How Can I Change the Conversation at My College Around Gay People in the Church?

How Can I Change the Conversation at My College Around Gay People in the Church? December 3, 2015

The second post about questions I was asked at recent speaking events. I’ve written about one important aspect of this already: You have to be out there doing the work of protecting actual gay people from actual violence, cruelty, and rejection. This is part of what our faith calls us to do.

But okay, you’re doing that; what about changing the immensely important conversation on sexual ethics and vocation?

The most glaring problem I see right now is that American culture has a vocabulary for love that is not well-aligned with the Christian vocabulary. This is the “Lava” thing, the isolated romantic couple as ideal and necessary form of love. This view is bad for marriages as well as for those not called to marriage.

This distorted view of love–shrunken in so many areas and swollen in the areas of sex and romance–goes along with complete silence on the subject of ascetic discipline. Marriage is a part of Christian sexual discipline, not the only approved form of Christian sexual license. We do teach young adults that they must be willing to make sacrifices in their lives, but these sacrifices are generally cast in terms of bourgeois respectability: work hard, don’t cheat, and build the good life of fulfilling career and happy marriage and just the right number of kids. Some of my best friends are bourgeois! but working hard to be responsible and successful isn’t the same thing as accepting an ascetic discipline. Striving isn’t surrender, basically.

And last, I think the conversation on Christianity and homosexuality always turns out to be a conversation about our relationship to the Church. I’m about to write more about that so I just wanted to flag it for now.

Given those three areas where the vocabulary in which we typically conduct this conversation is profoundly ill-suited to conveying the Christian teaching… how do we teach people a new language?

One idea is highlighting alternative forms of love, and helping people experience them. We have career centers; why not a vocations center? Why not vocations counseling that can hook you up with local intentional communities, the Catholic Worker, people sharing their lives and homes with their friends, and people who have shaped their lives around service to the poor and their community? What you want is for people to see what it’s like to live out other forms of love. Some of these people can be married–and married people have provided necessary, humbling witness in my own life–but tbh you also need a bunch who aren’t. So this requires you as somebody who wants to change your campus culture to go out there and do the leg work to find mentors for students who may be called to nonmarital vocations.

Ideally you would find celibate same-sex attracted or lgbt people who can also be mentors. Right now we don’t have an obvious way to find that, and of course I’m wary of selling you a poster gay!, but there is a unique value in having people who can speak to that specific situation. One possible benefit of having someone like these fine folks (and also me) speak is that people may come out of the woodwork.

I’d also suggest what I always suggest, which is art. Why not have a Valentine’s Day showing of Of Gods and Men?

People tell me there’s a miniseries of Brideshead that is good. I don’t watch adaptations of Brideshead because it goes against my religion, but that might be another fun thing to do, especially since I know college students flake out on book groups.

I wish I could suggest more queer-specific things but there is so little.

Greater attention to the liturgical year might also help start some conversations. For Advent, maybe a discussion of where we see sacrifice for God playing out in our own lives. What are we afraid of? How do we judge whether and how to make sacrifices for our faith? How can the hardest aspects of our lives become the places where God works most deeply in us? A smaller group could read that Stephen Colbert profile and talk about what the “bombs” in their own lives have been, and how they have understood those things in light of their faith.

I love this phrase from Steve Holmes about celibacy as a “set of practices in and through which we learn to desire differently.” Why not ask long-term unmarried/celibate people to come in and talk about the very specific practical realities of their lives–how they accept and integrate their sexuality, how they live out that sexuality within celibacy, how they give and receive love, where they find kinship, how they look forward to the Resurrection, how they relate to their bodies? This is stuff I never heard anybody talk about before I became Catholic. I think it’s something many lifelong Catholics have never heard. How do you give up sex without hating your body and repressing your sexuality?

And finally, I suspect people will be more willing to discuss and explore the sacrifices Christian faith requires with people who are up-front about the ways in which Christian institutions have been untrustworthy. It would send a powerful message if your college chaplaincy sponsored a showing of Spotlight. Have a discussion afterward, or just have a prayer service or Adoration, or make priests and other faithful and not defensive Catholics available to talk with anyone who needs or wants to talk; any of these would make a real statement about what the Church is and isn’t. Of course this only works if your commitment to honesty and humility is not limited to one evening, and is not a recruitment tactic.

So these are my suggestions. Let me know if you have other thoughts–and definitely also let me know if you try any of these things. Do they flop? Are they great? I have no idea! My email is y’all.

People mostly believe what they believe about gay marriage because of what they believe about love and Church. Framing your own explanations in terms of what you believe about love and Church may make your explanations simultaneously more alien to your interlocutors, and less predictable. Less easy to dismiss. And therefore you may open possibilities for them that a polarized culture has done everything in its power to close.

Browse Our Archives