The headlines of the past two weeks have given me a lot to process, and this weekend is a good time to think on things. Since the Obergefell decision, there are fights breaking out all over the internet, between Gays and Straights and Christians and Other Christians, and even between Catholics and Other Catholics.
The idea of the “Other” got me thinking about a piece I’d written a while back at First Things, one that — to my surprise (but then I never know how groups of people are going to react to things) — got me in trouble with a lot of Christians, but not a lot of gay folk: From 2011 “Homosexuality: A Call to Otherness”:
I have a theory that our gay brothers and sisters are, in fact, planned, loved-into-being “necessary others,” and that they are meant to show us something of God from a perspective that we cannot otherwise broach. I suspect art is a part of it. I do not presume to guess what attractions Michelangelo felt, but I could not view his stunning work throughout the Vatican and in Rome without recalling a quip someone (I believe Camille Paglia) once made, that when gays were closeted and presumably less active sexually, their energies had been subsumed into creating transcendent, living, time-smashing masterpieces. Now that they were “out,” said the wag, their art was mundane, mostly unmemorable, often lazy and insubstantial.
I know I am entering deep and destructive currents by even daring to swim here, but homosexual questions are all around us—gay marriage, certainly is at the forefront (and there again, we may actually have some instruction from Christ, in Matthew 19) but there is also the issue of recognizing the many homosexuals in our church who are excellent, joyful priests, faithful to their vows and their flocks—and they are questions begging for temperate, reasonable and loving dialogue.
Larry Kramer called the gay community “exceptional,” and in doing so he opens the door to question what that means, whether it implies a giftedness that is planned, and meant for all of us. If that is so, our homosexual brothers and sisters deserve a full participation in our human adventure, right down to the “plans of fullness, not of harm; to give you a future and a hope.”
But those plans, in the life of every fully-engaged human, involve not just gifts but also challenges, not just “yes” but also “no,” not just satisfaction, but also sacrifice, not just ourselves but also obedience. That’s the fullness; it comes from embracing the plan, but it is not easy.
And in that case, it’s possible that not everyone will be so keen to applaud the idea of sexual exceptionalism, and its costs.
Nothing is free, save grace, but it is no cheap thing.
Clearly, I have been in the midst of “processing” gay questions for a while, and you’ll have to read the whole thing to understand where I was coming from.
But in the wake of Obergefell, I keep going back to another question I wondered about: Is Marriage Really a “Right”? Or is it a kind of “Office”?
If all proclaiming Christ are accepted to baptism, one might wonder, then why not all to marriage?
I think it comes down to offices, and the equality to be found therein. We talk about vocations and “one’s state in life,” but I wonder if we would not better serve both clarity and charity by considering that beyond baptism we are called to an Office. Since all Offices are callings, then all servants are equal within them and each office is lived within the fundamental calling of all baptized people, which is to chastity, first and foremost.
This brings home the barely-recognized fact that, except for those called to the Office of Marriage — who are themselves meant to be chaste within that Office — the rest of the world, the majority of humanity walking about, gay or straight, are meant to resist sexual concupiscence, whether within the Office of Singleness or Religious Consecration.
From a Western perspective, that sounds severe, but Eastern religions teach similarly, that all are called to sexual continence. Buddhists and Taoists understand that sexual energy has a “right” and “wrong” use. I know a Taoist couple who have sexual relations only for procreative purposes and during rare “seasonal” occasions. As the church calls homosexual activity “disordered”, Taoist understanding of Yin (feminine) and Yang (masculine) energies calls same sex activity “unbalanced.” In his book Beyond Dogma , the current Dalai Lama clarifies the Buddhist view: “A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else . . . homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact.”
Despite differences in origin of understanding, the Dalai Lama’s pronouncements are remarkably similar to Catholic teaching, and next to the Taoist couple, Catholic sexual teaching — particularly Blessed John Paul’s teaching on the Theology of the Body — seems quite free. And yet gay activist Dan Savage is not attacking the Dalai Lama to cackling, appreciative crowds; no one is calling the Taoists “haters” or “homophobes.”
From a religious perspective, therefore, it does seem that in our nation of 300 million people, only a distinct minority of about 120 million (even less, discounting non-sacramental unions) are meant to be gifted with the duty of delight that is the sexual expression of love, within marriage.
Why does this Office get all the fun? Because, while all offices are equal, the Office of Marriage — far from being “for everyone” or a simple expression of a mood subject to change — is one of especial humility and sacrifice. The essentials of procreation residing within us are so powerful that unless one ardently works to prevent it, new life will come (a recent study found that 54% of abortions stem from contraception “failure”). The little bang of sperm and ova are the microcosmic reflection of the macrocosmic big bang of Creation; co-operating with God in the continuance of that creation means humbly accepting”for the rest of one’s life”involvement and responsibility for specific human beings of varied gifts and challenges. There are no days off; if you don’t like your job, you can’t just move away; you can’t re-staff. Parenthood contains moments of surreal bliss countered by a lifetime of work, self-abnegation, stress, and anxiety. Besides procreation, sexual tenderness in marriage brings a depth of consolation meant to balance out the fullness of that burden or — for a childless couple — the pain of longings unfulfilled.
Again, there’s more, because there is always more.
On my end, the processing continues. I’ll reiterate that I’d been saying since 2006 that the church needed to get ahead of the whole gay marriage question, before it ran us down, and I have no idea why our leadership didn’t “let the state certify and the church sanctify.” It would have given us ten years to really, really teach our theology to a world so stunned by the move that it might have paid attention.
Currently, there is noise and a steamroller, and so — even though this Chicago priest has decided to try that tactic — no one is listening to us, or seeking to understand our theology, right now. Things are going to change very quickly, and my fear is the church — coming into the issue in the midst of ragtag chaos, when it could have been shaping the conversation for a decade — is going to flail when she should speak calmly.
I got some unfriendly email from folks this week, calling me a know-it-all for this post and this one and probably the one in between. They’ll be happy to know I am offering only wondering, this weekend (because “wonder leads to knowing”), and praying for wisdom…and also recommending this book, for fine escapist fare. Because sometimes you have to talk and think about something else.
This is magnificent.
Evangelization is not about getting other people to do the thing you want to them to do. It’s not about crafting just the right technique to make that right moment fall together so neatly.
Evangelization is about looking at the person in front of your face, no matter who that person is, and gasping in wonder at the miraculously beautiful creation God has endowed with a dignity and a worth that nothing can erase, no matter how deep in the mire that person is swimming just now. You see that person, and you know for a fact: Here is somebody worth dying for.
Read them both.
And — for the weekend, only, alas — that’s all I have to say about that.