Thomas Sundaram on friendship with Joshua Gonnerman

I don’t particularly recommend reading the comments on Joshua Gonnerman’s commentary on Dan Savage over at First Things (or at least, if you’re going to read them, I suggest you take your blood pressure medicine first).

For example, “dadfly” responds to Joshua’s statement that “Christians have appealed far too quickly to their traditional moral views to avoid offering support to gay people” with this:

i believe that Jesus has called on me to do many things (and He knows i’ve fallen horribly short many times), but none of them required that i “support” any political faction or special interest group.

When Jesus was called a friend of sinners, it did not mean that He supported sin. Gay people cannot be reduced to a political faction or special interest group. They are, first and foremost, people.

However, there are a few roses amidst the comment box thorns. One comment in particular caught my eye, because it provides a beautiful glimpse of friendship in action. 

Thomas Sundaram is a straight friend of Joshua’s from their undergrad days at Thomas Aquinas College. His comment paints a picture of friendship that reminds us not only that he can support Joshua, but also that Joshua has often supported him. Friendship is a way of knowing the whole, three-dimensional, living and breathing human person. We do not befriend traits: we befriend people.

Anyhow, I strongly recommend Sundaram’s comment. It is a great example of spiritual friendship in action. Read the whole thing:

I remember it had been a trying day when I walked back from my Senior Philosophy class in 2009. It was close to graduation; the sun was out, the jasmine was in bloom, my thesis on justice, mercy and the Divine Comedy was finally done, and we were getting ready for our final on the Tertia Pars of the Summa Theologiae, not to say anything of Einstein’s relativity and the understanding of the notion of being in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. And, of course, the final seminar on the Phaedrus, in which Plato argues that all true philosophers must in some sense be erotic lovers.

Tired, wearing the untucked collared shirt under my college hoodie, bedraggled, a few hours behind on sleep, I walked through the gate of my dorm, Sts. Peter and Paul, and was relieved to notice that the front patio, normally unstaffed at that time of day, was not vacant, but that Joshua was there, with, I think, some sort of pipe; he was reading something, I think in Latin, but it was more likely something about Racine’s Phedre, on which he had written his own thesis if I recall correctly.

I plumped myself down in the familiar chair. Exhausted, I was still relieved, because I had some issue or another with some question concerning whatever; it wasn’t about Dante today, though it well could have been. I suspect it was about the usual affairs of school administration that were occupying us. The subject did not much matter. Where Josh was, I was assured of a good conversation. And indeed I had never a reason to suspect otherwise. On Aquinas, he was as good as any of us, and often had some knowledge of the background owing to keeping good company with those folks who spent all their time focusing on Aquinas alone. (There were a lot of such people at Thomas Aquinas College, especially from our year and before.)

I recall we talked for several hours. This was not unusual. Also not unusual was our habit of reaching a point in the discussion where to say more would be past the ken of human beings; angelology, the Beatific Vision, questions of very specific moral theology. This was always, above all, comfortable. There was no awkwardness in these things; we were brothers, we were dormmates, we were cohorts in the pursuit of Catholic truth — and it was always Catholic. After examination, all heresy was readily cast away.

When we graduated, aside from my own pride of success from such a school as our alma mater, which has well been advertised by First Things and really by all half-decent Catholic periodicals, and which is known to produce good and honest students of Aquinas, not to mention people who strive not just for ideological but personal holiness in life, I could not help but feel a thrill as my friends, one by one, walked up to receive the right to turn their tassels. And Joshua was among the people I was happiest to see receive the degree, though I was happy for my whole class.

At this time, there was no thought in my mind of his sexual inclinations.

Indeed, there never was, not the whole time we were at the school; when he revealed them to us out of a desire for a deeper honest brotherhood, I was not fussed, because why should I have been? He was abiding by Church teaching; these inclinations were neither a suffering, nor a burden upon him, by his own admission. Nor, I think, were they a great tribulation upon the lot of our little platoon. Nor should they have been. And in fact nothing has changed between us. He is my brother. He is a brother to all who know him well. And he is a Catholic; this makes him a brother to all Catholics. As one who has never had a brother according to biology, I appreciate this more fully than many. I continue to rely on the wisdom he has.

So when I saw that he had been published by First Things, of which I was a regular reader since high school and Fr. Neuhaus, I was overjoyed, as were most of us. When I saw how delicately he described a sentiment that has occurred to so many good Catholic writers of late, a real question for the Church’s praxis, though not for her doxa, I was thrilled to see him say what he said.

Then I read the combox.

If we are Catholics, if we are truly devoted to understanding our brothers and sisters, if we truly hope to be true and outstanding lights to our culture, we must seek to understand people as people. Not as reducible to ideologies. Josh certainly is not; it would be a rather shallow brotherhood if he was, and we would long since have had a quarrel of rather epic proportions. (And I think the good folks at TAC who learned to fear mentioning Dante and Virgil when I was in the general environ, lest they be locked into a conversation of similar proportions, will attest that I know my epics. So, for that matter, will Tony Esolen, who was kind enough to say some very nice things about me and to assist me in the formative process.) What he is saying is something much more profound than that we should accept some ideology.

The Jewish Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas said that in the face of the Other we see the infinite. He perhaps thought that this was God, or something of God, because God is the foundation of ethics ultimately. The Roman Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann, of the University of Munich, refined this, saying that what we encounter is the other person, in their “being-in-itself”, or Selbstsein, where we realize that we exist in their world as they exist in ours; the infinite that we experience is the image of God, the dignity of the human person. And we experience this most of all among created human persons in our friends, who Aristotle and Aquinas argued are as a second self in a very, very deep sense. Aquinas said the purpose of society was friendship; the society of God culminates in the communion of saints which we confess in the Creed, the ultimate community of truest friends in Christ and the ideal to which we aspire as Christians even here on Earth.

Joshua is not presenting to us his personhood as such; that is assumed, because he, as all others here, confesses faith in Christ, and lives it, and to have that supernatural virtue is to require personhood first. What he is presenting to us is the circumstance of many persons, of many Christians, of many Catholics; it is the circumstance of our brothers and sisters in Christ, not as ideological pawns but as people attempting to work out their salvation in fear and trembling. Last I checked, we heterosexuals are in the same boat. But we have mitigating factors: we can become priests without stigma; we can be married; we can have the joys of prudent sexual companionship. To be gay is not a decision for Joshua. It is a situation. And that situation makes demands not made of straight people; the chastity he lives.

