I honestly hoped that I would never have to write ever again about the question of whether a faithful homosexual, bisexual or gender-atypical Catholic can use LGBTQ identity language but apparently this is one of those questions that just isn’t going away.
I’m Catholic. I’m married – that is, I am in a Church sanctioned marriage to a person of the opposite sex. I’m pregnant with my 7th child. I take Catholic sexual teaching pretty bloody seriously. But I’m queer, and I use the language of the LGBTQ community to describe my sexuality. For some people this is a deal-breaker: the fact that I am striving to live out the actual essential teaching of the Church is not sufficient because I don’t use the right words to communicate my experience to others.
The most vociferous critics of this approach claim that faithful Catholics who identify as gay have not addressed their intellectual objections to this practice. I feel we have, but I’m about to sit down with the latest on the subject so I’ll give it a go again sometime in the next week. In the meantime there are a number of salient practical and pastoral problems that I haven’t seen addressed adequately by those who insist on the “never say gay” approach. Here they are:
1. “Lab faith.” Pope Francis has warned of the dangers of over-intellectualizing our faith. “God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths. I am afraid of laboratories because in the laboratory you take the problems and then you bring them home to tame them, to paint them artificially, out of their context.” Too often, intellectual and theological perfectionism produces a sterile ideal. The arguments are beautiful, almost unassailable. The only problem with them is that they’re practically impossible to implement, they don’t convince anyone, and they interfere with effective evangelism.
2. The Monolith: Our critics often seem to assume that there is a single experience that applies to everyone under the LGBTQ umbrella. It could be the assumption that all gay men have a distant father and a smothering mother, or the belief that identifying as queer means identifying with sexual sin. People who believe in monolithic models often know some SSA Catholics who fit their rubrics, and therefore think that their rubrics could be fruitfully applied to all homosexuals. The problem is that the LGBTQ community is incredibly diverse, and what is true of one person may be completely untrue of another. No single approach or ministry could adequately address all of the different circumstances, needs, experiences and realities that confront LGBTQ folks and their families.
3. The View from the Trenches: When I first started to talk about my experience, my writing was very much the kind of thing that my critics endorse. I talked about “same-sex attraction” and called myself a “former lesbian.” I rejected the language of sexual orientation, and talked about “healing.” I had a very nice ministry to the Catholic friends and families of gay people. Then one day I came out and called myself queer. Within a week, my in-box was full of e-mails from LGBTQ Catholics looking for advice, guidance, support, solidarity and friendship. That one little shift in language made it possible for me to actually do the work that I had set out to do in the first place.
4. Definition of Terms: The meaning of the word “gay” has shifted in the last 40 years, and it means different things in different contexts. I honestly believe my critics when they say that for their generation that word signifies specific sexual behaviours and political allegiances. To my generation, the word “gay” means “same-sex attracted” and the word “queer” can refer to any of a large cluster of sexual and gender minorities. Some LGBTQ people don’t experience same-sex attraction at all, so the SSA label just isn’t appropriate. For most, being gay refers to a lot more than just what they want to do with their genitals. Most of the arguments that I’ve seen against using the word “gay” insist on a single very narrow definition, and refuse to acknowledge that there may be multiple legitimate usages.
5. Poverty of Language: Insisting on the single term “same sex attraction” poses considerable practical problems in actually describing the experiences of sexual minorities. Do we mean “same sex genital attractions” “same-sex romantic attractions” “same-sex aesthetic attractions” “same-sex emotional attractions”? Are all of those things disordered? In the same way? To the same degree? What about gender variance? Or asexuality? Can the experience of a biromantic genderfluid demisexual lesbian be meaningfully compared to the experience of a heteroromantic hyper-masculine polyamorous MSM? And how can I even ask that question, or start to investigate the similarities and differences that might be pertinent to pastoral care, if the only terms in my lexicon are “SSA” and “child of God”?
6. Visibility and Leadership: If all SSA Catholics are supposed to be in the closet, and no one is supposed to identify themselves publicly as gay, and we scoff at the idea that there were any gay Saints, how can we provide role models or community? I’m not knocking Courage, but it isn’t enough. Many people don’t live anywhere near a Courage chapter, and the phone-in group (while a good idea) is too highly structured to provide the sense of community and support that I’ve found on-line with other gay Catholics.
7. Accessibility: Most young people today are looking for information and community on the internet, and they find it using search engines. No confused 15 year old is Googling “same-sex attraction.” Few are searching “homosexual.” They Google “gay.” They will never even find our resources if we don’t use the language that they are using. When St. Paul went to Athens, he didn’t quote Jewish scripture or speak Hebrew. He spoke Greek and he quoted Greek poets. One of my favourite lines from Paul, “In him we live and move and have our being,” (Act 17:28) is actually a quote from Epimenides describing Zeus. If Paul could repurpose Pagan theology, why can’t we repurpose LGBTQ language?
8. Solidarity: When it comes right down to it, a lot of opposition to the word “gay” seems to come from an “us” vs. “them” mentality. The gays are the bad-guys. If you identify with the bad-guys, then you aren’t to be trusted. This is a symptom of a kind of Catholic paranoia which sees heresy, scandal and crisis lurking in every corner; the important thing is not so much that you draw souls to Christ as that you make sure that you constantly show the team colours to assure yourself and others that you’re on side. This kind of mentality is extremely damaging to evangelism, because the essence of the Gospel is that Christ came to identify with us. He who knew no sin became sin for us. (cf. 2 Cor 5:21) This is a pretty radical, even scandalous kind of solidarity that we are talking about here. Christ’s places His own dignity as the only begotten Son of God second to His love for His people. Identifying with my queer brothers and sisters is a pretty trivial way of imitating this, but it’s about the best that I can do.
9. Deception and accountability: A lot of young gay Christians have talked about their experience of being in the closet as one in which they live in fear, and are forced to constantly tell lies. For example, if you’re in youth group and everyone is talking about their struggles with lust, what do you say? Do you lie and say that you aren’t struggling with lust? Or do you make up a fake struggle with heterosexual desire? How do you explain to the nice old lady at your parish that her plans to set you up with her neice are never going to come to fruition? How do you deal with the anxiety that someone will find out your secret? What do you say when someone confronts you about it point blank? Conversely, how can your parish provide you with the support that you need if people don’t know or understand your situation? We are to bear each others burdens. That cannot be done if we designate certain burdens as the Cross that dare not speak its name.
10. Sublimation: And finally, being gay is not all just about wanting to have gay sex. Homosexual desire can be directed towards other ends. Towards beautiful ends. Think of Henri Nouwen, who directed his love of men and his need for intimacy towards his work with the disabled. Or Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry describes so eloquently the queer experience – and at the same time, in the same breath, the nature of Christian suffering? If gay culture can be reduced to a disordered form of lust, explain to me why the greatest work of sublimated homoeroticism in the world graces the ceiling of the Pope’s private chapel? And the cover of my copy of Theology of the Body.
Image Credit: “Michelangelo – Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo_-_Creation_of_Adam.jpg#/media/File:Michelangelo_-_Creation_of_Adam.jpg