It is well established that same-sex attraction constitutes an inclination of the sexual appetite which is intrinsically and objectively disordered.1 This paper is not intended to defend or explain this definition, a project which has been undertaken abundantly well already by scholars more apt to the task. Although it will be necessary to touch on these questions to some extent, this paper seeks rather in a pastoral spirit to find what hope may be offered to those faithful Catholics who experience same-sex attraction and for whom it “constitutes … a trial.”2 To be sure, Jesus extends to each one of us the call he offered to his first disciples: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 DRB).3 The Catechism aptly recalls this divine invitation in the case of Christians with same-sex attraction, calling them to “unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”4 However, it must be acknowledged that the cross weighs particularly heavy in their case, since their disordered desires are rooted precisely in that area which makes us most fully human: the sexual urge, which drives man to express at the level of the person—physically, emotionally and spiritually—his natural desire and capacity for self-gift and personal communion. Too often, therefore, the call to carry the cross and die to self in this area may be heard by same-sex attracted Catholics as an insurmountable challenge, akin to a permanent denial of that which is most human in them, that call to communion in which man most fully finds himself and realizes his human potential.5
It is not sufficient to ask Catholics suffering under the burden of same-sex attraction, who are seeking to live holy lives and submit faithfully to the Church’s magisterium, to merely bear their crosses without offering them also some grounds for hope that their deepest and most distinctively human aspirations—desires which are God-given, even if distorted by sin—may be fulfilled. This paper is an attempt to do just that. Drawing on the teaching of St. John Paul II, I will argue that those who suffer with same-sex attraction, being made for communion in the image of the Blessed Trinity, are called to a generous life of self-gift and may find their fulfillment as human persons in such a life, no less than those who experience the sexual urge in accord with the divine and natural order. I will then consider the Lord’s invitation to virginity for the sake of the kingdom in Matthew 19:12 as a “live option” for those who experience deep-seated same-sex attraction, arguing that, though they may fall into the category of those who are born eunuchs or made eunuchs by men, this in no way excludes them from also making a voluntary and generous offering of themselves to God in a life of committed spiritual virginity. This commitment constitutes a path by which such persons may satisfy their deepest inclinations to love and gift, entirely and without reservation, and live a fruitful life in generous service to God and his people.
Called to Communion
At the heart of St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” is the fundamental conviction that God, Who is Love, created man and woman out of love, for love.6 This concise statement reveals much about the nature and destiny of human beings, as well as the nature of God, our creator and exemplar. God subsists in an eternal and reciprocal exchange of love: the Father generates the Son in a perfect and eternal “event of absolute, self-surrending love,”7 giving over His own divinity to the Son, a totally free gift by which He gives Himself utterly and holds nothing in reserve; the Son, receiving the Father’s self-donation, gives Himself freely and perfectly back to the Father in an eternal, reciprocal, loving assent to His Sonship. The generative love of the Father begets the filial love of the Son in an “eternal interplay of divine freedom, since this filial disposition is the infinitely free response of love engendered by love.”8 Furthermore, this love engendered by love is fruitful in the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. Thus the Blessed Trinity is a communion of three divine persons in one Godhead constituted by an utterly free, eternal, perfect, fruitful, and loving exchange.
Because we are made in the imago Dei, we human beings are likewise “called to communion,” to fruitful self-donation and mutual belonging. In fact, man and woman, made in the image of God, constitute together an imago Trinitatis on the human plane, a “true and living icon”9 of the divine communion of love which is the Blessed Trinity. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” says YHWH in Genesis 1:26. Commenting on this verse, St. John Paul II writes, “Before creating man, the Creator withdraws as it were into himself, in order to seek the pattern and inspiration in the mystery of his Being, which is already here disclosed as the divine ‘We’.”10 The pattern of God’s own inner Trinitarian life, of loving self-surrender and communion, thus becomes “the eternal pattern of the human ‘we’, especially of that ‘we’ formed by the man and the woman created in the divine image and likeness.”11 It is precisely together that man and woman constitute an image of the Trinitarian communion of God.
The complementarity between man and woman is thus written into human nature from the beginning as a fundamental and irreducible characteristic at the service of communion. It belongs to the “stamp” of the divine and Trinitarian nature which God has impressed upon us from the moment of the creation of our first parents. However, St. John Paul II distinguishes a still more fundamental sense in which we are made in God’s image. Prior to imaging the divine nature in the complementarity of the sexes, man is stamped with the imago Dei in the very fact of his being endowed with a rational nature, that is, with the capacity to know and to love. Man’s being made in the image of God at the level of his rational human nature is “prior, not only in the chronological sense, but rather in the existential sense”12 to his being made in the image of God as male and female. If we were not first made in God’s image by being rational, that is, capable of knowing and loving, then the Trinitarian likeness in the communion of human persons made possible by the complementarity of the sexes would be unintelligible.
