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Jul 10, 2021 233 Deacon Doug McManaman, Canada
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The Path Less Trodden

Is church imposing “burdensome moral restrictions” on people who have same-sex orientation? Get the facts straight, right here

Over the years, I have had very fine students in my classroom who have a same-sex orientation, and, of course, as a Deacon of the Church, I know a number of practicing Catholics with a same-sex orientation. It is important to note right away that many people with same-sex orientation do not live a sexually active lifestyle. Many have been down that road and have found it wanting (i.e. not all that it was cracked up to be). Many are committed to the virtue of chastity—a part of the virtue of temperance. In other words, many same-sex Catholics have come to realize what many heterosexual couples have yet to realize, namely, that happiness does not come from an intimate sexual relationship. Rather, happiness comes from a profound relationship with God, and a moral life consistent with such a relationship. Unless a person has had a genuine encounter with the Lord, much of the Church’s moral teachings will appear to be little more than burdensome impositions, that is, unnecessary restrictions on our own happiness.

If Only…

What is interesting is that a number of Catholics with same-sex orientation have explicitly pointed out that the unwillingness to be direct, that is, the unwillingness to come out and teach the basic principles of Catholic sexual teaching, has actually done a great disservice to them. Had clergy, catechists and teachers been more responsible and shown greater solicitude for the faithful in teaching about sexual ethics and the nature of marriage, they (clergy, catechists, and teachers) might have saved them (Catholics with same-sex orientation) from a great deal of pain and wasted years. In other words, the picture that is often painted by media and popular culture is that persons with same-sex orientation are all on one side, and the Church with its “burdensome moral restrictions” is on the other. Such a picture is just not true to the facts. There are many Catholics with same-sex orientation who are well aware of the difference between pleasure and joy, chastely living very devout lives centered around the Eucharist, taking their inspiration from those priests and Sisters who are faithfully living their vows of chastity or promises of celibacy.

Sexual morality cannot be understood outside of an understanding of the nature of marriage. I teach Marriage Preparation for the Archdiocese, and I can say with relative certainty that the majority of couples getting married today are not entirely clear on what it is they are doing when they choose to marry. In other words, they are not entirely clear on what marriage really is and how it relates to sexual expression. This is understandable because we live in a culture that has really lost a sense of the true nature of marriage. There are number of factors that might explain this, beginning with the Sexual Revolution of the 60s; the introduction of no-fault divorce in the late ‘60s; the introduction of Common Law “marriage” (a couple cohabitates for a period of time and is then treated by the state as if they were married); the separation of sex from the idea of children (a separation made possible by the production and distribution of modern contraceptives, etc.).

But marriage has always been understood as an institution. It is more than a friendship—our friendships are private, they are not institutions. Marriage is an organization that exists for the public welfare (institution). Just as a cell is the basic unit of a living organism, marriage is the fundamental unit of society. Marriage is a unique phenomenon. 

Ever After

In short, it is a joining of two into one flesh, one body. It is a complete (total) and mutual giving of the self to another, and since “you are your body”, to give yourself is to give your body. Because it is a complete and total self-giving, it is irrevocable—I cannot revoke what I give if I no longer hang on to a part of what I am giving. If it is mutual, the two have given themselves over to one another such that her body belongs to him and his body belongs to her. They have become a one flesh union. The natural expression of this union is the act of sexual intercourse (the marital act). In this act, male and female become “reproductively one organism” (a male is reproductively incomplete, and so too a female. But in the marital act, the two become reproductively one body). In the sexual act, the two become a one flesh union, which is what marriage is. And so, the sexual act is an expression and celebration of conjugal love (married love). There is a two-fold goodness to the sexual act; it serves two purposes: 1) to express and celebrate married love, and 2) the procreation of new life.

That is why one of the impediments that renders a marriage invalid (non-existing) is impotence, which implies the inability to actually perform the sexual act (the inability to consummate the marriage). Infertility is not an impediment to marriage; it is not necessary to actually have children in order to be validly married, but the openness to children is a necessary condition for a valid marriage, and so the deliberate intention not to have children renders a marriage invalid (non-existing). Other impediments that render a marriage invalid are coercion, fraud (he’s not the person you were led to believe he was), leaving an opening for divorce (the intention must be until “death do us part”), psychological immaturity (the moral and psychological conditions to actually be married are just not there in at least one of them—this is a serious problem among many people today, for the culture in which we live is not conducive to producing morally mature adults).

