Five Catholics describe joys, struggles of embracing chastity
Five Catholics with same-sex attraction recently sat down for a roundtable interview with Catholic Spirit staff writer and photographer Dave Hrbacek. All are now living chaste lives and following church teaching on sexuality and agreed to talk about their experiences. They represent voices that haven’t been widely heard in the current debate over the proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman — a measure they all support. The following is an edited version of the interview.
Why have you chosen to live chastely in accord with church teaching?
Ed: I first had inklings of same-sex attraction when I was younger. But I think it really hit me in college when I couldn’t deny it. I think I was in my junior year when I realized that this was going to be setting the pace for the rest of my life. I had to make some decisions about what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Growing up I was very blessed to be part of a really strong Catholic family. We have six children in our family. With the love that my family showed me, I realized there is so much more to life than just being identified by a characteristic — whether you’re short or tall, any type of characteristic.
When I first realized that I had same-sex attraction, my first inclination was just feeling sorrow and the fear. . . . I just felt like I was free falling because everything I had known was based on family and on church. Somehow, I felt like this excluded me from the church — this struggle and just having same-sex attraction. I remember I felt like I lost my bearings at that moment because I didn’t know what this meant. Was I accepted by my family? Was I going to be accepted in the church? I think when I got to the very bottom, I just had a deep sense of peace and love, and I realized that [it] was Christ. That was all I could hang on to was that anchor of Christ.
There’s that living Christ that you have an encounter with, and I seriously think I had that when I was in college. It’s just undeniable that I felt so much love and direction for the rest of my life. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I think at that moment I really caught a glimpse of Christ, and some of the people, like the high school leader at my church [and] the youth ministry leader came to mind. I thought of a lot of people who loved me regardless of my struggle, and those people really went back to the church.
It wasn’t until I was 23 that I came out to my mom. I had kind of understood the church teaching that homosexual acts were wrong. But I never heard the opposite, that the attraction, in itself, wasn’t sinful. In its teaching, the church says it doesn’t know what the genesis of the orientation is, but that just because you have same-sex attraction, you still have a dignity and people need to treat you with respect. I think once I heard that teaching, it filled in the other part for me. I felt, having attraction, I was still accepted in the church. And, not only accepted, but loved. From that point on, I was never in a relationship where I participated in any of the [sexual] activities.
Rose: I’m going to be brutally honest. For me, it’s different at different times. I think the underlying truth is that it’s because it’s what’s right, and I know it in my being. I know it in my heart that following what Christ has laid out through the church is what’s right, and that’s why I choose it.
Laura: I think for me a very key turning point for me in my life — and it wasn’t an immediate turning point, it took several more years — was this friend of mine who prayed for me all of those years.
At some point in my journey, she asked me to come and see her and I did go. I went to confession, and I’ve never looked back.
The other key piece for me is St. Augustine’s saying of our hearts are restless until they rest in the Lord. The Catholic Church is the place that I have so much available to me, through the sacraments. Every day, I can personally visit him in an adoration chapel. There are 40 to 50 adoration chapels in the Twin Cities area. I can go to Communion and receive him in the Eucharist every single day. I can celebrate confession as frequently as I want to, probably not as much as I should. I am provided food for the journey and it has been a tremendous gift.
The other piece of the pie is that my faith as a Catholic does not discriminate. It asks of my married friends, my single friends, my courting friends, my friends that struggle with same-sex attraction to live a holy and chaste life, and that’s what we should strive for. It doesn’t discriminate. It’s not telling me I cannot love. It’s telling me how I should express it in an appropriate fashion and what the church teaches about that. And, when you actually have a full understanding of that, it is a beautiful, beautiful gift that we have.
Nick: I think that one of the things that made me choose it [chastity] was it had to be about love. I had to figure out what that was going to look like. Some of the chaplains and people in Courage [an apostolate of the Catholic Church that ministers to people with same-sex attraction], their ordination, their celibacy, their gift, I get to see that they love freely, that very witness of their life. They are free to love, and they’ve been a good reminder that I’m free to love, too.
So, when I look at them, sometimes it makes it easier to say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want. I want to walk with Jesus, I want to be free to love.’ And, I realize that no one will ever love me like he does. So, I think the witnesses of other Christian men and women made me choose [chastity]. Very often, it was a choice I had to make every day. Every day, I had to say, ‘Jesus, give me the gift of chastity and the gift of fidelity and the gift of humility today. Help me to walk with you today because yesterday is already gone.’ So, I need that strength to be able to experience and to share in that love on a daily basis.
