I first review of the dogmatic tradition and also the traditional practice, both recent and ancient. I proceed to point out an unhealthy Conservative-Authoritarian vs Liberal-Licensionist divide present in the typical analysis and advice. I conclude by proposing a more balanced and wholesome understanding and practice. Appendix II is the moving personal testimony of a friend.
For more doctrinal detail, written in a surprisingly inspirational tone, I would refer my reader to [Ott: "Fundamentals of Catholic Doctrine" 2.IV.9-13 (1955)].
Two brothers who were attacked by lust went away to get married. Later on they said to one another, 'What have we gained by leaving the angelic order and coming to this impurity? In the end we shall suffer fire and punishment. Let us then return to the desert and repent. So they, returned and asked the Fathers to give them a penance, confessing what they had done. The old men imposed seclusion for a year on them, giving each one the same amount of bread and water. Now they were alike physically. When the time of penitence was fulfilled, they came out, and the Fathers saw the first was pale and humbled while the other looked well, with a clear countenance. They were surprised, for they had had the same food. They asked the one who was humbled 'How did you get on with your thoughts in the cell?' He said, 'I thought of the evil I had done and the judgement to which I was going, and the fear of it made my bones cleave to my flesh.' Then they asked the other, 'What did you think in your heart in your cell?' He said 'I thanked God for having taken me out of the impurity of the world to judgement, and for having led me to this way of life in Jesus Christ, and I rejoiced in the remembrance of God.' Then the old men said, 'In the eyes of God, the penitence of the two men is of equal value.'Leaving apart the statement that the reason that the two monks decided to get married (to each other?) was because of "lust", the point of this text is to compare and contrast two responses to a self knowledge of sinfulness. The first monk responded from his consciousness of his own failing: his repentance was backward looking and self-centred. It was barely a true repentance, but one that was centred on regret rather than Love. For this reason it bread fear. The second monk repented at a deeper level. He immediately gave up on the past and centred his whole being on the object of his faith: the God who is Love. He could do nothing else but rejoice, and suffered not in any way as a result of his sin: for his perfect love cast out all fear. While the penitence of each monk served its purpose in discharging the temporal debt due to sin, the second (which was painless) was a more authentically Christian response.
[The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, (Fairacres: SLG Press, 1975)]
Though to the outward observer the repentance of the second monk might seem too easy and superficial, in fact it reveals a deeper commitment to Love. Both monks were contrite for the sin of which they judged themselves guilty, but the first monk's contrition had more of attrition about it, whereas the second was pure contrition of the most meritorious kind.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here,"
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I the unkinde, ungratefull?
Ah my deare I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I:"
"Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them:
let my shame Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," sayes Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My deare, then will I serve."
"You must sit down," sayes Love,
"and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.
[George Herbert: "Love"]
Now, in answering this question, it must be kept in mind that the Sacrament cannot possibly be some kind of extra hurdle that God puts in the way to make it more difficult for someone to be reconciled with Him [Ott 2.IV.2.11.3]. This would tend to contradict the Divine will that every person that possibly can be saved should be saved. The Sacrament of Penance can only be rightly understood as an aid and help to forgiveness and the re-establishment of amity between a (wo)man and his/her God.
Bearing this in mind, the following can be said:
All sin has a social dimension. Even sins that seem only to degrade the character of the individual committing them: for they hamper and corrupt the contribution that such a person can make to the life of the community.
- Hence, the repentant sinner will want to make some sort of apology and restitution to the community.
- This is implicit in every act of contrition and is given an appropriate outlet in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
- Hence, every act of contrition implies some kind of intention to obtain sacramental absolution at a future date
[Ott 2.IV.2.10.2] .
- In the case of sorrow for venial sin, the intention is only to discharge an "appropriate duty".
- In the case of sorrow for mortal sin, it to discharge an "obligatory duty".
- Under the Mosaic Covenant, I suppose that "sin offerings" served a similar purpose.
In order for a priest to be able to absolve the penitent of the public aspect of his or her sin, he has to have the right to do so. This is called "having jurisdiction".
- In an emergency (or by economy), all priests (even irregular, schismatic, heretical or excommunicated) have jurisdiction.
- In normal circumstances, who may absolve whom of what kind of sin is regulated by positive law; for the sake of good order.
- Newly ordained priests are generally not allowed to hear confession until they have received additional training;
- some few sins of particular gravity or "political significance" are specifically reserved to the bishop, patriarch or even the Pope.
Traditionally, sins have been classified as " venial" [Trent VI Ch XI] and "mortal" [Trent XIV Ch 5,14,15]. Unfortunately, a different classification: that of " grave" and "not grave" sin features in the New Code of Canon Law [CIC 988-989 (1983)]
- I believe that this terminology arises from the documents of the recent Vatican Synod.
- The meaning of this terminology has nowhere been officially clarified.
Surprisingly, the New Catechism [CCC 1854-1864 (1994)] reverts to the traditional classification.
- Previously, I had thought that "grave sin" included all mortal sin together with the worst kinds of venial sin.
- Now, I am inclined to interpret it restrictively, as meaning the worst kinds of mortal sin only.
- I am sorry, but not responsible, for this confusion!
Venial sins never have to be dealt with via the Sacrament, as they do not involve a loss of Sanctifying Grace, the restoration of which is the business of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Nevertheless, given the social dimension of even venial sin, it is appropriate that every Catholic makes use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation occasionally, even when not conscious of mortal sin [Ott 2.IV.2.13.2]. As well as formally discharging the social aspect of reconciliation, the Sacrament is an effective help to the penitent.
- Apologizing, in the sense of admitting that some action or omission was embarrassing; shameful; regrettable; unfortunate or mistaken in hindsight is not at all the same thing as being truly sorry for some action and admitting personal responsibility for a moral fault.
