While most people are familiar with Janet E. Smith because of her work to clarify the Church’s teaching on contraception, she has recently expanded her focus to include those with same-sex attraction and those who minister to them.
Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, has teamed up with Courage, the international Catholic apostolate ministering to those with same-sex attraction, to organize a conference entitled “Welcoming and Accompanying Our Brothers and Sisters With Same-Sex Attraction,” to be held August 10-12 in Plymouth, Michigan.
The event is designed for bishops, priests, religious, school superintendents, and diocesan personnel who minister to those with same-sex attraction. It is also open to friends and family of those with SSA who want to learn more about supporting their loved ones.
Conference speakers include Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop Allen Vigneron, Courage Executive Director Father Paul Check, Teresa Tomeo, Ralph Martin, and others, under the theme “Love One Another as I Have Loved You.”
Smith, who has written and edited several books, including The Right to Privacy and Why Humanae Vitae Was Right, spoke with CWR about the motivation behind the event and how working with same-sex attraction issues is not such a stretch from her previous work on contraception.
CWR: What motivated you and the other conference organizers to pull this event together?
Janet E. Smith: Courage has been working on devising and employing good pastoral approaches to those who experience same-sex attraction for decades. I have been speaking on the issue for years and have been impressed with the work of Courage. Several of us who follow same-sex issues closely were a bit dismayed at the interim report of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. While we certainly agree that there should be no unjust discrimination against those with same-sex attraction, the interim report seemed to treat same-sex attraction too much as something that in itself brings gifts. We certainly believe that those who experience SSA have wonderful gifts, but that SSA in itself is not a source of gifts, though experience of dealing with it can be. We also thought that certain movements concerning same-sex issues come perilously close to treating same-sex attraction as another “gender.” When we saw that the lineamenta for the [October 2015] synod asked that people devise good pastoral approaches, we thought we had something to offer. The documents associated with the synod don’t seem to convey any awareness that some good pastoral practices have been developed.
We decided to put on a conference and also to publish the talks. We wanted to do something comprehensive, something that would explain the authentic Christian anthropology that underlies the Church’s teaching. We wanted to have those who have worked closely with those who experience same-sex attraction by offering them spiritual and psychological counseling explain their techniques and goals. Most of their work is directed to underlying issues rather than to the same-sex attraction itself. Essential to our project was to hear from those who experience same-sex attraction and have committed themselves to a lifetime of seeking holiness. Those stories are delightfully and sometimes perplexingly diverse and altogether touching and inspiring. We also wanted an analysis of why our culture has become so accepting of same-sex relationships, and also wanted to provide some practical suggestions on how dioceses and parishes can educate the faithful about these issues.
A book entitled Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Issues is being published by Ignatius Press and will likely be available in early August of this year. We have more than 30 speakers for the conference. This volume includes only half of the essays; we hope that we will publish soon the additional essays, which are every bit as good.
We have been working under very tight deadlines to organize the conference and to publish a book (or two). It has been gratifying to see how people responded to the idea for the conference and the book. For instance, Archbishop Vigneron immediately approved of the idea and has been a great help, as has [Detroit Auxiliary] Bishop Michael Byrnes. Cardinal Collins from Toronto will be coming and Bishop Rhoades from Fort Wayne-South Bend is sending a large contingent. I have been very edified by the generous response from many very busy people who made time to work on essays, to edit essays, to see things through to production, to get everything ready for the conference. The Our Sunday Visitor Foundation gave us a very generous grant. I can only think the quick inclination to be a part of this stems from a love for those who experience SSA and a belief that the Church has much to offer, and that we in the Church have much to learn.
One feature of this conference/book is that many authors of the essays may be voices unknown to readers. There is a freshness to the presentations; there is nothing hackneyed or formulaic here. The authors are not naïve about the challenges that same-sex attraction presents, but they are convinced of the power of Christ to give us the graces to live the truth.
We know there are many people out there who want to be good friends to those who experience SSA; who want to walk with them in our mutual quest for holiness; who want to build loving communities with them. They do not want to sacrifice the truth to be loving, but rather are convinced that living in accord with truth is necessary for those seeking authentic love, happiness, and holiness. We don’t think we have the final solution and answers to all the questions raised about these issues, but we believe we have made a good start and that people who attend the conference and/or buy the book(s) will learn a great deal. We also hope to hold a conference in Rome before the Synod on the Family in October.
CWR: You are well known as a defender of the Church’s teaching about contraception. Have you turned your attention from contraception to SSA, or is there a connection between the two?
