At America blog last week, the Jesuit priest, Fr James Martin opened up a conversation that is well overdue, but which has up to now been conducted only among those most directly affected, or in obscure specialist theological circles: “What”, he asked, “Is a gay Catholic to do?”
Introducing his question, Fr Martin began by observing five actions that most people would regard as standard life experiences or choices, but which are prohibited to gay Catholics if they wish to conform to standard Church teaching. Briefly, these actions are:
- To experience romantic, sexual love
- To get married
- To adopt children
- To seek ordination
- To take employment with the church or its agencies.
What, then, is a gay Catholic to do? Fr Martin raised the question, which I suspect will also be relevant in many other faiths, but did not attempt to answer it. Having had the question put before them, his readers responded with vigour – but they too had few answers, beyond the obvious one of simply “accept church teaching without questioning”, and so to accept this misfortune as one would any other disability or ill-fate bestowed by God.
This is not a response that I would consider constructive – and nor would most of the other gay men and lesbians who joined the discussion. (Christ himself said nothing at all against homoerotic relationships). Only marginally more helpful is the variation on the above, to pray to the Lord for help, accept His guidance – and then follow church teaching, quite overlooking even the possibility that the response to sincere, deep prayer might be to ignore church teaching (which, incidentally, was my own experience – but of that more later).
There can be very few heterosexual people who would voluntarily give up all five of these actions. The supposed grounds for setting the expectation, in Scripture and in the Magisterium of the church, are disputed by some significant modern scholars. Is it surprising that some gay Catholics are refusing to just roll over and play dead? This is a conversation that has been conducted quietly for decades by gay Catholics themselves, and more formally by an expanding band of reputable academics in “gay & lesbian theology”, in “queer theology”, or even in “indecent theology”. If Fr Martin did not suggest an answer to his question, he did at least bring into public view the simple fact there such a conversation exists, and needs to be conducted more openly.
In the absence of any clear agreement on what a gay Catholic is to do, I would like to summarise what, based on my own observations, gay Catholics who have seriously considered the question, have in fact done.
This is obviously the approved response, actively promoted by the church as the “Courage” ministry, which aims to guide its members to live in complete chastity. I have no information on the numbers following this path, but suspect that they are low. Many gay Catholics view this with scepticism, or even downright hostility, for its links to the discredited ideas of reparative therapy. (See “All You Wanted to Know About Courage “, at the Wild Reed.)
Conscientious (silent) dissent
In setting its rules, the church claims that the basis lies in the clear voice of Scripture and the unchanging tradition of the church. However, as important decisions over the past summer of the ECLA, the Episcopalians and the Swedish Lutherans have shown, there is no longer a universal consensus among scholars that Scripture is as hostile as was once assumed. It is now obvious that there is at least room for sincere disagreement on the relevance of the so-called “clobber texts”.
Similarly, the church’s own Magisterium is not, as claimed, unchanging. As gay Catholic historians like John Boswell and Mark Jordan have shown, the Magisterium on homoerotic relationships is anything but unchanging, and indeed may have followed rather than led popular intolerance which grew steadily in the centuries of urban decline in Western Europe after the fall of Rome.
Church teaching itself recognises the possibility of disagreeing, in conscience, with official teaching, provided that conscience has been properly formed. For years, this was in effect my own position. The challenge of course, is just what does “properly formed” mean? In my case, it included many different elements, including personal prayer, formal spiritual direction with highly qualified priests, several 6 or 8 day silent, directed retreats, and extensive reading, of Scripture, bible commentary, church history and sexual theology, and informal discussion with friends, gay and others. For me, the outcome was clear: the official teaching, for whatever reason, is misguided, and I must live with integrity, in accordance with the way the Lord made me.
I would have thought that I had done about as much to form my conscience as most people could reasonably expect, but it seems not. To judge by the comments following Fr Martin’s question, many orthodox Catholics simply argue that conscience cannot be properly formed unless it ends up agreeing with church teaching. And even where there is agreement that I may after all have the right to dissent in private, this may not be in public, nor does it give me access to the five things named by Fr Martin – at least not with the co-operation of the church.
