Pastoral Implications of Church Teaching on Homosexuality

Rev. John F. Harvey, O.S.F.S.
Reproduced with permission

The homosexual lifestyle is promoted by the secular media and by homosexual organizations throughout Western culture. They assume that one is born homosexual and that, once one has the orientation, one is not able to be rid of it. Indeed, one does not desire to be heterosexual, instead one looks forward to finding a steady lover with whom one can settle down, as if one were married. To remain celibate would be a form of sexual suicide. All "gay" persons have a right to full sexual expression, these proponents argue, just like straight people in marriage.

Opposing this philosophy of life are the Catholic Church, some Orthodox churches and Protestant communions, and some Jewish groups. It is necessary now to state the Roman Catholic teaching and to show how we can put it into practice through a spiritual support group known as Courage.

During the last ten years, I have written two books on the teaching of the Church on homosexuality and homosexual acts: The Homosexual Person, New Thinking in Pastoral Care (1987); and The Truth About Homosexuality, the Cry of the Faithful (1986). These books discuss the psychological roots of homosexual behavior and the pastoral means of helping persons to live a chaste life. In this article, I shall focus principally on the morality of such behavior and the need for an effective spiritual support system to aid such persons to develop an interior life of prayer with Christ. In doing so, I will draw on official Church teachings as presented in Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (CDF, 1986).

First, there are arguments from Holy Scripture against homosexual activity, such as Lev. 18:20-22, 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; and 1 Tim. 1:9-10. But we must be careful in examining these passages to accept what Sacred Scripture and the Church has constantly taught through her sacred Tradition as safeguarded and proposed for belief by the Magisterium. From Scripture and Tradition it is clear that the two purposes of human sexual activity are fostering the communion of man and woman in marriage and the procreation of children. But homosexual activity, as such, cannot fulfill either of these two purposes. Therefore such activity is immoral. We need to explain our major statement concerning the purposes of human sexual activity.

Turning to Holy Scripture, we read in Gen 1:27-28 that God made man in His own image and likeness. Male and female He created them; and He commanded them to increase and multiply and fill the earth. In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates Eve from the rib of Adam. This poetic expression teaches us the profound complementarity of man to woman and woman to man. "For this reason, a man shall leave father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). Thus is described the primordial norms for human sexual relations, namely the permanent commitment of a man and woman in the most intimate of earthly unions, and the procreation of children made in the image of God.

These two purposes of human sexuality are repeated in various forms throughout the Old and New Testament. The Song of Songs expresses the love of man and woman. The prophets use the marital relationship to describe poetically the mysterious love that God has for the Jewish people. God is described as the bridegroom, and Israel is the bride. Proverbs 31 describes the godly wife and mother.

In the New Testament the same themes are repeated, and most especially by Jesus Himself, as we read in Mt. 19:1-9. It is the classical passage in which the scribes and Pharisees dispute with Jesus on the issue of divorce and remarriage. They challenge Jesus. How come He does not allow divorce, as Moses had done? Jesus answers: "Have you not read that the Creator from the beginning made them male and female and that He said, 'This is why a man must leave father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two become one body?' They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then what God has united, man must not divide." When the Pharisees then asked Him why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus replied that it was "because you were so unteachable. . . but it was not like this from the beginning."

Here Jesus reaffirms the monogamous, heterosexual norm of sexuality found in Genesis. He quotes both Gen. 1:27 and 2:24, thereby repeating their teaching about the meaning of human sexuality. St. Paul reiterates the same revealed truth about human sexuality, sublimely comparing the husband with Christ and the wife with the Church. When he describes the love which Christ has for His Church, he turns to the heterosexual love of husband and wife: "Husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her to make her holy. . ." (Eph. 5:25). Then he adds "For this reason a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one body" (Eph. 5:30). Once again, the Genesis norm of permanent heterosexual union is reaffirmed.

One could reference other passages of Scripture, as has been done by scholars throughout the centuries, to demonstrate that sexual activity ought to be heterosexual and marital. One could also look to Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, nos. 47-52, and Humanae Vitae, nos. 11-14 for more recent authoritative magisterial teaching.

From all this one may conclude that homosexual activity is always objectively and gravely immoral, inasmuch as it in no way fulfills the essential purposes of human sexuality. Please note that the Catholic teaching flows necessarily from the total scriptural vision of the meaning of sexuality and of the complementarity of man and woman. The specific scriptural texts referenced above confirm this teaching. But one can show the immorality of homosexual activity without referring to a single passage in which such activity is condemned. Nevertheless, one should not overlook the fact that whenever homosexual activity is mentioned in Scripture it is condemned.

Arguments from Reason

One may argue against homosexual activity because there is no real complementarity between two people of the same sex, or because their actions do not fulfill the procreative purpose of such activity. Sexual intercourse between man and wife has a special status that makes it different from other human activities. Sex is special, because it is a sign of the union of the persons who engage in sex. The sign is the union of the bodies, and the sign signifies the union of persons. The union of their bodies is a union of their very selves. Thus, sexual intercourse has an objective meaning independent of the choices made by the two participants.

