Tag Archives: lgbt Catholics

What IS a Gay Catholic to do? A Question Comes Out of the Closet.

At America blog last week, the Jesuit priest, Fr James Martin opened up a conversation that is well overdue, but which has up to now been conducted only among those most directly affected, or in obscure specialist theological circles: “What”, he asked, “Is a gay Catholic to do?”

Introducing his question, Fr Martin began by observing five actions that most people would regard as standard life experiences or choices, but which are prohibited to gay Catholics if they wish to conform to standard Church teaching.  Briefly, these actions are:
  • To experience  romantic, sexual love
  • To get married
  • To adopt children
  • To seek ordination
  • To take employment with the church or its agencies.
What, then, is a gay Catholic to do? Fr Martin raised the question, which I suspect will also be relevant in many other faiths, but did not attempt to answer it. Having had the question put before them, his readers responded with vigour – but they too had few answers, beyond the obvious one of simply “accept church teaching without questioning”, and so to accept this misfortune as one would any other disability or ill-fate bestowed by God.
This is not a response that I would consider constructive – and nor would most of the other gay men and lesbians who joined the discussion. (Christ himself said nothing at all against homoerotic relationships). Only marginally more helpful is the variation on the above, to pray to the Lord for help, accept His guidance – and then follow church teaching, quite overlooking even the possibility that the response to sincere, deep prayer might be to ignore church teaching (which, incidentally, was my own experience – but of that more later).
There can be very few heterosexual people who would voluntarily give up all five of these actions. The supposed grounds for setting the expectation, in Scripture and in the Magisterium of the church, are disputed by some significant modern scholars. Is  it surprising that some gay Catholics are refusing to just roll over and play dead?  This is a conversation that has been conducted quietly for decades by gay Catholics themselves, and more formally by an expanding band of reputable academics in “gay & lesbian theology”, in “queer theology”, or even in “indecent theology”.  If Fr Martin did not suggest an answer to his question, he did at least bring into public view the simple fact there such a conversation exists, and needs to be conducted more openly.
In the absence of any clear agreement on what a gay Catholic is to do, I would like to summarise what, based on my own observations, gay Catholics who have seriously considered the question, have in fact done.
Conform
This is obviously the approved response, actively promoted by the church as the “Courage” ministry, which aims to guide its members to live in complete chastity. I have no information on the numbers following this path, but suspect that they are low.  Many gay Catholics view this with scepticism, or even downright hostility, for its links to the discredited ideas of reparative therapy. (See “All You Wanted to Know About  Courage “, at the Wild Reed.)
Conscientious (silent) dissent
In setting its rules, the church claims that the basis lies in the clear voice of Scripture and the unchanging tradition of the church. However, as important decisions over the past summer of the ECLA, the Episcopalians and the Swedish Lutherans have shown, there is no longer a universal consensus among scholars that Scripture is as hostile as was once assumed.  It is now obvious that there is at least room for sincere disagreement on the relevance of the so-called “clobber texts”.
Similarly, the church’s own Magisterium is not, as claimed, unchanging. As gay Catholic historians like John Boswell and Mark Jordan have shown, the Magisterium on homoerotic relationships is anything but unchanging, and indeed may have followed rather than led popular intolerance which grew steadily in the centuries of urban decline in Western Europe after the fall of Rome.
Church teaching itself recognises the possibility of disagreeing, in conscience, with official teaching, provided that conscience has been properly formed.  For years, this was in effect my own position.  The challenge of course, is just what does “properly formed” mean? In my case, it included many different elements, including personal prayer, formal spiritual direction with highly qualified priests, several 6 or 8 day silent, directed retreats, and extensive reading, of Scripture, bible commentary, church history and sexual theology, and informal discussion with friends, gay and others. For me, the outcome was clear:  the official teaching, for whatever reason, is misguided, and I must live with integrity, in accordance with the way the Lord made me.