- An unhappiness with oneself, a sense of guilt or shame or embarrassment and a fear of the consequences of sin: attrition, does not amount to repentance.
- Nevertheless, they can motivate someone to wish to repent and so bring a sinner (perhaps half unwillingly) to the Sacrament of Penance.
- Once there, God's grace is powerfully active in the role-play of self accusation and priestly absolution and given half a chance will effect the necessary change of heart that is itself both the basis and fruition of friendship with God.
"God in His abundant mercy has provided two main remedies for the sins of men: that they may gain eternal life by the grace of Baptism, and also by the remedy of Penance. Those who have violated the vows of their Baptism may obtain the remission of their sins by condemning themselves: the divine goodness has so decreed that the pardon of God can only be obtained by sinners through the power Jesus Christ Himself has conferred upon the rulers of the Church .... Every Christian, therefore, must examine his conscience .... It is dangerous for a weak and ignorant man to put off conversion to the last uncertain days of his life, when he may be unable to confess and obtain priestly absolution ...." [Pope St Leo the Great]On a related matter, Trent taught, with studied ambiguity:
"And as to that imperfect contrition, which is called attrition .... it is even a gift of God, and an impulse of the Holy Ghost, (who does not indeed as yet dwell in the penitent, but only moves him) assisted by which the penitent pepares a way for himself unto justice. And although it cannot of itself, without the sacrament of penance, conduct the sinner to justification, yet does it dispose him to obtain the grace of God in the sacrament of Penance." [Oecumenical Synod of Trent, Session XIV, Ch IV]Yet the question remains as to whether at least some positive love of God is necessary for absolution. In 1667 AD, a century after Trent closed, Pope Alexander VII had the Holy Office issue the following statement:
"Concerning the controversy:Moreover, the Catechism of the Council of Trent makes no mention of attrition sufficing for absolution. It says that a contrition that is "not perfect may be true and efficacious" but the context makes it clear that it is speaking of a contrition that is not supreme in the intensity of its sorrow, rather than of one that is wholly devoid of the love of God.'Whether that attrition, which is inspired by the fear of hell, excluding the will to sin, with the hope of pardon, to obtain grace in the sacrament of penance requires in addition some act of love of God',to some asserting this, and to others denying it, and in turn censuring the opposite opinion ....
His Holiness ... orders ... let them not dare charge either opinion with a note of any theological censure or contumely .... until something has been defined by the Holy See concerning this matter." [Denz. 1146]
I believe that this dispute is so much noise about very little. The question at dispute is ambiguous. Does "necessary for absolution" mean:
As time progressed, and conditions became easier, it became clearer to the Church that the sacrament could help people to repent of less grave sins,
"I forgive the sins both of adultery and of fornication to those who have done penance."and at the same time the general requirement for public confession [Pope St Leo the Great, in Ott 2, IV.2.12.4] and public penance was abolished. The reluctance to be baptized (for fear of committing sins later on in life that one would have difficulty in repenting of) started to evaporate as part of the same process: the availability of sacramental confession, in private, with the prospect of more lenient penances undermining the misguided fear of figures as different as St Augustine and the Emperor Constantine.
[Pope Callistus (218-222)]
From this it is clear that it is not right to say that "all mortal sins must, of the nature of the case, be sacramentally confessed". However, the subtly different proposition "in the sacrament of penance it is required .... to confess each and all mortal sins which are recalled after a due and diligent examination" is defined doctrine [Trent XIV canon 7]. The difference is that:
A common but naïve paradigm of the Church's role is "to forgive sins". Now, for this to be a marketable service, people have to be conscious of being sinful. Hence it is important to elicit within them feelings of guilt: whether objectively founded or not, it hardly matters! Sadly, the Catholic Church is renowned for inculcating low self-esteem, self-hatred and guilt.
The only entirely "honest" way to proceed as a Catholic, is to somehow work oneself up into believing that "Y" is sinful, at least for the time frame surrounding the celebration of the sacrament. The alternatives are to either "excommunicate oneself": continue to attend Mass but never receive communion, or to entirely lapse from practice and/or profession of the faith.
The promotion of the Sacrament of Reconciliation can be a means to make people feel guilty for things that they would not otherwise view as sinful. Now, if in fact these things are sinful: this is a good thing, because they may then go on to repent of the evil that is objectively damaging their lives. On the other hand, if in fact these things are not sinful: then this is objectively a wicked enterprise.
Of course, if the Magisterium was never mistaken in its official teaching on ethical matters, this would not be a problem. Neither would it be a problem if everyone who responsibly and conscientiously dissented from official teaching had sufficient courage of their convictions not to feel irrational guilt. Unfortunately, the Church regularly gets such matters wrong. Moreover, it is one thing being completely convinced that one is right about something: it is quite another to wish to make an issue out of it, even within the confines of one's own soul.
This then is the Conservative-Authoritarian-Rigourist misuse of the Sacrament. In brief, it turns what should be a means of liberation and healing into a means of control and cultivating guilt.
