Saturday, February 21, 2015

Pope Francis the Clear

Tomorrow being the Feast of the Chair of Peter, I wanted to do a piece on the papacy, as I have before. This is the patronal feast of the Ordinariate to which I belong, and a very ancient festival in the Church's calendar.* It's also rather special to me personally. It was precisely Catholicism, rather than Orthodoxy, to which I converted, and one of my chief reasons was being persuaded that the Catholic doctrine of St. Peter's office and successors was the correct one.


The Chair of Saint Peter, Bernini, 1647-1653, in the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome.

I have, too, long been particularly fond of St. Peter the man. His combination of humility, profound holiness, zeal, and incredible bumbling is both endearing and reassuring; and I feel that Christ's choice of him to lead the Church after His departure -- over the mystical John, the brilliant Paul, or even (significant omission) His sinless Mother -- is emblematic of His whole recklessly adoring attitude towards humanity.

But I was talking about the papacy, and at present, that means Pope Francis. Since his accession two years ago, and especially during the session of the Synod on the Family late last year, many traditional Catholics have expressed discomfort with and even disapproval of His Holiness. Few (few at any rate that I've encountered) have charged with him heresy; many have charged him with carelessness, stupidity, and oversimplification. The sentiment of these remarks seems to be that, in phrasing things as simply and indulgently as he does, he is giving a false impression of Catholic Christianity to the world at large, and even making people feel that they can behave however they please and God will still love them.


The horror.

Well, I'll admit that, while my reverence for the Petrine Throne is unabated, Pope Francis is not my sort of man the way Pope Benedict was my sort of man. And yes, there are times when I miss Pope Benedict: though he was the victim of appalling slanders in the media, and was already a weary and self-effacing man at his own accession, he was an exact and wise theologian, and possessed of a spirit of immense charity and grace that shines brilliantly forth in his sermons and books. I've been rereading his Introduction to Christianity of late, in which he gives a more illuminating treatment of the Trinity than I've read anywhere else, and was particularly struck by this passage:
In the six principles [he has just explained] we have identified the elementary particles, so to speak, of Christianity, but must there not exist behind these one single, simple center? Such a center does exist, and I think we can say, after all that we have said and without any danger of using a mere sentimental phrase, that the six principles finally coalesce into the one principle of love. Let us be blunt, even at the risk of being misunderstood: the true Christian is not the denominational party member but he who through being a Christian has become truly human; not he who slavishly observes a system of norms, thinking as he does so only of himself, but he who has become freed to simple human goodness.**
Let us be blunt, even at the risk of being misunderstood. I have a shrewd suspicion that it is this principle voiced by Pope Benedict that is the real animating force of the pastoral style that has characterized Pope Francis, and that has so upset many traditional Catholics. For he has shown no special regard for the shibboleths that mark out self-professed paragons of orthodoxy in the American Church, and has freely asserted things that sound like concessions to to the secular left, until suddenly one remembers that he is restating the long-standing teaching of the Church, which diverges from the concerns of Caesar (liberal or conservative) in several important respects.

A lot of Catholics have complained of Pope Francis that he is careless in his way of expressing things and doesn't take proper account of the media's distortions -- that, if he would only be more theologically exact in speaking to journalists and so forth, these misunderstandings of Catholic doctrine by the public wouldn't arise. You'll notice how well that worked out for Bl. Paul VI and St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For that matter, truly, has there ever been an age in which people in general, even practicing Catholics, didn't misconstrue the Church's teaching? Mediaeval peasants, the children of the "ages of faith," sometimes sacrilegiously abstracted the Host and used it to make a poultice to apply to the wounds of their livestock; King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled in favor of Rome at the Synod of Whitby out of fear that St. Peter would use the keys to literally lock him out of heaven (or so it's been said); the famous Clovis, while being instructed for Baptism, on hearing of the arrest and torment of Christ, burst out angrily, "Oh, if I had been there with my Franks!" Doctrinal misunderstandings aren't a question of one Pope versus another, and they will never go away: it's human nature. Put not thy trust in principles, nor in any brainchild of man.

Besides that, we are maybe apt to forget in this country that we aren't a large or necessarily a very important segment of the Catholic Church. Taken together with Canada, we're only a little over 15% of the Church's worldwide membership, while Latin America, from which His Holiness hails, provides a solid third of our numbers. If he does not cater specially to our socio-religious concerns, I think that's to be expected.


Pictured: not the capital of Christendom.

Turning back to the matter of the media, Pope Francis has certainly made an impression on them. He's a winsome man, and has been a correspondingly popular pontiff -- the admiration he has commanded from those outside the Catholic Church has been much remarked upon, and even his solidly Catholic stances on questions like abortion and gay marriage have been absolved and indulged by the populace; after all, one must not be unjust, bigoted, or even like this Pharisee.

