By Fr Carter Griffin
Or rather, why do so many people think that it does?
Why does the Catholic Church hate gay people? Perhaps you have asked that same question yourself. As a Catholic priest, I have certainly heard it. Now I would like to address it.
But first, permit me to change the question slightly. Since I emphatically do not think that the Catholic Church hates anybody, I think a better question is, “Why does the Catholic Church seem to hate gay people?” Why do many perceive a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon between Catholics and people who identify as gay?
My purpose is not to give a full presentation of the Catholic Church’s approach to homosexual attractions or behaviour. Instead, I have two, more modest, goals in mind. First, I would like to show that the Catholic Church does not hate anyone. And second, I would like to propose a reason why, to many, the Church seems to do just that.
Disagreement is not hate
First, a basic fact. The Catholic Church is a home for sinners, every one of us. Nobody is outside the orbit of her care and concern. Anyone who singles out people with same-sex attractions for scorn or unjust discrimination has by that same measure departed from the Catholic faith. The Church rejects hatred in all its forms. Every human being, we believe, is a sign and fruit of God’s love, someone worth the infinitely precious Blood of Christ. Every human being, without exception, is called to become holy, to become a saint, to dwell forever in heaven. It is literally impossible for the Church to hate anyone.
What I think people usually mean by saying the Catholic Church “hates” is that the Church disagrees with those who approve of homosexual behaviour. It is true that there is tremendous social pressure to normalize homosexual relationships today, and the Church has not yielded to that pressure. This is understandably upsetting to some. But it simply does not follow that Catholics hate those who identify as gay.
After all, everyone makes judgments about human behaviour. To take a strong example, unrelated to our present discussion, most would disapprove of a man who cheats on his wife and abandons his children. Those of us who object to this behaviour are not thereby haters; it means that we have convictions about human flourishing that we take seriously. It means that we care for the abandoned wife and children. It also means we care for the cheating husband; it means we want to see his heart changed.
This is a strong example to illustrate a point. But it is a point lost far too frequently in these discussions: namely, that we all have beliefs about human behaviour which, if we are seriously-minded and care for other people, will cause us to disapprove of some actions.
From the Catholic point of view, when we do not consent to the normalization of homosexuality, it is not hateful but actually loving – according to how we see the world. Whether or not someone agrees with that viewpoint, it is a teaching that is based in love. In fact, in the face of fierce pushback from the wider culture, it can even be heroically loving.
Two world views
Then why the bitter disagreement? Why does the Church’s teaching seem, to so many, as cruel and intolerant? Why does the Church care what people do with their own bodies in the privacy of their own homes? Why do we so often seem to talk past each other in these discussions?
It is a question, I believe, of two different ways of looking at the world. And while exploring these two world-views does not narrow the gap of disagreement, I do think that identifying them contributes to a greater mutual understanding. To grasp someone else’s perspective is not the same thing as embracing it. But I believe that it does lower the decibel level of these sorts of conversations. When we acknowledge, however grudgingly, that someone can approach a sensitive and personal issue from an entirely different angle and do so in good faith, we have inched closer to a more human and respectful dialogue.
So what are these contrasting world-views?
Take, for instance, something as basic as what things are. In the traditional or “classical” world-view, things have natures that define what they are. A tree is not a tree because we’ve defined it so; it is a tree because that is what it is. It would be a tree even were there no human beings around to see it, study it, and label it.
In the secular world-view, by contrast, natures are rather fluid. Things are more changeable, malleable, and subject to our control. Technological advancement has added weight to this secular mindset. We can, for instance, put on a pair of goggles and enter into an “alternative reality”. Is a tree really just a tree when, in an alternative virtual reality, trees can walk and talk? Another example: scientists have actually created human-pig chimeras. What does that mean about the nature of humans and pigs? A third example: in a 1993 ruling US Supreme Court justices identify a “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.”
Given this environment, it is not surprising that some observers have called ours a “liquid time”, an age of widespread fluidity.
The classical view of nature means that we Catholics see purpose in creation. We see natures as having an internal solidity. Let’s go back to human sexuality. From our perspective, sex has a nature, a finality, a fundamental reason for its existence which ought to be respected: generating children. Homosexual acts cannot be aligned to the inner rationality of sexual love. (Incidentally, this also explains why we should not engage in other sexual acts outside of marriage, such as adultery, pre-marital sex, and masturbation.)
Marriage, too, has a nature. It is the union of a man and a woman in an exclusive and faithful relationship ordered to generating and raising children. In our view, no government can change the definition of marriage any more than it could change the nature of a tree.
