The Church and Gays: No Earthly Reason

Yesterday morning, ten LGBT-rights activists gathered outside St. Patrick’s cathedral for Mass and found themselves, so to speak, stonewalled. They were warned — first by New York City police officers, then by a cathedral functionary — that they would face criminal trespassing charges if they tried to enter.

But the ten had more than liturgy on their minds, and on their hands. As a rebuke to Cardinal Dolan for his recent statement that the Church would welcome gay people so long as they “washed their hands,” that is, if they stopped having sex, the activists smeared their palms with ash. “We gathered not in protest, but as a silent witness,” explains Joseph Amodeo in the HuffPo.

It’s easy to sympathize with the archdiocese. Pointed gestures by any name can turn disruptive. Kevin Donahue, the cathedral’s director of operations, did agree to admit the men on the condition they wash their hands. This suggests their demeanor gave him confidence they wouldn’t switch to some brasher tactic — shouting, say, as Michelangelo Signorile once did during an address by the future Pope Benedict. Still, it wouldn’t do to permit any remonstrance, no matter how silent, to distract anyone from the readings, the homily, or the Eucharist.

But before everyone stampedes to agree how Amodeo & Co. are ill-mannered, ill-catechized, or both, do let’s pause for a moment to notice that what they wanted, more than anything else, was in. Given the state of the Church today, that’s nothing short of miraculous.

How does the Church see itself these days? Embattled, marginalized, even persecuted. In Africa and Asia, particularly the Middle East, this is often literally true. Cardinal Dolan himself coined the term “Global War on Christians,” and if the statistics of the Global Institute for Human Rights mean anything, there was no blarney in it. Closer to home, there’s a mounting terror that the Obama administration has it in for the Church and means to run it out of the social-services business. Though the media and Pope Francis haven’t quite returned from their honeymoon, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, for one, is convinced Francis is due a crucifixion at their hands. Who would want to throw in his lot with the doomed?

More exactly, why would gays and lesbians? In Angels in America, Tony Kushner has Roy Cohn say, “Homosexuals are men who know nobody and whom nobody knows.” That’s been flipped on its head. Now everyone wants to know homosexuals. The armed forces and the NBA are competing to see who can lay out the welcome mat fastest. Even hip-hop artists have decided that homophobia is one kind of transgression that can’t be made to look cool. In the culture wars, the LGBT rights movement has beaten everyone, including the Church, absolutely hollow.

Unless their activists have very short memories, they’ll remember it’s been barely 20 years since the CDF declared that homosexuality, unlike race or religion but like mental illness, could constitute a valid basis for discrimination in hiring and housing. What is it that makes Joseph Amodeo and his friends want to do anything but gloat over our bruised and bloodied form?

In 1793, the French National Convention enthroned a lightly-draped woman named Sophie Mormoro before Notre-Dame’s altar. Mormoro was meant to represent the goddess of Reason; shouting, “Down with fanaticism!” the crowd offered her its fanatical devotion. Alarmists will say gay Catholics are harboring similar plans to desanctify the Church from within. This past week or so, Masha Gessen’s statement that LGBT activists want to destroy marriage altogether, has gone viral among marriage-equality opponents, and it’s easy to see why. For whoever wants one, it’s a regular Protocols of the Elders of Sodom, apparent proof that all these people want to do, finally, is dirt.

But most Catholics, I hope, are too sophisticated to judge an entire social movement by its most threatening manifestations. Marriage equality and military service rose to the top of the LGBT agenda precisely because activists wanted to embrace, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “the conservative values of responsibility, mutual care, and service to others.” Participating in the life of the Church would seem to fit on that list. Service to others certainly seems to have been a specialty of Nicholas Coppola, who was dismissed from various parish ministries after he and his partner married in a civil ceremony.

My point isn’t that the Church should change its teachings on homosexuality. But Cardinal Dolan himself has admitted, very sportingly, that he and the American bishops have no idea how to communicate the Church’s message on gays, to gays. It’s a huge question, one that will probably take a long process of trial and error to answer. A good starting point might be an acknowledgement — maybe a silent one — of two unwelcome facts. First, stripped of its social and cultural clout, the Church has no tools of coercion. By booting gays and lesbians out of ministries or diocesan jobs, it can purify and insulate itself, for whatever that’s worth, but it won’t likely bring the objects of correction into line.

The second is related, but distinct. When dealing with gays and lesbians, the Church is dealing with people who are culturally — and increasingly, legally — able to fulfill themselves, even if self-fulfillment means marriage or parenthood. There are a number of Churches who will receive them exactly as they are. Gays or lesbians who continue to find something appealing in Catholicism must have more intellectual or moral depth than they’re usually given credit for.