I confess, I wonder a little whether this popularity hasn't been a spur of some of the dissatisfaction with Pope Francis among conservative Catholics. There's a faint suggestion of the elder brother in it. They have been faithful, they have been creedally exact, they have tithed and fasted and said the Rosary and written their blogs defending Benedict and Burke, and no one has cared. But now here comes this Argentine prelate, his head probably filled with Marxist ideas and talking about nothing but love, even for atheists and homosexuals and adulterers, and people cheer and celebrate and praise him to the skies. It's enough to make somebody jealous.

I don't want to be harsh or unfair. A few close friends of mine have been perturbed by this or that remark or decision made by Pope Francis, and I certainly don't propose to read hearts. But I don't think it either unfair or harsh to plead for people to examine their consciences, and ask themselves whether it is really they who know how best to shepherd the Church. Admittedly Popes make many mistakes; but if dear Peter, the impetuous, shuffling, apostate saint, was unable to ruin the Church, I do not think that anybody can. It may be worthwhile to trust that Jesus will guide (and, if necessary, contain) His Vicar.

And the truth is, I think, Pope Francis' methods are not only licit, but downright cunning. Remember, the reason doctrine is important is that it expresses Divine truth; it is communication of that truth that matters. If you deliver a theologically correct message that nobody understands or takes to heart, you might as well have stood up there farting loudly for ten minutes for all the good it's going to do (though at least people would get a laugh out of that). Pope Francis has chosen, it seems, to focus on getting the point across over being, I'll be blunt, pedantic. And love is the point: God is love. Truth itself is of no value apart from Him -- Christ is the Truth, but Christ does only the will of the Father. Let us be blunt, even at the risk of being misunderstood. Which, let us not forget, He often was. 


Complete with ensuing hijinks.

That's the New Evangelization: taking the same substance that Christianity has always consisted in, and making it comprehensible to a people who are mentally quite different from the ones who formulated the theology; people to whom key terms like necessary and disordered and perfect mean something entirely unlike what they mean to a trained theologian.

And in communicating the core reality that those words were originally chosen to designate, yes, some of the details are going to get lost. But, as I said above, the details have been lost in any case, and that isn't actually a cause for great alarm -- not because the details don't matter (they do), but because He for whose sake they matter has them in hand, and what Pope Francis is trying to do is put them in in touch with Him. If he succeeds, the details will come. If he doesn't, having the details right won't matter.

Lastly, I would beg my Catholic brethren who so openly criticize His Holiness to take thought for the scandal they may be giving. I don't mean only the intrinsic scandal of open insolence toward the appointed ministers of the gospel, though that is worth taking into account. I made a flippant reference to people praising themselves for not being like Pharisees above, but of course, people do really do that. Suppose they learn by your example to associate contempt for the Pope with devout Catholicism. Will that prompt them to become Catholics who despise the Vicar of Christ, or is it likelier that they will remain mere fans of Pope Francis who won't seriously consider becoming Catholics? And really, when you come to think of how few of his critics have held the office of the papacy themselves, well gosh, it begins to look like talking authoritatively about something one may not understand as well as one thinks.


*One of two ancient celebrations of the Petrine Throne, in fact -- the other was suppressed in 1960 by Pope St. John XXIII. The two celebrations commemorated St. Peter's episcopacy at Antioch, after his departure from Jerusalem but before his arrival in Rome, and his rule of the church at Rome itself (which ended in his martyrdom, reputedly on the same day as St. Paul, in 64, the tenth year of the reign of Nero). St. John XXIII suppressed several feast days that were in substance duplicates, and, interestingly, the commemoration he chose to suppress was that of St. Peter's Roman throne; February 22nd was traditionally observed in honor of his rule at Antioch. It now commemorates the mystery of the Vicariate of Christ as a whole.

**Pope Benedict XVI (written as Joseph Ratzinger, before his elevation to the Cardinalate), Introduction to Christianity, p. 270.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Five Quick Takes

I.

Lent starts the day after tomorrow, and I'm still not sure what I'm going to do. I am stocking myself up with delicious food against the fast on Wednesday -- and I took the precaution of taking that day off work, because for whatever reason I get frightfully short-tempered when I fast -- but I haven't picked a discipline to adopt, or even a book to go through. (Last year I read Theology of the Body, which I recommend; you can get through it over one Lent if you read three or four sections a day, which is a tall order when what you're reading is St John Paul II, but doable.)


