For more than 30 years, the Courage apostolate has been offering pastoral care to men and women with same-sex attraction, helping them to withstand a culture which increasingly demands acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle.
Courage was founded in 1980 by the then-archbishop of New York, Cardinal Terence Cooke, in response to the unique pastoral needs of those with homosexual inclinations. Over the years, under the guidance of the late Fr. John Harvey, the apostolate has spread throughout the United States and the world.
In an interview with ZENIT, director of Courage, Fr. Paul Check, offered some clarification to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
Part 1 of this interview was published Thursday.
ZENIT: There are those who are offended by the Church’s teaching that homosexuality is disordered. How can the Church constructively convey this understanding of homosexuality?
Fr Check: Just to clarify: the phrase “intrinsically disordered” applies to the action—to the homosexual act—while “objectively disordered” applies to the inclination. That’s an important distinction in our anthropology.
With great maternal charity, the Church distinguishes three things: the person, the inclination, and the action. This distinction is necessary; we don’t want to create the impression that men and women with homosexual inclinations are condemned or excluded from the Church or that Christ has no place in His Heart for them. On the contrary, God offers His love and mercy to all of His children, no matter their particular weakness or Cross.
The person is always good, created in the image and likeness of God, redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ, invited to holiness by grace in this life and the promise of glory in the life to come. God doesn’t make mistakes when He makes people. He makes people in His own image. He prepares people for communion with Him, first to experience joy in this life through the action of grace in the soul, and then to be happy with Him in heaven.
Homosexual activity—like other sexual activity contrary to the virtue of chastity, for example, adultery—constitutes what is called “grave matter.” There are three conditions for mortal sin: knowledge, consent, and grave matter. The violations of chastity as covered by the Sixth Commandment are always grave matter. Whether they rise to the level of mortal sin depends upon consent and knowledge. I think we must recall that the Church’s teaching on chastity is coherent and consistent in itself, lest it appear that we are or appear to be focusing attention, and perhaps very severely, on only one particular sin. Contraception, cohabitation, and pornography, for instance, must also be cause for great pastoral concern, because they do great harm. Homosexual activity is “intrinsically disordered,” which means that no subjectively good intention can make it good. It always contrary to man’s nature and therefore cannot lead to fulfillment or to holiness. And so, the Church warns strongly and clearly against it.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty in discussing homosexuality is the phrase objectively disordered, which is the way the Catechism describes the desire for sexual activity with a member of the same sex. The term “objectively disordered” does not apply to the person, and therefore is not a moral judgment let alone a condemnation. It means that this desire is out of harmony with man’s nature, because the desire cannot be fulfilled in a way consistent with our God-given design, as specified by the complementarity of the sexes and the procreative potential of the sexual faculty.
One of the great debates—not just now in 2014 but for many years—is whether there is such a thing as human nature. But the recognition of human nature—of those things common to the family of man with regard to basic human dignity—is really an essential part of our conscience, the capacity to judge right and wrong. For instance, if someone were to say that that “all Jews are non-persons,” people of different cultures, religions, backgrounds, and ages would certainly find such a statement repugnant. And so they should. That feeling of repugnance is based on our innate understanding of basic human dignity.
Let’s take another example: How would you feel if you discovered someone has deliberately deceived you? We don’t have to appeal to the Eighth Commandment for people to understand that lying is contrary to the good of human relationships. Everyone knows this. Why? Because a desire for the truth is part of our human nature.
But something strange happens when we enter into discussions regarding sexuality. Now, that kind of logic, that innate understanding of human dignity and right action, often suddenly stops at the door. The specific problem is not the human desire for love and affection, but how it is to be understood, expressed and properly fulfilled. One of the things that make a discussion of homosexuality challenging is that what everyone wants most of all, and what we are made for most of all, is to give and receive love. If what I’m saying to a group of people sounds like: “You can’t give and receive love in the way you want,” it’s understandable that they would say to me: “Why not? And who are you to tell me that I can’t?”
In all honesty, I think that one of the reasons we have the struggle that we do right now is that chastity, as a virtue, is in many places, even within the “visible Church”, often not considered part of the Good News. Justice is part of the Good News. Mercy is part of the Good News. Redemption is part of the Good News. Hope is part of the Good News. And no one’s arguing about those. But whether people see chastity as part of the Good News is another matter. Those of us who have a vocation to represent the Gospel in priesthood or religious life have a special mission today to love the virtue of chastity and to strive to live it joyfully and faithfully, because chastity is a virtue that not only blocks false aspirations, but one that also liberates and leads to human happiness and fulfillment.
