Sexual Ethics – Denying the Good News to Gay Men and Lesbian women?

The Link between Patriarchy and Homophobia

From New Directions in Sexual Ethics by Kevin T. Kelly, Geoffrey Chapman, 1998, Ch. 4

Tragically, many gay men, especially in the United States, have been infected with HIV and the death toll among the gay community has been devastating. In the light of this, it might seem natural to have a chapter on homosexuality in a book of essays responding to the HIV/ AIDS pandemic. However, that explanation could give the impression that this chapter has nothing in common with the gender issues about women which we explored in the previous chapter. That is far from true.

A gay relationship is commonly perceived in terms of one partner taking on the subordinate role of a woman. Men see that as a form of betrayal. It introduces a Trojan Horse into the stronghold of patriarchy. It breaks what is seen to be the natural order of things since it involves one male partner adopting the subordinate role of a woman and the other partner being willing to collude in this betrayal of male identity. Gareth Moore believes that the roots of opposition to male homosexual behaviour in the Bible go back to this socially constructed patriarchal foundation (cf. The Body in Context: Sex and Catholicism, London, SCM, 1992, pp. 38-42). He even suggests that this is why the Bible shows so little interest in lesbians. The link between patriarchy and homophobia is also pointed out by William D. Lindsey:

the manifold forms of violence our society practices against gay people presuppose that nexus of social structures and attitudes feminist thinkers identify as patriarchy. A primary task of theologians concerned to seek justice for gay people is clearly to show what hides within much anti-gay rhetoric; to show that such rhetoric is often not really about sexuality so much as it is about maintaining patriarchy . . . Christian moral theologians cannot continue to talk about the morality of homosexuality as if something more is not present in all that church and society say about homosexuality . . . And that something more is not merely homophobia: it is also misogyny, a haughty disdain for anything perceived by patriarchy as feminine . . . (‘The AIDS crisis and the Church: a time to heal’, in Theology and Sexuality, no. 2, March 1995, p. 28)


Elizabeth Stuart pushes this line of thought still further. After noting that ‘homophobia has its roots in the patriarchal fear of female sexuality’ (Just Good Friends., p. 23), she points out that some women choose to identify themselves as lesbian precisely as a rejection of the whole patriarchal portfolio:

A lesbian, by refusing to play the role assigned to women in a patriarchal context, exposes the patriarchal understanding of women to be a social construct, and thereby subverts it. And so we can begin to understand why some women who would not be defined as ‘lesbian’ by a society which thinks of lesbian as ‘a homosexual woman’, and regards homosexuality as ‘feeling or involving sexual attraction only to persons of the same sex’, would choose to identify- as lesbian, or steadfastly refuse the label ‘heterosexual’, as a personal political statement. (Just Good Friends, p. 71; cf. also Rosemary Ruether in Jeannine Gramick ed,, Homosexuality in the Priesthood and the Religious Life, New York, mCrossroad, 1989, p. 28)

The experience of lesbian women, therefore, may be very different from that of gay men. As Stuart points out, gay men are still men and, to that extent, continue to enjoy many of the ‘privileges’ of patriarchy;

No one can doubt that lesbians and gay men have something in common – loving people of the same sex – and are to varying degrees punished for it. This creates an important experience of solidarity and friendship which has manifested itself particularly clearly in the AIDS crisis. Yet there are vital differences between gay men and lesbians. Although gay men are dangerous anomalies under patriarchy, the fact that they are men guarantees them privilege over most women, most of the time. Gay men tend therefore to be seeking simply a place at the table of equality with heterosexual men and define their liberation purely in terms of sexual expression. Gay men are as capable of virulent misogyny as heterosexual men. This is, of course) a gross generalization but it points to at least a partial truth. Lesbian women as the refugees of patriarchy have been more concerned with working to overturn the table rather than join it, recognising that the complex interplay of forces are building perpetual injustice. We have tended to see our liberation in terms of relationship rather than sexual expression. (Just Good Friends pp. 22-3)

William Lindsey acknowledges the point Stuart is making;

In linking homophobia to misogyny, I do not by any means wish to deny that gay men are incapable of adopting misogynistic positions. One must ask, for example, if resistance to women’s aspirations to justice within the structures of some churches (as in the women’s ordination movement) is fueled by a misogyny that receives the support of gay priests. (‘The AIDS crisis and the Church’, pp. 28-9, footnote 33)

Although I use the term ‘homosexuality’ quite often in this book, I have tried to remember that one reason why the experience of lesbian women is radically different from that of gay men is due to the fact that, being women, they too are affected by the oppressive influence of patriarchy on the lives of all women. I am also conscious of the fact that, in the context of HIV/AIDS, it would be very misleading to give the impression that gays and lesbians are equally at risk of HIV infection. Too often it has been assumed that there is no significance difference in the way lesbians and gays are experiencing the AIDS pandemic. Nevertheless, HIV infection is certainly a serious concern for lesbians, even though there is still considerable debate with regard to possible modes of transmission (cf. Berer, Marge with Ray. Sunanda eds., Women and HIV/AIDS: an International Resource Book, London, Pandora, 1993, p. 117).>


Some years ago. in an article on Charles Curran in The Times (30 August 1986), I wrote;

The approach I am describing would say that if some men and women are homosexual in a deep, almost constitutional way, that does not make them any the less persons loved by God and called to live lives of interpersonal love. Being a homosexual does not automatically bring with it a vocation to celibacy. The Gospel is hardly ‘good news’ to such a person if he or she is told by the Church: ‘As a person you are loved by God but the capacity you have for loving at this very deep level of your personal being is displeasing to God.’ This approach is simply saying that in some way or other the Church must help homosexuals to live lives of faithful love.

I went on to suggest that our Christian teaching on homosexuality might be contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS since it left many gays feeling isolated and confused. It did not encourage them to form faithful partnerships. That concern is still felt by many, myself included. That is why, in this chapter, I will be exploring whether the current Catholic teaching on homosexuality does justice to the best theological thinking of our day. Perhaps respect for our living Christian tradition should be leading us not merely to tolerate homosexual relationships as some kind of compromise or ‘lesser of two evils’, but actually to celebrate the goodness of faithful loving homosexual relationships and recognize them as ‘sacraments’ of God’s loving presence among us.

If this position is sustainable, not only will the Gospel be heard as ‘good news’ by such gays and lesbians but the whole Church will surely be the richer for it. Of course, I will not be denying that the Gospel is a two-edged sword and challenges unlove and selfishness in all our lives. Hence, I will also be facing the disturbing truth that the Gospel presents a healing and life-giving challenge in the face of any unlove or selfishness disfiguring and wounding the lives of gays and lesbians or impoverishing their lifestyle. However, this healing challenge of the Gospel applies equally to non-gay Christians and their Churches. I would not want to assume that all woundedness found among gays and lesbians is self-inflicted. I have no doubt that at least some of it is Church-inflicted!

In his book AIDS, Gays, and the American Catholic Church (Cleveland, OH, The Pilgrim Press, 1994), Richard L. Smith explores the social construction of homosexuality and its impact on how HIV/AIDS has been perceived. He quotes one writer, Kevin Gordon, as saying, ‘Like a blotter AIDS has absorbed old, attached, pre-constructed, long-buried associations between sex and sin, sin and death’ (p. 18). Smith himself maintains that ‘our metaphors for AIDS have been constructed, to a large extent, out of our inherited cultural metaphors for homosexuality’. That is why he believes it is necessary to undertake ‘a critical examination of the historical processes that have yielded our current religious, scientific, and popular metaphors for homosexuality in order to shed some light on the ways in which they have influenced our understandings of AIDS’ (p. 19). What the Churches have taught about homosexuality in the light of their general approach to sexual ethics has been a very influential part of this process of social construction. However, attitudes are beginning to change and this is partly due to the way HIV/AIDS has touched the Christian community.