This approach to human nature, by the way, also explains why Catholics cannot accept the identification of a person with his or her sexual inclinations. To us, calling a person “gay” is too reductive. We are not defined by our sexual attractions but rather by our broader humanity. Catholics see the sexual tribalism so common today as not only harmful to the human community, but also too limiting for individual persons. A human being is something far deeper and richer and nobler than his or her sexual attractions alone.
The world-view embraced by the Catholic faith, I realize, puts us at odds with those who hold to a more fluid understanding of human beings, sexuality, and marriage. When we grasp this difference, it does not mean that our views of homosexuality change, but it can help us see the other side in a more respectful light.
Another, even more revealing, distinction between these two world-views is in their contrasting view of human happiness.
In the classical world-view, happiness is found in fulfilling our nature through a life of virtue. For the Christian, this means loving God and loving our neighbour. The opposite of happiness, the greatest evil, is found in thwarting our nature – that is, by sin.
In the secular world-view, by contrast, happiness is a more immediate concept, usually identified with sensible and intellectual pleasure. Its opposite, the greatest evil, is therefore suffering. How many disagreements in moral judgments come from this single difference! If I believe the ultimate evil is sin, and you believe it is suffering, we will likely come to very different conclusions about everything ranging from fasting to physician-assisted suicide.
Happiness is where the two world-views diverge most clearly, at least in matters of sex. Sexual behaviour obviously generates a lot of pleasure. If pleasure is the gauge of happiness, then there will be few, if any, moral qualms about engaging in it. If, on the other hand, happiness is about fulfilling our nature, then sexual acts are charged with more moral weight. Emotions may be strong and it may simply “feel right” to engage in sexual behaviour outside of marriage – but from the Catholic point of view, it does not truly fulfil us, does not lead to our growth in virtue or holiness or happiness. Such is the case with homosexual acts.
Perhaps more than any other, this different outlook on the world explains the wide gap that separates Catholics from secular thinkers in matters of sexual morality.
Church teaching is a sign of love
It must be reiterated that understanding another’s perspective does not mean that we will embrace it. I do not expect any of this to convince someone who disagrees with the Catholic Church to change his or her mind. There is much more to be said on the matter. But it does, I hope, show that our intentions are not sinister.
In fact, in our highly secular age, today it would be much easier simply to conform to the widespread acceptance, even celebration, of the homosexual lifestyle. I would hope, however, that even our most vigorous opponents could acknowledge the fact that Catholics who refuse to do so, based on a different viewpoint, are not thereby guilty of hatred or bigotry. Our moral stance should in fact be recognized as originating in genuine (even if perceived as misguided) love. It is a question of judging Catholics by their own standards, not by secular standards.
Penn Jillette, a noted magician, actor, and writer, once made a similar point. Though he is an atheist, he said that he doesn’t respect Christians who do not try to convert others to their faith.
“I don’t respect that at all,” he insists. “If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
Jillette is still, I think, an avowed atheist. But he is able to see things from another point of view, and his conclusion is as sane as it is surprising. He is able to see that Christians who seek to convert others are not being judgmental and intolerant, but in fact far more loving than their more timid coreligionists. It is that ability to see the world through the eyes of another that is so much needed today.
I believe that the classical world-view is not only true, by the way, but also a far more compelling and beautiful way to see the world. It ennobles the human person and fosters a deep respect for the human body and human sexuality. It promotes the profound dignity of every human being, from conception until natural death. It fosters a family environment that best advances the happiness and growth of children.
It offers a way out for persons with same-sex attraction who feel trapped into defining themselves by their attractions according to the relentless logic of our hypersexualized culture. It provides a coherent explanation for the profound sense of alienation, depression, and dislocation experienced by so many young (and not so young) people today, living in the devastating wake of the sexual revolution.
It is a joyful affirmation of reality and of happiness that is grounded deeply in our common human nature.
The Catholic position on homosexual behaviour is reasonable, coherent, and proposed in good faith. It is, in fact, coming from a place of deep love and compassion. The Church teaches that every human being possesses an incomparable and innate dignity. We are called to become sons and daughters of God and indeed saints. The Church’s teaching on homosexual behaviour, by her own standards, is aimed at nothing less than promoting that dignity.
And that is about as far from hatred as you can get.
Fr Carter Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington and the Rector of St. John Paul II Seminary. He is the author of Why Celibacy: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest, published in 2019 by Emmaus Road.