The Deacon’s Role in Accompanying Those with Same-Sex Attraction

Lessons from the Courage apostolate

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Courage International was founded in the Archdiocese of New York in 1980, when Cardinal Terence Cooke asked Father John F. Harvey, OSFS, to create a pastoral outreach for Catholics who experience same-sex attractions (SSA) who wanted to live chastely. Building on his expertise as a moral theologian and his 36 years of priestly ministry, Father Harvey invited the founding members to identify goals by which they would strive to live. The five goals of Courage (see sidebar) still guide the work of the apostolate, which now counts about 170 chapters in 16 countries. As Father Harvey’s work became known, parents whose sons and daughters identified as gay or lesbian reached out to him for support in their efforts to keep the faith while keeping their families intact. They came together in 1992 to found the EnCourage apostolate, which now includes some 90 chapters in 10 countries.

After nearly 40 years, the pastoral mission of Courage responds to the call of Pope Francis to encounter people on the margins — those whose personal or social situation leaves them feeling alienated from society and even from the Church. The profound and complex experience of SSA, often accompanied by unjust discrimination and harsh treatment, certainly can leave a person feeling marginalized. Sadly, the decision to embrace chastity sometimes adds to this marginalization: One’s gay friends can find it difficult to understand this choice, and it can be difficult to predict the reception one would receive if he or she turned to the Church for support and guidance. In fact, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) proposes in its Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons “a multi-faceted approach” that “will assist [them] at all levels of the spiritual life: through the sacraments, and in particular through the frequent and sincere use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation; through prayer, witness, counsel and individual care” (see Nos. 15-16).

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The pastoral care of Courage and EnCourage belongs to priest chaplains, appointed by the local bishop, who gather the Courage or EnCourage chapter for prayer, discussion and fellowship. Over the last few decades, these chaplains have benefited greatly from the collaboration of deacons. In situations where a priest is not available, deacons can lead Courage and EnCourage chapters on a temporary or more stable basis, providing a steady presence at regular meetings and enlisting the assistance of local priests to celebrate Mass and hear confessions as often as possible. But deacons do not only serve the apostolate as substitutes for priest chaplains; their particular ministry and the gifts that accompany it enrich the work of Courage in unique ways. In their apostolic beginnings (see Acts 6:1-6), deacons were entrusted precisely with the care of those who were marginalized in the early Jerusalem Church. In our own day, deacons, who live in the world and undertake secular occupations, become a bridge between the broader community and the parish, and are in a privileged position to take note of the particular needs of their neighbors.

Whether or not a deacon directly is involved in Courage and EnCourage, his ministry surely will include evangelizing and catechizing the faithful about the divine plan for sexuality and marriage, as well as providing pastoral care for people who experience SSA — and for their loved ones. For each of these important aspects of the deacon’s ministry, Courage and EnCourage chaplains may provide important guidance.

The Ministry of Preaching and Teaching

The deacon is entrusted with proclaiming the word of God, both in liturgical preaching and in other opportunities for faith formation. A homily must often touch on the moral and social issues affecting the daily lives of parishioners, but when the subject is homosexuality or same-sex marriage, it is easy for a preacher to be intimidated by those who claim that to impart the teaching of the Church is inherently hurtful, even hateful. A conscientious preacher rejects this premise, because he is convinced that the Gospel is truly Good News, and that to share it fully brings joy, not sorrow (see, for example, Jn 8:32; Jn 15:10-11; 1 Jn 1:1-4).
Preaching begins with what Pope Francis calls “the proposal of the Gospel … the proclamation of salvation.” He writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you’” (No. 164).

A Plan for Human Relationships

In 2014, Pope Francis said this proclamation must include a presentation of God’s plan for humans and human relationships as “a great treasure … not only an asset but also a thing of beauty.” This plan can be summarized in a few points:

• Human dignity and the identity of the person come from the reality of being created in the image and likeness of God, and as man and woman.
• Being in the image of God means being capable of relationships, while being in the likeness of God means that human relationships must be like the relationships of the Persons of the Trinity, always a sincere gift of self. Sexual difference (complementarity) is created in order to facilitate this gift of self.

• Conjugal love — the lifelong, exclusive, faithful, fruitful union of a man and a woman in marriage — thus “becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man.” This love “is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes” and “is intended to be fruitful” by its openness to the transmission of human life (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1604).

• The divine plan for human relationships establishes marriage as the uniquely appropriate context for sexual intimacy.
• Those who do not enter into marriage nonetheless also are called to intimate, loving, fruitful relationships by exercising the virtues of chastity and friendship.

