Responding to Sexuality in Spiritual Direction

Adam and Eve committing original sin, detail from The Virgin of Victory, 1496, by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), tempera on canvas, 280x166 cm.


Sexuality is never a simple topic of conversation.  Emotions, feelings, hurt… often rise to the surface too quickly for rational discussion.  Too often we begin with these feelings to judge the Church’s teachings on sexuality.  This has led to our indoctrination by society that our sexuality and our Catholicism do not mix.  For many of us, we realize this too late.  Our ongoing ignorance has been a dereliction by the Church, both the domestic and formal.  We do not preach our teachings on sexuality, we do not openly discuss our teachings on sexuality and in all this, our ignorance forcefully undermines any resolution of this notion.

Words matter in indoctrinations. When “sex” became “making love,” a dilution crept in that blurred the intent.  St. Pope John Paul II would define “sex” differently as “gift of self to the other in the nuptial union.”  More words, but with better clarity and thought. Today’s culture promotes “love is love.”  This notion is focused on our ignorance that the English language uses one word for “love,” while biblical Greek used four – “agape” (love for mankind), “philia” (love of friends and equals), “storge” (parental, familial love, and “eros” (romantic, erotic, passionate love.)  The indoctrination minces that since “love is good,” all “love” must be good.  However, we all know that all the four Greek definitions of “love” are only “good” in their proper setting.  Few would accept the use of “eros” between an adult and a child.

The Church’s teaching on sexuality has seldom directly taught effectively to its laity.  The Church has published guidelines such as The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality that few adults today even know exists[1].  Few Catholics, whether those in the pew or charged with religious education, have taken the time to find and work with these guidelines.  Thus, in the absence of true education on the Church’s teaching on sexuality, inuendo and misconceptions have taken reign over its members.  Few today realize that the Church bases its teaching on the Imago Dei, our creation as an image of God.  All of us have dignity as we are created in God’s image.  All of us deserve respect based solely upon this gift each of us has from God.  Yet, often fear of not being seen by others in promoting this love and respect hinders necessary conversations.  Treating others with love and respect does not inhibit our freedom to correct when distortions of Church teaching comes about – or at least it shouldn’t.  When done with respect, it is not wrong to correct the proper teachings of the Church, even in regard to sexuality.

Sexuality is not an unusual topic in Catholic spirituality.  It is an important topic in spirituality for the energy it brings as well as the importance the topic, even if unspoken, in the lives of practitioners.  However, in a desire to appeal to the energy and emotions this subject brings, the author has witnessed many extreme positions those trained in Ignatian spirituality have taken and, oftentimes this has resulted in public challenging of Church teaching.  Nowhere in the Spiritual Exercises does Ignatius challenge Church teaching.  In fact, Ignatius’ teaching has been endorsed not only as a spiritual practice,[2] but in the canonization of Ignatius himself.

Spiritual direction is not a time of imposing catechism.  However, the spiritual director must be aware not only of the ministerial obligations of this role but also in their role to remain “Catholic” when promoting oneself as a “Catholic” spiritual director.   This requirement requires a delicate balance of giving the Holy Spirit “room to work” with the directee, believing the Holy Spirit will work with the directee and not allowing spiritual direction a pulpit for challenging Church teaching.  Maintaining this balance in equilibrium can be particularly challenging when engaging topics in sexuality.

Specifically, and in regard to sexuality, St. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body[3] provides the spiritual tool needed to provide an understanding of sexuality that complements the notion of sexuality within Catholic spirituality.  “Theology of the Body” is not a tool for spiritual direction as much as a tool to keep the spiritual director grounded in Church teaching.  This article proposes how this construct can work.