So to be so peremptory as to state that he is defining himself in terms of a vice is not just silly but missing the point; he does not have that vice, because vices are chosen. He has inclinations, things which neurophysiologically dispose his body towards something he chooses against, and this needn’t be any more onerous than a heterosexual choosing not to be promiscuous. What it is is lonely. So people who strive to live this life of chastity, as all of us strive to live virtuously, tend to associate for the sake of achieving that good; they seek out their brothers. And when they do, one sees the inevitable difficulty of the fact that there is a stigma associated with, not just the action, but even the inclination, onerous or not. And this is against the teaching of the Church. Or if there is not a stigma, there is indifference; and as another survivor of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel, noted in his book Night, the worse between hate and indifference, among those claiming to have humanity, is indifference, because hate indicates at least that one has an interest.

This is not to say that what we have here, of course, is the Holocaust. Josh himself would (and probably will) inform me that the comparison is always risky. But what we learned from the Holocaust about the human person, what we learned from John Paul II’s preaching against dehumanization by socialism, what we learned from Pius XII’s sheltering the Jews, what we hear from Benedict XVI (may he have a hundred more happy years!) about the importance of “caritatis in veritate“, must be put into practice with regard to our brothers and sisters, no matter how they are; and if their different circumstance demands different treatment, then for them to mention their different circumstance to this end is no reduction of their personhood, but the expression of our duty of love to them as that duty is conditioned.

And I for one have no trouble with Josh’s “identity” as a “chaste gay Catholic”, because he is already my brother, I already knew his situation, and I have long since recognized that he is as Catholic as the rest of us in it; perhaps more so, because to be heterosexual and Catholic has no special stigma, but to be gay and yet truly Catholic inspires bile. I hope that you all, brothers and sisters in Christ, will accept your brother for who he is.

24 thoughts on “Thomas Sundaram on friendship with Joshua Gonnerman

  1. 1. The 1986 letter states, “the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.” Nevertheless, the title of the letter was: “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” In addition to the title, the letter uses the phrase “homosexual person” 22 times. The phrase was used again in the title of the 1992 letter on “Some considerations concerning the response to legislative proposals on the non-discrimination of homosexual persons,” and again in the 2003 letter on “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons.” Again, in addition to the title, the 1992 letter uses the phrase “homosexual person” 8 times within the text, and the 2003 letter uses it 4 times within the text.

    Whatever the 1986 letter meant to teach, it cannot have intended to say that the label “homosexual” can never be attached to a person. Rather, it is insisting that the label is not the most important aspect of a person. And I do not see how anything Mr. Sundaram has said would suggest that he viewed Mr. Gonnerman’s sexual orientation as anything like his most important or defining characteristic. Indeed, he repeatedly emphasizes the opposite point.

    2. The term “same sex attraction” does not appear in any Vatican documents that I am aware of. Vatican documents related to this topic use terms like “homosexual condition,” “homosexual tendency” or “homosexual inclination,” which is distinguished from homosexual acts. Thus, if you want to use the terminology used by magisterial documents, you will use “homosexual tendency” or “homosexual inclination,” not “same sex attraction.” But this is silly. We don’t insist that Catholic married couples must only use the term “marital act” to describe their intimacy, because that is the term used in Humanae vitae.

    Men do not usually make love to their wives in Vaticanese, nor do they necessarily use Vaticanese to explain marital intimacy to their children.

    3. The phrase “a Catholic who happens to live with same sex attraction” describes Dan Savage as accurately as it describes you or me. It therefore tells me nothing about your commitment to Church teaching. On the other hand, “chaste gay Catholic” expresses far more clearly that Joshua is committed to the Church’s teaching on chastity.


    Magisterial documents are written in a precise philosophical and theological language. This language is helpful for some things. But though Catholics need to understand the concepts the Church teaches, we are not obligated to always use this theological language for discussing them.

    For example, in this technical language, “matter” and “substance” have distinct meanings, each of which is not the same as its common English usage. But I would not attempt to speak to a general audience using these terms in their technical sense. If I were teaching a high level class on Catholic philosophy or theology, I would explain the terms, expect students to master them, and then use them in their technical sense. If I was speaking to a more general audience, I would probably just try to translate the concept into more general terms, without getting into all the technicalities.

    After a kerfuffle over his use of the term “gay,” Mark Shea recently clarified, “The main thing I want to point out is that when I describe Perry as a gay man, I am using the common English word as a descriptor of his orientation . . . not his behavior.”

    If you look up the term “gay” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it defines it as synonymous with “homosexual.” When you look up “homosexual,” the first definition is “of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex.”

    When speaking to the general public, it is important to try to use words the way the general public uses them. The general public does not draw the sharp distinction between “gay” and “same sex attraction” which is drawn by Freudian ex-gay therapists, and which has been adopted by some Catholics involved in ministry to homosexual persons.

    If you think that “a Catholic who happens to live with same sex attraction” is the clearest way to describe yourself, that’s fine. But that’s not the language the CDF uses, and it’s not the only possible way of talking about sexual attraction that gives it its proper place within a person’s identity.

    The question when analyzing Mr. Sundaram or Mr. Gonnerman’s writings is not whether they use a word which you think is taboo (but which happens to be the default English word for discussing the subject at hand). The question is whether they are placing Joshua’s sexual orientation in correct relation to his fundamental Identity as the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.

    If they are attempting to do that, in terms which are readily understandable to the broader culture, then they are doing good work.

    If you want to participate in that work, I would suggest you find a way of describing yourself that indicates your commitment to chastity more clearly than “a Catholic who happens to live with same sex attraction” does.

