[This post was originally written for Friday, October 14. A combination of weather-related travel delays and getting feedback from my friend Chris delayed posting until now.]
In the fall of 2009, I moved to South Bend for a year-long exchange at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. At the Ethics and Culture Conference that November, I met Chris Damian, a Notre Dame freshman interested in philosophy and theology.
For the first couple of years after we met, we had interesting conversations when we ran into each other (which was not often) and exchanged occasional emails if one of us saw something we thought would interest the other. He was popular and charismatic, and I saw his natural leadership talents emerge as he immersed himself in pro-life activism and defending the faith on campus.
After a couple of years passed like this, I was in South Bend again for a conference, and we arranged to meet for dinner. At some point in the conversation, we got into a discussion of homosexuality and changing sexual orientation. Chris thought Christians should talk more about hope for orientation change.
When I was Chris’s age, John Paulk had been the most prominent ex-gay leader in the country. In his early twenties, Paulk had lived a wildly promiscuous life, done drugs, cross-dressed, and worked as a gay prostitute. Then, through a Christian couple he met, he accepted Christ and left his old life. He claimed that he was no longer gay and spoke of the happiness he had found with his wife Anne and their young children. He was chair of the board of Exodus International, the world’s largest ex-gay ministry, and worked as manager of the Homosexuality and Gender Division at Focus on the Family.
My senior year in college, he and his wife had appeared on the cover of Newsweek. Then, two years after I graduated, he was caught in a gay bar in Washington, D. C. He offered conflicting stories about why he was there, and over time, he faded from public ex-gay ministry.
After more than a decade of closely following the ex-gay movement, I was frustrated by the gap between the optimistic stories of change that were often promoted by ex-gay leaders and the ongoing sexual struggle that most of the men and women—including the leaders—in these ministries faced. The gap was not always as obvious as it had been in John Paulk’s case. But again and again, ex-gay leaders told optimistic stories of healing that turned out to be—at best—only partially true.
Although I was frustrated by the false hope offered by some ex-gay leaders, I agreed with Chris that marriage was possible for some, and talked with him about a few friends who—either because of existing bisexual attraction, or a partial shift in sexual attractions toward the opposite sex—were able to find happiness in Christian marriage. I also tried to explain what I thought a more honest approach—which would not make unrealistic promises and would provide more support for celibacy and friendship—would look like.
The conversation didn’t go well. I wondered if his insistence on orientation change might represent his own hope for healing his own sexuality, but he said nothing either to confirm or deny this. By the time we finished eating and went our separate ways, there was a lot of tension in the air.
A couple of days later, I wrote a long email to explain my thinking in a more conciliatory way than I had over dinner. I talked about some of my own experiences, and about other friends who had become disillusioned with their Christian faith after believing God would change their orientation, and seeing that hope disappointed. I said that
remembering cases like theirs makes me hesitant to endorse the kind of hope for orientation change that you described over dinner. I think that some hope is there. But I think that fidelity to God’s call requires an obedience that is willing to continue to follow Christ even when those hopes for marriage don’t pan out.
For about a year and a half when I was an undergraduate, I believed that my orientation was shifting. Although I was having much greater success in avoiding lustful thoughts toward men, the hope that my feelings for a woman I was close friends with would turn into romantic attraction turned out to be wishful thinking. Letting go of that hope was painful, and there were many times when the desire for human intimacy drove me to question Church teaching. I have had to learn the value of suffering with Christ, which is never easy, but is crucial to Christian growth.
I do agree with you that it’s important to say something about healing that results in marriage to someone of the opposite sex, because this seems to be possible for some and should not be rejected. But I think it’s even more important to say that our hope in Christ is not primarily that He will enable us to have a happy marriage, it is rather that He will accompany us through all the trials of life and bring us to salvation. At the same time, though Christian discipleship is costly, it need not be lonely, and good friends can be an invaluable support on the journey.
A couple of weeks later he thanked me for my email and apologized that he hadn’t replied sooner. He said he was working on a reply, but had been too busy to finish. He would try to get back to me soon.
Then a several more weeks passed in radio silence. One cold, clear evening in January, as I was walking to a little restaurant in my neighborhood for dinner, the notification chime on my phone went off, and I saw that I had an email from him. “The truth is,” he wrote, “I’m not sure where to begin, because I’m not completely sure where I am.” Then he began to pour out his own story.
I reached the restaurant and got a table, then settled in to read. He had realized he was sexually attracted to men when he was 12 or 13, prayed that it would go away, hoped that he would marry and raise a family. More recently, he had realized that this was not as realistic as he had hoped, and he described some of the difficult situations he’d been through with friends and with the Church. “I’ve had great struggles and selfish doubts, and I have been broken and hurt by others,” he wrote. “But I suppose it’s faith that keeps me going and the desire for understanding that keeps me questioning.”
He asked more questions about marriage, celibacy, and friendship, and his email ended with a poignant question: “What hope can you offer?”
* * *
I was in the Twin Cities earlier this month, and was able to spend a few days visiting with Chris and some other friends.