Though we made little use of it at my parish this year, our calendar does retain the pre-Lenten season as an option, in which the vestments are switched from green to purple (commemorating the purple robe of the Passion) and the Alleluia is removed from the liturgy, but the Gloria is retained until Lent proper. I like the way each season of the liturgical year interlocks with the next in the Anglican Use and Tridentine calendars. The conclusion of the Epiphany season in Candlemas, February 2nd, the celebration of Christ being presented in the Temple, is emblematic of this: it is a joyful feast, and part of the Christmas cycle, but in its memory of the prophecy of Simeon, it also looks forward to Jesus' Crucifixion and the anguish of the Mother of God. The movement of the Christian year -- from our Lord's descent into time in Advent and Christmas, His earthly life from then through Holy Week to the Ascension, and then returning into eternity with His humanity in Pentecost and Trinity -- is a beautiful thing, and I'm glad to have found a tradition that observes it in its richness.

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II.

Snow is falling outside at the moment. (I specify because, in the ancient house I live in, snow falling inside is not altogether out of the question.) Baltimore is, I'll be frank, a ratty, run-down city; I've said before that it grows on you, like a fungus. But almost anywhere is beautiful when it's covered with snow, and not only because the grime is hidden. There's some magic quality that snow has -- one that grown-ups, sadly, tend to lose touch with in grumbling about the traffic and the shoveling. I feel as though, if it felt the way it looks, it would be warm instead of cold. The silence it lays over things is like an enchantment. And the way fresh-fallen snow glitters always gets me, like something out of a fairy tale. I'll take even nasty traffic for this.


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III.

I've been thinking about ISIS lately. I feel weirdly dumb, having a sense like I ought to do something about it, and having no idea what I possibly could do. Pray, certainly; it's amazing how easy it is to dismiss that -- both in theory ("Yeah, sure, I'll pray, but I want to do something too," as if prayer, entered into in faith, isn't doing something) and in practice ("Sure, I'll pray for you," and then you never do). It's easy to feel powerless, with or without prayer, when contemplating the brain-numbing savagery of these men. And it's easy to feel oneself torn between the desire to protect the defenseless, the desire to adhere to nonviolent love even to the point of martyrdom, and mere naked fear at the thought of actually going to Syria or Iraq and doing either one there.

Easy, too, to go for the blame game: "Sure, Islam is a 'religion of peace' -- look at ISIS!" As though Christendom didn't have equally nasty skeletons in its own closet. I'm sure the dead of the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years' War, and the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre would have something to say about the claims of Christianity to be a religion of peace.

I wish I had any idea what to do. Good thing I'm not in charge of anything. Admittedly it isn't clear to me that the people who are in charge of anything have any idea what to do, but, in a universe this size, almost anything is possible.

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IV.

I've run across a number of extremely good Catholic pieces on matters gay and trans lately, such as this bizarre, lovely, haunting essay on, of all things, Reddit. There are also these two essays on Melinda Selmys' blog, one by Mrs Selmys herself, and one by a trans woman, Edie Fetch, both interacting with a recent essay on Public Discourse (the online magazine of the Witherspoon Institute) that also sparked my recent post on the subject. And there is this piece by Aaron Taylor at Spiritual Friendship, advancing a really fascinating theory about the genesis of the conservative Christian mindset about sexual orientation and identity, and its effects on church unity.

+     +     +

V.


It kind of alarms me that so few people I know seem to be really, thoroughly suspicious of the government. Even our house-trained media, who get many facts wrong, interpret most of them still worse, and report everything out of context, lay enough scary information about the government in front of us to sponsor five or six anarchist insurrections among a robustly independent people, and our response as a nation is a reverberating "Meh."

Of course, even as an anarchist, I think an insurrection would be even worse. (Though I give full weight to the phrase I think, as opposed to the alternative I'm sure.) Violence is generally a bad answer to violence for much the same reasons that fire is a generally bad answer to fire.

All the same, it bothers and baffles me sometimes the way the spirit seems to have gone out of this nation. I love my country, and to see her respond to things like the Snowden affair by watching the news, having a meandering conversation in a coffee shop, and then forgetting about it, is deeply disheartening.


Never mind the fact that surveillance has reached a pitch of invasiveness and universality hardly seen since the advent of the Soviet state. (Wasn't the whole point of resisting Communism to not have this happen? I feel like that got away from us, somewhere in there.) Never mind the fact that the executive branch, through the despicable use of that little phrase "police action" and a hundred other forms of cowardice, has been getting around making an honest declaration of war (which would require the assent of Congress) for the last thirty-five years. Never mind that both the current President and his predecessor are war criminals, implicated in some of the most barbaric campaigns of torture, in some cases of complete innocents and in all cases uselessly, that the civilized world has yet seen. And never mind that the financial and coercive powers granted to the state in what is a period of war and paranoia in the face of terrorism are not likely to be done away with when that period comes to a close.

What am I saying? Do mind all of that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Scattered Thoughts on Trans Issues


The sad suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a seventeen-year-old trans girl,* is one of a number of events that have brought transgender issues more to the fore in recent years. An author writing for the Witherspoon Institute has recently argued that Christians should categorically reject trans identities, and in particular that "Leelah's Law," a proposal to ban Gender Identity Disorder Therapy (at least for minors, though I'm not clear on the details), should not be passed.

