There has been a fair amount of response to my recent piece in First Things. Much of it is positive: the responses by Elizabeth Scalia, by Rod Dreher, and most of all by those who know me are particularly laudatory. There has also been a good deal of negative response, and some of my friends have taken up the task of coming to my defense with a courage that can only be described as heroic (you know who you are). Unfortunately, such tasks tend to be endless, as the problematic attitudes are often very deeply entrenched, and people have expressed frustration over this. While beautiful cracks seem to be appearing, there is still much to be done, and I would be surprised if this problem (or any other problem in the Church or society) is entirely resolved in my lifetime.
I am reminded of a correspondence in another context, where I expressed a similar doubt, and Christopher Roberts (the author of Creation and Covenant) said, “I simultaneously agree with Joshua about not holding my breath, but nevertheless suggest plodding forward, asking the right questions and doing what needs to be done; to heck with people who aren’t ready to see it yet.” I am very much in agreement about plodding forward, and doing what needs to be done. At the same time, I don’t think that agenda admits of to-hecking those who aren’t ready to see it, since a fundamental part of the agenda is re-shaping the way people approach these questions. One of the biggest tasks facing me as a gay Catholic is precisely to model to Catholics and gays alike that there is a “third way” between dissent and total opposition to the gay community, which can and should be integrated into the Church. As long as people still say “I can’t talk to those people” (as a fellow parishioner said to me at a coffee hour a few months ago, not knowing I was gay) I still have miles to go before I sleep.
I am in absolute agreement with my friend that we can’t let other people destroy our resolve. At the same time, I think it’s at least as important to be deeply aware of the fact that the work that is given to me is to walk a steep incline. A friend recounted how he told someone of my stance as living as openly and happily gay, with at the same time devoutly and faithfully Catholic, and therefore commitedly celibate. The third party noted that it put me in a difficult position. I think that’s absolutely true: to be an orthodox Catholic to gay people, and a gay person to orthodox Catholics, certainly ends up making me an outsider, a threat, or an enemy to a significant number of people. To deny this would be naive.But what follows from that is not “don’t do it.” To steal a phrase from G. K. Chesterton, we cannot find Christianity difficult and therefore not try it. Our response cannot be “Well, never mind then;” it must be “Then I’d best buckle in, because I’ll be here for the long haul.” Quite simply, it may be difficult, but that’s simply the way the cookie crumbles, and it doesn’t mean we don’t try. As my friend said above, we keep plodding on.
My plodding is not much informed by hope of seeing the achievement of my goals. It has been some time since I drew inspiration from J. R. R. Tolkien, but I have recently found his perspective helpful: ”Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic; so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains some samples of final victory.” I see this issue in a similar way. I expect it to be in many ways, one more long defeat. There will be glimmers of victory here and there, sometimes bright glimmers, but its final achievement will be attained in the eschaton, not in the life I live. While it can be said by some that, in a sense, we live the eschaton now, its final fulfillment will not be found. In the “already/not-yet” tension of Christianity, I invariably find the “not-yet” aspect truer to my experience.
Christ famously told the Apostles that “you will always have the poor among you.” This truth has been used by some to suggest that efforts towards social justice are doomed to fail, and thus not worth undertaking. There may be some truth to “doomed to fail,” but we must always reject “not worth undertaking.” We do not live what we are called to in the hope of reward in this present life. Rather, we live it precisely because it is the life we are called to. Similarly, my hopes for making the Church a place where gay people can truly be welcome may, in many ways, be faint glimmerings that I dare not cling to, but that provides no excuse for dropping the project. It simply means that I must continue to fight the fight, while expecting the long defeat. My hope is not in this life, but in the life to come. All I can do is strive to make this life more like the future one, while being aware that all of my efforts will be as straw.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, DC, where he is pursuing a doctorate in historical theology. His main focus is on Augustine, and he hopes to dissertate on Augustine’s doctrine of grace. He has also occasionally published in First Things, Spiritual Friendship, and PRISM Magazine, where he makes small attempts to help re-orient the way the Church related to gay people.