I ask myself sometimes, is not morality a worse enemy of spirit than immorality? Is it not more hopelessly deceptive and entangling? Those romantic poets, for instance, whose lives were often so irregular: were they not evidently far more spiritual than the good people whom they shocked? Shelley, Leopardi, Alfred de Musset were essentially children of the spirit; they were condemned to flutter on broken wings only for lack of measure and discipline; they were spiritual waifs, untaught to see the relativity and absurdity of their proud passions. The perfect spirit must be a patient hearer, a sober pupil, not an occasional automatic skylark. Yet when spirituality, as in Wordsworth, has to struggle instead against a black coat and a white choker, it seems to be more sadly and decisively stifled, buried alive under a mountain of human alarms and a heavy tombstone of sanctimony. The world, he sighed, is too much with us; but the hills and even the mock Tritons blowing their wreathed horns were not able to banish the world from his conscientious concern. Nothing is able to banish the world except contempt for the world, and this was not in him. It would even have been contrary to his Protestant religion: that so unspiritual determination to wash the world white and clean, adopt it, and set it up for a respectable person. The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded for ever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to the light among the thorns.The alternative Liberal-Licensionist misuse of the Sacrament is to deny that it has any application to real life: because there is no such thing as mortal sin. Now, I have much sympathy with the proposition that the overwhelming preponderance of what used to be thought to be mortally sinful in, say, the 1930's was not objectively so. For example:
[George Santayana "Platonism and the Spiritual Life"]
On the other hand, I am conscious myself of having behaved particularly badly on one or two occasions in my life (once in pursuance of the Church's official teaching, in a manner that I suspect many in the hierarchy would approve of as virtuous!) I am very glad that on both of these occasions I was able to obtain forgiveness both from the person I offended and also absolution from a priest. I am not sure that either offence was mortally sinful, but neither am I confident that they were not.
What is sincerity? It is something more than a refraining from lies and dissimulation: something that can only be achieved by a drastic purging of oneself, We are too ready to pander, even in the quiet of our private mind, to our moral vanities and false shames. True sincerity begins at home, in one's own heart. Without self knowledge it cannot exist, and self knowledge is not easily won by minds in which a diseased notion of what constitutes 'sin' has found a breeding place. Modern psychology, though it is the source of some new confusions as well as of much enlightenment, has at least left us with no excuse for supposing our ostensible motives and our real motives to be always identical. Self deception, the first and last enemy of the good (which is the reasonable) life, has always been the favourite resort of the maladjusted psyche. [Gerald Bullett "The Testament of Light" (1948)]
If you do agree fully with the Magisterium's teachings about sexual morality but sometimes fail to follow them, I am sure you realize that grave sins (which [the Magisterium maintains] that all sexual acts outside of a married male-female union that is open to procreation are) are only forgiven if you receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the full intent of never repeating that sin again (and avoiding all things that would lead you to repeat that sin). Too many "faithful" Catholics today commit the same acts (which the Magisterium labels as grave sins) again and again and confess them again and again - which suggests that, unless a serious mental illness is impairing their judgment, they are lacking in their intent to really stop committing those acts.
Naturally, it is near impossible to avoid all sin, but grave sins (also called mortal sins) are different. Grave sins are not merely bad habits that people must try to reduce and manage while regularly going to confession and trusting in Christ's mercy. Too many priests in confessionals have tried to convince me that the sexual acts that I commit regularly (alone and with my partner) should be managed like symptoms of a disease. If those acts are truly grave sins, meaning that in committing one of them I fully alienate myself from God, then my confessor should urge me to fully cease them immediately.
Grave sin is not just a disease or an addiction - it is a deliberate act in which we fully turn our back on God. Asking anything from an adult, mentally-healthy penitent other than full, constant intent and effort to cease such acts is downplaying our free will. [A gay catholic correspondent (May 2009)]
Those Catholics who are so disenchanted with and alienated
from the contemporary Church as to associate themselves with groups with
doubtful, disputed or impaired Catholic Communion face an additional problem.
The priests of any such organization, whether it be the Society of St Pius
Xth (who have no positive wish to be separated from communion with the
Holy See) or the Traditional
Catholic Church who, regretfully, do: have no jurisdiction and hence
cannot give valid sacramental absolution, except in emergency. It would
therefore seem that such people have no choice but to approach a "non-traditional"
priest in order to make sacramental confession, and such a presbyter would
want to be told that they have habituated "schismatical" Masses, celebrated
by "non-Catholic" or at least "excommunicated" hierarchs. Once again, the
question of personal integrity
sketched out arises: quite apart from the awkwardness of confessing
to a priest suspected of heresy!
"I'm a priest with 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies' and as engaged as I can be in 'promoting the gay life-style'. I no longer think that any homosexual activity is a sin in itself. I would have no problem absolving any homosexual from any sin, including any homosexual activity that because it was offending by its circumstances against the supreme commandment of loving one another. A confessor, anyway, can only absolve what the penitent considers himself to be guilty of as sin. It is the penitent's conscience that decides, not the confessor's. My advice to anyone, however, is that if you don't consider it a sin, don't confess it. Confession is for sins. You might want to get spiritual direction or counsel about certain aspects of your life, or discuss the application of the Church's norms to your particular life, but the place for all that is outside of confession.
I believe that we have to embrace our homosexuality as a totally positive gift of God, enabling us to affirm and support each other in the enjoyment of our masculinity (I speak as a gay male). It seems to me that to regard ourselves as distorted or our nature as twisted serves no useful purpose either for ourselves or for God. Of course, the full realization of human sexuality is to be found in the marital union for the begetting of children, but this should not imply that all “partial” uses of the sexual faculty are sinful. Sin and imperfection can creep into every use of the sexual faculty in many ways, but not simply by the physical fact of reaching an orgasm. The huge, determined, rejection of God that is mortal sin can never “creep” into anything in any way. I just regard it as right out of the picture. We do not really know the guilt of our sins and imperfections, and it does not matter. God loves us even in our sins." [A Catholic Priest (May/June 2008)]
Many members of the Church have lived virtuous lives whose worth far exceeded whatever punishments were due to their sins. Their merits, taken together with the infinite expiation of Jesus' life and death, is sufficient to make good and heal the harm due to every sin that is committed. In these merits all participate who belong to the communion of saints. Since Christians form one body among themselves, they can help each other. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that what friends do for us we do in a measure for ourselves, since by reciprocity of affection two are made one.