I would have thought that I had done about as much to form my conscience as most people could reasonably expect, but it seems not.  To judge by the comments following Fr Martin’s question, many orthodox Catholics simply argue that conscience cannot be properly formed unless it ends up agreeing with church teaching.  And even where there is agreement that I may after all have the right to dissent in private, this may not be in public, nor does it give me access to the five things named by Fr Martin – at least not with the co-operation of the church.
Conscientious (visible) dissent
The problem with silent dissent is that is silent –and therefore lonely. One yearns for the opportunity to talk openly, with other dissenting gay Christians, or with other Catholics (when we do, we usually find that they have their own profound disagreements with church teaching, but somehow their disagreements in conscience, over contraception for example, are deemed acceptable, while ours are not).  As it can be difficult to find safe spaces in most parishes to give expression to these issues, some Catholics seek to worship, where possible, in dedicated LGBT congregations.  As a “solution” to the problem, this is not satisfactory.  (The church should not be forming a series of ghettos.) Still, as a strategy and interim measure pending more welcoming responses by mainstream congregations, they are valuable.  But these too attract strong opposition in some quarters.  (Here in London, the regular Soho “gay masses” attract a steady band of protestors, praying outside the church for an end to the “heresy” that we too should be able to attend Mass.  How they argue that their Catholic duty is to prevent or discourage people from attending Mass, I fail to understand.)
External dissent: Prophetic Witness, or Sniping From the Margins?
One of the most penetrating discussions of the problem I have come across is by Michael B Kelly, an Australian writer and spiritual director, now working towards a PhD in Spirituality.  In a powerful reflection on the story of the road to Emmaus, he observes that this came immediately after the resurrection – which the religious authorities, holed up in Jerusalem, had not as yet accepted or recognised, in spite of the personal witness of the women who had met the risen Christ.  Two of the disciples, despondent, left Jerusalem, and made their way to the town of Emmaus.  The next part of the story is well known – on the road they met a stranger, walked with him, and offered the hospitality of their home, whereupon they recognised the risen Lord. This is where Kelly’s version becomes profound, because he makes the next part, usually omitted, the key to the story.  Having met and conversed with the Lord at a personal level, they then leave Emmaus, and return to Jerusalem, to deliver the news of the Risen Lord to the religious authorities who had so dismally failed earlier to recognise him.
This, says Kelly, is what a gay Catholic has to do.  First, to turn away (possibly literally, possibly figuratively) from the religious authority of the institutional church, and to meet Christ on a personal level.  Having done that, having formed a personal relationship, the task is to take the road away from Emmaus, back to Jerusalem, and then to speak up to the establishment in prophetic witness:  that Christ is not met among the religious “pure”, in ritual and religious law, but among the marginalised and rejected, in love and compassion.
There are an increasing number of gay Catholic dissenters who have followed this path in one from or another, who have distanced themselves from the institution and who speak up in prophetic witness (as they see it) against the sins of the church, and in support of the truth as they see it.  They still see themselves (and describe themselves) as “catholic” (just not necessarily “Roman”), but do not necessarily participate in regular liturgical services.  Whether they are indeed perceptive prophets who will in time be seen to have been right, or whether they are simply misguided fools sniping from the margins, time will tell.
Walk right away.
Right at the opposite end of the spectrum are those who have simply walked right away from the Catholic church, disgusted and repelled by the harsh words and treatment it has for them.  Some of these make their way to more supportive Christian denominations, some abandon religion entirely.  The ones that disturb me the most are those I often come across in the blogosphere, who describe themselves as “recovering” Catholics.
Still no answer.
I have still not given a clear answer: “What is a gay Catholic to do?”.  I have outlined a range of strategies that some gay Catholics have followed.  I now ask you:  if you are indeed a lesbian or gay Christian, in any of the hostile denominations, what strategy do you adopt (or have adopted) yourself? If you are not gay, but willing sincerely to consider the question from their point of view, putting yourself in their shoes, and without simply parroting out slogans, what would you do?

What, finally, would Jesus do?

