“Gay” or “SSA”? Why Words Matter When Talking About Homosexuality

"Who are you?"

It’s fascinating how such a tiny sentence can carry such a weight of meaning. There are many ways to answer it: in fact, a person often has different answers for different situations, depending on who is asking the question. The answer becomes even more complicated when it involves matters that are very personal, like faith, family, and sexuality. But at the heart of things, it should be an easy question to answer, since every one of us ultimately shares the same identity, which makes us who we are as individuals and bind us all together.

That fundamental identity of every human being derives from his or her creation by God. “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Each of us possesses inherent dignity and worth because we have been fashioned in the image of God, which means that we are persons capable of relationships, and in the likeness of God, which means that our relationships must be modeled on the self-giving love that is at the heart of the Trinity. The image of God is obscured in us by the reality of sin, so God sent his Son into the world to free us from sin and give us new life. Created and redeemed by God, we are adopted as his sons and daughters, and together with Jesus we may call God our Father. These facts explain who we are, and they allow us to love one another as brothers and sisters.

The plan for each of our lives starts from this truth: we are created and redeemed so that we may freely love God and one another. The story of the creation of the human being also tells us that we are created as men or as women, and that men and women are created for each other (cf. Gen. 1:27; 2:18-25). So the blessings of sex are intimately connected with our identity as persons created in God’s image and likeness. God creates us as beings able to love, support and depend on one another in imitation of him. In the vocation of marriage, sex means that men and women may make a total gift of body and soul to one another that symbolizes their permanent spiritual union and allows them to cooperate with God in creating new human life.

It is important, however, to keep these realities in their proper order.  Human beings, particularly in the modern world, can experience sexual desire as a very powerful, sometimes overwhelming influence on their minds and hearts. It is easy to think that, because sexual desire is so powerful, it is the most important aspect of life, the thing that defineswho I am and what I must do. Faith reveals that this is not the case: sex and sexuality are at the service of the vocation to love in imitation of God that gives a person his identity, not the other way around. This means, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pointed out in 1986, that “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.”

Because sexuality is created by God, it is created according to God’s plan. God places in the hearts of men a desire for intimate union with women, and in the hearts of women a desire for intimate union with men, and it is this God-given desire that attracts them to one another and makes sexual union in marriage a source of joy. Faith tells us, however, that this God-given desire has been distorted as a result of the Original Sin.  “Your urge shall be for your husband,” God tells the woman in the Garden of Eden, “and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16)—alluding to sins of lust and domination that have brought tension into relationships between men and women ever since. This brokenness of human relationships since the Original Sin has introduced other distortions into the human experience of sexuality, including the very difficult situation in which a person’s sexual desires are directed predominantly or exclusively to his or her own sex, rather than to the opposite sex.

How we refer to these desires, and to the people that experience them, reveals whether or not we are considering them in the framework of God’s original plan for humanity and the reality of sin. At their most basic, these desires may be called same-sex or homosexual attractions (the Greek prefix homo- simply means “the same”). But to say of a person that he is “a homosexual” makes this one aspect of his experience the defining term of his or her identity. It seems to suggest that God has created two kinds of people—heterosexuals and homosexuals—and therefore there are two kinds of vocations for loving in imitation of God. As we have seen, this can’t be the case: if human beings share one identity as children of God, then we share one vocation to love. Therefore, the CDF goes on, the Church “refuses to consider the person purely as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has the same fundamental identity: to be a creature and, by grace, a child of God, an heir to eternal life.”

Terms like “homosexual” and “gay,” on the other hand, seem to claim for a person a particular identity based on the sexual attractions he experiences rather than on the fundamental identity of the human person as a child of God, which includes but is much greater than one’s sexual desires. This makes it much easier to fall into the mistaken thought that, if a person feels a certain way, he necessarily must act on those feelings. As we have seen, there is a plan for sex and sexual desire that is oriented by God toward the opposite sex, so acting on same-sex desires cannot lead to the true happiness that is the intended result of following the divine plan. The virtue of chastity requires keeping desires in proper perspective and choosing to act only in the way that leads to holiness and fulfillment.

The term “gay” also tends to be politically charged, and speaking of a “gay identity” risks being swept up into the “gay activism” that is part of modern civil discourse. This is the very thing that Pope Francis spoke of in his interview after World Youth Day in 2013, when he said that “the problem is not having this tendency … the problem is in making a lobby of this tendency,” that is, a faction based on sexual orientation.

For these reasons, many ministries and offices of the Catholic Church make a deliberate choice to describe such persons instead as persons who experience same-sex attractions (SSA). Although the term may seem cumbersome or clinical, in reality it bears quiet but persistent witness to the enduring reality of God’s plan for each man and woman, and for humanity in general.

A “person who experiences same-sex attractions” is, first and foremost, a person created by God in his image and likeness.

A “person who experiences same-sex attractions” is a man or a woman who is created with the capacity to love and be loved, and although the sexual desires that should lead to married love are leading somewhere else, the fundamental capacity and call to love remains.

A “person who experiences same-sex attractions” is a person who is redeemed by Jesus Christ, and with the grace that comes from Christ, can see those same-sex attractions in their proper context, understand where they come from and where they lead, and make free and generous decisions to follow the plan of God and live a chaste life.

Most importantly, a “person who experiences same-sex attractions” deals with his desires as a free, redeemed, called, and chosen disciple of the Lord, who is free to love God and neighbor generously in imitation of Christ.

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Father Philip Bochanski is the associate director of Courage International, a Catholic apostolate that provides pastoral care to people with same-sex attractions who desire to live a chaste life.  More information about Courage and EnCourage, which ministers to family members of people with SSA, can be found at www.CourageRC.org.