It’s always good to catch up with old friends, of course, but the primary reason for the visit was to discuss a post that Chris planned to put up on his personal blog, confessing that, during the time he wrote for Spiritual Friendship, he was being dishonest:
Over the last several years, including much of the time that I was writing and speaking publicly, I engaged in sexual relationships with other men. The truth of the Gospel is not simply a truth believed in the mind or published on the internet, but a truth to be lived. I was not living in the truth, and I benefitted from the image of a man who did.
To my readers, the institutions which invited and paid me as a speaker, my friends, my family, the Spiritual Friendship team, and the many people I presented with a paled persona, rather than my person: I am sorry.
Despite the failures he confessed to, he remained committed to obeying the Church’s teaching:
To be clear, this is not a post about how the Church’s teachings are too difficult or impossible to live out or unnecessarily hard on gay people. They are hard. And the world is not set up so as to make the flourishing of the gay Christian easy. But no life is easy, and part of becoming an adult is recognizing that, while you can’t control the circumstances you find yourself in, nothing can stop you from living in the truth with love.
The morning that he published the post, we went to morning mass at his parish. Two things struck me about the day’s readings.
In the first reading, Paul chastised the Galatians for turning to a different Gospel, listening to those who want to twist the message given by God to the Apostles. “Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God?” Paul asks. “If I were still pleasing men,” he answers, “I should not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:10-12).
The Gospel doesn’t exist to please me, or Chris, or anyone else (at least in our present, fallen state). God entrusted His message to the Apostles, and they have handed it down to us through the Bible and the Church. There are various ways that the Gospel can offend us, and various strategies we can take to try to domesticate it. But if it really is revealed by God, it remains revelation from God even if we do not like it, or wish it were different.
Neither Chris nor I believe that gay sex is wrong because we find obedience to that teaching easy or congenial. We believe it because it is revealed in Scripture and has been handed on to us by the Church.
I think that this is important for thinking about a case like Chris’s. He did not make up the message he preached. He believed God had revealed it to the Church, and he was striving (at least some of the time) to follow it. I don’t say this to excuse failure. But I think it’s worth acknowledging that he took on a very difficult task because he believed God was calling him to it, not because he was trying to manipulate others into believing something he’d made up on his own.
Some of Chris’s readers will be disillusioned or hurt to hear about his sins. That is understandable—sin harms the whole body of Christ, and it’s always hard to see someone we look up to fall off their pedestal. (It’s also true that many have been encouraged by his honesty and vulnerability.)
As I have reflected on Chris’s confession, I have thought back to how I reacted to the learning that John Paulk had been caught in a gay bar, or of other ex-gay leaders who were caught living a double life.
I was not angry at them for telling me that the Bible forbade gay sex. I think that much of their message was true. What angered me was their dishonesty, claiming to be cured of their homosexual desires when in fact they were still struggling deeply and in some cases living double lives.
When they told the rest of the Christian world that they were cured, it made it harder for me to speak honestly to pastors or to Christian friends about my own experiences. By giving false testimony about their own experience of orientation change, they set false expectations for me to live up to. If I experienced ongoing attraction to men, and did not think heterosexual marriage was a good idea for me, that was more likely to be treated as a spiritual failure on my part.
When Chris called me in August to confess that he had been sexually active at the time he was writing for Spiritual Friendship, I went back and re-read several of his old posts. Although he had failed to reveal the extent of his ongoing struggles with sin in those posts, he did not lie overtly about his struggles in the way that someone like John Paulk had done.
All Christians should be striving toward the standards that are given by God, not a standard that we have picked ourselves. Anyone who reads the Bible seriously will feel challenged again and again and again—in the way we treat the poor and the oppressed, in how we respond to our enemies, in how we worship, in how we pray, and, yes, in how we deal with our sexuality.
When God’s will as revealed in Scripture confronts our fallen human desires, it can be “freaking hard” to listen to God rather than to those desires. Ultimately, I believe that God’s plan for us is good, because it calls us to love like He loves. But it’s not always easy, in the heat of the moment, to remember that the greatest love in human history is found nailed to a cross.
* * *
The Gospel that day was the story of the Good Samaritan. We often remember the parable, but forget the occasion that prompted it.
A lawyer came to test Jesus, and asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Instead of answering directly, Jesus asked the lawyer what was written in the law. We normally think of the teachers of the Jewish law as strict legalists who have an enormous number of nitpicky little rules, and Jesus as the simple teacher of love. But in this case it is the lawyer, not Jesus, who says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). And Jesus accepts his answer: “do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28).
But the lawyer still wants to justify himself, so he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). So Jesus tells the famous parable of the man who is attacked by robbers, and left bleeding on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite—the leaders of Jewish religious culture—pass by on the other side of the road. A Samaritan—a member of a group despised by Jews—rescues the man, carries him to an inn, and pays for his care.