ZENIT: One of the arguments frequently heard in the same-sex marriage debate is how those who oppose it do so solely on religious grounds. What relevance does a ministry, such as Courage, have for all men and women with homosexual inclinations, and not just those coming from religious backgrounds?
Fr. Check: 400 years before Christ was born, there was a very wise and intelligent man named Plato. He didn’t understand the Doctrine of Original Sin as you and I do, and he couldn’t give an account for the fall from grace, as you and I can.
In a work called the Phaedrus, he relates his “parable of the chariot.” Plato understood very well that there was a disjunction within him, that he could be at cross-purposes with himself. He said: “I have a chariot within me. One horse is pulling me this way, and one horse is pulling me in the opposite direction.”
Many years later St. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, said: “The good I want to do I don’t do, and the evil that I want to avoid, that is what I want to do.” Plato and St. Paul, in their humble realizations, were explaining the effects of the fall from grace.
Much later, Chesterton, at the end of Orthodoxy, asks: “How does a man who is born upside down know he’s right side up?” This suggests that man’s normal, common condition, so to speak, is to be “abnormal”, meaning out-of-joint with the purposes of his creator…and that is why we need grace, so that we can live morally upright lives.
These three men were referring to the same thing, which is that there is something at work within us that can cause our desires and interests to be misdirected. This is a common human experience. Christianity can explain it, and of course Christianity provides an antidote, which is grace.
When it comes to love, it is a common human experience that our affections, desires and certainly sexual urges can betray us, can set us at cross-purposes with ourselves. The virtue of chastity, of purity of heart, however, ensures that we will love and be loved in a way consistent with our highest aspirations and our greatest good. This virtue helps us love another person for who he or she is and not for what that person can do for us, which is the way we all want to be loved.
That is why the question of marriage, of human intimacy, as the Church looks at it, is not something unique to Catholics or Christians. It applies to all human beings. The Church, as our mother, says there are different ways that you can get in trouble and be at cross purposes with yourself: adultery, fornication, masturbation, contraception, pornography, homosexual activity. Any of these things will undo or undermine what it is you want most: to love and be loved for who you are. This is why the question of human nature and of the use of the sexual faculty, as governed by right reason, is of interest to all persons and why the Church’s solicitude, care and thoughtfulness extend to all of humanity.
ZENIT: What advice would you give to your fellow priests?
Fr. Check: I would like to encourage my brother priests in particular to study the question of homosexuality carefully, just as the Church studies it, because all priests want to ease suffering, and particularly the suffering caused by sin. As much as the Church says “no” to legislation and court decrees that are contrary to the human good, she also says “yes” to individual people without approving of behavior that is at variance with their own good. As Pope Francis has told us, we have to get to know people, to walk with them, to be part of their journey to Christ, and to help them by first forming relationships with them. This “walking with” is certainly the mission of Courage and the vocation of all priests.
There is often a hesitancy to delve into the complexities of homosexuality because the topic is controversial in our society. No one, especially a priest, wants to be misunderstood as hating a group of people—and in our society when one speaks against an active homosexual lifestyle that person is often accused of speaking against a specific group of people, rather than against their actions. There is a special opportunity today for priests to represent the love of Christ and the Church to a group of people who feel as though they are out on the margin, unsure of where they stand—perhaps they are waiting for someone to extend a hand, and especially to reassure them of God’s love and mercy.
No matter what someone brings to the questions surrounding homosexuality, one thing I’m sure of is that we all share a desire to alleviate suffering and to bring peace to the heart. Persons with same-sex attractions often suffer greatly in a great variety of ways. They carry a difficult and persistent cross. I know the Church has a great heart for them, understands their suffering, and wants to do something to ease it. I’ve come to love my work with Courage members, who are a remarkable and noble group of souls. I’ve learned that those who struggle with homosexuality are individuals with a wide variety of stories and experiences. But they hold in common the desire to love and be loved. Courage understands this human need and can offer the help, hope and charity of Jesus Christ.
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