One of the questions I get a lot about Gay Catholic Whatnot comes mostly from well-meaning straight folk. “How can I share my beliefs,” they ask, “without people thinking I’m a bigot?”
I have various things I say in response to this question but it often struck me as obnoxious. Your life is mostly about my public image!, you know? But the other day I realized something which helped me to see both why this question comes up for genuinely kind and selfless people, and also why it is still the wrong question. Basically this is a question about “giving scandal.”
The real underlying question isn’t, “How can I tell people what to do without them disliking me?”, but, “How can I share the faith without making people think the Church supports the sins of hatred and bigotry?” It’s about “avoiding every appearance of evil,” when the evil is bigotry. It’s about the understanding of the Church and of God’s love which our neighbors get from us. How can we live in such a way that their image of what our faith requires is never misleading?
But the thing is–you can’t. On gay issues I have found that literally everything you do or say, or don’t do or don’t say, will give somebody a seriously false impression of what you believe. People bring such radically discordant preconceptions, and such intensely sensitive expectations, that everything is scandalous–and so is nothing.
Gay people in our churches are pretty frequently told that stuff we do gives the appearance of evil, even if (said with an air of mistrust and forced concession) we are not actually doing anything wrong. Okay, we know that you talk about “devoted friendship” and you don’t mean “covert gay marriage,” but people hear that word “devotion” and they think…. You have to understand that if you speak at that conference, use the word “gay,” hold hands with someone you love, live with someone of the same sex, people will think….
But there are so many people out there. Some people will think that if you treat every sign of love and intimacy from a celibate gay person to someone of the same sex as evil, that means what you actually oppose is the love and intimacy. Some people will think that if nobody at your church is willing to say that they are gay, it means your church does not actually welcome gay people or view us as children of God. Some people will think that if you spend all your energy telling gay and same-sex attracted people what we can’t do and why all our attempts to carve out vocations are dangerous, it means your faith has no place for us and your God has no love for us.
This is how so many of our churches give scandal. This atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and silence pushes not just gay and same-sex attracted people but our families and friends out of church. It is a profound counterwitness to the Gospel.
So maybe it is time to accept that this whole category of “scandal” is not very useful when it comes to gay Christian life in 2016. How do you avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols when totally opposite things are idolized?
In caring what “people” will think, we so often simply project our own fears and suspicions onto these useful constructs, and then hide behind them. Maybe we should start saying what we think, not what we think “people” will think.
People in the streets accosted the disciples, thinking they were drunk. This doesn’t mean drunkenness is groovy. It also doesn’t mean we should limit our loves, our ecstasies, our vocations, or our beliefs to those our neighbors can easily fit into their preexisting worldviews.
So my actual answer to “How can I proclaim my beliefs without people thinking I’m a bigot?” is threefold. First, care less what other people think!
Second, ask yourself if you need to proclaim your beliefs about specific, often intensely personal or painful issues in which your own stake is extremely limited compared to the stake of your interlocutor. I often point out that the people who first showed me the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith talked about the parts of their faith that were most important to them, not the ones they thought might be most important to their idea of a gay person. They let me decide when I trusted them enough to bring questions of sexuality to them. Because I had already been so struck by the way Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice had transformed their lives, there did come a time when I trusted them enough to ask about sex. But if they had decided it was their duty to tell me what Jesus thinks of my girlfriends, I would have had no reason to listen, and their assumption that I should listen would have struck me as arrogant. (It wouldn’t necessarily have actually been arrogant in motivation. Once I was a Christian myself I was often super obnoxious about trying to save my friends’ souls because I thought I had to. Maybe I should have tried to live a Christian life myself, you know?) Don’t hide your light under a bushel, but also, don’t use it as an interrogation light.
And finally, when people do ask you stuff, approach their questions with sincere curiosity and willingness to admit what you don’t know or aren’t sure of. Asking what they already know about Catholic teaching might be helpful. What do they think you might say? That will give you some idea of where their preconceptions are, and you can suggest that the categories most important to American culture aren’t the ones most important to the Church, or offer alternative ways of looking at things, e.g. everyone is called to pour themselves out in love, but whether that love takes place within marriage is something we surrender to God–we don’t get to choose how we make our bodies into altars. If they ask stuff you’re still wrestling with yourself, say that. If you trust the Church but don’t understand why She teaches what She does, say that, and talk about where your trust comes from or what it looks like to you to live it out. Ask more about what they believe, what they hold dear, what might make living your faith beautiful and plausible for them rather than empty and wasteful.
You guys will still end up misunderstanding one another. You’ll walk away with, at best, that feeling novelists always make fun of, where we think we have really made progress with a person and they go off and do some absolutely fool-ass thing because they think that’s what we told them to do. (Novel-reading might be the best protection against scandal. What if we don’t ever know what people really think, or why they do what they do? What if, and hold on while I blow your mind, all communication is tragic?) But that is just life here in the First American Full Gospel Church of Babel. And maybe it is just life.