In the time of the great persecutions, the Church used to lay upon repentant sinners severe public penances. Penitents were excommunicated: only allowed to participate in the synaxis, like the unbaptized catechumens, but unlike the catechumens they were required to kneel in the vestibule of the Church! During their period of penance, they had to regularly fast on bread and water. Public penance usually lasted seven years; it was only imposed for grave offences, such as apostasy or giving the Holy Scriptures or Eucharistic vessels into the hands of pagans (being "traditors"). For even more heinous crimes such as murder, the period was still longer. For lesser transgressions a fast of forty days was the usual penance.
As a rule, the penitent was not absolved until the expiration of his/her term of punishment, when it was presumed that pious resignation to ecclesial discipline would have brought them to a full repentance. This "temporal punishment" was part of the process which evoked contrition for sin: this process culminating in sacramental absolution. Now, the design of God is not to exact vengeance, but rather to lead the sinner to amend his/her life. Hence, once a penitent manifested a firm amendment of life, and in particular if a martyr agreed to vouch for him/her, the canonical penance was mitigated, or remitted altogether: an indulgence was granted. Of itself, this wouldn't remove any obligation to make restitution to an offended party, of course.
In later, more gentle, times penances were imposed to be discharged after absolution. They were no longer seen to have any role in producing contrition. Their purpose was to reinforce and support repentance and to make amends for the social and cosmic effects of the sin that had been committed: the "temporal debt" arising from sin.
In the tenth century, pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome and Compostella were sponsored as alternates to canonical penances. In 1095 AD, the Council of Clermont granted a full (plenary) indulgence to all who took part in the crusades. Whereas the penitent had originally to apply for the mitigation of punishment, now a similar mitigation of debt (an indulgence) was offered by the Church to the faithful on the basis that certain conditions were fulfilled.
In the Middle Ages, post absolution penances came to be remitted on the payment of a sum of money. Because pilgrimages could no longer be made to Jerusalem, in 1300 AD Pope Boniface VIII granted a plenary indulgence to all who visited the basilica of the apostles in Rome on fifteen successive days. This was the origin of the Jubilee indulgence. It was later decreed that the same indulgence might be gained by the inhabitants of certain large cities, provided they visited their cathedral church and donated a sum of money equal to the cost of a journey to Rome. The money collected by the sale of indulgences was expended in the erection of churches and cathedrals for the most part. This is how the funds were raised to rebuild St. Peter's at Rome. The Council of Trent saw fit to suppress this corrupt practice [Trent XXI, 9].
In modern times the Church has made various prayers and pious practices, together with the reception of the sacraments, the typical means of gaining indulgences.
As a Catholic who has often struggled with the sacrament of Reconciliation, I would like to share two recent (and widely differing!) experiences in the confessional that both centered upon my sexual orientation. I offer my experience and the lessons learned in each in hopes to provide some help and hope for LGBTI Catholics who struggle to balance their need for this most beautiful sacrament with their personal integrity: and with a clergy that can sometimes misunderstand and mistreat us if and/or when our sexuality is revealed to them. Before I do so, however, I feel my readers would benefit from some pertinent (if impersonal) facts about the situation that lead me to the confessional in the first place.
I am a convert to Catholicism who was baptized in 1999 at the age of 18. Four months later, I faced up to the fact that I could no longer deny or explain away my attraction to others of my own sex. Unable to live with the confusion and with my belief that God was punishing me for some unknown transgression, I came out to my pastor during my first confession since baptism. Although my pastor was accepting and affirming, I could not reconcile official church teaching with my own integrity. I left the church a few months later and did not return until Pentecost 2003, when I came to the realization that I could no further postpone the attempt to reconcile my sexuality and spirituality. The two confessions I am about to relate are part of this continuing struggle.
In August 2003, a new permanent priest arrived at my former parish. I decided to make my second confession to him. Despite my reviewing Pharsea's paper on Reconciliation, it didn't go well.
My cross had slipped beneath my sweater, but another pendant I usually wear had not. “What is it you are wearing around your neck?” he asked me. I think he may have mistaken the pendant for a Miraculous Medal. When I explained it was "a gift from a friend" he shook his head. “I’d prefer it if you wore a cross,” he told me. I then showed him that I was indeed wearing a cross too, and the confession continued.
“Why did you leave the church for so long?” he asked me. “Was it some trouble with church teaching?”
Believing the confessional was the last place to lie, I answered him honestly, after much hesitation. “I’m gay, father.” Though I will never forget the look that crossed the priest’s face at this revelation I fear I cannot
adequately describe it, either. It was at once horrified, shocked and — uncertain?
“Do you think you were born this way, or did you choose this?”
“B—I think I was….born this way,” I stammered.
“Ah,” the priest said as he leaned back in his chair. “I am not going to get into your past…your relationship with your father, how that effected you. But I am going to tell you what Catholic teaching is,” he leaned forward. “Love the sinner, hate the sin. Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I could only nod, dumbstruck.
I got a half an hour lecture despite the fact I tried to tell him that I have not violated any of the Church's teachings on homosexuality. I think I was too shocked and hurt to say anything effective, though. In father's defence, he is from Eastern Europe and doesn't speak English very well, and he probably had no idea how to handle this kind of pastoral situation.[In which case he shouldn't have faculties to hear confessions. There is no excuse. It seems to me there are grounds here for a complaint to the Bishop: not that it would do any good.]I was then and am now completely celibate. I had done nothing to violate the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality! How could this be happening to me? It is often said that, in times of great crisis or great joy, human memory works like a flashbulb, capturing a traumatic or joyful picture indelibly on the psyche. So this memory is fixed in my mind. Yet I can remember only specific points the priest mentioned during this confession without any respect to the order in which they were brought up, or to what purpose. I can only list them for my readers. During the rest of my ‘confession’, I was told the following:He said that I would receive absolution “today”…despite my not having confessed anything.
