John Paul II speaks of Christ's “appeal to the heart.” What he is describing here is not a simple set of rules and regulations which people can follow but rather a process, a kind of interior hermeneutic of the person which is the work of a lifetime. I think that one of the difficulties we encounter is a failure, often on the part of people of good faith, to recognize that chastity is an interior virtue and not a legalistic observance. “Within the sphere of knowledge, man learns to distinguish between what, on the one hand, makes up the manifold richness of masculinity and femininity in the signs that spring from their perennial call and creative attraction and what, on the other hand, bears only the sign of concupiscence.” Repeatedly the Theology of the Body speaks of sexuality, embodiment, masculinity and femininity as tasks, things which are learned through a process of interior discernment illuminated by the words of Christ. The particular acts which we think of as being “chaste” have a sacramental form: they are the outward and visible signs of an inward, invisible grace. Without the inward grace they are only a simulacrum of chastity: purity transformed from a virtue into an idol which must ultimately be smashed if any spiritual progress is to be made.
For homosexual people this calling can present a serious stumbling block. It appears to come in the form of a deep accusation leveled at the self. How can the Church tell us that “sexuality…concerns the innermost being of the human person as such,” and then go on to say that homosexual inclinations are “objectively disordered” without implying that I am objectively disordered in my innermost being? How can I accept an ethos which tells me that my own experience is fundamentally false: that what I discern to be my femininity is unfeminine, and that my perception of beauty in another person is actually a perversion? How can our most intimate experiences of expressing and receiving love be intrinsically evil?
If this were what was meant by the teaching of the Church, the LGBTQ community would be absolutely right in rejecting that teaching. John Paul II, however, is not trying to level an accusation against the homosexual heart. His theology is a calling not to reject myself, but rather to discern what within me is really good, really beautiful and really true, and to carefully and delicately untangle the strains of the self so that what is authentic in my personality and my relationships can be preserved and perfected. Wherever I experience beauty, wherever I experience love, there is genuine love and genuine beauty present. In reality, however, this is invariably colored by some degree of concupiscence, regardless of whether my experiences are heterosexual or homosexual. The practice of self-examination is a practice of self-excavation in which my innermost desires are slowly purified from self-indulgence and idolatry in order that they may be restored to their full significance.
Within contemporary society this process is particularly fraught because the homosexual person tends to be caught in a pincer movement, with the allure of the flesh on one side, and the accusations of the righteous on the other. One is a temptation to dissolve the self in its pleasures, to allow the good to be replaced by the enjoyable, the beautiful by the titillating. The other is a temptation to self-hatred and suicidal despair. The Theology of the Body seeks to present a third option, a way through: a way in which the self and its desire for pleasure and communion are redeemed from the forces which seek to erode the inherent dignity of the person.