Voices of Courage: Catholics with same-sex attraction speak about chastity, isolation, and finding freedom

Courage goals (Illustration and infographic by Inca Siojo, The B.C. Catholic - CCN)

By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic
(*Surnames withheld by request)

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Grace* never stays in one church for long.

One Sunday, she might make a trip into Vancouver’s downtown core to blend into the crowds at Holy Rosary Cathedral. The next week, she’ll look up the Mass times for another parish.

She chooses anonymity in fear of the rejection and shame she expects to face if people find out her secret: Grace experiences same-sex attraction.

“My faith is very important to me. I’m Catholic, I was baptized as a baby, and I’ve gone to church all my life,” Grace told The B.C. Catholic.

She is also attracted to women, a fact she has worked hard to hide over decades. She yearned to be active in a Catholic parish, but feared the inevitable questions from near strangers at church functions: do you have a boyfriend? Are you married? Why not?

Taboo topic

It’s not easy to start conversations in the church about LGBTQ issues. Ask Deacon Hilmar Pabel, who has been yelled at by people who misunderstand the Church’s teaching on same-sex attraction, who say the Church hasn’t gone far enough to accept everyone, or who are unwilling to discuss the issue at all.
It’s a taboo subject, he admits, but “I’m not shy about talking about it.”

Deacon Pabel heads the Vancouver chapter of Courage, an international Catholic ministry for people with same-sex attraction. It was founded 40 years ago in Manhattan and landed in the Archdiocese of Vancouver in 1988.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “homosexual acts” are not “approved” and calls on Catholics with same-sex attraction to live in chastity, striving for inner freedom through prayer, self-mastery, friendship, and seeking God’s will in their lives.

The Catechism also says people with same-sex attraction “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

In light of this teaching, Courage founders established five goals for its members to live by: chastity, prayer, fellowship, support, and living lives that serve as good examples to others. Participation is voluntary. Members are not asked to change their orientations.

Deacon Pabel said he’s made it his mission to raise awareness of Courage and to start conversations in the Church that few others are willing to start.

“This is not a ministry to keep in the basement of a church. There are people who are lonely and hurting and this should not be hidden.”

Keeping it secret

For Grace, secrecy started taking her down a dangerous path.

“It weighs heavy on your psyche, on your mind, and on your spirit. It’s not healthy. It pushed me that I have to do something or I’ll go crazy, I’ll get sick, I might even want to kill myself. These are the consequences that would happen if I do not deal with it and come to face with it.”

So in 2003, Grace sought someone to talk to. Afraid of being exposed to someone she recognized, she went outside the Catholic church, to a multi-denominational Christian ministry in Vancouver at the time.

“I was anxious and afraid to ask for help,” she said.

After the group helped her become more comfortable with talking about the issue, she found out about Courage and gathered the strength to give the leading chaplain a call.

That was 15 years ago. Now, Grace said she has found some inner peace, but still hops from one church to the next for Mass in fear of being ostracized.

She is not alone. All members of Courage who recently agreed to speak with The B.C. Catholic about their experiences with Church and same-sex attraction said one of their single biggest challenges is acute loneliness.

“The challenge of being gay is you are all alone,” said Dennis*, who experiences isolation despite being an active member of his parish.

“A community that is able to encourage you, or somebody who can actually relate to you, that’s one thing I have been missing.”

Dennis kept secret his attraction to men, until he found the isolation too much to bear. One year ago, while surfing the internet looking for some Catholic resources, he discovered Courage.

Courage has five chapters in Canada. Deacon Pabel took over the Vancouver chapter in 2016 and, by offering spiritual direction, regular group meetings, and preaching on the subject, has seen the number of members increase by 15.

A third option

Rachel* realized she was attracted to women while in high school. She confided in one family member, who responded with compassion and told her it was a phase that would pass.

Now in her twenties, Rachel has realized it was not “just a phase.” She can trace the beginnings of same-sex attraction to her childhood and expects it may be with her for the rest of her life.

“The loudest voices are ‘all gays go to hell’ or ‘love who you love.’ It’s only two extreme arguments. So people who want to be faithful, but also can’t deny that they have same-sex attraction, are very stuck in the middle, and it is a very tight spot,” she said.

“If you join the gay culture, because of your faith you’re going to be ostracized for not being gay enough. Or ‘you’re just judging us; you think you’re higher above us because you have a religion; you’re not really loving who you love; you’re not living the true gay lifestyle.’”

On the other side, she said, “you have people [in the Church] closing off any discussion with you and you have to tell them, ‘I’m not involved in relationships, I don’t support this lifestyle, and I didn’t choose these attractions. None of us do.’”

Rachel feels pressured to start dating and find a husband.

“There’s also this option: you don’t have to be married. That’s one of the main pressures of the LGBTQ same-sex attraction debate: the right to get married. At the deepest heart of it, it’s because we all want intimacy and we grow up knowing that kind of intimacy is only in marriage. But to learn that intimacy can be found in friendships and doesn’t have to be physical or sexual in nature, it’s very freeing. There is an alternative.”

Vincent* knows that pressure well. He tried to keep his attraction to men a secret, but his efforts to strike a balance with his faith and his attractions eventually burst. He began living life with one foot in the Church and the other foot in a lifestyle he had been trying hard to avoid.

“I came out to my friends and they welcomed me with open arms. It was a beautiful testimony, that they accepted me for that part of who I am. But there was also a caveat: ‘Therefore you will live this way. That’s the way we think you should live because we think (this is the way) you will be happy as an authentically gay person.’”

Vincent responds, “But maybe our identity is tied up to more than our sexuality. It’s who we are in God’s eyes. That’s our real, authentic self.”

It took him seven years to realize, “I was never satisfied.” He feared that turning back to his Catholic faith would leave him a loner, but he took a leap and contacted Courage, the only resource he could find.

“All of those stories I created in my mind were debunked quite quickly. I felt a sense of community and connection,” he said.

“Really what Courage is doing is creating a space to allow us to live what the Church teaches in its fullness. That’s what sanctity is all about, right?”

Family members are missing

Isolation and misunderstanding are only a few trials Catholics with same-sex attraction are facing today, and alone. One person interviewed by The B.C. Catholic said through tears that a man molested him when he was only a few years old, a trauma he still can’t bring himself to tell family members.

Another said she feels the need to be vigilant even in the Church; on several occasions women who perceived her as having same-sex attraction have touched her inappropriately.

“I’ve been involved in church, and some of them are very loving. They understand me, respect me, and love me, but there are some who know my issue and they avoid me,” said Grace.

She suspects this is why a number of people in the gay community describe themselves as former Christians: they have been driven out of their faith communities by suspicion, chastisement, or mistrust.

“The Church is supposed to be the family of God. There are many missing family members of God who are same-sex attracted.”

To show love to these missing family members, Grace suggests starting with the basics.

“Just look at the person you know who is same-sex attracted as made in the image of God. Start there first. Don’t go into controversial issues or tell them they can change. Our focus, each one of us, whether you are straight or gay, is that we are God’s children and God wants us to know him. He knows us and he loves us,” she said.

“I have to know that God loves me and created me, and start from there. Many of us, our self-image is so low and poor. We don’t need to have more negative ideas about us.”

Vincent has one request: “Pray for us, love us, and know what the Church teaches.”

As for people with same-sex attraction who are suffering alone in their secrets, shame, and fear of judgment from the people next to them in the pews, Dennis has some advice: “Always seek God, look for him. Because he will never leave you alone … If you seek God, he will reveal himself to you. Constantly look for him, look for guidance, and you can never be wrong.”

More information is available at www.rcav.org/courage-encourage.