Thursday, February 15, 2007

“Sons of the Church”: A Discussion Guide


In my role as executive director of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), I facilitated an insightful discussion last Thursday night with seventeen members of the Basilica of St. Mary’s Boulevards group.

Our conversation focused on the experiences and insights of numerous Catholic gay men that have been collected and compiled in Thomas Stevenson’s book, Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men (Harrington Park Press, 2006).

Following is the Discussion Guide I prepared and used at Boulevards. It’s been edited so that it can be used by any Catholic parish and/or group interested in facilitating discussion around the important issues and questions raised by gay “sons of the Church” and documented by Stevenson. Questions 21 and 22 have been added to the original guide - with the latter arising from last Thursdays discussion with the Boulevards group.

This guide is designed for use over five consecutive sessions:

Session 1: Chapters 1-2 (Question 1-7)
Session 2: Chapter 3 (Question 8-10)
Session 3: Chapter 4 (Questions 11-18)
Session 4: Chapter 5 (Questions 19-22)
Session 5: Chapters 6-7 (Questions 23-26)

As well as being used as the basis for a Book Discussion Group, the guide can also be adapted and used for private prayer and reflection. The upcoming season of Lent provides a good opportunity for such prayerful reflection.

The images that accompany this post are by Raphael Perez, who allows his artwork to be used for free and for any use other than commercial.

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A Discussion Guide for
Sons of the Church:
The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men

by
Thomas Stevenson

(Harrington Park Press, 2006)

Prepared by
Michael J. Bayly
Executive Director
Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities



1. In Chapter One, Stevenson identifies what could be called five features of young homosexual lives: alienating silence, fear, sense of being different, denial, and isolation.

Can you relate to these features?

Can you share your own experience of one or more of them in your life?




2. In Chapter Two, many of those interviewed (i.e. the “witnesses”) share memories of their Catholic upbringing. Some of these are “cherished” memories, others are not.

To which of the memories shared can you relate?

What are some of your own memories of your Catholic childhood and youth?

In what ways have they impacted your life as a gay man?



3. On page 21, Stevenson defends the “stern” approach of Catholicism by observing that such an approach “might be right in reminding us that we are sinners, in danger of losing our participation in the personal life God offers us.”

He then poses an important question: If evil can enter into all aspects of the human condition, how can it be experienced in relation to being homosexual?

How might our responses to this question differ from, say, how the Vatican and/or the Courage movement talk about “evil in relation to being homosexual”?


4. A number of “witnesses” speak about how in their youth the experience of homosexuality as being “bad” was something that came more from society than from the Church. Is this something to which you can relate? What were the messages you recall receiving from the Church? What was/is their impact?


5. Witness Leo R. notes on page 26 that, “It was understood that [homosexuality] was not even to be discussed, thought about, talked about. No way possible. It doesn’t happen here.”

What role did silence from the Church and/or your family play in your life as a young gay Catholic man?

Is silence still an issue for you? Can you envision overcoming this silence? How?



6. On page 27, Stevenson writes the following:

Just as children absorb the silent messages of family life, homosexual people in the Church almost certainly have absorbed, and in matters of degree still absorb, the silent message that homosexuality is something so bad it can’t be spoken about. The repercussions of such silence were and often are terribly damaging.

What are some of these “damaging repercussions”?

How as Church can we minimize or prevent their effect on gay people?





7. A question posed on page 29 is, perhaps, one we’ve all asked ourselves: Is the difficulty of bearing homosexuality something inherent to homosexuality, as if one has to bear a disorder and learn to live with it, or, does the difficult burden stem more from communal alienation and rejection?

How have you come to respond to this question within yourself and to others?


8. Chapter Three of Sons of the Church explores the often long and difficult process of accepting and integrating one’s homosexuality, and begins by noting that, “Being yourself often seems like more of a journey than a fact.”

A “theology of journey,” or what Benedictine sister Joan Chittister refers to as a “spirituality of search,” has long been an aspect of the Catholic Church – a faith community that understands itself as a “pilgrim Church.”

Yet what about those Catholic gay men who, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to journey in the way that those interviewed by Stevenson have journeyed and, accordingly, arrive at a place where they can accept and integrate their sexuality?

Who are such men in our Catholic community? How can and do we compassionately interact with them when often they are the ones who most vehemently condemn us and our journeys to self-acceptance and wholeness?


9. Were there any journeys described in Chapter Three with which you particularly resonated? Why?


10. What are your thoughts on the following statement by witness Ryan O. on page 47:

Whatever your sexual orientation is about, to me there ought to be a sense of integration. You ought to have a sense that it informs how you think about things and it gives you a certain energy with which you can change the world or make life better for yourself or your family or whatever it gives. And that’s what sexuality is for; it’s supposed to be life giving.

In what ways do you experience your sexuality as “life giving”?