Theology of the Body

From September 1979 through November 1984, Pope John Paul II used his weekly general audiences as a platform to present what would later become known as his “Theology of the Body.”[4]  John Paul II began his discourse in a rather remarkable place, Matthew 19. He notes that when the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce, Jesus only indirectly answers them. He says, “what was God’s original intent?” which points us back to Genesis. The plan is clear:  in the very beginning, God created man is male and female.[5] John Paul II noted that ever since then, “man and woman and their bodily existence were called to speak the truth in their bodies and to enter into a communion of persons, constituted by self-giving, love, and fidelity.”[6]

With this in mind, John Paul II discerns creation and God’s intent for the nuptial embrace of one man and one woman and in this union exhibit the image of God, or Imago Dei.  This was God’s original intent for his creation.[7]  This was God’s order and anything outside this order is considered “disordered.”  So, when the church labels an activity or desire as “disordered,” it is not condemning the person but that the action is not being in accord with the intention of God.  Unfortunately, while teaching that God “loves his creation” even when it sins, our treatment of those living in disordered lifestyles has not always been consistent. While this is a call for the church to reach out to the marginalized, it does not mean the teaching of God’s intent has been in error.

John Paul II’s Theology of the Body has much to teach us, especially in today’s society.  While society is telling us we should embrace such disorder, Jesus reminds us of something different -that living his Gospel is true freedom.[8] God’s intent was for one man and one woman to join in matrimony. His intent was for each spouse to make a total gift of themself to the other – in love, union and equality. It is when we lose sight of this gift that our union seems to derail. Pope Paul IV reminds us in his encyclical Humane Vitae, that when the gift is withheld, women would be taken advantage of and exploited.[9]  It is quite evident in watching the news today that his prophecy has come true.

Society says that the disordered were “born this way,” John Paul II reminds us that this is not of God’s design. Science has looked and has yet to discover the “gay” gene.[10] The Church has always taught that those with disordered desires should abstain against them.  Conversely, society tells us to celebrate such disorder.  Yet, as a student once reminded me, when the disorder is anorexia, we are supported in treating it.  When the disorder is sexual, we are told that treatment of the disorder is wrong.  The only consistency is this regard is that people with anorexia tend to be too young to vote.

Theology of the Body teaches that we fail to see the objectification in society, or more importantly the objectification we have done or are doing to others due to our original sin, our “original fall.”  The beautify of God’s creation has become masked by our mutual and individual lust and desire. In many ways we’ve let our society run out of control in concupiscence.  We can regain our human dignity and vocation to love by refocusing on God’s original intent for creation.  We need to return to living that notion of sacred gift we give and receptive from each other in the nuptial embrace.

Catholic Spiritual Direction

Spiritual direction invites us to discern on our relationship with the Holy Spirit and where the Spirit is acting in our lives.  Many of us were brought up with a sense of taboo when mixing the notion of prayerful discernment and sexuality.  Yet, if sexuality is a roadblock or potential obstruction to spiritual discernment, it must be addressed.  Timothy Muldoon reflects that “Ignatian Spirituality invites reflection on the harmonizing of all affections, including such desire towards the end union with God.”[11]

Spiritual direction training programs address this dichotomy in some regard.  It is recognized that sexuality plays a significant role in many of our lives.  In this scope, the awareness of sexuality and spiritual direction is promoted and sometimes the case is that Church teachings are taught as insufficient or outdated in this regard.   Would it not be an excellent time to explain Church teachings to a generation of spiritual directors that were likely never properly catechized in these teachings in the first place?  The Catholic spiritual director should be armed with the tools of the faith in situations that are commonly accepted to come up in spiritual direction.  Unfortunately, this is perhaps too much to ask.  I have never been aware of the sacrament of reconciliation being offered on spiritual direction retreats I’ve been on either…

Sexuality has always been an awkward dialog in the Church, for few since Vatican II have embraced the conversation.  Spiritual direction programs should be applauded for even attempting this.  Growing up we had catechists who “knew the rules,” but didn’t teach them in love.  John Paul’s Theology of the Body gives us those tools and in the promotion of love.  Unfortunately, 1979 was before the internet age and his teachings have been poorly dispersed among the faithful since then.   I imagine how differently I would have looked at women throughout my life if my father had told me that a spousal union was a total self gift of myself to another and that my job was to love, honor and defend this gift of myself, as well as the gift I receive from my wife.  I was taught to open doors for women, not to “defend their sacredness.”  Rather than objectifying woman, men of my generation and those that followed needed to be schooled to never demean such a gift.

