Recently on the blogsite of America magazine, James Martin, S.J., listed all the things that gay people “are not to do according to the teaching of the [Roman Catholic] church.” They include: Enjoy romantic love, marry, adopt a child, enter a seminary, and work for the church and be open.
Martin also notes that gay people in the church are frequently reminded that they are “objectively disordered,” and that their sexuality is “a deviation.”
He concludes his piece with the following:
Taken together, [all of this] raises an important pastoral question for all of us: What kind of life remains for these brothers and sisters in Christ, those who wish to follow the teachings of the church? Officially at least, the gay Catholic seems set up to lead a lonely, loveless, secretive life. Is this what God desires for the gay person?
Although the points Martin raises are important, I’m nevertheless disappointed that he makes no attempt to offer answers to the critical questions he poses. There’s also no acknowledgment that the “teachings of the church” regarding homosexuality are discerned by many Catholics - both gay and straight - as being at odds with the gospel message. Indeed, after often long and difficult journeys of discernment, many in good conscience dissent from these teachings and trust instead their own experience of God mediated in and through their lives and relationships.
All of this reminds me of a commentary entitled “Untouchable” that Ned O’Gorman had published last December in Commonweal:
There is a place where even the liberal Catholic press fears to tread. The relative lack of serious discussion about homosexual desire casts into spiritual darkness a tribe of believing Catholic men and women who must fend for themselves in their quest for a serene emotional life, for companionship, and for the comfort of sexual love. For “the teaching church,” the subject is untouchable.
. . . as it largely appears also for Martin, who only questions the “teaching church,” but offers no direct critique, counter arguments, or alternatives.
There are few intellectuals, lay or clerical, who will take it on, for it is risky to bring into the public forum the notion that there are Catholics who practice their faith with diligence and who love those of their own sex and have known the joy of that love.
As O’Gorman notes, he is one such Catholic, one who has “discovered that such a love is easy to bear, complete, and holy.”
I contend that of those gay Catholics who remain within the Roman expression of Catholicism, most would resonate with – or at least concur with – O’Gorman’s experience. They consciously live their lives – their relational lives – in ways that continually reveal God’s loving and transforming presence. And this journey is undertaken and celebrated regardless of what the clerical leadership of the church insists should or shouldn’t be done.
The lives and stories of such gay Catholics are out there. They are lives and stories of Catholics who know exactly what needs to be done in the face of the prohibitions set forth by the church’s clerical caste. I wish James Martin had drawn from these lives and stories when writing his piece for America.
And I wish he would have drawn from his own experience as a Catholic Christian and responded to the question: Is a lonely, loveless, secretive life what God desires for the gay person?
My response to such a question is unequivocal: Of course it’s not.
Fullness of Life
Jesus came to embody and model a way of living and being in the world that leads to fullness of life. God does not will anyone to “lead a lonely, loveless, secretive life.” It’s a lie to tell a gay person that such a life is the special cross that God wills them to bear. Yet this is what many are told by some in the church. But it’s a lie. It is not God’s will.
God desires us to be full human beings, willing and able to give and receive love. Gay people, like their straight counterparts, can and do experience the giving and receiving of love through sexual relationships marked by justice, wholeness, and this life-transforming and, yes, life-giving sharing of love. The Church as the people of God has for centuries been growing in ever-greater awareness of this truth. Yet the vast majority of those males who comprise the clerical, celibate caste of the Roman Catholic Church have not. And the question has to be asked: Why?
The central problem
My own view is that many (perhaps even a majority) of bishops and priests are closeted (and psycho-sexually stunted) gay men who do not want healthy, well-adjusted gay people in their midst. Such people pose a highly uncomfortable challenge to all forms of unhealthy and dysfunctional expressions of sexuality. In a similar way, the vast majority of male clerics have a stunted and dysfunctional connection with women – so much so that they fear them gaining any kind of equality in ministry.
In short, most men in positions of power within Roman Catholicism fear relating with anyone who has grown beyond the dysfunction that, in large measure, justifies and sustains the entire clerical, celibate caste system within which men are prevented from growing, changing . . . and, yes, loving in a truly Christ-like way.
Author James Baldwin says it best:
I think the inability to love is the central problem, because the inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And, if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive. The great difficulty is to say YES to life. The difficult quest is to be oneself, to be true, to say YES with courage – to accept one’s sexuality, one’s race, one’s bittersweet contradictions.*
Think about the church’s prohibition against any type of sexual connecting outside of procreative sex within heterosexual marriage sanctioned by the church – a prohibition that even includes masturbation. At it’s most basic level, it’s a prohibition against touch – human touch that can potentially lead to greater self-awareness, personal development, and fullness of life.
