At Once Surrender and Victory: Postscripts to My Marquette Talk

So I spoke on Gay Catholic Whatnot at Marquette University last night, as part of their annual Mission Week. Usually I ramble and go over my time. I was determined not to do that this time and managed to make the opposite mistake (yeah everything’s a metaphor for the spiritual life), coming in way under time so that even with q&a the thing ended early. That meant I didn’t say some important things; I also learn a lot every time I speak, so I figured I’d write up what I’ve reached through reflection/l’esprit de l’escalier.

# This is the first time I’d named one of the elements which drew me toward Christianity, or helped me to see its truth: the simultaneous honor for obedience and for justice-seeking. I was thrilled to encounter in the Church a community where obedience, surrender, submission, humility, acceptance of suffering and humiliation, were all named as acts which could be beautiful.

There are some other communities in which these acts are honored–the 12-step movement is the one I know best. But many of these other communities have a very hard time talking about, honoring, & fostering resistance to injustice. Like, this piece from The Fix is at once a genuinely moving story of acceptance, and a story of contemptuous, dehumanizing injustice… yet the author only names the first element. Meanwhile you get various communities where resistance to injustice is fostered and honored, but obedience and surrender are viewed with suspicion: For the ridiculous miniature version of this problem I submit the frank exchange of views I had with my radical housemate, who calls his friends “comrade,” in which I tried to defend obedience by citing chapter and verse from Infinite Jest. (I have become all things to all men.)

In the Church I found at once Mother Theresa’s counsel, “There is no humility without humiliation,” and the words of Eugene Debs which were the closest thing I had to a child’s catechism: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

This line from a self-proclaimed “Bolshevik” is not a bad description of what is going on in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion of Our Lord; and, therefore, what we are called to do in imitation of Christ.

# The thing I most regret not talking about last night is the practical aspect of life in nonmarital forms of kinship. I am always too sunny-side up, and last night was an especially extreme example: I outline this grand beautiful vision of friendships and intentional communities which become kin to people, and then I walk away and leave you guys to learn painfully over time how hard it is to live out forms of love which go unrecognized by your family of origin, employer, and culture. Part of what I mean when I say these are forgotten forms of love is that if you shape your life around them–and I hope many of you do, because they are beautiful and life-giving–it will be really hard for you, in ways you are unlikely to be able to anticipate in advance.

There are many, many things our churches and communities can do to make lives shaped around friendship and community less daunting. The simplest end of the spectrum is simply to notice the friendships which already exist around you and ask after them, show that you see them. In college my best friend and I used to go to this one hamburger joint, and for years after I graduated, every time I came back there the owner’s wife would greet me with, “How’s your friend?” In Jonathan Rauch’s gay marriage book he uses these simple questions as quite poignant examples of the power of marriage to shape your public identity, and the power of public recognition to make it easier for you to honor your obligations to your spouse: He notes that it’s normal to ask, “How’s your wife?”, and it would be startling and dismaying if someone responded, “I have no idea.” (this is paraphrased–I’m away from my books, so my apologies if I’m misquoting.) This is part of how we teach people that their marriage has changed their public identity, and remind them of their obligations. So being asked about my friend also reminded me of my public identity as her friend, and my obligations to her. Similarly I’ve talked in Gay & Catholic about my family including my friend in our Thanksgiving family photo, and what that meant to me.

At the far end of the spectrum is something I don’t think anybody’s done yet that I know of, although I wish they would (and so I wish I’d said this last night, in front of Marquette’s provost!): What if Christian institutions allowed people to designate a friend as the person who would be covered under their health insurance (I in fact don’t know if this is legally possible–?) or the person covered under their compassionate leave policy? What if you could get compassionate leave from work to care for your best friend in his last days, or for your friend the single mom who just had her baby?

In the middle of the spectrum there are so many possibilities: blessings for friendships (NOT THAT YOU NEED A PRIEST’S PERMISSION, people! Historically, covenants and promises of friendship were made by the friends themselves, without clerical intervention of any kind; the exception might be if your friend is also your child’s godparent). Churches adding people’s friends and partners to the prayer list. Making food for people whose friend or partner is hospitalized or otherwise in need of care. Note that some of these are also ways churches can welcome married gay couples, without compromising their sexual ethic; this is a feature not a bug.

