Why the Church and the World Need Celibate Gay Saints

Recently there has been a “coming out” pandemic amongst celibate gay Christian bloggers. First Matt Jones—previously known as “Jordan” but now blogging under his own name at A Joyful Stammering (and Spiritual Friendship)—went public about his identity. Then Catholic blogger Steve Gershom revealed to the world that he is actually Joey Prever.

For two reasons, this trend is good news for both the Church and the world. The first, as Matt Schmitz points out, is that given the increasing acceptance of homosexual relationships in the West, the Church can no longer expect its teachings on sexuality to be credible if they are presented merely in syllogisms. If gay people are to be convinced that the Church has something to say that is worth listening to, that message will be best received when it comes from gay Christians themselves, and is shown forth in their lives. If the Church wants to speak credibly about homosexuality it must be prepared to speak “in the first person,” just as it has recently made an effort to teach the truth of Christian marriage by canonizing married saints and encouraging first-person experiential accounts of living out the Church’s teachings on marital love.

But there is also an important intra-ecclesial point here. The fact that celibate gay Christians are increasingly willing to speak openly about their experiences of reconciling sexuality and faith is not simply about clever advertising aimed at filling empty pews with gay converts. It also promotes a healthy understanding of the nature of the Church—and of the universal Christian call to holiness—among those who are already followers of Christ.

When I converted to Christianity, and read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church had to say about homosexuality, the most difficult part for me to accept was not the part that says homosexual sex is “contrary to the natural law” (2357). The most difficult part to accept was the Church’s claim that homosexual persons “can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” (2359).

The reason this teaching can be so difficult for gay people to accept is because there are no known homosexual saints. Two thousand years of Christian history have produced saints of every age, race, language, and social condition. These saints did not take the secrets of their moral struggle to the grave, but, between them, are known to have battled virtually every temptation possible. As a recent convert, I worried that the absence of gay saints was God’s way of telling me that my conversion was worthless, because someone like me couldn’t be saved anyway.

The lack of same-sex attracted saints who can act as role models for gay Christians aspiring to chaste holiness is depressingly illustrated by the fact that Thomas Paprocki, the Catholic Bishop of Springfield, recently suggested that Mary Stachowicz would be an appropriate patron for the Catholic homosexual support group Courage.

Mary Stachowicz, for those who don’t know her story, was by all accounts a gentle, holy Catholic mother. She was brutally raped, beaten, stabbed, and strangled to death by a young gay man, Nicholas Gutierrez, after she tried to persuade him to give up his sexually active lifestyle.

I don’t doubt Stachowicz’s holiness, nor do I question her suitability for sainthood. But the suggestion that she would be an appropriate patron for homosexual Christians is unfortunate. Imagine if we were trying to choose a patron saint for New York taxi drivers, and instead of trying to find examples of devout Christian taxi drivers whom other taxi drivers wishing to become holy could relate to and imitate, we chose a woman who had been run over by a psychopathic cab driver in the midst of a killing rampage through the streets of New York. What kind of message would this send to other New York taxi drivers about their ability to “gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection”? Holiness, as the bible reminds us constantly, comes through imitation of what is already holy (Lev 11:44; 1 Cor 11:1; 1 Pet 1:15-16).

As Ron Belgau has said, for the Christian, “truth is never purely abstract.” We follow the Word made flesh who is The Truth and so truth, too, “is always incarnate.”

The Word of God became flesh in the Virgin’s womb … His holiness is revealed in the lives of the saints. But when it comes to the Church’s teaching about same-sex attraction, we have presently a great disadvantage: those who choose to embrace the world’s teaching will find an abundance of role models, whether in the media, in the schools, or even in their own parish, for many parishes today have no shortage of publicly proclaimed dissidents. But those who choose to live a life of chastity will have the greatest difficulty finding any role models at all.

Christians need role models to whom they can relate if they are to successfully pursue holiness, and gay and lesbian Christians are no exception to this. This is why the Bible provides us many examples of holy men and women from Noah to the Apostles, whose lives Scripture exhorts us to study and imitate (Heb 13:7). This is why Christian tradition has bequeathed to us so many colorful lives of the saints, to show us that every kind of person can become holy.

I am not, of course, claiming that Matt, Joey, or any other contemporary same-sex attracted blogger, is a model of holiness for people to imitate. And I doubt anyone would want me to make such a claim on their behalf. But, sooner or later, someone is going to be a gay saint, and the first, baby step along the road to having gay saints is for people to know that gay Christians exist who are trying to seek God’s will in their lives.

The holiness of the saints glorifies God, and shows forth the authenticity of His Church’s claim—in the language of the ecumenical Creed—to be “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The Church and the world need gay saints to illustrate the truth that all of “God’s beloved”—gay or straight—are “called to be saints” (Rom 1:20); that he “chose us”—all of us—“in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4).

aarontaylor50Aaron Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at Boston College. He previously studied at the Universities of London and Oxford, and worked for a London-based research institute dedicated to raising the quality of thinking about public policy in civil society.

