What's So Wrong About 'Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin'? Lots.

As many folks know, Catholic magisterial teaching on homosexuality is not a simple and flat out condemnation.  The trickiness comes from the fact that Catholic teaching does not condemn a person’s homosexual orientation (though many documents do frame it negatively), but it also does not approve of same-gender sexual relationships.   The complication illustrates a basic conundrum in Catholic thought about homosexuality:  our social justice tradition tells us we must respect all people, while our sexual ethics tradition does not approve of any sexual relationship or activity outside of the context of a heterosexual marriage bond which is open to procreative possibility.

Unfortunately, this complexity of teaching has often been simplified into the common phrase “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”   There are so many reasons why such a description is offensive to LGBT people.  Recently, I read a blog post by a Protestant minister, Rev. John Pavlovitz, which offered three very succinct reasons the “Love the sinner, hate the sin” (LTSHTS) formulation is not a Christian response to anything, let alone something as personal and sensitive as sexual orientation and gender identity.  (You can read his entire blog post by clicking here.)

I’m going to review Rev. Pavlovitz’ three reasons, and then add a few of  my own.  I’ll also invite readers to share their thoughts.

Pavlovitz’ first reason is very basic:

  1. Jesus never said it. 

Though many people think the saying is Scriptural, and even a teaching of Christ, it is not.  Pavlovitz explains what Jesus did say about loving other people, and it doesn’t look anything like LTSHTS:

“Jesus was crystal clear in his teachings about our calling to love: God, and our neighbor as ourselves, one another as he loved us, our enemies, sacrificially, extravagantly, relentlessly—but never with caveats or qualifications. He never let anything about a person’s life keep them from intimate fellowship with him (and he was the only one qualified to do so). . . .

“His words were never given as license to police someone else’s moral condition, but to use a mirror to assess one’s own. Any behavior modification, any inner conviction, any heart change would be between Jesus and those hearing his words. Only he decides the work he does. We don’t get to play middleman between Christ and another human being. We are assigned the tasks of feeding, healing, and caring for those we cross paths with, in his name.”

His second reason is extremely pertinent to those concerned with LGBT issues:

2.  It’s cowardly and morally inconsistent.

By this he means that the phrase LTSHTS is generally used to justify discrimination:

“Let’s be honest here. Whenever any Christian uses the phrase LTSHTS, it’s never in the context of anything other than gender identity and sexuality. . . . It’s not as though they continually scour the Scriptures, applying their theological understandings of sin to those in their midst who might lie or steal or commit adultery or love money or drink to excess. If they truly lovedthose “sinners” and hated those “sins” enough to treat people as horribly as they treat the LGBTIQ community for the sins they charge them with, they’d have nobody left who could ever stand to be in their presence. . . .

“Hiding behind LTSHTS is just using Jesus as justification for the kind of behavior he would be quite appalled by. It isn’t Christlikeness, it’s cowardice.”

His third reason is one that is self-defeating to those who utter the phrase:

3. It’s a relationship-killer.

Pavlovitz notes that in uttering the phrase, the speaker cuts off any possibility of having a healthy relationship with the person or persons addressed:

“To say to a LGBTIQ person,’“I love you but I hate your sexuality,’ is the same as saying to someone, ‘I love you, but the color of your eyes disgusts me,’ or ‘I love you, but I hate the way you laugh,’ or ‘I love you, but God believes that the freckles on your shoulders and cheeks are an abomination.’

“LTSHTS is not (as its practitioners allege) a balanced phrase, but a hateful phrase; one that never makes a relationship between two parties better or closer or richer, it only severs or prevents the very kind of intimate fellowship Jesus forged, even with those he disagreed with. To utter it is to stand in complete opposition to the life he lived and to the ministry he practiced.”

Pavolvitz’ reasons are good, but a few more that I think need to be said to explain why this phrase is so offensive.  The first is that using the phrase can make the speaker forget that in fact, we are all–the speaker included–sinners, and that we all fall short of loving one another fully.

The second reason I would add comes from Pope Francis’ famous question:  “Who am I to judge?”  In using LTSHTS, the speaker has determined who sinners are and what their faults are.  No human can sit in that sort of judgement.   To do so risks throwing oneself into deep sin.  As Pavlovitz puts it:  “LTSHTS is about as sinful as we can get, friends.”