I think centuries ago, church leaders recognized and began to fear the power of sexual touch. Such touch is transforming; it has the potential, yes, for harm, but also for liberation and empowerment. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the strict sexual prohibitions within the Christian church came about during what Harvey Cox has termed the “Age of Belief,” that time when Christianity “curdled into a top-heavy edifice defined by obligatory beliefs enforced by a hierarchy.”
Cox maintains that, in contrast, early Christians allowed for multiple understandings and expressions of the faith, so much so, I’d add, that even the “gay saints” Sergius and Bacchus were acknowledged and accepted. Yet once Christianity moved from being “a loose network of local congregations, with varied forms of leadership” into a “rigid class structure with a privileged clerical caste at the top ruling over an increasingly disenfranchised laity on the bottom,” all kinds of changes began to take place. And women, along with those whom we now understand as gay, where no doubt the first to be “pushed to the underside and the edges.”
We’ve inherited quite a problem, haven’t we?
Still, our God is a God of transformation. People – and institutions – can and do change. Life remains a precious gift – full, it’s true, of “bittersweet contradictions,” of joy and suffering, pleasure and pain. It’s both “tree of life” and “cross of death.” So when a gay person is unlucky in love, when he/she experiences, for instance, heartache over a failed relationship, it’s wrong to blame his/her sexual orientation. It’s erroneous to imply that the homosexual orientation guarantees such unhappiness and failure; that a homosexual orientation is the mark of a broken sexuality. Yet these types of things are exactly what the clerical leadership of the Church says. It says that as gay people we can never be fulfilled and happy; we can never experience God’s sanctifying love in our sexual relationships. These are all lies. If you take nothing else, dear reader, from this blog, take this: Those types of statements, that type of thinking . . . lies, all lies.
One reason I choose to remain in the Roman Catholic Church is to identify and refute such lies. For me, these untruths are such a grievous affront to the life and teachings of Jesus that I simply cannot remain silent.
Increasingly, the question for me is not “What should I do as a gay Catholic?,” but rather “How best can I do what I know I must do as a gay Catholic?”
And what exactly must I do?
Well, it’s really not that much different from what we are all called to do. I am to bear humble yet firm witness to God’s loving and transforming presence in my life and relationships as a human being – a human being who happens to be gay. I also feel called to bear witness to what I experience of God in the lives and relationships of other people – gay people included.
I believe that all of this means that our seeking of and attuning to God’s presence in real human lives must come before unquestioning adherence to traditions and doctrines uninformed by and unresponsive to this same sacred presence mediated in and through human experience. As I’ve noted previously, love trumps tradition; and conscience, informed by God’s presence in the depths of our being, trumps doctrine developed by others unmindful of our reality and of God’s presence in our lives.
I don’t do any of this simply for myself but for the ongoing development of both the church and humanity. I believe the honest sharing of who we are and of God’s presence in our lives and relationships is not only needed for the continued shaping of our theology – our collective way of talking about God – but for our healing from centuries of fear and ignorance, and the terrible things – the violent and debilitating things – that such fear and ignorance has inflicted upon all of us. Homophobia and sexism do not only harm gay people and women, but, in many ways, heterosexuals and men as well. We all need healing.
Perhaps the following excerpt from Part 5 of my semi-autobiographical series The Journal of James Curtis will clarify what I mean. In this particular excerpt James recounts a conversation with a Roman Catholic womanpriest named Cathie.
“But aren’t you all excommunicated?” I asked. “I mean, this system you want to be part of doesn’t accept you. Why be part of it?”
Cathie looked at me intently.
“James,” she said softly, “does this system accept you as a gay man? You know it doesn’t, and yet you stay; you want to be part of it. Why?
I was lost for words.
“We stay, James, you and I, because we believe we have something to give to the Church. The Church would be incomplete with out us. One of my mentors is an old Native American woman, and in her culture they have the idea of ‘medicine’ – of healing insight and be-ing that brings wholeness to individuals and the community. I believe with all my heart that our dear Church, our spiritual community, is terribly sick, profoundly unhealthy, and that it’s people like us, people whom those in positions of power dismiss and ‘excommunicate,’ who carry within them the medicine that’s needed to make the Church well, to make it whole. That’s why I stay, James. Not to be part of a sick and dysfunctional system, but because I’m a medicine bearer, as are you. And we’re called to be part of the healing, part of this wonderful movement of the Spirit that is happening all around us. But we have to be within the system to facilitate the healing.”
Of course, I’m well aware that the clerical leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has a near-obsessive compulsion to dismiss, malign, and deny the lives and relationships of gay people, and accordingly the transforming and healing presence of God that they contain for all of us. If there is anything that could be understood as the “cross” that gay Catholics must bear, it’s this willful degradation by the clerical leadership of our lives and our relationship with self, others, and God.