Read More:

What is a Gay Catholic to do? Fr James Martin at America blog. (read the comments, too)

All You Wanted to Know About  Courage “, at the Wild Reed

Countering the Clobber Texts , here at QTC

The Church’s Changing Tradition , here at QTC

The Road from Emmaus:  A Reflection by Michael B Keely on the gay & lesbian Prophetic Role in the Church.

Recommended Books:

Alison, James: Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (Darton Longman Todd, 2001) 239 pages*

Alison, James: On Being Liked (Darton Longman Todd, 2003) 168 pages*

Alison, James:  Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in (Darton Longman Todd, 2005)*

Alison, James: Broken Hearts New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal (Darton Longman Todd)*

Comstock, Gary: Queer(y)ing Religion

Glaser, Chris: Coming Out as Sacrament

Goss, Robert:  Jesus Acted Up

Helminiak, Daniel:  Sex and the Sacred

Kelly, Michael B:  Seduced by Grace

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Schinnick:  This Remarkable Gift being gay and catholic

Stuart,  Elisabeth: Religion is a Queer Thing

Stuart,  Elisabeth:  Gay & Lesbian Theologies


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My Journey in Faith  

 One of my readers has asked in a comment to meet and interview me about my experiences as a gay Catholic. In preparation for this meeting, I have put together a brief description of the key influences on my journey in faith, which I now share with you all.

Childhood & Education

I was born in a Catholic family in South Africa, and educated entirely in Catholic schools.  In particular, my secondary schooling was in a small school run by priests, in the ears immediately following Vatican II.  For 5 years, religious instruction was a daily part of the school syllabus, delivered by a man with a strong commitment to the VII reforms, and (for the time) an unusual emphasis on Scripture. I remember in particular an extended period of instruction on Biblical ideas on the nature of God, along the lines of “God is…..” , such as “God is Truth”, “God is Life”, “God is Light”, “God is Hope”, “God is Wisdom”, and above all, “God is Love.”   For each of these statements, we laboriously wrote out and memorised endless biblical texts in support of these themes, together with their chapter and verse references.   I regret that I no longer remember any more than a handful of these texts, but they strongly coloured my perceptions of the nature of God. If I have forgotten the details of the texts, I clearly remember and treasure the themes, as listed above.

At university, my religious education was continued less formally by active participation in student Catholic societies.  Against the background of strong student opposition to expanding apartheid repression, I developed a strong commitment to the social Gospel, and was influenced by ideas around liberation theology and what later became known as contextual theology.

Sexual Awareness & Marriage

From a very early age, I was aware that in many ways I was ‘different’ from other boys, sharing several interests more usually found in girls.  Through adolescence, I came to realise that this was based on sexual attraction to boys, and began to wonder seriously if I might really be ‘homosexual’.  By the time I reached university, I clearly recognised my ‘inclinations’ but very conscious of Catholic teaching on sex, attempted to repress them.  I then, with far too little thought or premeditation, at a young age rushed into marriage to an equally young Catholic woman. Adhering to Catholic teaching on contraception, two young daughters followed soon after.  The experience of parenthood while still very young, before either of us was properly ready for it emotionally or financially, soon placed the marriage under increasing stress.




After marriage, I found I was drifting gradually away from the church, attended Mass less and less regularly, and stopped receiving the sacraments altogether, largely over issues around sexual guilt.  In time, I came to see myself as specifically ‘agnostic’. (It is worth spelling this out now:  my clear attempts to follow church teaching on sex, from masturbation to premarital sex and contraception, led me into an inappropriate marriage, premature fatherhood, and in time to movement away from the Church, towards avowed agnosticism.)

After marriage, I found I was drifting gradually away from the church, attended Mass less and less regularly, and stopped receiving the sacraments altogether, largely over issues around sexual guilt.  In time, I came to see myself as specifically ‘agnostic’. (It is worth spelling this out now:  my clear attempts to follow church teaching on sex, from masturbation to premarital sex and contraception, led me into an inappropriate marriage, premature fatherhood, and in time to movement away from the Church, towards avowed agnosticism.)

Coming Out.

