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Show some respect when talking with homosexuals


The readings for this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time are very confronting. In the first reading we hear about the prophet Jeremiah who had the misfortune to live and prophesy at a time when Jerusalem was being invaded by foreigners (Jeremiah 38:4–6, 8–10). He advised the people and their king to surrender. They thought he was a traitor, undermining the morale of the troops. It just happened that he was right. They dumped him down a well so that he might die. A few just men came forward and rescued him.

In Luke's gospel, Jesus is headed for Jerusalem. 'Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth?' Not a bit of it. He promises nothing but fire and division — and not just division and disagreement with our enemies, but division within families and within the church community (Luke 12:49–53).

On my first reflection on these readings, I thought they had no application to us today. But then I thought again.

During the week, I had to appear on the SBS Insight TV program about same sex marriage. Many bishops were asked but none was available. Same sex marriage is a difficult and complex legal, political and social question in a country like Australia, especially at election time when our political leaders are taking different approaches. So I don't want to preach about that. But I do think it is time from the pulpit to say something about the Catholic Church's attitude to, and language about, people who happen to be homosexual.

Much of the official Church's teaching on this issue over the last 40 years has been shaped by the thinking of Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI. In 1975 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which he headed issued a document which distinguished the homosexual orientation from homosexual acts which were described as being deprived of their essential and indispensable finality, as being 'intrinsically disordered'.

Then in 1986 the Congregation still headed by Cardinal Ratzinger issued a new document saying that 'an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.'

Many people, including many Catholics and many homosexuals, find such language unhelpful and upsetting; they even contest its truthfulness. Thank God, as Pope, Benedict did not repeat much of this language. But many Church leaders still think it the only Catholic way to speak about homosexuality.

Earlier this year, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, probably the most theologically literate bishop in Australia, appearied on the ABC TV program Q&A distinguishing between sexual orientation and lifestyle: 'They are not necessarily the same thing. Lifestyle is chosen, sexual orientation is not.' He said the homosexual orientation could be seen as 'a warp in the creation' and that it was 'impossible' from his point of view to be seen as just a part of God's plan.

On Insight, Penny Wong, a very eloquent and poised politician who is known to be lesbian, sharing with her partner the parenting of their child, addressed Monsignor John Woods saying, 'I think it's interesting you use words like respect at the same time as having a discussion about whether or not homosexuality is in fact natural or, by implication, you know a result of some form of disorder. I don't think that's particularly respectful.'

Much of the two-hour discussion was not put to air by SBS. At one stage of the discussion, I said that I found talk of homosexuality being a disorder unhelpful. Addressing Penny Wong, I said that I thought her homosexuality was as natural, complex and mystical as my heterosexuality.

During the rest of the week, I received a range of emails from some very conservative Catholics who were questioning my moral courage, wondering why I was just going with the prevailing social trend, not being true to church teaching etc. They obviously thought I was being untrue to myself as well as to the Church. There was more than a dose of adverse moral judgment in it all.

Later in the week, as often happens with us priests, someone came to see me for a pastoral conversation. He was an adult Catholic, a good man, and a fine Catholic. He told me that he was gay. He had 'come out' to a number of his friends, but it obviously was not easy.

I called to mind the media press conference that Pope Francis gave recently on the plane on the way back from World Youth Day. He was asked about homosexuality and he said, 'If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, well who am I to judge them?' I think Pope Francis now gives us a better way of engaging in respectful discussion in our Church and in the community about the complex issues relating to homosexuality, including civil recognition of same sex marriage.

Our theological starting point should be that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, whether we be gay or straight; that we are all called along the road to Jerusalem; and that the Lord's purgative fire and promise of division is extended to us all in preparation for the invitation to the banquet where there is neither gay nor straight, and where each of us prays, 'Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.'

It's time we dropped the unhelpful, judgmental language of intrinsic and objective disorder when respectfully trying to determine appropriate laws and policies for all people who want to support and nurture each other and their children.

Frank Brennan headshotFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University, and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. This article is taken from his homily at the Church of the Transfiguration, Woden, Canberra, 18 August 2013.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, gay marriage, SBS Insight, Penny Wong, Mark Coleridge



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Existing comments

I've been wed for nearly 45 years and since the event I have lived a little. First point. This is not a binary world of male and female. Second. The involvement of the state in "marriage" perturbs me. On the first, please acknowledge that hermaphroditism is both a biological reality and a psychological reality. Then acknowledge that individuals have personal erotic sexual preferences, and this too is a psychological reality. On the second, that we legislate around "marriage" is a historic legislative precedent that has not been questioned, and it should be. Why not remove all parliamentary involvement other than that needed to acknowledge a personal and private, registered, contract between consenting adults as may be necessary for socio-legal recognition in terms of equity. Then, should religious bodies/organisations want to encapsulate that contract in their ceremonies and ritual, go for it. The State need not even know about it. We could then even eliminate the word marriage from civil law.

