Moral theologians and canon lawyers, not to mention gay rights advocates and opponents, have long debated the Roman Catholic Church’s stand on homosexuality. But who has been talking to everyday Catholic homosexuals and their families who daily contend with the seeming contradiction between the lived reality of their lives and religious edicts?
Now comes a helpful little book written by a Carmelite priest, Father Peter J. Liuzzi, which clearly lays out the church’s position with pastoral sensitivity, without compromising its teaching against homoerotic acts, which has alienated so many gay men and lesbians. Can he pull it off?
For years, Liuzzi, director of the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Ministry With Gay and Lesbian Catholics, has been walking a tightrope: attempting to balance what some see as the church’s harsh teaching against homosexual acts with a pastor’s sensitivity.
His book touches on some of the controversies swirling around the issue of homosexuality. He notes, for example, the growing number of scientific studies pointing to a genetic, hormonal and neuropsychological component in an individual’s homosexual orientation.
Liuzzi also cautions against a “fundamentalist” biblical literalism in applying scriptural injunctions against homosexuality. He worries about attempts by “ex-gay” ministries, usually run by Protestant evangelicals, who believe that gay men and lesbians can be converted to a straight lifestyle.
But make no mistake. “With Listening Hearts: Understanding the Voices of Lesbian and Gay Catholics” is no call to radical action. From the start he makes it clear that he “adheres strictly” to church teaching.
That teaching, in short, says that it is not a sin to be homosexual. But homosexual acts are sinful. It also says that a homosexual “inclination” tends to lead to such acts and therefore demonstrates “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” That means that a homosexual orientation in and of itself is an “objective disorder.” Homosexuals, like single heterosexuals, are expected to remain celibate. Sex is permitted only between a man and a woman who are married to each other.
If Liuzzi privately disagrees with church teaching based on his own pastoral and life experience--factors that have led other clergy to search their consciences and reconsider what is or is not a moral evil--he does not confide in his readers. For example, in discussing the notion of homosexual orientation, he draws no inferences about how the church might modify its teaching.
This will probably be a disappointment to gay rights advocates and a surprise to conservative critics who continue to examine Liuzzi for signs of disloyalty and doctrinal error. But he leaves the battles over the efficacy of the church’s moral theology and other controversies to others.
For the moment this may be all that can be expected in a church that continues to discipline priests, nuns and theologians for so much as soft-pedaling the church’s teachings, much less directly challenging them.
Liuzzi’s principal focus is how to best present the church’s teaching in a pastorally sensitive way. He plumbs the depths of the church’s teaching so that its underlying life-affirming tenets are as accessible as the prohibitions that lie on its surface. The book is filled with poignant real-life stories of individuals and their families coming to grips with homosexuality.
Life is a journey, Liuzzi says. Since one’s homosexual orientation is “discovered” and not “chosen,” the church understands the difficulty in living up to its standard. There may be slips, as distinguished from willful flouting of the church’s admonitions. The important thing, he says, is a faithful journey that will lead to a full and moral life, as the church defines it.
Gay men and lesbians are not alone in seeing the difficulty of leading a celibate life. But at least heterosexuals have the option of marriage. This creates an untenable situation for gay men and lesbians who want to live in committed, monogamous relationships. The idea that they must be denied the full expression of their sexuality is hurtful and dehumanizing. They see their sexuality as an integral and, for many, God-given part of their personhood and identity.
It is around such issues that Liuzzi seeks to engage in respectful dialogue. Whatever the difficulties, he says, the church has always held that there is more to life--and to human identity--than sex. Indeed, the church has said that all must guard against a cold and ultimately dehumanizing reductionism that holds that we are the sum total of genetics and chemistry. Such a view, taken to its extreme, would mean that humans have no real autonomy (what the church calls free will) to choose between right and wrong. Our identities ultimately are not defined by our sexual orientation, the church teaches, but by the fact that we are created by God. In that belief is to be found humanity’s ultimate identity and worth.