Beginning with this plan provides a context for addressing sexual sins, which are so prevalent and so casually accepted in modern society. “Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman” (CCC, No. 2360), and “sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes” (No. 2351). When the Church evaluates sexual desires or actions as disordered (not only homosexual actions but also adultery, fornication, pornography, masturbation and contracepted sex), it means that one or more of the essential elements of the plan or order of conjugal union — permanence, fidelity, complementarity and openness to procreativity — are inherently lacking in such actions. Teaching that some actions are disordered points to the order of creation that is truly fulfilling; when the Church or the preacher must say “no,” it always is so that they may point to a more meaningful “yes.”

Distinguishing the Person from Their Actions

The Church’s teaching makes important distinctions between the person who experiences SSA, the moral quality of those attractions and the morality of same-sex intimate actions. This is a distinction that every preacher should keep in mind, as he begins with the truth that the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, possesses an innate goodness and dignity. The Church, in the CDF’s letter to bishops, rejects labels that would define a person “by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation” (No. 16). As Pope Francis has noted in a published conversation with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, “People should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies” or desires.

These desires, affected as they are by concupiscence, the lingering effect of the original sin, prudently have to be evaluated according to where they are leading. Same-sex desires are “objectively disordered” according to the Catechism (see No. 2358) in the sense that they are desires for an action that always is immoral, but it is important to remember that “simply having the tendency is not a sin. … Consequently, the Church does not teach that the experience of homosexual attraction is in itself sinful,” according to a 2006 document on the pastoral care of homosexual persons by the USCCB.


Amoris Laetitia and Same-Sex Attraction

“The Church makes her own the attitude of the Lord Jesus, who offers his boundless love to each person without exception. During the synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same- sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives” (No. 250).


Sexual intimacy between people of the same sex always is gravely wrong, because these acts “are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity” (CCC, No. 2357). In other words, they lack the essential elements of fruitfulness and physical and spiritual complementarity that provide the context for truly conjugal acts.

Before a preacher effectively can present the Church’s teaching, he has to embrace it in his own life. If not, he will do more harm than good. His preaching will be unconvincing at best, if not misleading. Perhaps, worst of all, is an ambiguous or insincere treatment of the teaching of the Church, dismissing it as simply the official line, which can and should change to meet the demands of the moment. In its document, the CDF writes:

“Departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church’s position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve” (No. 15).

Welcoming and Accompanying the Person Who Experiences SSA

The pastoral care that the Church provides to people who are living with SSA begins with a sincere welcome in the name of Christ. Here the deacon, as he carries out his ministry of service, has a privileged place. The men and women who are striving to understand this experience in their lives, and God’s plan for them and for their hearts, are among the deacon’s neighbors, co-workers, friends and sometimes even in his own family.

As we have just seen in our consideration of the deacon’s role as minister of the Word of God, he best extends this welcome by “living the truth in love” as St. Paul exhorted (see Eph 4:15). The welcome he extends is the same offered by Jesus in the synagogue at Capernaum: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me,” he said, “and I will not reject anyone who comes to me” (Jn 6:37). He went on to say, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me” (Jn 6:45). As the deacon welcomes these brothers and sisters, he must also share with them the truth of the Gospel and accompany them as they strive to embrace it. The welcome is absolute, and it has a purpose: Each person is invited to draw close to hear the word and then to carry it out.

His own life of discipleship, whether he lives it in chaste fidelity to his wife or in chaste celibacy, allows a deacon to testify that “it would be a very serious error to conclude … that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’” (Veritatis Splendor, No. 103). Invariably, the person living with SSA will want to know, “What kind of future can I look forward to? What will my life be like if I try to follow God’s plan?” An important concept to communicate to them — again, one the deacon uniquely may be situated to communicate — is the rewarding reality of spiritual fatherhood or spiritual motherhood, not as consolation prizes or second-best love, but as a gift and a call from God to situate chaste love in the context of generous service to others.

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Pope St. John Paul II noted that “motherhood implies from the beginning a special openness to the new person: and this is precisely the woman’s ‘part.’ … Motherhood is linked to the personal structure of the woman and to the personal dimension of the gift” (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 18). This insight, that there is a specifically maternal way of loving and that it is connected to the “physical and personal structure” of the woman, leads to the conclusion that the desire and ability to love as a mother loves belongs innately to every woman. In the same way, an innate desire to love as a father loves is planted in the heart of every man. From this perspective one can understand how a chaste life — even one without sexual intimacy — is by no means a life without love. On the contrary, every person, whatever his or her sexual attractions may be, is called to live out this spiritual fatherhood or motherhood.

“We were all baptized into one body. … If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor 12:13, 26). The experience of our brothers and sisters who live with same-sex attractions affects the whole Body of Christ, and every Catholic is called to welcome and accompany them as we pursue holiness together. For a deacon to accept this common invitation and bring to bear his particular gifts and call as the servant of the community and of the family, speaking the truth in love with fidelity to the Church and compassion for each member of it, is an opportunity for an intensely rewarding moment of pastoral ministry.

FATHER PHILIP G. BOCHANSKI is executive director of Courage International.

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