46 thoughts on “Why the Church and the World Need Celibate Gay Saints

    • The problem goes away if you don’t use the term “gay” but look for saints who struggled with a temptation to homosexual acts. I realize that in this day and age we need to use the term “gay” for simple communication, but I don’t think we should restrict the search for saintly role models to the concept of an orientation that never changes in any way. None of the saints would have recognized the temptations they struggled with in that light, so you would be unduly restricting yourselves.

  1. mdhoerr: The issue isn’t one of terminology. You make it sound like there is a large collection of saints who are known to have struggled with the temptation to commit homosexual acts, and Aaron is frustrated by the fact that none of these saints identified as “gay.”

    Aaron writes: “The reason this teaching can be so difficult for gay people to accept is because there are no known homosexual saints.”

    He then talks about “The lack of same-sex attracted saints who can act as role models for gay Christians aspiring to chaste holiness.”

    The issue here isn’t whether we call saints who are known to have struggled with the temptation to commit homosexual acts “gay” or “homosexual” or “same-sex attracted.”

    The problem is that there are no saints who are known to have struggled with the temptation to commit homosexual acts. That problem will not go away if we change the words we use.

    Also, what makes you think that Aaron is using the word “gay” to refer to “the concept of an orientation that never changes in any way”?

    • My suggestion was based on something I thought I read here some time ago, although perhaps it was in the comments. Someone mentioned that Aelred of Rievaulx may have suffered from such temptations. I tried to find the commenter and the reference, but was unable to.

      I realize this is a difficult area, because so many people these days seem to infer sexual attraction from the love of friendship. Perhaps this is another such case, that I am confused about.

    • I know that he did not identify in any way with what the king demanded. But he did stand up for the rights of men & boys not to be used sexually.

      • Charles Lwanga is a saint and hero. But he wasn’t homosexual. The only homosexual in Lwanga’s story is the sexually licentious and violent king that martyred him. So, while we should certainly venerate Lwanga, suggesting him as an appropriate patron for same-sex attracted Catholics striving for holiness runs into the same problem I highlighted with regard to Mary Stachowicz above.

  2. I am confident that there are saints in heaven (perhaps many) who struggled their life long with temptation to same sex lust and who succeeded in finishing the race in their perseverance in grace. There were most likely bishops, priests and religious among them and no doubt married people. I think the term ‘gay saint’ is an oxymoron though I know what you mean when you use that term. The world wants “saints” who were “gay” meaning they bought into the lifestyle and happened to be Catholic went to Church and perhaps were unrepentantly sexually active in defiance of Church teaching in order to affirm the masses who embrace same sex attraction and happen to be Catholic. We desperately need to be edified by men and women who inspite of their same sex attraction attained to heavenly glory and who embraced that cross, carried it and were through grace victorious in winning their heavenly crowns.

    • You said :The world wants “saints” who were “gay” meaning they bought into the lifestyle and happened to be Catholic went to Church and perhaps were unrepentantly sexually active in defiance of Church teaching in order to affirm the masses who embrace same sex attraction and happen to be Catholic.
      —————

      That’s not what the word “gay” means.

  3. First of all, I am very glad to see some young people being willing to witness to the world that they are attracted to their own sex yet desire to follow God’s Word rather than the world. I do think our young people especially need to see that celibacy is a good and healthy choice. Hopefully the Church will seize the opportunity to show these young men and women compassion and support and, thus, give testimony to the grace and mercy of Christ.

    However, I think it would be best if we never know the sexual orientation of any of the saints who went before us. In my opinion much of the harm and suffering felt by those who are gay have been caused not by the fact they are lonely, nor by celibacy, but by being separated out as homosexual vs heterosexual as based on their feelings and then being called “perverted” and “unnatural” by other Christian merely for facing a temptation they neither wanted nor asked for.

    Instead of knowing to whom saints of old were attracted I would rather the church declare, “they may have been attracted to males or females but what we honor them for is their vocation to refrain from sex for the sake of Christ” That way the gay Christian kid can choose whichever role model he wishes and apply their life and encouragement to himself, saying, “he may have been gay like me – but certainly he walked a path I wish to walk for Christ” and thus identify with ANY saint he admires.

    But that, of course, will take adult Christians willing to put aside their sqeamishness and accept the fact that any Christian, any saint, may well have been same sex attracted.

    • Mr. Taylor, thank you for writing this and sharing your perspective; and certainly the parts about why Charles Lwanga and Mary Stachowicz as patron saints for gays pose certain problems.

