Respect, Compassion, Sensitivity, and Asshattery

Respect, Compassion, Sensitivity, and Asshattery October 14, 2020

I adapted this post from a Twitter thread, which emerged from comments reacting to my previous post. I figured non-Tweeple who’ve read that post might still have the same questions and curiosities, so I decided to adapt the thread here too.

The Catechism enjoins “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” for gay people. And honestly? I think most Catholics are okay at the compassion part. The problems come in at the sensitivity part, and get huge at the respect part. (Most of this applies to evangelicals as well, though naturally with some different details.)

Sensitivity becomes an issue because few Catholics take time to intelligently imagine what a gay person’s life is like. In principle, even if they didn’t know any gay people, they could learn it from books, films, and so forth by LGBTQ artists. But—for culture war reasons—this possibility is almost universally dismissed. (We’ll be coming back to that.) What Catholics tend to do instead is try and figure out the nicest way of phrasing Catholic teaching about homosexuality, and put that first. This is a terrible approach, for several reasons; here are just five.

1. We know already. There are people who don’t know about the Real Presence or the Resurrection, who know that the Church forbids gay sex. Putting it first comes close to insulting gay people’s intelligence.

2. There is no nice way to put it. Even from a secular perspective, gay people get a raw deal: being different sucks sometimes. Especially when you usually realize you’re different in high school, where being different is as appealing as a blanket made of spiders. And from a Catholic perspective, it’s far more difficult, even grim. Due to our theology and canon law, marriage, family, and professional ministry—i.e., what Catholics think of as “most versions of a meaningful adult life”—are all effectively1 closed to gay people. Trying to put that “nicely” comes across as the speaker trying to make themselves comfortable. We deserve honesty, and a lot of us need space to hurt and grieve.

3. It assumes we’re preoccupied with sexuality. For some of us, that’s true; incidentally, it’s also true for some straight people. For other gay people, it’s not the main thing we think about. Gay people are incessantly told not to identify with their sexuality. Having that assumption thrust upon us is more than a little exasperating!

4. It frames a deeply personal, relational question in purely intellectual terms. Obviously there is an intellectual side to homosexuality, as there is to marriage. But few men propose by reading from the Summa, and few women want them to. The same rules apply here. This is tied up with some of our most deeply felt emotions and costliest personal choices. Don’t treat that like an abstract debate about “values.”

5. It asserts authority over people’s lives without first earning their trust. People who fervently proclaim “the truth about homosexuality” are, in my experience, invariably people whom that truth costs nothing. Someone like me has to pay for it. Their words feel counterfeit. And that has nothing to do with whether I agree with them, and everything to do with whether I trust them to treat me with care and respect.

These are points few straight Catholics have ever thought about, because they don’t have to. That results in insensitivity. Note the word insensitivity. It’s not malice. It’s a lack of awareness of something, a dulled nerve that isn’t carrying a message to the brain. You don’t have to mean to be insensitive. In fact people rarely do; keeping the analogy, stinging remarks normally hit a nerve, on purpose. Sensitivity is a talent we have to work at, and it requires lots of patient listening to hone.

Praying for it might be a good idea too.

Here’s where we circle back to respect. In my experience, Catholics rarely think about the real experience of gay people, Christian or not. In fact, they actively resist hearing about it, unless it fits a very specific and comfortable narrative. Ex-gay crap is the extreme version, but any story about “leaving behind The Lifestyle” will do. LGBTQ art, film, and literature are not just criticized (which would be reasonable), they’re resolutely ignored. The very word gay elicits lectures about “identifying with sin,” when few Catholics have bothered to find out what gay people mean by the word, or whether it has anything in common with the assumptions Catholics make about gay culture. (In its way, this behavior is very like that of fundamentalists. They overhear Catholic terms like “Mother of God” and call us idolators, while refusing to sit still for an instant to hear what “Mother of God” means.)

But Catholics often treat listening to gay people as superfluous. That’s not respect at all. It’s incredibly demeaning. It effectively treats us as too stupid or immature to understand our own experiences, or too morally vile for our word to be trusted.

That is, so to speak, the problem with compassion when it is separated from respect. Compassion is good; but it doesn’t threaten our own ego or sense of security to be compassionate. Pitying people can be quite a comfortable way to dismiss them. Whereas the idea that Catholics do often mistreat LGBTQ people is not a comfortable one for most Catholics to hear. Far easier to claim it’s all a smear campaign against the Church.

But that’s not how Christians should operate. “We’re right and everyone else sucks,” with an occasional side of “poor things,” is exactly what the religious elite in Christ’s day were doing: This people which knoweth not the Law are accursed. Christ did not countenance that. The idea that we Christians may have something to repent of, even and especially in how we treat people who transgress? That’s baked right into the Gospels. Distinguishing between authentic moral principles on the one hand, and mere social customs on the other, was a huge part of Christ’s ministry. And he frequently flouted the mere customs, for the sake of reprimanding hypocrisy and extending love. That is our model.

1I say effectively because of course there are exceptions. But these exceptions are, well, exceptional. If you try and trot them out to explain why the person you’re talking to has no business feeling hurt, frightened, and alone, you would do much better to shut up.
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