  2. Hi, Nathaniel! A few different points, so let me address them as they jump out at me:

    1) If you read the comments on my articles, I can only assume that you read the articles themselves. If so, then of course you know that I made the point that “gay” and “same-sex attracted” (or variations thereupon) are competing sexual identities for those who primarily experience same-sex attractions. As such, I readily grant your claim that you are not a gay Catholic. You prefer to adopt the alternate sexual identity, because you believe it describes you more fittingly than does “gay Catholic.” You know yourself better than I know you, and so I readily grant your claim not to be a gay Catholic.

    2) If you claim that you do not to refer to yourself as anything other than a child of God, I, of course, will in deference try to avoid referring to you as a son, a brother, an uncle, a citizen of any given country, a person of any given ethnic extraction, etc. I don’t think that this means that I have to refuse to call myself a Gonnerman, a German-American, a twin, etc., since I made the point that the real necessity is making identity in Christ one’s fundamental identity, not entirely destroying other aspects of one’s identity.

    3) If I have in any way given the impression that I consider myself, as a gay Catholic, to be more Catholic than straight Catholics, Catholics who happen to be same-sex attracted, asexual Catholics, or what have you, then I deeply apologize. I never intended to give that impression. The only point that I mean to make is that being gay and being Catholic are not mutually opposed.

    4) Regarding Homosexualitatis Problema, Ron has already largely addressed it. For now, at least, I will merely add that the English translation does not quite convey the meaning of the Latin: there, we read, “cum renuit in persona unice considerare rationem “heterosexualem” vel “homosexualem”. Which, being translated, means, “since she refuses to consider exclusively the account of “heterosexual” or “homosexual” in the person.” This, obviously, makes sense of the fact that this document and others do, in fact, use the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” to refer to persons.

    Grace and peace be with you!

  3. I also ought to say a few things in response. 🙂

    When I made the comment about being “more Catholic”, I was speaking colloquially, not technically. It seems to me that there is a sense in which saints, who live out the teaching of the Church faithfully in their moral discernments, are “more Catholic” in SOME sense, though not perhaps the one we normally use. After all, “Catholic” does not only describe an assent to the doctrine of the Church, though it is founded in that assent as charity is founded in faith. Hence my reference to “Caritatis in Veritate”, which connects our understanding of charity as the rational appetite with faith, which is the illumination by God of the mind to desire according to that supernatural mode. In this I am just parroting Aquinas. Of course, this is to speak loosely; it is to describe, to parallel the distinction of Aquinas concerning beatitude, the “extensive” nature of the life as a Catholic which admits of degrees of virtue, and not the “intensive” nature of the assent to the faith which is what makes every Catholic a Catholic.

    And in this extensive sense it is clear that there are degrees, or the saints could not be role models and intercessors, because everyone, AS members of the Church, would have to possess perfect virtue if we treated of them the same way, as though the extensive and intensive were the same. You, Nathaniel, are speaking of the intensive sense and are quite correct with regard to that.

    It is helpful, perhaps, to consider what you say in light of this: “our Savior made it clear that we would be viewed with bile, simply for calling ourselves Christians, and in following him.” This is true. But a person who calls themselves Catholic, and yet has only ever had to endure one temptation of a non-stigmatized nature (like, let’s say, cussing), who has never been tested in any other respect, cannot be said to be an example of charity like, for example, St. Thomas More, who was martyred. This is why martyrdom makes someone “a cut above the rest”, so to speak; and if it does not then everyone receives the same extensive degree of beatitude and mercy has no intrinsic order, but ignores the justice of the natural world. I cannot think that it is the case that I will be as closely extensively united to God as the Theotokos, though I MUST think it is the case that I will be as closely intensively so; I will be united in all of my being, one hundred percent, but I haven’t the virtue of Our Lady, and have sinned; one hundred percent of one is less than one hundred percent of two.

    Your second question is one with which I have become well acquainted, because (with all due respect!) everyone seems to be asking it. So let’s break it down.

    “I wonder about Thomas’s comments, urging us to accept any brother who is “gay, chaste and Catholic,” for “who he is”…I view myself through an entirely different lens. “Who I am” is not a “gay Catholic,” but rather a “Catholic, who happens to live with same sex attraction.” I would argue, as well, that my brothers and sisters who claim the moniker of “gay Catholic” are actually not embracing the truth about themselves–they have embraced a moniker that is man made, not ordained by God.”

    I did not say that the answer to the question “Who is Joshua Gonnerman?” is exhausted or even fundamentally expressed, like some equation, by “a gay, chaste Catholic.” How unfitting would that be? In fact, if people would ask me such a question I would be inclined to respond “a friend.” Let’s look at the presuppositions here.

    If asked “Who is Joshua Gonnerman?” I could immediately assume a few things about the mind of the questioner.

    First, they already think Joshua is a person or person-like; we do not ask “who” about mere things, but primarily about persons and secondarily about other living things as anthropomorphized. “Who” is a PERSONAL question. So I would not “identify” Josh in answer to that question as “a person”, because that question, “What is Joshua Gonnerman?” is already asked and answered, conventionally speaking. And if the only persons we know are human and Divine, and Josh is not actus purus, then it’s safe to assume that I don’t need to answer that he’s “a human person” either. So even by asking the question “Who”, you are talking not about primary ontological identity but about something else; you are asking what sort of a person is this person, what distinguishes him or identifies him, without expecting an exhaustive answer. If I said he was a Catholic with glasses and a twin brother, I’d be giving a perfectly fine answer.

    Now this is all common sense. What is not common sense is the use of “identify” spoken of by critics of Josh’s thoughts coming out of many Catholic circles, which assumes that all identifiers spoken of as identifiers are automatically primary.

    If this is so, that all identifiers are primary, why bother distinguishing between primary and secondary?

    I do not think most Catholics recognize that the “identity question” has been co-opted into that destroyer of civil discourse, the practice of sloganeering. Moving back to your question, I would say the following:

    The distinction you provide is that one is not fittingly a “gay Catholic,” but rather a “Catholic, who happens to live with same sex attraction.” Very well. What is your definition of “gay”? Because adopting the distinction between inclination, action, and good habit, it can perfectly well be taken to mean that one has inclinations of that sort, which one resists, but which one by their unchosen nature has had to live with for ages, such that the response to it, while not “defining” someone, quite well serves to identify something secondary but important about them. And this is how I’d respond to all the folks carrying on about “identifying”; it is linguistic sloppiness, combined with either honest ignorance, laziness, or malice, and couched behind a misuse of the interpretation of very technically precise documents out of the prudent context, that leads people to conclude that this is really the issue at hand. It is a convenient suit of armor for a lot of people against admitting the existence of the problem.