Jim Duffield | 19 August 2013  

If +Mark actually stated that homosexuality is a 'warp in creation', then he is claiming to know the mind of God. This looks seriously to me like blasphemy, because he is presuming to judge that God made a mistake. It's about time we stopped looking at homosexuality as a disorder and started pondering for what holy purpose God made some people this way.

John | 19 August 2013  

Now is precisely the wrong time to avoid speaking the truth in love - same-sex coupling is profoundly disordered and ultimately destructive of the parties involved. We do people with same-sex attraction, particularly those who are trying to live chastely, a serioud disservice by not articulating the truth. This can and must always be done charitably.

Frank Smith | 19 August 2013  

Hi Fr Brennan, Thanks for this article. I'm an 'orthodox' practising Catholic (e.g. I knew last Thurs was a holy day of obligation, so I went to mass). I'm in my early 30's, and a lawyer like you (although I work up the big bad corporate end of town). I like your article because I agree that the language used by the Church can come across as offensive and abrasive. One of the great disappointments of the contemporary Church is its frequent failure to communicate in a way that INVITES communion with those who are tensed (often with good cause) in opposition to her teaching. I agree that Pope Francis appears to be trying o show us a better way. We are again blessed with a courageous captain at the helm. I don't think the Church's failings are wholly her own fault. She is charged (in part) with enunciating the moral status of human behaviours for the benefit of the faithful. We need to know what God's will is (and what is opposed to God's will) if we are to have any hope of doing it. So the Church must state clearly its moral position, including in sexual matters. Before taking offence, those (like Ms Wong) who disagree with certain theological statements about 'disordered' sexuality should show their goodwill by at least attempting to appreciate the context of those statements. Church teaching on sexual acts is unequivocal: sex must be inside marriage and open to life. Everything else is 'disordered' - contrary to God's will (including as manifested in the 'natural order'). If a 'homosexual person' is 'someone with a strong inclination to engage in homosexual acts', then from the Church's moral standpoint, it follows that homosexuality is an inclination towards disordered sexual acts. At least to this extent, homosexuality is disordered, but not (necessarily) any more than an inclination towards heterosexual acts outside of marriage. If we have faith that our Church teaches truth, then the language of disorder tells us something true about sexual desire, and what kinds of sexual desires we should cultivate and act upon in accordance with God's will, and what kinds of desires we should offer to Christ with all of our other disordered desires and passions and appetites which, if left untempered, promise only to lead us to misery and alienation from God and our neighbour both in this life and the next. This language is hard to hear. Part of the problem is, many people are totally unprepared to hear it, and they therefore misinterpret it, and take offence at it. It's like attending a quantum physics lecture without any background prep: obviously it's all going to sound wrong. So yes, I agree the Church needs to temper her language and find new and better ways to bride seemingly unbridgable gulfs. As Christ said to the adulterous woman, the Church must also say, "neither do I condemn you". But with Christ, the Church must not neglect to add "Go and sin no more", no matter how offensive that may sound.

Tim | 19 August 2013  

Fr. Brennan is spot on suggesting that "...It's time we dropped the unhelpful, judgmental language of intrinsic and objective disorder .." which is in the Catechism. The expression of the Church's teaching in the Catechism can and does change, in what can be a perfectly nuanced and legitimate development of doctrine. While the actual teaching - that the expression of the homosexual orientation is an imperfect expression of sexuality (like contraceptive acts) - can never change, the pastoral expression of this teaching, which terms the acts "instrinscially evil" and the orientation "objectively disordered" can and should change. Extreme Conservatives should take note that the Catchechism, as recently as twenty years ago provided on the issue of capital punishment: "the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty". In light of contemporary understanding of the dignity of the individuals, this teaching, following Pope John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae now provides "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person." It is time the Catechism provided something like "the orientation is not consistent with the natural order, which prescribes that we are blessed with our homosexual brothers and sisters, as a natural consequence of the heterosexual union which preceded them."

