What IS a Gay Catholic to do? A Question Comes Out of the Closet.

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.

Conform

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?

Read More:

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.

Books:

Alison, James:  Faith Beyond Resentment – fragments catholic and gay

Alison, James: On Being Liked

Alison, James: Undergoing God

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


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14 Responses to “What IS a Gay Catholic to do? A Question Comes Out of the Closet.”

  1. eric Says:

    I’m one who walked away. Shook the dust from my sandals, more or less, and said goodbye to the church that despite it’s words hates me and all homosexuals. Of course, I had the added impetus to walk in that my Archbishop was quite happy to refer to gays as faggots. To my face (I wasn’t out, so I guess that somewhat ameliorates that incident.) I formally renounced, in writing, my baptism in the Catholic church.

    What ensued was 13 years of serious hatred for the RCC. It has only been in the past year that I have finally made a serious effort to forgive the RCC.

    But, I have always cringed at the term “Recovering Catholic”. Hidden within my hatred lies a still simmering love for the church. Whenever someone called me a recovering catholic I countered with “There’s nothing to recover from.” And, quite oddly, I am the only one permitted to badmouth the catholic church in my presence!

    Talk about conflicted!

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Eric, I’m sure we are all conflicted – the only difference between us , lies in the nature of the conflict.
      For those who try to stick to the letter of the teaching, it’s a conflict between intention and inner psychological truth. For those who stay in, it’s about when and how far to speak up, or hold one’s tongue.

      You’re outside, but object to others’ badmouthing. I’m inside (peripherally), but engage in constant criticism.

      It’s a conflict given to us at baptism.

      • eric Says:

        Oh, you bring up a point for clarification… my objection to others badmouthing is only to those who AREN’T catholic… and to those catholics who never received a decent education on their faith, and so say stupid things “Catholics are taught to never read the bible.” and other stupid things like that.

        So, you may feel free to engage in constant criticism! 😀

      • Terence@queerchurch Says:

        Thanks.

  2. Jayden Cameron Says:

    Wonderful post! Thanks so much. The clearest, most articulate expression of the various alternatives I’ve yet seen and of my own position. Running off to school now, but I would like to reply at greater length (perhaps at GayMystic) about the inner joy of encountering Christ at the margins. All is not gloom and doom, far from it.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Excellent response, Jayden. I look forward to reading your promised reflection. Fr Martin opened the discussion – let’s keep it going, wherever we can.

  3. Alix Rites Says:

    This was an excellent treatise on being gay and religious dogma. While raised in the RCC, I left when I graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school. Away from God all those years, while still being a lesbian, I ended up gravitating to a then unknown to me Protestant church (Assemblies of God) that turned out to be inherently fundamental and homophobic. Unfortunately for me, I did not “get that” initially. I loved the services, the preaching and felt spiritually fed. I discovered God on a deeply personal level—a relationship I had never experienced before. My heart was full. Then my identity of being a lesbian was acknowledged and I was politely “shown the door.” That was because the pastor openly preached on that Sunday that “homosexuality was the worst sin in the Bible.” After the service, I challenged him. I asked him to refer to the specific scripture that said that (because I never read that despite reading through various translations). He wanted to avoid this conversation with me totally, but I countered with reminding him that he always said that the Bible would prove its own truth. Again, I challenged him to point out where in the Bible was that specifically quoted and he hemmed and hawed. I told him, according to my Bible in Rev 21:8 “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (NKJV) Nowhere did it say that only the homosexuals would burn in this lake of fire, and even pointed out that the sexually immoral were not even listed first! He could not respond and just walked away and greeted other members.

    I was so filled with God’s Spirit and left homeless. I have always tried to live my life by Rom 12:1-2, but if I am to obey the letter and the spirit of the law, then that makes me feel that, while acknowledging that I have always been and will always be a lesbian, I would have to choose celibacy. Therefore, I am at a major crossroads in my life. While I continue to enjoy my personal relationship with God, I miss dearly fellowshipping with other believers and hearing God’s word being preached. The idea of choosing celibacy harkens back to the comments in the article about reparative therapy. I do not suffer with something from which to cure. Being a lesbian is who I am, not what I chose to be. Moreover, I am proud of who I am. So, what am I to do?

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Alix, thank you so much for writing.

      I really hesitate to tell anyone what to do, but I sincerely hope that these pages, directly or indirectly, will help. I firmly believe that each person needs to take a personal decision in conscience. However, please understand that however much the churches may say they have the truth, that is simply not so. They are grasping, just as we are. The trouble with Scriptural texts, especially when we look at one or two verses in isolation, is that what they mean and what we think they mean are not always the same. The fascinating thing to me, is that the more I learn of the Catholic church, in its history and in its broader teaching (not just sex), I find that the message is far more subtle, complex and changeable than the popular, two dimensional image would have us believe.