11. In Chapter Four, Stevenson suggests that gay men’s difficulty to love through their sexuality (a difficulty resulting from growing up with their homosexuality unloved), intertwined with a natural sexual desire, may help explain the common experiences of promiscuity among gay men.

What are your thoughts on this?




12. One of the oldest witnesses interviewed says on page 52 that, “Being in relationship wasn’t as easy to do [back] then as it is now. People today are looking for a relationship. I see it with the young people. They pair off more and that’s a good thing.”

Do you discern a difference between various generations of gay men when it comes to the issues of promiscuity and relationships? How do you account for any perceived differences?


13. On page 53, James B. recalls the following counsel of a priest during a homily:

For gay men here, I want to say that in your relationships, if you just go after the sex, you’re never really going to touch the person you’re with. In your relationships you cannot use one another. Sex is part of who you are but it can destroy you or give you empty lives. It can draw you down just as anything else can draw you down.


James is adamant that this is a message gay men “need to hear.”

Why isn’t it one we hear from the vast majority of pulpits?

What would it take to hear this message from, say, the pulpit of your parish?

What’s preventing such an important message from being preached?

How as Catholic gay men, as “sons of the Church,” can we address and rectify this problem?



14. On page 55, Stevenson raises some important questions for gay men and even suggests some distinctions which can be made when discussing promiscuity:

Some of our witnesses point to situations in which anonymous sex, bathhouse sexual encounters, or one-night stands can be positive. Other of our witnesses emphasize the dangers of losing oneself or disrespecting others in promiscuous sex. Underlying this apparent conflict on the surface, however, is perhaps a common ground, and that is the concern for sexuality taking place within a personalized context. Perhaps the concern for a personal, rather than impersonal, attitude toward sexuality is voiced more strongly in our witnesses who lean toward being critical of promiscuous behavior. Nevertheless, can we categorically say that all so-called promiscuous behavior is lacking in personal relating? Can goodness be found in some occasions of casual sex? Can there be one-night stands where bonding and transcendence occur? Is there room for choices, which may be more or less personal, within the context of sexual relating in a bathhouse? No doubt, a greater degree of personal relating can take place more commonly within the context of a growing committed relationship. But that is not to say, categorically, that personal relating can never take place within so-called promiscuous behavior, notwithstanding the very prevalent dangers of depersonalization that so often surround and happen with promiscuous behavior.

Perhaps another way to speak of the distinction being made about promiscuity is to say, in a manner that will appear tautological, that there is a difference between losing oneself and losing oneself. On the one hand, our witnesses are concerned with the ways in which promiscuous behavior can leave one with a sense of emptiness, or destroy one’s self respect or even one’s life. These are very real possibilities of losing oneself. On the other hand, there is the losing of oneself in an ecstasy of giving and receiving persons. Whereas the first way of losing oneself tends to lead, in matters of degree, to nothingness, the second tends to lead, in matters of degrees, to fullness and bliss. (But then, approaching things from yet another angle, it can happen that in taking the path of pursuing empty relating, one realizes one’s need for redemptive love. Alas, all roads can lead to God).


For some, such thoughts are highly controversial. Yet these questions and the deliberations they facilitate arise from human experience – the raw material, if you like, of all theological musings and articulations. Accordingly, they are valid and important questions, though ones that are not being engaged by the leadership of the Catholic Church. Indeed, even the discussion of such questions at the grassroots level of the Church is frowned upon and frequently discouraged.

Why is this the case?

What is it about our Church structure and teaching that discourages and prevents open discussion on such questions?

What needs to be done to welcome and ensure such open dialogue and discussion?


15. Stevenson is adamant that the distinction between personal and impersonal forms of sexual behavior alone does not adequately address the ways gay men have so often been bound to or frozen in more impersonal forms of sexual behavior.

He goes on to outline the following theory:

As a direct consequence of the profound lack of love for their homosexuality – lack of love from families, from society, from religions, from other gay people – the spirits and sexualities of gay people are often broken. As a result of this brokenness, I believe there are often two predominant, related, and calcified responses to sexuality in the lives of gay people. These are self-hated and despair.

As a response to the hatred of homosexuality by society, a homosexual person may, at some deep level, hate himself for being homosexual. [See Mitch S.’s and Greg P.’s reflections on page 57]. . . [A]nother complementary turn is that of despair . The despair might be put into words in the following way: I’m not loved in my sexuality and I’m not going to be loved in my sexuality. Hope for the possibility of love is killed. The connection between despair and promiscuity could then be phrased as follows: Since I’m not loved in my sexuality, and I feel no real expectations that I will be loved, then I’ll just settle for less personal forms of sexual relating. [See Max B.’s and Bob S.’s reflections on pages 57-59].

What are your thoughts on this theory?

Has the fear and despair identified by Stevenson been a part of your life? Do remnants remain?

