[NOTE: This is intended to be read as the third post in a series of three. Please click here to read Part 1 and Part 2. Also, it would be remiss of me to present this particular perspective on human sexuality as the only one among Catholic theologians. This is influenced by John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which I personally believe contains much beauty and truth, but there is a great deal of other theological scholarship on this topic. If this is an area that has kept you away from the Catholic Church, I would implore you to please read more for yourself, and seek out the vast Catholic scholarship on the topic. It doesn’t change the ultimate teaching, but differing perspectives can be a very good thing.]
Have you ever been wounded by the Catholic Church? Have you ever been disgusted by the seeming hypocrisy of many Christians? Have you ever been angry at God?
I have. I would imagine most, if not all of you reading this have as well.
This topic was very intentionally selected to be the last addressed in this series. I think the Church, or at least many of its members, are unfortunately often guilty of proclaiming all the moral teachings before we’ve built a firm foundation of love. It’s very difficult to accept the ‘what’ without first understanding the ‘why’. And sometimes even the ‘why’ doesn’t seem satisfactory. This is a significant part of what kept me from actually taking Christianity seriously for so many years. I grew up being drilled with all the rules and teachings without an understanding of why they existed. Think about this for a moment – usually, we are only bitter about laws when we desire to break them, but we are much more likely to want to break them if we believe there’s no good reason for their existence in the first place. As Michael Gormley (a well known Catholic speaker) so intelligently observed, “when we remove Christ from the centre of the [culture, teachings, etc.], but we still have elements of Christianity left over, we’re pointing out the woundedness but we don’t have anyone to heal the wounds”. This is the state of the culture in North America. It is only when God is in the picture, and we are able to recognize His love for us and who He created us to be as human people, that we can come to deeper understanding of the moral teachings of the Church.
As Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and exult in the surrender of my body, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Love is the foundation upon which everything must be built, the spring from which everything else must flow forth.
Before I go any further – even if it’s not worth much coming from one person – I want to apologize, on behalf of all Christians, to anyone who has been wounded by the teachings of Christ communicated in a far-from-loving way, in particular members of the LGBTQ+ community and those who have gone through divorce. I am so very sorry for all the ways members of the Catholic Church and the Christian faithful – through our actions or language – may have caused you pain in the past, and for the ways you may have felt shunned, disrespected, unwanted or rejected because of your lifestyle choices or desires. To anyone who has been persecuted or harassed by those who have failed to communicate Christ’s true message, I’m sorry. If we have failed, first and above-all in loving you, we have failed at our primary mission as followers of Christ, who is Love.
This does not mean I am advocating that all Christians simply become cheerleaders, encouraging those around us to do whatever they want, simply because they think it best. We must love each other, and that is not real love. This is why I despise the expression, “you do you”. What happens when ‘you doing you’ results in death, not just physically but emotionally or spiritually? Shouldn’t we care about each other enough to want and be willing to do something to help, if we believe the path someone is choosing leads to self-destruction and a great deal of pain? Even if it won’t necessarily lead to pain and destruction, if we know of an even deeper joy and an even greater fullness of life, should we not care about each other enough to at least do our best to share that?
Our modern world has a very distorted notion of the meaning of the human body and the purpose of sexuality. Just look at the artwork depicting the body in the past hundred years compared with more historical artistic depictions (ancient Greek sculpture, ancient Egyptian and Chinese paintings, works of Michelangelo and Bernini, paintings of the Renaissance, among others). There is also a pervasive idea that body and soul are separate, that our bodies really aren’t ‘us’ in the same way that our soul is, so what we do with it doesn’t actually matter – particularly in the realm of sexuality. When stated outright, we may claim not to believe this, but so many of the actions taking place in our post-sexual revolution culture indicate otherwise. There must be harmony between our body and our soul because who we are as individuals is equally both, and what is good or bad for our body is also good or bad for our soul. They are inextricably linked.
This is why the information unfurled in John Paul II’s writings on the Theology of the Body are so powerful and needed, particularly at this time. It seeks to restore an understanding of the meaning of the human body, intended from the beginning. As stated in the introduction to Man and Woman He Created Them, the “[T]heology of the Body is not primarily an admonition to follow the law of the body, but a persuasive proclamation of the gospel of the body”, and it is good news. It will certainly take work to understand and implement in our lives, but the ‘law’ of the body comes naturally once an understanding of the body is reached.
In the beginning, humanity was made male and female. Each sex has a very particular purpose, communicated through the form and function of the body. Just as our ears were made to hear, our tongue to taste, and our heart to pump blood, our genitals exist primarily to generate. Their primary function is to bring forth new life. Gender means the manner by which you generate. This is not to ignore the pleasure that comes from sex, but the purpose of sexual pleasure for humanity is that it gives us a “little glimmer” of the joy of Trinitarian love. We are not simply animals – sexual pleasure for humans is not just to procreate. As Christopher West says, “God did not need to dangle a carrot in front of us to get us to procreate“. This obviously does not mean that sexual activity is our ultimate fulfillment, but God has chosen to give us a glimpse into the experience of His own infinite love through human sexual union, and that is beautiful.
