I’ve greatly appreciated Justin’s contributions to this dialogue. I don’t expect this to be “the final word”—and I’m sorry these posts have been so long!—but let me try to give a bit more of a sense of where I’m coming from. Here are five things.
What we long for. I generally write about the paths of love that are open to gay or same-sex attracted Catholics. That’s because they are so much more varied and more fruitful than I realized when I became Catholic. I wish people had told me that I would not be barred from intimacy, ecstasy, devoted love, lifelong care, or kinship; that I could find ways of pouring myself out in love for others and becoming a part of their “chosen family.”
But there are obviously pathways that are closed to me. Lesbians can’t be priests, for example. (Is that a joke? I always act like that’s a joke but it’s a toothy one.) I hope it doesn’t come across as disingenuous that I focus on the paths to which God does call gay Catholics and don’t spend as much time detailing the pain we feel because some paths of love are barred to us. I know it’s hard to believe this but I’m actually a really private person. I respect so much the people who have the courage to speak vulnerably about their own struggles with yearning for marriage, sex, or biological children, all of which I will not have unless something very weird happens.
Out of those three I feel the lack of sex most sharply. It’s a way of making your body an icon of self-gift and union: not the only way, but one of the most powerful and urgently-felt. The longing for biological children is a similar kind of intense, gut-level longing which also has such deep symbolic resonance. It’s important to name this pain. By exposing the painful yearning that we feel, we can build solidarity (with other gay people, or with straight people who have suffered from the same lacks for different reasons) and honor the sacrifices we make. God doesn’t want us to pretend that our surrender is costless.
What I see in Scripture. Justin was right to pick up on my statement, “There are things the Catholic Church could teach which would make it impossible, I think, for me to accept Her as a trustworthy guide to God’s will.” There’s a little more to be said about my willingness to accept Catholic teaching on sexuality than just, “Rome says it, I believe it, that settles it.” There are things I see in Scripture—and things I see in Christian practice—that help to make the Catholic understanding of sexuality credible to me.
Scripture uses both same-sex and opposite-sex love to model the love between God and the human soul, the Bible’s love story.
These loves aren’t used in completely parallel ways, though. The same-sex love that mirrors the love between God and humankind is expressed most often in friendship—David and Jonathan, Jesus and John, Jesus and all the disciples—and never in marriage. When sexual love serves as a mirror it’s always sexually-faithful marital love between a man and a woman.
Both of these elements are powerful to me: the fact that same-sex love is used to teach us how to love God; and the fact that it is not structured as a marriage or sexual union. This is a consistent pattern in Scripture, not a matter of proof-texting or imperial Roman cultural context.
What I see in my church. I doubt that this Scriptural pattern would be at all persuasive to me if I had only seen the Catholic sexual ethic lived out in judgment and homophobia. I was lucky enough to become Catholic in a time and place where I was not treated with suspicion, contempt, or judgment because of my sexual orientation. It wasn’t perfect—my second post explored the ways I struggled and harmed others, later, because nobody around me helped me to focus on my vocation and my future.
But the Christians I knew were happy that I was questioning them, they didn’t pressure me to agree, they didn’t focus on my sexuality at all, they didn’t shame me for my doubts or struggles, and they didn’t tell me to try to become straight. They listened to me, and they were humble and honest about the ways in which their own struggles with Christian sexual discipline were similar to and different from mine.
Since then I’ve found other communities, small but real, where sex is reserved for heterosexual marriage and actual gay people are treated as beloved equals. In many of these communities the question of vocation, of how we can love, is explicitly encouraged.
If I hadn’t seen that, I doubt I would have accepted the Catholic teaching. It would seem like obvious scapegoating. If you demand that people live in a deeply countercultural way, offer them no help in doing so, and treat them with stigma and suspicion even when they somehow manage to do it anyway, how can you be a trustworthy Christian witness?
Individual guidance. One thing I wish more Catholics realized is how much room there is within our Church for people whose situations are complicated.
