The shortest, gladdest chaplains of life!
I had the chance recently to talk to some people responsible for student life at a big Catholic school, who wanted to know how they could better serve and shepherd their LGBT students. Here’s some of what I said. Also I could come to your school, btw, email me email@example.com if you’re interested in that.
* Know that you’re asking these students to, at a fairly young age, reject key components of what we call the American Dream. Lay celibacy can have severe economic consequences; our culture’s most prominent image of the good life, the marriage and the mortgage and the tricycle on the front lawn, is unavailable to you. Even at a Christian school there’s often a strong undercurrent of complicity in capitalism, in which wealth and material achievement are treated as moral goods: That’s a lot of what the “educating for leadership”-type rhetoric is doing. What if you are also educating your students for martyrdom?
Students come to college wanting worldly success, believing they have a right to it and even a duty to pursue it, and marriage is not only the “capstone” of that good life but part of its economic structure. They may be first-generation college students, kids from working-class or poorer backgrounds, people who feel a lot of pressure to justify the amount that has been invested in them. They may be kids who have been taught all their lives that marriage and parenting are core elements of an adult Christian life. What is Christian adulthood, if not that?
* On that note–explore a wide range of vocations. Help kids envision a future of love and service. Friendship will likely be a big part of that, but there’s also intentional community life (one prominent example is the Catholic Worker, but there are a host of others–your kids could visit them), caring for members of their families of origin, forming “families of choice,” and service to their home, the place they live. Mobility threatens both college friendships and post-college community life–I’ll talk more about this in another post–but if you know these ways of life are going to be unusually important to you, you can shape your career choices with more attention to place, stability, community, and friendship.
* Tell people what “making a spiritual communion” is: why there are times when you should not receive the Eucharist, what you should do instead, and the ways in which this refraining can itself be a beautiful witness to one’s Catholic faith. I remember being an undergrad, going to the super late-night Mass in the college chapel, and being the only person who didn’t receive Communion. Kneeling there thinking, I cannot be the only hungover person who should be staying in this pew.
The Eucharist is one place where we see that following Jesus is linked to an ethic, a way of life; these aren’t separate, modular elements of Catholicism. Accepting that there will be times when people can’t/won’t live according to that ethic, but they still want to be as close to Jesus as they can/will, is another way of switching from a success vs. failure narrative. It’s easy to view the moral life in terms of success vs. failure, instead of asking how we can stay in relationship with God and deepen our trust in Him and His mercy.
* I brought up the thing I said here, about how to find common ground without being self-serving. How to be a servant of your school’s gay community, not someone seeking to exploit the gay community’s cultural credibility for your own purposes.
* I get that undergrads have no idea who they are and yet seem totally convinced that nothing about their personal identities will ever change. I get that they go through phases. And I know that the identities we take on can dramatically shape how we view ourselves–all masks sink into the skin, etc etc.
But imo by far the best way to approach undergrads is on their own terms. Let people use the labels they want, take on the identities they want, and make it as nonthreatening as possible for them to change later. Just don’t make personal identity a huge deal, if you can help it. This is my “beyond sexual identity” point. Give people space to change and grow; if you can, help them incorporate into a holistic Catholic spiritual life whatever insights their new identity is trying to express; but don’t get stuck in an adversarial role where you spend your time arguing that some 19-year-old isn’t “really” gay, or genderqueer, or asexual, whatever. The more you guys are arguing about that, the deeper you descend into the undergraduate navel. You want kids’ focus to be on vocation and spirituality, not labeling. If you’re doing that, their conversation will eventually become more outward-focused, more interesting, and more Catholic, as a natural result.* What about undergrads who come to the chaplain (etc) and are in a sexually-active same-sex relationship? This is always going to depend more than anything else on the individual situation, so all I have are suggestions.
One suggestion is to focus on stuff other than the gay element. I think these days a lot of people would expect a priest (/whoever) to immediately zero in on the “same-sex” part of the question, and it can be quite powerful and welcoming to instead explore Catholic sexual ethics in terms of, e.g., Why do Catholics believe that sex must be accompanied by promises? Why is premarital sex out of line with God’s will? That approach obviously doesn’t require you to believe that gay marriage would be a fine option, and I’m not at all suggesting you conceal your orthodoxy. But it’s often helpful to show that you see gay people as people with the full range of spiritual questions and concerns, not people defined by their sexual identity.
(Similarly, if somebody comes to you with different questions or crises, it’s often best to address those questions, and let other concerns emerge organically as you guys build trust. If a gay kid in a relationship comes to you because he’s troubled by his drug use, or because he was raised Baptist but he’s been going to Mass with his Catholic roommate and he’s really intrigued by it, these are not situations where it makes sense to say, “First, stop having sex.” You obviously can raise relationship questions where they’re relevant, but the people who brought me into the Church witnessed to their own faith and addressed the questions I raised in response, instead of trying to force me to care what the Pope thought of my love life. The more trust you earn, the more aspects of their life someone will open up to your guidance.)
You can also explore the person’s reasons for coming to you, rather than to a non-Catholic or non-orthodox mentor. That might give you a sense of where they’re coming from, what they’re open to. You can explore what they want from a sexual relationship; let them know the richness, beauty, and intensity of the Christian conception of friendship. That gives people some space to consider whether much, though not all, of what they want most can be found in friendship. (Sometimes yes, sometimes no, I’m not saying this is a fruitful approach with all gay people.) You might consider, if this is something where you can speak from experience, exploring the ways that practicing chastity can strengthen friendships. You might explore the role of sacrifice in Christian life, and ask what God might be calling this student to sacrifice the dream of gay marriage for. Different approaches will be responsive to different people’s concerns, questions, background and prior assumptions, and general spiritual approach.
I keep saying “explore” because mostly this kind of spiritual guidance works best when the two people are together exploring an area of common concern. You as a priest (/whoever) have some expertise based on the wisdom of the Church and your own pastoral experience. The student has some expertise based on their intimate knowledge of the specific situation, their internal landscape. If you try to operate without respecting their expertise you will probably end up with a skeptical student and a tenuous working relationship. (lol yes, I am a big fan of motivational interviewing, why do you ask?)
At this meeting I tried to go in the direction of keeping people connected to Christ and the Church, even if they’re not willing to accept all of the Church’s ethical strictures: “Heresy is better than atheism,” I said. This got a lot of murmuring pushback. I see the point of the pushback. God works through lots of paths, and an extreme atheism can be more open to His will–more open to the extreme surrender of the life of faith–than a hodgepodge, self-directed Christianity. So let me instead say that if someone is sincerely seeking Jesus, you can guide them closer to Him even if they are unwilling to go full Catholic.
* Last but not least, have a rolodex, man. Know people living vocations other than marriage and religious life, so you can put students in touch with them. This doesn’t have to be a crisis-consultation type thing; ideally your students will get to know these people over time, and see that a lay celibate life doesn’t need to be loveless or fruitless.