  4. Hi again, Nathaniel!

    I’m just going to start out with a firm request to use more caution in accusing people of “rejecting Church teaching.” This is dirty language, it’s a conversation stopper, and for people who are seeking careers as Catholic theologians and philosophers, it’s also endangering to our hoped-for livelihood. Please, exercise civility and charity in these discussions, and don’t be so quick to assume bad faith on the part of someone who disagrees with you.

    You seem to again be claiming that HP indicates that the Church absolutely and unqualifiedly rejects the term homosexual. This puzzles me, because I pointed out above that the Latin clarifies that point this, as it has the qualifying adverb unice, that is, solely, or exclusively.

    Once again, the Latin text:
    . . . cum renuit in persona unice considerare rationem “heterosexualem” vel “homosexualem” . . .

    For those whose Latin is rusty, a literal rendition:
    . . . since she refuses to consider exclusively the account of “heterosexual” or “homosexual” in the person” . . .

    The word unice was, unfortunately, dropped from the standard translation.

    The full context:
    “The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation.”

    We begin the paragraph by saying that a person cannot adequately be described by reductionist reference to orientation. This is not a rejection of referring to orientation, but a clarification that it is not sufficient by itself to explain Who I Am.

    “Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well.”

    We all have struggles and strengths; again, this is not a denial of the category, but an attempt to broaden perspective.

    “Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.”

    Hopefully, this helps to show that the missing term unice makes the text fit better in its context. Orientation is not adequate by itself; variety of individual strengths and weaknesses; refuse to regard a person only under the category of “homosexual or heterosexual; fundamental Identity is in God.

    I append an additional note I sent to someone else asking about this text:

    I think it’s also important to consider history. The identity-political arguments actually originate in the ex-gay movement in Protestant circles, which claimed/claims that someone who struggles with homosexuality must embrace a heterosexual identity; when Catholics started to be influenced by them, they imported the ex-gay rejection of *any* gay identity into the CDF’s rejection of an *absolute* gay identity.

    Further, this is 1986, when AIDS has been spreading for several years, and there was a widespread fear of gay men as spreaders of disease (it didn’t occur to many people, apparently, that they had very poor chances of getting it from them! :p). I think what the Vatican is actually doing here is to call wider society to remember that gay people are still people, rather than (as some have used it) to insist that a Christian cannot regard himself as “gay.””

    “What has been argued by others many times over is that this is all it is: a descriptor and an adjective. It’s not a noun, and that’s the whole point of the Letter’s topic of identity.”

    In the first place, I don’t think that’s a real dichotomy. In Latin, “homosexual” as a noun is homosexualis. In Latin, “homosexual” as an adjective is homosexualis. There is no distinction in the words; it’s really one word, most properly an adjective, but it is also used as a noun. You seem a learned fellow, so you probably know that this is referred to as a “substantive adjective,” but I’ll mention it for any other readers.

    In the second place, it’s not even relevant to the usage at hand; in the phrase “chaste gay Catholic,” “gay” is an adjective. I’m not sure what you are arguing here; maybe I’m misunderstanding you.

    The simple fact is this is not a “very clear teaching.” A deeper understanding of the text, through seeing its place in the immediate context, and through consulting the original Latin, makes clear that they are not saying what you are saying. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong to reject the term “gay;” as I expressed above, that’s totally your prerogative, and I will expend genuine effort to avoid applying it to you.

    Once again, I urge you to avoid the accusations of heresy. I am not denying what the Church teaches, nor am I undermining Homosexualitatis Problema; I am looking closely at it, and striving to understand it, and finding that, upon digging a bit deeper, it is clear that the Church is not demanding the rejection of the word “gay” or “homosexual.”

    And, in conclusion, just one more time, I do adhere to the Church.

  5. Hello again, Nathaniel.

    I’ll begin with a firm request that you exercise more caution in accusations of heresy. It’s dirty language, it imputes ill will to the accused, it rejects the faith of the excused, it’s a conversation-stopper, and for those of us pursuing careers in Catholic academia, it’s professionally dangerous. I don’t mean that there is no place for the category, but a we need to be damn sure we know what we’re talking about before we break open that chestnut. I regard you as an orthodox Catholic and a brother in Christ, and I pray you to extend me the same charity. If you cannot, at least express yourself more civilly.

    To respond to your point: it seems to me to be an extensive rhetoric of denunciation against anyone who disagrees with you, taking as a premise that Homosexualitatis Problema rejects absolutely and unqualifiedly the term “homosexual,” and by extension “gay.” This is puzzling to me, because I pointed that this is untrue above. I copy below a response I made to someone else asking, in a spirit of inquiry, rather than of condemnation, about that text:

    “Specifically, the CDF’s 1986 docuent, Homosexualitatis Problema, says, “The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.”

    The last sentence, in particular, seems problematic! But looking at the original Latin, we find: cum renuit in persona unice considerare rationem “heterosexualem” vel “homosexualem”. The word “unice,” meaning “solely” or “exclusively,” was dropped out of the English translation, but the Latin text makes it clear that the problem is considering someone only under the account of “homosexual” or “heterosexual,” which fits in with the wider train of thought, beginning by saying that sexual orientation is not adequate to describe the totality of a person, rather than by saying it is a totally false category, and ends by saying that Fundamental Identity is in God, rather than with an anathema against anyone who applies any term to themselves except “human being made by God.

    I think it’s also important to consider history. The identity problems actuslly arise from the ex-gay movement in Protestant circles, which claimed/claims that someone who struggles with homosexuality must embrace a heterosexual identity; when Catholics started to be influenced by them, they imported the ex-gay rejection of *any* gay identity into the CDFs rejection of an *absolute* gay identity.

    Further, this is 1986, when AIDS has been spreading for several years, and there was a widespread fear of gay men as spreaders of disease (it didn’t occur to many people, apparently, that they had very poor chances of getting it from them! :p). I think what the Vatican is actually doing here is to call wider society to remember that gay people are still people, rather than (as some have used it) to insist that a Christian cannot regard himself as “gay.””

