The Nature of Man
I can’t really remember a time in my life where I haven’t been attracted to other men. To the world this means that I was born “gay” and that my happiness and psychological well-being will come only after accepting myself as a homosexual. This is viewed as liberating truth for a man like me, and to “come out” is the necessary rite of passage that leads to healthy self-love, peace, joy, and contentment. The way life gets better for someone like me is by coming to terms with the way I was made. Of course, in a certain sense, the world gets it right. The “way I was made,” however, is the question.
In 1986, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger penned what I consider to be one of the most important and beautiful documents of the papacy of Blessed John Paul II. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger wrote the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of the Homosexual Person. I was blown away when I read these words:
The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents, and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.
There is freedom in these words, and in them I find tenderness and pastoral love that allows me to embrace the truth of who and what I am. Ultimately, these words—and the entirety of the beautiful tapestry that is the Church’s teaching on sexuality—led me back to Rome.
Seeking a dynamic faith
I was born into a Catholic family, and though I was baptized and received my First Communion, my family left the Catholic Church before I was confirmed. At the time, it seemed to my parents that the exuberance of Evangelical Protestantism was a greater sign of a dynamic faith than they felt they were experiencing in the Catholic Church.
Our Evangelical church upheld the teaching that sexual expression was reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. Homosexuality was not condoned. As a teenager who found the boys in my Sunday school class more attractive than the girls, there was no question that having an outlet for my desires was forbidden. I loved God—as we would say in our church, I was “on fire for the Lord.” I wanted to be obedient to him, but I also didn’t understand why he had allowed these desires to exist in my life, and I prayed constantly that they would be taken away.
Despite my attraction to men, I always longed for a family. I assumed that God would someday bring a woman into my life, that I would be attracted to her, and that we would have a family. I clung to Jeremiah 29:11, which I had learned in the NIV: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
My view of my relationship with God was like a contract. As long as I maintained a semblance of being a good Christian young man, God would make me happy in the way I wanted to be happy. In the particular brand of Protestantism that I found myself in, this seemed to be a theme. Though people suffered, there was always a sense to me at our church that suffering was thought of as just a temporary valley before God brought abundance. The Catholic view of suffering as an invitation to unite our suffering with the cross was a foreign concept. Praying away whatever suffering we confronted seemed to be the modus operandi, and I trusted that, eventually, God would answer my prayers and take away my sexual desire for other males.
“Being gay” was never an option for me. The belief in “male and female he created them” was instilled too deeply in my thinking to consider the possibility that I was made for something other than marriage—or that I, or anyone else, was fundamentally homosexual in his or her created being. I realize now that this is the “law written on our hearts,” as St. Paul calls the natural law. I believed that there was a greater purpose behind my sam- sex attraction than to “come out” and identify as gay. I clung to Romans 8:28— “[W]e know that in everything God works for good with those who live, who are called according to his purpose”—and believed this to be true about my homosexual desires. I didn’t know when that good would come, but I trusted that it would.
Wisdom from C. S. Lewis
As an undergraduate in college, this belief was bolstered by reading a letter written by C. S. Lewis. This letter helped me have a vision of what Romans 8:28 meant for me and my same sex attraction, and it became the guiding principle of how I came to view homosexuality. Little did I know that this resonated with the way the Catholic Church has always viewed homosexuality, too, and that reading Lewis’s letter was the beginning of my journey back toward Rome:
First, to map out the boundaries within which all discussion must go on, I take it for certain that the physical satisfaction of homosexual desires is sin. This leaves the homosexual no worse off than any normal person who is, for whatever reason, prevented from marrying. Second, our speculations on the cause of the abnormality are not what matters, and we must be content with ignorance. The disciples were not told why (in terms of efficient cause) the man was born blind (John 9:1-3): only the final cause, that the works of God should be made manifest in him.
This suggests that in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation, those works can be made manifest: i.e., that every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.’ Of course, the first step must be to accept any privations which, if so disabled, we can’t lawfully get. The homosexual has to accept sexual abstinence just as the poor man has to forego otherwise lawful pleasures because he would be unjust to his wife and children if he took them. That is merely a negative condition. What should the positive life of the homosexual be? Perhaps any homosexual who humbly accepts his cross and puts himself under Divine guidance will . . . be shown the way (quoted in Sheldon Van Auken’s A Severe Mercy, ch. 8).
Finally, here was something that made sense to me. No matter how strongly I felt drawn toward other men, it always seemed that there was something about these desires that didn’t fit in with the order of creation. It made sense to me by being in some ways similar to a physical disability. This didn’t lead to a sense of shame or self-loathing, since there was nothing to be ashamed of about living with a physical disability, but it seemed unwise, in my mind, to try to view it as something positive in and of itself. Good could certainly come out of it—the necessity turned to glorious gain—but I didn’t know what that would look like. I hoped that the way the glory of God would be manifest in my life would be the same way in which the glory of God was manifest in the man born blind: I longed to have the attractions taken away.
In my late twenties I had a crisis of faith. My trust in God’s providence began to unravel. I became increasingly unhappy and sought solace in pornography. With the advent of the Internet I would often chat late into the night with other guys as an attempt to salve my loneliness. I felt as if I was living a hellish existence by attempting to follow God, and even if I was risking God’s condemnation, I chose to pursue my idea of happiness. God seemed no longer to be trustworthy to me, so I turned away from him.