Trans issues are a category unto themselves in the broader spectrum of queer issues; most people seem to find a gay identity easier to grapple with than a transgender identity, and homosexuality is also commoner and thus more familiar. Further complicating matters are the facts that some people at first perceive themselves to be gay or lesbian before discovering a trans identity, some people identify with both homosexual and transgender experience, and some people feel ungendered, double-gendered, gender-fluid, et cetera.

I am decidedly out of my depth with these things. Being gay gives me a very limited window into the experiences of a person who identifies with the opposite of their biological sex, or with none; and while I do know a very few trans people, I can't pretend to know them intimately, or to speak on their behalf. Nonetheless, I'd like to put down a few scattered thoughts that appear, to me, to be important to the conversation on gender identity as held by Catholics, and by traditional Christians more generally. (In reading, be aware that sex refers to a person's physical or exterior sex, and gender refers to the psychological or interior reality that corresponds, or fails to correspond, with sex.)


1. To the best of my knowledge, the Church has made no dogmatic pronouncement on what determines a person's gender. I could of course be mistaken about this, and if she has in fact made such a pronouncement, then I accept it; however, the limited research I've done has indicated that she hasn't. This is important, because cries of heresy (and, for that matter, of insanity) are not wanting in the discussion of gender identity, and I don't think they're either justified or productive.

Her reasons for not having done so are not, I suspect, as simple as not having been confronted with trans issues hitherto; trans people are by no means unknown in history, though they are admittedly rare, and people who, if not trans necessarily, have at any rate been genderqueer, have been accepted and indeed celebrated by the Church: St Marina the Monk, St Joan of Arc, and St Theodora of Alexandria all come to mind. But the nineteenth and still more the twentieth centuries seem to have been a time when the Church was increasingly called upon to articulate her theology of the body, expressed pre-eminently in the definitions (after nearly two thousand years) of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Virgin, which -- especially the latter -- highlight the holiness of the body. That the Sexual Revolution, which occasioned the important encyclical Humanae Vitae and the writing of St John Paul II's Theology of the Body, should have occurred in the twentieth century, and so soon after Munificentissimus Deus, is perhaps no coincidence. It may well be that the Church will articulate her teaching about gender with a greater clarity and fullness in the near future; we shall, of course, have to wait and see.


Window depicting Our Lady of Lourdes, who revealed herself under the title the 
Immaculate Conception, in the Cathedral of the Assumption in County Galway, Ireland.

2. When a trans person talks about his or her gender, they aren't suffering from a delusion about the shape of their genitalia. The contention of trans persons is that their body is the wrong shape, i.e. wrong for them: that, internally (that is, psychologically and perhaps spiritually), they are one gender and their body is another. And it must be admitted that, while it may not be susceptible of proof, this contention may not be susceptible of disproof, either. Whether trans people are wrong or right about their gender, the observable facts line up with both possibilities; so that going back and back to the observable facts about their sex organs is irrelevant in itself. The constitution of the sex organs is significant if physical sex is determinative of gender, which is a thesis that needs to be proven, not just assumed -- especially for Christians, who have traditionally believed (it seems) that the soul gives meaning to the body rather than the other way around.

3. Physiologically, sex is not always a clear-cut fact. I'm not simply talking about the bearded lady here. A vast majority of people are one sex or the other, speaking from a purely physical standpoint; but there are individuals, known as intersex people (formerly as hermaphrodites), who exhibit a mixture of both primary and secondary sexual characteristics, up to and including ambiguous genitalia. Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is in a similar position, leading in some cases to people whose chromosomes are XY but whose sex is to all appearances female, yet with testes in the position normally occupied by ovaries. The ambiguities here are expressed in physiological form, DNA, or both.


The number who have these conditions is of course small, but statistics aren't really the important thing here in my opinion. What matters is that, if we're going to have a rubric about what determines (or, at the least, invariably reveals) a person's gender, it has to be a rule which can explain intersex or otherwise sex-ambiguous people as well, or it isn't a rubric that actually works on the human race as such -- it is only a rule of thumb, not an apprehension of the essence of being human. And questions of trans identity are precisely questions about the essence of being human. Whatever the answer may be, it must be one that is adequate to that kind of question, not just one that works in practice a majority of the time.

4. Theology of the Body treats our own incarnate natures as primarily a way of being a body. Now, St John Paul II wasn't necessarily right, and naturally his teaching will be proportionately less important to non-Catholic Christians; but as a Catholic I don't think it wise to begin by assuming that a Pope, and a saint what is more, was wrong; and in any case, one can hardly study gender as a Catholic and not at least deal with his thoughts on the subject.