    Hopefully, this helps to clarify. If you choose to reject the word “gay,” that is certainly your prerogative, and I will go to some trouble to avoid applying to you. But it is simply untrue to say that the Church demands we reject such terms, and you do wrong to accuse me of heresy.

    As to your question “Why expend so much energy to defend the term,” my simple response is “because so much energy is expended to attack it.” Questions of homosexuality are already complex enough without the politicization of identity, and the rejection of others that goes along with it.

  6. I have explained in some length why I believe I am within the bounds of orthodoxy. You have simply repeated to accusation of heresy, while throwing out charges of Protestantism as well (something I am rarely accused of for reading Latin!). It is clear this conversation is not going anywhere. Grace and peace be with you in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

  7. Nathaniel, reading you is like reading some sort of bizarre Doublespeak out of “1984.”

    What Joshua says is, first of all, clearly not heresy. Even the CDF itself (look at the doctrinal commentary accompanying the Professio Fidei) makes it clear that “heresy” applies to dogma de fide credenda. Perhaps morally it could also be applied to dissent from dogma de fide tenenda, though I’m not sure canonically it is used that way.

    However, what we’re discussing here is not dogma. It doesn’t even seem like something in the category of a doctrine definitively proposed (like, say, the condemnation of homosexual ACTS, which no one is questioning) from which dissent is comparable to heresy (though not necessarily heresy strictly so called as regards the virtue of supernatural Faith).

    At most we’re dealing with teaching taught “authoritatively” and thus demanding a certain “obsequium religiosum”, a submission of intellect and will. However, it is not clear that Joshua is even questioning in that regard (although some questioning in that regard is actually allowed, as long as it is discreet and one gives honest respect to the authoritative statements in question).

    If you can prove that “Catholics can’t use the term ‘gay’ or use ‘homosexual’ as a noun” is some sort of ancient DOGMA, an explicitly revealed article of faith going back to the Apostles…only then would a charge of “heresy” be in order. Otherwise it is extremely grave slander and calumny.

    As it is, you’re talking about a pastoral opinion from 1986 about an extremely historically contingent social construct.

    Not even that! Although you deny it, you are actually arguing about something purely SEMANTIC/linguistic. Telling us that “homosexual cannot be used as a noun”, admitting it can be an adjective, and then claiming that this same logic precludes saying “I am gay,” even though, in that case, “gay” is, in fact, being used as an adjective!!!! (The construct “a gay” as a noun is actually very rare, though more common for “a lesbian.” “Gay” is almost always used adjectivally as far as I know…)

    Except the Vatican doesn’t get to say what words mean!! I’ve never even heard something so ridiculous. “We’re not allowed to use ‘homosexual’ as a noun,” as if the Vatican is in charge of what Parts of Speech things are! Absurd. In spite of elaborate theories about how nouns indicate some sort of substantial ontological status (theories applied ONLY to homosexuality, however, and not to statements like “I’m an American” or “I’m a plumber”), the truth is that “a homosexual” or “gay” just means “A person attracted or oriented to members of the same sex” in the same way “a plumber” means “a human person who happens to find employment in the profession of plumbing.”

    Demanding circumlocutions to avoid straightforward identification with the current manifestation of how ones homosexuality is socially constructed…is not dogmatic.

    If you don’t want to be called “gay,” fine. But, I’m telling you, behind your back people are describing you to their friends as “A gay guy who insists on not being called ‘gay'”…because that’s just how language works! It has no particular philosophical implications or value judgments except the ones we intend for it. When you say “Who cares what the common English language usage is??” I can only say: speakers of the common English language. There is no deep question of “truth about the human person” here, merely of how slang terms are understood, etc.

  8. As I have explained, what I believe Homosexualitatis Problema teaches, I do accept. Since you question my commitment to the teaching Magisterium, and thereby accuse me of lying, there is nothing I can say, except Grace and peace be with you!

  9. As it happens, both Joshua and I have accepted wholeheartedly something along the lines of that Newman quote, when we graduated from our alma mater, that we would imitate our patron, Thomas Aquinas, in his own attitude as expressed in his last reception of Viaticum:

    “I recieve Thee
    Price of my redemption,
    Viaticum of my pilgrimage,
    For love of Whom I have fasted, prayed, taught and labored.
    Never have I said a word against Thee.
    If I have, it was in ignorance
    And I do not persist in my ignorance.
    I leave the correction of my work to the holy Catholic Church,
    And in that obedience I pass from this life.”

    Tellingly, he did not say “I will never and have never said anything of which some interpreters of the Church’s teaching might disagree.” Factually, he did that a heck of a lot, notably, when he defended the Dominican and Franciscan Orders, among others, against the imputations by William de Saint-Amour that their mission was a presage of the coming end times.

    And in the spirit of honesty and charity he, Aquinas, exemplified, I would ask the following. Since, as it happens, you seem to think that Joshua and I are willing patsies for “the gay”, despite the fact that we can read Latin documents, chant Latin hymns, and think Latin thoughts as well as or better than the next guy, I would propose that you have a duty to present to us precisely and unambiguously, without appealing to authority as such but to the reason you fancy the authorities to be educing, namely, your clearly informed knowledge of the teaching informing every aspect of Homosexualitatis Problema, the reason you fancy us to be heretics. If you cannot do this without continuing to attack my friend and I (and I DO NOT take kindly to people attacking my friend, so I suggest you moderate yourself quickly!) then cease, because if you cannot defend your point with reason you are risking the sin of calumny.

    It’s funny; I had thought people considered the Inquisition barbaric. But I can see that by not having good Dominican inquisitors prowl the public places and investigate suspicions, we have admitted a worse thing, namely, that everyone with a copy of the CCC and a presumption about Church teaching has become the excising knife against all possible thoughtcrime. At least Inquisitors had training.

  10. I would suggest reading Newman’s biography.

    He was completely obedient to Church teaching. But he was not completely obedient to any Catholic who happened to accuse him of heresy. Among other things, he argued that it was not prudent to define the dogma of papal infallibility, and after the dogma was defined, defended it in a way that gave the doctrine a much more limited effect than some of its defenders wanted it to have.