The presence of HIV/AIDS in the gay community has forced Christian Churches into closer contact with gays and with some of the groups who make up the gay community. For the most part, Christian Churches had tended to marginalize gays and lesbians and had condemned same-sex relationships and expressions of same-sex love. This had created a wide divide between the Churches and the gay community. However, once HIV/AIDS entered the gay scene, two pastoral principles led individual Christians, and the Churches as a whole, to come into much closer contact with gays and the gay community.

The first was the Gospel emphasis on caring for the sick. In New Testament times those who were sick tended to be marginalized by ‘respectable’ society who believed there was some kind of causal link between illness and sin. Jesus challenged this mentality. Consequently, the sick seem to have been drawn to him like a magnet. It is especially noticeable that contact with lepers seems to have played a major part in the healing ministry of Jesus. In our own day Christians who have felt themselves drawn to care for people living with HIV/AIDS believe that they should show the same compassion to people living with HIV/AIDS as Jesus did to the lepers of his day.

However, often their own feelings and criticism from some of their fellow Christians have made them face the question: ‘In caring for gays living with HIV/AIDS am I giving implicit approval to their gay lifestyle?’ This question becomes all the more pressing when such caring involves close contact with the gay partner who is usually the principal carer and is supporting the sick person by intimate expressions of love and tenderness. This is where the second element of Christian wisdom, ‘Hate the sin, but love the sinner’ has provided reassurance to these Christian carers. What they are doing is caring for this sick person here and now. The cause of the sickness, even if thought to be self-inflicted, is irrelevant. They even remind themselves that many other forms of terminal illness, lung cancer, for instance, can in particular instances be self-inflicted due to the sufferer’s lifestyle. Yet no one would suggest that such people should be outside Christian care and compassion. This kind of approach has provided the main thrust to many statements on HIV/AIDS emanating from official Church sources. Bishops urged Christians to be compassionate to all infected with HIV/AIDS. They stressed the need for carers to be non-judgemental. How a person had become infected was irrelevant to the human care and compassion called for in their present time of need. For instance, the late Cardinal Bernardin wrote:

From a moral point of view, we do not approve of certain sexual activities through which AIDS can be transmitted, and we must be very clear about encouraging people to live in accordance with the church’s moral code. We teach what is morally right and wrong. But when a person has AIDS, then we are non-judgmental. The person may or may not have contracted the disease through an immoral action or behaviour. We treat AIDS as a human disease, and we reach out to the person with compassion. We do not ask how he or she contracted the disease, (quoted in Richard L. Smith, AIDS, Gays, and the American Catholic Church, p. 85)

However, that is not the end of the story. Something else was happening among the Christian carers and even among the community at large, including the Christian Churches. They were being brought into contact with the gay partners of the men they were caring for. They discovered that these gay men were caring for their sick and dying partners with an extraordinarily dedicated and faithful love and care. This had a very powerful impact on these Christian carers. Believing in the presence of God’s loving Spirit within human life they could not but be moved by this striking phenomenon. They felt they were experiencing the deep human goodness of the love of these gay partners. As Christians, their incarnational faith told them that in this human love they were witnessing God’s gracious love in action. They were in the presence of something good and holy. Quite literally, in many cases this was a revelation to them. This experience is noted in the report of the working party On the Theology of Marriage presented to the 1994 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland:

Many gay and lesbian partners do seek and intend permanent commitment, some with explicit understanding of their relationship as God-given and God-sustained . . . (This) will not seem so strange to those who have witnessed the real love and caring which exist in many homosexual partnerships. Those who have stood in a pastoral relationship to the early victims of AIDS have often been humbled by the devoted cherishing exhibited by the partners of the patients (although these same partners are sometimes completely ignored in their bereavement and denied even a mention at their loved one’s funeral). (9.1)

Richard L. Smith also gives some examples of this drawn from his interviews with Catholic carers in two archdioceses in the USA. He reports one minister as saying:

AIDS has opened a door between gay people and the church. It gives a lot of people in the church an excuse, a safe avenue to work in the gay community without being labeled. AIDS has been an agent prompting reflection on sexuality . . . They see heroism and selfless activity in the gay community. They come to ask: How could this be bad? How could this be what the church is telling us it is? (AIDS, Gays and the American Catholic Church, p. 94)

Another interviewee says something similar when asked what he would like to say to the Pope in the light of his experience of caring for people living with AIDS:

I could put my message into one word: Listen. Listen to people’s stories so that we can discover the sacred in them. The difficulty I have with the church and the hierarchy is a positive inability to listen to people’s stories, so they’re not dealing with a movement I believe to be of God’s spirit, (p. 94)

In general, Smith found that these carers, some of them clergy who are themselves gay, have constructed from their own caring experience an understanding of HIV/AIDS and homosexuality significantly different from that of the bishops:

I would regard all the men and women I spoke with as ‘gay-positive’, that is, as regarding homosexuality as a normal variant of human sexuality in general. While maintaining some critical perspectives on gay culture, they nevertheless understand being gay as a legitimate and healthy sexual identity . . . Unlike the bishops, they are not of the opinion that AIDS results from immoral behaviour. They do not see its remedy as a simple return to a traditional sexual ethic. Moreover, they do not find it necessary, as they provide a rationale for their ministry, benignly to disregard the fact that a given client might be gay and in a relationship with a person of the same sex; on the contrary, they see such relationships as calling for affirmation and respect. In these ways, these ministers are operating from a world-view that is different from that of the bishops. Consequently, . . . their construction of AIDS is noticeably different as well. (p. 91)

Naturally, this picture of gay partners’ faithful love and care for their lovers with AIDS was not true in every case. Even when it was true, it should not be idealized. Like all love, there was the natural struggle and tension involved in such a time of stress. Yet even its very vulnerability was perceived as a striking feature of its strength. Moreover, the part of this experience which was so challenging to Christian carers was not just the love and fidelity of the caring partner. It was also the response of the sick partner to this love. Its impact seemed to be truly life-giving, even in the very process of dying. They did not resign themselves simply to dying with AIDS. They lived positively with AIDS even during the long process of their dying. It seemed to be the mutual love of their gay partnership which empowered this positive approach to death. Often even the funeral of the dead partner was a powerful celebration of life and hope. Such funerals could offer an inspiring challenge to the unimaginative and impersonal liturgies occasionally experienced at some Catholic funerals.

It should be noted, too, that it was not only the love and devotion of partners in the midst of AIDS that made a deep impression on many Christians. It was also the way the gay community as a whole rallied round its sick, dying and bereaved members. Their highly visible ethos of collective and mutual care and concern gave the lie to many of the stereotypes of the gay community.

The place of experience as a source for theology seems self-evident to most theologians in the post-Vatican II Church. Therefore, the experience of these Christian carers is something that needs to be taken seriouslv by Christian theologians. It challenges the traditional Christian stance on homosexual relationships and their loving expression. Moreover, although the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been the occasion when this experience first began to have a real impact on the Churches, it must not be forgotten that the real source for theology in this area is the experience of gays themselves. In recent decades, the gay community has been coming out of the ghetto and demanding a hearing. As well as protesting against discrimination against gays and demanding equal rights in all walks of life, they have also begun to speak with pride of their own personal experience of being gay. A striking example of that is found in the Dignity Task Force document, ‘Sexual ethics: experience, growth, challenge’, published in Dignity USA, 1989, pp. 1-16. This statement is an important theological source, even though, as I note in my review in The Month, 1990, pp. 368-73, it could have been more helpful and informative for those of us who are not privy to the gay experience.


