This was an extremely hard post to write, though its premise is a simple one. I sat in front of my laptop for about five minutes without typing a letter, trying to work up the courage to start. (Despite the fact that this top section is substantially shorter than the part after the asterisks, the top part is the main note. The bottom part is essentially a clarifying appendix.)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following in its paragraphs about homosexuality (2357-2359):
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant attraction to members of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They 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. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
Some of my readers may have gone through that and thought it a pretty balanced, unexceptionable statement of traditional Christian beliefs on the subject. Others may have been unable to finish the first paragraph due to disagreement, anger, pain, or shame.
I do not propose, here, to argue with either side. I believe the teaching of the Church, and that firmly, but the purpose of this post is not to discuss that. Below is an analysis of the text, which I hope clarifies parts of it -- much Catholic terminology has the misfortune of seeming to coincide with normal English but not actually doing so. But the chief purpose of the quotation is that this is one of the things that forms the backdrop to the whole experience of being gay and Catholic. Try to sympathize; that is, to put this doctrine in a personal rather than an abstract context. Try, heterosexual reader, to imagine believing all of this, not about somebody else, but about yourself. If your imagination fails you, try this as an aid:
Heterosexuality refers to relations between men and women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the opposite sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents heterosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "heterosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
Now: how do you feel? How will you live?
* * *
What follows is basically an appendix, purely for purposes of clarification. In explaining what the Catholic Church is stating here (to the best of my ability), I am not setting forth an apologetic for that belief; that is a task worth doing, but it is not what I am at the moment aiming to do. For that reason, on this post specifically, I will make no reply to comments arguing against -- or for -- the Church's teaching; they are germane to the subject, obviously, but they will sidetrack my purpose, and I'm having a difficult time focusing that purpose as it is. I won't suppress such comments either, except on the same grounds that I would suppress any comment, i.e. abusiveness, total irrelevance, or gobs of crazy.
1. Note the Church's definition of the term homosexuality: she defines it specifically as involving sexual relations, not simply as a general disposition. Sexual orientation is a modern term for a comparatively modern concept (dating, roughly, to the nineteenth century); not that it wasn't known before then that some men had a general and lifelong preference for other men, or women for women, but that it wasn't thought of as making you a different kind of thing. For this reason, when the Church (using the term) talks about homosexuality, she doesn't have persons in mind -- only actions. This may not be a useful or a clear way of speaking; or then again it may. In any case it is what she in fact means.
2. The phrase grave depravity probably makes it sound like the Catholic Church regards gay sex as a uniquely evil thing. This isn't the case. Depravity, though it is more rhetorical and therefore sounds more severe, is simply one of the synonyms for "sin" used by the Church. It therefore doesn't in itself say where on the scale of seriousness something lies, between torturing someone to death and enjoying caustic thoughts about them.
The term grave doesn't change this. Being derived from the Latin, it is used in Catholic terminology as a synonym for "serious" and an antonym for unimportant; as taking a nickel that a coworker has left lying on his desk is probably unimportant, but taking five dollars would be serious (not as serious as stealing his paycheck, but serious nonetheless -- it's his money, for one thing, and he might need it for another). For comparison, masturbation, which is an extremely common sin that the Church spends little time fulminating against, is equally termed by the Catechism "an intrinsically and gravely disordered action."
3. Intrinsically disordered, like objectively disordered a few lines further down, has probably caused more anguish than the rest of the Church's language put together. To clarify: intrinsically is being opposed to accidentally; so, on Catholic premises, a man lusting for a woman who is not his wife is accidentally misdirected, because there's nothing perverse about wanting a woman, but that desire is supposed to be fulfilled between husband and wife only. In principle, the woman our theoretical man is lusting after might have been his wife, and that circumstance would be relevant. Conversely, there aren't any circumstances (according to the Church's teaching) in which the desire of a man for a man could be morally fulfilled, and so the misdirection lies in the desire as such.
