A Question of Language: ‘Same-Sex Attraction’ vs. ‘Gay or Lesbian’

The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) recently featured an interview with Fr. Philip Bochanski, the new director of Courage, a ministry which promotes celibacy as the only path for gay and lesbian Catholics.  The article states that the priest reported that “the organization feels supported by Pope Francis’ encouragement to accompany those ‘with same-sex attraction’ on their spiritual journeys.”  Bochanski is quoted as saying that Francis’ language of accompaniment, “is very useful for us. It recognizes the approach we take.”

Fr. Philip Bochanski

It is noteworthy that Courage is taking direction in their pastoral work from Pope Francis, who is seen by many as having initiated on new openness on LGBT issues in the Church.  But, as the NCR article points out, the leadership of Courage does not follow Pope Francis when it comes to language about LGBT issues. The reporter stated:

“[The Courage] approach includes using a language that some might consider arcane. Unlike Francis, Courage does not use the term ‘gay, preferring the phrase ‘same-sex attraction.’ Still, the pope’s Amoris Laetitia apostolic exhortation on the family also uses the more formal same-sex attraction language.”

The language difference is not insignificant.  First of all,  for many gay and lesbian people, the term “same-sex attraction” is offensive because it does not adequately describe themselves or their personal experiences.   To call someone “a person with same-sex attraction” sounds very much like referring to someone who has a disease or condition which is different than the natural way that things should be.   Gay and lesbian people, however, do not experience their sexual identities as something irregular, but as something natural to themselves.

When Jesuit Father James Martin received New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award last autumn, he noted in his acceptance speech that the Catechism calls people to treat lesbian and gay people with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.  He noted that it is a sign of respect to address people in the way in which they identify themselves.  Fr. Martin elaborated:

“. . . [R]espect means calling a group what it asks to be called. On a personal level, if someone says, ‘I prefer to be called Jim instead of James,’ you naturally listen. It’s common courtesy. And it’s the same on a group level. We don’t say ‘Negroes’ any longer. Why? Because that group feels more comfortable with other names: ‘African-Americans’ or ‘blacks.’ . . . Everyone has the right to tell you their name.

“Names are important. Thus, church leaders are invited to be attentive to how they name the L.G.B.T. community and lay to rest phrases like “afflicted with same-sex attraction,” which no L.G.B.T. person I know uses, and even “homosexual person,” which seems overly clinical to many. . . .And if Pope Francis can use the word gay, so can the rest of the church.”

In the NCR article, Bochanski is quoted as saying “A person is not defined by a sexual orientation.”  But referring to oneself as gay or lesbian does not mean that one defines oneself by that designation.  It is merely descriptive of one feature of person’s constitution.  If a man describes himself as “a tall guy,”  it doesn’t mean that he defines himself by his height.

Another problem with the use of the “same-sex attraction” language is that for many people it actually seems to emphasize sexual activity more than “gay” or “lesbian” do.  Many gay and lesbian people view their identities as being about so much more than their attractions, which is only one part of their sexuality.  Their sexual identities are also about their relationships, emotions, and personal interactions.  Their sexual identities also have a social dimension, by which I mean that lesbian and gay people have often been made to feel different or stigmatized in mainstream culture which is predominantly heterosexual.

For the NCR article, I was asked about the difference between New Ways Ministry and Courage:

” ‘The difference in approach has less to do with celibacy and more to do with the understanding of sexual orientation,’ he said.  New Ways Ministry sees gay orientation as a gift from God, not a problem that needs to be overcome, said DeBernardo.

” ‘Courage has often taken a 12-step approach to sexual orientation, seeing it as a defect in a person. We don’t believe that is an authentically helpful response.’ “

In one respect that difference is encapsulated in the difference between the terms “a person with same-sex attraction” and “a gay or lesbian person.”

The good news from this article is that Courage has officially separated itself from reparative therapy.  The reporter stated:

“Courage has evolved, taking a different position on what some call reparative therapy, through which gays are encouraged to become heterosexual. In the 1990s, Courage literature was encouraging, stating, ‘for those who really want it, reparative growth is a possibility and happens regularly.’ “

“Courage is now officially neutral on reparative therapy which, while popular in some evangelical Christian circles, is controversial in the wider counseling community.”

Even better than remaining neutral on the topic would be for Courage to condemn it outright since it has proven to be pastorally and psychologically harmful for so many people.

The article also noted another development in Courage’s policy:

“Bochanski said he is open to discussion with other ministries to Catholic gays, including New Ways Ministry, an organization which holds that gays can be sexually active and still maintain their Catholic faith. But the difference in approach makes such dialogue difficult, he said.”

It is good to know that Courage is open to dialogue.  We here at New Ways Ministry would welcome such an opportunity.  We do not see that our differences would make dialogue difficult.  Dialogue is, after all, precisely about differences.  We believe dialogue would help us understand one another better, and help our organizations minister more effectively to LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 11, 2017



12 replies
  1. mrnickvirga
    mrnickvirga says:

    Celibacy is a gift that not everyone has received. It’s ridiculous to think that just because you’re gay,you must have received this gift/calling.
    These 19th century arguments and the weak reasoning. My Catholic faith is beyond it.
    The Saints in Heaven are beyond it as is God.
    You don’t create the Sun and then have an issue with a loving and monogamous gay couple who happen to be sexually intimate.

