Eve is correct, it seems to me, that gay Christians who are unafraid to tell the world — and the Church — what their journey of faith looks like, and to seek to join the life of the Church fully, in accord with what the Church knows to be true about human sexuality, are not only pioneers, but a blessing to the entire Church.
By “Church,” I mean the church universal, not just the Catholic church. When I converted to Catholicism in the early 1990s, I knew that I had to accept the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality. This meant that I could not live as I had been living before. I had to be chaste until marriage — and if it was not my calling to marry, I had to be chaste for the rest of my life. This was non-negotiable. In fact, I had tried to negotiate it when I was in college, and wanted to be a Christian without giving my entire self to God. I wanted fiercely to protect my sexual freedom. But it just doesn’t work that way. You cannot give yourself partly to Christ. It’s all or nothing. Unsurprisingly, my attempt to negotiate the terms of my surrender to God created within me an ersatz religion that had no power to bind me, and no power to inspire me. It was just psychological comfort, with smells and bells.
Anyway, by the time I converted for real, I knew that the greatest test I would face early in my walk as a Christian was to be faithful to Christ in all things, not just the things that came easy for me. I found very little help in the official Church, and, understandably, no help from my non-Christian or liberal Christian friends, who loved me, but thought I was a weirdo. I especially cherished the companionship of two gay Catholic friends, men who were close to me, who were walking the same walk, though theirs was made more difficult by the fact that they could never hope to be married, unless something absolutely extraordinary happened. Their walk was also harder because while fellow straights looked at me as an eccentric, the gay community looked upon them as traitors.
Yet they staggered on, rejoicing. It was an inspiration to me. It turned out that our common struggle to be chaste in an eroticized, de-Christianized culture like ours was something that deepened our friendship. It made me feel less alone in the Church and in the world.
Simone Weil once scribbled down the following “method of investigation,” as she called it: “as soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.” Ever since I first read that sentence, I’ve wanted to get it tattooed on my forearm—or at least placarded prominently over my writing desk.
Weil’s “method” explains the appeal to me of my favorite kind of writing—the kind that takes a too-neat, too-tidy narrative and shows how I’ve settled for more simplicity than is warranted. I loved, for instance, this sentence from a book review I read a couple of days ago, LaVonne Neff’s take on Jeanne Murray Walker’s The Geography of Memory: “These are my roots, Walker is saying: … my family’s fundamentalist church, full of answers and rules but also full of love.” As soon as Neff evokes the image of a “fundamentalist church” that we were expecting, she immediately prevents us from holding onto it in any straightforward way: this was a church full of care and warmth, in spite of the narrowness.
Always saying “it’s complicated” can be a bad thing. But it also helps to guard against hasty generalizations that could prove to be genuinely harmful to people.
Here’s what prompted this.
I was recently reading my friend Sean Doherty’s testimony of his involvement, as a man who experiences same-sex attraction, in various evangelical parishes in the UK. Sean’s story is deeply encouraging, insofar as it includes sentences like this: “At university I said I was gay, and I never experienced homophobic treatment from other Christians…. [L]ove and acceptance was my consistent experience…. I found the church to be a deeply supportive and affirming place. I was nurtured, given responsibility in ministry, and encouraged towards ordination.” That is a wonderful story that needs to be told. And Sean’s main point—that “homophobia” and “traditional Christian belief about marriage and celibacy” aren’t equivalent—is one that needs spelling out, as Sean does: “[L]ove and unconditional acceptance of gay people does not require approval of same-sex sexual activity…. [M]y experience has convinced me that this prejudice and mistreatment does not come from believing what the Bible says about marriage and sex.”
In Part 1, I argued that efforts to present Catholic teaching on sexual ethics as if human sexuality were ordered toward “heterosexuality” are misleading. Human sexuality is ordered toward self-gift through celibacy or marriage.
I think that the Christian community can learn much about both marriage and celibacy as expressions of human sexuality from the experience of Christians living with homosexual attractions. First, let’s talk about celibacy.
