I was recently assigned to read an article about loneliness and existential isolation for a class in my graduate program in clinical mental health counseling. The article presented a view of the human person that closely reflected the Catholic understanding of the human person and the harm caused by both interpersonal isolation and existential isolation.
Interpersonal isolation is the experience of being physically isolated from other people. Existential isolation is defined as “the subjective sense one is alone in one’s experience.” In other words, this is the feeling that “nobody understands me,” or that “I can’t share who I am with anyone.” These experiences of isolation, if unresolved, can cause someone to experience deep loneliness.
Isolation and loneliness, in turn, can lead to harmful coping behaviors like substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, and suicidal thoughts. These behaviors can isolate someone even more, trapping them in a vicious cycle of loneliness and harmful behaviors.
The authors of the article suggested that the solution to loneliness is entering into meaningful interpersonal relationships. They also said a therapeutic counseling relationship is especially helpful. In other words, the solution to isolation and loneliness is vulnerable, meaningful personal relationships.
The Catholic understanding of the human person is similar. We believe that human beings are made in the image and likeness of a Divine Community, and for this reason the need for connections with others is built into our very nature.
The pope made this point in his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. He said:
“If we go to the ultimate source of that love which is the very life of the triune God, we encounter in the community of the three divine Persons the origin and perfect model of all life in society” (85).
In other words, human beings are made in the image and likeness of a God who isn’t a solitary individual, but a community—a family—of love. The result is that we are only truly fulfilled when we are in relationship with others. Later in the document, Francis goes on to say:
“Human beings are so made that they cannot live, develop and find fulfilment except ‘in the sincere gift of self to others’….’Life exists where there is bonding, communion, fraternity; and life is stronger than death when it is built on true relationships and bonds of fidelity. On the contrary, there is no life when we claim to be self-sufficient and live as islands: in these attitudes, death prevails” (87).
Who better than the Church—the living Body of Jesus Christ, who entered into our isolation and vulnerability to heal us, free us, and transform us—to encounter, accompany, and help people experiencing existential isolation and loneliness?
If all this is true, then I think it ought to cause us to examine the ways we treat people who are especially vulnerable to isolation and loneliness, and specifically those about whom the article is written: LGBTQ+ people.
The article states:
“LGBTQ+ populations experience loneliness and negative physical and mental health risks and outcomes, and suicidal ideation, differently and more often than non-LGBTQ+ populations.”
“LGBTQ+ people are more vulnerable to loneliness and existential isolation because it is more difficult and complicated for them to alleviate the pain of existential isolation.”
This increased isolation experienced by LGBTQ+ people is connected to a variety of negative psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, feelings of hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts. Loneliness is also connected to substance abuse and unhealthy sexual activity (as well as the negative health effects of both of those coping behaviors). These harmful coping mechanisms bring temporary relief to the feeling of loneliness, but then they cause further isolation, creating a vicious downward cycle.
The article goes on to list several different factors that contribute to why LGBTQ+ people are more susceptible to loneliness, including a lack of acceptance from family; experiences of harassment, discrimination, and bullying; and a lack of companionship.
LGBTQ+ Catholics have shared with me that some of the most significant sources of rejection and discrimination towards them have been their Christian communities and Christian families.
This prejudice can be overt, such as employment discrimination or parents who disown their LGBTQ+ child, but it can also appear in more subtle ways. It can take many different forms:
- When Christians assert that homosexual sins are more serious than other sexual vices,
- When Catholics go beyond magisterial teaching by inventing (and invoking) moral “laws,” that are not taught by the Church, and only apply to LGBTQ+ people,
- When Catholics treat LGBTQ+ individuals who are striving for virtue with greater suspicion and more bias than they would a straight person who is striving for virtue,
- Those who call Catholics who are in good standing with the Church “heretics” or “wolves in sheep’s clothing” because they minister to LGBTQ+ people,
- Catholics who somehow manage the ability to love and respect straight people who use contraception or who live lifestyles that do not conform to Catholic teaching, but who seem incapable of extending the same goodwill towards someone in a same-sex relationship.
Catholics could be leaders in our society and culture in helping LGBTQ+ people feel loved, valued, and worthy. We should be the loudest voice speaking out to reassure all vulnerable, lonely, and wounded people that they have a place in our communities and an essential role to play in the Church.
Sadly, at least from my perspective, we often treat LGBTQ+ individuals as “walking sins,” or representatives of ideologies rather than human beings who, like all of us, have been wounded by their own and others’ sins and are in need of unconditional love and healing.
We are followers of the Divine Physician who relentlessly desires for all people to be healed. It is a scandal, an anti-witness, if the isolated and lonely cannot find a home in our families and churches. How will we as a Church respond to this pastoral call to action?
 Rattanakorn Ratanashevorn & Emily C. Brown, (2021). “Alone in the Rain(bow)”: Existential Therapy for Loneliness in LGBTQ + Clients, Journal of LGBTQ Issues in Counseling, 15:1, 110-127, DOI: 10.1080/15538605.2021.1868375
Image credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash
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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.