What have you received from the church that has been helpful or supportive in your effort to live a chaste life and be a faithful Catholic?
Thomas: No. 1, it’s just the position spelled out in the catechism. For a 2,000-year-old by nature conservative institution to spell out a policy on homosexuality and homosexual orientation and homosexual behavior as soundly, as sensitively and fairly as it has is just miraculous. It’s astonishing. Living life as a homosexual can be pretty scary. Thank God for the love of God. No. 2, thank God for the church because the church has given us a tremendous gift in the sanity that is in the catechism.
Nick: The sacraments. Mass and confession. I think if you were to ask me what do you see five years down the line, my only answer is whatever God has planned as long as it’s with Jesus.
What can the church do to minister to those with same-sex attraction?
Rose: First and foremost, for priests to know the church’s teaching and to lovingly enforce it in confession.
What I mean by that is there’s been a few times I’ve gone to confession and I’ve been told that it doesn’t matter as long as I’m a good person; it doesn’t matter what I do. And, that was confessing sexual sins . . . . It is not helpful. Thank God for the wonderful, faithful priests that do [speak truth], that hear [my confession] and they don’t even flinch. They just remind me of God’s love and they remind me about the sacraments, they remind me about practicing self-denial and praying to Mary. Those are the priests that are so valuable.
Ed: If people acquaint themselves with the teaching, they’ll be able to better understand people who have SSA, especially at the point when somebody’s a young person who is telling their parents about their SSA.
I know with my own mother when I told her, the first thing she said to me was that she would always love me. There is nothing I could ever do that she would stop loving me. But, she told me I had some decisions to make. At that point, I was going to her to test her, to test the waters and see where she was at with it all. I had no idea. When she really held out the truth, I just saw that as a real act of love. She was able to converse with me about what the church taught. I had never heard the church teaching. I was 24. I was going to the library and reading books and trying to find out the truth on homosexuality. Is it right, is it wrong? I think at that point, when she was able to present the truth with an informed conscience, that was a crucial turning point in my life. It set the course for what I thought about the church and the church’s teaching.
Laura: We’re not talking about [same-sex attraction and unions] until it’s put up for a vote, so we’re behind the eight-ball. Regardless of the outcome of this vote, we as a church need to continue to look at this, to address the issues, to talk about healthy families and marriages, and have some adult formation.
We’ve started to open these lines of communication. My hope in sharing this kind of a story with people is to say there are people that are living great, terrific, fulfilling lives that have struggled with same-sex attractions that are finding fulfillment in the Catholic Church and support from the Catholic Church. That’s my hope for this story — that people realize that I have embraced life, I have embraced the church’s teachings and I am fulfilled and I have a great life.
How do you respond to the accusation that those who support the amendment hate gays?
Nick: With incredulity. It’s like saying, ‘If you don’t believe our point of view, you don’t really breathe or love or feel.’ And, we do love and breathe and feel just like they do.
I think part of it is when you have someone that’s guiding your life in a different way, on a level of faith, there are some things that we do now that make perfect sense to us as human beings who happen to have a faith that animates our life. For others who have chosen to believe differently, maybe they have not experienced that faith in the same way in their lives and they don’t understand the context for our choice.
I think very often they really do think that the only thing they can imagine to be loving is to support the whole GLBT agenda. And, if you don’t do that, then you don’t love gay people or you’re not for their rights. There are some things that the gay community has done that are wonderful over the years, in terms of people being able to openly work on housing, different things that the church agrees with that is unjust discrimination. But, there is such a thing as just discrimination, and that’s what they fail to see.
So, I don’t hate people, I love them, a lot of people dearly.
Ed: One time in high school, somebody wrote a derogatory comment on my folder. I went out to get a drink and when I came back, it was written there. And, the friends I was with told me, ‘Oh, don’t mind those people, they don’t know what they’re saying and doing.’
It was very hurtful and I found that really changed my perspective. In high school, I started to become fearful of people because I had never experienced that [hate] before. All I had felt was love from my church and from my family. To have something like that happen, I understand the hurt of that.
I wish more people would see that because we really aren’t the haters. I love the people in this room, and I’ve known these people for years. The comradery and the friendship that I’ve been able to build is so substantial, and I think you find this bigger support in the church itself, not only among fellow people with SSA, but just people in the church. I’ve been able to be open about this with so many Catholics, and I find such a great reception.