Due to the pervasiveness of sex in our modern culture, homosexuality and same-sex topics are constantly brought up in the media, particularly in conversations about Christian moral teaching, forcing the Church and faithful Christians to repeatedly address the topic, seemingly indicating condemnation of the lifestyles lived among members of the LGBTQ+ as one of the primary messages of our faith. I think this is painting a very skewed image of who Christ is and what the true teachings of the Catholic Church are. Yes, the Church declares the reality of sin and sees certain lifestyle choices as sinful, but sexual desire for someone of the same sex is just one of a whole myriad of potentially destructive desires possible within each of us. It is just one tendency to sin among many. (Please see my previous two posts exploring the purpose of sex, according to Christian teaching, to better understand why certain acts may be a distortion of this gift.)
We all experience potentially problematic desires. They may lead to a great deal of pleasure in the moment, but if followed through too their end, they will never lead us to true, long-lasting fulfillment or thriving. If we cannot say no to our desires, no matter what they may be, sexual or otherwise, that is not freedom. It is slavery.
I want to make it clear when I say that myself, or anyone else, has problematic desires, I am not saying that myself or anyone else, in themselves, is problematic. This is a very important distinction. Our desires and emotions do not define who we are. Because of our fallen state, there is a tendency to sexual disorder within each of us, the question is whether we choose to act on it or not. We must understand the worth and value we possess simply because we exist, and the radiant beauty of our own soul, so we can come to recognize the worth, dignity, and beauty of others, and then to respect and love each other, willing the greatest good.
Though certain sexual acts may, technically, vary in their degrees of disorder, that is not my point here. For the purposes of this post, I am talking about sin as the great equalizer. We all sin, each and every one of us, every day, and we are all in need of redemption, whether we’ve personally come to that realization or not. But that is why Jesus came! That is why the gospel is called the “good news”, because in the moment we realize and recognize or sin and brokenness and our need for redemption, in the same moment we can then realize, with profound relief and gratitude, that God knew this long ago and provided the redemption we so desperately needed through the sacrifice of Himself. This is a God who submitted Himself to the worst suffering possible out of love for us because of His desperate longing and desire for each of us, regardless of our life choices or past mistakes. God feels eros for us. The Creator of the universe has an infinite longing for you. He came so He could spend ETERNITY with YOU.
In the ocean of God’s mercy, sin loses its uniqueness. No matter the depth or breadth of sin, the Father’s mercy is more than enough to cover it, to wipe it away and restore brokenness to beauty. It is only in acknowledgment of our brokenness and need that we touch the depths of God, where we find unending love and mercy. This takes humility. We must come to see clearly who we truly are to know who God truly is, and what that actually means for us. What good, good news that is.
Before [God’s] gaze all falsehood melts away… All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation.
– Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi
This is the truth the Saints knew so well. It wasn’t that they were perfect human beings, never making mistakes or hurting others. It was their total awareness of their sin and weakness that allowed them to be such exceptional vessels of God’s love.
Disagreement with someone’s life choices does not mean we can’t still have friendship, communion and love. That seems to be a pervasive idea within our current culture, that if we disagree fundamentally on issues of morality or religious beliefs we must divide and good relationships can’t exist between us. That is absolutely false, and becomes a failed opportunity to stretch our capacities for love, and to foster diverse and open-minded community. Disagreement is not synonymous with hatred or dislike. We have to stop slapping on labels for other people and sticking them in boxes based on pre-conceived notions which have little or no basis in fact, without getting to know them at all. While I may not respect a choice or action itself, I will always, by the grace of God, respect the person who made it.
My dear brothers and sisters, if you have ever experienced or do experience same-sex desires, if you have ever felt out of place within your own body, if you consider yourself gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, genderfluid or anything else, know first and foremost that you are loved by the Church (even if we have failed abismaly in the past at demonstrating this), and that your chosen lifestyle, whatever it may be, does not at all detract from the beauty and dignity I recognize in you. I see you first and foremost as my brother or sister and a beloved child of the heavenly King. I desire your greatest good. I want to know you, to walk with you, to hear you and spend time with you. I do not view you as a project or an object in need of fixing. I look at you as I seek to look at all others: through the eyes of Jesus. You are a potential saint.
As discussed in the first post in this series, God is Love, equally eros and agape – self-sacrificial and desirous. He is the Life-giver, as He desires that all of humanity be unified with Him for eternity in His life-giving, Trinitarian love. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote so beautifully in his encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est:
God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape.
The greatest expression of the unitive, life-giving love of the Trinity is marriage and the family. That is why Catholic Christians so fiercely proclaim the truth of what marriage actually is, because any deformation or distortion of it distorts the image of God’s love. The meaning and value of sex is inherent to the act itself, regardless of how we may feel about it. This means that any sexual act which deviates from its true purpose is a distortion and a disordered desire, no matter the sexual orientation of the person. But it is important to note, as Christopher West says, that “the ultimate orientation of human sexuality is towards something infinite, something eternal”.
“We talk about different ‘sexual orientations’ in human life,” says Lorenzo Albacete, a physicist turned Catholic priest and a beloved professor of mine. “But the ultimate orientation of human sexuality is the human heart’s yearning for infinity. Human sexuality, therefore, is a sign of eternity.” This means sex is not just about sex. As we learn to “read” the story our bodies tell as male and female, we discover that sex is meant to point the way to the ultimate fulfillment of our every desire.
That ultimate fulfillment is God.
By the way, if you’re curious who Christopher West is, since he’s been quoted several times in these posts, you can find out more about him here. He is one of the world’s most prominent teachers of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and is a renound speaker and authour.