His teaching, which is deeply Scriptural and Semitic in its derivation, is difficult to follow, but what I have gleaned from it (guided in part by my spiritual director and by Christopher West) is chiefly that we do not have bodies, but are bodies, in the sense that a horse is a four-legged creature: you could cut the legs off and it would still be a horse, if a rather unhappy and confused horse, but it is by nature a four-legged thing. This dovetails very naturally with the Christian doctrine of final resurrection, discussed at length by St Paul in I Corinthians 15. Gender and sex, then, would seem probably to be not independent realities, but aspects of what it means to be a body, a rational animal as Aristotle has it.

This seems to me to be disconsonant with the idea of transgender identities. The feel of it suggests that the body determines, or (when it is unambiguously sexed) infallibly reveals, the gender of the soul, because it would seem to suggest that gender is simply a word for how the soul animates the body with respect to its sex. However, this is at most a feeling on my part, and I'm not at all sure that it's accurate. There may well be room within Theology of the Body for trans identities; my thoughts on both TOB and trans issues are in their infancy.


Also, this exists. This doesn't have anything to do with Catholic theology
or trans issues, I just couldn't stand being the only person who knew is all.

5. For a Catholic, these matters come to a point primarily in the sacraments of Marriage and Holy Orders. These are the only sacraments in which the sex/gender of the participant(s) is relevant to their operation; in most of the rest of life, including sacramental life, it doesn't have a determinant role to play. As is well known, Catholic theology recognizes marriage only between one man and one woman, and only men as possible candidates for the priesthood.

Now, if one or both parties are physically unable to consummate the marriage, it cannot in our view take place,** but if transgender identities are valid, then presumably so is SRS, and if a trans person got it then I assume on the same premises that they would be eligible to contract a sacramental marriage. As for Holy Orders, given that a vast majority of Catholic priests are celibates, I imagine the lack of, uh, equipment wouldn't really be relevant; so that, if trans identities are valid, a trans man seeking ordination would presumably be eligible in principle. But if trans identities aren't valid, then we get invalid marriages, invalid ordinations, and (via the latter) invalid sacraments out of the deal, which is a huge no-no for the Catholic Church.

6. None of this decides what it is and isn't okay to call people. For the record, yes, tranny is rude, but that's not what I'm thinking of. What I have in mind is, for example, the point that Mr Flores makes in the article linked at the top, where he specifically refuses to speak of Leelah Alcorn as Leelah or she, instead using Joshua and he throughout, and explaining that his reason for doing so is a refusal to concede that transgender identification is right. He has the privilege of doing so, and, as I have stressed, my own mind is not made up on the subject; I don't feel I have anything like the expertise required to have a right to an opinion. (Incidentally, is there any maxim sillier than "Everyone has a right to an opinion"?)

But I do have an opinion of how to speak to and about people, and that opinion is that disregarding their stated preferences is rude. There is a time for rudeness, when it is the only way to get a truth across, though even then it is permissible only when leavened by love; but when it doesn't stand much chance of getting a truth across, I think being disrespectful is unchristlike.

Even if traditionalists are correct in thinking that transgender identities are simply a disorder, challenging them on their pronouns is not in my opinion a useful response. "Whom you would change you must first love, and they must know that you love them," said Martin Luther King, and ironically, things that have to be explained with "I'm doing this because I love you" generally don't communicate love well. Even if you want to challenge a person, you have to earn the right to do so by showing them love first, and it has to be comprehensible love -- love that puts them first, not your own need to be right. And it's hard to set that need to be right aside, never more so than when you are right, but there are times when it must be done. In any event, as my mother told me once, "You are not the Holy Spirit." He can look after His own.


As I've tried to emphasize throughout, none of these points are decisive, or show anybody whose "side" to take in the dialogue about transgender issues. They are simply, I believe, important points to bear in mind, regardless of our convictions or lack thereof, in having that dialogue.


*For simplicity's sake, I am using trans girl and trans woman to mean someone biologically male at birth who comes to identify as female, and trans boy or man to mean someone biologically female who identifies as male. I'm aware that the vocabulary of trans persons gets a lot more complicated than this, and that preferences vary from one person to another, but I am largely ignorant of the niceties of this conversation, so I've been bold to aim for simple clarity over rigorous exactitude. I sincerely apologize if I therefore step on anyone's toes.

**The word cannot must be given its full strength here. It isn't that it can't be allowed; it is that, according to Catholic theology, you could perform the whole ritual and mean it, but nothing happens. This is in contrast to a valid sacramental marriage, of which our belief is that an invisible event does really happen, and is no less objective for being invisible -- rather in the way that a person's father is always their father even though that fact is invisible.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Kintsukuroi, Part IV: Hush

So supposing we grant the gist of this series of posts: that being gay (which is something distinct from having gay sex) is, or can be, a legitimate if limited part of our idea of ourselves, and capable of faithfully Catholic expression. Put more simply still, gay Catholic is a meaningful category. Even supposing that, why bring it up? Why not remain private about the whole thing? After all, it's no one else's business, and it's an extremely personal thing.

