Summer 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 126-136.

James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead:
      The Shape of Compassion: Reflections on Catholics and Homosexuality

Pondering the limitations of the recent declaration on pastoral care of homosexual persons leads to deeper insight into the meaning of compassion and the value of arousal.

James D. Whitehead, a pastoral theologian, and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, a developmental psychologist, are authors and lecturers who make their home in South Bend, Indiana. They are members of the Associate Faculty of the Institute of Pastoral Studies, Loyola University of Chicago. Their most recent book is The Emerging Laity (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1986)

A deep wound in the body of Christ has been opened once again. The wound is the ancient suspicion of sexuality that continues to infect Christian life. This sore spot was aggravated again last October by the Vatican instructions on "The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons." Intended to heal, the document has instead injured an already vulnerable part of the body Christian. Its limitations as a pastoral response to homosexuality become especially evident in its vision of arousal and fruitfulness.


In 1975 an earlier Vatican declaration had distinguished between "the homosexual condition or tendency and individual homosexual actions." Catholics were reminded that it is not sinful to be homosexual since one does not choose this orientation. But to express this sexual orientation, the document taught, is always sinful. Such actions were described as "intrinsically disordered." The 1986 Vatican statement judged that this earlier distinction between orientation and action had been misunderstood and abused. Its position moves well beyond the earlier assertion:

Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. (Origins, Nov. 13, 1986, p. 379: our emphasis)

Both Vatican statements are anchored in a biological and naturalistic vision of the human person. As the gap between this philosophical interpretation and their own awareness of sexuality increases, many Catholics are left confused by the terminology of the argument: what does the text mean by "inclination"? what is meant by "disorder"? The "inclination" spoken of here is the arousal -- affective and erotic -- through which we experience sexuality: the movements of physical attraction and emotional response toward another person; the stirrings of affection that deepen the bonds between people. Such arousal is the wellspring of sexuality for all of us heterosexual and homosexual alike. And for all of us these inclinations are fulled with both promise and peril. These stirrings are the roots of our ability to love, to risk commitment, and to sustain loyalties. Deprived of these excitements, a human life becomes, literally, apathetic. These arousals, for both gay and straight persons, are also subject to every conceivable perversion, as the human history of selfishness and sexual violence attests.

Movements of erotic arousal are common to both heterosexual and homosexual love. But the gay and lesbian Catholic have been taught, and are again instructed in this document, that for them -- the inclinations themselves are wrong. Quite apart from decisions about fruitful expression and responsible abstinence (decisions that confront every adult), their arousals are judged to be perverse: they are "ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil." These feelings, we are told, do not and cannot resonate with the delight of God's creation; they are not to-be seen as part of that human surge of affection that rescues us from our solitary journeys. These are arousals, we are instructed, that should have no place in the life of a Christian. Pastoral care and personal survival will now entail a counsel to "hate the inclination but love the incliner."

The sexual tendencies of the homosexual are judged to be wrong because, in theological parlance, they are an "objective disorder." What is the "order" envisioned here? In both the philosophic orientation of natural law (which still grounds much of Catholic sexual ethics) and more generally, order is always about relationship. Order refers to the relationship between something and its own purposes: What is it for? How is it to reach its own goals? These, then, are the issues at stake in a discussion of the order of human sexuality: What is sexuality for? How does it reach its own goals? For Christians, order is finally a question of the Creator's design. What is God's hope expressed in the bewildering complexity of sexual arousal and response?

The 1986 document calls the homosexual inclination a disorder; the 1975 declaration had judged that sexual sharings among homosexuals are "deprived of their essential and indispensable finality, as being intrinsically disordered." In the philosophical milieu in which it was generated, the disorder of homosexual inclination is clear: this arousal leads to sexual sharing that cannot produce children. The biological link between sex and the survival of the species is taken as the exclusive norm of sexual sharing. Sex is always and only "ordered" to the procreation of children. Sexual activity that cannot produce children is "disordered."

