Mahony Resources – March 2001
By Christopher Zehnder
"Why write about homosexuality? The most obvious reason is that most everyone is talking about homosexuality."
So opens Father Peter Liuzzi's new book, With Listening Hearts, Understanding the Voices of Lesbian and Gay Catholics. Certainly, Father Liuzzi has been talking about homosexuality -- and for a long time. As director of the Los Angeles archdiocese's Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics, for over ten years Liuzzi has promoted ministry with homosexual Catholics. He is one of the reasons that "most everyone is talking about homosexuality."
Liuzzi writes that his book "will assist Catholic readers everywhere in a better understanding of the controversial and complex reality that is homosexuality." Many homosexuals, he says, "speak of being alienated gradually by silence" -- silence from their families, from society, from the Church. "This little book is an attempt to break the silence."
In breaking the silence, Liuzzi assures us that he will adhere "strictly to the teachings and sound pastoral practices of the Roman Catholic Church." And he continues, "to disregard the teaching of the church is dishonest and unfair. Avoiding painful realities can really be misleading. On the other hand, a rigid and coldly objective application of the church's teaching can be most discouraging. My fidelity to doctrine is not to deny that there are very important and valid questions about homosexuality that need answers and further discernment."
What valid questions are there, one wonders? Liuzzi poses one -- a dilemma: "how can we remain faithful to the constant and clear teaching of the church around sexuality and still include and be sensitive to the needs of homosexual Catholics? How can we best support our homosexual Catholics in the call to live a chaste life, which is binding on every Catholic according to one's state in life?" This is, of course, a valid question of practical ministerial application of the Gospel. Liuzzi, though, seems, as we shall see, to want to push us beyond mere questions of application.
Father Liuzzi thinks the old ways of dealing with homosexuals left much to be desired. Ordained in 1965, Liuzzi informs us that all he learned about homosexuality in the seminary "could be found in two pages of notes. written in Latin, lest anyone outside the seminary read them and be scandalized that such an unmentionable sin was addressed in the seminary." Those notes, Liuzzi says, taught him that "homosexuality was to be viewed only in terms of sexual genital activity. Otherwise it did not exist." Such activity "was considered to be against nature and therefore a grave sin." This "narrow understanding," says Liuzzi, led to a pastoral practice where the priest did "everything possible to help the homosexual person to avoid this sin at all costs." The priest would recommend frequent reception of the sacraments, especially confession; but in confession the priest would commonly refuse absolution "to anyone who could not promise to avoid this sin in the future." Such an approach, said Liuzzi, "often resulted in a permanent alienation from the church."
Liuzzi says that he found that approach to be "much too simplistic for what is a very complex reality." What is a better approach? Listening to homosexual penitents. Liuzzi writes that he learned "to listen with my heart. I invited homosexual people not only to tell their sins, but to talk about their pain, their journeys in faith, the hard questions they had to face and so much more. I would ask them to discern the calls of the Holy Spirit in this or that situation. It was in such a context that I found my way to explaining facets of church teaching that they had never heard of or known."
In With Listening Hearts, Father Liuzzi develops these "facets of church teaching." First, he seeks to draw from several sources a definition of homosexuality. From the 1975 Vatican document, Persona Humana, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, where it addresses the character of sexuality as such (not homosexuality), Liuzzi draws the conclusion that "every person is a sexual person. Sexuality is an integral part of human living and relating." True enough; being a man or a woman certainly is integral to one's personhood.
Liuzzi then cites the 1986 Vatican Letter to Catholic Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin," says the document, "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. Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not." How does Liuzzi understand this passage? The document, he says, states that "the orientation is not a sin; it is willful and intended genital activity that is a sin." However, Liuzzi goes on: "It is also very important to avoid giving meanings to phrases like 'intrinsic moral evil' and 'objective disorder' that were never intended. The document is speaking about homosexuality in terms of Catholic morality and Catholic doctrine. This document is not saying that homosexual persons are depraved or that they suffer some mental illness or physical malady." If that is not what the document is saying, what is it saying?
Before answering this vital question, Liuzzi cites, again, Persona Humana, which admits that, for some people, homosexuality may well be incurable. He then cites again the Letter to Bishops: "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. Today, the Church. 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."
From these documents, one can gather that the Church teaches that homosexuality implies and is characterized by a tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil (i.e. sexual activity with members of one's own sex), and so is "objectively disordered;" that the inclination by itself is not sinful; that, for some, homosexuality may be incurable; and that no one can be reduced to one aspect of his character. Homosexuality is like any disordered appetite. I may have a bad temper; it is an appetite ordered to an intrinsic evil; it may be very difficult utterly to overcome; and, though it compromises me, it does not utterly explain me. This seems to be the clear teaching of the Church in these citations.