“There are some relationships God does not approve of. God made man and woman for each other.” He mentioned the story of Narcissus. I could not fathom why he mentioned this, but I believe he was attempting to tell me that an attraction to one’s own gender was somehow selfish and/or solipsistic. He mentioned visiting the gay community in San Francisco. I believe he was rather taken aback after seeing some of the people there, and I suspect he imagined that many (if not most) gay folks act like those he saw in the Castro District.
Despite having a few more things to confess, every fibre in my being was screaming for me to get out of this situation immediately, so I told him that I had nothing more to say.[You did the right thing. That was spiritual rape. You should not try to think well of this priest. He just abused you. You didn't lie. You simply got yourself out of a terrible situation.]I was absolved and I left the church in tears. This was possibly the most dreadful experience I've ever had in any situation.
That day at Mass, I said goodbye to my friends in the choir and told them I would not be returning. That night, I told my mother everything. She and I both cried for hours. She said she felt guilty for taking me to the Catholic Church in the first place because I'm now going through problems with the faith similar to ones she suffered with at at my age. When she asked me if I still wanted to attend church, I told her that I did - only I could never look this priest in the eye again. I felt that I had little choice if I wanted to remain a practising Catholic but to continue to lie and hide: and I am unable and unwilling to do this anymore. It seems contrary to Jesus' teachings and a stumbling block to living a Christ like life. I do not feel comfortable hiding my orientation in the confessional.[Unfortunately, this is the game that the Church forces people to play. Not just gayfolk, but heterosexuals too - in other situations.]“This Church hates me,” I told my mother. “I am forced to lie in the confessional or leave! Maybe I just shouldn’t bother.”
We decided to attend a parish closer to my apartment uptown. One week passed, and I decided that I should re-do my confession, as I considered the previous one invalid. Nonetheless, I almost didn’t have the nerve to go.[I suspect that your confession might even have been valid, because it was morally impossible for you to confess the rest of your sins! Even so, you were wise still act on the basis that it was not valid: out of prudence.]
Nonetheless, something deep within me urged me to put my trust in God. At last, I swallowed my fear and
drove the mile to my new parish – the same one (ironically) I had walked out of three-and-a-half years earlier. I found an unfamiliar priest placing envelopes on chairs in the chapel. When I asked him if he would hear my confession, he happily agreed and put the envelopes aside. As we made our way into the confessional, I vowed I would not bring up my orientation. I would simply confess the sins I had wanted to a week earlier, go to mass, and go home.
“I confess that I am often jealous of others in my profession,” I told the priest. “I am jealous of those more creative, talented and successful than I.”
“That must be difficult,” he said. “What is your profession?”
“I’m a writer and a theatre student,” I told him.
“Wonderful! You know, when I was your age, I studied theatre, too! So I know how difficult it can be to overcome jealousy in this profession.” Father than began telling me about a movie he had just seen, in which “this adorable young gay man” falls in love with a theatre student and helps him overcome his jealousy of his fellow students. I nearly fell out of my chair. A priest mentioning homosexual love as if it were something positive!
“Father, I have to tell you something,” I said when he was done. Somewhere, deep down I wondered why I was
doing this, why I was opening myself up for potential abuse and ridicule yet again. Nonetheless, I trusted him. I felt he would understand. “I’m gay.”
The priest looked at me for a moment, and then his face broke into the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. “Oh, how wonderful!” He said.
“Not wonderful,” I then told him about my previous experience. He looked angry when I had finished.
“Don’t you even think about that again,” he said gently. “That priest was wrong to say that to you!”
“But I don’t know what to do,” I protested. “I can’t reconcile these teachings with my identity…I can’t believe in them.”
The priest looked quickly, puckishly, to his left and right. “They’re WRONG!” he whispered dramatically. “I mean…the teachings are incomplete. Being gay is a gift from God…but it is not a gift that is well understood.
And you need to be careful with whom you share this gift, or they may give you a lecture like that again.”
“But what if I find a partner some day and…”
“Well, you should be so lucky!” he exclaimed happily.
“I…sometimes I think I should just leave.”
He removed his glasses and looked at me sternly. “The people who say these things…these things about gay and
lesbian relationships. Maybe they should leave. My dear, the thing is, they have all the money and the power, and they just don’t understand.”
"I'm afraid," I told the priest. "Of what will happen next in the Church."
He smiled at me. "I'm kind of excited," he replied.
We finished, I prayed, and we left for mass. He gave such an incredible homily that I came back on Sunday evening to hear him speak again! It's a pity he was only visiting our parish for the weekend, though.[Indeed, but he was able to provide what you needed. God gives sufficient grace so that everyone may be saved.]I could have hugged him. In fact, I did before I left the church that day. Yet the full significance of my meeting with this priest did not become clear to me until well into his guest sermon during that day’s Mass. Like me, Father had almost not turned up in the parish that weekend. In my case, I did not know if I could handle another spiritually abusive confession. In his, he almost put his trip off because the recent blackout in New York City almost left him stranded without transportation. In the end, however, we both went to church hoping that Our Lord would get us there safely. Had it not been for our faith that things would somehow turn out all right, we never would have met one another, and I never would have heard the answer to the question I had asked God nearly every night since Pentecost: “Lord, please tell me Your will for your gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed children."
I would advise that all LGBTI Catholics keep this good priest’s advice in mind when in the confessional; your orientation is a gift from God, but it is not a gift that our faith can, in general, understand or appreciate at the moment. Therefore, use discretion when revealing it to clergy or lay people – particularly if you have no immediate need to do so. When in the confessional, it is wise to remember the suggestions Pharsea has posted for gay Catholics. To whit, do not bring your orientation up if you do not know and trust the priest. If you need to confess a sin against your partner, or against someone whose relationship to you can only be explained in terms of your orientation, be sure to do so only to a gay friendly priest.