During the gradual breakdown of my marriage, I came increasingly to recognise that I was ‘probably’ primarily homosexual.  Once the marriage had ended, I finally recognised the truth, and came out:  first to myself, and then to others.  I became active in ‘Gasa Rand’ – the local gay activist association – where I met Bruce, who became a major part of my life for nearly 20 years.  During the time leading up to and after coming out, I sought out and read as much as I could find on ‘gay lit’, including fiction, gay history, and gay politics.  In South Africa in the 1980’s available supplies were limited (a function of censorship, significant relative expense, and a small market).  Still, my reading became extensive, if eclectic.

A year after meeting Bruce, we moved in together (sharing our lives for the next 18 years).  At the time we met, he too was not practicing any religion, but had been raised an Anglican. (As a young man, he had thought of becoming a monk) After a few years together, he began to attend church services once again, in an Anglo-Catholic parish.  Later, he became more interested in Catholicism, and began to attend the Latin Mass of the ‘traditional’ Catholics.

This left me increasingly uncomfortable, because it through into the foreground my conflict with the church over sexuality, and because the traditional Catholics offended my strong Vatican II sympathies.  Still, we agreed to differ on religion, while agreeing that in spite of religious teaching, homosexuality itself was not intrinsically immoral, and that our relationship, being committed and monogamous, was as valid as any legal marriage.

Return to the Church

Later, there came a point when I considered returning to the Church.  I learned that a former student friend had become a Jesuit priest, and was then parish priest in the university parish where I had been many years earlier. I went to see him to discuss my reservations.  Among the very important observations he made were that faith was a matter of experience, not of reason or dogma; that I should not prejudge the Lord’s (or the Church’s) response  to my sexuality;  but that he personally did not believe the Lord would expect me in a committed and loving relationship, to live to harsher standards than anyone else.  Above all, he urged me to make a leap in faith, and see how things worked out, which is what I did.

The resulting experience was wholly positive and enriching.

When I told Bruce that I was thinking of returning to church, he immediately responded that he would abandon the traditional Catholics and join me at that same university parish.  My daughter Barbara, who by that time was herself a student and was then living with us to attend uni, also said that she would like to join us, and so we began regular Mass attendance as a family. Over the years, we were both drawn ever deeper into the life of the parish, assisting in many branches of parish life, and even serving together for several years on the Parish Pastoral Council.  Although we very much visible as a couple, in a relationship that was obvious to all, we found no hostility from anyone, and a very warm welcome from many.

As a Jesuit parish, we were also drawn gradually into exploration of Ignatian spirituality, and in time into deeper exploration thereof in the Christian Life Community (“CLC”).  Amongst the key Ignatian ideas that became of great importance to me were:

– the idea that the Holy Spirit is constantly attempting to communicate with us.  By learning to read, or ‘discern’ the movement of the Spirit within our hearts, we can come to hear God speaking to us directly;

– the importance of regular (ideally daily) ‘examen’ of consciousness.  This is a form of prayer, in which we reflect on our experience and the resultant emotions, in order to discern those movements of the Spirit.

-‘Ignatian indifference’:  the idea that the moral value of things or states lies not in themselves, but in what we do with them, and how we apply them to building God’s Kingdom on earth.  (The “Principle & Foundation” speaks of “seeking neither riches nor poverty, neither sickness nor health”)

– the value of communal sharing and reflection with others, to assist in the process of discernment

– ‘Mission’:  the idea that the Lord has a unique task for each of us, with which we are sent into the world to do his will.

A further idea that hit me with powerful force was not specifically Ignatian, although I did first encounter it in the CLC group.  This was the argument promoted in the book ‘Redemptive Intimacy’ by Dick Westley, that revelation is not something that was given in biblical times, and then static, but is continually unfolded by the Holy Spirit, and needs to be constantly reinterpreted for changing times.  (I have since learnt that this idea is widely accepted by theologians, and was restated by Benedict XVI in one of his Christmas addresses). Westley argues that all of us, laity as well as clergy, have a part to play in interpreting this unfolding revelation by communal sharing and reflection on our experiences.  In short, theology is constantly being remade, and we all have a part to play in making it.

