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Homosexuality: Challenging the Church to Grow

by John J. McNeill

When this article was written, John McNeill was a psychotherapist practicing in New York City and a member of the Jesuit order. This article appeared in the Christian Century March ll, l987, pp. 242-246. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


It has been more than ten years since I wrote The Church and the Homosexual (Sheed Andrews & McMeel, 1976). I wrote the book out of love for and loyalty to the Christian tradition in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, and out of a desire to support the church's moral authority. I felt what I had to do as a trained professional moral theologian was to play the role of a critical lover and loving critic and try to help the church realize a viable ethic concerning homosexuality. I also wrote it out of love for and loyalty to the homosexual community.

Certainly one of the major motivating factors behind my work for the past 20 years -- in research, writing and psychotherapy, and in the pastoral activities of preaching, leading retreats and giving lectures and workshops to gay people -- is the fact that I myself am a homosexual. It was with great struggle and pain that I gradually learned to accept that essential aspect of myself and learned to live with it with a certain degree of peace, joy and even pride. I have wanted to share that grace with as many people as possible. I agree with Meister Eckardt: "The fruitfulness of a gift is the only true way to show gratitude for the gift."

Most importantly, I wrote The Church and the Homosexual because of my increasing awareness of the enormous amount of unjust suffering in the Christian gay community. I observed that many, if not most, lesbian women and homosexual men felt caught in a dilemma: to accept themselves and to affirm their sexuality, they believed that they must leave the church and even give up their faith; and to affirm their Christian faith, they felt that they had to repress and deny their sexuality and lead a life devoid of any sexual intimacy. The evidence was clear to me that both solutions led to an unhappy and unhealthy life. I was convinced that what is bad psychologically has to be bad theologically and that, conversely, whatever is good theologically is certainly good psychologically. For as St. Irenaeus claimed, "The glory of God are humans fully alive."

In The Church and the Homosexual I sought to overturn three traditional stances taken by the Christian community regarding lesbian and homosexual relationships. I opposed, first of all, the view that God intends all human beings to be heterosexual, and that therefore a failure to be heterosexual represents a deviation from God's creative plan --a deviation that demands an explanation, usually given in terms of sin, or more recently, in terms of sickness. According to this view, those who find themselves to be homosexual must change their orientation through prayer and counseling or, failing that, live totally chaste and sexually loveless lives. This is the position held in the Vatican letter "On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons" issued last October to all the bishops of the world. This letter was deemed necessary to offset "deceitful propaganda" coming from gay Christian groups challenging the church's tradition and its interpretation of Scripture. According to this position, sexual fulfillment is exclusively the right of the heterosexual.

I proposed instead that God so created humans that they develop with a great variety of both gender identities and sexual-object choices. Consequently, the attempt to force humans into narrow heterosexist categories of what it means to be a man or a woman can destroy the great richness and variety of God's creation. Always and everywhere a certain percentage of men and women develop as homosexuals or lesbians. They should be considered as part of God's creative plan. Their sexual orientation has no necessary connection with sin, sickness or failure; rather, it is a gift from God to be accepted and lived out with gratitude. God does not despise anything that God has created.

It should be stressed here, in opposition to certain current views, that human beings do not choose their sexual orientation; they discover it as something given. To pray for a change in sexual orientation is about as meaningful as to pray for a change from blue eyes to brown. Furthermore, there is no healthy way to reverse or change sexual orientation once it is established. The claim of certain groups to be able to change homosexuals into heterosexuals has been shown to be spurious and frequently based on homophobia (cf. Ralph Blair's pamphlet "Ex-Gay" [HCCC Inc., 1982]). The usual technique used to bring about this pseudo-change involves helping gay persons internalize self-hatred, an approach that frequently causes great psychological harm and suffering. The Christian communities that make use of this sort of ministry usually do so to avoid any challenge to their traditional attitude and to avoid any dialogue with self-accepting gays and truly professional psychotherapists. (The psychotherapists whom these churches frequently cite are generally very conservative and homophobic in their orientation.) The real choice that faces lesbians and homosexuals is not between heterosexuality and homosexuality but between a homosexual relationship or no relational intimacy whatsoever.

