Reflecting on the Supreme Court’s striking down of key portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the subsequent exuberant response of gay activists, the author of a recent article on a Catholic website rightly concludes that many families whose members have struggled privately with same sex attraction may find themselves with loved ones who are now emboldened to act on those attractions. Having acted, they will expect acceptance from their extended family, including adjoining seats at the Thanksgiving table and invitations to the toddler’s birthday parties, creating circumstances fraught with potential difficulties.
The author reports of her own personal experience being marginalized by her extended family for failing to recognize the same sex unions of family members. Writing from a Catholic Christian perspective, she notes the living out of Matt.10: 34-36 on a daily basis, (I have come to bring not peace but the sword…one’s enemies will be those of his household) and offers some helpful ideas regarding how to cope.
She writes: Our conduct must be one of forbearance, forgiveness and charity, bearing in mind that we do not have the right to judge, condemn, vilify or hate because we too are sinners in need of God’s mercy and the plank in our eye may be bigger than the one in theirs. She recommends seeking guidance and support from priests and supportive friends, and continues with a quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict: the truth is not decided by popular opinion, noting rightly that families are hurt more when compromises are made at the expense of truth, in what I would call a misguided and inevitably-failed effort to achieve peace.
While agreeing with much of her message and applauding her courage and candor, I fear that the manner in which she presents her conclusion that “We may be the only beacon of light for family members living in the sin of same-sex lifestyle. Through our example, self-sacrifice and prayers, by God’s grace they may one day experience healing through a conversion of heart and have authentic peace” might well create greater barriers to reconciliation. It fails to reflect the fullness of what can be achieved in such difficult circumstances. Granted, she is writing for a religious audience from a spiritual perspective, but I believe there is something to be gained by wedding faith with reason.
Two Psychological Tweaks
1) “Our conduct must be one of forbearance, forgiveness and charity, bearing in mind that we do not have the right to judge, condemn, vilify or hate…” True enough, in part.
It is psychologically healthy to forgive: strengthening and enhancing one’s character to respond charitably. Attitudes of condemnation and hatred are poison for both the purveyor and the receiver. Yet, we can and must judge–as we were endowed to do so by our Creator. We must make discernments, distinctions, and decisions about what is good, right, and healthy, and what is not. These are all things essential to our humanness. What is good, right and healthy for the human person, is not a matter of opinion nor up for vote—as Pope Benedict says so well. Much of it can be known through the sciences and by the consequences of actions. We need not use the language of “sin” or “need of conversion of heart”, to communicate that we are concerned that a family member’s lifestyle and choices are placing him or her at risk for an earlier death, for lifelong emotional and physical issues, and preclude the true joy and peace he or she seeks and deserves.
2) “…families are hurt more when compromises are made at the expense of truth…” Even more true.
In these circumstances, one must not forget parental duties towards young children. Children are naturally keen observers of their environment. They try to assimilate the actions of the adults around them in order to better understand their world. When exposed to intense (e.g., sexual or violent) material at a premature age, they are unable to understand and process it, and become confused and distressed . The duty to protect one’s children from this confusion and from the erosion of healthy moral inhibitions is greater than one’s duty to stay in a friendly relationship with one’s homosexual brother.
What to do?
The psychological reality is that people don’t ever consider changing their perspective, let alone their behavior, based on the opinion of another with whom they do not have a significant relationship and/or for whom they do not have enormous respect. So the first task for the concerned family member, whether motivated by their faith beliefs or not, is to discern how to stay in a close, caring relationship with the person about whom they are concerned. The key here is dialogue, and it is the challenge in any family rift that occurs, whether it be over race, politics, religion, or sex.
Of critical importance in this dialogue is recognizing that the family member in question may or may not be concerned a bit about sin, religion, the “last things” or the state of his soul. Nor, sadly, would he necessarily comprehend how presenting his “spouse” on par with other aunts and uncles would confuse and harm young members of the extended family. Therefore, confronting the person or sharing with other family members that you cannot accept the relationship because of your religious beliefs is not likely to be helpful, but rather distracting from the concern for the person. On the other hand, well chosen words about how you are aware that there are risks related to his choices, and that your love for him desires his health and happiness, might allow for a conversation to continue.
If someone does not experience love from us, they will move closer towards those from whom they think they do receive the love they seek, too often those with whom they share such a lifestyle. Striking a balance by establishing a real and healthy distance, yet one that is not further than it needs to be (for the sake of keeping open the door to future dialogue), is tricky business. Realistically, difficult situations will arise. “Weddings” will be missed, invitations to children’s events will not be sent, slights will be experienced and resentments sparked, but at the end of the day, praying silently, and finding opportunities to love openly your treasured relative is a challenge well worth embracing.