  2. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    Thank you Francis! Your article/commentary on the Courage piece are insightful and right on! Fr. James Martin’s comments on how people want to be named are also true as well. Dialogue with Courage and indeed the Vatican et. al. should start with the acceptance of sexual orientation which the Vatican is reluctant to use. Like all change in the Church, though, we can’t wait for it as in holding our breath until the church authorities come around. We must live our lives with courage (sic) pun intended!!! I see your work in New Ways Ministry as a prime example of this. We are not going away and we will be heard. Dialogue will only confirm this!

  3. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Courage lacks just that; the courage to be themselves. They operate as a mystery, not in the open or welcoming. Christ said he came that we might have not just life, but abundant life.

  4. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    I sincerely appreciate the essay on the concern about the term, same-sex attraction as initially I didn’t understand why the term was offensive. It focuses on an action and not the entire personhood. This is a significant shift in Catholic moral theology, i.e., moving from act-centered to person-centered morality.
    One concession I think we might consider in an attempt for respectful dialogue and that is reference to sexual activity. I think we stopgate a possible dialogue when we include sexual activity apart from a committed, faithful, monogamous relationship. Straight, gay, trans, sexual intimacy has to mean more than just sexual activity. That’s why recognizing marriage equality is so important, i.e., marriage is a sexual, spiritual, emotional, social, psychological union.
    Words matter. Thanks for reading.

  5. Thomas Smith
    Thomas Smith says:

    Thanks. We do not need to recover from a “condition”, avoid an “inclination”, or fear a “tendency”. Our “agenda” is the Christian agenda… Same as most Catholics.

    When Courage came to speak to our Deacon formation classes, the archdiocesan director said, (and I quote) “No one attends our meetings. Courage seems irrelevant to Gay Catholics.” That says it all.

    Language IS so important when we seek to dialogue, as Francis has suggested, with respect for the dignity of the person. And (BTW) some languages are not spoken. People still call the Deaf “hearing-impaired”, denying their full personhood and confining their identity to one disability. We all,have disabilities. But our gay identity is NOT one of them, nor is Deafness. Pride (as Isaac Dineson defines it) is belief in the idea God had when He created you. Deaf people have chosen to embrace their Deafhood simply as a linguistic/cultural difference, not a disability, an “impairment”. Gay Catholics, similarly, embrace our full identity not as an affliction, but as a gift… A differentiation.

    Those in power who choose to continue to use limiting and inaccurate language despite the messages from those who live the reality of their personhood with pride, are showing disrespect and fear, not obeying Pope Francis.

  6. miriamtf
    miriamtf says:

    Would New Ways and its followers be opposed to forever leaving Catholic Christian same-sex monogamous, life-time unions at the same level of blessing as members of religious orders who have not received any sacrament of Orders? In other words, the union would be non-sacramental, but honored. I know some profoundly yearn for open opportunity for the Sacrament of Orders to any gender, but I’d like to leave that as a separate matter of discussion. Thanks to all.

    • Leo
      Leo says:

      Below is a link to Courage’s page about the 12 steps. The following is my own interpretation of them.

      The first three steps are about acknowledging that you are weak and broken and powerless to change on your own. The next four are about internalizing and reinforcing how shameful and sinful it really is to be gay. The next two are about apologizing and making amends to homophobes for being gay and acting accordingly, and really emphasize that self-destructive and irresponsible behaviours associated with having sex you’re ashamed of are entirety the fault of gay people themselves, and not the internalized homophobia that their families and the church place on them (sometimes with 12 step programs that trivialize our needs to love and be loved romantically by equating them to a craving for a needle full of smack or a bottle of booze!). Step 10 reminds us that we are responsible for cultivating and maintaining our unresolvable shame and self loathing, every day, for the rest of our lives. Step 11 is about manifesting that shame in acts of self mortification, prayer, and fasting, and step 12 is about proseletyzing this gospel of inherent and irredeemable sexual brokenness to other gay people, in order to drag them into the same eviscerating and dangerous internal dissonance that the church has labelled – in Orwellian fashion – “inner freedom.”

      You can find the 12 steps here if you want them unfiltered by my bitter editorializing:


  7. Catholicboyrichard
    Catholicboyrichard says:

    Reblogged this on Catholic Boy Richard and commented:
    I respect the work of New Ways Ministry. I do not find myself on the same theological page as them. I also do not see myself as “gay,” even though I am SSA (same sex attracted) and always expect to be so. I find this article intriguing in that the very thing that began moving me in that direction was, in fact, the reason the writer of this article is against that terminology–the idea that we are more than our sexuality and are people of dignity in the eyes of God, whatever our orientation. And that is not the center of our lives. He is.


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