Other churches have confined their official ministries to helping gay people live out celibate lives. According to Christian tradition, celibacy is a special gift of God given to a certain few for the sake of the kingdom. The occasional homosexual who receives this gift is, indeed, blessed. Clergy choose a celibate lifestyle voluntarily, but laypeople are given no choice; they are told they must live celibate lives. But there is no reason to believe that God grants this gift to everyone who is lesbian or homosexual. On the contrary, empirical studies have shown that the vast majority of gay people who have attempted a celibate lifestyle end up acting out their sexual needs in promiscuous and self-destructive ways. Every human being has a God-given right to sexual love and intimacy. Anyone who would deny this right to any individual must prove without a doubt the grounds for this denial. The only healthy and holy Christian response to a homosexual orientation is to learn to accept it and live it out in a way that is consonant with Christian values

The second thesis of my book was that homosexuals, rather than being somehow a menace to the values of society and the family, as Christians have tended to assume, have, as a part of God's creative plan, special gifts and qualities and a very positive contribution to make to the development of society (cf. also my article "Homosexuality, Lesbianism, and the Future: The Creative Role of the Gay Community in Building a More Humane Society," in A Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church, edited by Robert Nugent [Crossroad, 1984]). Indeed, if lesbians and homosexuals were to disappear, the further development of society toward greater humanness could be seriously endangered. Consequently, I am convinced that there is a special providence in the emergence of visible gay communities within the Christian churches at this point in history.

The third thesis of my book was perhaps the most controversial. The traditional position has been that since every homosexual act is sinful and contrary to God's plan, the love that exists between gay people is a sinful love which alienates the lovers from God. I argued that the love between two lesbians or two homosexuals, assuming that it is a constructive human love, is not sinful nor does it alienate the lovers from God's plan, but can be a holy love, mediating God's presence in the human community as effectively as heterosexual love.

I fully appreciated how controversial my arguments were. But I pointed out that there was new evidence -- from biblical studies and from various empirical studies in the human sciences, especially psychology and sociology -- that completely undermined the traditional understanding of homosexuality as a chosen and changeable state. Examples of recent psychological data come from new insights into psychosexual development, e.g., (a) one has no choice about sexual orientation; (b) the only healthy reaction to being homosexual is to accept it. And, above all else, there was new evidence coming from the collective experience of lesbians and homosexuals who as committed Christians were seeking to live their lives in conformity with Christian faith and Christian values. All this evidence should give every Christian community serious reason to reconsider its understanding of homosexuality.

I hoped that my book would open up a serious moral debate in the churches concerning homosexuality. But in ten years no such debate has taken place. My own church's response was to try to silence the messenger rather then debate the message. One year after my book's publication, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered me to be silent on the issue of homosexuality and sexual ethics, forbidding me to publish anything further in the field. For nine years I obeyed that order to be silent. However, the recent letter on pastoral care of homosexuals (already referred to), as well as the demand by the Vatican that ethicist Charles Curran retract his position on homosexuality and other sexual moral issues, or relinquish his position as a Catholic theologian, and its more recent order to me that I give up all ministry to homosexual persons, have convinced me that I can no longer in conscience remain silent.

It is the AIDS crisis that above all else makes it clear that churches do not have the luxury of time in dealing with homosexuality. In the U.S. alone as of February 9, there had already been 30,632 recorded cases of AIDS and 17,542 recorded fatalities, a majority of them gay men. It is predicted that in the next decade there may be as many as 200,000 victims. I am convinced that the churches will not respond properly to this crisis until they resolve the underlying moral issues. The Catholic Church in its recent pastoral letter has taken a dogmatic stance, allowing no room for debate or dialogue. But my ultimate religious obedience must be to truth, justice and the will of God as revealed in the sufferings of the Christian gay community. Therefore, with the publication of this article, I am making my first detailed public statement in ten years on the issue of homosexuality.

I find the absence of a serious moral debate within American churches on homosexuality truly puzzling. Robert Bellah and his associates throw some general light on this absence in their recent sociological study of American culture, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Harper & Row, 1985). They point out that the liberal middle class has a therapeutic mentality which is uncomfortable with moral argument. Those who share the therapeutic attitude embrace pluralism and the uniqueness of the individual, and conclude that there is no common moral ground and no publicly relevant morality. They tend to see moral debate as leading inevitably to irresolvable conflict or coercion.

Bellah and his co-authors acknowledge that the therapeutic critique of traditional morality is frequently legitimate. "Where standards of right and wrong are asserted with dogmatic certainty and are not open to discussion, and, even worse, where these standards merely express the interests of the stronger party in a relationship while clothing those interests in moralistic language, then that criticism is indeed justified" (p. 140). Most gay people share this distrust of morality. Having been the victims of moralistic condemnation and control, they eagerly adopt the therapeutic live-and-let-live stance.

The mainline Protestant churches, too, share the therapeutic mentality. In place of the moral question, Is this right or wrong? they pose the therapeutic question, Is this going to work? The liberal churches tend to assert individual autonomy and freedom, and the right to do your own thing. However, this therapeutic attitude is usually accompanied by an institutional search for compromise on moral issues. For example, some churches, in the face of psychological evidence that sexual orientation is not freely chosen, have begun to distinguish between homosexual orientation-which, they agree, is not morally culpable-and homosexual activity, which is always morally wrong insofar as it is freely chosen. This compromise is intrinsically unstable. It reminds me of the nursery ditty: "Mother may I go out to swim?" "Yes, my darling daughter. Hang your clothes on the hickory bush, but don't go near the water!"