When Christians in general began to be challenged by the ‘grace-filled’ experience of gay partners living lives which carried all the marks of a loving relationship’ – and so revelatory of God – the initial reaction of theologians like myself was that this experience must be listened to. However, that initial reaction presumed that heterosexual theologians like myself would do the listening. We would examine the experience presented to us and then evaluate whether it was necessary to realign our sexual theology and ethics to take account of what we had learnt in this process.

What this overlooked was the fact that the language about homosexuality which we had all been brought up on was not adequate for expressing the positive experience of gays and lesbians. Hence, new ways of speaking about gay and lesbian experience had to be found. Initially, this could only be done by gay people themselves since it was their experience as persons which was being expressed. Moreover, what theologians like myself were failing to appreciate was that gay Christians seeking to articulate their experience are actually ‘doing theology’. Finding the right language is actually part of the theological process. And that also involves looking critically at the language which has been in use but which is no longer deemed adequate. This means that Christians need to look again at the kind of theological language they use in their rejection of homosexuality and homosexual behaviour.

In particular, Christians tend to have a negative image of homosexuality and reject homosexual behaviour because they believe it is both ‘not natural’ and also ‘condemned in the Bible’. Consequently, we need to look at those two ways of speaking.

1. The use and abuse of the language of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’

It is often argued that it is ‘unnatural’ for two men or two women to make love to each other. That is not the ‘natural’ way for people to behave. The bodily make-up of human beings as sexual persons is obviously designed for the man-woman complementarity of sexual intercourse. ‘Nature’ has not made us for homosexual behaviour. God’s purposes are written into our bodily nature. Homosexual behaviour goes against God’s design and violates the way God has created us. We must respect the kind of persons God has made us to be. For anyone understanding ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ in this way, there is nothing more to be said.

However, as we have already seen in Chapter Two, the contemporary understanding of the traditional ‘natural law’ concept holds that our bodily givenness is only one dimension of our nature as human persons. Of itself, therefore, it does not provide us with any moral imperative, let alone one which is definitive and absolute. To discern what is in keeping with the good of the human person, integrally and adequately considered, we have to view our bodily givenness in the light of the other ‘given’ dimensions of our being human persons. To do this we have to draw on the best knowledge our contemporary culture can offer us to help us understand ourselves as human persons. To reject as immoral same-sex love relationships and the mutually acceptable and enriching bodily expression of their love simply because they are considered ‘against nature’ in the reductionist sense mentioned earlier hardly does justice to the Vatican II criterion of the human person, integrally and adequately considered. Our bodily dimension certainly has to be taken into account since we are our bodies. But we are also more than our bodies. We are multi-dimensional persons. What is ‘natural’ for us humanly and theologically can only be understood by looking at the wider context of our multidimensional richness. In that wider context it might well be possible to use the language of what is ‘natural’ to express the positive goodness of the experience of gay men and lesbian women. As we shall see in the next chapter, that is precisely what some Christian Church documents have done.

It is worth noting that Andrew Sullivan, in his book Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality (London, Picador, 1995), even uses this ‘what is natural’ language to suggest that homosexuality is part of the diversity of God’s creation. After presenting the Church’s belief that to accept the goodness of homosexuality would be ‘to subvert the mystery at the heart of God’s creation, to commit a crime against the complementary dualism of the universe’, he goes on to write:

But all these arguments are arguments for the centrality of heterosexual acts in nature, not their exclusiveness. It is surely possible to concur with these sentiments, even to appreciate their insight, while also conceding that it is nevertheless true that nature seems to have provided a jagged lining to this homogeneous cloud, a spontaneously occurring contrast that could conceivably be understood to complement – even dramatize – the central male—female order … so the homosexual person might be seen as a natural foil to the heterosexual norm, a variation that does not eclipse the theme, but resonates with it. Extinguishing – or prohibiting -homosexuality is, from this point of view, not a virtuous necessity, but the real crime against nature, a refusal to accept the variety of God’s creation, a denial of the way in which the other need not threaten, but may actually give depth and contrast to, the self.

This … is, perhaps, just as consonant with the tradition of natural law as the Church’s current position. It is more consonant with what seems to occur in nature; it seeks an end to every form of natural life; it upholds the dignity of each human person as made in the image of God and seeks to bring each into the human and Christian universe. It sees in the multifaceted character of God’s creation reasons to accept rather than reasons to fear. It resonates too with that ancient and rich notion that one proof of God’s existence is in the sheer diversity and complexity of His creation, a creation that is less to be regimented than to be marvelled at. (pp. 46-8)

2. The use and abuse of the language of God’s word in the Bible

The development of a more open language in which to discuss homosexuality is also stymied by assertions that there can be nothing to discuss since homosexuality is clearly condemned in the Bible; that must close the question for Christians.

This has been a problem across the board in nearly all Christian Churches. Within the Roman Catholic Church it comes out clearly in the 1975 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) Declaration on certain questions concerning Sexual Ethics: In Sacred Scripture they (homosexual acts) are condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God. This judgement of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of (n. 8). The even stronger condemnation found in the 1986 CDF Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the pastoral care of homosexual persons is based on a similar reading of biblical texts, though spelt out in more detail. Moreover, it warns against any exegesis which would call this reading into question:

An essential dimension of authentic pastoral care is the identification of causes of confusion regarding the Church’s teaching. One is a new exegesis of Sacred Scripture which claims variously that Scripture has nothing to say on the subject of homosexuality, or that it somehow tacitly approves of it, or that all of its moral injunctions are so culture-bound that they are no longer applicable to contemporary life. These views are gravely erroneous . . . (n. 4)

Furthermore, it goes on to state that ‘it is essential to recognise that the Scriptures are not properly understood when they are interpreted in a way which contradicts the Church’s living Tradition. To be correct, the interpretation of Scripture must be in substantial accord with that Tradition’ (n. 5). This is tantamount to a virtual checkmate if the CDF claims the authority to interpret precisely what constitutes that tradition!

The Methodist Church, too. has found the way forward blocked by arguments based on biblical exegesis. An official Working Party produced a major report in 1980, A Christian Understanding of Human Sexuality. It formulated conclusions which offered the possibility of a more positive evaluation of stable homosexual relations and their physical expression (cf. nn.18 & 20). However, the Working Party was clearly divided on the issue of homosexuality in the Bible and the impact of biblical ethics on present-day Christian moral teaching. Two different approaches to biblical interpretation were present among the members. These are spelt out in an Appendix which is almost as long as the report itself. Conference referred the report to the Districts and Circuits for study and evaluation.

The message came back from the pews that one of the two issues most troubling people was ‘the place of Scripture in the formulation of moral guidance’. Accordingly, the revised report presented in 1982 contained an excellent section on ‘The place of Scripture and Tradition’ (nn. 2-18). Once again, the Working Party’s conclusion represented a division of opinion, even though the majority were clearly in favour of a more positive acceptance:

(50) . . . The recognition that many people are homosexual by nature, and that they are as capable as other people of full Christian discipleship and of deeply loving and committed relationships with each other has been changing the climate of Christian opinion in the last decade or so. The Working Party therefore records its unanimous judgement that there is no reason to deny the right of those who are homosexually oriented to be members, office holders, local preachers or ministers of the Church. (But it differs in its judgement about homosexual practices as is made clear in the following two paragraphs.)