Finally, never doubt or forget God’s tender love and care for you. Though some in the church hierarchy may be against us now, God is not. And if God is for us, then whom on this earth shall we fear?[God's providence is wonderful!]
I confessed and took Communion for the first time in twenty-one years last week (I left the Church twenty-one years ago over gay issues but perhaps more correctly, over authority issues). For several weeks I had been thinking about confessing to a Catholic priest since the Anglican church offers very few opportunities for anonymous confession (in a metro area of one and a half million there is one per week for ten minutes), and also because my experience of Catholic confession has generally been better than Anglican confession - the priests seem to believe in sin instead of psychology and they just have more experience in giving counsel.
Anyway, I had been thinking about confessing to a Catholic priest since around Christmas. When Lent began, I decided to attend Catholic Masses in addition to my regular parish on Sundays and then things started to happen:When I finally went to confession, I experienced extravagant, unconditional mercy and forgiveness. The effect on me was profound and I spent a long time crying in the church before mass when I took Communion. I am rather surprised at all this. I wasn't expecting to be converted but that seems to be what is happening. I am not fighting it and it is beautiful.
I saw the Cardinal, who seemed to stop in the procession to look straight at me and look into my eyes as he blessed me with a look of pure love and compassion that almost overwhelmed me (I don't know if he really noticed me or if he always looks that way); I attended a very progressive, socially active parish that reminded me of my time with the Catholic Worker movement; I began to remember all the good things about the Catholic Church; I began to feel at home in the churches I visited.
Now that I am partnered, I do not confess that I am "living in sin" - simply because there is nothing in my conscience telling me that I'm sinning. Before I was partnered, when I did have sex with multiple men: I did confess that, because it was wrong - so my conscience told me.
At one confession, the priest asked me: "Are you at all confused about your sexuality?"
I replied: "No, I know very well that I am a homosexual."
He told me: "Then seek to form a right conscience within yourself, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that you may use God's precious gifts to God's glory."
I know that what he told me might be open to interpretation, although I did sincerely at that time begin to try to listen to the Holy Spirit, and form my conscience accordingly. This led me to see things in my own life that I had never noticed before, and made me a better Catholic. If it weren't for that kind priest, I would really still just be a wishy-washy run-of-the-mill Catholic; but now I strive for holiness, because I try to leave myself open to God. By leaving myself open to God - without any reservations - I learn new things each day about myself and what I should and should not do. So many times in a day I realize how I am put into situations where I can choose to do what is right or what is wrong, whereas before I never noticed. In order to form my conscience, I began attending daily Mass whenever possible (because of my work schedule only four or five times a week). Also I included time every day to adore our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament (more parishes are having perpetual Adoration chapels, which makes it very convenient). I found the hardest thing to begin to do was LISTEN. I had become so used to TALKING to God, I never let Him get a word in!
I think the biggest thing that helped me was the silence, because it seemed to carry over into my daily life. Instead of voicing my opinion right away (even only in my own mind), I started to remain silent, and reflect on the situation later (usually for a while during Vespers).
One thing that I have found is the things that we would think are such "means of grace" such as, in order of importance:
REALLY are means of grace! Without these I would be lost.
- The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
- The Divine Office
- Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
- Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary
I used to struggle in my life of prayer, going to Mass on Sunday and saying some sort of prayers each day - usually the rosary; but my confessor told me:"The most important way to recieve God's grace, and how we worship God, is the Mass. Second to this is the Divine Office. Try to adore our Lord as much as possible in the Blessed Sacrament, and pray the rosary every day."Now I was a little surprised at this, since it seemed he put Mary on the back-burner, but I think this is the way our Mother would want it too.
Lastly, silence and prayer is not enough: I have found that I must act! Acts of penance and reparation, acts of charity and mercy - virtues must be PRACTISED!
And by all means, ask God earnestly and devoutly for increased faith, hope, and charity! He will not deny you!
If it seems like He is, just wait and be silent!
As a 'cradle' Catholic, I had it all drummed into me from an early age, through to teenage years. Not so 'deeply', fortunately, as with my sibs., but basically I think of that Pet Shop Boys track 'It's a Sin' - basically everything I was about to do, or, think, would be a sin. Now I believe we can see this as Mother Church being over-protective / 'looking-out' for Her own, or controlling... ensuring compliance through fear - but there-again, if we listen to the words of our Lady at Fatima and Garabandal...perhaps we should be fearful.
I felt the best way for me was to find my own way in order to survive - for a few years I fought hard, going to confession regularly, mostly not going to Communion if fantasised/ma5turbated in the meantime [and definately not if I'd had sex]. Time went on - and this became more difficult - I think I managed a fortnight without full ma5turbation at one point. I then began to question the worth of it all - I tried to live a good life and treat people with respect - why should my natural physical/sexual attraction toward fellow men be a mortal sin? But, wait, I'm told it's not the attraction, but the 'practice' that's mortally damaging!
It can still be a struggle, but my guide-rule is now that if I'm in a faithful relationship, there's nothing to confess. I had so many priests say different things, from condemning my behaviour in the confessional, then 'trying it on' later, to some going into intricate detail over when ma5turbation becomes a sin or when a sexual encounter becomes a sin. Some priests said it was less of a sin to sleep around; others, said better to be in a relationship...!
Many now, seemingly accurately, speak of the Sin of Sodom being more concerned with promiscuity. While I wouldn't condemn people who sleep around, I feel a proper relationship would be more acceptable in God's eyes.
