Mark Shea and the Gay Saint

Mark Shea’s May 1 column, the one in which he informally canonizes the late Perry Lorenzo, might not qualify as a revolutionary act. But it will, I think, represent something — a subtle but important tonal shift in the intra-Church conversation on homosexuality. If Mark himself doubted his column represented something new, he probably wouldn’t have bothered writing it in the first place.

Lorenzo, who died at the age of 51 in December, 2009, had served as education director for the Seattle Opera. A lifelong Catholic, graduate of Gonzaga University and onetime seminarian, he became an expert in liturgy and sacred music. His Blogspot blog is still up; his posts (even less frequent than mine!) showcase his profound love for the Church and the arts, and his appreciation for the symbiosis of the two.

Lorenzo was also openly gay. (His obituary reports he persuaded his partner, Paul Hearn, to convert to Catholicism.) Mark Shea’s reaction to all this amounts to a shrug. Without bucking the Church’s line on homosexuality, Mark declares Lorenzo’s sex life — if he had one — off limits. “I also agree with the Church that my own acts of gluttony are sinful and even gravely so,” he writes. “But I don’t believe God has abandoned or rejected me and I trust his grace to help me slowly become conformed to Christ, so why should I believe for a second that somebody like Perry, who manifested such abundant and beautiful fruits of the Spirit was not pleasing to God and was not doing his best to strive for God?”

Implicit everywhere in Mark’s post is the sense that Lorenzo was not merely gay. He was, first and foremost, a human being with remarkable gifts and talents that he applied, generously, toward evangelization. Lorenzo’s sexual orientation may have complicated his relationship with God, but at least there was a relationship to complicate. Declaring him a “saint,” as Mark does, is probably a little premature; devil’s advocacy for the opposing view is hardly unreasonable. The real, solid takeaway is that Lorenzo is a fellow sinner and fellow pilgrim, just like Mark or me or any of our readers.

This may sound like nothing more or less than common sense — would any Catholic deny there’s more to Mel Gibson than bigotry and anger-management problems? But in these frazzled times, it represents a very neat splitting of differences. Many Catholics reject Church teachings on homosexuality out of hand. Pew data shows that support for gay marriage runs higher among Catholics than among Americans in general. On the other side, the subject of homosexuality drives some prominent, self-consciously orthodox Catholics to astounding depths of nastiness. Last month, the Catholic League tweeted sneeringly of “Lesbian Dem Hilary Rosen” who “had to” adopt kids, rather than conceiving the old-fashioned way. By way of attacking Cardinal Wuerl, who had placed a priest on administrative leave after he’d denied communion to an open lesbian, George Neumayr wrote that anonymous “church insiders” had nicknamed the cardinal “Wuerl the girl,” in tribute to his “precious personality.” This was as close as Neumayr could come to saying, “Check it out, dudes, His Eminence is a pillow-biting faggot” without risking a lawsuit. To at least a few Catholics, “gay,” or any synonym, is still an argument-ending epithet.

But, from reading the responses to Mark’s piece, I didn’t get the sense that too many of these people hang around Patheos. Far less than outright contempt for gays and lesbians, Mark’s critics seem driven by a kind of moral fussiness. By speaking so highly of Lorenzo’s gifts, and so neutrally of his sexuality, Mark was condoning, if not encouraging, sin. (If I were George Neumayr, I might compare Mark’s critics to so many princesses, with peccatus as their pea.) To quote from someone commenting under the handle “Sophie”:

Christ wants us to do fraternal correction when our brothers/sisters err in their lives and not say what he does is between him and his God…The sins of the members of the body affects the whole body of the Church. No soul is an island. If the gay man was a deliberately practicing a homosexual lifestyle, then he was in a state of mortal sin no matter how many acts of charity or good works he does in his life…Sainthood is serious business and it means HEROIC fight for virtue. This “gay” man’s eloquent words are nothing if his deliberate actions are not congruent to what he professes. Love for Christ and the Church is proven with our lives not merely with our words…This article cheapens the demand of Jesus to be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect. Never forget that when Jesus forgave Mary Magdalen, he stated “Go and sin no more”. He never condones sin.

Sophie — whose remarks seem pretty typical of Mark’s more negative responses — places the issue firmly in a theological context. In doing so, she creates space for ongoing dialogue. What form should fraternal correction take? Where gays and lesbians are concerned, what form of spiritual direction is most effective? If the cultivation of virtue requires a heroic fight, does it follow that priests and other counselors should comport themselves like so many Pattons and Pullers? If the goal here is really to minister to actual human beings, rather than protect the party line from worldly encroachment, I don’t know that there can be a single, definitive answer. There may, in fact, be as many answers as there are gays and lesbians looking to lead the Christian life.

