Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Many Forms of Courage (Part I)

I recently came across Sed Contra, the blogsite of David Morrison, a Catholic who lives his life “beyond gay” – an expression which serves as the title of a book he has written documenting his journey from gay activist to chaste Catholic.

The stated trajectory of Morrison's journey clearly reflects a perspective which considers being gay and/or an activist as inferior to being Catholic and chaste. I actually strive to be all four - although unlike Morrison, I don't necessarily equate chastity with celibacy. The former, after all, refers first and foremost to purity of heart not to sexual abstinence.

Morrison is also the founder and moderator of
Courage Online, a cyber community for Catholic men and women “living with some degree of same sex attraction who wish to do so chastely”.

A clash of ideological commitments

Those within the Courage movement disavow the term “gay,” insisting that when someone refers instead to a person as being “same-sex attracted,” it simply describes an experience and condition. “Gay,” on the other hand, supposedly implies a whole set of ideological commitments.

Of course, it’s ludicrous to think that the term “same-sex attraction” and its substitution for the word “gay,” doesn’t itself connote certain ideological commitments.

For Roman Catholics like Morrison, chief among these “commitments” is an unquestioning obedience to the Magisterium, i.e., the teaching ability and authority of the Pope and those bishops in union with him.

Ironically, those who base their Catholic identity on such obedience have, in fact, grafted a reactionary, fear-based ideology onto a religion that in actuality is all about inclusion, justice, community, and compassion – all of which convey a sense of ongoing journey or pilgrimage when it comes to understanding and living our Catholic faith.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics, and indeed all who advocate for the basic human rights of LGBT people within both church and society, embody such an understanding of the faith. Accordingly, they seem to me to be more aligned with the authentic Christian values of inclusion, justice, community, and compassion, than those who commit to unquestioning obedience to the teachings of the Magisterium and, by extension, an understanding of church modelled on the paradigm of absolute monarchy.

It’s important to remember that such unquestioning obedience to the Magisterium also means unquestioning obedience to the discredited science, impoverished sexual theology, and biblical and doctrinal fundamentalism which, sadly, goes along with the Magisterium’s understanding of human sexuality.

The Magisterium and human sexuality

The Magisterium teaches that homosexual acts are an “intrinsic moral evil” because, like masturbation and heterosexual sex involving contraception, such sexual activity is not open to the transmitting of life – which is solely defined in terms of biological procreation.

For the Magisterium, “genital sexual activity” is only ever morally acceptable when it takes place within a “heterosexual marital relationship” and when each and every sex act of this relationship is open to conception and thus, potentially, biological procreation.

In this series of three posts I’d like to explore the various questions and implications for theology and the lives of LGBT people that result from the Magisterium’s understanding of sexuality. Such a discussion will take us beyond issues of sexuality. After all, any questioning, discussion, and potential reform of the church’s official teaching on sexuality must also address issues relating to our understanding of revelation, authority, and the very nature of “the church”.

Experiencing God – as celibate or in a gay relationship

First, however, I need to stress that I’ve always maintained that if someone feels called to live a celibate life than they need to do so. I support them in their choice to be celibate.

No one should feel pressured by outside entities to be sexually active.

Yet no one should feel pressured by outside entities to be celibate, either.

I respect and celebrate anyone’s experience of God in their life of celibacy. I also respect and celebrate a gay couple’s experience of God in their loving and committed relationship.

David Morrison and the Courage movement, however, cannot. And the reason for this, more often than not, is because they are told not to by the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church.

For the members of Courage, the various doctrines of the Magisterium that attempt to address the issue of homosexuality comprise the final word on the matter. After all, as a proponent of Courage once told me, it is not just the Magisterium that is speaking but Christ himself.

Doctrinal fundamentalism

Such a perspective reflects and encourages doctrinal fundamentalism, which, unfortunately, is just as Christ-denying and soul-destroying as biblical fundamentalism. Simply throwing either scripture or Vatican rhetoric at complex and deeply human realities such as sexuality doesn’t cut it with the vast majority of Catholics – gay or straight.

Homophobic documents such as the Vatican’s 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons are far from the definitive and final word on the matter of homosexuality. In actuality, that “word,” for the vast majority of LGBT Catholics, continues to unfold in their lives. And its message is very different from that of the Vatican’s Magisterium.

For instance, the aforementioned 1986 letter describes the homosexual orientation as “disordered”. Yet disordered from what? The “naturally ordered” way God intended and designed people to live, argues the Courage crowd.