Recently there was a news story about the Vatican’s views on the possibility of life on other planets. In contemplating the idea of God creating alien life forms, Jose Gabriel Funes, a Jesuit priest, astronomer, and the director of the Vatican Observatory said: “We cannot put limits on God’s creative freedom.”
Yet this is exactly what the clerical leadership of the Church does when it comes to human sexuality; when it declares as infallible its current (and limited) understanding of the meaning and purpose of sexuality and its expression. Indeed, it would seem that those who comprise the clerical leadership would be more comfortable with alien life forms than with their gay neighbors here on earth!
Reform and Renewal
I’m fortunate to be part of a number of local groups that are working to make a difference in the lives of Catholics – gay and straight – who are deeply troubled by the disconnects between the hierarchical church’s views, policies, and practices concerning homosexuality and the gospel message of love. Together, we’re working to identify these disconnects and to articulate alternative policies and practices that embody a church that radiates Jesus’ core teaching of radical equality, unabashed inclusivity, and transforming love. We will not be silent; we are not leaving.
I’m well aware, however, that not all gay people are able to remain in the abusive environment that the church has become as a result of the attitudes and actions of its clerical leadership. Part of me recognizes that for many people – especially women and gay people – the healthiest thing to do, both emotionally and spiritually, is to cease participating in the Roman expression of Catholicism. Indeed, I know many gay people who have found a loving and accepting spiritual home elsewhere, for example in the Episcopal Church or in the Old Catholic Church.
I can’t say for sure that one day I may not join the mass exodus of people from the Roman Catholic Church, but for now I’m committed to staying and continuing working with others to bring about reform and renewal. This blog is part of that effort, as is my work with the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), the Progressive Catholic Voice, and the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform.
The King’s Outlaw
I’ve often thought that if ever I was to write an autobiography of my life as a gay Catholic I’d entitle it “The King’s Outlaw.” It’s a title that reflects certain medieval and courtly concepts so beloved by “traditionalists.” But that’s not why I’m drawn to it.
No, “The King’s Outlaw” was the English title given to a French television series (Thierry La Fronde) that I remember watching as a child in Australia. And yes, Jean-Claude Drouot who played the outlaw in this Robin Hood-type tale was a very handsome guy indeed in my little gay boy eyes!
I choose this title because it sums up well my relationship with the church – and with God. You see, I believe that although I’m definitely outside the “laws” as promulgated by the church’s clerical leadership, I remain nevertheless in the “king’s”, i.e., God’s loving embrace as I strive to live a life of consciousness, compassion, integrity and, yes, chastity, i.e., purity of heart.
The current pope and the majority of bishops may mean well, but I believe that when it comes to matters of human sexuality they’ve betrayed the gospel message. As James Martin and others have clearly shown, there is no good news for gay people in the discriminatory ideology that the Vatican attempts to pass off as sexual theology. Indeed, there’s not much good news for any of us. And so, given where the hierarchical church is at in terms of its sexual theology, I’m well aware that I stay as an outlaw, a dissenter. And that’s okay.
Of course, I’ve been accused of trying to “destroy the church” - by which I believe is really meant a certain (limited) way of understanding the church. I’m not interested in destruction, but rather transformation – my own, the church’s, and the world’s. That’s ultimately what I live for. And that’s why I remain a gay Catholic in a far from perfect church.
* James Baldwin, from an interview first published in The Advocate and excerpted in the Utne Reader, July/August 2002, p. 100.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Getting It Right
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
The Gifts of Homosexuality
The Many Forms of Courage (Part 1)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part 2)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part 3)
Be Not Afraid, You Can Be Happy and Gay
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation
Hypocrisy, Ignorance, Promiscuity, and the Love that is the Center of Catholic Christianity
Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
A Catholic Voice for Marriage Equality at the State Capitol
What Is It That Ails You?
The “Ratzinger Letter” of 1986 as “Theological Pornography”
Staying on Board
Choosing to Stay
The Challenge to Become Ourselves
No Matter What
Recommended Off-site Links:
The Catholic Church’s Judas Kiss - Terence Weldon (Queering the Church, November 14, 2009).
More on the Judas Kiss: What is a Gay Catholic to Do? - Terence Weldon (Queering the Church, November 15, 2009).
The Conversation Centrist Catholics Do Not Intend to Have: What Are the Gays to Do? - William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, November 14, 2009).
The Conversation Centrist Catholics Do Not Intend To Have, Continued - William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, November 16, 2009).
What Should Gay Catholics Do May Not Mean Just Chaste Suffering in the Closet - Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, November 15, 2009).
Opening image: Michael J. Bayly.