I believe we should find our own way. Many of the priests mentioned above were using their own agendas [to attempt to get what they wanted], as well as being overly legalistic [or not!].
I ask myself two questions:
So, this is how I have decided to live my life. Maybe this could work for you? I feel, no matter how much we love our Church, it is a male dominated, strong institution, that relies on fear and our taught, 'in-grained' [some might call it 'brainwashed'] 'Catholic Guilt', to fill [or not!] the pews and plates on Sundays.
- why has God made me gay? [there has to be a specific reason!]
- I am a loving, faithful type person who has a need for a reciprocal loving relationship - why should I remain single, when my straight contemporaries do not need to ask this question [except in cases of marrying divorcees etc - but does that stop people these days?
We should be happy in ourselves as well as at church.
Why deny yourself the love of a boyfriend?
"We never apologize to anyone for depending upon our Creator. We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness. Paradoxically, it is the way of strength. The verdict of the ages is that faith means courage. All men of faith have courage. They trust their God. We never apologize for God. Instead we let Him demonstrate, through us, what He can do. We ask Him to remove our fear and direct our attention to what He would have us be. At once, we commence to outgrow fear.Now a plea for help from a friend:
Now about sex. Many of us need an overhauling there. Above all, we should be sensible on this question. It's so easy to get way off the track. One set of voices cry that sex is a lust of our lower nature, a base necessity of procreation. Then we have the voices who cry for sex and more sex; who bewail the institution of marriage; who think that most of the troubles of the race are traceable to sex causes. They think we do not have enough of it, or that it isn't the right kind. They see its significance everywhere. One school would allow man no flavor for his fare and the other would have us all on a straight pepper diet.
We all have sex problems. You'd hardly be human if you didn't. What can you do about them?
You can review your conduct over the years past.
Get this all down on paper and look at it. In this way, tried to shape a sane and sound ideal for your future sex life. Subject each relationship to this test - was it selfish or not? Ask God to mold your ideals and help you to live up to them. Remember that your sexuality is God-given and therefore good, neither to be used lightly or selfishly nor to be despised and loathed.
- Where have we been selfish, dishonest, or inconsiderate?
- Who have we hurt?
- Have we caused jealousy, suspicion or bitterness?
- Were were we at fault, what should we have done instead?
Whatever your ideal turns out to be, you must be willing to grow toward them. You must be willing to make amends where you have done harm, provided that you do not bring about still more harm in so doing!
Treat sex as you would any other issue. In prayer, ask God what you should do about each specific matter. The right answer will come, if you listen for it. God alone can judge our situation. Counsel with persons is often desirable, but let God be the final judge. Realize that some confessors are as fanatical about sex as others are loose. Avoid hysterical thinking or advice.
Suppose we fall short of ideal we have identified, and stumble? If you are sorry for what you have done, and have the honest desire to let God take us to better things, you will be forgiven and will have learned something from the experience. If you are not sorry, and our conduct continues to harm others, things will go from bad to worse and you will yourself become deeply unhappy. We are not theorizing. These are facts out of our experience.
To sum up about sex: earnestly pray for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity, and for the strength to do the right thing. If sex is very troublesome, throw yourself the harder into helping others. Think of their needs and work for them. This will take you out of ourselves. It quiets the imperious urge, when to yield would mean heartache."
"I've been in a romantic relationship with my best friend since July - a relationship which is becoming increasingly serious for both of us. However, I see a few potential problems that may really trip us up if I don't figure out how to at least address them. I'm not really sure who to speak to about these issues, because most of them are religious in nature. So who better to ask than Catholics?A priestly response to this:
Okay, first of all I've never had sex before. And until this December I'd never kissed anyone, male or female. I'd never done anything but a few chaste hugs and hand holding. After we spent some time kissing I began to feel a bit overwhelmed and guilty. I am sure that some of this has to do with having been molested as a child, but I think more of it has to do with a fairly Calvinistic attitude towards sex and sexuality which I've held since childhood. I know that I'm very much in love, but the idea of having sex with anyone is upsetting on some level. I can't get over the idea that it's dirty and shameful. Though I think I'd have this problem regardless of my partner's sex, I don't remember feeling quite this guilty and paralyzed when I thought I was exclusively heterosexual.
The other confusing thing is the idea of lust. I've been thinking a lot about sexuality for the last two years or so, and I'm not sure where the line between lust and love is drawn, particularly when actual sex is involved. Is it lustful to want to have sex only if you're using your partner as a means to gratification? Is sex something I should postpone until we're 'married'?
Basically, how do I make sure I'm not committing any sins here?
I haven't had what anyone could call a normal sexual development - it involved a lot of abuse and basically ignoring the issue untilI was in my late teens. So, I tend to get really uptight and obsessive about anything involving sex - particularly if it's something the culture around me frowns upon (I am in therapy for this, but as there are years of damage yet for me to undo and work through, it's slow going...)
I hope this is making sense. It's difficult for me to really share these thoughts with anyone, even when I'm typing them out, so I don't know how easy they are to follow."
[An email list member (April 2005)]
"I too am confused by sex issues, but much less so than in my youth. I am fourty-nine years old, and am free from alcohol-addiction the last eight and a half of those years. With the progression of my sobriety, my insights into all areas of life have also been progressing. Before then, my attitudes and beliefs had been frozen by alcohol in a juvenile state of affairs that reflected the sick influences that had moulded them: the alcoholism of my birth mother and of both my adoptive parents, long-term sexual abuse by my adoptive mother, and a deep dread of my own sexual orientation.
For many years I was not active in the priesthood, but because of my alcohol addiction and other personal issues, and the homophobia of the countries in which I lived, I had never the luck to have a relationship. For the past few years I am again active in the priesthood, but am not at all happy that I am expected to forego the possibility of a relationship - though interpretations abound as to what that means.