LGBT issues have a special place in my heart for a very personal reason: to this day, I’m amazed I’m not gay. My being straight seems like a terrible oversight on somebody’s part. Unathletic, expressive, creative, quick to tears and worshipful of my mother, I’m a total nance whether you want to quote Jung or Bensonhurt folk wisdom. (Yeah, I know — plenty of actual gay people bear no resemblance to the stereotype, but try telling that to my inner 13-year-old.) I tend to form close friendships with macho, stud-type guys; if I’m not literally playing bottom to their top, I’m certainly playing Lewis to their Martin or Dom to their Burt.

Even after I discovered my attraction to women, I lived with the quiet but persistent fear that one day I’d revert to my true form and wind up in bed with another guy. One evening, after a breakup had convinced me I was hopelessly out of my depth in the Kingdom of Woman, I decided, “Hell with it. The mountain might as well come to Muhammad.” (The fact that gay men had always been so generous in their shows of appreciation made me wonder whether playing for their team might not, in fact, turn out to be an easier gig.) I went to the gay bar two doors down from me, and within an hour was necking with a former Colomban priest named Mike, or in my improvised Gaelic endearment, “Mickleen.”

No disrespect to the poor guy, but I did not enjoy myself one little bit. Indeed, I was so distracted that I found myself looking over Mike’s shoulder toward the bar. Then, suddenly, I realized what I was looking at: there was a very pretty girl giggling over her beer and popcorn. Whether she was a fag hag, a lesbian or just someone who wanted not to get hit on I have no idea, but I was doing my damndest to make eye contact with her. Very shortly afterward, I aborted the experiment, having settled for myself the question my own sexuality, and of nature versus nurture, and resolving never to torment a woman by growing a beard. (I later reneged on the beard thing.)

This little anecdote is relevant because it illustrates how cultural baggage can burden people, no matter how hard they may try to unbudren themselves. Growing up, just by breathing the air I breathed, I absorbed the idea that homosexuality, being the natural extension of effeminacy, was plain contemptible — a flaw that polluted the character as surely as a spot of mold pollutes a kaiser roll. Looking back, my having tried to pick up a guy seems less remarkable than my having waited so long to do it. Being gay was so unthinkable that anything else — even the hetero mating game, which often involved the psychological equivalent of my slamming my dick in an oaken door — was to be preferred.

Here’s the kicker: I came by these prejudices during a childhood spent in cosmopolitan Manhattan, the son of ultra-liberal parents. My high school was about ten minutes’ walk from the West Village, birthplace of the Village People. In the landscape of my youth, openly gay people were so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable. And still, the idea I might be one of them condemned me to me years of paranoia. When I think of how growing up in a more traditional environment might have committed the delicta of fornicatio with my head, I cannot repress a shudder.

This long, painful history of self-suspicion has made me want to try to cultivate imaginative sympathy for people who actually are gay. (Rick Santorum says he’d love a gay kid as much as a straight one? Okay, that’s mighty white of him, but I’m not sure I’d want to be that kid.) Whatever stupid things Dan Savage has said and done, I’ll always respect him for the “It Gets Better” campaign. My earnest hope is that my adopted Church, even if she cannot bend her rules regarding gay relationships, will enforce them in ways that offer gay people not merely compassion, but respect. Nobody should shout “mollites!” or “μαλακός!” at the opposing team when it’s fourth and goal.

Of course, gay rights activists aren’t shooting rubber bullets, either. Last fall, for example, the Rainbow Sash Movement challenged Cardinal Dolan to a debate on gay marriage. The challenge came in the form of a rude and fatuous letter that no self-respecting person would have felt obliged to answer. Given this context, it makes perfect sense that Mark’s praise for Lorenzo triggered a defensive response; why not circle the wagons when the Injuns really are charging? For that reason, I’m glad Mark was brave enough to take the hit. He did it for a worthwhile cause. Catholics of good will deserve a gentle reminder that gays and lesbians — particularly those crazy enough to want to share pew space with us — are individuals, not simply bearers of an alien agenda, and much more, in all cases, then the sums of their indvidual sins.

Update: My brand-new friend Calah, of the Barefoot and Pregnant blog, has written a very moving personal essay in response to Mark’s piece — especially remarkable considering she normally rates Mark right up there with cancer.

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