Well, I am the first to say -- and have said more than once -- that no one on God's earth is obligated to come out of the closet. Now, if you're contemplating getting married and your prospective spouse doesn't know, then I think you have an obligation to tell him or her, specifically; and if you have a spiritual director, you probably ought to be open about it there. But in general, "I don't want to" is an adequate and complete response to nearly any urging to come out, because it's your own business.

A lot of Catholics, and others, seem to want to go a great deal further than that, though. They seem to want not merely for us to have the option of staying closeted, but for LGBT people en masse, Christian or not, to be silent on the subject.


I've seen a number of reasons adduced for this; the main objections, as far as I can tell, are that others bear their crosses with quiet patience rather than howling for others to come help them, and that so much talk about homosexuality risks scandal by normalizing it and muddying the Church's teaching.

For the first concern, I'm frankly worried about the people who profess to be bearing their crosses alone. Christ Himself did no such thing. Nor did He or His apostles instruct us to try to. Bear ye one another's burdens is not mere moralizing on St Paul's part; it is the very principle of the life of grace. Our coinherence with one another in Christ is a coinherence in sufferings and in actions, or it is nothing. All things are vicarious: when an infant is baptized, he enters into the life of Christ, which is one with the life of the Church, in the persons of his godparents, who profess his penitence and faith on his behalf; when the Eucharist is consecrated, it is the whole Church in the person of the priest who consecrates, and it is the Person of Christ who offers and is offered to God and man at once, Himself the coinherence of man with God; in prayer, it is from the Holy Ghost that, with and through the saints, the angels, and the Mother of God, we approach the Father in Christ; in Penance, the absolution we receive by the death of Another itself issues in our pouring out our lives, in however small a way, back to that living Other in the person of our neighbor. Inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of these, My brethren, ye have done it unto Me; and again, Hereby we perceive the love of God, because He laid down His life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. There is no room for jealousy of one's cross in Christianity.

I must admit, I often get the impression from authors who wish to discourage people like me from coming out, that it isn't so much a matter of what they believe is best for gay people, but that they are tired of hearing about the topic at all. That's understandable. But, if any of them are reading this, I would gently remind them that they have the privilege of being tired of the subject, and of ignoring it if they like. We don't.


If you haven't seen it before, this is the coming out video of Daniel Pierce, which 
went viral a little more than a year ago. Be warned that it is extremely disturbing.

Turning to the possibilities of scandal, I'd like to unpack that problem somewhat. First, at the risk of sounding flippant, I feel that there's a closing-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-has-bolted quality to worries about the normalization of homosexuality. Gay culture has gotten to be, by cultural standards, about as normal as Froot Loops (maybe more so, since I can't actually remember the last time I saw a box of those).

Second, I don't think personally that keeping homosexuality socially abnormal was ever that important a goal to begin with -- and not only because homosexuality is, after all, normal, in the sense of having been around since time immemorial and showing no signs of going anywhere now. That aside, abnormal and wrong are not interchangeable terms, in either fact or feeling; and one of the flaws of human nature is that most people tend to prefer doing what's normal to doing what's right. Concentrating on normality versus abnormality of sexual orientation seems to me to be playing into the hands of the World, rather than issuing a prophetic challenge to its mode of valuing things.

As to the risk of rendering the Church's teaching unclear, I for one am convinced that silence is the worst possible response to that danger. Merely to repeat the words of the Catechism, in a world to which both its philosophical basis and its technical vocabulary have become incomprehensible, will not serve. We have to say what we think, and why, in language that is comprehensible to those outside the Church, and no one is in a better position to do that -- in either understanding or credibility -- than LGBT Catholics. Catholic and Queer are two extraordinarily different dialects of English, and we are ideally suited for translation. I am convinced that to ask us not to do that is, in effect, to seriously hamper the New Evangelization.

And if we speak of scandal, it is worth noting that scandal does not only mean making people think that we're okay with gay. Insofar as any act that risks moving other people away from God by its bad example is scandalous, I think the scandal given by tacit -- or explicit -- approval of the brutal treatment of gays in Russia, India, or throughout much of Africa is grave, and reprehensible. Turning a blind eye to cruelties committed in the name of family values and traditional religion discredits the whole Church in the eyes of those outside her.

Because it isn't just about political justice -- though if it were, that would be enough to have a conversation about. It's about every human person being worthwhile and wanted in the Catholic Church. There is no one whom God loves less, and there is no danger that He will not have enough love to go around. The debate about homosexuality is not about Those People and their evil agenda. It is about people, dearly loved by Love Himself however well or badly we behave. And if we don't behave ourselves, well, with St Peter the apostate, St Paul the terrorist, the Magdalene whore, and all the ragtag and bobtail of drunks, con men, witches, womanizers, cowards, trolls, and assorted delinquents whom the Church has blessed and canonized and celebrated -- well, we're in good company.