Marriage as understood by the Judeo-Christian tradition is an objective institution with a determinate nature. It is not a social construct, as the postmodernist claims it is. And because marriage is a joining of two into one body, one flesh, it can only be achieved between a man and a woman. It is not possible for two people of the same sex to actually become one body in the act of sexual union; in other words, it is not possible to consummate a marriage if the two are of the same sex.

Sexual ethics—for us, at least—always starts from an understanding of the marital context. Pre-marital sex is fundamentally an instance of lying with one’s body—for the two are expressing and celebrating a marriage that isn’t there. But the sexual act between a genuinely married couple is a holy act; it is a grace-meriting act. Outside of that context, the sexual act is usually and for the most part a matter of procuring sexual pleasure. To have sex with another person not as an expression of a complete and total giving of the self in marriage, but merely as a means to sexual pleasure, is to use other as a means to an end; and using another as a means to an end is always a violation of a basic moral precept to treat others as ends in themselves, never as a means to an end.

Finding Happiness

There is far more to this philosophical/theological understanding of marriage and the meaning of the sexual act than can be adequately expressed in an article of this size, but for a large percentage of the population, sex is no longer really anything that has a great deal of significance. It is often not much more meaningful than having a martini or heading out to the Dairy Queen for a sundae, something you can do with almost anyone. But the Church’s determination to protect the nature and sacredness of the sexual act and the true significance of marriage is rooted in her conviction that marriage/family is the fundamental unit of society, and anything that harms that unit harms the civil community as a whole.

And so, the Church calls those persons with a same-sex orientation to a life of chastity. Now this may sound cruel to some, but it might very well be the case that it is the opposite approach that is actually cruel. Moreover, clerical celibacy is probably more important today than it ever was. A good-looking priest or Sister who has taken a vow of chastity or promise of celibacy, and radiates joy, gives very powerful testimony that happiness (or joy) does not come from an intimate sexual relationship; but rather, happiness is found in Christ. It’s even difficult to get married couples to see this. They often believe that their happiness will be found in one another. But Saint Augustine said it long ago, on the first page of his Confessions: “Oh Lord, You created us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You”. In other words, God created you for Himself, not for another. Complete happiness cannot ever be found in another human being, but only in God. If God calls a man to married life, He is calling him to love his wife for her sake, not for his own sake or his own happiness. He is calling this man to love God by loving this woman for her sake and for God’s sake. Unfortunately, many people “reveal their hand” by the words they speak, saying such things as “he fills a void within me”, or “I just didn’t feel fulfilled anymore, so I left her”, as if marriage is about “my fulfillment”.

Beyond Measure

There is a tremendously rich heritage in this area of sexual ethics and the nature of marriage in the history of the Church, which has undergone tremendous development in the 20th century (i.e., the Theology of the Body), and when we teach this to our students, they really do react positively. And this is true also of those students who have same-sex attraction. Many of them discern the truth in these teachings and are grateful to receive them. Unfortunately, many clergy are afraid to teach it, and many educators are just not familiar with it.

The fact of the matter is, we all have our own struggles. Whatever road the Lord calls us to walk, there will be sacrifices we will have to make, battles against ourselves and our own unique proclivities that we will have to engage in, but our eternal happiness is precisely at the end of that road. More importantly, “the road to heaven is heavenly”; conversely, “the road to hell is hellish”. When people come to chart out their own unique battlefield and specific road that the Lord is calling them to follow, with all the sacrifices they will be required to make, they begin to experience a joy that they didn’t think was possible. Most people are under the illusion that I will only be happy when I get to do what I want to do; they often go down that road and discover that they are not happy at all, much to their dismay. But when they finally begin to do what the Lord is calling them to do, they discover something that they had no idea they would find, namely, a deep sense of fulfillment.

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Deacon Doug McManaman

©Deacon Doug McManaman is a retired teacher of religion and philosophy in Southern Ontario. He lectures on Catholic education at Niagara University. His ministry as a deacon is to those who suffer from mental illness.

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