(51) Some Christians hold on grounds of either Scripture or tradition, or both, that homosexuality is a defect or handicap and should never be given physical expression, but rather channelled or sublimated into creative activities such as the caring professions or the arts.

(52) Other Christians, including a majority of the Working Party, recognise such creative possibilities, but hold on the basis of their understanding of Scripture and on other grounds that heterosexual and homosexual relationships alike are to be valued according to the presence or absence of love as the New Testament describes it. They agree that for some homosexual people (as for some heterosexual people) celibacy is a vocation, and that for others a choice between a partnership without physical expression and one that includes genital expression within a committed relationship is to be accepted as a choice which Christians may responsibly make.

Once again Conference did not feel it could make any definitive judgement and directed the Division of Social Responsibility to have the report studied and discussed throughout the Church.

The debate simmered on until 1990 when a further report, entitled Report of Commission on Human Sexuality’ was presented to Conference. Like the previous two reports, this one ran aground on the same issue of the use of the Bible in the discussion of contemporary moral issues: ‘there were differences of opinion, judgement and conviction within the Commission about the way in which Scripture should be used in this exercise, and about its value and authority relative to contemporary experience’ (n. 100).

Other Churches display similar deep differences of opinion regarding the legitimate use of Scripture in discussing the issue of homosexuality. In his World Council of Churches (WCC) study guide, Living in Covenant with God and One Another (Geneva, WCC Publications, 1990), Robin Smith compares two contrasting statements on homosexuality, one from the Reformed Church of America and the other from the Uniting Church of Australia, He concludes that their divergence of view demonstrates that ‘one’s attitude to homosexuality is greatly influenced by how one interprets the Bible’ (p. 108). Clearly, within many Christian Churches opinion is very divided about how the Bible can be understood as offering moral guidance for Christian gays and lesbians today.

Aquinas was a great believer in the principle, non nomina sed argumenta. In other words, we move towards the truth by the quality of our theological arguments rather than by a head-count of theologians. In the light of my fairly extensive reading of Church documents on homosexuality, it seems clear to me that the above two different positions found among Christians and documented in various official reports cannot be judged to have equal intrinsic authority at the level of biblical exegesis and theological scholarship. The view which leaves open a more positive approach to homosexual relationships and their expression seems to be an interpretation which is based on the best of modern textual exegesis, taking fully into account the historical and cultural contexts of the relevant biblical passages. And it combines this with a more satisfactory approach to the knotty problem of how far ethical norms found in the Bible can leap across the cultural gap of twenty centuries and have a bearing on the contemporary moral questions we have to wrestle with in our post-modern age. Though the opposite view is held with great conviction by many Christians in different Churches, the weakness of its biblical and theological justification is becoming increasingly recognized among biblical scholars and theologians across the Churches.

However, that does not mean that the Bible has no inspired guidance for gay and lesbian Christians. A helpful summary of this guidance is given by the eminent Methodist scripture scholar, Victor Paul Furnish. He ends a masterly paper, entitled ‘Homosexual practices in biblical perspective’, with the following conclusion:

The church must attend to the witness of Scripture as it seeks to discern the will of God in the matter of homosexuality. Scripture provides access to the apostolic witness, wherein the believing community finds the norm by which appropriately Christian faith and conduct, including sexual conduct, may be ascertained.

It would be a simple matter if this norm could he found in what Scripture provides by way of specific rules, teachings, and advisories concerning homoerotic relationships. But that is not the case. However pertinent they may have been for the various times and circumstances within which they were originally formulated, the biblical injunctions and teachings on this topic presume much than can no longer be presumed about human sexuality. It is certainly true that our present understanding of homosexuality is incomplete and undergoing constant revision. Yet our knowledge of this subject is vastly superior to that available in ancient Israel and the early church. Moreover, we can appreciate the complexity of the issue, as well the incompleteness of our understanding of it, in a way that the ancient world could not.

Therefore, it is not what ‘the Bible says’ about homoerotic relationships that constitutes the witness of Scripture to the church on this topic. Rather, in this instance as in every other the witness of Scripture is that human existence, like the whole of creation, is the gift of an omnipotent, just, benevolent, and caring God; that God’s purposes are shaped and accomplished by God’s love, over which nothing in all creation (including humanity’s rebelliousness) can finally prevail; that the people of God are repeatedly summoned to walk in the same love from and in which, by God’s grace, they properly ‘live and move and have their being’; that the claim inherent in God’s love is no less boundless than the gift; and that it is in Christ that women and men of faith will find, at last, both the saving power of God’s gift of love and the strength to follow where it leads, (in John J. Carey, ed., The Sexuality Debate in North American Churches, 1988-1995: Controversies, Unresolved Issues, Future Prospects, Lewiston, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1995, pp. 253-81, at pp. 272-3)

There is also no doubt that the ethical thrust in both Old and New Testaments lies in the direction of bringing justice and liberation for those whose human dignity is diminished or violated by structures of power in society which create relationships of injustice. In past centuries we were blind to how this teaching challenged the institution of slavery. As we saw in the previous chapter, today we are beginning to recognize that it challenges the structured injustices against women in society in general and in the sexual area in particular. Now we are also being asked to face a similar challenge with regard to the injustice against lesbian women and gay men which is endemic in a sexual ethics which demands that they believe that their capacity for love is an objective disorder and not a gift which they can feel both proud of and grateful to God for.


In Chapter Two we noted that a natural law approach which focuses solely on the doctrine of creation and by-passes the doctrine of redemption would be seriously flawed. As Nicholas Lash put it so strikingly, ‘the world’s forgiveness is creation’s finishing’ (Believing Three Ways in God, London, SCM, 1992, p. 119). Hence, a gay and lesbian theology and spirituality will need to face the reality of sin. Our discussion of social construction in Chapter Two makes us aware that, here too, we are dealing with a social construct which will inevitably be affected by institutional sin in a whole variety of ways. Michael Ruse, in his book Homosexuality: A Philosophical Enquiry (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, e1988), writes that ‘If the majority stop thinking of homosexuality as a handicap and as something unpleasant, and if they stop hating homosexuals, then if nothing else we shall get a rise in the self-image of presently troubled homosexuals’ (p. 215). He makes a similar point in his final conclusion: If. . . we treat homosexuals like normal people, then perhaps to our surprise we shall find that they are normal people’ (p. 267). Ruse implies that the Church has a role to play in this: ‘Here, obviously, is a place where the moral leader must work to redirect the gut feelings of the man in the street’ (p. 265).

If HIV/AIDS is challenging the Church to reconsider its understanding of homosexuality and its ethical norms flowing from this understanding, in Lash’s terms this could be part of the Church’s seeking forgiveness. It could also mean that the Church might have an important role to play in the forgiveness of society in general vis-a-vis homosexuality. The result of such healing and forgiveness might be the elaboration for gay Christians of a positive spirituality which starts from their dignity as homosexual persons and which also does justice to their need precisely as gay people for loving relationships.

Though probably not intended, there could be an opening for this development in The Catechism of the Catholic Church (London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1994). Homosexuality is considered under the general heading, The Vocation to Chastity, Here chastity is presented very positively as ‘the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being’ (n. 2337). After insisting that ‘the virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship’, the Catechism goes on to say that ‘Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbour. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion’ (n. 2347),

It is significant that homosexuality is given a sub-section all of its own with the heading, Chastity and homosexuality (nn, 2357-2359} and is not even mentioned in the sub-section, Offences against chastity (nn. 2351-2356). Sadly but not surprisingly, homosexual acts are described as ‘intrinsically disordered’, though there is no repetition of the CDF’s statement on the disorder of the homosexual orientation itself. Moreover, the final two paragraphs contain much that is positive vis-a-vis homosexuality.