      As a recent convert, I worried that the absence of gay saints was God’s way of telling me that my conversion was worthless, because someone like me couldn’t be saved anyway.

      I can understand that. Not only does the Church need to repeatedly point out that it’s not true that gays can’t be saved and that your conversion is worthless, but to reiterate Christ’s words: “My grace is sufficient for you” (and also “apart from Me, you can do nothing”)– that’s how we have any saints, and how we’ll have any gay saints, at all. All the more reason why the Sacramental Life of the Church needs to be re-emphasized as part of what friendship with Christ means. Why there aren’t any known gay saints is probably because a lot of what gay, celibate Christians struggle with likely fits under the broader headings of “lust” and “sins against chastity.” So there’s some invisibility because on one level, it never really “came up,” whereas the visibility of gay rights has drawn attention to that lack of visibility.

      I do think our young people especially need to see that celibacy is a good and healthy choice.

      Agreed, Matt. And what will be important is that Christians relearn that what you’ve written applies also to straight people who are unmarried– which is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches that way too many straight people on average, Catholic or not, routinely ignore. Especially given that you’ve identified this separation of homosexual versus heterosexual. Grace also does not “suppress” anything; it integrates it into one’s person more holistically, and it does not come all at once (this also comes up in discussions about chastity before and during marriage). Celibacy is not something deficient, and romantic partnerships and marriage are not the “default” position, whereby the pinnacle of love is somehow equivalent or reducible to them.

      I’m not gay, but I do find the witness of gay, celibate Christians compelling and inspirational for the simple reason that I find celibacy compelling, period, and not at all antithetical to genuine love or being loved: in fact, it makes the eschatological dimension of “God is Love” all the clearer. As a married woman, I often need reminding of that, so I’m grateful for your witness as well as the witness of our priests and religious. The fact that the rite of marriage in a Nuptial Mass takes place within the Liturgy of the Eucharist has given me a lot to chew on. It’s ultimately about Jesus and how living through, with, and in Him enables everyone to live what the culture says is “too hard.” No exceptions. Any addressing of the separation of homosexual versus heterosexual has to begin and end with Him. Furthermore, if Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, tears down the veil between God and Man, eternal life isn’t somehow only for the hereafter; it compels a choice for it right here, right now. It’s present right here, right now. And He is with us unto the end of the age.

      To all: if I have misspoken, expressed myself clumsily, or am speaking out of turn, I apologize.

  4. Oh, and I also think we should be able to say that about married saints as well as single ones – marriage, too, is a good vocation and I know many gay men and women who are happily married to someone of the opposite sex and are very satisfied raising kids with their best friend

    • Precisely. Celibacy isn’t just for gay people, and marriage isn’t just for straight people: marriage is for one man, one woman, period. It doesn’t say anything about sexual orientation.

  5. Thanks, Matt for your comments. I actually think we are are on the same wavelength here. I’m not interested in delving into the private lives of past saints to see who they were attracted to. I am saying I hope we have some gay saints in the future. If we both agree that its a positive development that there are people “willing to witness to the world that they are attracted to their own sex yet desire to follow God’s Word rather than the world,” it’s not inconceivable that some of these people might be saints one day.

    This doesn’t mean gay people can only identify with gay saints, any more than men can only identify with male saints or laypeople can only identify with lay saints. But it would help to have some, I think.

  6. I’d be totally down for sainthood, but I’m not Catholic so I’m not sure they’d take me.

    What’s the protestant equivalent? Maybe, like, dedicate a new activity hall/potluck center to my memory?

    Aaron, this is a great post. You are always articulate and thoughtful.

    Peace,

    Matt

  7. My question is always, what does a gay Christian look like? I’d love a role model but I feel that being a traditional Christian makes it very hard for gays who are living the Church’s teachings to be themselves. I feel the constant pressure of talking and acting as straight as possible. I’m not effeminate but I do have some characteristics that people would identify with gay men. It’s wearing down on me. Some times I want to go to a gay bar just so I can be me for a drink or two and relax.

    • I hope I’m not going to sound trite. I hear you in terms of being yourself. I can relate on some level, because I’ve been a loner for most of my life for all sorts of cultural reasons. But I’m not going to presume that I can relate on all of them. I am sorry to hear that the pressure is wearing down on you.

      What I will say, though, is this: we are only ever truly ourselves in Jesus Christ. Christians don’t own Jesus; but we do belong to Him if we remain in Him. If you are faithfully living the Church’s teachings, you already know Who you belong to. So I’m not sure you owe it to anyone to talk and act as straight as possible.

      • Our true identity is in Christ, no doubt! But it’s good when you can be yourself around people. I know I don’t owe it to anyone to act this or that way but when your closest circle of friends are all very conservative Catholics you have to be prudent. Some people can’t accept that homosexuality in itself is not the sin.

