Welcoming and shaming

A friend of mine recently brought my attention to a video called “Homosexuality and Hope: My Journey to Truth in the Catholic Church.” In the video, the speaker says:

We can let go of any shame or guilt internalized on account of the existence of those attractions. Ok? This whole myth that we’re supposed to feel shameful? Forget it. It’s not part of Catholic Church teaching, and if you do have shame or guilt because of the fact that you might have same sex attractions, you can let that go. We’ve all been able to let that go. It’s absolutely liberating.

I feel bad referring to the person delivering this message as “the speaker.” It feels awkward to talk about him without using his name. But, for reasons which I’m sure had nothing to do with shame, he chose not to share his name with his audience.

Moreover—and again, I’m sure this had nothing to do with shame—he chose not to let us see his face, either:

homosexuality and hope

I wish I could say that I’d just picked an especially awkward moment in the video. Unfortunately, the speaker treats us to fifteen minutes of this painfully awkward, faceless view.

Not only does he not tell us his name or show us his face, he also, despite the promise made in the title, does not share anything about his own particular journey toward truth. Instead, he shares 5 truths taught by the Catholic Church about homosexuality. That is a perfectly reasonable thing for him to do: but the title’s promise of a personal journey only further highlights how impersonal, indeed depersonalized, this video is. And this just reinforces suspicion that the Church’s teaching itself is impersonal and depersonalizing. 

In what is supposed to be an outreach to people who have same-sex attraction, a nameless, faceless torso without a history is trying to tell me that the Catholic Church welcomes men and women with same-sex attraction, and doesn’t want to shame them.

But it shows something very different.

About a year and a half ago, the National Catholic Register published an article, “Courage Continues Mission of Its Founder, Father Harvey.” The author, Matthew Rarey, had interviewed Fr. Paul Check, Fr. Harvey’s successor in Courage. The interview began with this exchange:

Matthew Rarey: What did you think about this year’s conference?

Fr. Paul Check: I wish that the people who attended the conference who are Courage members could answer that question because they are the true heart of Courage, and they can give the most effective testimony about the apostolate.

If Fr. Check actually wished this, then it would have been reasonable to suggest that Mr. Rarey talk to Courage members and include their perspectives in the article. And I would have expected that a good journalist, upon learning that Fr. Check viewed the perspective of Courage members as more important than his own, would have made an effort to include their voices in his article. (In fairness, a couple of the interviewer’s questions were drawn from conversations with members, so their voices were not completely silenced; yet it is still strange to read an article where we barely hear from those who, we are informed almost in the very first line, have more to contribute than the voice the reporter has decided to focus on.)

With what I’m sure is unintentional irony, the Register chose to illustrate this interview with Fr. Check—in which both Fr. Check and the Register’s interviewer fail to present us with the voices whom Fr. Check says he wishes we could hear—with this faceless (stock) photograph, to save us from seeing the faces I’m sure both of them wish we could see:

Photo Credit: Monika Wisniewska/Shutterstock.com

One of the most popular posts I’ve put up on this blog is called Faces: a pet peeve. It chronicled the tendency, among Christian publishers, to obscure faces on the covers of books about homosexuality.

Both the author of the video and Fr. Check want to reach out to people who struggle with same-sex attraction. They want to assure them that everyone is welcome in the Catholic Church, regardless of what temptations or sins they struggle with.

I applaud that.

But people don’t just listen to the words we say. They also listen to the way we say them, and the context in which we say them. As long as the person trying to welcome you won’t look you in the eye, or listen to what you say, it’s hard to take the words of welcome at face value.

In an address to catechists and religion teachers at the Jubilee of Catechists in 2000, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote:

Human life cannot be realized by itself. Our life is an open question, an incomplete project, still to be brought to fruition and realized. Each man’s fundamental question is: How will this be realized—becoming man? How does one learn the art of living? Which is the path toward happiness?

To evangelize means: to show this path—to teach the art of living. At the beginning of his public life Jesus says: I have come to evangelize the poor (Luke 4:18); this means: I have the response to your fundamental question; I will show you the path of life, the path toward happiness—rather: I am that path.

The deepest poverty is the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This poverty is widespread today, in very different forms in the materially rich as well as the poor countries. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, avarice—all defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world.

This is why we are in need of a new evangelization—if the art of living remains an unknown, nothing else works. But this art is not the object of a science—this art can only be communicated by [one] who has life—he who is the Gospel personified.