A much more promising opening for the development of a more positive spirituality of homosexual relationships is found in Cardinal Hume’s A Note on the Teaching of the Catholic Church Concerning Homosexual ePeople (February 1995, revised in April 1997). While accepting the Church’s teaching that ‘homosexual genital acts are objectively wrong’, the Cardinal goes on to write:

(8) Friendship is a gift from God. Friendship is a way of loving. Friendship is necessary for every person. To equate friendship and full sexual involvement with another is to distort the very concept of friendship. Sexual loving presupposes friendship but friendship does not require full sexual involvement. It is a mistake to say or think or presume that if two persons of the same or different sexes enjoy a deep and lasting friendship then they must be sexually involved.

(9) Love between two persons, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to be treasured and respected. ‘Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus’, we read. (Jn 11,5) When two persons love they experience in a limited manner in this world what will be their unending delight when one is with God in the next. To love another is in fact to reach out to God who shares his lovableness with one we love. To be loved is to receive a sign, or a share, of God’s unconditional love.

(10) To love another, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to have entered the area of the richest human experience. But that experience of love is spoiled, whether It is in marriage or in friendship, when we do not think and act as God wills us to think and act. Human loving is precarious for human nature is wounded and frail. Thus marriage and friendship will never be easy to handle. We shall often fail, but the ideal remains.

It is interesting to note that Cardinal Hume, like the Catechism, focuses on friendship. He sees it as ‘a gift from God’ and ‘a way of loving’. The Roman Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Stuart, herself a lesbian, in her very thought-provoking book Just Good Friends: Towards a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships, takes the notion of ‘friendship’ and makes it the lynch-pin of her sexual ethics. The starting point of her presentation is a combination of her own experience as a lesbian woman and her listening to and interpreting the experience of other lesbian women -and gay men, too. I shall return to her presentation in a later chapter. For the present, it is sufficient to note that Stuart’s book fulfils the hope expressed earlier that lesbian women and gay men should express the positive goodness of lesbian and gay relationships and loving in a language which is comprehensible to the rest of us who are not gay or lesbian. Her book is a fine example of ‘theology from within’. She expresses the importance of this in her preface:

if we really do believe that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God then when we seek to do theology around certain people’s lives our first duty is to go to them and listen to the way that they make sense of the experience of God in their lives. It is not simply a matter of receiving evidence from them, as some church bodies have begun to do in connection with homosexuality; It is about giving priority’ to their theology as the people who know most about the subject and have to live it every moment of their lives, (pp. xvii-xviii)

As Xavier John Seubert notes in his excellent article, ‘The sacramental-ity of metaphors: reflections on homosexuality’, in Cross Currents, Spring 1991, pp. 52-68, this kind of work needs to be accepted gratefully by the Church as a rich contribution to its ongoing commitment to the truth. Of course, that does not imply uncritical acceptance of everything that is said. Nevertheless, without the kind of theological reflection and writing of people like Elizabeth Stuart, there is no possibility of real dialogue on this issue in the Church, And without dialogue we cannot claim to be respecting our commitment to the truth. Seubert puts this well:

The Christian moral tradition stresses the primacy of conscience. I translate this to mean that an individual’s experience of the truth must be respected. Truth does not consist simply in formulated norms by which reality is judged. It is also found in the way the whole human person responds to a reality in those cases where any other response would falsify the existence of that reality. In the case of homosexuality a significant group of Christians calls upon the broader church to look with them at their experience of the truth of their reality. Their request cannot be dismissed or prejudged by norms that have not been informed by anything like their experience.

What is needed, first of all, is a continuation of the metaphorical process. Metaphors must be developed to include the richest possibilities of gay and lesbian life. This will demand that gays and lesbians within the church further articulate the goodness of their lives as gays and lesbians and relate that goodness to their lives as Christians.

The prevalent metaphors have not been informed by what many gays and lesbians consider to be homosexuality’s potential for human dignity and fulfilment. Until the homosexual experience is truthfully spoken and respectfully heard, the church will be unable to stand in the truth, endure it, and live from it. (PP- 62-3)

In his Foreword to Smith’s AIDS, Gays and the American Catholic Church, eRobert N, Bellah writes:

A principled rejection of gay sexuality, whether put forward by the church or any other sector of society, is morally indefensible. It has the same status today as arguments for the inferiority of women. To remain stuck in that position, as the church for the time being seems likely to do. is not only unfortunate: it makes the church collaborate in continuing forms of domination. To put it even more strongly: it makes the church collaborate in sin. (pp. xii-xiii)

Of course, a person-centred base for a positive gay and lesbian theology will not give an ethical carte blanche for any and every kind of conduct among lesbians and gay men. It would be an affront to their dignity to suggest that their behaviour should not be governed by the normal rules of human decency, justice and respect for persons. As mentioned earlier, to present the Gospel positively as genuine ‘good news’ for gay men and lesbians does not mean that the Gospel does not challenge them to eradicate from their lives whatever violates the dignity of persons or is destructive of personal and social relationships. We are all of us, heterosexuals and gays and lesbians alike, wounded people. However, because lesbians and gay men have been the victims of seriously oppressive social stigmatizatioii and injustice, it is possible that for some of them at least this woundedness will have had an adverse effect on their sense of self-worth, their integration of sexual identity and their ability’ to form deep and lasting relationships. Of course, many heterosexual persons share these same problems but it is possible that they are experienced much more severely by some gays and lesbians due to the extra social pressures working against them. As Michael Ruse has pointed out (cf. Homosexuality, pp. 10-11), the healing of this woundedness needs to go hand in hand with the healing of the woundedness of homophobia which is so widespread both in Church and in society.

To the extent that such woundedness shows in the behaviour of some gay men and women and even in the collective behaviour in some gay and lesbian communities, healing is only possible to the extent that the woundedness of their behaviour is recognized and owned by the gays and lesbians involved. Such healing diagnosis needs to be based on agreed criteria for distinguishing ‘healthy’ behaviour from ‘wounded’ behaviour. Part of a more open dialogue towards a positive spirituality for homosexual persons will surely need to have on its agenda how to discern what kinds of homosexual behaviour are abusive of persons rather than expressive of genuine love or preventing growth in emotional maturity rather than developing the capacity to sustain faithful loving relationships.

Not being homosexual myself and recognizing that the heterosexual scene has more than its share of negative behaviour, including the whole patriarchal scenario, I hesitate to express my own negative reaction to certain aspects of the gay scene paraded on the media or given a high profile in some public demonstrations. Nevertheless. I suspect that there is something here which should not be brushed under the carpet. Matthew Fox in his very positive article on ‘The spiritual journey of the homosexual. . . and just about everybody else’ tackles this point directly, though without passing any moral condemnation of the individuals involved. Noting that ‘the pain and suffering that a homosexual in a homophobic culture undergoes can be either redemptive or alienating’, he goes on to comment on the second possibility:

When, however, for any number of reasons a homosexual cannot pass through the pain chat homophobic cultures rain on him or her, then a psychospiritual arrest can happen and the homosexual becomes a scapegoat, a self-fulfilling prophecy of a homophobic society, a broken and essentially lonely person who, in his or her alienation, truly feels like an alien, a stranger in a sick society In the alien’s effort to please that society he or she falls prey to its own worst sins; power over, power under, sadomasochism, consumerism, hatred of the body, inability to sustain relationships, adolescent arrest, and egoistic quests for perfectionism and immortality Like the slave who has imbibed the ideology of his slave master, the homosexual then fulfils the prophecy of the heterosexual, plays out the worst stereotypes of the repressed homophobic conscience, and gives to the sexist homophobic society a weapon of great strength: ‘See,’ he will say, ‘what I warned you about the homosexual.’ (in Robert Nugent, ed., A Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church,, New York, iCrossroad, 1989, pp. 189-204, at p. 190)

These might seem hard and challenging words, but they come from a theologian who, a few lines earlier, had made his own the experience-based words of a sister retreat-director who said that ‘the people she encountered who were “the most beautiful Christians of all” were very often homosexual men and women’ {p. 189).