Furthermore, this “ordered” way or “design,” they declare, is clearly laid out for us in the Book of Genesis, in “natural law,” and in the moral teaching of the Catholic Church which they insist has not only never changed, but is incapable of changing! So much for a living Magisterium and the living Catholic faith.

What happens, though, when LGBT persons don’t experience their sexuality as “disordered”?

What if accepting and expressing their sexuality leads LGBT persons to experiences of wholeness, love, and deeper connection with self, others, and God?

Of course, questioning and dialogue of this nature are not encouraged by the Vatican. Indeed, the message is clear: further dialogue on the matter is unnecessary and any attempt to facilitate such dialogue is an expression of disobedience.

Yet given the wealth of information and insight from both science and human experience currently available (and which clearly needs to be integrated into the Church’s living and thus developing teaching on sexuality), this cutting off of dialogue and hostility to other insights is very troubling to many Catholics.

Also, as Catholic theologian Daniel Helminiak has observed: “No Catholic ethical teaching is defined infallibly. Certain beliefs have been proclaimed infallibly, but never an ethical teaching. The Catholic mind is smart enough to know that right and wrong often depend on concrete circumstances and limited human understanding.”

NEXT: Part II of “The Many Forms of Courage.”

Image: Two Saints: Tete-a-tete by Ted Fusby, used with permission.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Real Meaning of Courage
The Dreaded “Same-sex Attracted” View of Catholicism
Be Not Afraid: You Can Be Happy and Gay
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: “Complex and Nuanced”


Closed said...


Thank you for this series. As an Anglican, it seems I have to often cut across two juggernauts, dogmatic fundamentalism of the Roman Catholic sort and biblical fundamentalism of the Protestant (usually Calvinist) sort.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

This seems like a fairly balanced post. I think that the 'ultramontane' or obedient school of thought needs to be respected, though I am not a member of that school.

In fact, Courage international is a fantastic club with which to bop conservative, Leviticus-quoting bigots over the head. If you want to reach out to LGBT persons with Christian dignity in an ultramontane, traditional, even orthodox way join Courage. If not, shut up and go away.

Courage also shows the breadth of diversity in the gay community. There is such a thing as an ultramontane catholic LGBT person and they aren't necessarily self-loathing or confused. They might be, they might not be. Clearly there may be some folks out there for whom practicing homosexuality is not right. And they shoul be respected.

Christopher tells me that we all have something to offer one another in working out sexual ethics. That may be, but I think that actual professed LGBT persons need to work some things out on their own, with regard to sexual ethics.

I read what Dignity had to say and it seemed wishy washy and all watered down. It was so keen on democracy and not hurting anyone's feelings that the statement said nothing. It left the feeling like "Let all your bondage be loving and let not your orgy become too crazy." This is where the ultramontane perspective has something to say. The opposite of mushy nihilism is declaring an objective truth. That's inherently going to offend someone who disagrees. Reasonable people might disagree.

I would tend to think that a starting point for a sexual ethic for LGBT persons would be to embrace monogamy and reject promiscuity. The ethic could be kindly phrased like "LGBT orientatin can be very confusing and many in our community endured a period of promiscuity before maturing, however, promiscuity is always objectively wrong and we reject it as a community. It engenders unrequited love, jealousy, risk of disease, objectification of others, and all manner of psycho-drammatic trauma to other persons."

Can you point me toward where such an ethic has been agreed upon and enacted by a group like Dignity or Courage UK?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Winnipeg Catholic,

You may find that Catholic theologian Daniel Helminiak discusses and outlines the type of ethic you seek in his book Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth. He also talks about ethical concerns regarding sexuality in the interview I conducted with him in 2006 and which can be viewed here.

Also, the issue of ethics in gay sexuality is explored in Thomas Stevenson’s book, Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men. Earlier this year I planned and facilitated a discussion on this text with members of the Basilica of St. Mary’s gay support group. My “discussion guide,” incorporating excerpts from Stevenson’s book, can be found here.

I hope these are helpful to you.



Anonymous said...

I read this article and though I disagree with you on many of your points, there is only one that I think is thoroughly unfair. The Magisterium does not teach that we should obey without question. We should wrestle with all moral standards she puts before us. We should not accept on blind faith but read Scripture, read the early Church fathers, read papal encyclicals, read secular combatants as well. This is good for us to use human reason to arrive at the conclusion that she does. If, however, after reading, after using our own reason, we, as individuals in a narrow time period with limited ability and insight compared with the 2,000 year old Church Tradition cannot align our reason with hers, only then should we acquiesce to her teaching purely on faith. And if this be the case, it is best that we continue struggling to understand why she teaches the things she teaches. I think this is a much different mentality that just blind obedience.