Neil | 19 August 2013  

Thank you Frank Brennan for your clarity, courage and articulation of this important discussion. You and Penny Wong gave me hope on the Insight program. Reading your comments of what did not go to air, strengthens my hope. God bless

ann.hine11@gmail.com | 19 August 2013  

Dear Father Brennan in the words of Pope Francis that you quoted, I too say: "Who are we to judge." I support all that you have written. You definitely have great moral courage and fortitude. Thank you

Joan | 19 August 2013  

Thanks for articulating what I've been thinking, Frank. If we went into a discussion on civil rights saying that the souls of people from Asian or African extraction were fundamentally different to people of European extraction, and that although they should be treated with dignity and respect they shouldn't be called 'human', we'd be rightfully booed out of the room. That's how our views on gay marriage are heard by gay people and those who support them. Catholic teaching says that the love experienced by two homosexuals is fundamentally different in nature to the love experienced by a man and a woman, and that it cannot be described in the same terms and afforded the same social standing. But in denying homosexual love, we're not only making a value judgement on their experience of love, we're denying the validity of something fundamental to their personhood. Having watched and been disturbed by the discussion in the SBS Insight program, I came to the realisation that the debate on gay marriage needs to be over. There is just no way for religious people (of any faith) to argue against it without attacking the very core of gay people's personhood.

Joseph Vine | 19 August 2013  

Father Brennan trivialises perennial official catholic teaching as merely shaped by the thinking of Joseph Ratzinger[forgetting also pope francis' fuller 'in-flight press' reference to CCC on gays[all concurring with "Joseph Ratzinger"[sic] thinking. Frankly I find Fr Brennan's weasel words viz: "unhelpful","upsetting" 'contestable' as deplorable!! Father Brennan! God did not create gayness in his image anymore than creating other disorders in his image.

Father john george | 19 August 2013  

Traditionally the Church has focused on the physicality of sex, showing little distinction between humans and other animals. But surely our calling to love puts human sexuality into an altogether different and sublime category.

Father John O'Kelly | 19 August 2013  

Fr George, It's this sort of language from clergy which I find unhelpful, upsetting, contestable, and deplorable in the public square. I am pleased that Pope Francis abstains from the use of such language.

Frank brennan SJ | 20 August 2013  

Father Brennan, Jesus wasn't into soft talk either[nb hard sayings that turned them off-nor did he soft talk Peter."behind me Satan' forget not "vah hypocrite! brood of vipers!" and he didn't soft talk "depart from me ye cursed into the everlasting fire" etc etc

Father John George | 20 August 2013  

Thanks Frank! i'm glad you're around. You always speak from integrity and your approach to what makes us human and your respect for others always shines through. I wish we had some of our hierarchy speaking out in the same honest way. Perhaps under Francis they might get the opportunity

leowkane | 20 August 2013  

After reading this article i feel like rediscovering the Catholic Church. I also feel no religion is superior to others and all require understanding and respect.

Sharon King | 20 August 2013  

Frank and commentators, this discussion is essentially about the uses of language, or, to use a grammatical term, "mood". We distinguish between the "imperative", "indicative", "interrogative" and subjunctive moods of language. The Church has become so accustomed to using the imperative and indicative moods, and we need now to practice the art of the interrogative and subjunctive moods. We are good at issuing commandments and making statements of the truth; we are less adept at asking genuine questions and being open to hearing the answers we receive; or being open to possibilities not easily imagined. Frank's piece is an exhortation to us to use language in a way that is more likely to invite dialogue, discovery and development for all, and to engage in the conversation about the relationship between sexual orientation and our identity as children of God on the one hand and as members of civil society on the other.

David de Carvalho | 20 August 2013  

1. In July 2010, Card. Bergoglio wrote: “This (proposal to legalize same sex marriage) is not a mere legislative proposal …, but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.” In his famous flight interview, Pope Francis merely repeated the traditional distinction between temptation or inclination, and acts. And when he mentioned not judging a person as “gay”, he wasn’t referring to someone assenting to an active homosexual lifestyle, but to someone who experiences same sex attractions, someone who “does what is right” (including, inter alia, endeavouring to resist temptations to sin from whatever quarter). Either that, or completely off the cuff, in a way that totally reverses all his previously known statements and writings, and has not been hinted at since, Pope Francis was in effect ditching the whole corpus of Catholic teaching on sexual morality. Take your pick. 2. Fr Brennan is right, though, that the disorder of the homosexual condition is not relevant to the same sex marriage debate. For two reasons. a. Someone with a homosexual disorder is perfectly free to marry. There are many people who experience same sex attraction substantially or exclusively who are yet happily married (to someone of the opposite sex, of course). That’s “marriage equality” correctly conceived. b. Conversely, a person without this disorder – say, someone with heterosexual inclinations – is, even so, unable to “marry” someone of the same sex. It’s not the condition of homosexuality that invalidates same sex marriage: it’s the sameness of the sex. 3. On the other hand, Sen. Wong is obviously wrong to state that merely believing homosexuality to be a disorder is disrespectful, any more than her believing homosexuality is not a disorder is ipso facto disrespectful of those who disagree with her. Either it is a disorder or it is not.