In an open letter to Cardinal Dolan, Michael Pettinger demonstrates this very compellingly. Pettinger, a recent revert to Catholicism and member of the Gay and Lesbian Ministries at New York’s St. Francis Xavier parish, begins by thanking Dolan for not flinching or frowning when the members of the ministry were introduced to him. He also assures Dolan that the Catholic Church should not be a Church “where anything goes.” But then he asks:

So what about queer Catholics? From what should they wash their hands? Your Eminence, I can’t answer that question without looking closely at the lives of each and everyone one of them. Neither can you. They are so varied, and have been so long ignored by the Church hierarchy, that there is no one place in the Tradition to which I can point and say, “Look there.” The one thing I can say is that Nature — which might be the God of some atheists, but is certainly not our God — is not the standard by which to understand the lives of LGBT Catholics. Look for grace instead. If you want to see what God is making with our lives and our loves, if you want to help us grow further in that love, you need to spend more time listening to us. A lot more time. -

If I were a bishop, I’d give thanks folks like Pettinger haven’t washed their hands of the Church.

  • Gia

    I want to be generous, but these people’s situation in the Church is not much different than single Catholics, especially never-married ones. Perhaps they have it worse, being in line with the Church’s teaching on sexuality and yet not able to act on it unless fate hands them a spouse. And these people have no constituency, no cheerleaders, no media support system. Is it harder, these days, to come out as a celibate (especially if it’s not by choice) than to come out as gay?

    As for “queer Catholics,” my uncharitable impulses say they want to wear us down and destroy us from within, like they’re doing with the institution of marriage and with whatever standards are/were left in the mainstream media, like water wearing down a mountain, drop by drop by torrent by torrent. I don’t know what individual people want, but certainly that would be a cherished goal of the militant activists leading the movement. And besides, if gay Catholics follow Church teachings, then God bless them. What problem are they to anyone?

    Everyone knows what the Church teaches. To insist on being in the Church while simultaneously and purposefully ignoring its core teachings — and that goes for anybody in that situation, not just about sex but about a whole range of issues — just looks like arrogance to me and a secret desire to remake the Church in your own image.

  • Broken Whole

    Thanks for this, Max. I think you make a great point that there’s something extraordinary about the continuation of the desire to be “in”—a certain implicit recognition that there’s a je ne sais quoi about Catholicism that perhaps other forms of Christianity just don’t quite have.

    I think, though, that you may be overstating the degree of social acceptance of GLBTQ people in the culture at large. Sure, gay marriage is making swift gains in the polls and more and more folks are coming out—but that doesn’t mean that the lived reality on the ground for gay folks is always so great. I don’t think that hip-hop culture has advanced quite as far as you suggest: the persistence of the paranoid “no homo” disclaimer in lyrics by prominent rappers surely suggests that homophobia still enjoys more or less a safe haven there. More troublingly, GLBTQ youth continue to experience rates of homelessness at a much higher rate than their peers and they also attempt suicide at substantially higher rates than their peers. One surely need not disagree with Church positions on homosexuality to recognize that those trends are alarming and tragic.

  • Theodore Seeber

    My problem is the message seems not to be “we want in” but “we want to change you to be like us”.

    I was part of the 1990s pro-homosexual Catholic movement: The Body of Christ has AIDS, Same Sex Attraction isn’t sinful as long as it is Chaste, and for non-Catholics, civil unions are just fine.

    In March 2004, I became an evil conservative Catholic bigot, without changing a single one of those views, the day that Multnomah County, Oregon, decided to defy the Oregon Constitution and start secular gay marriage.

    I resent that change greatly- and until GLBTQ activists stop demonizing me for being on their side, they’re simply not trying to be “in”. If they were trying to be in, Courage would quickly become the 3rd largest gender-related lay order in the American Catholic Church, right after Knights of Columbus and Catholic Daughters.

    Follow the rules *first* if you want in. Dissent only on things that need to be dissented on.

  • Manny

    “So what about queer Catholics? From what should they wash their hands?”
    From sin. Baptism is a washing away of sins. Gay sexual acts as are straight sexual acts outside of marriage are sins. Even straight sexual acts between married people without the possibility of procreation are sins. The only sexual acts that are not sins (if I’m wrong, someone correct me) are procreative sexual acts between married people. I’m sorry gay sexuality by its existential nature is automatically a sin given it has no possibility of procreation. But that’s life and none of us are privilidged to have everything we want out of life.

  • Jeff Kantor

    I remember well wanting to be in the Church, when I was half in and half out because of what could be called “marriage problems”. I can remember various times in my life when I doubted that the Church had it right on human nature or sex or anything else.

    But I can never remember a time, no matter how frustrated I might have been, that I felt that the thing that needed to happen was that the Church needed to “listen to me”. Faith seemed like a matter of listening to the Church.

    I try and try to be sympathetic to this approach of Mr Pettinger’s. I read his words over and over again. But somehow I don’t find much to like or respect.

    I very much doubt that the Church doesn’t understand “queers”. I think it much more likely that modern society and they themselves are the ones lacking in understanding.

    St Paul, who practically INVENTED the concept of grace, is the one who brings nature into the discussion of homosexual behavior. There is an awful lot of certitude in Mr Pettinger. It sounds like he has listened and rejected a lot of important things. And now he wants to be heard.