Most importantly, though, we need to remember that sexuality is not a sin.  Even the magisterial teachings confirm this claim.  Sexuality is a gift.  It encompasses a lot more than genital or other physical activity.  To say that one “loves” a person, but “hates” their sexuality, means that the speaker is viewing sexuality primarily as an act. It discounts the complexity of relationship involved.

And, in fact, isn’t the problem with the conundrum of church teaching describe in the introduction of this post? Catholic teaching’s split of person from act, accepting the former and condemning the latter, does damage to a more holistic understanding of sexuality–the understanding that most people experience in their lives.  Moreover, the magisterial formulation offers no understanding of relationship, which is the context for so much of human beings’ sexual activity. The teaching reduces sexuality to simple biological urges, foregoing any comprehension of the emotional and psychological gifts that are present in any sexual relationship.

What do you think about “Love the sinner, hate the sin”?  Offer your thoughts in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry



17 replies
  1. Brian Kneeland
    Brian Kneeland says:

    As long as our catechism uses phrases like “intrinsically disordered” the hierarchy will say love the sinner and hate the sin. They will continue speaking of freeing us from relationships as leading us to the promised land +(I don’t think I want to see that land!0

  2. Em
    Em says:

    I just read Pavlovitz’s article a few days ago and it shocked me to hear a Christian say that. I went to a Christian school, I attend church fairly regularly, and I’m a Christian myself, and yet, that was a totally new thing for me. Even my closest friends had used that phrase when I told them I was gay. I never knew quite why it hurt so much, and I never felt I had a valid reason to complain about it. But both Rev. Pavlovitz’s post and this blog post put it so well. It makes it feel as though something so intrinsic and unerasable about my existence is shameful and sinful, and it just hurts, plain and simple.

  3. Kathy S
    Kathy S says:

    This is an excellent commentary. One I will refer to in my conversation with two friends who have children who are gay who really do believe the “courage” approach. How does one “minister” to these folks? How does one let them know their words are hurtful to their children? One thought comes to my mind — and I want to better understand this in context — when Jesus meets the woman caught in adultery he says ” does no none condemn you? Then neither do I. Go and sin no more.” How does one deal with that type of an answer? It seems to justify LTSHTS.

    • Kathleen
      Kathleen says:

      Hi Kathy. I would like to try to respond to your question. To me, adultery means a married person betrays his/her spouse and dishonors their covenant relationship. Jesus Teaches us to honor our committments with one another. As far as i know, jesus never spoke of homosexual relationships, only about loving God the Father and each other. Just as Jesus blessed heterosexual marriages, I trust he would have blessed same sex marriages if they had been allowed back then in his time. The point jesus seems to make in “sin no more” speaks to the importance of the marital relationship that it requires committment and fidelity to receive Gods blessings. It is something truly wonderful that loving same sex couples can be married and receive the blessings intended for all of us in marriage.

    • richardjclarkson
      richardjclarkson says:

      Kathy , Our unquestioning reliance on the Bible and tradition must change , must evolve , as the centuries come and go . Galileo was almost burned at the stake because he publicly argued that the Earth was not the center of the universe . My hero , St. Thomas More , believed that an unrepentant heretic should be burned -at-the-stake (from earthly fire to eternal flames of Hell ) . These are but two examples out of hundreds of examples . St. John-Paul II said that Hell is not a place in our space-time continuum . Dante and his seven levels of Hell were a creative myth . Two days ago , we celebrated the Assumption of Mary’s body and soul into Heaven . Where do you imagine her body is being preserved in or outside our universe ? At the time our Church was founded , eunuchs were not allowed into the Jewish temple . In our New Testament , the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized by one of the founding apostles . Things have advanced so much , that women such as yourself can publicly speak and ask questions . You no longer have to keep your head covered or your mouth shut . The act of murder is not sinful if it occurs during war . We recently remembered the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombing if Hiroshima and Nagasaki . The man that was convicted of murdering all those people in a Colorado movie theatre was first tried on whether or not he was insane . If so , he could not be guilty . The same questions apply to the issue of whether or not a LGBT person who lives in a monogamous relationship is in an intrinsically disordered one. The Old Testament lists some 67 or 68 kinds of activities as “abominations ” . Very few of those are considered abominations today . If LGBT inclinations are part of the human genome then such persons are as “intrinsically disordered ” as a person born a negro , or a person born with blond hair or blue eyes . I remember when the archbishop of New Orleans ordered all Catholic schools desegregated , there was a terrible public backlash . The Catholic picketers claimed that desegregation was sinful because black people (though they often used a harsher word0 were descendants of the lost tribe of Ham . I wonder which catechists taught them that bit of southern ” Christian ” lore ? What is sinful is blind adherence to old hatreds . This year , Poland ( the most Catholic of nations ) celebrates the seventieth anniversary of the closing by the Allies of the Jewish Death Camps . If you want to read something that will fill you with shame , read the papal encyclicals accusing the Jewish people of being “Christ killers ” and forbidding Polish Catholics to have anything to do with Jews . Hate taught by the Church has its consequences . Even today , Poland is filled with anti-Semitism . As Catholics , we must rely on our well-informed consciences and fight hatred and discrimination with our last breath . I believe Pope Francis is on our side .