But this wasn't Liuzzi's interpretation. It seems that he thinks homosexuality is just another orientation, like heterosexuality; that it is just as healthy or natural as heterosexuality. "Sexual orientation," he begins, "is not only or even primarily a tendency toward genital acts [emphasis in original], but rather a psychosexual, intraphysic attraction toward particular individual persons. This is to affirm that one's sexual orientation is not fundamentally a tendency toward sexual activity but rather an intrapsychic dimension of one's personality." Liuzzi next approvingly quotes Father Gerald D. Coleman, who wrote: "the homosexual orientation itself is a manifestation of the capacity and the need of human persons to grow in loving relationships that in some way mirror the life-giving love of the God in whose image and likeness we are all created: i.e. homosexuality is not an orientation to sexual activity as such anymore than definite heterosexuality." Further on, Liuzzi says "our sexual identity helps define who we are as persons. Part of sexual identity for some of us is homosexuality."
Father Liuzzi wants to assure his readers that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. In 1973, he notes, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its lists of mental disorders. The only mental disorder the association now associates with homosexuality is egodystonic homosexuality, which is essentially a condition where a homosexual feels a profound discomfort with being homosexual. Such persons, says Liuzzi, might want counseling "to help them with their discomfort. Such a person might also seek out a therapist who will offer reparative therapy as a way of controlling or diminishing the desires of a homosexual orientation or getting over it entirely and realizing a heterosexual orientation." However, he does not offer this counsel to egosyntonic homosexuals -- those "who are not upset by their homosexual orientation and do what they can to accept and integrate their orientation into their lives."
When elaborating on Church teaching on homosexuality, Father Liuzzi considers the various biblical passages that deal with homosexuality. He cautions that since the notions homosexual and homosexuality were unknown during biblical times, the Bible merely condemns same-sex activity. It says nothing about the orientation. Liuzzi admits that the Bible condemns "same-sex activity between two men or two women;" but, he warns, that "to conclude that the scriptures are the only source of our understanding of homosexuality is to betray the richness of our Catholic tradition."
What does Church tradition say about homosexuality? Citing St. Thomas Aquinas and Persona Humana, Liuzzi states that all sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful -- that "every direct violation of the proper use of sexual activity is objectively a serious sin because the moral order of sexuality always involves values that are important to human life." He next quotes the document Human Sexuality, put out by the bishops of the United States, which notes that sexuality "is a fundamental dimension of every human being" that is "reflected physiologically, psychologically, and relationally in a person's gender identity as well as in one's primary sexual orientation and behavior. For some men and women, this means a discovery that one is homosexual." The United States bishops, notes Liuzzi, in their 1973 document, Principles to Guide Confessors in Questions of Homosexuality, call on homosexuals to remain chaste and even encourages them to form friendships with members of the same sex -- even if they have occasionally fallen into sin with such persons. But, the document also says that such a friendship should be terminated if the homosexual penitent "is not able to avoid overt [homosexual] actions."
All this seems to support what appears to be Liuzzi's developing contention that homosexuality is but another orientation. Of course, he could not ignore the Vatican's Letter to Bishops (cited above) which calls the "particular inclination of the homosexual person" a "tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil ... an objective disorder." To explain this, Liuzzi tells us that "the word objective tells us that we are not speaking about the person (subjective) but of the inclination itself, apart from the person." He quotes Archbishop John R. Quinn, who says that use of "disorder" in the document "is philosophical language ... the letter does not say that the homosexual person is disordered." Thus, Liuzzi concludes, "the use of philosophical language does not lead one to conclude that a homosexual orientation is a sickness, a mental disturbance or perversion, or a sin."
Is Liuzzi saying here that only the homosexual inclination (considered objectively) is disordered, but that a homosexual inclination (considered as part of a person) is not? Or that, when considered subjectively, this inclination towards an intrinsic moral evil is sometimes disordered, sometimes not? Acts may be objectively evil, but subjectively not sinful because of a particular person 's lack of knowledge or because of circumstances. We normally do not presume this of sinful acts, but it is possible. However, inclinations are not governed by such considerations; if they are objectively disordered, they are disordered by their own intrinsic character. Inclinations reside in a person, they characterize a person; they are not mere abstract philosophical ideas.
Liuzzi further develops his theme by quoting a passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and, then, reconstituting it in "narrative form." Where the Catechism says "homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex," Liuzzi paraphrases: "To experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction to members of the same sex is part of what it means to be homosexual" [emphasis added]. Unlike the Catechism, which calls the homosexual inclination "objectively disordered," Liuzzi's paraphrase only speaks of "all other sexual activity outside of marriage" as "disordered and objectively sinful." For Liuzzi, the burden and trial of being homosexual does not arise from the disorder -- as the Catechism seems to suggest when it says "this inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of [homosexuals] a trial" -- but because "it normally separates them from the possibility of marriage, children and so many other blessings the majority may take for granted."
"It should be obvious," says Liuzzi, "that homosexuality is a variation in human orientation." He asserts that science knows little about the origins of homosexuality. "And when you think about it, how much do we know about the origins of heterosexuality? This is a scary question." Indeed it is; it is also, as Liuzzi says, "a sobering and humbling question;" for, it seems to equate a question about a natural condition with one about a condition that is an objective disorder. Such a question is humbling to heterosexuals if it leads to the conclusion that, as Liuzzi suggests, homosexuality and heterosexuality are merely different variations in human orientation.