This is well illustrated by the second creation account found in the book of Genesis. In the beginning, Adam stood alone between God and the rest of creation, a bodily creature like the animals, yet endowed with a rational nature like God. He experienced a radical need for communion, being made in the image of communion itself, yet found none of the animals capable of satisfying this need; he could know and love them, calling them by their names, but they did not have the capacity to know and love him in return. Therefore, the Lord says, “It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a help like unto himself” (Genesis 2:18), that is, a creature endowed with the same rational nature as Adam himself, such that she can know and love him as she is known and loved by him. To be sure, Adam realizes when he sees Eve—“bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen 2:23)—that he was not just seeking any other rational creature, but also a certain hitherto unimagined “communion of complementarities.”13 Man, before the creation of woman, could not have conceived of the great gift of the complementarity of the sexes; he could only desire one “like unto himself,” capable of making a free return of love for love. The creation of Eve reveals to him the possibility of a true communion of persons, not only in reciprocal knowledge and love, but in bodily, emotional and spiritual self-gift and mutual belonging, and thus a more perfect realization of the imago Trinitatis.
Nevertheless, it should be a consolation to same-sex attracted Catholics that “the first and most essential aspect of [the imago Dei] is on the level of rational creaturehood.”14 If, through no fault of their own, such persons do not experience the natural attraction of man to woman or woman to man in the sexual urge, they are not for that reason excluded from the possibility of communion. Same-sex attracted persons are still “stamped with the image of God in love and gift” at the deepest level of their nature, and thus are both made for and capable of “the real warmth of rational human communion: the remedy for man’s deepest solitude.”15 In fact, John Paul II teaches that, since
the need for betrothed love, the need to give oneself to and unite with another person, is deeper and connected with the spiritual existence of the person … it is not finally and completely satisfied simply by union with another human being. Considered in the perspective of the person’s eternal existence, marriage is only a tentative solution of the problem of a union of persons through love.16
If their disordered experience of the sexual urge prevents them from seeking that communion in marriage, then persons who suffer from same-sex attraction may find a way of fruitful and generous self-gift in a different expression of betrothed love found in the tradition of the Church.
Called to Virginity
It cannot be denied that the intrinsic and objective disorder of same-sex attraction constitutes a real obstacle to giving of oneself in betrothed, spousal love in the normal way. This obstacle may be considered analogously to that experienced by the first two kinds of eunuchs mentioned by the Lord in conversation with his disciples in Matthew 19. This conversation occurs just after Jesus has spoken a prophetic word against divorce to the Pharisees: “Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so … Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery” (Mt 19:8-9). It is in this context that the disciples shrewdly remark, “If the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry” (v. 10).
Without reading the disciples’ comment uncharitably, one cannot help but detect in their words a hint of utilitarian calculus, seemingly weighing the risks of a lifelong commitment which cannot be broken and judging it more prudent to remain celibate. Jesus, however, shifts the terms of the discussion with his reference to three kinds of eunuchs. There are eunuchs “who were born so from their mother’s womb,” he replies, “and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12). His reply distinguishes between those who are incapable of marriage because of a physical defect (those “who were born so”) or else due to the action of another (those “made so by men”), on the one hand, and those who voluntarily forsake marriage “for the kingdom of heaven” on the other. Crucially, the Lord speaks to his disciples here not in the categories of expediency and convenience, as they had begun the conversation, but in terms of sacrifice and generosity: “He that can take, let him take it” (v. 12).
John Paul II’s interpretation of this passage is crucial for understanding Christ’s call to take up the cross of virginity for the kingdom as an invitation to loving and generous self-gift. “It is a characteristic feature of the human heart to accept even difficult demands in the name of love, for an ideal, and above all in the name of love for a person,” writes the Holy Father:
the love for Christ himself as the Bridegroom of the Church, Bridegroom of souls, to whom he has given himself to the end … In this way, continence ‘for the kingdom of heaven,’ the choice of virginity or celibacy for one’s whole life, has become in the experience of the disciples and followers of Christ the act of a particular response to the love of the Divine Bridegroom, and therefore acquired the meaning of an act of spousal love, that is, of a spousal gift of self with the end of answering in a particular way the Redeemer’s spousal love; a gift of self understood as a renunciation, but realized above all out of love.17
Far from a life of self-indulgent “perpetual bachelorhood,” chosen to avoid the responsibilities and risks of radical self-commitment to a spouse, or else a resigned and bitter celibacy into which one is forced by some exterior or interior necessity, then, the choice to live virginity for the sake of the kingdom is a particular and radical kind of self-donation, a free gift of love made in response to Him who “first hath loved us” (1 John 4:19). Indeed, John Paul II calls this gift of self to God in spiritual virginity “an act of spousal love,”18 the essence of which is that “two people give themselves each to the other”19 in a quite absolute, irrevocable way, as Jesus insists in his dialogue with the Pharisees. It is an act of “the fullest, the most uncompromising form of love,” which “consists precisely in selfgiving, in making one’s inalienable and non-transferable ‘I’ someone else’s property.”20 The exterior form of the commitment differs for the spiritual virgin in that it is made not between two human spouses, but between a creature and his Creator; the “interior form” of the commitment in the human heart, however, insofar as it involves “the will to give oneself, entirely and without reservation, to God,”21 is the same. Therefore, it is an act truly capable of fulfilling man’s deepest and holiest aspirations to love and gift.