To be sure, many unmarried and married persons ignore this objective meaning, particularly the procreative meaning of the act of intercourse. But for those who respect the objective meaning of sexual intercourse, it tends to produce offspring who combine the characteristics of husband and wife and, in so doing, promotes the unity of the spouses. But homosexual intercourse has no such power. While marital intercourse is a natural sign of love between husband and wife intercourse between two people of the same sex is not. It does not achieve the purpose of physical union -- two in one flesh -- and it does not achieve the purpose of procreation. Therefore, the "most that can be achieved by a homosexual act is mutual masturbation."(1) Since homosexual acts cannot achieve a true two-in-one-flesh union -- possible only between a man and a woman -- and since they are incapable of procreation, they do not fulfill the meaning of human sexuality and are, therefore, immoral.

(1) (Michael Pakaluk, "Why is Homosexual Activity Morally Wrong" in "Homosexuality: Challenges for Change and Reorientation, " Journal of Pastoral Counselling, 28, New Rochelle, NY, Iona College, 1993.)

Pastoral Implications

It is one thing to say that an action is immoral; it is quite another thing to construct a pastoral program to help persons with homosexual tendencies to live a truly chaste life. In my forty years of pastoral work in this field, I have never met one person who chose to be homosexual. At the same time such individuals have free will and, with God's grace, can live a life of sexual abstinence. Very early in my pastoral ministry, I developed a plan of life to help persons with homosexual orientations. It was called persons with homosexual orientations. It was called "How to Redirect One's Spiritual Life," and it has helped many persons to lead a life of consecrated chastity in the world through one-on-one counseling.

In the course of time I realized that there was another way of helping homosexual persons to draw close to Christ, and I learned this second way in 1978 when I began to give retreats to priests and brothers who were struggling with homosexual temptations. I used the Twelve Steps of A.A. over a very intensive period of five days, from morning to 9 p.m. in the evening. I noticed a real change in the men as they began accepting themselves as precious in God's eyes and forming chaste friendships with persons having the same ideals of virtue. I realized that homosexual persons need not only individual guidance, but the help of a spiritual support system.

Then I received a request from the late Cardinal Cooke in New York to come from Washington to New York every Friday to begin a spiritual support group for Catholic laity. He had heard of my work with priests in Northern Virginia, and he asked me to form a group for lay persons. In 1980, after much planning by priests, the first meeting took place in the rectory of the Holy Rosary Church in Manhattan (where Mother Seton had lived). Five men showed up for the first meeting. After a period of time another priest (now Bishop Edwin O'Brien) and I proposed to the group, now about ten, that they spell out their goals and purposes. They did this when no clerics were present, and that lead to the Five Goals of Courage.

After the goals had been formulated, one of the members gave the group its name: COURAGE. Two years later that member died of AIDS. He came regularly to meetings during his illness.

Courage has grown over the years, moving from New York, to Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington within a few years. There are now six dioceses in Canada, and twenty-six in the United States which have Courage groups. In 1993, Courage came to London, and in 1996 to Belfast, Ireland. We plan to move into the Republic of Ireland soon. We are already in the Philippines. There are at least four more dioceses in the United States planning a Courage unit.

At first we had no women, but gradually we have been able to form a women's group. Each year we have an annual conference for three days, and this has spread the good news that there is a place in the Roman Catholic Church for men and women who struggle with homosexual temptations. Our New York office has become a national network from which we communicate with all parts of the United States, Canada, Europe, South America, Australia, and Asia. We have many dedicated priests and laity working with us.

Many of the telephone calls come from anguished parents whose sons or daughters have proclaimed their "gayness," often demanding that their parents accept not only their orientation, but also their lifestyle. This had lead to a spiritual support group for parents called Encourage, which works very closely with Courage units. The parents receive counsel from our priest directors and make days of recollection with us.

Within the last six years, Courage has encouraged men and women who desire to get out of the condition to do so through prayer, group support, and therapy, if they can afford therapy. But it must be stressed, however, that the choice to heal the orientation is a moral option and not an obligation, because some who try to do so are not able to change their orientation but yet are able to lead a life of chastity. In my new book The Truth About Homosexuality, I discuss this question thoroughly. I also discuss the question whether one is born homosexual. So far there is no substantial evidence that genes or prenatal hormones determine homosexual orientation.

There is one other point of confusion among the laity. It is the idea that the homosexual condition is just as normal as the heterosexual condition. The Church, however, teaches that the homosexual orientation is an objective disorder, that is to say, the tendency is not a sin, but if one gives into it, it leads to sin, and that is why it is called an objective disorder (On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, no. 3).

I have given you a summary of Courage activities so that you may have hope for those men and women with homosexual orientations who are looking for help. Advise them to contact Courage, c⁄o St. John the Baptist Church, 210 West 31st Street, New York, NY 10001; telephone: 212-268-1010; fax: 212-268-7150; Email: My secretary, Christina Nair, is there five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

I remember when I first began group work with homosexual persons. I was uneasy. Then one day I was talking with a former student of mine, a graduate student at Catholic University. I said: "Mada-Anne, I'm scared." She said: "Father, you have nowhere to go but up. If you help one person to come back to Christ, it will all be worthwhile." It has been.


The Five Goals of Courage:

  1. To live chaste lives in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on homosexuality.
  2. To dedicate our entire lives to Christ through service to others, spiritual reading, prayer, meditation, individual spiritual direction, frequent attendance at Mass, and the frequent reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist.
  3. To foster a spirit of fellowship in which we may share with one another our thoughts and experiences and so ensure that none of us will have to face the problems of homosexuality alone.
  4. To be mindful of the truth that chaste friendships are not only possible but necessary in celibate Christian life and to encourage one another in forming and sustaining them.
  5. To live lives that may serve as good examples to other homosexuals.