How did/do you deal with them?



16. Stevenson notes that the witnesses he interviewed affirm the naturalness, goodness, and lovability of their own and others’ homosexuality in at least three different ways: (1) They express compassion for the hardships gay men face and for the suffering gay men endure; (2) They are concerned with affirming and integrating their sexuality into themselves and with moving in the direction of personal relationships; and (3) They experience their sexuality as a gift.

These different ways of affirmation foster healing in the lives of gay men, says Stevenson.

Do your experiences as a Catholic gay man affirm this statement?

Where and how in your life do you experience the three different ways of affirmation and the healing they foster?

What role does the Church play in your experiencing of this affirmation and healing?

Could it do more to embody and express such affirmation and healing? What’s preventing it from doing so?

What role can we play as gay sons of the Church in ensuring that such affirmation and healing is embodied, proclaimed, and shared?


17. On page 63, Stevenson outlines a “crucial choice” for the gay person who suffers from the wound of unlovability, and who accordingly is stuck in more impersonal forms of sexual behavior:

Will he [or won’t he] open himself to receive compassion and affirmation which may be imperfectly given by oneself and one’s friends, partners, family members, therapists, pastoral counselors, and churches; or perfectly and unconditionally given by the ultimate source of love, the Creator of nature and the Healer of our brokenness? What is the alternative? Further despair, self-hatred, or hard-heartedness? Compassion will inevitably lead to more personal forms of relating, including sexual relating, even amid continuing promiscuous behavior.


What are your thoughts on this choice?

Has it been part of your journey as a Catholic gay man?

How and when did you make this choice?

What impact has it had on your life?



18. On page 63, Stevenson relates social justice to promiscuity. Drawing from the insights of his witnesses, he observes that a lot of homosexual people are uneducated or confused with regard to ways of relating sexually aside from promiscuous behavior; that there are negative effects on gay people as a result of existing within a homo-negative culture; that self-hated and despair affects many homosexual people; and that “gay people have been inflicted with a wound of feeling unlovable around their homosexuality.”

The “impersonal forms of sexual relating that result from all these conditions,” insists Stevenson, “are a social justice issue.”

He goes on to envision the following:

Just imagine how different things might be if, for example, Catholic parishes and schools affirmed the goodness and lovability of people in their homosexuality. Not just religion and parochial education, but laws, public schools, and popular culture could all evolve – or perhaps continue to evolve, since in some respects they already have – in ways that would heal the wound of feeling unlovable and open the lives of homosexual people to more personal forms of relating. And given the naturalness, goodness, and lovability of homosexuality, it is the right of gay people to expect justice.


How is the Catholic Church embodying such justice? How does it fail to embody such justice?

What is preventing it from embodying fully the vision of healing and justice put forth by Stevenson and others?

What role can and do we play in such a life-giving, good news-bearing embodiment?


19. Chapter Five of Sons of the Church looks at commitment. It begins by quoting Catholic theologian and ethicist Margaret Farley: “There are some loves whose very power in us moves us to commitment.”

What have been your experiences of such commitment?

What roles do sacrifice, personal responsibility, and prayer play in such commitment?

To what extent does your faith community and/or the wider Church recognize and celebrate such commitment?




20. On page 82, witness Joe shares the response he received from God in relation to his deliberations about whether or not he should commit to Leo, the man he loves, or become a monk. Here’s part of “the Lord’s answer to his prayers”:

Joseph, I love you with every fiber of my being. I love you whether you are gay or straight. . . . [I]n the midst of problems and questions, I exist in you. Through it all, I am here with you. Joseph, you asked me what you were to do with Leo and the idea of being a monk. In both cases I gave you an answer. Remember and relive it. I told you to find me in Leo. . . . And I also told you I will make you holy in the world. Both answers, my son, are still valid. You have what others desire, a relationship that is based on love and affection. Leo loves you and is faithful to you. You also love Leo in spite of your fears and ambiguities. You are not a celibate, Joseph, and I didn’t ordain you to be. Stop worrying about a lifestyle that isn’t yours. Again, I ask you, how many have what you have? Not many. Grow together with Leo. Develop each other’s strengths and forgive each other’s weaknesses. I live in him, Joseph, and I live in you, too. I bless your relationship and I have ordained it to be a vehicle for your salvation, wholeness, and growth.


Have you ever had an experience of hearing deep within yourself, the loving, transforming voice of God?

How was this voice manifested?

What message did it impart?

How has it affirmed, healed, and changed you?




21. On page 79, Michael S. relates the following:

I like it when [my partner and I] pray together, but we don’t do that much. It still feels a little odd to us. But when we’ve done that it’s been really good. And I even heard a story about a couple that would occasionally pray before they had sex. And we did that and it really turns out nice. It’s sex that’s very giving. All of a sudden you’re doing it with a blessing over you or with a higher purpose in life.