Biology focuses our gaze on the ordinary and obvious processes of male/female copulation. "Natural law," too, rivets our attention on fertility -- sex is "for" reproduction. The limitations of this philosophic perspective for illumining heterosexual love are well appreciated. It makes of sex both "too much" and "too little." It places too much emphasis on particular sexual activities, while failing to appreciate the larger contribution of sexual awareness to self-understanding and social relationships. Such an approach constrains human sexuality to narrow biological purposes and neglects the delightful range of these arousals and the variety of their fruitfulness. These same limits bedevil attempts to understand homosexuality within the context of official Catholic sexual ethics.

The genius of any religious vision is to remind us that life is more than biological. If procreation is an ordinary and obvious order of human sexuality, is it the only order? Two exceptions have received attention in the Catholic tradition.


From a narrow, biological orientation, infertility is a disorder and a curse. And through many centuries of human history, the "barren woman" was perceived as a blight on the community and a personal failure. (It would take some time to acknowledge that a couple's infertility could possibly be due to the man's "disorder.") But Catholics, in our better moments, have contested this naturalistic view of sexual order and finality. We have acknowledged that there are many paths to human fruitfulness. The sexual sharings of a couple when they are not fertile (that is, during most of their married life) can be profoundly fruitful. And the most fertile marital unions can be, from a standpoint of generosity and fidelity, profoundly sterile.

The second exception to the ordinary and obvious order of human sexuality is celibacy. In this extraordinary decision, a person crafts a life of loving that does not include genital sharing. A person chooses another order of affection and expression than that dictated by nature and biology. To the non-religious philosopher and humanist, this must appear disordered. How can humans exclude from their own lives that essential order and finality of sexuality upon which we depend for our personal existence and our species' survival? It is not biological order, but the religious community's long experience that teaches us that such a life can bear abundant fruit.


Sexuality constantly escapes our biological planning; it leaps over our natural law categories; it dances faster than our religious doctrines. Devoted sexual love is more than "a remedy for concupiscence." It is, with its unexpected and unearned delights, an echo of creation. In making love, we participate in that initial arousal when the Spirit hovered over chaos. In the touches and strokes of sexual sharing we are revealed to ourselves: we are brought to see a loveliness in ourselves that we had been incapable of imagining. Every lover gives thanks for this grace. And in our sexual lives we often find spiritual healing. These embraces of love soothe old wounds and make forgiveness tangible. For many believers, it is in the intimacy we share with a sexual partner that the reality of God's goodness and promise finally become more than rhetoric. Gay and lesbian Christians tell us that this is their wisdom too.

The order of human sexuality has more to do with fruitfulness than fertility. Jesus Christ is the paradoxical instructor in the order of our fruitfulness. This unmarried and childless person shows us that there are many ways to generate love. His life urges us to escape the tangles of both biology and social customs. His affective preference for "outsiders" -- non-Jews, sinners, women with questionable reputations -- scandalized the righteous, then and now. And from his life we learn the criteria of fruitful human love: mutual respect instead of coercion or selfishness; the deepening of commitment and fidelity; the healing of injuries and quickening of courage. Lesbian and gay Christians remind us that these characteristics describe homosexual as well as heterosexual living.


The religious discussion of homosexuality often degenerates into a conversation about "them" -- punctuated with fantasies of baths and bars, and studded with stories of promiscuity and perversion. These extravagances distract us from a simple truth, profound in its implications: we are the body of Christ and part of our body is gay and lesbian. Who are the homosexual members of the body of Christ? They are not "them"; they are "us." They are our siblings and our children, our friends and our fellow-parishioners. They are persons like us, striving to live generous lives of maturing faith. They are the ministers among us -- priests, religious, lay -- who, knowing themselves to be lesbian and gay, struggle to serve with integrity in a church that proclaims publicly that their innermost inclinations are shameful and base.