But the impression we make on those outside isn't my only concern in arguing that, while not obligatory, coming out should be accepted. The effect of the closet on LGBT Catholics concerns me, too (whether they identify with LGBT labels or not, which is of course their own affair).

I've said before that no one is obliged to identify as gay, and I stand by that. But I would add that I've seen not identifying as gay used as a pretext to deny, ignore, and repress one's sexuality, instead of accepting and integrating it. I think this is a very bad and dangerous move. Repression doesn't work -- what you repress will worm its way out of you by some other route; or, if it doesn't, the force required to keep it inside you will stifle and distort your psyche.

That isn't to say either that you should do whatever any impulse tells you to; but integration (and thus, chastity) requires accepting one's feelings and desires for what they are: the raw material given to us by God to make a person with. Regardless of what you prefer to call the material, if what you call it is a pretext for pretending that it isn't there, you're going to hurt people -- just yourself if you're very lucky, but more probably others as well. The stories of women and men who've refused to accept homosexual feelings and gotten married, without being honest with themselves or their spouse about them, only to have those feelings catch up to them and ruin the home they worked so hard to build, are neither few nor far between.* The ex-gay world is littered with them, including some of the most prominent names in the movement. I know more than a few myself.

The long and the short of it is: be honest. Say anything, as long as it's the truth as best you know it; and see that it is the truth as best you know it.


*This should not be taken to decry those couples who enter what are sometimes called mixed-orientation marriages, such as Josh and Lolly Weed or Chris and Melinda Selmys. The distinction here is that, in these cases, the queer individual had already come to terms with their sexuality, and had come out to the eventual spouse, before there was any question of marriage. This honesty is often lacking, on one or both sides, in professedly ex-gay marriages.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Kintsukuroi, Part III: Guydentity Crisis

Over the past decade, I've heard the word identity about enough times that at this point, every time I hear it, I feel like renouncing pacifism and beating the speaker to death with a shovel.* Unfortunately they don't let you do that, I've found.

One of the reasons the word causes such difficulties is that it means different things to different people, and even, at times, different things to the same person. Substituting a phrase like "This is who I am" reveals something of the problem: who I am in what sense? Ontologically? Emotionally? By conviction? By upbringing?

Catholic sources (with the exception of heretical ones like Dignity) have for the most part avoided and discouraged any use of LGBT language. A lot of people ascribe this to groundless homophobia, but I don't. The stated concern in the relevant documents published by the Church is of people reducing themselves to their homosexuality by identifying as gay; and, while I don't believe that that problem is nearly as prevalent as many of the Catholic authors and priests I've interacted with have supposed, it bears saying that the problem would be worthy of their attitude if it were. And after all, some of us do reduce ourselves to our sexuality, and it isn't a pretty or dignified sight. Seeing a grown man flirting like a high school sophomore, because he's stuck in the mindset that his worth depends on the rapidly decreasing number of fucks he can score, is deeply pathetic.


Desperation doesn't look good on anybody.

But this isn't a peculiarly a problem of the LGBT community. It's a general problem of American society -- in my experience, even when I was a gay activist, it was no more prevalent among us than among anybody else -- and narrowing our attention to queer-identifying people is in my opinion extremely unhelpful. In addition to creating a double standard between homosexual and heterosexual people (which, to do them justice, some Catholic authors have begun to pay attention to), it feeds into an unfair and frankly very damaging stereotype of gay people: namely, that gay sexuality is solely about having sex, that any notion of gay identity is constructed entirely around sex, and that any and all people who identify as gay (or whatever) are, in a more or less clinical degree, obsessed with sex.

I don't think that any of this is true, and I think that a gay identity, properly understood, is as capable of "baptism" as any other element of a culture. Now, it's that properly understood that is the linchpin of all this, so I'm going to take a moment and explain it.

One strategy taken by much of the LGBT community in the fight for gay rights has been to insist on homosexuality as immutable and inborn. The equivalence often drawn between sexual orientation and race or ethnicity is the result: if gay people are members of a natural minority, the reasoning goes, then they are entitled to the same legal protections that are rightly given to other minorities. In some circles the argument is carried further, asserting a metaphysical or transcendental difference between gay people and straight people -- Matthew Vines, for instance, in his viral video on the subject, states that while for most men an help meet for him is a woman, for a gay man a suitable companion can be found only in another gay man, which at least suggests that the difference between gay and straight is a difference of being rather than of quality.


Adam and Eve, Jan Mabuse, ca. 1510
Nice 'fro, Father Adam.