Likewise, objectively is frequently taken to mean "as any sane person can see," perhaps influenced by frequent Christian talk about objective truth. That isn't what the Church is driving at here at all. It has, rather, to do with what the Church says is misdirected about the desire: its object. Wanting to have sex, just as such, isn't wrong (it is, indeed, too amorphous to be wrong, or right). It is the specific object (someone of the same sex, either in general or in particular) that the Church considers problematic.
Lastly, disordered. This single word has probably been the worst element in the Church's PR on the subject of homosexuality; I don't know whether it can be avoided, for philosophical reasons, but those philosophical reason bear explaining. The Church speaks of desires as being ordered to an end; the language derives, I think, from Aristotle. A synonymous phrase would be that desires are directed to a goal. That is why, in the preceding paragraphs, I spoke of direction and misdirection, rather than of order and disorder. In theological language, the word disordered does not have the psychiatric associations it does in the English vernacular.
None of this is an argument. And none of it makes the Catechism palatable -- certainly not to me. However, it does explain the difference between the Church saying (or meaning to say), "You want something you ought not to want," and the world hearing (or thinking it hears), "You're a sick lunatic."
4. Natural law deserves a much more thorough treatment than I am about to give it here. Since homosexual behavior does occur in nature, and since the phrase "law(s) of nature" occurs more or less exclusively in scientific contexts today, most people read this as simply an instance of blatant disregard for what, you know, actually happens, on the Church's part. But natural law theory, which is what she is citing, is quite different. It is another philosophical phrase that the Church has derived ultimately from Aristotle. To begin with, theology has in mind humanity specifically, not material existence in general; in addition, the kind of law that the phrase natural law here signifies is along the lines of a law to pay taxes, not the law of gravity. Defiance of the law of gravity isn't something that happens -- the most someone can do is attempt to defy the law of gravity; but people can and do violate the laws of taxes. Natural law, in the Catholic sense, is a law that commands but does not control.
A laughably short summary of the Catholic doctrine is that the sexual act is meant to be open to life, and that acts which either deliberately obstruct that possibility (contraception) or aren't capable of being open to it (homosexuality, masturbation, and some others) are therefore morally out of court, as separating the act of sex from its meaning. It doesn't follow from this that people who engage in these sorts of sexual acts always do so from the same motives, but good intentions, while crucially important, are not by themselves adequate from this perspective.
5. The genuine affective and sexual complementarity is a topic I am not entirely fitted to address; my understanding of gender is fairly imperfect. I will therefore confine myself to saying that the Church regards gender as being something that is objectively true about a person, with an inherent significance, regardless of variations of personality and self-presentation (St. Joan of Arc is a good example of a very unconventional gender-presentation). The complementarity under discussion here is not simply getting along, nor even being well-suited to one another as companions, but something woven into gender and sex themselves; I suspect that it has a spiritual and mystical character, not least from Ephesians 5, but I've come to the edge of my comprehension of the subject here.
6. The second and third paragraphs, read thus in isolation, could leave the impression that the Church expects chastity of LGBT people more sternly than of straight people; or that it requires us to be celibate; or both. Of the former, this impression can be corrected by reading those parts of the Catechism addressed to heterosexual intercourse. No one is exempted from Christian perfection.
As for LGBT people being called to chastity, that isn't necessarily incompatible with marriage. It is quite true that the Catholic Church will only recognize a marriage between a man and a woman (and there are further modifiers which need not detain us just now), but, if they freely choose to do so, a gay person is just as welcome to enter such a marriage as anybody else. They may not be much consoled by this, and I can't blame them (us, really); I am concerned only to indicate that the thing being required is the same for everyone -- not that some of the people of whom it's being required haven't got a pretty raw deal. Also, to distinguish properly between chastity and celibacy. Celibacy is only one form of chastity, for chastity means simply the integration of chastity into the whole human person, in part achieved by and resulting in the practice of sexual virtue. The thing is, for a married person, having sex can be sexual virtue. A wife could have sex more often (and probably with more pleasure) than a prostitute and be, not just alongside but in that very fact, highly chaste.