    The judgment of the Church has been that Newman’s stance was within the bounds of orthodoxy; but his stance was controversial at the time.

    In any case, you can’t cite Newman (of all people) as an example of unreflective and unthinking submission to some particular party’s interpretation of the Church’s teaching.

  11. I daresay the divide is there; whether it is a matter of supernatural revelation or simply a matter of doing the necessary thinking is another story. The loving Father Who deigned to create for us minds capable of reason did not do so in order that we should satisfy ourselves with just enough information to condemn others and then leave. Faith is ordered to charity.

    But you are right, we must all work out our faith in fear and trembling — and this is why to accept a comfortable stagnancy in understanding the problems of our brothers and sisters in Christ is unacceptable. We are to seek Wisdom, and Wisdom’s first command in the Book of Wisdom, the very first verse, is “diligite in iustitiam, qui iudicatis terram.” That is, “love (as one might love God, ‘delight in’) justice, you who rule the earth.” And each of us is a ruler; we rule our own actions. Thus likewise we must seek justice, and charity is the loving justice of God. So if I have been found, through a too-acute sense of compassion, to have sought something imprudently for the sake of justice, I have hope that I may be forgiven; and if you have fallen short in your opinion of the mark, I hope for God’s mercy for you. But I strongly believe I am of one mind with the Church on the matter, according to her Magisterium.

    Joshua is dear to me, but truth is dearer still; I am happy to find that they seem to be in one order on the matter.

  12. “I strongly believe I am of one mind with the Church on the matter, according to her Magisterium.”

    I…hold your opinion, but am slightly (significantly) less optimistic than you as regards the agreement of the hiearchy.

    It’s clear that the documents as the exist don’t condemn identifying as gay, and seem to see “homosexual inclinations” as only about an inclination to homosexual sex acts rather than the broader notion of orientation our culture is realizing/constructing.

    But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure if you talked to most conservative hierarchs…they’d tend to sympathize more with Nathaniel and the “Courage line”…than with us, even if they couldn’t say these questions are the proper subject of “teaching” so much as just prudential questions.

    But, then, thank God the Church is not to be identified exclusively with this or that hierarch in this or that age of history, and thank God indeed for Prudence!

  13. Hi,

    I just wanted to ask a bit of clarification from Josh.

    As a Catholic who experiences same-sex attraction, I too have been following these discussions with great interest. Allow me first to say right off that bat that I am firmly convinced that you assent to the Church’s teachings. I consider you a Catholic and a brother in Christ. So please don’t take what I am about to say as if I am implying that you are a heretic or a dissident; rather, I think this is a matter where we Catholics have legitimate room for disagreement.

    In your reply to Nathan you recall that you made the point, “that ‘gay’ and ‘same-sex attracted’ (or variations thereupon) are competing sexual identities for those who primarily experience same-sex attractions.” Personally, I have always considered these terms synonymous. I mean, whether you choose to label yourself as “gay” or “same-sex attracted”, people will generally get the same meaning regardless—that is, you are sexually attracted to the same sex. In the context of the society we live in, both labels convey the same meaning.

    Where the disagreement (and I believe the ambiguity) lies for us Catholics, is when one takes on the label of “gay” as some sort of indicator of one’s view that their particularity same-sex attraction is something positive or valuable. In which case I have to ask: what exactly do you mean by that? Do you mean to say that your particular same-sex attraction is not intrinsically disordered? I think your comments clearly indicate that you agree with the Church on this, so no. Do you then mean to say that your same-sex attraction provides you with unique opportunities for spiritual growth; like giving one the ability to practice certain virtues in a way that other people can’t? In which case, I don’t think those who choose to exclusively label themselves “same-sex attracted” would disagree… Or, perhaps you mean to say that you see your gay identity as something much more than just your sexual attraction. In which case, what exactly? Take the sexual attraction out of the equation; what do you have left to value that is uniquely gay?

  14. I believe what Joshua said is that he agrees the inclination or desire for homosexual sex acts SPECIFICALLY is intrinsically disordered.

    I think the ambiguity is in this term “attraction” that gets thrown around. You say “sexual attraction,” Peeping Thomist, but that can certainly be taken at least two ways: a) attraction to have sex with, b) attraction based on sex (sex as in: male or female).

    The term “attraction” denotes a pulling-towards, just as “orientation” denotes a turning-towards. But beyond that I think you have to ask: for what?

    Is it reducible to a single end? Is it really all defined by one act or category of behavior that it’s “going towards”? Or, is it defined less by “where it’s going” as by “where it came from”?

    For example, take sadness. Sadness and grief isn’t defined by any particular end it aims towards really. It’s defined by what caused it: some experience of loss. But the behavioral script associated with sadness is rather arbitrary; shedding tears, vocalizing in certain ways, becoming slower, more introverted, more reflective, losing interest in various things, losing energy.

    These experiences are not all directed at some central behavioral end, rather they are a repertoire in a script of expressing sadness, and are united by their CAUSE rather than by some end at which they are all directed.

    The same could be said for anger. If we tried to define some end towards which anger was ordered, we might wind up saying something like “violence.” And yet we don’t. That’s certainly one way anger can express itself, one option in the repertoire. But no one is making it out to be a “telos” of anger.

    In fact, it seems to me very strange to define emotions by “where they’re going” rather than by “where they come from” in general.

    The experience of sexuality, eros, romantic love, infatuation, sexual attraction or appreciation, whatever you want to call it…I think must be little different.

  15. Hi, Peeping Thomist, and welcome to Spiritual Friendship!

    My response is going to be in two main parts; first, I want to explain in a bit more depth what I am saying about terminology, and second, I will address the question of value. The first part will be the longer, because I think language is deeply important, and words very often signify more than they signify, if you catch my drift.

    Words and Meanings
    It is fairly common for people to say that “gay” and “same-sex attracted” are two ways to say the same thing. I can definitely understand that, and I do think that they are saying the same thing in some significant ways. On the level of bare experience, they both indicate the predominant or experience of attraction to one’s own sex.

