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Part 1: A Personal Journey
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Dec 7, 2015)
The following is the first in a series on Homosexuality and God's Merciful Love.
My goal here is to create a Catholic guide to what God has revealed through Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and what science and philosophy can teach us about same-sex attraction and relationships, how to love our homosexual brothers and sisters, and how they, like us, can become saints
To put it in simpler terms, in this series we are not just going to scratch the surface or engage in polemics. Rather, we are going to dive right into the heart of this contentious issue that so deeply divides our society today. The Pope and the Synod of Bishops in Rome is offering new guidance on the pastoral care of people with same-sex attraction, guidance we need to take on board. And there is no better way to do that than to begin at the beginning: educating ourselves about homosexuality itself, its origins, and the challenges that people with same-sex attraction face. These people, after all, may be found among our own family members, friends, colleagues at work — some of us even may be struggling with same-sex attractions ourselves.
The fact is we cannot love our homosexual neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus called us to do, unless we first learn the truth about human sexuality and the part it is meant to play in God's plan for human happiness and wholeness.
My own special interest in this topic arises from a personal "journey of discovery" about same-sex attraction. It's not that I ever experienced much of it myself, but as a result of various life-circumstances, I came to personally know scores of homosexual men and women, including a few I counted as good friends. Perhaps my own journey in trying to understand their struggles is a good place to start this web series. At least it will provide "full-disclosure" about the author of these articles!
I am the son of a Protestant pastor, and my parents were (and are) dedicated advocates of "Liberal Protestantism." As a result, I was brought up to believe pretty much everything that many North American Christians believe today about homosexuality: namely, that God just made some people that way. Besides, it's "love" that matters, caring and affection for one another, not the kinds of human bodies involved in expressing it, right? Moreover, our gay neighbors can be every bit as kind-hearted and friendly as anyone else. "So, what's the big deal here?"
I accepted all this without question or qualification as a teenager, and so did almost everyone in the circles in which our family moved.
The first indication I had that there might be "more to the story" occurred when I began working in my mother's office in downtown New York City in the summers to earn money toward college (my mom was vice-president for operations of NBC News opinion research). There, I met and worked with numerous LGBT people, most of whom were just earning money on the side while trying to break into the acting world (vying for parts in Broadway shows, TV programs, ads, etc.), although some were full-time career workers for NBC.
My impression from several summers of this work was that, overall, this was a very troubled group of people, with an extraordinary number of personal and emotional "issues." I did not think too much of it at the time, because I did not have the chance to get to know them very well. Besides, I thought, it may be just a peculiarity of this particular slice of the gay community (New Yorkers, mostly arts and entertainment people, etc.), and not representative of the American homosexual population as a whole. What really started me to wonder, however, was when my ultra-liberal mother told me one day that the gay and lesbian people she worked with at NBC were "the unhappiest group of people" she had ever dealt with.
After graduating from Williams College with a B.A. in History, I taught junior high school in New York for two years and formed a close friendship with a teaching colleague named Vince from Greenwich Village, a gay man who enjoyed reading "dissident" Catholic theology, and who moved in and out of a same-sex relationship. He was a good friend, and we had terrific theological discussions, but I also came to know his backstory and his deeply wounded relationship with his father. I didn't think much of it — again, not a "scientific sample."
Within a few years I was off to Anglican (Episcopalian) seminary in Berkeley, California: The Church Divinity School of the Pacific. That is, I went from Manhattan to San Francisco Bay, the two most ultra-liberal and pro-gay places in the entire United States! At that seminary about 50 percent of the students were gay or lesbian, many of them in same-sex relationships. Once again, the impression of profound unhappiness and dis-ease was inescapable and not what I expected to find. After all, this was San Francisco Bay, where homosexuality was fully affirmed and socially supported, and these were praying, thoughtful Christians in a church that largely accepted their sexual orientation — not the Bohemian, artsy types I had known in NYC. One of my gay friends died of AIDS the year after I left seminary. Another left his wife and child to pursue a relationship with a fellow Anglican seminarian. New Age, pantheistic theology also flourished at CDSP.
By now, after several years of theological reflection, I was moving full-speed in a direction that had attracted me for many years: toward a more High Church, Anglo-Catholic perspective. Initially this had nothing to do with the homosexuality issue, which I had not yet studied in any depth. While working on a master's degree in theology at Oxford University in England, I came across a little book that gradually became my personal Summa: Vernon Staley's High Church Anglican classic The Catholic Religion (1893). In that book, he summed up what he called "the Anglican standard in regard to truth" (p.78):
The Holy Scriptures are the final authority in questions relating to Catholic truth, the Church being the interpreter of these Scriptures, and that too in the sense in which the [consensus of the ancient] Fathers have generally understood them.
My whole outlook on the gospel of Jesus Christ's love for us was steadily being reshaped in the light of this classically High-Anglican (and largely Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) way of discerning what God has revealed to us about His nature, character, and loving purposes for us. It's still true for me today, although now, as a Roman Catholic, I would add the witness of the saints from every age (and not just the early Fathers), ecumenical councils of the Church and papal decrees to the mix that makes up the trustworthy "Sacred Tradition."
This Tradition, fashioned by the Holy Spirit in the ongoing life of the Church enables us rightly to perceive and to live the biblical message. For Catholics, this includes the general consensus of the saints and the Fathers — i.e., those discerned by Christ's Body to be full-to-overflowing with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth and love (see Jn 16:13), the definitive teachings of the ecumenical councils (Acts 15:28), and the definitive teachings of the popes, the "rock" of the Church (Mt 16:17-19). It also, of course, includes the Holy Scriptures. Together, these are the channels of divine revelation to us, and signs that the Holy Spirit is alive and working in Christ's Body so that His promises always remain true: "When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth" (Jn 16:13) and "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free" (Jn 8:32). It is the reason St. Paul referred to the Church as "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (Titus 3:15). All of this is a gift of love from Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom, to His Bride the Church, until He comes again.
Anyway, on with my story. When I finished my master's degree at Oxford, I went back to Anglican seminary to finish my training for the priesthood. This time I chose St. Stephen's House in Oxford, one of the most solidly Anglo-Catholic seminaries in the Church. There, approximately 80 percent of the students were gay or lesbian (mostly gay men, because the Church of England had not yet decided to ordain women to the priesthood). I knew before I went there that the Anglo-Catholic sub-culture in England was overwhelmingly homosexual — and these guys I got to know quite well. I was struck once again not only by the pervasive unhappiness of this group of people, despite every protection and social support, but also by the number of them who had broken, wounded relationships with their own fathers. Moreover, I noted the stark contradiction between the "Anglo-Catholic" faith they were espousing and a lifestyle that seemed impossible to reconcile with Staley's High Anglican "standard" with regard to revealed truth. Something was clearly wrong here.
In the early 1990s, after my ordination as an Anglican priest and an initial assignment in England, I took a post in British Columbia in Canada serving several small High Church or Anglo-Catholic congregations for the Traditional Anglican Communion. In one of them there were a handful of evidently gay parishioners. In fact, one of these, a man named Ted, became my chief altar server. Later, he started bringing his partner to Church, and they presented themselves to the congregation to be accepted as a couple.
Now I had a pastoral decision to make that I had happily avoided ever since I had become an Anglican priest.
Next Week: Is Gay Really OK?
You can follow the entire series here.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.