deep reverence as persons. Chastity for the unmarried simply requires them to remain properly celibate. Consequently, chastity for the person with homosexual desires also requires celibacy, since legitimate marriages cannot be contracted between persons of the same sex.

Many have complained that this is unfair to persons with homosexual inclinations. Whereas heterosexuals (if they choose) may marry and engage in sexual relations with their spouse, persons with homosexual tendencies are denied this possibility and are forced into an involuntary celibacy.

Yet involuntary celibacy is not a suffering confined to those with homosexual desires alone. Many others must involuntarily endure the same suffering for the sake of chastity: unmarried heterosexuals who wish ardently to be married (but to whom this gift has not been given), widows and widowers (some of whom have lost their spouse soon after their marriage), and those married person's whose spouses are absent, seriously ill, or who must live abstinent married lives for some other reason.

Involuntary celibacy is common

In my opinion, there are far more heterosexual laymen who must involuntarily embrace celibacy than most people suspect. Although initially this may cause them much suffering, with God's grace many of them have discovered the sweet attraction of chastity through celibacy which, as St. Augustine says, is "virtuously alluring.”

In such cases—as in the case of the celibacy required of those with homosexual desires—compassion requires that we strive to understand the struggles which the person must go through. That is why, in insisting on the validity of moral norms, the Church simultaneously offers help to those striving to live in accordance with them. Did not Christ himself say, "Come to me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest"? Our love must be strong and unyielding, but at the same time tender and compassionate.

Compassion also demands that the Church help people to realize how deeply a life of virtue is necessarily entangled in suffering, including our pain in attempting to free ourselves from illicit desires and our suffering in bearing legitimate crosses created by forces and circumstances quite beyond our control (the death of a loved one, the pain of being physically crippled, the great difficulties faced by the very poor).

The person with homosexual tendencies must fight

A person with homosexual inclinations striving for virtue must endure the suffering of fighting against illegitimate sexual desires and, if these desires cannot ever be properly redirected, the cross of having to live a life of involuntary celibacy.

However, as I have indicated, neither suffering in itself nor even the cross of involuntary celibacy is unique to homosexual desires. Indeed, whereas apostates are convinced that they have a right to live in any way they choose, those struggling to live in accordance with the teachings of Christ know that at the heart of Christianity is the cross: we are here on this earth to serve God, not to yield to our own wishes and instincts, tempting as they may be. Christ explicitly said, "He who wishes to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me."

Compassion requires that the Church preach the cross. Those who listen will soon discover that the struggle for chastity (and for all other virtues) is always easier when it is undertaken within the Christian understanding of the world.

Ironically, however, the world hates the Church precisely because she preaches the cross. The ongoing rebellion against official Church teachings on homosexual activity (and on many other subjects) has one common root: the refusal to carry the cross and the wish to eliminate it from Church teaching and from life.

Yet, since Adam's fall, we cannot obtain life if we will not suffer. The child in our example was saved because he endured operations that brought him suffering while bringing him life. Similarly, with God's grace we shall be saved through struggles for virtue that bring us suffering while bringing us eternal life.

A compassionate parent does not let his child die to avoid suffering. So, too, a compassionate Church cannot let souls die eternally to avoid in this life the pains of being virtuous.

Because she is compassionate, the Church must preach chaste celibacy to the unmarried—those experiencing homosexuality included—regardless of the suffering it may temporarily cause them.

Although people like Fr. McNeill and Phil Donahue portray themselves as compassionate and the Church as hardhearted, remember that the Church is not compassionate when it does not preach the cross and call us to live it. Eliminate the cross and you destroy Christianity, for it is only through the cross that any of us—whether experiencing heterosexuality or homosexuality—can be saved.


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