As a spiritual director, I cannot catechize on this gift in a session.  At best, I can model it in my life.  Yet, where well intentioned formation programs miss their mark trying to dance around sexuality and Church teaching, perhaps we can teach it again in order for the beauty to be embraced.

“Spiritual Complacency”

Imagine the real scenario where a directee told his spiritual director that as he spent time in contemplation with Jesus, and in this discernment, felt that Jesus “loved him as he was” – an active homosexual.  The Director told his formation class that the directee was experiencing the love of Jesus in discernment.  The Director thenj proceeded to tell his formation group that this was evidence that “the Church is wrong in its teaching on sexuality.”  The well-intentioned director missed his mark.  Yes, Jesus does love this person.  More than we can ever imagine.  Yet, Jesus would not have said “continue what you are doing” but rather at some point would have said, “from now on do not sin again.”[12]  While a “discernment of Spirits” may be applicable here too, let us not miss the point.  It was a time for continued conversation, a time to focus on this love of Jesus that was being experienced by the directee and not a time for simply pointing to a conclusion that the Church “is wrong.”

Clergy are taught in formation that it is their job to present “the authentic teaching of the Church.”  We deny people this authenticity when we infuse our personal feelings and views.  If we are representing ourselves as a “Catholic” ministry, we are undertaking this responsibility as well.  Catholic spiritual direction does not deviate from the teaching of the Church.

Yet, we know that “catechism” is not the goal in spiritual direction.  The goal of spiritual direction is not to have God confirm what the director or the directee believes, but to notice where God is active in the lives of our directee.  We must trust that the Holy Spirit will bring us back to the authentic teaching of Jesus and His Church.  This journey runs on God’s time, not ours.  Yet, we also must recognize that if our personal spirituality ever leads us away from the sacraments and authentic teaching, we are doing something wrong or perhaps, as Ignatius would say, we are following “the wrong spirit.”

Regrettably, the example presented in not uncommon these days in spiritual direction.  Let us embrace the conversation in faith.  God had an intention in creation that is documented and well and lovingly presented in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  Perhaps we don’t like the message or are uncomfortable with it.  It doesn’t matter.  It is not our job as spiritual directors or clergy to advocate our personal positions.  In ministry, we solely work within the teachings of Jesus and His Church.

Follow the Lead of Pope Francis

The issue with the conversation above is that that the journey stopped when the directee prematurely and simply blamed the Church.  Pope Francis reminds us that we are passing on “the kerygma: Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.[13]  In our walking with others, we first illuminate the love of God and cultivate the relationship with Christ. We have to believe ourselves that it is solely the Holy Spirit that not only “drives the bus” but, will open the heart to the catechism.  It will come, but not at our direction or timeline.  Pope Francis teaches that “the awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal.”[14]

The deposit of faith can only be passed on when the heart is receptive to it.  Francis encourages us to be a constant encouragement to communion.”[15]  We speak the truth of the faith in love for love has always been God’s intent.

Journey, not Condemnation

Theology of the Body not only teaches us the foundations of Matthew 19 but also the restoration.   Ignatius too, taught his followers to focus on the “foundations.”[16]  There is only one foundation – God.  Jesus Christ built his Church’s foundation upon His life, death and resurrection.  We know in our hearts that what has been lost can be regained in Jesus.  What we have lost in original sin is restored in Christ.  The journey in spiritual direction is that individual disorder can again become ordered through the saving grace of Christ. Such a journey may be a long one for some.  We must commit to walk through the hardships of faith and constantly discern that we are not blocking another’s journey.  Those situations we take to our own spiritual supervision, without engaging the directee on this.  Defaulting to simple societal answers won’t heal.  It is only through a true submission, to seeing Jesus in the “breaking of the bread” that we one truly heals and be free.