Smith: Maybe I have a pathological appetite for controversy?
I haven’t really turned my attention from contraception to SSA but extended my conviction that procreative power is a defining and wondrous feature of the sexual act. Much of my work (see particularly my talk Contraception: Why Not) explains how contraception has been devastating to relationships and our culture. The connections between contracepted heterosexual sex and homosexual “sexual acts” are real and help explain why the vast majority of the population that is basically heterosexual is willing to approve of same-sex relationships—desired only by about 2 percent of the population. Whether consciously or not, those who use contraception have come to think of “sex” as a recreational activity that need have no relationship to making babies or even to being an expression of love. If it is moral for heterosexuals to engage in non-procreative, uncommitted sexual acts, why shouldn’t it be moral for those with SSA to engage in non-procreative, uncommitted “sexual acts”?
I also simply and completely love the Church and its wisdom. I think many people in our culture are tremendously unhappy and misguided either because of their own choices regarding sexuality or the choices of others (such as their parents!), and I want to spread a truth that I think will help people find a true and everlasting happiness.
CWR: The deafening message from secular media is that same-sex attraction is a fixed state that, once actively embraced, leads to happiness. What’s wrong with this narrative?
Smith: What is wrong with it is that it is false to human nature and the experience of many of those who have same-sex attraction—both of those who are still active in the “gay” lifestyle and those who have chosen to live chastely. The life of every person is difficult; the lives of those who struggle with unwanted temptations that are challenging to control are especially difficult. Those who present any kind of rosy picture of life in general, and in particular of the lives of those with same-sex attraction who seek to find happiness in same-sex relationships, are not presenting true pictures. For males the amount of promiscuity often results in serious physical and psychological problems; for females the cycle of falling in love, trying to live together, and living with the heartbreak of breaking up can be devastating. Just as heterosexuals who do not live by the Church’s teaching are often putting a false face on their experiences, so too do many of those with same-sex attraction. That is why the testimonies of those who have left the “gay” life and are seeking holiness is so important. This is a testimony the media ignores or discounts.
CWR: What resources are available to those who want to offer solid pastoral care and/or the love of friendship to those who struggle with SSA?
Smith: Courage has a terrific set of materials. A very important tool is the artistic and moving film The Desire of the Everlasting Hills, which features the testimonies of three individuals who were in same-sex relationships but who have returned to the Church and found happiness there. It is a terrific tool for expanding the understanding of what various choices entail. Courage is also producing a series of videos on same-sex issues that will be a tremendous help for educators in teaching people about same-sex attraction.
CWR: What would you say to someone who sees nothing wrong with the “gay lifestyle,” either as a participant or outsider?
Smith: There is no pat statement that is suitable for every person: speaking to the active homosexual is very different from speaking to the confused teenager who does not experience SSA but who wants to accept his/her friend who does. Speaking to parents of a child with SSA presents its own challenges. Speaking to an atheist or agnostic is very different from speaking to a Christian. Speaking to a Christian knowledgeable about Scripture and respectful of Scripture is very different from speaking to one who interprets Scripture according to modern categories.
Most people who do not experience SSA but who are very favorable to same-sex relationships are favorable more out of compassion than out of a conviction that same-sex relationships are natural and good. They rightly sense that everyone is meant to love and be loved: thus they say things like “every one has a right to love whomever they want.” They don’t want their loved ones or anyone with SSA to live lives of loneliness. It is important to acknowledge the truth of the insight that life without love is unbearable and not true to human nature. But it is important to point out that there are many kinds of love and that most of them don’t and shouldn’t involve sexual expression. Parents and grandchildren love each other; brothers and sisters love each other; teachers and students love each other; and friends love each other, but none of these loves should be expressed sexually. Expressing love sexually is appropriate only for those who can participate in the full “meaning” of the sexual act, an act that includes affirmation of the complementary difference between the two sexes and the orientation to new life that belongs in sexual expression.
Many people—especially those who think God makes people homosexual—start to waver in their approval of same-sex relationships when they are provoked to think about why God would have given homosexuals the same genitals as heterosexuals, genitals that don’t “fit” well and cannot enable homosexuals in their sexual “acts” either to achieve complementary unity or to be the source of new life. Both in the divine economy and in the theory of evolution, same-sex “sexual acts” (they cannot be called “intercourse”) find no intelligible place.
At the same time, we must be adamant that we do not want our brother and sisters who experience same-sex attraction to be lonely and unloved. We need to be their friends and companions and welcome them into a warm circle of loving friends and family.