Under the impact of Ignatian ideas, I regularly took into prayer, alone, under the guidance of Spiritual Direction, or on silent, directed retreat, the whole question of sexuality and faith.  On every occasion, the resulting conclusion was that I was reaffirmed in my existing conviction that homosexual expression in my relationship was not sinful, but on the contrary was good and life-giving. (I did not then explore issues of sex outside such a relationship).

Emigration

Eventually, we both reached a decision, taken after extensive research, thought and prayerful discernment, to leave South Africa and to emigrate to the UK.  We were then both teachers, and before departure secured posts in English schools.  However, the school year had barely begun when Bruce concluded that he had made a mistake in emigrating, and after a few months returned to Johannesburg.  I reached a different conclusion, and remained behind.

This put me into a very difficult emotional position, having to deal alone with the simultaneous stresses of adjusting to emigration, the sudden break-up of a long relationship, coping with a dramatically new and different school environment with more challenging pupil behaviour, and adjusting as a single person to dramatically different financial calculations to those I had expected.  All this in a country I did not know, where I had no personal friends, and indeed knew nobody other than school colleagues, and (fortunately) my daughter Robynn, who had preceded me to London a year before my own move.

With no existing support system, I deliberately set out to create one.  I sought out my local parish and parish priest (but signally failed to find the sort of community I had previously been accustomed to).  I joined a local gay friendship group, and signed on to Gaydar internet dating.  In time, I met up with the Soho Masses where I found a very strong welcome and sense of community, and where I became a regular participant.

Once again, I was forced to reconsider the question of reconciling faith and sexuality.  I took myself off to a rural monastery for a short private retreat, and steeped myself in prayer.  Once again, I found myself reaffirmed in the belief that my sexuality was not intrinsically immoral, and this time more:  I began to believe that finding other gay Catholics and working together with them for mutual support, was an important part of the ‘mission’ that I needed to undertake, indeed, was part of the reason that God’s plan had brought me here.

Reflecting on my experiences in the (gay) support network I was developing, as well as the few sexual experiences I had found, I saw that some of these at least had been enormously beneficial – good sex can be a powerful antidepressant.  And so, I came to recognise, in the light of experience and discernment, that sex does not necessarily have to be in the context of a relationship to be healthy and valid.  (But also, that not all sex is good).

Soho Masses

I have now been attending these regularly for almost 6 years, even though the journey into Soho from my home in Surrey is time consuming (for every Mass or meeting I set aside 4 hours total travelling time).  I have been gradually drawn ever deeper into the activities, first as a reader, then as a Eucharistic Minister, and then as a member of the Pastoral Council.  I have also joined other lesbian & gay Catholics in London’s annual Gay Pride March through central London.

The rewards are incalculable.

First of these is the Mass itself, which is always uniquely rewarding:  the liturgy is invariably rich, the homilies intelligent and thought provoking, the congregational singing vigorous and the occasional additional music superb.  The welcome, sense of community, and friendships formed are invaluable.

There have been specific, less routine highlights. First, I was privileged to have been serving on the Pastoral Council when the Diocese approached us about a move from the Anglican premises we had been using to a Catholic parish, and so was drawn into those negotiations, and into the process of discernment within our congregation of the most appropriate response.

In an ongoing attempt to wrestle with the tension between the gift of sexuality that the Lord has given me, and the formal teaching of the church, I have been deeply grateful for the extensive reading lists and direct access to selected books for sale, that I have had access to through the Masses.  These have been complemented by some intensely moving workshops, retreats, lectures and days of recollection on ‘matters Catholic and gay.’

At a strictly personal level, it was emotionally gratifying when my new partner (an Anglican) joined me for some of the Masses at our former home at St Anne’s, and when the civil partnership we entered into a few years back was noted in the bidding prayers.

A Paradox.

Arising out of the negotiations concluded with the diocese, there is one important paradox and source of tension.