Only a sadistic God would create hundreds of thousands of humans to be inherently homosexual and then deny them the right to sexual intimacy. I, for one, would prefer to believe that the church is wrong about homosexual activity than that this sadistic, superego God has any true relation to the God of love revealed by Jesus.

Conservative and fundamentalist churches, for their part, also do not engage in moral debate. They feel that they have a clear and direct revelation of God's will concerning homosexuality, and they vigorously condemn it on the basis of biblical fundamentalism and a conservative acceptance of certain cultural mores, especially in the sexual realm (such as the dominance of men over women).

Christians opposed to gay rights frequently cite Genesis 19, the story of Sodom. The history of the interpretation of this passage displays how prejudice and homophobia have distorted the message of Scripture. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the sin of Sodom was never understood as homosexuality. Rather, that sin was understood as selfishness, pride, neglect of the poor and inhospitality to strangers. (In the desert context of these passages, inhospitality to a stranger meant certain death.) For example, Ezekiel writes, "Behold, this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters lived in pride, plenty and thoughtless ease; they supported not the poor and the needy; they grew haughty and committed abominations [sexual orgies to bring fertility] before me. So I swept them away . . . " (16: 49-50). And every time Jesus refers to Sodom he identifies the sin of that city as inhospitality to strangers. For example, in Luke, Jesus says of those towns that were inhospitable to his disciples: "I tell you on that day Sodom will fare better than that town" (10: 12).

In The Church and the Homosexual I traced the interesting historical process by which the biblical condemnation of inhospitality was transformed into a condemnation of homosexuality. Here is one of the supreme ironies of history: for thousands of years in the Christian West, homosexuals have been the victims of inhospitable treatment -- the true crime of Sodom-in the name of a mistaken understanding of Sodom's crime. Inhospitality, the crime that cries out to God for vengeance, has been and continues to be repeated every day. Who in our midst lives in pride and plenty and thoughtless ease, neglecting the poor, being inhospitable to refugees and persecuting those who, like Lot, offer them sanctuary ? They indeed are the sodomites!

The absence of serious moral debate leaves conservative and even reactionary moral forces as the only voice on the subject of homosexuality. When a crisis comes, such as when gays fall ill with AIDS, they can easily be victimized by traditional homophobia disguised as moral judgment and, as a result, fall back into self-condemnation and self-hatred. As noted, self-hatred and internalized homophobia undermine gay relationships and tempt gay people to act out sexual needs in self-destructive ways. In the age of AIDS, only two choices are really open to Christian gay people in conformity with Christian values: abstaining from all sexual activity -- a response which the majority find impossible-or entering a monogamous relationship. However, to have a stable, healthy relationship, one needs to have a healthy self-love and self-acceptance, which is psychologically possible only when one can accept one's sexuality as morally good and, in a Christian context, compatible with God's love.

A striking example of the negative result of the absence of an open debate on the moral meaning of homosexuality is the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the rights of states to outlaw sodomy. In the majority opinion, Justice Byron White argued that the right to privacy does not extend to same-gender sexual activity, even when confined to the home. He accepted the state of Georgia's argument that sodomy laws can be justified by the need to protect morality. Chief Justice Warren Burger concurred with Justice White that "to establish a fundamental right to homosexual sodomy would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching."

Here is an example of traditional homophobia disguised as moral judgment and the will of God. Even the court's dissenting opinion, expressed by Justice Harry Blackmun, entirely avoids the moral issue. "That certain, but by no means all, religious groups condemn the behavior at issue," wrote Blackmun, "gives the state no license to impose [its] judgments on the entire citizenry. The legitimacy of legislation depends instead on whether the state can advance some justification for its law beyond its conformity to religious doctrine." Blackmun's opposition to the law is based on the right to privacy, "the most comprehensive of rights and the most valued by civilized men, [namely] the right to be left alone. "

Both gay people and the liberal churches are wrong to steer clear of moral debate, or to think that moral standards are, as described in Habits of the Heart, "inherently authoritarian and in the service of domination. " On the contrary, there are standards of right and wrong within Christian tradition concerning human sexuality, based in human nature and biblical revelation, which are acceptable to homosexual and heterosexual alike, and which can form the moral basis of public policy.

In light of the gay Christian experience, however, two fundamental issues of sexual morality must be reexamined. The first issue is what makes a sexual act fully human; the second is the biblical understanding of homosexual acts.

