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The Missing Flag

So, I know this guy, and he’s pretty amazing. I wish I could give you a long bio and a pic to go with this wonderful post, but he isn’t ready to be quite so ‘out’ yet, and I respect that. Here’s all you need to know: he is exceptionally bright, faithful, and compassionate. And he is 19 years old. Read on. With a tissue probably.

This week, three million young people gathered  in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to celebrate their faith with the most visible representative of that faith, the Pope. They came from all over the world to rejoice in a truly universal community. They made the long journey because they love their faith. Like these devoted pilgrims, I am a young Catholic. Like them, I find truth, beauty, and goodness in the Church. And like them, I embrace my faith. Sometimes, though, I question whether my faith is willing to embrace me. I am “objectively disordered:” I am gay.

I have grown up Catholic. I was baptized, confirmed, and received my first communion in the second grade. I have always felt special because I can remember my baptism, whereas most homegrown Catholics are baptized as infants. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through the eighth grade. School mass, the boring school-body rosary, the May Crowing of Mary, the Blessing of the Pets, religion class – all of these things became implicit in my life. In high school, I became very intellectual about my faith. I loved to ask questions. (What is the difference between sanctifying grace and actual grace? What is transubstantiation?) I read everything I could, whether online or in books. Apologetics and theology became big interests of mine.

Late in middle school and through high school, another way of being and thinking emerged. I started to realize that I liked guys. I learned the term “incongruous juxtaposition” from my junior year English teacher, and that perfectly described my life as I realized I was both gay and Catholic. These opposite states were bound together within me. With all the religious research I loved to do, I naturally read up on Catholic teaching: Homosexual acts are of “grave depravity” and “intrinsically disordered.” Now, the teaching is that the acts themselves are sinful; being gay – being attracted to a person of the same sex – is not. I was relieved to know that my attraction to guys was not in itself evil (albeit a “disorder”). However, I knew that I wanted to be in a relationship someday. I felt drawn to love and be loved. So I knew I could not be faithful to Catholic teaching at the same time. I was faced with a huge dilemma, a struggle I endured for all of high school.

And here I am now, in college and living with the same struggle. In the past, I have done one of three things:

Sometimes I have tried to live faithful to Catholic teaching. I would pray often, go to confession, and study the faith.  At the same time, I would try my best to ignore my feelings for guys. I would view my sexuality as a cross and offer it up to God. Disregarding my sexuality would become difficult, though, which would lead me to deal with my struggle in the opposite way…

I would neglect my faith entirely, and instead focus on my sexuality. I would give up on Catholicism, and even on God.

More recently, I’ve sought a middle ground—to embrace my sexuality while also living faithfully. It is an ongoing journey. In this scenario, I struggle with feeling that my Catholic faith is less a way of life and more an inspiring tradition.

Many people, even some Catholics, would stop me right here and say, “Wait! If you love your faith so much, just don’t believe that junk the church says about homosexuality.” And at this point I would remind them of an important part of what it means to be Catholic: The Catholic Christian has a high regard for the Church’s entire corpus of teaching. More than mere theological opinion, church doctrine expresses the one faith that has been passed on from the first century onward. The Catholic has a high regard for those men in robes and pointy hats, for they are custodians of the faith. Despite whatever silliness and sin they have, Catholicism maintains that those bishops are successors to the Apostles. The Catholic Church is a big body with a big body of teaching that has been handed down from century to century, bishop to bishop. Rather than being a church full of individuals trying to figure out the Christian faith on their own, the Catholic Church considers its official teachers to be guided by God, its official teachings protected from error.

Picking and choosing among beliefs does not make much sense in a church that considers itself to contain the fullness of truth. For me to throw out this teaching because of my own struggle seems arbitrary. After all, just because a teaching is hard to accept does not mean it is untrue. What would be the reason for me to believe the other teachings that my church professes? Would I cease to believe in them if they caused me to struggle in some way?

Ultimately, then, this journey must be about finding the Truth. Is homosexuality some type of “disorder,” perhaps a result of the Fall, or is it something beautiful and part of God’s plan? This is the question many Christians live with today, with many different traditions offering many different answers.