Ordered or disordered, we all have desires. The world forgets that all of us, even married people, have an obligation to chastity as well.  We are all called to use self-control and avoid near occasions of sin.  Such control over our desires is a discipline we’ve lost.  Yet, it is only through the redemption offered by the Resurrection and new life in Jesus can we regain this control.  As spiritual directors, we must trust the Holy Spirit can overcome this state.  Catholic spirituality, as promoted by Ignatius of Loyola,  reminds us to assist this expedition by walking with those searching for the love of God in their lives, highlighting the relationship God wants with each of us and being free to let the converted heart continue this journey home to the sacramental life of the Church.

Modern society is not ripe to accept Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, let alone the intend of God’s creation in Genesis.  Yet, in this teaching we are again confronted with Jesus’s radical notion of true freedom.  While the outside world will not accept the teaching of the Theology of the Body, our spirituality should embrace it as foundational Catholicism.  It is only through the Theology of the Body do we have the necessary tools to explain our needed discussions and discernment of our sexuality.

Formation programs must discern realigning themselves to the proper teaching of the faith in all endeavors, and especially in the context of sexually.  Ignatius calls for us to look at our foundations.  Like in John Paul’s teaching in the Theology of the Body, we must do this in light of Matthew 19: what was God’s intent?  If we cannot walk with authentic faith on this journey with another, perhaps we should step back until we can.  Catholic ministry is a privilege, not a right.

[1] The Pontifical Council For The Family, “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality,”

United States Catholic Conference, 1996.

[2] Pius XI. “Mens Nostra.” The Holy See, 30 Dec 1929,

[3] Pope John Paul II; Waldstein, M., 2006, Man and woman He created them- a theology of the body. 1st ed. Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media.

[4] West, C. and Weigel, G., 2003. Theology of the body explained. 1st ed. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, pp.1-7.

[5] Genesis 1:27

[6] Tara L. Seyfer, T.L.; Travaline, J.M. “The Theology of the Body and Modern Medicine: Informing the Practice of Healing, Linacre Quarterly, 2008, 75(1), 16-30.

[7] Napier, M.J.  “The Theology of Whose Body? St. John Paul’s Anthropology and Gender Theory,” The Dunwoodie Review, 2018, 40, 198-207.

[8] John 8:30-36

[9] Paul Vi.  Humanae Vitae Encyclical Letter, 1968.

[10] Harrub, B.; Thompson, B.; Miller, D.   “’This is the Way God Made Me’ – A Scientific Examination of Homosexuality and the ‘Gay Gene.’” Reason & Revelation, 2002, 24(8), 73-79.

[11] Muldoon, T.M.  “Ordered Affection: Sexuality and Ignatian Spirituality,” The Way, 2010, 49(10), 7-22.

[12] John 8: 1-11

[13]  O’Shea, G. “The Vision of Pope Francis for Catechesis,” The Catechetical Review, Issue 1.1, Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324 pg 12-13

[14] Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2013)

[15] Pentin, Edward, “Pope Francis: Communicate Truth With Love, Meekness and Mercy,” National Catholic Register, 24 Jan 2016.

[16] Muldoon.

Previous articleCamp of the (Un)Saints
Next articleSaints and Sinners: A History of the Popes
Gregory Webster is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Chicago and coordinates his activities through Brother In The Stole Ministries. Besides degrees in science and management, he holds an M.A. in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, and a D.Bioethics degree in Catholic and Research Bioethics from Loyola University of Chicago. Dcn. Greg has a certificate in Ignatian Spiritual Direction from Fairfield University and certification as a Supervisor for Spiritual Directors from the Institute for Spiritual Guidance at the Siena Retreat Center. Greg can be reached at