In a chapter, entitled, "Where Do You Stand?" Liuzzi presents several positions on homosexuality, including the "traditional Catholic/Christian" one, outlined by Father Richard Sparks. In doing so, Liuzzi says his "intention is neither to fuel controversy nor to end it," nor does he "wish to advocate for this or that position." This is a strange statement for one who has said that his book "adheres strictly to the teachings and sound pastoral practices of the Roman Catholic Church," but, perhaps, not for one who believes that "there are very important and valid questions about homosexuality that need answers and further discernment." In fact, Liuzzi believes that controversy between the Church's "conservative" and "liberal wings" is important for its health, for these two "elements. can be called the two sides of the truth."
Liuzzi urges Catholics to avoid both the extreme liberal and extreme conservative positions which are not grounded in the "radical center." What are these extreme positions? Extreme conservatives, says Liuzzi, hold that "homosexuality is wrong and sinful. The only good homosexual is a changed and cured homosexual. The only place in the church for the homosexual is the psychiatrist's couch or the confessional." An example of the extreme liberal position would be the insistence that unless gay and lesbian couples receive the sacrament of matrimony, the Church is not "being welcome and hospitable to homosexual Catholics." What, then, are the acceptable, health-giving liberal and conservative positions? Liuzzi refuses to tell us. Referring us to Father Sparks' positions, he says "you can decide whether any of these positions is conservative or liberal or too far left or right."
After excluding the "far left" and "far right" of Father Sparks' positions on homosexuality, we are left with only three. They are the traditional Catholic/Christian, the qualified acceptance, and the full acceptance positions. The first is simply Church teaching -- that "being homosexual is not sinful;" that acting on homosexual impulses is "always and everywhere sinful;" that only heterosexuality is natural; and that a homosexual orientation is an "objective disorder." The qualified acceptance position admits that "in an ideal and perfect world, all persons ought to be heterosexual," and upholds a "chaste life" for those who are so called. It holds, though, that in asserting that if "a homosexual person feels called to live in a monogamous lesbian or gay union, genital expression should be considered morally acceptable, by way of exception." The full acceptance position" would hold that one should act as one chooses according to their orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual, and that the morality of sexual acts "is governed by the degree of love and commitment between the two persons, rather than some objective and unchangeable moral good that knows no exception."
Why will Father Liuzzi not state which of Father Sparks' remaining "positions" are acceptable to Catholic tradition? Both the "qualified" and "full acceptance" positions dissent from traditional Church teaching; why not clearly say so, and have done? To say, as Liuzzi does, that theologians who have publicly taken the "qualified" position can no longer teach in Catholic institutions, is not enough -- for this is a question of discipline, not teaching. Why doesn't Father Liuzzi, in the end, clearly speak up for Church doctrine?
Liuzzi expects a further development of doctrine in the area of homosexuality. "To give the impression, as some do today, that the final word on homosexuality has been spoken by our church is not true," writes Liuzzi. "I am not suggesting that there is no truth in present teaching," he continues, nor is he "suggesting a radical change of present teaching." What change is he suggesting? His downplaying of the disorder of homosexuality, his reconstruction of the homosexual orientation, equating it with heterosexuality, leads one to wonder: if a homosexual orientation is not a perversion, why is a homosexual act a perversion? After all, a homosexual man is not simply a fellow who prefers poker games or hunting trips with the boys to shopping or attending baby showers with the girls. He is a man who desires sexual relations with other men. May it be that Father Liuzzi thinks Church doctrine will develop in the direction of the qualified acceptance position, outlined by Sparks? Liuzzi does not say. All he suggests is that "deeper insights are always possible as the church listens and ponders on the lived experience of homosexual persons under the constant and sure guidance of the Holy Spirit."
Liuzzi closes his penultimate chapter with two letters, one written by a homosexual to his mother, announcing he is "gay;" the other, the mother's response. He invites his readers to discern where "in our various responses to homosexuality, where on the spectrum" we would place "these two persons. The son says his acceptance of his homosexuality has made him happy. "I denied and rejected my identity," he writes, "because of the fear of rejection due to old-world Catholic teachings and a largely uninformed society that, in general, does not encourage or acknowledge the validity of any deviation from what may be considered 'average' or 'normal.' I no longer believe what I am told to believe. I decide for myself." He continues: "I have come to believe that I am part of the diversity of God's creation. God chose to make me the way I am. God does not make mistakes. I may disagree with the church on a few things. Yet, the church is part of me. I am part of the church. The church is my home. I can be happy living the rest of my life single and celibate, but such a life would not leave me the happiest I could be. I dream of finding another person to love deeply. I would want the same love from him."
And the mother's response? She expresses her confusion, her grief, her sorrow for the life difficulties of her son. Yet, she ends her letter, thus. "How I wished our church had prepared me for your special coming into this world. Just knowing the possibility that I could have had a gay child would have made things easier. I thank God all the time that you were not one of the suicide statistics. Instead, you are an incredible gift to our family. I love you!"
Of course, her son is a gift; but is he a gift because of, or in spite of, his homosexuality? Sadly, Father Liuzzi does not provide his readers with any clear answer.
Bishop Accountability © 2003