In his article, ‘The homosexual revolution and hermeneutics’, in Concilium (no. 173, pp. 55-64). John Coleman notes that the gay community has, for the most part, shown itself capable of self-criticism (p. 62). After quoting most of the passage from Fox given above, he goes on to mention how many in the women’s movement are critical of gay pornography. They also believe that ‘homosexual glorification of youth and the beautiful body similar to the prevalent attitudes toward women in modern societies. . . too easily fixates erotic interest in an alienating process of impersonalisation by making the object of sexual interest a mere object (p, 62). Coleman adds the wise observation that it is these pathologies which should ‘command the best moral efforts of gays’. In other words, tackling them should be an important part of the self-healing process.

I am conscious of being rather out of my depth here. While editing this chapter, I received an e-mail from a friend overseas, telling me of the AIDS-related death of a gay priest whose ministry had been largely among the gay community and those affected by HIV/AIDS. It is worth quoting some of my friend’s letter:

B died peacefully at noon yesterday in the hospital where he had assisted in so many deaths on the AIDS floor. Someone should write his biography. Last year, for instance, he told me about ministering to S. a 25-year old drug addict and prostitute before he died. S had striking good looks and a career as a model. He was thrown out of his ‘loving’ Catholic family at sixteen because he was gay. He got into the drug scene and quickly contracted AIDS. By the time B met him his good looks were savaged by Kaposi’s sarcoma. Penniless and homeless, B found him temporary accommodation at a presbytery. After S died, B fulfilled his dying wish by travelling up north with his ashes to bury him with family. The family wanted a requiem but no public acknowledgement of how he had died. The funeral was a very lonely affair with S’s family openly hostile to a group of gay bikers who turned up on their Harleys to pay respects. B said the official funeral and interment was alien to S with no acknowledgement of his real life.

The real celebration took place afterwards, minus the family, in a gay bar much frequented by S in his lifetime. With much laughter, song, booze and tears, the gay community celebrated S’s life. A drag artist performed for S’ a song that he always loved. B described the church service as prim, dead and not at all hope-filled. In contrast, the liturgy in the pub – the drag queens, the much-tattooed bikers, and the rich assortment of what S’s parents would characterise as low life’ – showed how much S had been loved and appreciated. It was very ‘hope-filled’ too. B said that the family hardly shed a tear. Yet all evening at the pub people broke down and held each other and wept, showing how much S had been loved by his gay family.

While I believe that theology has to make faith-sense of experience, to borrow a phrase from Jack Mahoney, I could not begin to try to unpack the theological significance of that very challenging piece of experience. Nevertheless, I believe that there is much to be learnt from it and similar experiences. It might, for instance, be saying something to us about the possibility of an individual who is emotionally deprived and developmentally immature being capable of profound personal moral goodness. To that extent, it might be linked to some of the points developed in Chapter Seven. But it might also be saying something to us about the need for those of us who are not gay or lesbian to listen to and try to understand more the difference between our experience and that of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters. As a lesbian friend wrote to me recently: ‘The Church is (in part) gay and lesbian and so, in reflecting on homosexuality, it is reflecting on its own being.’

In his Foreword to Smith’s AIDS, Gays and the American Catholic Church, kreferred to above, Robert Bellah offers some cautionary advice on this reflective process. After remarking that the experience of those in care ministry in the area of AIDS ‘needs intelligent theological and ethical reflection, not simple affirmation’, he goes on to say:

It will not do to substitute expressive individualism for unreflec-tive moralism, and that is a real temptation in the gay community . . . But a genuine attention to the lived reality of gay life in contemporary America is the essential starting point for any reflection that would put it in the context of a Christian form of life. (p. xiii)

Bellah also offers a note of warning. Even if a characteristic of the age we are living in is ‘an effort to make a great moral advance, to overcome structures of domination that have characterised human societies for millennia’ (p. xi) – and he highlights as most striking ‘the struggle for the equality of women with men’ in this connection -another characteristic of our age is more morally questionable:

The challenge to previously accepted ways of structuring the relation between dominant and subordinate groups has gone hand in hand with the challenge to normative order itself. Individual freedom, which, rightly understood, is certainly a noble cause, has been used as an argument for the abandonment of such traditional virtues as loyalty and responsibility, undermining commitment to spouse, friends, and community. If traditional structures were oppressive there is the temptation to abandon structures altogether, with chaotic consequences. The American gay community has certainly been caught up in this movement of moral liberation on the one hand and anarchy on the other, {p. xi)

Bellah’s warning will be kept in mind in Chapter Six when, under the rubric of the ‘pro-freedom’ characteristic of positive Christian sexual ethics, we look at the freedom of the human person and its essential link with relational and social responsibility. Despite the above warning, Bellah insists that this should not divert the Church from a whole-hearted involvement in the struggle against the structures of domination. However, it should alert the Church to discern where its priorities lie in this struggle:

The church is under no obligation to affirm the antinomian tendencies of our culture, gay or otherwise. Rather it should undertake the difficult task of attempting to create a context of love and moral responsibility for homosexual relationships as for heterosexual ones . . . Creating such a persuasive ideal is what the problem is and that is where the energy of the church should be going, (p. xiii)

The fact that I share the same conviction is one of the main reasons why I am stepping in where angels fear to tread in attempting to write this book!

A couple of gay and lesbian friends to whom I. showed a draft of this chapter commented that I tend to imply that ‘good’ gay men and lesbians should behave like ‘good’ heterosexual people. One of them wrote: ‘There is a tinge of gay and lesbian sexuality being acceptable if the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality is minimized!’ Far from wanting to minimize the difference, I am trying hto work on the assumption that both these sexual orientations are different ways of being human sexual persons. I am utterly convinced that there are not two Gospel moralities, one for heterosexuals and one for gays and lesbians. I believe that the fundamental Christian human values and virtues apply equally to heterosexuals and to gays and lesbians, even though the precise way in which they are made flesh in real life will be affected by a person’s sexual orientation. Moreover, sexual orientation is precisely that, an ‘orientation’, not a totally different form of sexuality. Consequently, I cannot accept that there is a fundamentally different sexual ethic for gays and lesbians. Scientific evidence seems to support the assumption of the 1982 Methodist Working Party report that ‘(homosexual persons) are as capable as other people … of deeply loving and committed relationships with each other’ (n. 50, cf. pp. 75-6 above). The Christian approach to homosexuality argued in this book is obviously based on the same assumption. It also rejects as untrue the many ‘myths’ about homosexuality (e.g. that homosexual persons tend to be paedophiles). There seems to be no scientific evidence to support such myths (cf. below; pp. 161-2).

Sexuality is a dimension to our being human persons which we all share, even though it is modified by our sexual orientation. As a Christian, I believe that this sexual dimension is an important aspect of our being made persons in the image of a relational, loving and life-giving God. We are most true to ourselves as sexual human persons, therefore, to the extent that we realize the potentiality of our sexuality by going out to each other in love, by joyfully expressing that love in a way which is appropriate to the character and depth of our relationships and by contributing to the life-giving enterprise of receiving our human existence as gift and accepting our responsibility to prepare a future worth passing on to future generations.

