The clarity and compassion with which Catholics discuss the topic of same-sex attraction in the public forum has improved significantly over the past decade or so. This is owing to a greater understanding of scientific, psychological, and pastoral considerations connected with homosexuality, and especially of the persons who live with this reality. Be this as it may, the 24 hour news cycle, coupled with the prevalence of social media in our everyday lives, means that we must be mindful of our every word amid the constantly changing social trends surrounding this sensitive subject, all the while remembering that it is our duty to change hearts as well as minds.
Within this ever-fluctuating climate of communications, there are, unfortunately, those who rely on shock value to make their voices heard. When it comes to the subject of homosexuality, the consequences of this approach can be devastating, not only to the Church’s mission of spreading the Gospel, but to those for whom same-sex attraction is a lived reality.
Whether you’re a respected journalist with thousands of followers, or just a guy with a Twitter account and a penchant for online debates, here are a few points to consider when speaking about homosexuality from a Catholic perspective in the public square.
“LGBT“ or “same-sex attraction”?
What makes the language surrounding this topic difficult is the disparity between what is socially acceptable in the current cultural climate, and what is accurate. On the one hand, “same-sex attraction” conveys the dignity of the person in precise terms, but many associate its use with bigotry. “LGBT” and/or “gay,” on the other hand, are less likely to drive away those who otherwise need to hear the Church’s message, but their use risks normalizing the reduction of persons to their sexual drives. In light of these considerations, the answer to whether to use LGBT or same-sex attraction is not clear cut, and there is room for editorial discretion: as Christ says, we are called to be “cunning as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). As a rule, however, “same-sex attraction” should be favored.
It ought to be noted that Courage International, with respect to its official status as the only canonically-recognized ministry in this field, will always prefer the term “same-sex attraction” to “gay” or “LGBT”. This is because a.) “same-sex attraction” is the most accurate description in light of each person’s intrinsic dignity, b.) it is consistent with the established language of the Church, and c.) it is how Courage members themselves prefer to describe their experience.
That said, attention needs to be given to how the term “same-sex attraction” is used. Critics have argued, rightly, that it can be demoralizing to say a man or a woman “suffers from,” “struggles,” or “is afflicted with same-sex attraction,” for it presumes intimate knowledge of what that person is going through. The phrase “with same-sex attraction” is better, but it can be perceived as somewhat clinical. The preferred phrase is to say that a person “experiences” same-sex attraction, as this best acknowledges the uniqueness of the individual.
When speaking publicly on the subject of same-sex attraction, there are two goals we must keep in mind: first, that we at least try to change the hearts as well as the minds of those who disagree with us; and second, that we respect the dignity of persons living with this experience who may be listening to what we say.
These goals simply cannot be achieved with derogatory terms or profanity. For instance, using homophobic slurs to describe a person, their words, or their actions are unacceptable, even if directed at someone who is potentially causing damage through his or her teaching.
The same criticism can be applied to terms such as “homosexualist,” which is used in some circles to compare supporters of the LGBT agenda to terrorists.
Remember that the damage caused by these expressions is not limited to the person to whom they are directed. Young people, as they struggle to understand God’s plan for them in the context of their same-sex attraction, are going to take these words to heart if they hear them.
The use of harsh language may be intended to silence someone who is speaking against the Church’s teaching. Or, it may be seen as an expression of righteous anger. Despite any good intentions, such language has no place in Catholic discourse. It harms individuals, and it hampers evangelization. As Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote in September, 2017: “all of us who claim to be Christians, wherever we locate ourselves on the ecclesial spectrum, have the duty to speak the truth with love.”
At a time when most people get their information from social media in the form of headlines, soundbites, and quotes which can easily be taken out of context, it becomes extremely difficult to speak about homosexuality from a Catholic perspective with the nuance and precision it requires. This challenge often provokes a reaction in many commentators: the more shocking the statements, the wider the audience reach. However, the impetus to proclaim the truth to the widest audience should not come at the expense of the “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” with which we need to address those whose lives have been touched by this reality. And the proclamation of the Gospel cannot be separated from a willingness to engage the hearts and minds of those who take a different stance from our own. With humility, we peacefully accept that we will persuade few people – if anyone – with our words, but this does not mean we close the door to the possibility of dialogue (even if the opposition has).
Moreover, when speaking in public forum of social media, we must remember that our audience isn’t limited to those we direct our criticisms. Young people who experience same-sex attraction – who long to know that they are loved, and to understand their true identity in Christ – are among those listening.
Ann Schneible is the communications director for Courage International. Before taking the position in 2017, she worked as a Rome correspondent for ZENIT and Catholic News Agency/EWTN, a collaborator with Vatican Radio, and a translator for L’Osservatore Romano. She has an STL in Institutional Church Communications from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.