    But it seems to me that there is more to it in that. I’m sure we are all aware that a number of conservative Christians who experience predominant or exclusive attractions to their own sex will say, “I am not gay, I am a person struggling with same-sex attractions,” which often gets redacted into a “short hand” of “same-sex attracted.” In fact, these terms seem to arise precisely from the rejection of the term “gay.” Obviously, right here in this comment thread, we have such an example.

    Now, if we say that “gay” and “same-sex attracted” are entirely synonymous, we are saying that the statement: “I am not gay, I am a person struggling with same-sex attractions,” is entirely devoid of meaning. It would be like saying “I’m not a rational animal, I’m an embodied spirit,” or “That’s not a triangle, it’s just a three sided enclosed figure.” I think that ends up dismissing the ex-gay/struggler/ssa [noting that there are differences and nuances in these narratives, but they are united in their rejection of teh gay] experience in a way I don’t want to do.

    What’s more, I think it doesn’t take too much experience to verify that many audiences receive “gay” and “same-sex attracted.” If I say to a conservative Christian that I am gay, I am much more likely to receive a negative response than if I say I am same-sex attracted. I think the level of identity-political arguments against my five words “and who is also gay” demonstrate that, as it is inconceivable that they would have been nearly so pronounced if I’d said “and who is also a person struggling with same-sex attractions.” Similarly, if I say to someone who is not a conservative Christian, “I am same-sex attracted” or even “I am SSA” or “I have SSA,” the odds are slim that they will understand what I mean as readily as they do when I say “I am gay.”

    So, I think that claiming the terms to be identical 1) ends up dismissing the common narrative of “not-gay-struggling-with-same-sex-attractions” as simple self-contradiction, which I don’t want to do, and 2) does not account for the clear difference in reception of the words.

    My thoughts on the two competing identities are largely a fumbling, groping-in-the-dark attempt to express what this difference is. The fact that they are so fumbling shows, I think, that we are dealing with an area of extreme nuance and fluidity which is made even more complex by the fact that, on the bare level of experience, they are talking about the same thing, as noted above. The difference is not in the experience, but in the relation of that experience to self-understanding.

    When I see that the word “gay” receives so much resistance in Christian circles, while “same-sex attracted” is more or less acceptable, my question becomes: Why? What is the underlying motivation for this antipathy? The reasons given are often pretty flimsy, and they seem to be held with a tenacity that far exceeds any weight they have, even in the face of clear explanations of the problems with them. See the above with Nathaniel: he strenuously objected that it was a rejection of Church teaching to use the word “gay” because of Homosexualitatis Problema, I explained why Homosexualitatis Problema does not say that, he strenuously objected that it was a rejection of Church teaching to use the word “gay” because of Homosexualitatis Problema. There are many cases of this kind of response, and often from people who are very intelligent. This is a bewildering phenomenon, and I can’t look at it without saying that there is something going on there. So what is it?

    As a general rule, the people I know who self-describe as “gay” relate to their sexualities very differently from the people who self-describe as “same-sex attracted.” The former group is simpler, I think, because it tends to be a sort of “default setting” against which there is reaction. It’s just folk who are gay, who are reasonably glad to be gay, and so on. The latter group tends to have a more complex relation to their sexuality. This is sort of by necessity, since it is constructed as a rejection of just “being gay.”

    Now, of course, every faithful Catholic will struggle against lust, every faithful Catholic will struggle against masturbation, and other sexual temptations. But here, the question is not simply of struggling against sinful temptation, but of struggling against one’s own homosexuality; the standard moniker is “person struggling with same-sex attraction.”

    Now, what does it mean to struggle with homosexuality or with same-sex attraction? Having been a member of this category until a few years, I have asked myself that question, and the best answer I can come up with at this point is: The experience of homosexuality is problematized or experienced as negative as such, not only as unchastity or insofar as it touches upon chastity. As I said above, I don’t want to dismiss the experience of homosexuality in this way. I just want to say it’s not the only way to experience it.*

    Now, I can start to answer your question for clarification! The first thing I mean is: not that.

    But as I experience it, homosexuality is a messy tangle of different experiences, some good, some bad. Some are more universal, but in most cases, all we can speak of is tendencies, trends, or greater degrees of likelihood. On the most basic level, I think the vast majority of people who experience exclusive same-sex attractions experience them as a wide of attractions, from the emotional, to the romantic, to the aesthetic, to the sexual. The sexual, to me, seems nothing but a stumbling block. The others may contribute positively to one’s life experiences. There is also the experience of being significantly and fairly deeply different from those around you, which is something I value. Beyond that, there do seem to be tendencies to be somewhat less gender-conforming, even on basic physical levels. There are also tendencies to be more creative or more appreciative of creativity, tendencies to be more emotionally sensitive (both in the good way and in the bad way), tendencies to be more spiritual (but less religious). I mean, the question becomes one of exploring the variety of ways gay folk are prone to be different from straight folk, and the final answer is: these things, in so far as they seem to be connected to sexuality (which sometimes they do not), and the community I have with other people. The community line is a significant one, which is why I highlighted it at the end of my FT piece, and I have often found my experience community with other gay people to be deeply life-giving, more so than my community with SSA people. Of course, this doesn’t mean by a long stretch that I get along with every gay person, or don’t get along with any SSA people.

    *Again, as I’ve said, I am speaking in generalities only; identity questions are much too subjective to do more than that. I know some people who describe themselves as gay, but encounter their homosexuality very much in terms of cross or burden or struggle. In my experience, they either simply ignore the insistence that you have to be same-sex attracted instead of gay, or just say, that it’s a cumbersome exercise in hair-splitting. Similarly, I’ve known one or two folk who describe themselves as same-sex attracted, but do not encounter their homosexuality as such as negative. I’m less clear about their reasons.

    As a note: I would agree that many of those who reject the word “gay” would agree that there can be valuable things about the particular ways their sexuality shapes their growth. But the sum total of the experience tends to be negative, and homosexuality as such tends to be a negative category.

  16. The other option is to never use either gay or ssa – but still be completely honest about who you do or do not find attractive. This is my preferred option (as I am bored of identity politics) but the only people who are comfortable ‘engaging’ with this approach are pro-gay or, as Christians say, “affirming”.