      I’m not going to attempt to slip you any glib easy answers. I would however, stress the absolute primacy of working within conscience. Whatever that tells you, you should be able to follow – I don’t believe that a well-formed conscience can ever tell us to do that which is impossible, or in conflict with our true identity. I can share my own story though, and how I fond my own response to the challenge. If you are new to these pages, have a look at the following posts, where I tell something of my personal history and perspective: My journey in faith; The Magisterium and Me; and Magisterium and Scripture.
      (For a long time, I’ve been wanting to write more about the Magisterium, especially about its own authority but have been too intimidated. Perhaps the time has come to pluck my courage and just plunge in. )

      There are also plenty of other great blogsites out there that can offer insights from personal stories, or by useful writers. Check them out in my links. (I particularly recommend The Wild Reed, which is the one that got me started, not least for its comprehensive set of themed archives, where you can find excellent material on conscience and dissent, and also great stuff on spirituality. Spirituality and personal prayer can be an excellent way to short circuit the interference that the churches sometimes put in our way. As the noted Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner observed, if spiritual practice can give you a direct experience of God, then nothing. but nothing said by the churches (or even found in Scripture), can counteract what you learn directly from the Lord. Surprising though it may sound, Rahner argues further that every one of us potentially can indeed have that direct experience, it is not something special, rese4rved just for just a few Holy Joes or Janes. Consider also, that many writers, notably, Chris Glaser, Daniel Helminiak, and John McNeill (see my booklist in the post for the titles) argue strongly taht sexual expression is not a barrier to spiritual growth, but rather enhances it. (See, for example, “The intimate dance of sexuality and spirituality)”. Also, keep an eye on The Gay Mystic. Jayden has indicated that he will provide his own response to this post by writing more about his experience of encountering the risen Christ away from the church, which he has touched on before. I am looking forward to it myself.

      OK. I have now gone rather further than I would like in a response to a comment, but probably not far enough to be helpful. I hope, though that it is a start. Perhaps some of my other readers would like to offer Alix some help?

      Terence

      I hope you come back here from time to time, and also read the comments. Often they can be relly useful – at least , I find them so.

      • Alix Rites Says:

        Terence, thank you so much for your reply and the many references you site which I will read with much anticipation. I found your site through an RSS feed to which I have subscribed from Standing at the Intersection of Church and State. I also saw Jayden’s later response when you posted my comment as a separate entry. To have others “get it” where my conundrum is concerned really warms my heart. I look forward to others’ responses. I so appreciate this new-found venue to which I will return on a regular basis, as well as the Gay Mystic.

    • Jayden Cameron Says:

      What an extraordinarily moving testimony. Thanks so much for this and blessings on your search.

  4. colkoch Says:

    Alix, I too thank you for your post. I think healing for me began when I started laughing about the whole silly situation. That’s one thing I’ve found about a personal relationship with Jesus is that He seems to have a very good sense of humor. I think keeping a less serious perspective about human foilbles is an important part of compassion. Especially about one’s self. That sense of humorous perspective is completely lost on the righteous right.

    I’ve often written that when Jesus told Peter that Peter was the rock on which the Church was built, Jesus was joking. Actually, if you read the Acts of the Apostles, James led the Jerusalem Church and Paul led the gentile church. It seems the Apostles didn’t take Jesus seriously about Peter, so why has the Church?

    I guess it proves what happens when people take one verse of scripture in order to build a whole structure on it. They have to ignore everything else which may contradict it. Given this one verse about Peter and the subsequent use of it, it’s hardly surprising that some people use the handful of scriptural verses about gay sex to make it out to be the worst thing since Eve ate the apple.

    The final joke is when we die and all the righteous right gay bashers have to reincarnate as gay.

    • Alix Rites Says:

      I must admit, I have never looked at scripture from a humerous aspect, but what you said certainly gave me pause for thought, especially about me taking myself too seriously. I never looked at the Apostles of taking Jesus as anything but serious; however your comment about James and Paul is so true as I re-read it.

      I have also written on my blog about how dangerous it to take one or two verses without reading the whole context in which it is written. Take the clobber verse of Lev 20:13–in the same breath is verse 10 and we no longer put adulterers to death; they merely get a pass for divorce.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your valuable point of view with me.

      • Terence@queerchurch Says:

        Alix, thank you for all the time you are giving us here, with your own writing to deal with. Your observations on context are crucial. As I indicated a few days ago I hoped to do, I have now begun expanding my earlier observations about the magisterium and the interpretation of Scripture, applying the clear guidelines of the Pontifical Bible Commission specifically to the clobber texts. I thought I had a reasonable understanding of these to begin with, but rereading them, and the commentaries by Boswell, Countryman and others specifically from within the PBC is a staggering experience – I am finding the tradtional interpretations even less relevant than I have done in the past. Its a big job, and I don’t expect to have a completed interpretation anytime soon – but I may start with partial lextracts shortly.

        Keep well,

        Terence

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Colleen, your remarks about Peter remind me of something that I loved on first reading James Alison, in “On Being Liked”. I don’t recall the exact words, but the sense was that when we start to take too seriously the importance and supposed authority of the papacy, all we need to do is to consider the character of Peter, on whom the whole institution was supposedly modelled – hardly a perfect example of steadfastness and consistency. Remember that, and it becomes difficult to be overawed by the Vatican bureaucrats ever again.


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