Even in the Catholic Church, one of the few major denominations in which celibacy is a widespread practice, a spirituality of celibacy has, in recent years, been seriously lacking. Discussions of celibacy are often restricted to discussion of priestly celibacy, and spiritual and theological considerations are sometimes downplayed in favor of practical arguments about how celibacy puts people at liberty for mission.
“For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship stands at the core of human and Divine reality… If we get that wrong, we get it all wrong.” -Fr. James Schall
When I was a child, I used to have night terrors. When I had bad dreams, I would sit up in my bed and cry or yell while I was sleeping. My parents would have to come up to my room, gently wake me, and then help me fall back to sleep.
I don’t have night terrors anymore, but I do occasionally have bad dreams. Like the night terrors, I don’t always remember them. Once, when I was visiting a friend, he told me one morning that he had woken me up the night before. Apparently, he heard me having a bad dream, so he woke me up, made sure everything was fine, and told me to go back to bed. I don’t remember any of this.
This is one fear I have: suffering under a bad dream in the night and not having anyone around to wake me up, and to tell me to go back to sleep. It sounds silly. It makes me sound like a child. But this is not a childish fear. It’s a human fear. It’s a fear of falling into a brokenness that you don’t even realize and that can only be alleviated by those who have loved you so much that they know you better than you know yourself. It’s the realization that you can become careless or tired and unaware of your failings and that, from time to time, you need people to make up for your inadequacies. It’s the commonly admitted fear of dying alone that acts as a mask for the real, underlying fear: the fear of living alone.
In a new article in The American Conservative, our own Eve Tushnet explores the challenges we face, how our presence is changing the culture of our churches, and what gifts we have to offer.
For many Catholics of my parents’ generation, the dramatic shift in social attitudes about homosexuality and the new visibility of gay and lesbian people in the media and popular culture is troubling.
Despite their discomfort with a changing culture, however, most older Catholics have been through enough struggles in their own life to want to extend grace and to give space to those with different struggles. But when the struggle is same sex attraction, they are unsure how to welcome people while remaining true to their beliefs. This is especially difficult in a culture where merely expressing traditionally Christian beliefs about the sinfulness of gay sex can trigger accusations of bigotry and comparisons with the KKK.
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that many are unsure how to respond to younger Catholics who speak openly about their sexual orientation, but pledge fidelity to Church teaching. Eve’s article, however, may go a long way toward helping them to understand us a little better.
What gay Christians most yearn for, she writes, is a vision of what our futures might look like. After a touching reflection on the role of the cross in our lives, Tushnet concludes,
We’re often ashamed to admit that we suffer. It’s humiliating and it makes us feel like we’re not good enough Christians. This is bizarre since there are very few aspects of Jesus’ own internal life that we know as much about as His suffering. Jesus—unmarried, marginalized, misunderstood, a son and a friend but not a father or spouse—is the preeminent model for gay Christians. In this, as in so many things, we are just like everybody else.
This is only a brief taste of a rich feast. Check out the whole thing.
Austin Ruse, the President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, is running a series of critical investigations on the work of Spiritual Friendship (or on the “New Homophiles,” as he calls us) over at Crisis Magazine. His most recent article, “The New Homophiles and Their Critics,” takes a look at the arguments of some of the more seasoned critics of our ideas such as Daniel Mattson and Michael W. Hannon. At the end, Ruse poses an important question:
Your 14-year-old son feels different from the other guys at school … He confides this to a counselor who asks him about his sexual orientation. Your son says that maybe the difference he feels is that he is gay …
Now, do you want your son to talk to Chris Damian, one of the New Homophiles who has said he would tell that young man to “Seek to draw yourself more fully into the Church and to discern how this might be a gift in your life and in others’ lives.”
Or do you want him to meet Daniel Mattson and Father Paul Scalia who would tell the boy, “You are not your sexual inclinations. You are not ‘gay.’ What you are is a man and a Son of God.”
At first blush there seems to be very little difference between the two, but as you gaze more closely at all that is packed into the New Homophile Proposition, you realize the difference is immense and may be profoundly harmful.