The revelation of God that has been given in Jesus Christ has significance for sexuality. The Word made Flesh is "good news" for the body. From its outset Christianity has struggled, not always successfully, to express this "good news" in ways that illumine, purify, and liberate love. The struggle continues today. The Vatican declaration warns against interpretations of sexuality that contradict "the church's living tradition." It fails, however, to acknowledge that the homosexual members of the body of Christ are a vital part of this living tradition. Their experience of sexuality, their journey of sexual maturity, their understanding of the demands of devoted love: the Church has yet to listen with honesty and care to this part of the body of Christ. But to honor these resources will require a change of heart -- a true metanoia.


This change of heart is taking place in the community of faith, even if it is not yet evident in many official statements. We see its fruit in a new compassion among heterosexual and homosexual Christians. Compassion is the ability to enter into the passion of another person. Ordinarily we think of compassion as commiseration -- feeling the suffering of another person. But compassion has a more expansive meaning: entering into all the "passions" of another -- both delight and sorrow, joy and anger. By the bridge of imagination we cross over into another world of feeling. Like empathy, compassion is an uncanny capacity to participate in another's inner world, without being engulfed by or fused with that person. I experience, with you, the excitement of your success; I taste the sorrow that fills your life right now. This is the strength that makes mutuality possible: it enables me to share your experience, without intrusion or manipulation.

The hardy virtue of compassion is not about pity, but about kinship. Pity often has about it the taint of condescension: we feel sorry for some unfortunate "other." From a position of moral superiority, we "descend" to pity the less fortunate. But in genuine compassion, we recognize the other person as "our kind." I see the other person is like me. Entering into another's feelings, I recognize them as very like my own: your grief is like my sorrow. Your joy is the same that I have felt. The affection you feel is the same healing arousal that I have experienced. Compassion is not a private devotion, but a social virtue. It is this bonding at the level of passion that makes community possible. Compassion teaches us to be "kind" -- to recognize the kinship of human passion. This one who suffers is my brother; this joyous person is my sister. The gospel vision of kinship guides our efforts both to be charitable and to be just.

It is this vision of kinship, too, that may help purify the church's official position on homosexuality. Compassion begins in our willingness to listen to the experiences of gay and lesbian Catholics. When we listen well, we will learn what should not be such surprising news: the homosexual person is stirred with the same kind of arousals and attractions as is the heterosexual person. These stirrings, quickened by a smile or a gesture, are more than "near occasions of sin." Like the arousals that stimulate our own loving, they are often occasions of grace. They are part of the goodness of God's creation. For all of us heterosexual and homosexual -- questions remain of how we choose to express our affections and how we respond to erotic arousal. We all face the challenge to find a lifestyle and forge fidelities that are both adult and Christian. But the underlying experience of attraction and response are familiar to us all whatever our sexual orientation.

It is through compassion that we come to know that for a lesbian to feel erotic delight in the presence of another woman is not "unnatural." It is for her the most natural feeling imaginable. She may deny these feelings and let this denial grow into a habit of self-hatred. It is then that she embarks on a life that is truly disordered and unfruitful.

Compassion also helps us recognize that a gay man does not choose to set aside his "natural, normal attractions" so that he can experience another more perverse kind of sexual excitement. The attraction he feels is natural and normal for him. Spontaneous impulses of arousal and affection (the "inclination" of the Vatican document) are the energetic roots of human love: they can move us toward fidelity and support our efforts to be fruitful. This is so whether we are heterosexual or homosexual. If these stirrings of the human heart are sordid, we are all in deep trouble.