Joy and pleasure are part of that scenario but only in so far as they belong within the humanly rich context of interpersonal relationships. Outside of that context and pursued purely for their own sake, they do not seem to do justice to who we are as relational persons. I recognize that there is no way I can tease out what all this means in practice for gay men and lesbians. That is why I want to be open to learning from them how our common Christian sexual ethics is to be understood in a way which does justice to their experience as gays and lesbians. When I try, in Chapter Six, to explore some aspects of this sexual ethics which we share in common, I hope it will be recognizable as a Christian sexual ethics and not just a heterosexual ethics.>


As mentioned in the previous chapter, the Irish moral theologian, Enda McDonagh makes the point that at this point in history we are living in ‘a time of AIDS’. That is a very important dimension of the context in which we have to do our theology. He uses the word ‘time’ in its biblical sense of kairos. That means a determining moment in history. Upon our response to God’s call coming to us in this kairos will depend the fate of future generations, In the previous chapter I argued that a careful social analysis of the appalling tragedy of the HIV/ AIDS pandemic could open our ears to the voice of God calling us to conversion away from the all-pervasive evils of systemic patriarchy. In that sense, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, for all its evil, could still be transformed into a moment of grace for our human family.

In this chapter, I have been suggesting something similar with regard to homosexuality and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Lindsey begins the article I quoted earlier, ‘The AIDS crisis and the church: a time to heal’, by making a similar point:

Crises call upon cultures and institutions to look more closely at those presuppositions that have dominated discourse about central cultural problematics in the past, and to refashion these givens in light of new information and new perspectives arising out of crisis. In what follows, I propose that the AIDS crisis is such a time for the church — a cross-roads, a kairos –in which the church must look anew at some of its most fundamental presuppositions about homosexuality. This crisis calls the church to face more adequately the ways in which its sexual ethic with regard to gay persons functions as a mask for intents and effects that may not be deliberate, but that nevertheless flow from that teaching and prevent gay people from hearing the gospel proclaimed by the church as the good news of God’s salvific love for all humanity. (pp. 12-13)

I am writing these lines shortly after attending an ecumenical AIDS meeting at which at least a quarter of the Christians present were gay. Not only were they gay, they also accepted their gay sexuality as a gift from God, a gift to be lived out in tender, loving and faithful relationships with their partners. Throughout the conference they and their partners were completely at ease, as most loving heterosexual couples would be, in openly expressing their love and tenderness through kissing, hugging, holding hands and demonstrating their joy at being in each other’s company. These open demonstrations of emutual affection were a visible sign of a much deeper sharing between these couples. Obviously, such loving relationships would have been entered into initially because they felt attracted to each other. Their love would have deepened as they learned to know each other at a far deeper level than physical beauty or ways of speaking, smiling, touching, and so forth. No doubt they had had to work hard at building their relationship of love with each other. That relationship would have been consolidated through a great deal of careful listening and honest speaking, being prepared to forgive and ask for forgiveness. They must have learnt to appreciate their partner’s ‘otherness’ as well as his ‘likemindedness’, being prepared to make compromises in terms of time, space, interests, friends, and so on.

I have no idea whether any of these gay Christian men actually celebrated their love for each other through genital expressions of endearment. That seemed irrelevant to me, though I presume it would not have been irrelevant to them. Perhaps all that needs to be said is that, granted the goodness of their loving and faithful relationship to each other, the criteria from Christian ethics which would seem to be relevant to how they expressed their love for each other would be something like the following: Was it mutually respectful, affirming, pleasurable? Did they both experience what they were doing as an expression of mutual love without any exploitation by either of them? And, in an age of HIV/AIDS, a further criterion to be considered might be: Did it embody a responsible concern for each other’s health? I suspect that no sexual expression of love, whether heterosexual or homosexual, would score 100 per cent on all those criteria. Nevertheless, they would seem to be the general criteria of most significance for love-making between any couples, whatever their sexual orientation.

For men and women who are heterosexual, a crucial factor in their moral development is the positive acceptance of themselves as sexual persons. This is part of accepting themselves as gift from God. It involves acknowledging the giftedness of their sexuality and recognizing that this God-given gift is good. Despite a chequered history in the Church’s attitude to sexuality, the importance of such acceptance of oneself as a sexual person would now seem to be agreed by everyone. It is uncontroversial.

For those Christian gay men at the meeting 1 referred to earlier, their self-acceptance as sexual persons must have involved accepting themselves precisely as homosexual persons. This would have been crucial to their moral development. It was the only way they could accept themselves as gift from God and acknowledge that this gift is good. However, for many Christians their position would be completely unacceptable. As we have seen, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for instance, flatly denies it. It asserts that the homosexual condition they are calling a gift from God is actually an objective disorder. In contrast to that, a collection of much more positive statements from within the Catholic community is found in Jeannine Gramick and Robert Nugent (eds), Voices of Hope: A Collection of Positive Catholic Writings on Gay and Lesbian Issues (New York, Center efor Homophobia Education, 1995).

Most psychologists now accept that homosexuality is a variation well within the normal range of psychological function. Despite that, not a few readers might find it difficult to accept that homosexuality is a good gilt of God. Perhaps they might be helped by the true story of a mother who was faced by the double revelation that her son, who was living far from home, was gay and that he was dying of AIDS. She went to visit him and was greeted warmly at the door by his lover, whom she had never even heard about. Smith, in his book AIDS. Gays, and the American Catholic Church., continues the story.

She stayed several days at the bedside of her son, playing cards and watching television with him, helping with care, talking to his doctor. But despite her satisfaction in being able to share that time with him, it was obvious that she remained disturbed about her son’s homosexuality. This was particularly apparent in the rigidity and coldness with which she responded whenever his lover came into the room.

After a few days, she suggested to her son that it was time to call a priest, and he agreed. Shortly after arriving at the house, the priest recognized the reason behind the mother’s anxiety. After praying with her and her son, he stayed for a chat. He asked her about life in the Midwest. Eventually he asked her how she had come to meet her husband, now deceased for several years. She began to reminisce about the time they first met, the hat he was wearing, the cafe they went on their first date. She talked about the bittersweet early years of their marriage, the financial struggles they endured, and the painful fact that her family had not accepted her new husband, feeling that he was somehow beneath them.

As the visit continued, the priest eventually turned to the young man with AIDS. He asked him how he had come to meet his lover. Slowly, the young man began to tell his story of how they met at a party, where they went on their first dates, hiking trips they took, and their decision finally to establish a home together.

As his mother listened to her son, a subtle miracle began to occur. She began to recognize some profound similarities in their two stories. Despite the obvious differences between them, they both seemed to be part of a universe more vast than she had previously imagined . . . She began to understand that her son had simply but truly fallen in love with another man -just as she had once fallen in love with her husband. How amazing! How wonderful! (pp. 134-5)

When I read of this incident, I was reminded of a remark made at an AIDS conference by a Jesuit priest, Dr Jon Fuller, an authority on HIV/AIDS who combines clinical practice at Boston City Hospital with his assistant professorship at Boston University School of Medicine: ‘There is nothing as similar to heterosexuality as homosexuality. They are both about loving persons precisely as persons.

