Long before I entered the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit religious order of Pope Francis I, I studied American history. It was in those remarkable history courses that I learned about the birth of the United States, from colonies through revolution to the writing of the Constitution and the making of a republic. The birth of the American experiment, the purest democracy protected by federalism, had its warts from nation-building: Chattel slaves were not counted as fully human, their rights impinged upon through forced labor, whipping, or in some cases, death. My African-American brothers and sisters are still overcoming the institution of slavery today.
The Black Lives Matter movement has made tremendous progress on educating Americans and world citizens about the terrible toll exacted on human beings because of the color of their skin. It is the Black Lives Matter Movement that has reclaimed the commemoration of June 19, 1865 — the celebration of the end of slavery, known as Freedom Day.
While I love history and am no longer a Jesuit, I have spent the past six years advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in the Roman Catholic Church. In my memoir, A Catechism of the Heart: A Jesuit Missioned to the Laity, I write specifically about my departure from the Jesuits because they would not confront the homophobia of the Roman Catholic Church despite the tonal shifts ushered in by Pope Francis. Mostly, mine is a journey book where I invite my readers to consider whether to remain in a church that counts them as less than fully human, a church that cannot celebrate the good works, talents, time, and stewardship of LGBTQ+ people amid its own flock.
Despite my not being a member of the Roman Catholic Church anymore — I am a convert to the Episcopal Church — I am attempting to discard the negative theology of my former church, its antigay theology and rhetoric. I believe the Black Lives Matter movement allows me to confront the homophobia of the Roman Catholic Church in a bold new way. To do this requires analysis of the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The catechism, or teaching, is the official statement of belief of the Roman Catholic Church. It carries more weight than the words of a single pope or the hopes of the many closeted gay priests who pray that one day these words will be forever removed from the language of the catechism. Why haven’t they been already?
Let’s juxtapose the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s language with homosexuality, along with the language of other marginalized people, like African-Americans and women, and then enter into a discussion about why the Catholic Church should move to rewrite the catechism in light of these objections. (For the full text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, click here.)
A final observation before I begin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church presents its doctrine of homosexuality (or same-sex attraction) following a review of the moral virtue of chastity. In 2021, a good homosexual in the church must be celibate. The number listed below is the citation for the official statement of belief contained in the catechism.
“Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.”
What the text looks like with "homosexual" replaced with "African-American":
“African-American refers to a people who experience exclusive or predominant sexual attractions toward persons of the same or opposite sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.”
Same-Sex Attraction (#2358)
“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”
What the text looks like with a focus on African-Americans:
“The number of African-Americans who have deep-seated sexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives, and if they are Christian, to united to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they many encounter from their condition.”
Homosexuals and Chastity (#2359)
“Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”
What this text looks like if "homosexual persons" is replaced with "women":
“Women are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”
As a gay man, I find it unholy that the Roman Catholic Church continues to perpetuate, without factoring in scientific research, its myths about homosexuality. It uses the theology of dead saints to negatively label homosexuals as intrinsically disordered. Please note that categories like bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, and genderqueer do not even make it into the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Furthermore, it is obvious to me that the Roman Catholic Church could not perpetuate myths about African-Americans, women, the disabled, or Latinos.
And while my revisions may seem unconventional or awkward or funny, they underline a truth about the place of gay, lesbians, and bisexuals in the Roman Catholic Church: They are a second-class citizen tolerated but not fully wanted. Good only if celibate. Weren’t African-Americans once valued only as slaves?
If homosexual tendencies are “not a sin,” why does the Catholic Church still discourage homosexual men from entering the priesthood? All priests are supposed to be celibate, regardless of sexual orientation, What should sexuality matter?
About gays in the priesthood, then-Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 2005 that dioceses “cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’ Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women.” In other words, hate the sin, not the sinner!
My friend Lisa McClain, a professor at Boise State University, wrote me recently and asked me, “Does Benedict XVI’s conviction that the alleged inability to relate to men and women mean that the Church doesn't think gay men can relate to and appropriately counsel people? And how might the Catechism's description of homosexuality as 'objectively disordered' play into this?”
A 1986 Vatican letter states:
“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.”
Insert “African-American” into that letter:
“Although the particular inclination of the African-American 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.”
To return to the inspiration for this experiment, the Black Lives Matter movement has allowed for an investigation into complacency and complicit behaviors. If the exercise above has done nothing less, it has shown the futility of the church’s antigay rhetoric and negative theology toward LGBTQ+ people. But why aren’t more LGBTQ+ people challenging this teaching, this catechism, directly?
LGBTQ+ people are human beings, created in the image and likeness of a loving god. Their time, talents, and stewardship should be praised and exalted by the Roman Catholic Church. Gay priests must come out of the closet. For certain, the Catechism of the Catholic Church should excise its outdated, non-scientific language. As the Jesuit priest Father John Kavanagh once taught me in a graduate class at Saint Louis University, all humans count as persons, but for the gay person a caveat remains that if you are still Catholic, you are a person only if you are celibate. If you don’t buy that, it’s time to find a church that wants you with all your humanity, just like Jesus himself: fully accepting, no questions asked.
Benjamin Brenkert is the author of A Catechism of the Heart: A Jesuit Missioned to the Laity.