# One questioner asked about a situation priests face more often now than they used to: Someone comes to them with various spiritual questions and concerns, and in the course of the conversation it becomes clear that they’re in a same-sex marriage, but that isn’t something they explicitly seek guidance on. How can a priest open that part of the conversation humbly? I gave a waffly answer of the “everybody’s situation is different” variety but perhaps more direct guidance can come from a “motivational interviewing” model. In MI, one of the guiding principles is that both participants in a (therapeutic/counseling) conversation have necessary knowledge. The counselor has various kinds of experience and expertise, and the counselee has the crucial knowledge of their own situation.

So one possible way to open the conversation around the Church’s sexual ethic is to ask, “What do you know about the Church’s sexual ethic?” or, “What do you already know about the Church’s understanding of marriage and gay marriage?”

If you ask this in a genuine spirit of curiosity (not just waiting for the person to stop talking so you can talk at them), the conversation can go in a lot of different ways. Some possibilities include: “I know the Church thinks gay marriage is wrong, but I don’t agree with that.” (Priest: Sure, yes, that’s definitely one part of the picture. There’s a hopeful vision of love as well, and I hope at some point we’ll be able to talk about that together, but we don’t have to do that now.) “I grew up hearing that gay people are going to Hell. I hope you don’t think that.” (Priest: I absolutely do not, and I’m sorry people have said that to you. It’s amazing that in spite of that, you’ve had the courage to come to me, and I hope you will tell me if I say things that seem like I’m condemning you. I hope as we work together we can explore the Church’s vision of love, and how She can guide you to love more deeply; but first of all I want you to know that God cherishes you and your sexuality doesn’t change that at all.) “I heard Pope Francis said not to judge gay people.” (Priest: Yes! Absolutely. I hope we can explore what your life as a gay person can look like in the Church, and the guidance our faith offers. But I am not here to pass judgment on you, and I hope you’ll let me know if I fail there.) “Father, I really didn’t come here to talk about that.” (Priest: Sure, that’s fair. I hope at some point I’ve earned your trust to the point where we can open up these deeply personal questions, but let’s start with what’s most important to you.)

All of these are much easier to type up alone at my computer than they are to express in the heat of the moment! But I’ve found similar “scripts” helpful to keep in mind for pregnancy counseling; they’ve made tough conversations less scary and therefore helped me focus on the person in front of me instead of my own anxieties. And I hope all of these find the balance between honestly letting people know the Church does have a specific sexual ethic which may be very hard for them, without making the whole conversation suddenly narrow down to this one aspect of their spiritual lives.

Similar questions later on might include, “How do you imagine your life changing if you tried to live by the Catholic sexual ethic?”, “What might make it possible for you to imagine loving [spouse’s name] in harmony with the Church’s teaching?” or, “What would you lose and what would you gain if you guys started moving toward harmony with Church teaching?” But those would come after trust has been built and the person has seen your guidance in other areas bear fruit.

And last on this subject, but very not least, you can open a conversation about the Church’s sexual ethic with more integrity if you are also opening similar very hard conversations about the Church’s economic ethic. Mary Mansfield’s Humiliation of Sinners notes that in 13th-c. France, confessors were encouraged to ask wealthy penitents specifically about any acts of economic injustice they’d committed. Be as intent in guiding directees and penitents to lead countercultural economic lives as countercultural sexual lives.

# Speaking of those hard personal conversations. I don’t talk often enough about the fact that the leaders of oppressed or marginalized communities almost always come from the least oppressed segment of that community. I face far fewer barriers to living out Church teaching in this area because I’m rich and unless I cut my hair I come across real femme. I have health insurance through the exchanges and although my closest friends aren’t Catholic, if I did go to church with them every week people would think it was so nice to see such good friends, instead of wondering if somebody should talk to Father about those lesbians who think they can take Communion. Many priests who really want to counsel gay people well haven’t considered how class (/wealth), gender presentation, race and cultural background, and history of trauma or abuse shape people’s choices.

# And last. This is the first time I’ve incorporated the “learning to experience God’s tender love for you” thing into the structure of my talk. That part went super well! And made me think, you know, obedience to Church teaching because them’s the rules, bub, is not a bad thing, and we’ve all gotta get through the day somehow; but for most people it will be more fruitful and sustainable to obey as a response of gratitude for God’s love. Our morality is a form of worship: an outpouring of our love for the God Who first loved and cherished us.


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