Many Catholic leaders would say that they already know the answer. They would say it is the answer given by Divine Revelation, Apostolic Tradition, and Infallible Magisterial documents.

However—this very firmness in the Catholic hierarchy has led me to my state of cognitive dissonance. ‘This is how it is,’ say the bishops, but this – this is how I feel. The tension comes from wanting to follow the authority of the church but having an inner authority of my own that screams with objection.

In many ways, the Catholic Church lives with a certain cognitive dissonance of its own. While the Church highly esteems the God-given ability to reason, reason holds little value in its teaching on homosexuality. To me, the Catholic Church intentionally ignores the voice of reason when it ignores the voices of science, medicine and psychology; and even the collective voice of its gay members.

We want a place in the church that we love; but as of now, the only place for us is under a catechism section entitled “The Vocation to Chastity.”

Even if the ‘big guys’ are not ready to open the door to this discussion, I have been encouraged by many other Catholics who open themselves to listening. Catholics, on the whole, are more supportive of gay rights than any other Christian group in America. There are entire Catholic ministries dedicated to LBGT issues within the church and society. Many theologians, priests, and even a few bishops disagree with current church teaching.

I recently had the privilege of talking to Dr. James Alison, a priest, theologian, and author, who was able to articulate just how I could identify as both Catholic and gay.  He said very simply and memorably, “Don’t let the bosses get to you.” My faith simply should not be in the hands of the hierarchy.  Still, the voice of the magisterium – the pope and bishops – is a strong one. That is why it is significant to me when someone like the head of a pontifical committee – in this case an archbishop – talks about openness to same-sex unions.

Catholics who identify as LGBT are not on this journey alone —this is a process of discernment for the entire Catholic Church. Other Christian communities have made statements of welcome and inclusion of all people, regardless of sexuality. Perhaps this is a subject – just like the Trinity or canon of the Bible – that simply needs time to evolve.

On the return flight from World Youth Day, Pope St. Francis said of homosexuals:  “who am I to judge?” Maybe this is the beginning of a broader conversation within the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, it is still hard to live the faith; when your faith says that something very essential within you is messed up.

I do not know if it will make much sense for me to be in a relationship and continue to be Catholic. But for now, I intend to continue with the journey. I know I will always be drawn to this life of faith. I love the Eucharist. I love the saints. I love the Pope, the intellectual tradition, and the history. I am convinced of the importance of tradition and the role of bishops.

But, I am beginning to learn that the church does not have to be perfect. The church does not have to have a perfect history or perfect members. Maybe, too, the church does not have to be completely infallible in order to be guided by God. I am beginning to appreciate that God is so much bigger than anyone can imagine. I am beginning to realize that the human person is so complex and human history is so vast that God works with all of His children, everywhere and in all times, to come to deeper communion with him.  As Alanis Morissette says, “what it all boils down to is that no one’s really got it all figured out just yet.” For the church to label homosexual activity as a sin and simply leave it at that – with no room for change – is to put God in a box. The church should feel secure enough to admit that some of its historical teachings may be flawed–and not feel like its credibility is threatened. If it didn’t have to be right one hundred percent of the time, the Church could journey on together—with all of its members– while acknowledging God’s guidance through the course of human history.

At the World Youth Day closing mass in Rio de Janeiro, flags of all colors were proudly displayed by the young pilgrims. The flags suggest that even though the people were excited to be representing their home countries, they were even more excited to be part of something so much bigger than any one time or place. These young people came together as a Church professing to be catholic. The flags seemed to say that the Catholic Church embraces all people. And to an extent, this is certainly true: The Church is for every person.

Yet, one flag was missing from the display among the millions… the rainbow flag. If a gay person had been there to celebrate his identity in the church, he would have had to wave his flag quietly and discretely. I want to fully embrace my faith, and I want my faith to fully embrace me. One day, I want to be able to celebrate my Catholic identity while waving the flag of my sexual identity. And I do not want to be alone. I want the rest of my Church to celebrate with me. Perhaps one day I will be present at World Youth Day, celebrating with everyone else. And maybe the Pope will look down at me, and smile, and bless me.

reuters/ap

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About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...

  • Emily

    Poignant and beautifully written.


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