HH | 20 August 2013  

Fr Brennan, while it is true that the language of the Church can seem abrasive or 'judgemental' when taken out of its proper context, where else is one likely to hear a challenge to the popular concept of 'homosexual' or 'gay' as intrinsic to the individual's identity? Our culture teaches that "this is who you *really* are", yet the Church's moral philosophy proposes a quite different understanding of the human person. You are not your sexual appetite, ordered or no. Yet instead we grow up within a culture with an anthropology and ethic that tells us that an attraction to members of the same sex is prima facie evidence of a distinct human nature, with its own unique path to fulfillment. "This is who you are, this is where you belong" can be a double-edged sword and if our culture is wrong, it is leading people astray. Is the culture so obviously right?

Zac | 20 August 2013  

to HH: In the study of morality and philosophy, a person is not morally bound to do something that is pshysically or mentally imspossible for them to do. So expecting a homosexual person to marry in a heterosexual relationship is ludicrous and more damaging to both parties and any children that may be involved. For heaven's sake, let's get real here.

AURELIUS | 20 August 2013  

It's one thing to show respect, but then some people go to the other extreme and patronise anyone involved in the discussion. I find lawyer Tim's response bordering in being patronising. I don't agree that anyone needs to be educated in moral theology to engage in this discussion. We are all in the business of doing morality because we all have consciences. I think it's the soc -called educated elite of the church who don't know how to understand the real issues affecting people.

AURELIUS | 21 August 2013  

Your essay is right on. The Church sorely needs to revise a rhetoric that is the excuse for a judgmental self-righteousness that Jesus clearly condemned. It is the source of much human tragedy and is used as an excuse for abusive conduct by the ignorant. One point of correction: Franjo Cardinal Seper was the Prefect of the CDF in 1971. Ratzinger didn't hold that post until about 1981. It was he who described homosexual acts as a " tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil." Tom Nelson, author: "An Ordinary Catholic."

Thomas A. Nelson | 22 August 2013  

Fr. Brennan, thanks for your reflection here. Increasingly, I find myself avoiding the comments section following pieces on Catholicism and the LGBT community. Inevitably, it draws some of the same old vitriol and self-rightiousness so frequently aimed at the gay community. Recently, I came upon a quote of Thomas Merton that I'm henceforth going to be tempted to drop into such discussions: "“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God's love and God's kindness and God's patience and mercy and understanding of the weakness of men.”

Michael Caputi | 22 August 2013  

Fr Brennan and Mr Nelson, reduction of 40 years of Church thinking about disordered homosexual orientation to Cardinals Seper and Ratzinger is utterly preposterous. The New
Catholic Encyclopaedia[2003] notes:
"Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered' … contrary to the natural law … (and) under no circumstances can they be approved" (CCC 2357).

Father John George | 23 August 2013  

Fr Brennan God used hetero marriage as a symbol of his Covenant with us, not SSM. Hetero marriage is canonised analogy for Christs mystical union with RCC . Nowhere in Sacred Scripture is SS behavior spoken of positively.[au contraire!] Cana was not SSM!

Father John George | 23 August 2013  

Father George, please make up your mind. Is it SS behaviour or SS acts or SS acts that are disordered? If someone is gay, obviously a lot of their behaviour is not just sexual. Is dancing also disordered? Or poetry? Or wearing dresses?

AURELIUS | 25 August 2013  

Aurelius! In the context of my posts, SS behaviour obviously referred to SS sexual acts, in this context within SSM! [No reference was made to 'poetry,dancing or wearing dresses'!!!]

Father John George | 26 August 2013  

Beat this Fr Brennan: HONOLULU (CNS) -- Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu urged Catholics across the island nation to oppose same-sex marriage in an "urgent request" to pastors. In a letter that was included in parish bulletins the weekend of Aug. 24-25, Bishop Silva asked Catholics to pray the rosary daily over the next several weeks, "if possible" while walking around the state Capitol block, "so that just as God tumbled down the walls of Jericho, he will be able to do so through the prayers and action of his beloved people."

Father John George | 27 August 2013  

Thanks Father George. You clarified the point I was trying to make - that neither had anyone else refererred to sexual acts And by the way, Hawaii is not a nation - it's one of the Unitred States of America!

AURELIUS | 27 August 2013  

I have two wonderful sons in their twenties who are gay. One remains a Catholic, the other has left the Church. They are university graduates: one is a doctor, the other a film-maker. My able and kind children are not a "warp" upon society but a blessing to it. I thank God for them every day of my life and pray that His light may shine upon them every day of theirs. I thank God too for Frank Brennan and for articles like this one. May God's light continue also to shine upon you him in all the very good that he does.

A mum | 31 July 2016  

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