If my awareness of homosexuality comes only from media accounts of scandal and promiscuity, I may well have difficulty with compassion. The thought of two men being erotically aroused or two women being sexually engaged may disgust or confuse me. These inclinations seem so foreign to me, I can't imagine anyone else experiencing them in a way that is healthy or holy. Such discomfort springs from ignorance or naivete, rather than from insight or "natural law." But difficulty with compassion may have a more complicated origin. In high school or in the military, for example, a young heterosexual man may have a confusing sexual encounter with another man. This experience, not in accord with his sexual orientation, may have been influenced by alcohol or other pressures. The memory is likely to linger with him, often with strong feelings of guilt or shame. When he now thinks of sexual intimacy between men, it is his own painful memory that comes to mind. He is not able to enter into someone else's feelings; instead he substitutes his own painful memories. This, of course, is not empathy, but projection. Preoccupation with his own distress clouds his vision and defeats compassion.


Where do we learn compassion? How does this virtue begin to grow in our life? The answer to both questions is, of course, Christian community. In prayer groups and ministry networks, in base communities and other small group settings, American Catholics are experiencing community in practical and profound ways. As our lives intersect in these gatherings of faith, we come to know each other more deeply. And we begin to learn of each others' enduring hopes and lingering wounds. Sharing these experiences of grace and failure, we come to participate in one another's passion. We touch lives so different from our own, but in their fragility and faith, so similar.

For many heterosexual Catholics it has been in sharing the faith journey of a gay friend or lesbian colleague that compassion has taken root. Here we have learned that their attractions and delights are very much like our own: we know the same excitement at the possibility of love and the same terror that devotion might not endure. The lesbian couple in our prayer group hopes to find fidelity and fruitfulness in love, as do the rest of us. The priest who is gay struggles to mature in his sexuality, just as the priest who is straight. All of us know that holiness does not lie in a denial of our sexuality, but in a discipline that is closer to befriending.

In the practical interplay of Christian community, we learn the shape of one another's hopes and passions. But these gifts of community can be avoided. Sexuality can remain a taboo topic among us, to be discussed only within the established guidelines. "I don't know any homosexuals," we insist, oblivious to the sisters and brothers that daily intersect our well-defended lives.

The Vatican declaration on "The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons" does little to foster either compassion or community. Its arguments are coldly rational, displaying none of the empathy required for compassion. Its tone is punitive, suggesting that homosexuals have brought persecution upon themselves. In advising dioceses to deny church facilities to gay and lesbian support groups, it suggests that homosexual Catholics are for one another chiefly "occasions of sin." The document counsels mistrust of oneself and shrinks fruitfulness into fertility. The pastoral instruction's greatest weakness is its lack of a spirituality. It is a document of the head: in the view of many readers it displays a disturbing absence of soul.


Within the community of faith there is an emerging wisdom about sexuality. It has become clear that, as Catholics, we know more about sexuality than we have been willing to say. But this wisdom is beginning to be shared -- often hesitantly, sometimes courageously. Married couples are acknowledging the range of pleasures that make their life together fruitful; single persons are speaking out concerning the place of sexuality in their lives; Catholics who are lesbian and gay are ready to tell the rest of us about the gift of their own sexual lives.

As Catholics dare to tell the truth about sexuality, there grows in the body Christian a "sense of the faithful." This is a slowly seasoned "instinct within the mystical body" (Cardinal Newman's image) that, in our sexuality as in so much else, we are more like than we are different. It is a conviction that sexual pleasure is a gift of creation, not a clever temptation of the devil. It is a belief that our loves are fruitful in many and surprising ways. And a conviction grows among many mature believers that homosexual arousal is not unnatural or unholy; that it is part of the gift of creation, a sign of God's delight in our bodies. This maturing sense of the faithful does not ignore the responsibility that we all share to fashion mature and fruitful ways to express our love. But it does acknowledge that the seasoned experience of mature homosexuals must be honored in any credible discussion of the shape of Christian sexuality.

Compassion would teach us about the rich variety of both arousal and fruitfulness. As Christian communities share their journeys of religious and sexual maturing, we may even come to trust our bodies and their best hopes. This, in turn, will help Christians heal that ancient suspicion of sexuality that still wounds our common body.