    • I’m sorry to hear that some folks can’t accept that a homosexual attraction in itself is not a sin (only the act is). It is, after all, what the Church teaches.

      • WSquared, I should clarify right up front that I do not regard either homosexual attraction or homosexual acts to be sinful. (I am homosexual and recently married my partner of 13 years; we are Unitarians.)

        My heart aches for men and women who voluntarily renounce all hopes of a physical and sexual embrace with the object of their love and desire. I have seen so many people literally bloom when they fall in love and enter into a committed relationship. Not only is this “blooming” one of life’s greatest joys, but it can and often does have lasting power to foster happiness and emotional stability for the remainder of one’s married life.

        Why purposely deny oneself an experience that is so richly human and so deeply satisfying?

        I sense a great deal of confusion among gay Catholics about their standing in the Church. On the one hand, the Church teaches that only the homosexual “act” is sinful, but on the other hand, it teaches that impure thoughts are sinful and must be confessed. Jesus’s teaching about “lust in one’s heart” being equivalent to adultery leaves no doubt that desires are, in and of themselves, to be a source of shame and guilt.

        Assuming for a moment that you are a gay man, can you honestly admit to a fellow Catholic (except perhaps intimate friends) that you have lustful thoughts about other men? If not, then I think your shame is a proof of your confusion and the Church’s own confusion about this. Let the Church declare unequivocally that you are NOT to feel guilty about your desires. But you know as well as I do that the Church will never do this, because your guilt is their tether to you.

        I shudder when I think of the bargain you’re making with the Church. But it is a relation of dangerous dependency, and I hope you can at least see that. Seeing it will be a first step.

      • thebetnangle,

        I would suspect that most people would not honestly admit the nature or object of their sexual attractions.

  8. First, let me just sum up what I think Aaron Taylor has proposed. He envisions a Catholic response to “the increasing acceptance of homosexual relationships in the West. In order to show “gay people [not just gay Catholics] that the Church has something to say that is worth listening to,” the Church must encourage celibate gay Christians to “speak openly about their experiences of reconciling sexuality and faith.” What the Church has to offer gay people is the shining example of gays who have, at least for the moment, successfully suppressed their sexual and affectional longings.

    I’m sorry. It’ll never work. Fewer and fewer gays, even Catholic ones, are any longer “struggling” with their sexuality. Celibacy isn’t a failed goal. It just isn’t a goal at all. And why should it be?

    Well, if you are in the Catholic thought-frame, homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. If you really believe that, then go ahead and waste the only youth you’ll ever have. Beat yourself up. Twist yourself into a pretzel. Your reward will be your aura of sanctity and your fervent hope that other Catholics will notice how holy you’ve become. Tuck yourself into the folds of your big, warm institution instead of snuggling beside a lover. You will have missed out on one of life’s greatest joys, but at least you’ll have the approval of your church.

    Or will you? This is where I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, because the Catholic Church will never treat you with the respect you’re longing for. You will always be in the lower echelon of sinners, well below the adulterers. You will be marked as “disordered” because of your very desires, despite every attempt you make to suppress them.

    At the rate homosexual relationships are gaining acceptance, the Church is going to have to crank out a huge number of gay saints, and fast.

    I’m still not sure what the Church thinks it can offer gays that is better than what they are now being offered, i.e., a place at the table.

  9. Saints were far from perfect people; they were sinners in need of a Saviour like the rest of us. St. Simon the Zealot, one of Jesus’s apostles, had in fact been a terrorist. St. Simon rejected worldly terrorism for building a Kingdom not of this world.

    Maybe we will have gay saints, and maybe their history would be..colorful, to write the least. But the important part is that like, st. Simon, they submitted unconditionally to God, and become heroes for all eternity.

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  11. @thebentangle: your claim that it is madness to “deny oneself an experience that is so richly human and so deeply satisfying” as “a physical and sexual embrace with the object of [one's] love and desire” is more of a point against celibacy in general (which is greatly valued for a number of reasons in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and in many other world religions), than against gay celibacy in particular.

    • It is an argument against compulsory celibacy of gay people simply because they are gay. Of course there are some people, gay or straight, who are called to celibacy because of some mission –Mother Theresa, contemplatives, etc.

      • If I said we need more women saints to act as role models for women in the Church, that would be quite a different thing from saying that it is compulsory for all Christians to be women. So, saying that we need celibate gay saints is not the same as saying all gay people must be celibate. Some gay people choose to remain celibate in accordance with their understanding of their moral law. Whether this is something *all* gay people should aspire to is an important question but it is not the one addressed here.

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  22. Yes, Michael Ejercito, all people should avoid sin. And yes, “buggery” is a sin. But that wasn’t the subject of this article. There are other gay issues to be talked about apart from the morality of gay sex.

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