Wisdom of the Catechism
For some people, the path toward God begins first by leaving him. God lets us go because he loves us. Like the Prodigal Son, I didn’t understand the joy of being with my Father. The journey of my disobedience and rebellion has been transformed through God’s grace into the vehicle by which I now know the love of my Father more fully each day. After many years away from God, and living the way I wanted to live my life, God slowly drew me back through his kindness. I expected God’s wrath; but it isn’t the wrath of God that leads us to repentance, but rather his kindness, as St. Paul tells us in Romans 2:4.
God used C. S. Lewis’s letter to pave the way for me to embrace the freedom that comes from the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. I think all I ever really needed to know about homosexuality is contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph 2358 urges a man like me to “unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross” any suffering I might experience, and I think in this way comes the great redemption of homosexuality, which, in Lewis’s words, brings “glorious gain.” Thanks to the teachings of the Catholic Church, I view homosexuality through the lens of St. Paul in Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
I think the most important teaching of the Church on homosexuality for this day and age that needs to be promoted, however, is its teachings on the nature and dignity of man. As Pope Paul VI famously said, the Church is “expert in humanity,” and I thank God for Pope Benedict XVI’s continuous proclamation about the truth of our identity.
A proper ecology of man
The nature of man has been one of the focuses of Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching. Several times in his pontificate he spoke about the importance of maintaining a correct “ecology of man.” He said in his 2008 Advent address to the Roman Curia that the world must “protect man from self-destruction. What is needed is something like a human ecology, correctly understood.”
According to Benedict, this human ecology is under attack in our culture, and the antidote is the Church, which “speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman.” The world needs to “listen to the ‘language’ of creation” and refuse to embrace the concept of gender or our sexuality being anything other than male or female. The concept of gender “ends up being man’s attempt at self-emancipation from creation and the Creator. Man wants to be his own master, and alone—always and exclusively—to determine everything that concerns him. Yet in this way he lives in opposition to the truth, in opposition to the Creator Spirit.” The belief in gender rather than in our sex leads, in Benedict’s words, to the “self-destruction of man himself, and hence the destruction of God’s own work.”
These words of Pope Benedict are much needed in this current age where we are becoming accustomed to the ever-expanding LGBTQ alphabet soup of sexual identities. Just last week I enrolled at Microsoft’s website, and, rather than “sex,” the registration form asked me for my “gender”: male, female, or “not specified.”
Benedict tells us that this sort of thinking about man leads to confusion. Speaking to the Bundestag in Germany, Benedict again spoke of the ecology of man using words that hold great importance for me when I am tempted to identify myself as a gay man:
[M]an too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is [emphasis added] as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true freedom fulfilled.
The world wants to tell me that I was born gay, that I’m a man with a homosexual orientation. But the reality of the nature of man reveals to me that this is not so. I am called by God, in the words of Pope Benedict, to accept myself for who I am. If I embrace what the world says about me, then there is something wrong with what Benedict calls my “relationship with reality,” and as a result, he says, I am not truly free, since I believe something that is opposed to the innate design of God, where the only sexual identity that belongs to me is my maleness.
The Catechism tells me in paragraph 2333 what my response must be to this reality about my God given sexual identity as a male:
Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.
To say anything about my sexual identity other than that I am male is to do injury to my own dignity—to ignore what Benedict called in his 2012 Advent address to the Roman Curia the “blueprint of humanity.”
Not defined by labels
Blessed John Paul II taught us in his great encyclical Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) that though man may exist in a particular culture, we are never defined by the culture in which we live. He taught that man transcends any culture in which he finds himself, and that each man is called to live “in accordance with the profound truth of his being.” In rejecting the labels gay or homosexual, I live my life with a proper relationship to reality and according to the profound truth of my being.
Thanks to the great legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, I know what I have always instinctively known from when I was a boy: I have a nature given to me by God, as a man created for union with a woman. As Benedict tells us, I choose to listen to that nature and humbly accept myself for who I am, even though at times I am tempted to think that I am made another way.
It seems to me that the words of Benedict proceed from a love of the way in which man was created by God, and he has stood as a bastion against man’s desire to create himself in his own image. Benedict’s wise words on identity keep me in mind of the words of Isaiah 29:16, speaking about man’s rebellious relationship with his creator:
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay;
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
As I think of Pope Benedict strolling the gardens of the Vatican in his retirement, praying for the world and the Church, I wish I could thank him for his ministry to the Church. As a man who lives with same-sex attraction and who has questioned who he much of his life, I would thank him for proclaiming the truth of my dignity as a man, made as an image-bearer of God. Though I know I will never meet him on Earth, by the grace of God I hope to make it to heaven, and I long for the moment when I will be able to approach this humble servant of God and give him my heartfelt gratitude and say to him, “Viva il Papa Benedetto!”
The quiet theologian
With a new pope in the Chair of St. Peter, and as with many other Catholics around the world, my thoughts turn toward the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI and the gift that his papacy has been to the Church.
My overwhelming emotion is one of gratitude. I have grown to love the quiet theologian who wanted to retire long ago but who willingly followed where Christ called him. Like a faithful shepherd concerned with the well-being of his flock, he has guided me toward the truth that sets us free. He has faithfully and continually taught me to understand what it means to be a man made in the image and likeness of God. In this I have found great comfort and freedom from the way the world would urge me to define myself: as a gay man.
Daniel Mattson lives in the Midwest, where he has a career in music. He blogs about issues regarding Catholicism and homosexuality at LettersToChristopher.wordpress.com. He can be contacted for speaking engagements at [email protected].