Some Notes re: Fr. James Martin (And the Relevance of Orthodox Gay Experience)

Some Notes re: Fr. James Martin (And the Relevance of Orthodox Gay Experience) September 22, 2017

So first of all, Christians should not treat one another with contempt, and contempt isn’t cleverness or “hard truths” or whatever y’all think you’re doing.

Second, so often straight Christians approach gay people as if we are defined by our sexuality, and our orientation is defined by the desire for sexual sin. I see so much commentary which doesn’t even seem to know about fairly common gay experiences, which are shared by many orthodox (inc celibate) Christians: fearing for your physical safety because you “look gay”; experiencing discrimination at work or in Christian ministry; being told you’re a danger to children, you can’t be trusted to babysit children of the same sex, etc; being given spiritual counsel which amounts to, “Be terrified of your body and disgusted by your desires for self-gift and intimacy; scrutinize every close same-sex friendship for any hints of temptation, because chastity is the daughter of anxiety.” I could go on!

Perhaps the greatest value of Fr. Martin’s new book is that he knows this stuff. He knows that anti-gay hatred exists–and it distorts gay people’s relationships with God and with the Church.

I wrote a critical piece about his book. A quick note about process: I was specifically asked not to write a review, but rather a “reflection” or essay. I’m not sure what I would have said differently in a review, though I know I would’ve framed it much less as, “Does this book have anything to say to me? Yes, somewhat, but lol mostly it doesn’t seem to know or care that people like me exist.” But in the end of course everyone read it as a review and I find myself thinking of it that way.

Even in a “review,” where I would have attempted to present the book itself to readers rather than offering what I hoped was a fruitful unexplored area for further work, I think I would have talked about the absence of gay Christians who accept the Christian sexual ethic. There are five reasons I think our absence matters to Fr. Martin’s work, and our presence would have strengthened it.

Vocational. One reader emailed me to make the excellent point that if dialogue between the Church and LGBT people goes well, surely one outcome is that there would be more LGBT people who want to live as fully within the Church as possible. What is our vision for those people’s lives? People who are actually trying to do this bizarre thing, people who are trying to become obedient gay Catholics, might have some insights.

Pastoral. I’m grateful that I became Catholic already knowing what the Church teaches on sexual ethics, and that I was asked to grapple with it and accept it before I was baptized. I’ve seen people get badly hurt because they went to churches where there was ambiguity about what the Church would ultimately ask from them, and so they went about their business, marrying someone of the same sex and so on, and then suddenly they’re confronted with the Church’s actual sexual ethic and they feel not only rejected but betrayed. Snookered. Like they were conned into coming back to church.

There’s no need to make sexual ethics the focus of pastoral care for gay people, there’s no need to start with chastity, and in fact for the large majority of gay people these are terrible pastoral mistakes. But I genuinely don’t think silence (or, especially, coyness) about the Church’s sexual ethic is pastoral. Open acceptance of that ethic can and must coexist with patience and humility in the care of souls.

Liturgical? Not sure of the best term for this one. But Leah Libresco made the point, “The church offers all teaching as gift to make us like Christ. [That teaching] should be joyfully and openly presented, even when received as hard teaching (as supreme gift of Eucharist was).” The Way our Church offers us is beautiful; it is the Way of Jesus, even when that means it’s the Way of the Cross. Morality has become an idol in many of our churches; but morality is a form of worship, a means God has given us by which we may love Him and worship Him in our bodies.

As it happens I super didn’t make this argument in my own book, because I have a very hard time seeing the specifically no-gay-sex part of the Church’s ethic as beautiful! I do see it as inextricably interwoven with the beautiful pattern of Scripture, in which both opposite-sex and same-sex love teach us about God’s love for us, but God-honoring sexual love is always opposite-sex marriage and God-honoring same-sex love is always nonsexual. Mostly I understand Christian sexual discipline as something you need in order to participate as fully as possible in the great beautiful thing, union with Christ. Leah’s point is stronger and more fully true, but it’s a hard one for me to make, I have to admit.

Countercultural. In my “reflection,” or whatever it was, I tried to argue that Fr. Martin asks too little of straight Christians and the Church hierarchy. He doesn’t call Church leaders to repentance for their complicity in the harms done to gay people (I have made specific suggestions as to how this repentance could be lived out, but there are doubtless many other and better possibilities). And he doesn’t call on all of us to imagine, honor, and give practical support to forms of love our culture has forgotten.

The world of Scripture is a world where celibacy is an arena for the highest love–a realm of fulfillment, not (or arguably because) a realm of deprivation. It’s a world where nonsexual forms of same-sex love, such as friendship, are life-shaping, publicly-honored, and God-commanded. That isn’t our world, it isn’t what we experience in our churches, and the absence of any honored same-sex love in our churches is a major part of the confusion and distress gay people often experience when they try to understand or live out Church teaching.

Illuminating. The fact that so many orthodox gay people have experienced anti-gay hatred, both inside and outside the churches, should really only strengthen Fr. Martin’s point that anti-gay animus is a destructive betrayal of the Gospel. If it were really only about sexual morality, a) that still isn’t how Jesus approached sexual sinners, as Fr. Martin rightly points out, but b) people who were trying to live chastely wouldn’t be shamed, slandered, or treated with suspicion. In a way I can be grateful that attempted obedience doesn’t “earn” acceptance, since who would want acceptance on those terms? But it’s still sad and shocking, and a counterwitness.

Which brings me to a final point. Several orthodox gay friends have noted to me that they were deeply skeptical of Fr. Martin’s book, or (once they’d read it) quite critical–but seeing the way he’s been attacked, often in explicitly homophobic terms, made them reconsider. If people try to discredit him the same way they try to discredit us, maybe he’s onto something!

Maybe he is. I wish he were onto more, you know, but maybe he’s onto something.


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