I don't take this view -- partly because the only difference of being among humans that the Church recognizes (to my knowledge) is that between women and men; partly because the highly variegated history of homoeroticism, and the existence of sexual fluidity in some people, suggest otherwise; partly because gay essentialism looks to me like a bald assertion, and certainly an indemonstrable one. It isn't the universal orthodoxy within the LGBT community that people outside that community often suppose, either, but that need not detain us.

However, I do take the view that another definition of the word identity can be meaningfully, and usefully, applied to LGBT experience. It is the definition we use when we say things like "I am a Catholic," "I am an American," "I am a barista," and so forth. It is the sense of self, the collection of experiences, feelings, and ideas that make us who we are in a psychological rather than an ontological way. Identity, in this sense, is a statement of what is most deeply important to us, that through which we relate to others and to ourselves and to God. It isn't necessarily inborn or immutable, but it can't just be changed at will, either; nor should it.

The Catechism has the following to say about sexuality:
"When God created man, he made him the in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created." Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others. ... Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality ... and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man's belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.**
On the face of it, this would appear to exclude any fully Christian expression of sexuality other than marriage, which the Church obviously doesn't maintain. Sexual integration is as necessary for a celibate life as any other, if not more so. But what are its implications for homosexuality?

To start with, sexuality here is more than just the desire for sex and reproduction -- that desire doesn't exist in isolation, and it doesn't seem relevant to our general tendency to form relationships with people, either. Sexuality includes the desire for sex, but (as far as my understanding goes) it encompasses the whole embodied-ness of human love in its various forms, some of which involve having sex and some of which don't. That this is called sexuality is, I think, due to the fact that being a man or a woman is one of the chief defining features of our embodied-ness.***


And where does being gay lie in all this? Well, I think one of the key points is that being a gay man (for example) can't be reduced to wanting to boink other dudes, for the same reason that being a straight man can't be reduced to wanting to sleep with women. There's a whole world of feelings and experiences that goes with it -- a world that differs from man to man, as much as one man does from another, but in any case a real one that should be respected. The experience of embodied-ness and relationship for a gay man need not be all that different from the experienced embodied-ness and relationships of a heterosexual, though it appears to me that they generally are; the point is that these things make a profound contribution to our sense of self, and, in that specific sense, to our identity.

But doesn't this construct an identity -- in however limited a sense -- around sin? Let's parse that a little.


To begin with, a sin is always a choice; sexual orientation is a disposition, i.e., part of the raw material out of which we make choices. Even when our dispositions are bad or undesirable, they aren't sins per se.

Second, unless you displace everything else in order to make more room for your sexual orientation (which strikes me as a pointless, weird thing to do), just to acknowledge that you happen to be gay doesn't mean you're building your whole sense of self around it. People sometimes do, of course; but I think the only response to that is to encourage prudence and balance, not to do away with the idea of sexual orientation as such. Sexual orientation is admittedly a construct, but it sums up what is, for a lot of us, a vast area of shared experience in terms of relationship, self-image, and so forth, that isn't easy to state concisely any other way. And because the stuff it's tied into is so deeply important to the human person -- as the text from the Catechism suggests, with its references to affectivity and to the general capacity for forming relationships -- I think we need a way of talking about it.

Lastly, I rather think that the advice "Don't identify with your sin," in this and many other contexts, is not altogether satisfactory in the first place. It is quite true that this can impose false mental limits and inhibit growth. But then, so can an insistence on a theology of victory that makes inadequate room for human frailty, and for being honest about that frailty. St Paul was not confined by his past as a religious terrorist, but he positively went out of his way to bring it up, to embarrass himself with his weaknesses and flaws; or rather, to boast of them.
There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Japanese pottery has a technique called kintsugi or kintsukuroi, for which I've named this series. If a ceramic vessel, like a tea bowl, is broken, rather than throwing it out or repairing it invisibly, the cracks are mended in a way that draws attention to and beautifies the damage -- for instance, with gold or silver seams.


This is part of a larger Japanese aesthetic philosophy called wabi-sabi, in which the history and imperfections of an object are embraced as part of it. This may sound very strange to Western, classically-formed ears; but I believe that it is, fundamentally, hardly different from the triumphant lines of the Exsultet: O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

This is a hard saying, and not many can accept it. In this, and indeed in most things, it's far easier to join with those who would reject imperfection -- whether by trying to do away with it or by pretending that it doesn't matter. The mental and spiritual balance required to achieve kintsukuroi of the soul is a delicate thing, and I for one am no master at it; but I believe that this, rather than either getting a new bowl or saying that a broken bowl isn't broken, is the task at hand.



**Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 2331-2332, 2337, italics original.

***In saying this, I don't mean to ignore the difficult and subtle questions that attend intersex people or trans issues. I take the integral significance of sex to the person to be a starting point, from which we may seek to address these matters, not a pretext to pretend that they are unreal or unimportant. However, it's both off-topic and quite beyond my competence to do so here.