I’ve been asked multiple times in the past month why I am still side-B, why I am still pursuing celibacy as a gay 23 year-old in these United States of America. What is interesting to me is how, with each inquiring friend, it was implied that we weren’t discussing theology or the interpretation of certain notorious texts. The “why” was really more of a “how.”
It’s a refreshing change.
One of the more frustrating things about the current conversation is how it so easily gets sucked into the myopic quicksand of “what the Bible says.” Please don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the authority of scripture and the importance of right interpretation, and I probably wouldn’t be celibate if I didn’t think the Bible taught it, but there is a dangerous attitude of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” running rampant in many churches.
The idea that the conversation straight up ends with interpretation is, honestly, lethal to true religion, strangling the imagination out of faith and poisoning the endlessly complex “how then shall we live” of the Christian life. I think the rate at which gay Christians are abandoning celibacy is a pretty good indicator of that fact; though not always the case, the majority of people I know who have made the switch do so notbecause they’ve been convinced by “affirming” theology but because celibacy and an abundant life seem mutually exclusive, which, I need to add, is a kind of theological reason in its own right.
Last week, Crisis Magazine published a critical profile of my writings by Austin Ruse.
Over the last few days, I’ve spent some time thinking about Ruse’s article and following the comments on his Crisis articles. I’ve also been reading some of his other writings about homosexuality and the reactions he’s triggered in the gay press. (I would not recommend this as a way of spending your Christmas holidays.)
In the midst of all of this, I’ve tried to figure out what to say in response that is charitable and likely to move the conversation forward.
Ruse presents himself as deeply committed to Church teaching on this question. And if we limit the message of the Church to “gay sex is an abomination,” there is no question that Ruse communicates this teaching clearly, with emphasis, and with a certain joie de combat.
However, in an interview published in America Magazine last summer, Pope Francis said:
A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.
Five years ago, my friend Darrel started a church in Fort Worth called Southside City Church. The church’s primary focus is serving men and women living with HIV/AIDS, and they developed these relationships through a partnership with a local non-profit that provides housing and resources to homeless individuals living with HIV/AIDS. A significant percentage of the men and women involved in life at Southside are LGBT individuals who, alongside heterosexuals from all walks of life, have finally found a place to belong. Darrel has a day job. He doesn’t earn a living through his role as a pastor, yet Darrel and his family have devoted their lives to the church, which ends every service with a meal so folks from all social classes and every corner of the city can enter into one another’s lives in a meaningful way.
I lived closer to Fort Worth when the church was launched so I would attend every Sunday evening. What drew me there were the vans of previously homeless men and women that rolled up every Sunday. What drew me there were the children of all ethnicities who worshipped Jesus alongside me, Chaplain Jerry, and teens who showed up off the streets. Everyone played a part in preparing the food, creating the clothes closet, setting up for Sundays and cleaning up the kitchen. You didn’t know who was HIV positive and who wasn’t, who had a criminal record and who didn’t, who had a college degree and who dropped out of high school. Everyone was equally invested—with no distinctions—and the relationships were mutually transforming.
Editor’s Note: Last fall, after Calvin College invited Justin Lee and Wesley Hill to speak on campus, an undergraduate at another Christian college contacted Spiritual Friendship to thank us for trying to foster this conversation about homosexuality, chastity, and spiritual friendship. Although we do not normally publish anonymous pieces on Spiritual Friendship, I felt that his perspective should be heard by the faculty and administrators at Christian Colleges. So we invited him to share a bit about what the issue looks like from the perspective of a student who wants to be faithful to traditional Christian teaching at a Christian liberal arts college.
— Ron Belgau
I lead the normal life of a liberal arts college student: I’m too over-committed to do any one thing completely effectively. I wake up 10 minutes before class (and make it on time!). I am involved with a social fraternity, work two on-campus jobs. I live a busy life filled with laughter, late nights up talking to friends, and unappetizing cafeteria food. Most days are normal.
Some days, though, it feels like my existence is synonymous with controversy. I say this because I’m a Christian who is predominately, but not exclusively, attracted to the same sex. I am a bisexual Christian who believes in the “traditional” (side B) Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality. I have seen at a distance and personally how controversial the existence of a person like me can become on a Christian college campus like my own.