Of course, to accept that being gay or lesbian can be part of the God-given giftedness of some human persons immediately raises the question of how this giftedness is to be lived out in a way which respects and promotes the dignity of human persons. In other words, it serves to remind us that when homosexuality is understood in this positive way, it becomes an important dimension of how they respond to God’s call and so needs to be viewed within the general context of Christian morality. As we have seen already, this poses a challenge to our Christian sexual ethics. It is possible that a radical reappraisal might be needed if it is to be able to accommodate a positive appreciation of homosexuality. Some people may respond to this suggestion with dismay, believing that this means yet another stage in what they see as a lowering of moral standards. However, if our more positive vision of homosexuality is really true, it should follow that a sexual ethics which is able to do justice to this, should be all that more richer since it is now constructed on the basis of more comprehensive picture of the giftedness of the human person. Part of the task to be faced in Chapter Six will involve trying to discern what shape such an enriched sexual ethics is likely to take.


The need for a positive spirituality of homosexual relationships comes out very powerfully in a TV documentary, Better Dead than Gay (Channel 4, 25 July 1995), produced and directed by Christopher O’Hare. It is the true story of a devout young Christian gay man, Simon Harvey, who was found dead in his car from a suicidal overdose after driving himself to a secluded spot in the countryside. The programme makes extensive use of his diary and of a long letter he left explaining why he killed himself. The title of the programme is based on a remark by Simon’s father that the news of his son’s gayness had been just as shocking as the news of his death. He went on to say that Simon might have been saved if he had met a good Christian who could have shown him that he could have been ‘cured’ of his gayness. O’Hare comments: ‘Sadly, Simon’s letters and diaries tell a very different story.’

Simon’s Christian upbringing made him believe that his gayness was sinful. Consequently, he thought himself ‘too filthy to continue living’. Driven by this self-disgust – ‘the word, “homosexual”, was an anathema to me’ – he searched frantically for a cure for ‘my malady’. He felt his only hope lay in being released from his homosexuality. Some of his fellow-Christians encouraged him to believe that this was a real possibility. Consequently, he visited a variety of Christian therapists and counsellors. He was prayed over in rites of deliverance and exorcism. But ‘nothing happened’. A friend, Nathan Stowe. was scathing about the kind of help Simon was being offered by his Christian friends:

They had given him a straw to clutch on to that didn’t actually exist. You cannot just wave a magic wand and make somebody gay straight . . . It’s in them. They are their own person … It is not an illness. You are just gay and that is it… He was dragged off out of his depth. They drowned him in rubbish . . . They were basically saying: ‘Be with us and you will be happy, you will be straight, you will be normal.’ They drowned him. He didn’t commit suicide. He drowned.

Near the end of the programme a Baptist minister, Robert Amess, who had been helpful to Simon earlier in his life, remarked: ‘God meets us where we are’. Christopher O’Hare concluded the programme with his own very powerful comment on that remark:

Simon didn’t kill himself because he was gay or a Christian or both. Simon killed himself because he and others thought that he should not be who he was. The Christian Church says, ‘Love the sinner: hate the sin’. But how can any person find self-worth and dignity without the right to express love, free of shame and guilt. Simon’s life and death are a testimony to the importance of accepting and living with difference in other people and in oneself.

Given a more positive Christian spirituality of homosexuality, Simon might well be alive today.

Tragically, Simon is not the only gay person to commit suicide. Some recent as yet unpublished research on HIV/AIDS and suicide in London shows that in the Riverside district alone the suicide rate among men living with AIDS rose from 4 in 1988 to 96 in 1992. Motivated by his own personal experience (‘I have lost too many friends to suicide’), one of the researchers is convinced that many of these AIDS suicides were ‘unnecessary’ and a ‘waste of life’. This is because most carers and counsellors were never open to let the suicide option even be discussed. Hence, the desperate cries for help which lay behind these suicides could never be heard.

Without being privy to all the research statistics, I would guess that most of these male suicides were gay men. I suspect that not all the tension they were struggling with was to do with the prospect of future suffering and death. Probably some of it was an inability to find positive meaning for their lives as gay men. As we have already seen, a positive sense of self-identity and of community and social appreciation not only helps towards a belief in one’s self-worth. It also fortifies a person for the struggles to be faced in life and even for a positive approach to the process of dying. In her report for the Health Education Authority, Suicide Issues in a Cohort of HIV Positive Clinic Attendees., Dr Lorraine Sherr rejects the myth that ‘suiciders choose death over life’ and that their suicide ‘involves a vision of active embracement of death’. She sees this myth as a stumbling block for positive intervention. A change in focus could allow ‘for input which could ameliorate some of the life traumas’. That, in turn, might ‘allow for life options to be contemplated and release from the notion of death as the only solution’. On my ‘exposure’ visit to Uganda I had the privilege of meeting an extraordinary group of women ‘living positively with AIDS’. They struck me as a powerful witness to the truth of Dr Sherr’s point.

If the Christian Churches could accept a positive appreciation of homosexuality and homosexual relationships, it might help homosexual persons feel that ‘it is wonderful for us to be here’. In his remarks about the ethics of suicide, Karl Barth suggests that it is no help to say ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to a person contemplating suicide. What such a person needs to hear is ‘Thou shalt live’. In other words, such a person needs assurance that his or her life is worth living. Such a conviction can be conveyed only through the experience of feeling loved and appreciated as the person one is. That might possibly be what many of these suicides in Riverside could not feel. It is certainly not the feeling that Simon’s Christian friends aroused in him. As Christopher O’Hare observed: ‘Simon killed himself because he and others thought that he should not be who he was. Any alleged presentation of the Gospel which gives such a message is not ‘good news’. It cannot claim to be Christian, It is not from God.

In contrast to that, the Gospel heard by Nigel Sheldrick, a gay man who died of AIDS in June, 1990, seems more like the authentic Christian Gospel since it was heard clearly by him as life-enhancing ‘good news’. That is why, shortly before his death, he was able to give the following personal testimony:

Of course, there have been hard times. I have gone through a lot of loneliness and despair and anger and grief of all sorts. But I know and have experienced that when I get rid of all the emotional rubbish and my anger, when I am able to shout. ‘Oh God. this is awful. I have been abandoned and I am on my own’, then fear subsides and faith and hope emerge. For me the opposite of hope is fear and when I have gone through utter despair and lost even hope, it is like entering a new doorway; faith emerges out of my discharging anger and fear and I have sensed a tremendous feeling that everything is all right in the universe. I remember once after a hard workshop I came out of my loneliness and despair and experienced the most inspirational ten days of my life. I felt a sense of connectedness with people and the world. I sensed that life was chaotic but beautiful. I felt like singing and dancing. I felt like going up to people and grabbing them and saying, ‘You are wonderful, you really are bloody wonderful.’ I wanted to say to them all that your pain and hardships are good; embrace it and experience it and you can change it… I feel at the moment that, just possibly, physical death is a doorway to all of us realising that incredible spontaneity and potential that is continually bursting around and in us. Perhaps heaven and hell are sort of within us and we have the potential to life in heaven now – if we can go through the veil of anguish and tears that we have built up over the years. If only we could really see our splendour, if only we could all see each other’s splendour what a different world it would be. (Nigel Sheldrick, personal testimony written shortly before his death in January 1990, in James Woodward, ed., Embracing the Chaos: Theological Responses to AIDS, London. SPCK, 1991, pp. 20-1)

I found those words very reminiscent of a passage from Thomas Merlon’s book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (London, Sheldon Press, 1977 edn);

In Louisville … in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race … If only everybody could realise this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun . . .

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time … I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other, (pp. 153-5)

Perhaps the Good News in a ‘time of AIDS’ is inviting us to fall down and ‘worship’ gays and lesbians as the persons they really are in God’s eyes!

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