This is what we’ve tried (no doubt quite imperfectly) to do here at Spiritual Friendship. We want to explore what it means to internalize the Gospel, and to let it transform our lives and our relationships. We’ve tried to share both the positive things we’ve learned about faith and friendship, and some of the struggles and frustrations we’ve encountered along the way.

We hope that by sharing our stories and our insights about growing in Christ as celibate gay Christians—under our own names, and without obscuring our faces—we can make some small contribution to the kind of evangelization Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about.

But the kind of (presumably) well-intentioned outreach I drew attention to above actually ends up sending the opposite message: the Church is not a place where those with same-sex attraction are welcome, where they can show their face, or speak and be heard.

There’s a lot of work left to do.

ron50Ron Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

9 thoughts on “Welcoming and shaming

  1. I get your reasoning and I can’t, of course, speak to the video or how it was handled.

    Yet, I think there is a second powerful message to the fact that faces are hardly ever shown that has nothing to do with shame.

    I actually find myself drawn to the covers you used to illustrate your post last year.


    Because most of the time I do feel faceless in the Church, or at least, as if I were wearing a fake face.

    It is said that kids who draw pictures of people without hands feel powerless and are expressing it in their drawings.

    I can’t help wondering if faceless book covers indicate less the shame or a desire for anonymity than they do the sense of being without personhood that many gay Christians experience. As a celibate homosexual Christian I feel out of place in my congregation, among my sexually active gay friends and in my own family.

    So I find myself identifying with those covers as “here is where I am- it reflects who I am and how I feel.” The question is whether the Church will respond so that people like me don’t have to stay without faces.

    Somehow, I would have real trouble identifying with a face, especially a happy smiling one, and would be less likely to read the book.

  2. An interesting thought, Mathew, but personally I don’t see it. It’s a clever interpretation, and if it helps you that’s great, but I doubt it’s the intent of the publishers, given that the content of much of this stuff is not of the “liberation” type of narrative. It’s often, like Courage, stuff that encourages closeting so that no one has to deal with uncomfortable questions of the existence of homosexuals.

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  4. I am not dismissing all of the many points you have made in this post by just bringing up this one thing – it is just one thought that I had. I guess to me, there really is a difference between seeking privacy and feeling ashamed. Some people really do hide things or their identity out of shame – but I sometimes feel like especially in American culture, this is an assumption to always be true. But, and maybe this comes from being of Eastern background, I am used to privacy, of a thing in particular or even of identity, sometimes coming from modesty, or the special/personal nature of what the subject matter is, and privacy being part and parcel of the dignity associated with that. Also, the ability to control your boundaries, and even safety. I agree with you that this can really change the effect on viewers/readers – it does depersonalize to an extent.

    • Just to be clear – I do agree that presenting people this way does make it look like shame, though. So if they are putting stuff like this together in order to make people feel welcome, yes, perhaps they need to choose someone who is willing to be seen – it would be more effective, whereas this may send a confusing, mixed, counter-productive message.

      • I think that it’s completely legitimate to value privacy and set boundaries. For example, the blogger behind Disputed Mutability has never publicly revealed her name or showed her face, but I’ve never criticized her for that decision. I think it’s entirely legitimate.

        Also, the cover of Fr. Thomas Hopko’s Christian Faith And Same Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections doesn’t have a face, but doesn’t show up on any of my posts criticizing Christian publishers for faceless gay people.

        The objection here is not to cover designs or photos illustrating magazine stories that don’t show faces. The woman behind Disputed Mutability doesn’t want to share her name or show her face, but has made a positive contribution to the discussion. That’s great, and I have no problem with that.

        My objection is to photos that obscure or cut off faces. The image from the video above is alienating in a way that Disputed Mutability’s blog is not. The obscured face of the man used to illustrate the Register article is not just about privacy—as far as I know, it’s a stock photo. This is a photo that the Register editors chose for this particular article (and could have chosen other photos).

        As a single choice, it’s not bad. But as a fairly widespread pattern of obscuring the faces of LGBT people in conservative Christian publications, it’s a problem.

        Especially when you compare it with something like the Gay Christian Network website. The fact that you have smiling faces is just a lot more welcoming than the obscured faces in these publications—or the shadowed silhouettes you will find on the Courage website. “You don’t have to make this journey alone!”—no, indeed: there are faceless shadows who will walk with you!

        I think everyone should make their own decisions about how public to be about their sexuality. But it’s a simple fact of human psychology that faces are welcoming, and cutting off or obscuring faces is not. Until Christians who defend traditional sexual ethics understand this, we will continue to push people away—even as dissenters put forward a much more welcoming image.

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