Given your experience with same-sex attraction, do you see yourself as being effective in this discussion that we’re having right now in this culture?
Ed: I think everybody knows it’s a heated debate and divisive, and I think there’s people in the gap that are willing to understand the struggle and to see both sides, but yet be able to talk about a choice that people don’t understand, and that is chastity and living according to church teaching.
Thomas: I think the whole issue of chastity really puts things in perspective. There’s this idea so firmly fixed in popular culture that if you’re not having frequent licit or illicit sex, there’s something wrong with you. You’re not healthy emotionally or psychologically. It’s just not true, and the church knows that.
It’s not just priests and religious and the knights of the Holy Grail who practice chastity. Look around you. All sorts of people are doing it all the time. It’s perfectly normal and it works. Finding yourself in a position where you’re acutely aware of that puts you very much at odds with the popular culture, which is raining down on us through the media all the time. It does throw you into the battle, and makes things clear to you and puts you in a position to be able to join the battle.
Ed: I think the biggest thing for me no matter what side I’m on, I just hope that Catholics would vote their faith above anything else. It’s hard to get to that point, but I think our faith has to guide our vote. For me, I’m just trying to understand if somebody is voting for me, thinking I’m SSA and not living a chaste life, I hope that they would vote their faith over their feelings toward me. Just really dig deep. I think that’s basically what I think we’re called to do.
I’ve been open with a lot of people about my SSA and living a chaste life. I think if I just talk to them and be real with them and let them know that I’ve chosen the chaste life, it’s OK for them also, that they should vote also on their faith as I’ve chosen to do.
Nick: I think there’s a tendency in the culture that when anything that is opposed to the GLBT point of view comes out, there is this rabid response. And, one of the responses very often is, ‘Well, you’re trying to get me to change.’ And, I think the church in its wisdom says, ‘No, we’re not calling you to change, but we’re calling everyone to live the Gospel, and everyone is welcome.’
I think, especially for the Catholic Church, because of the way that she does welcome people, the way that she does hold out the truth and the compassion of Christ, that it’s very important.
There are going to be some people out there that have tried to change. They’ve prayed and they’ve prayed and they’ve prayed, and nothing has happened. So, I think that’s really important to remember or point out — this isn’t about having people with same-sex attraction become people without same-sex attraction. This is about people who are committed to living the Gospel who happen to have same-sex attraction. There’s a much bigger difference.
The five participants in the roundtable discussion on same-sex attraction in the Catholic church all are local Catholics. Their names have been changed to protect their identities. The following are brief descriptions of each participant:
“Ed” is 51 and works in sales for a graphics company. He was raised Catholic, left the church for 20 years after graduating from college, and came back 10 years ago. He lived the gay lifestyle for a time, then went through a program called Living Waters, a Christian program designed to help those seeking healing from sexual and relational brokenness. He lives in St. Paul and belongs to a local Catholic parish.
“Rose” is 33 and works in law enforcement. She grew up in Texas, where her family left the Catholic Church when she was 5. The family returned when she was 11, and she began struggling with same-sex attraction when she was 14. After being in a relationship, she had a conversion and began to follow church teaching. She did volunteer ministry for two years and also went through the Living Waters program. She lives in St. Paul and belongs to a parish.
“Thomas” is 62 and works in the graphic arts field. He was raised Protestant in a small town in Iowa and joined the Catholic Church in his early 30s. He began struggling with same-sex attraction in junior high, but stopped being sexually active when news of the AIDS epidemic broke in 1981. He lives in St. Paul and attends Mass regularly, but does not belong to a parish.
“Laura” is 47 and works in the health care industry. She grew up in a small, Midwestern town and was raised Catholic. She started struggling with same-sex attraction and had a female partner for 11 years before coming back to the Catholic Church in 2000. She lives in St. Paul and belongs to a parish, where she serves as a captain to help promote the marriage amendment. She also went through the Living Waters program, and gives credit for her return to the church to a friend who committed to pray daily that she would leave the gay lifestyle and come back to the church.
“Nick” is 56 and works in customer service. He was born in Decatur, Ill., and was raised Catholic. He suffered sexual abuse by a neighbor boy when he was 5, and later fell into the gay lifestyle. He learned of the Catholic Church’s Courage program for those struggling with same-sex attraction, and went to a Courage conference in 2008. After leaving the church for a time, he came back, and now serves as a captain for his parish in St. Paul. He currently lives in the western suburbs.