  4. jono113
    jono113 says:

    The problem with the woman in adultery story is the last sentence: “Go and sin no more.” Catholic teaching is very clear that gay sex is a sin. What’s more, it is intrinsically evil; that is, there is no circumstance under which it can not be sinful. Therefore, all sexual minorities are condemned to celibacy. That’s not helpful.

  5. Mary
    Mary says:

    I have heard this phrase and it has been said to my son. To me it says: if you live as your true authentic self, I will hate your truth; but if you deny your true authentic self I will love your lie. If gay people live a lie pretending to be straight, the Catholic church will love them. But if gay people live in their truth openly and live as they were created, the Catholic church will condemn them.

  6. Stevie
    Stevie says:

    The article is well done, and LTSHTS is almost always received as rude. And for something to be “sin” it has to cross three thresholds: It has to be wrong. The person has to know (agree that) it is wrong. And it has to be freely done. Jesus clearly tell us to not judge others for only God has all the data needed to judge another.

  7. Thomas smith
    Thomas smith says:

    An anomaly is never an “abomination.” Think of an albino tiger, or triplets. Different isn’t wrong. It’s simple. And simply unbelievable that church scholars are so ignorant of basic natural facts.

  8. FR Anthony
    FR Anthony says:

    Great article. The whole Catholic teaching on sexuality needs to be rethought. Gay sex is right for a gay person. It is not wrong. I think that is Biblical. Children were needed at that time to take care of their parents and carry on the lineage. So sex without children was wrong like Onan ism. The time and needs of the Iron Age have changed and so should the understanding.

  9. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    Important article to share with faith communities. This phrase is the worst phrase ever because it is so judgmental and so easily replicated. I remember hearing it all of the time in “faith” contexts applying to a number of different topics relating to intimacy for people of both heterosexual and homosexual orientation. As a young person, it was such a weird concept to hear. It rests on the assumption that people should be ashamed for their feelings, which Jesus would never advocate. I remember young people throwing this phrase around without an understanding of the deep immoral and hurtful implications it contained. How traumatic for both hearers and users of these words. It is way past time for Church teaching on sexuality to change. Such harmful language is simply not tolerated anymore.

  10. paulaczech@comcast.net
    [email protected] says:

    Let’s translate that another way.  For example: “It’s ok to have a rose bush in your garden but you are not allowed to let it bloom.”  How much sense does that make?     Paula Mattras

    • Thomas Smith
      Thomas Smith says:

      Yeah I always thought it was like….It’s OK to be thirsty (for intimacy and love), but there is NO WATER for you to drink! OR… As Jesus said, “Who would give his child a snake when he/she asks for a loaf of bread?”

    • Thomas Smith
      Thomas Smith says:

      Whoops, did not mean to misquote the Jewish Carpenter. I believe it was a rock for bread and a snake for a fish. But y’all get the point. Let them starve! Very UnChrist-like.

  11. Joey Newton
    Joey Newton says:

    Referring to the question about the woman taken in adultery and “…go and sin no more” – I think we often miss one of the finer points in Jesus’ messages. From OUR perspective, we think Jesus is emphasizing her sin. From HIS perspective, Jesus is showing her a sample of grace before grace was an accomplished fact. He is also showing grace to the stone throwers. Under the law, she and the adulterer were to be stoned to death on the spot. Under grace, she is advised to sin no more. Jesus showed the crowd grace as well. For, they each one should have been stoned to death, for they were all sinners. But His grace allowed their consciences to work and retreat from their condemnation.

    Here is the priceless message we often miss:

    Jesus does not emphasize the sin; He defends the defenseless, not IN their sin, but BECAUSE of their sin.

    “loving the sinner, hating the sin,” is one of those “cutesy” but unbiblical sayings, right along with, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

    God is not the author of those self-serving masks.


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