Unfortunately the Church hierarchy is as confused by sexual issues as you and I are. This is the one big moral issue - sex, with all its related sub-issues including obligatory celibacy, divorce and remarriage, birth control, homosexuality - where the Church's teaching and policy are faulty. Thus, we gay catholic people have to fall back on the general christian ethical principles, try to draw from them a coherent personal sexual morality that will work for us. St. Augustine said: 'Ama et fac ut vis' (Love, and do as you wish).
The Church Hierarchy does not recognise the legitimacy of our love, our friendships, our romantic and sexual feelings, our needs for stabile supportive relationships, nor does She provide us with a 'remedy' as she does for straight couples: marriage. So, in the case of two women or two men, how does one know at which moment to begin to crown one's feelings of love and respect for the other with physical intimacy? At which moment does one consider oneself married? I think it best that the two persons involved discuss that and decide that themselves.
In the days before Paulus VI and Johannes Paulus II, there was no written policy on same-sex love and relationships. But priests often applied truly pastoral solutions to the concrete situations of their faithful. I know of pre-Vatican II pastoral solutions, where same-sex couples were advised by the priest to live together as married persons including physical intimacy, and not to confess this, but only try to be discreet about it in public. The couple themselve of course determined that they were now a couple in God's eyes.
St. Thomas said: God does not take offence by anything we do, except by that which does harm to ourselves. To love another human being is not to harm ourselves, but to fulfill ourselves by imitating the Three Divine Persons' love for each other. The Church does not yet feel that She can marry same-sex couples, but God - Who is greater than the Church, and Who works also outside of the bounds of His sacraments - can do anything, including recognise and bless your relationship. Perhaps you will find yourselves marrying each other little by little, until one day you will just know intuitively that you are indeed now a married couple.
The only reason that I can see that one should wait to be intimate physically until 'marriage' is that this is probably psychologically healthier for the persons involved. Security and stability should ideally accompany human romantic-sexual relationships. But again, that might not be true for all of us.
Please keep in mind that the general principles which seek to safeguard our romantic and sexual lives, can be easily confused with negative voices of puritanism, or incest, or other sexual molestation, or internalised homophobia, and it is good and proper to sort this all out with help if necessary, as I did. Since I am sober, I have been to a coming-out weekend for christian gay people; for six months I attended a weekly coming-out group for men; I went for half a year to a weekly group for men with incest experience and I have been to a couple of therapy weekends for men with incest experience. I have read several books on homosexuality in the light of the scriptures and tradition and the magisterium, favourable to homosexuality. I have done very much to try to sort out all the issues and to give myself as sound as possible basis for friendship, love and sex.
I think that calvinism, jansenism, puritanism and islam have this in common: they despise images of God and of the Saints, of external ritual, and of the created world in general, and have as a result an abhorrence of the body and its sexuality. This attitude is - or at least SHOULD BE - foreign to Catholicism.
I know from experience, that nearly all men ma5turbate: straight, gay, married, single. I believe, that ma5turbation is good. It is a pleasure no different from most other pleasures, made by God to use and enjoy. As all other earthly pleasures, this too should probably be used with due precaution, keeping in mind our present common human tendency to become obsessive. I am convinced, that the Magisterium of the Church as such has no competence to make a binding pronouncement on ma5turbation anymore than it has the competence to determine the winner of beauty pageants.
When our Lord said that to covet another's wife was equal to committing adultery in the heart, He meant just that. His words have nothing to do with fantasising during ma5turbation: most gay men do not fantasise about married women anyway... but even should a straight man have such a thought whilst ma5turbating, it would still not be what our Lord was referring to.
Our Lord said, that he who covets his neighbour's wife has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Covet here means to wish to take the married woman away from her lawful husband and have her for himself. Besides, one can ma5turbate without fantasising about anyone in particular. So this passage of Scripture can be safely scrapped in the debate on ma5turbation, a debate, which. it seems to me, in the 21st Century should not even have to take place, not even amongst Christians. Must we begrudge each other living life? Don't we have more important issues to solve?
"I tend to think that we should look for guidence to moral or ascetical theology - that theology concerned with our response to God revealed in Christ and encouraging us to forms that lead us to grow into the full stature (i.e, character) of God. What is it that will lead us to greater attention, awareness, and virtue or fruits of the Spirit in light of our own Lord's first having loved us? Virtues like fidelity/stability, chastity (singleness of heart), life-long conversion, hospitality, patience.
Sex is good; I enjoy it quite a lot; but sex is at best a good antepenultimate to God and our own character. I would argue that sex is meant for love, and love not just in a mushy, feel-good way, that so easily deceives us into thinking we've done no harm - but rather pleasure (that first sign, not end point, of something good) leads us to want to be in the character of God who delights in us and calls us to His character.
In terms of guidance for our sexuality, I've argued before that 'loving as we first have been loved' is a good start. The beauty of committed monogamy is that even when we harm our beloved (that is, sin against them) we wake up the next day and cannot escape having to face them - and our sins. We have to face our own wounded spots where sin has left deep marks, and our beloved is the helper and mirror for just that.
Personally speaking, I would also say that the 'dignity of men' (as a heterosexual conversation partner has put it) isn't something to take lightly while waxing eloquently about protecting the 'dignity of women'. That's frankly sexist and uses romanticized categories for women (soft, emotional, etc.) without taking care to recognize that we men are also finite creatures. Raptures about our maleness and comeraderie without taking care to recognize our own vulnerability come across as wanting to justify doing whatever. We can hurt one another with random, promiscuous sex. Using the lack of possible pregnancy as reason seems weak. Sex engages our persons just as much as eating, drinking, reading, working. It's quite emotional and intimate, and the closest thing I can compare it with is receiving Holy Communion.
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