If you are really struggling on this question—whether you’re struggling with Church teaching or with living it out—you may need a spiritual director, a compassionate guide who can show you God’s mercy and help you move into deeper relationship with Him over time. Melinda Selmys has noted, “Every good midwife must know when to say ‘Push’ and when to say ‘Take a rest now.’ The same is true when giving spiritual advice.” Pushing someone who needs rest and relief is a good way to provoke resentment–or despair. A good spiritual director will accept you unconditionally, and acknowledge the constraints you’re working under.
There’s also a long tradition of “bad Catholics,” those back-pew lurkers who slink into Mass late because they know they need to be there, but don’t receive Communion and don’t know when they ever will. That’s a very tough place to be, but it allows you to remain in the embrace of your Mother the Church. By refraining from Communion you show your acceptance of the Church’s self-understanding even if you’re in conflict with some of Her teachings; it’s a witness of obedience that I find especially poignant. All Catholics are bad Catholics—anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something—and people who remain in the Church even when they’re not sure they can be fully of it are icons of longing and of trust in God’s mercy. It’s not the ideal, obviously, but that back pew is a good place to rest as you wait to see where God will lead you.
These are a couple ways of reconciling doctrinal firmness with understanding of personal needs, situations, and struggles.
Constraint. Justin raised the question of constraint in vocation. In what way should our vocations be “voluntary”? To what extent should our sacrifices be voluntary, and how should we understand sacrifices which seem forced by the painful collision of Church teaching and personal circumstance?
Here, as with development of doctrine, I suspect we agree on the broad outlines. Very often our vocations aren’t so much discerned as accepted. We don’t necessarily perceive a call from God. The second line comes up on the plastic pregnancy test, or you wake up with the sick feeling that you really do need to try AA again—and years later you can see how these moments led to the love you have for your child, or the hope on the face of your sponsee, but you sometimes wish God had called you to a different kind of love, under better circumstances.
Some vocations have a strong element of choice: Christian marriage requires consent, for example; and you shouldn’t become a monk just because you’re the youngest son. You shouldn’t take religious vows if you perceive no call from God.
But even with marriage, your circumstances can require deeply painful sacrifice. If it’s hard to find marriageable men in your community, you may find yourself unwed and childless while everyone else you know asks why you don’t at least have a child. “Waiting until marriage,” in a lot of America, feels like waiting for Godot; and meanwhile there’s strong moral pressure in many communities to at least have a baby, even if you can’t find a husband. Women seeking to live out the Christian sexual ethic in these communities will often end up aching and alone. We should strive to change the social conditions (such as mass incarceration) that created this suffering, but that doesn’t really change the lived experience of the women.
Justin writes, “If someone writes about how they took a vow of poverty and had their life improved by that decision, we may all be inspired to aspire to something similar—and rightly so. But that should never move us to become complacent about consigning other people to involuntary poverty and hunger.” I guess I see my position as more analogous to upholding Church teaching even if it means that you can’t take a job that would lift you out of poverty. (Given that lay celibacy is more financially insecure than marriage, this is not purely analogical….) I wouldn’t blame or judge someone for taking the job–especially if his community had offered him no practical support. But I think most of us can come up with circumstances in which we’d hope we would accept poverty rather than taking a job that went against our beliefs.
A few posts (by me and others) that tackle the specific question of homosexuality as a constraint on vocation, a.k.a. “mandatory celibacy,” are here, here, here and here. Sorry to make you read even more, but if you’re interested in this question I think these posts articulate things better than I’m doing here.
I probably overemphasize how little we control our lives or choose our vocations. But American culture encourages us to both overestimate and maximize how much we control our lives. In a cultural context that denigrates unchosen sacrifice, it’s worth saying a few words in its favor.
And with that I will check out, with many thanks to both RespectfulConversations and Justin himself. I’ve been challenged in some really fruitful ways, & found some common ground as well.