What are your thoughts on praying before sex?

Have you ever considered the sex act itself as a form of prayer?



22. Chapter 4 focuses on promiscuity, while Chapter 5 looks at the experiences of gay men in committed relationships. Yet what of those gay men who are neither promiscuous nor in a committed relationship?

Do you consider yourself to be in such a place?

What insights can you share about living truthfully and lovingly in such a place?




23. Chapter 6 of Sons of the Church is concerned with the ways gayness is absolutized. By “absolutization” Stevenson is referring to the human instinct and tendency to take part of life and turn it into the whole. He notes that, “since the part is not the whole, absolutizing involves reductionism. Wholeness is lost in the fixation on something particular, and human beings are reduced to a single aspect of who they are.”

How does the Catholic Church, consciously or unconsciously, participate in the absolutization of gayness?

Do we play a role in this absolutization? How can we counter it?


24. On page 90, Mark M. speaks of moving beyond exclusively gay situations in terms of the Eucharist:

I call that living in the ghetto. Gay ghettos, black ghettos, Hispanic ghettos, feminist ghettos – for whatever reasons – you pull into yourself and disconnect from the larger community and that’s not a Eucharistic event. The Eucharist keeps calling us into connection with others and God.

What are some of the labels you feel are placed upon you as a gay man?

What are some of the names you use to identify yourself? Do you distinguish between labels and names?

One gay Catholic organization, the Rainbow Sash movement, is all about being very upfront about gay identity, to the point of wearing rainbow sashes to communion and, as a result, usually being denied participation in the Eucharistic meal. In light of Mark M.’s and other witnesses’ testimony, as well as your own experiences and insights, how much (if any) of our gay identity do we need to jettison in order to connect with “the larger community”?


25. Beginning on page 95 of Chapter Seven, Stevenson offers concluding thoughts on the “Sons of the Church ” – the “witnesses” – he interviewed for his book:

Our gay Catholic witnesses speak of a love that frees them from the vicious circles of death and destruction for more life-affirming ways of being homosexual. Love is the animating principle for the ways of life. Love is the center of Catholic Christianity – the love of God for us and our love for others. When asked to encapsulate what is essential about their Catholicism, several of our witnesses speak of this love.

Our witnesses speak of how loving, compassionate affirmation of their homosexuality . . . frees them from the destructive denial, hiding, or fighting of their homosexuality. This freeing of themselves as homosexual opens up to new life that is marked by honesty, peacefulness, wholeness, and the experience of the naturalness, goodness, and giftedness of their homosexuality.

Our witnesses speak of how love enters into their sexual relationships. They speak of the tendencies toward destruction in impersonal sexual relationships and of being freed from such destructiveness for a new life of personal relationships marked by joy, sacrifice, commitment, loyalty, prayer, forgiveness, and a sense of giftedness.

Our witnesses speak of being freed from bracketed, isolated gay communities. Our witnesses are freed for an experience of community, Christian community, where there are no divisions of gay versus straight, or gay versus Catholic, or at least where they can meet the challenge of struggling for the healing of such divisions and for a justice that breaks down such divisions.


Do you think most gay Catholic men reflect and embody these particular “Sons of the Church” ’s experiences of freedom? If not, why?

Do such experiences of freedom resonate with you?





26. In the concluding pages of Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men, Stevenson is highly critical of Church teaching that ascribes inherent sinfulness to homosexual actions. He is adamant that such teaching is itself complicit in the destructive behavior of homosexual people; that it is itself a way of death. “What’s bred in bone comes out in flesh,” he reminds us on page 100.

What are your thoughts on this?

Stevenson is equally adamant, however, that “challenging Church teaching . . . does not mean giving up on the center”:

At the center of Catholicism is the love of God for us, this love of God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit for us that in turn transforms us for loving others and returning love to God.

Our witnesses return again and again to this Center, and in their consciences make distinctions about what is not essential in Church teaching, what, according to their lights, is not loving. They do not give up on this Center; rather they challenge from it. To give up on this Center, this Love which is salvific, would itself be destructive.

Stevenson concludes his book by saying that we can be gay and Catholic by “returning again and again to this Love.”

Yet what are the things that can undermine us and work to drive us away from the “Center” identified by Stevenson?

What brings us back?

What sustains us in our “returning again and again”?


Do you see yourself challenging the Church when you stand in “this Center, this Love which is salvific”? How?



See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
The Real Meaning of Courage
The Many Forms of Courage
This “Militant Secularist” Wants to Marry a Man
When “Guidelines” Lack Guidance
Be Not Afraid: You Can Be Happy and Gay
Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: Complex and Nuanced
Somewhere in Between
The Dreaded “Same-Sex Attracted” View of Catholicism
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
Soul Deep
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
The Bible and Homosexuality
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
Keeping the Spark Alive
The Sexuality of Jesus


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