One of the nastier tricks of Vatican rhetoric, especially as displayed in “Homosexualitatis Problema”, is the uneven manner in which (approved) heterosexual relationships are described in terms of “conjugal love”, while (condemned) homosexual relationships are simply not mentioned, and the word “homosexual” is used only in terms of homosexual persons, “acts” (assumed to be genital), and “condition”.
The unfairness and lack of validity of this could be quickly and easily demonstrated simply by reversing the procedure. How easy it it would be to lament the condition of the heterosexual male, intent only on self-indulgent sensual gratification, as demonstrated in the ubiquity of prostitution and pornography. Or, we could consider the one-sided nature of the institution of traditional marriage, marked by patriarchal domination, an expectation that male sexual needs should always be met, a disregard for the need (or sometimes even the possibility) of female sexual pleasure, and sometimes even domestic violence and marital rape.
It would be easy, but I’m not going to go there. I am quite willing to accept that there must be many sound heterosexual relationships really are founded on genuine loving partnerships, based on equality of the partners. Logically, I am sure it is quite as possible for heterosexual marriages to be as emotionally healthy for both partners as homoerotic relationships.
Instead, I want to look at the other side of the comparison, at the quality of the love found in so many male couples, love which the Vatican resolutely fails to acknowledge.
Dugan McGinley (“Acts of Faith, Acts of Love“) discusses many of these relationships, as recounted in the autobiographical writings of a selection of gay male Catholics – and ex-Catholics. Reading these accounts, I was struck by how much these relationships are fully characterised by the intensity and quality of love and mutual giving to the other, and even to their partners’ families. These “acts of love” are quite as much “homosexual acts” as the merely genital acts with which the Vatican is obsessed.
Fenton Johnson, for instance, in “Geography of the Heart” describes how he made a fully conscious and deliberate decision to commit his life in love to his partner Larry, even in the full knowledge that Larry had AIDS, and would soon be dying a slow and difficult death, with all the implications that would bring in difficulties and burdens imposed on himself. In accepting the responsibility, Johnson finds that the quality of his love draws him closer to God:
My deciding to take care of Larry as he goes through this is in part a religious decision – a decision to thank the power, or powers, that have granted me life. And it’s a humanistic decision, – a storing up, I can hope, of grace; if I stand at someone’s side during this hard portion of his journey, perhaps, I can hope, I will have someone to stand by me when my time arrives, be that one or five or fifty years away.
In caring for my lover I came to understand the tautological relationship between God and love. My lover’s love for me and mine for him made me into something better, braver, more noble than I had imagined myself capable of being. I was touched by the literal hand of god, for this is what love is, in a way as real as I expected to encounter in this life.
Earlier in their relationship, with the first visit to Larry’s family, they took a decision out of respect for the sensitivities of the family, that Larry would sleep in the family home, and Fenton would go alone to an hotel. After Larry’s eventual death, he continues to see and offer support to Larry’s parents, and especially to his mother after she finds herself alone and widowed.
John McNeill has often written of the importance of his own partner, Charles, and how important each has been to the other in the differing kinds of support they offer, and the sacrifices they have made for each other.
Despite, this, McNeill performs his act of love without question; he is committed to Charlie for better or for worse.
John also makes an important, often overlooked consequence of the church distinction between homosexual “acts” (of the genital kind) and homosexual persons. For by focussing on single acts as isolated sins, and denying the possibility of relationships, the Church is paradoxically encouraging the precisely the kind of promiscuous lifestyle that they decry, and assume to characterise the “gay lifestyle”.
According to the pastoral practice of the church, a man could have gay sex one night and then be absolved for his “sin” in confession the next day. If, on the other hand, he fell in love and moved in with a man, he would be denied absolution until he broke off the relationship. This is how he experienced his own coming to terms with his homosexuality as a Catholic: “Ironically the church fostered promiscuity and felt that the enemy was not gay sex but gay love”.
The point, which Vatican documents simply ignore, is that “homosexual acts” are not purely genital, but include, are even primarily, acts of love. As McGinley repeatedly notes in his book, it is impossible to separate the homosexual “person” from his “acts”, or from the “condition” that makes him who he is.
What of those who have attempted to live fully within church teaching? Some few, especially some of the priests, have successfully accepted the charism of celibacy. However, as we know from St Paul, not everyone is granted this charism. For those who do not possess it, compulsory celibacy is simply oppressive:
The intention is to promote lives of virtue for gay people, but the effect of trying to live according to church teaching on homosexuality is usually the opposite. For example, the church insists on life-long celibacy for gay people, even though they may not possess the charism necessary for such a commitment. Without the charism, the requirement is no longer life-enhancing, but rather death-dealing. It relies on an artificial separation of doing and being gay, and transforms into a bare bones order of abstinence – a suffering to be offered up, a cross to bear. As (Andrew) Sullivan says, “Abstinence forever; abstinence always; abstinence not just from sex, but from love and love’s hope and the touch of a lover’s embrace. Abstinence even from recognition, acknowledgement, family.”
(Bear in mind here, that notwithstanding the official insistence that the Church condemns only the “acts”, and that the “persons” must be treated with “dignity, compassion and respect”, the actual practice of the church frequently confuses the two the moment that a “person” openly identifies as gay. This was the case with the Canadian altar server, who remains unable to serve because he is living openly with a man, even though he insists that the relationship is celibate.)
This denial of love which Sullivan describes has lead many men into destructive marriages, or to suicide, or to both. These too are described in McGinley’s book, but I will not go into them here. Instead, I simply want to remind you of the significance of McGinley’s subtitle: that gay Catholic autobiographies are sacred texts. Indeed they are, and telling and sharing our stories are sacramental acts.
Vatican doctrine on sexuality is dry, abstract, entirely theoretical – and not based on sound premises. Telling our stories, speaking the truth in love, as the Vatican itself urges us to do, is the one simple thing that every gay Catholic can do to contribute (over time) to the building of a new, sounder and reality- based sexual theology.
Johnson, Fenton: Geography Of The Heart
McGinley, Dugan: “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts”
McNeill, John: Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair
Sullivan, Andrew: Virtually Normal