When confronted with a confession like Chris’s, there is a temptation to back away, so that Spiritual Friendship will not be further tainted by his sin. But this is the temptation of the priest and Levite in the parable. In a recent interview, Pope Francis said,
in my life as a priest and bishop, even as Pope, I have accompanied people with homosexual tendencies, I have also met homosexual persons, accompanied them, brought them closer to the Lord, as an apostle, and I have never abandoned them. People must be accompanied as Jesus accompanies them, when a person who has this condition arrives before Jesus, Jesus surely doesn’t tell them “go away because you are homosexual.”
Like the Samaritan who was willing to love the traveller lying beaten by the side of the road, even at considerable personal risk and expense, Pope Francis is calling the Church to be willing to accompany gay people as they strive toward holiness.
When the Catechism says that “by prayer and sacramental grace,” homosexual persons “can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection,” it recognizes that this process often has setbacks (2359). It took my friend Steve years of struggle to break completely away from the sexual promiscuity that he had fallen into. Chris has not fallen as far into sin as he had, and I hope that he will be able to break out of the sinful patterns he has confessed much more quickly than Steve did.
Whatever happens, however, an important part of the hope the Church can offer is the promise to accompany him, whether his spiritual life mounts up on wings like eagles, or he is walking in the valley of the shadow of death.
My failings, my hypocrisy, and my self-deception were perpetuated by my unwillingness to be truly vulnerable with my friends and family. I didn’t trust them with my secret struggles, because a part of me wanted to have the option to continue on in my double life, and a part of me was too prideful to let those who love me struggle with me. I thought that perhaps they wouldn’t understand me, when in reality the primary reason they didn’t understand me was because I didn’t share myself with them. It doesn’t just take a village to raise a child. It takes a village to become an adult, and I didn’t let my village help me become one.
To a large extent, this is what Spiritual Friendship is about: building communities where people flourish. I didn’t fully let myself be a part of my community, because I withheld myself, my deepest self, my vulnerabilities. I lived, to a great extent, in the dark. I had faithful, time-tested friends who had seen me at my worst, and I didn’t trust them.
I was wrong. I want to learn to love my friends and family, to depend on them, and to let them love me, all of me, the real me. I realize now that I needed all the things that Spiritual Friendship is about, and I wasn’t living out the life that Spiritual Friendship seeks to give.
I’ve known Chris for more than seven years now. I’ve seen him go through a lot of seasons of struggle, and despite his failures, I’ve seen him come back to God again and again. This is far closer to the heart of real discipleship than the masks we often wear, in which sin is safely confined to some past life, and we present ourselves to the world as living saints.
Chris is one of the most gifted young Christian leaders I have encountered. The reason that he received the speaking invitations and awards that he mentions in his confession is that he’s intelligent, articulate, and often has quite interesting insights into the nature of Christian discipleship. His willingness to confess his sins of his own volition, without first being exposed, shows great courage and conviction. None of these gifts and accomplishments excuse sin. But neither does sin cancel the gift, when we repent humbly.
Morning Prayer this morning included King David’s beautiful psalm of repentance, written after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged for the murder of her husband Uriah to cover up his sin:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
and blameless in thy judgment…
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit…
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
— Psalm 51:1-4, 10-12, 17
Because of King David’s humble repentance and restoration, the Apostle Paul could still describe him as a man after God’s heart, despite his sin (see Acts 13:22). I hope and pray that Chris will persevere in repentance, and that he will use his gifts to build up the Church.
The Catholic Church has a very realistic understanding of human nature. We know that sin is difficult to eradicate from any human life—this is why we have the sacrament of confession. We know that even many saints became holy only after great sins and protracted struggle.
* * *
Today’s Gospel contains some of the most chilling words in the New Testament:
Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. Luke 12:1-3
In heaven, everything will be known. We will see each other as we are—the good, the bad, and the ugly. When Christ laid down His life for His friends, He took our sin. The wounds we inflict with our sin are often invisible to us; in taking our sin upon Himself, Christ makes them visible, in His suffering on the cross, in the wounds in His body. Christ’s resurrection shows that God has the power to bring us back to life; but the resurrected Christ still bears those wounds. We will know all the ways others have sinned against us, and forgive them and love them. Others will know everything we have done to hurt them and tried to hide, and will love us.
After eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve hid from God. God knows all, but in our sinful state cannot stand the mutual knowledge. Adam and Eve refused the face-to-face I-Thou relation with God. Having rebelled against Him, they tried to hide, and would not return His gaze. God could know them as things, but not with the mutual knowledge of persons.
Repentance means turning to look God in the face as we are, hiding nothing from Him. He knows and loves us as we are, but loves us too much not to rescue us from our sin and selfishness.
However, earth is not heaven. Most of us do not yet love our neighbors—or our enemies—enough to be trusted with this total knowledge of others failings, sins, and weaknesses.
Given the world we live in, it took a lot of courage for Chris to confess his sin. Revelations like his give us a chance to reflect: first, on our own hidden sins, on the ways that we still hide our face from God and from our friends; second, on our need for friends who will love us as we are while helping us to become what God created us to be; and third, on what this reveals about the true meaning of loving our neighbor as we love ourself.
This post is part of a larger series of posts loosely organized around the question, “What hope can the Church offer lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians?” To see other posts in the series, click here.