Conscientious (visible) dissent
The problem with silent dissent is that is silent –and therefore lonely. One yearns for the opportunity to talk openly, with other dissenting gay Christians, or with other Catholics (when we do, we usually find that they have their own profound disagreements with church teaching, but somehow their disagreements in conscience, over contraception for example, are deemed acceptable, while ours are not). As it can be difficult to find safe spaces in most parishes to give expression to these issues, some Catholics seek to worship, where possible, in dedicated LGBT congregations. As a “solution” to the problem, this is not satisfactory. (The church should not be forming a series of ghettos.) Still, as a strategy and interim measure pending more welcoming responses by mainstream congregations, they are valuable. But these too attract strong opposition in some quarters. (Here in London, the regular Soho “gay masses” attract a steady band of protestors, praying outside the church for an end to the “heresy” that we too should be able to attend Mass. How they argue that their Catholic duty is to prevent or discourage people from attending Mass, I fail to understand.)
External dissent: Prophetic Witness, or Sniping From the Margins?
One of the most penetrating discussions of the problem I have come across is by Michael B Kelly, an Australian writer and spiritual director, now working towards a PhD in Spirituality. In a powerful reflection on the story of the road to Emmaus, he observes that this came immediately after the resurrection – which the religious authorities, holed up in Jerusalem, had not as yet accepted or recognised, in spite of the personal witness of the women who had met the risen Christ. Two of the disciples, despondent, left Jerusalem, and made their way to the town of Emmaus. The next part of the story is well known – on the road they met a stranger, walked with him, and offered the hospitality of their home, whereupon they recognised the risen Lord. This is where Kelly’s version becomes profound, because he makes the next part, usually omitted, the key to the story. Having met and conversed with the Lord at a personal level, they then leave Emmaus, and return to Jerusalem, to deliver the news of the Risen Lord to the religious authorities who had so dismally failed earlier to recognise him.
This, says Kelly, is what a gay Catholic has to do. First, to turn away (possibly literally, possibly figuratively) from the religious authority of the institutional church, and to meet Christ on a personal level. Having done that, having formed a personal relationship, the task is to take the road away from Emmaus, back to Jerusalem, and then to speak up to the establishment in prophetic witness: that Christ is not met among the religious “pure”, in ritual and religious law, but among the marginalised and rejected, in love and compassion.
There are an increasing number of gay Catholic dissenters who have followed this path in one from or another, who have distanced themselves from the institution and who speak up in prophetic witness (as they see it) against the sins of the church, and in support of the truth as they see it. They still see themselves (and describe themselves) as “catholic” (just not necessarily “Roman”), but do not necessarily participate in regular liturgical services. Whether they are indeed perceptive prophets who will in time be seen to have been right, or whether they are simply misguided fools sniping from the margins, time will tell.
Walk right away.
Right at the opposite end of the spectrum are those who have simply walked right away from the Catholic church, disgusted and repelled by the harsh words and treatment it has for them. Some of these make their way to more supportive Christian denominations, some abandon religion entirely. The ones that disturb me the most are those I often come across in the blogosphere, who describe themselves as “recovering” Catholics.
Still no answer.
I have still not given a clear answer: “What is a gay Catholic to do?”. I have outlined a range of strategies that some gay Catholics have followed. I now ask you: if you are indeed a lesbian or gay Christian, in any of the hostile denominations, what strategy do you adopt (or have adopted) yourself? If you are not gay, but willing sincerely to consider the question from their point of view, putting yourself in their shoes, and without simply parroting out slogans, what would you do?
What, finally, would Jesus do?
What is a Gay Catholic to do? Fr James Martin at America blog. (read the comments, too)
“All You Wanted to Know About Courage “, at the Wild Reed
Countering the Clobber Texts , here at QTC
The Church’s Changing Tradition , here at QTC
The Road from Emmaus: A Reflection by Michael B Keely on the gay & lesbian Prophetic Role in the Church.
Alison, James: Faith Beyond Resentment – fragments catholic and gay
Alison, James: On Being Liked
Comstock, Gary: Queer(y)ing Religion
Glaser, Chris: Coming Out as Sacrament
Goss, Robert: Jesus Acted Up
Helminiak, Daniel: Sex and the Sacred
Kelly, Michael B: Seduced by Grace
McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended
Schinnick: This Remarkable Gift being gay and catholic
Stuart, Elisabeth: Religion is a Queer Thing
Stuart, Elisabeth: Gay & Lesbian Theologies