Furthermore, such a generous commitment of oneself to Christ the Head necessarily entails also a gift of self to his Body, the Church. The Head and the Body cannot be separated; neither then can one’s commitment to spiritual virginity for the kingdom as an act of betrothed love for Christ be separated from the supernatural and spiritual fruit of that betrothal, that is, service in charity to the members of His Body. The spiritual virgin is “to have a deep care for them, expressed in service, such that there is a real and enriching personal communion.”22 This service may take many forms. John Paul II muses that it might be expressed in “the relationship of a doctor with his patient, or in a teacher, who devotes himself with utter dedication to the education of his pupil,” or even by “great public figures or apostles [who] devote themselves to many people at once, people for the most part personally unkown [sic] to them, whom they serve by serving society as a whole.”23 It is for the individual to discern the particular path by which they will best serve the body of Christ, listening to the voice of God, the Bridegroom of their soul, with due attention to the needs of their community and loving, filial obedience to the Church. Finally, it must be reiterated that this life of service will only be personally fulfilling insofar as it is the spiritual fruit of the person’s betrothed love for Christ the Head. Service in itself is insufficient to slake the desires of the human heart, which desires not only self-gift, but “the giving of the individual person to another chosen person.”24 Thus the spiritual virgin’s life of service must be the fruit of their communion with the Lord, not a replacement for it.
This path of spiritual virginity is open to Christians who experience same-sex attraction, just as it is to those who experience the sexual urge in the natural way: “He that can take, let him take it” (Matthew 19:12). Whether these followers of Christ were made eunuchs “from birth” or “by men,” that is, from biological causes, psychological trauma, or other undiscovered reasons—and the Catechism acknowledges frankly that the “psychological genesis [of same-sex attraction] remains largely unexplained”25—the words of Jesus reveal that the dignity of making a free choice to give of themselves is not denied them by the fact of their condition. There is an irreducible difference between those eunuchs who are made so and those who choose to become so for the kingdom of heaven. Those who are made so have had no choice in the matter. Their choice lies in how they will live out their lives: seeking communion in vain by gratifying their sensual and sentimental desires, a quest which is doomed to failure since, as John Paul II puts it succinctly, “only if it is objectively good for two persons to be together can they belong to each other”26—or following the difficult road of “renunciation … realized above all out of love,”27 a daily death to disordered desires which enables a life of truly generous gift and communion.
In conclusion, far from condemning same-sex attracted persons to a lonely and loveless life, Catholic moral teaching acknowledges that such persons are radically made for communion and self-gift. In so doing, the moral tradition of the Church firmly rejects any notion that same-sex attracted persons are defined by their disordered inclinations, as if same-sex attraction constitutes a kind of fundamental identity distinct from that of persons who naturally experience the sexual urge as an inclination toward members of the opposite sex. Rather, the Church affirms that same-sex attracted persons share the same fundamental orientation as all other members of the human family, by virtue of their being rational creatures made in the image and likeness of God: the inclination to generous love, to self-donation, to communion. The Church further acknowledges such persons’ fundamental dignity and freedom to choose a way of life which will allow them to give of themselves to another, in accordance with their own objective good as human persons and the objective good of the other, as well as with the whole divine and natural order, and therefore in a manner which affords them the opportunity for real self-fulfillment as human beings in the image and likeness of their Creator. If the normal means of betrothed love, that is, matrimony, is closed to them, the Lord invites them to walk the path of spiritual virginity for the sake of the kingdom, a commitment to self-giving which is no less generous, no less radical, no less fruitful, and no less fulfilling of their deepest inclinations as human persons. Those who choose this path will no doubt encounter difficulties, but in daily renewing their commitment in love for Christ, “they can … gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection,”28 that eternal beatitude in which alone our hearts may all find their rest.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 2357-8.
- CCC, 2358.
- The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
- CCC, 2358.
- Cf. Paul VI, Gaudium et spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] (7 December 1965), §24.
- Jeffrey Froula, lecture on Theology of the Body (Menlo Park, CA: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, 15 January 2020).
- Margaret Turek, SD-5211: The Trinity – Course Reader with Commentary & Notes (unpublished manuscript, 2019), 134.
- Turek, Course Reader, 133.
- Francis, Amoris Laetitia [The Joy of Love] (19 March 2016), §11.
- John Paul II, Gratissimam Sane [Letter to Families] (2 February 1994), §6.
- Gratissimam Sane, §6.
- John Paul II, TOB 5:3, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 148.
- Froula, lecture (15 January 2020).
- Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 153-4.
- John Paul II, TOB 79:9, in Man and Woman He Created Them, 436.
- Ibid. Emphasis mine.
- Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 96-7.
- Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 97.
- Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 252.
- Jeffrey Froula, lecture on Mystical Virginity (online, 20 April 2020).
- Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 98.
- CCC, 2357.
- Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 131.
- John Paul II, TOB 79:9, in Man and Woman He Created Them, 436.
- CCC, 2359.