“Ask a Priest: How do I respond to a teenager who questions Church teaching on same sex marriage?”

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Q: How would you best respond to a teenager’s questioning the Church’s opposition to gay marriage? -S.O.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: In the first place, whenever teenagers ask questions related to the faith, it is extremely important that they feel fully listened to. They are beginning to feel the power of their reason, and we can help them integrate that power into their lives in a healthy way by showing that we respect it.

One way to assure them that you are really listening to what they have to say is by responding to their question with a question. For instance, “Well, how do you understand what the Church teaches about this issue?” or “Is this something you have been thinking about for a while, or did it come up in a conversation at school?” Get them talking as much as possible about what they are really thinking and feeling, and only then offer some specific answers. After listening to them, you will have a much better idea of what the real issue is, and they will have a much better chance of actually hearing what you want to say with them.

At that point you might remind a teenager that the Church’s teachings aim to help people get closer to God and reach heaven. If the Church opposes “gay marriage” it’s because it desires to bring people along a true path of happiness.

True happiness always involves living within God’s plan for us. He created us, made us as we are, and wants us to be with him forever. To help us reach that goal, he has revealed certain things to us, including his plan for marriage.

It was for marriage that God created sex. It helps unite a man and woman, and gives them the chance to participate in God’s raising up new human life. That God created woman as an ideal companion for man is evident in the opening pages of the Bible. “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him” (Genesis 2:18) — and that appropriate “helper” turns out to be a woman (2:22). The difference between men and women is also part of God’s plan for bringing new human life into the world. “God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).

The lifelong commitment between a husband and wife also reflects the relation between Christ and the Church. “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

It shouldn’t surprise us that God, who has such beautiful designs for our sexuality, would also want us to use this gift in the right way. Which means within a marriage between a man and a woman.

Now what about “gay marriage”? First, it is not natural. Sex by its nature is meant to be at least potentially fruitful — that is, open to new human life. Such fruitfulness can never be found in same-sex relations. St. Paul speaks of what can happen in such cases: “Males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity” (Romans 1:27).

Second, the Church’s opposition to “gay marriage” does not mean that it opposes people with homosexual tendencies. The Catechism speaks with balance and sensitivity regarding homosexuality, which it defines as “an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex” (No. 2357). It adds, “Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.”

Homosexual tendencies in themselves are not sinful. What is sinful is a homosexual act. The Church recognizes that the homosexual inclination constitutes “a trial” for many who have such deep-seated tendencies. These people, the Church insists, “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (Catechism, No. 2358).

Moreover, “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” (No. 2359). The Church, in effect, pays a great compliment to those with homosexual tendencies because it recognizes that they are capable of leading chaste, holy lives with the help of God’s grace.

A different situation is those who embrace the “gay” lifestyle. Those who do so in effect embrace and promote objectively sinful acts. If we truly care for people, we don’t want them engaging in behavior that could jeopardize their salvation (and their health). By labeling as “marriage” something which is disordered by nature, we risk hurting the respect and dignity that belongs to true marriages between men and women.

(For further reading, check out Fr. John Bartunek’s essay. Also helpful is the Courage website, including its page on Church teaching. The Catholic Medical Association’s pamphlet “Homosexuality and Hope” is a helpful resource too.)

In the meantime, embrace the chance to help the teenagers that God puts in your path. Help them to love the virtue of chastity. Urge them toward a strong devotion to Mary, a deep friendship with Christ, and frequent recourse to the sacraments of penance and Communion.

You can also teach through personal example. Whether you are single, married or a consecrated person, the joyful and chaste living of your own vocation can teach volumes about the right use of sexuality. I pray that you help lots of teens see the beauty of God’s plan for such a wonderful gift.

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