    Dialogue is important for an apostolic Church. But even more important is proclaiming and teaching. There will always be those who find the teaching repugnant and objectionable. And they leave.

    And Christ looks at them with love and says, Will you also go away?

    The proper response is not, No and you listen up! The proper response is Peter’s: Where shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    There is a huge difference between the dictatorship of the minority and acceptance.

  • Charles Culbreth

    ” By booting gays and lesbians out of ministries or diocesan jobs, it can purify and insulate itself, for whatever that’s worth,…”
    I’m sorry, I’m not sure how adding that hyperbolic folly of a statement edifies the wisdom of your whole article. Church never has been able to do that, certainly cannot now under this administration and likely in future environs, and besides, anybody who works for a chancery with half a brain is aware that without an employee committing an egregious, scandalous public act or statement, trying to “lose” a gay employee is a Catch 22. For criminey’s sake, chanceries have people take yearly classes on how secular laws can apply in “sacred” workplaces.
    I’m much impressed by the wisdom in nearly all of the commentariat observations, well done by all.

  • Broken Whole

    I agree with you, Theodore. However, I don’t think that being concerned about suicide and homelessness rates in GLBTQ youth is a “dictatorship of the minority”—I think it’s basic human decency. The point of my comment was that we can get so caught up in underscoring our differences and retreating to our varied partisan camps that we can lose sight of areas in which we ought to be able to find common ground. Sure, the word “homophobia” gets batted about far too freely in political discourse, particularly as the gay marriage debate heats up; however, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still real instances of—and consequences to—homophobia. I’m just saying that we should work to combat things like the bullying of gay kids in schools regardless of what we think about gay marriage or about the morality of homosexual sexual acts; after all, the Catechism itself calls upon Catholics to treat GLBTQ folks with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

  • TheodoreSeeber

    What makes the gays special? Autistic kids have equal rates of suicide and homelessness due to bullying, I personally have major PTSD problems from my childhood, including suicide attempts. Why not attack the bullying directly *regardless of cause*?

    And these days, heterophobia is becoming an issue as well- any kid whose parents are still married and who refuses to experiment with homosexuality in the 4th Grade is treated as strange- my own son included.

  • Broken Whole

    Of course we should address all forms of bullying. At the same time, some kids are bullied more than others. I don’t think it’s wrong to focus resources specifically to reduce the bullying of autistic kids and to combat depression in the autistic community—I think it makes sense to focus on autistic kids in particular because the population is disproportionately affected by bullying. And, of course, there are organizations (like Autism Speaks) which provide that type of particular focus. I’m just saying that it also makes sense to focus on GLBTQ kids in particular because they are also disproportionately affected by bullying. None of this, of course, is to suggest that we shouldn’t focus on bullying at large; however, a targeted focus on vulnerable populations just seems like a sensible approach to me.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    We also have to be careful not to simply reverse the bullying. I am already seeing signs of this in my own son, who has had to put up with GLBTQ and environmentalist bullying at school and in what passes for, ironically, anti-bullying education.

    YES, by all means do address vulnerable populations. But don’t make non-vulnerable populations vulnerable to do so, or all you will accomplish is moving the goalposts. We’re already seeing a good deal of bullying in adults surrounding parenthood, for instance. The bigotry of family planning is palatable and widespread.

    Tolerance is only a solution to bullying when it is universal, and when *every* human being is valued from conception until natural death, merely because they are human and deserve to be valued.

    But then again, that’s just a dream of a man who was bullied as a child and who wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was 30.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    You ask why gays and lesbians would want in with the Church. As a non-Catholic, this was always my question as well. But then my wife (who was raised Catholic) pointed out the competing strains. The Church as in institution is not in line with the Church as a community, and the dogmas of the institution do not automatically trump the conscience of its community. American Catholics typically support marriage equality at higher rates than the general public, especailly as compared to other religous groups. So LGBT Catholics aren’t so much asking to be accepted; they are looking for acknowledgement that in large part they already are accepted.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    If that’s what they want, perhaps the first step would be to stop demonizing the Catholics that support *both* a more clear separation of Sacramental and Civil marriage, AND Civil equality.

    Or is that too much to ask for them to recognize their friends and live within the rules of that friendship?

    If they did, Courage would quickly grow so large that there would be a chapter in every parish.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Wow. Hard to get by the self-absorbtion with your faith. Translated: difficult for you to see and acknowledge tha real problem: a failed authoritarian system. It has an ugly and discouraging history right up to this moment. And wondrous exceptions and glorious periods, as well. Can I her an Amen? “No. Make a judgment.” Impossible. The very fact this topic is even open to discussion, or thought to be of signigance to comment on, adequately displays first-half of life undevolped (not lack of evolutionary thinking) mentality. Truth does not work in storage; we cannot hold it. Truth is a “lamp unto our feet,” only in the moment, and having nothing whatsoever to do with our efforts of intent. Grace. Yet such a proclamation will naturally lead to accusations of antinomianism, or lawlessness. Oh, well.