Christian tradition has always emphasized that human sexuality has two primary functions -- it provides an experience of loving intimacy ("It is not good that a human be alone. Every human has need of a companion" [Gen. 2:18]); and it is the means of procreation. What is unique to human sexuality is the fusion that God has made of biological sexuality with the uniquely human vocation to, and capacity for, love.

The debate over birth control some years ago led liberal churches to conclude that the relational aspect of sexuality has primacy and, when appropriate, can be separated from the procreational aspect. Even the Catholic Church acknowledged the value of heterosexual activity exclusively as an expression of love when it approved the rhythm method of birth control. At that moment, if the church had been logical and free of homophobia, it would have re-examined the value of homosexual activity as an expression of human love and companionship.

What does Scripture have to say about homosexuality? The Christian community now possesses for the first time some excellent scholarly works on the treatment of homosexuality in Scripture, such as Robin Scroggs's The New Testament and Homosexuality (Fortress, 1984) and George Edwards's Gay/Lesbian Liberation: A Biblical Perspective (Pilgrim, 1984). We also have an excellent study of the development of Christian tradition regarding homosexuality: John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1980). And there are some very good theological reflections on human sexuality in the light of Christian revelation; see James Nelson's, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality, and Christian Theology (Pilgrim, 1978) and Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience. (Pilgrim, 1983).

These scholars conclude that nowhere in Scripture is there a clear condemnation of a loving sexual relationship between two gay persons. Homosexuality is never mentioned in the Four Gospels' accounts of the ministry of Jesus -- a silence that would be inexplicable if this were the "most heinous crime," as tradition claims. Scriptural authors never deal with homosexual orientation, and when they do treat homosexual activity, they never do so in the context of a loving relationship. They presuppose that they are dealing with lustful activity freely chosen by heterosexuals (as in Romans 1), or they deal with a humanly destructive activity in the context of idolatry, prostitution, promiscuity, violent rape, seduction of children or violation of guests' rights.

There can be no valid moral debate on these issues that does not include lesbian and gay people as full participants. The Holy Spirit has something to say to the churches in and through the experience of lesbian and homosexual Christians. A truly extraordinary witness to the kind of full human love that can exist between two gay persons is being manifested daily by AIDS victims and their lovers and friends. The exceptional fidelity, self-sacrifice and affection, as well as the pain, grief and sorrow and the deep spiritual response to the suffering and bereavement that is being expressed, is a sign to the churches of the presence of the Spirit of love in these relationships. "See how they love one another!"

The recent paper produced by Lutherans Concerned, "A Call for Dialogue: Gay and Lesbian Christians and the Ministry of the Lutheran Church," is an example of the eloquent theological reflections that are coming from gay Christians. Similar statements have been made by the Catholic gay group, Dignity; the Episcopal group, Integrity; the Methodist group, Affirmation; the Metropolitan Community Church; Evangelicals Concerned and others.

Lutherans Concerned summarizes its theological reflection with the following observation: "Indeed, gay and lesbian Christians, like any other Christians who have had deep encounters with the word of the Gospel, are able to see the word speaking directly and profoundly to their own experience. Lesbians and gay men will be bold enough to offer new insight into the Gospel to the whole community of Christ. They will claim the biblical word for themselves, in the experience of hoping and believing in the Gospel, of trusting in one's own conscience, even in the face of opposition.... Ultimately, lesbian and gay people within the church will make a great contribution to construction of relational ethics and to evangelical outreach, which we pray will draw many others who are estranged, alienated or unloved, to Jesus Christ, to the household of faith, and into the reconciliation which has begun."

All in all, this is a great moment to be gay and Christian. This is the age when the Holy Spirit is fulfilling the promise made in Isaiah (56: 2-8) that after the Messiah comes and the new covenant is established, those who are sexually different, who were formerly excluded from the community of God, will have a special place in the house of the Lord and "an everlasting name which shall not be cut off." The fulfillment of this prophecy was foreshadowed when the Holy Spirit led the apostle Philip to encounter the eunuch, who was reading Isaiah (Acts 8:26-40). The author of Acts intended to show how under the new covenant the church, led by the Holy Spirit, would reach out to include all those who were excluded by the Old Testament's procreational covenant. The eunuch symbolizes all those excluded from the Old Testament community because they were sexually different. The eunuch believed in Christ as the Messiah, was baptized, received the Spirit and went off "full of joy."

"My house," God says through Isaiah, "shall be called a house of prayer for all people." The gay Christian movement is continuing this initiative of the Holy Spirit, offering the Christian churches a challenge and an opportunity to grow to the full stature of the human family.


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