During the discussions, it was made clear that the diocesan expectation was that the Masses should be strictly ‘pastoral’, and should not be used for ‘campaigning’ against church teaching.  This we were (broadly) happy to accept, although there was never any clarification of just what was meant by the terms. It is my belief that the distinction between them is not nearly as clear cut as the Bishops seem to assume. Also, the public statements from the Cardinal at the time and after clearly stated that there would be an expectation that those living would be living ‘in accordance with Catholic teaching’, that there would be no ‘ambiguity’ in our presentation of church teaching, which should be presented ‘in full’.

This presents an obvious paradox, as many of us, including myself, appear to be living in a manner clearly in conflict with official teaching, and some of us believe that we have a moral obligation to other LGBT Catholics to provide them with sound counter arguments to official teaching, and also to work towards changing this teaching.  (Does this constitute ‘campaigning’ against the teaching, or contributing to the development of new theology?)

Part of this tension, on living in accordance with teaching, I resolve precisely by looking to the teaching ‘in full’:  that is by looking not only at sexual theology in isolation, but also at teaching on conscience, on justice and peace, on how the process of making theology works, at the contextual background and history of how the theology was developed, and on the importance of prayer and personal discernment in the formation of conscience.  Against this wider background, I would argue that I am living not in a state of sanctity or free of sin, but certainly in as much accordance with church teaching as most other Catholics  – and with somewhat more reading and reflection than the average behind my decisions.

The second part, the restriction on using the Masses for ‘campaigning’, I resolve by recognising first, that in a very real sense the pastoral is political: our simple presence makes an important statement.  But further, there remains, I believe, an obligation to work more directly and actively towards countering and changing the standard official teaching.  This I resolve by separating my activities with the Masses, and elsewhere.  Specifically, it is to play my part in this respect that I set up this blog in the first place.

Related posts:

My Anti-Vatican Self-Defence Routine.

Whenever, as now, I find myself getting worked up about the Vatican, I find it helps to recall the wisdom of some of the wise friends and writers who have helped to shape my thinking.

For me, my Vatican recovery began a very few words from a very human Jesuit in Johannesburg (now in Cape Town, lucky man), who simply asked why was I fussing about “Vatican bureaucrats”, when the church was so much bigger than they.




Mark Jordan’s book is always a tonic.  It cautions against trying to debate with the Vatican – showing how their rhetorical style is based not on rational argument, but on simple repetition of old statements, until the opposition is silence-of-sodom1bludgeoned into submission.  He also shows up at length the internal contradictions in an institution which is internally irremediably camp and infused with a gay sensibility, yet is nominally vigorously opposed to ‘homosexuality’.  After reading Jordan’s thesis, it is hard to take the bureaucrats quite as seriously again.

Richard Cleaver takes a different tack.  Starting from the perspective of Liberation Theology, he reminds us thatknow-my-namerevelation is not something that ended in Biblical times, but continues through to our own age.  We can all participate in discerning this revelation  by using prayer and reflection to discern the action of the Holy Spirit  in our lives and experience. The starting point in liberation theology sounds controversial to some, but the basic point is not – I was strongly moved by the same argument in Dick Weston’s Redemptive Intimacy. Benedict XVI himself said something similar in his Christmas address to the Curia – sadly overlooked by much more newsworthy, because controversial, remarks on gender and climate change.

sex-and-sacredDaniel Helminiak, in “Sex and the Sacred”, concentrates on the importance of developing a spiritual life, and shows how a unique take on spirituality is one of the gifts of being gay.  (Among other things, coming out is itself a spiritual experience).

mcneill3But above all, at present, I turn to the writings of John McNeill.  Infused with the Ignatian Spirituality of the Jesuits, McNeill constantly reminds us that “The glory of God is humans fully alive” (St Irenaus), and that bad theology is bad psychology – and vice versa.   He too argues  for the spiritual life, developed with the Holy Spirit, to confer the wisdom that we are not getting from the Vatican.  but he goes further than Helminiak, arguing strongly that the church needs collectively to arm itself with the grace of the Holy Spirit against a sterile, power-hungry Vatican bureaucracy.

Increasingly, I believe he is right.