    Non-affirming Christians do not like to hear a guy say stuff like “I used to date a guy called….” or “He’s cute…” without qualifying these revelations with another statement that basically says “Don’t worry, I’m good SSA not bad GAY”.

    But affirming Christians and non-Christians can also be easily disturbed by a person who takes their gay/ssa identity for granted but nevertheless defends orthodox Christian teaching on sex.

    Both groups want us to use some term to maintain their distance from our non-conforming “otherness”.

  17. I should add that it’s not just “non-affirming” people who find it weird talking about “dating” a guy, because the discernment active in dating is typically toward marriage, which involves sex for the most part when it gets to marriage. So dating seems like something straight folks do, whereas friendship seems to encompass the prudent relationships of the chaste. And if before one was chaste one dated it can alleviate things, but mentioning it is (psychologically and involuntarily) often of the same effect as telling someone how you used to be an alcoholic or something.

    Should people respond badly? If the situation does not necessarily imply a continuing in sin, no, not immediately. (Respond badly when there is actual sin involved and charity demands it in prudence.) Does that mean one should always mention it? No, just like you don’t always bring up the problems of the past in every conversation. But should you be able to have someone with whom we should be able to talk about the past, and not just in a confessional context, but as a friend to a friend? Absolutely. That is where friendship is essential to the community, whether between gay folks, or straight folks, or between gay and straight.

    I’m straight, as everyone here now knows, and I will admit that if Josh says to me that he “dated” or “dates” some guy I will have an involuntary bad reaction because I am old-fashioned, and “dating” for me involves a discernment for marriage. Anyone who I am not interested in marrying falls under “friend”; some friends I might potentially date. So there’s that. But I imagine that if Josh said that (and now that he sees this no doubt he will hasten to clarify the exact meaning) I would not respond badly if he just meant he was hanging out closely with another dude as with a friend, and if it meant something more I might not approve but I would understand as in the case of any similar heterosexual situation of sin.

    Sexual inclinations are tough and should not be judged too heavily, though we always by our concupiscence want to feel better for ourselves by judging others. And since Joshua himself subscribes to Church teaching I am sure he will agree in principle with what I have said; but even if he does not I think he would say that I have earned the right to say it as a friend. 🙂 And of course I am open to correction, in light of the fact that these principles of ours must always be shaped against the anvil of reality while they are still being prudently formed.

  18. I think it is generally a good idea to be sensitive to the wider cultural meanings. Meanings are, in large part, determined by how they are received, and we have to be sensitive to that reception.

    I have a friend who is an elder at a church. This friend is gay and celibate, but has been non-sexually seeing someone. His use of terms like “dating” or “boyfriend” produced enough consternation that eventually, the wider leadership of his church took him aside, and needed clarification. He has since shifted the way he describes this relationship, to be more sensitive to how he is being received. A worthy lesson for all of us.

  19. Good story. Now I have a question: in light of that need for conventional prudence, and recognizing that there is some good in using the word “gay” to describe oneself (according to some conventional use of the term) but at the same time that there is some bad use that has a stigma attached (according to another conventional use) and many people do not know of the former (because stigmas reinforce convention) how do you think gay people should moderate (or not moderate) their use of the word “gay” in a setting like the one with the Church elders you described? This is not to question the use of the word at all but to try and find out the bounds of a general prudence.

  20. tktsunami

    I agree about the dating thing. I was trying to pick examples conversational language where one’s sexuality is revealed by the choice of pronouns, I never have to talk about being gay/ssa with my gay friends because I can just talk about guys.

  21. I think that’s a more complicated question, Tom. It’s seems to me that there is a different conventional problem going on: “dating” very strongly tends to mean either a) something like discerning-towards-marriage with conservative religious folks, or b) something along a casual serial monogamy line with others. Both of those are too deeply rooted in the wrong sorts of ideas for thinking about these questions; I wouldn’t say one can’t use the notions or terms, but it seems to me like it’s not a good idea.

    On the other hand, I think the conventional problems with “gay” has more to do with the negative response conservative religious people have to gay people. This response is not without cause, of course, as we have discussed, but it seems to me that it still ends up creating an atmosphere which keeps un-straight people out of the Church; if the Church is to do a better job of providing a home for them, we have to work on changing that, and I think part of that is to work on de-stigmatizing the ways they tend to talk about themselves. Using “gay” is actually, in my mind, a way to re-habilitate the term, and so help the Church be more welcoming to those who use it. When I think about it that way, the time to not use it is precisely when it is going to be deeply unhelpful, when I am talking to someone whose reaction is going to be too negative for me to be able to work in their heart with “that word” floating in the air, it seems to me.

    Then of course, there’s the fact that others may not be blessed enough to be able to use it; for one reason or another, it may be profoundly unsafe (physically, financially, vocationally, relationally) for someone to talk that kind of talk. When someone asks those kinds of question, my emphasis is always on using caution, and making sure no harm of any sort will come upon one before taking that step.

    So, my answer would basically boil down to: When prudence dictates that, for some reason or another, it would be unwise to use the term. Very helpful, I know! But so much of these questions boils down to a level of discernment which cannot take place except when the particularities of the situation are intimately known.

  22. I tried to hit LIKE but apparently must have an account to do so. I had a very Lewis/Greeves feeling when reading this. Having met Joshua as well, I can vouch for all of what Ron has said. My own meeting with Joshua (along with a few other friends of ours) was a delightful encounter that included everything from theological discussion to whimsical play in the park. Brother to all Catholics. Agreed.

    On a side note: Anyone who comes up with a phrase like “a real question for the Church’s praxis, though not for her doxa” gets my ear up (to borrow a phrase from KRS One). 🙂 I’m always rooting for praxis, but have learned to be patient.

  23. CALGM and Joshua Gonnerman are not an apples-to-apples comparison. Joshua does “strive to clearly present Catholic doctrine on homosexuality in its fullness” and “profess personally to hold and believe, and practice all that the holy Catholic church teaches, believes and proclaims to be true, whether from the natural moral law or by way revelation from God through Scripture and tradition.”

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