Collect


Preface for Advent

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God; because thou didst send thy beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs with him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great glory to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Poems of Charles Williams, Part One: Substantial Instruments of Being

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it … For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.

Revelation XXI.xxiii-xxiv, XXII.xv

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I’d like to return to Charles Williams and his poetry: specifically, his version of the Arthurian cycle, expressed in the collections Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. His thought is eclectically Platonic, charged with a brightness that dazzles the mind at first—especially since he knew a good deal more about magic1 than most people, and explains Christ and the faith and the world in magical terms quite as freely as St Thomas explained them in Aristotelian terms. His poems about Arthur’s realm of Logres2 are just that, poems about the kingdom and the people in it; but, precisely because of that, their meaning also ranges throughout creation, like the multiple levels on which Dante wrote the Divine Comedy.

First, in Williams’ conception, Logres is a province of the Roman Empire seated at Byzantium, and the Empire is an image of human nature both physical and spiritual. Man, in his thought, is a microcosm of the universe’s macrocosm, and the Empire itself is the medial world, the mesocosm. The Empire is drawn in the shape of a woman, half-reclining on the Mediterranean: her womb is in Jerusalem, her buttocks in Caucasia, her hands in Rome, her breasts in Gaul, and her brain in Logres; and the Emperor himself, residing in Byzantium, symbolizes God, expressing in his office the union of divinity and humanity in Christ.


Lynton Lamb's map of Williams' version of the Empire

The organic body sang together;
dialects of the world sprang in Byzantium;
back they rang to sing in Byzantium;
the streets repeat the sound of the Throne.

The Acts issue from the Throne.
Under it, translating the Greek minuscula
to minds of the tribes, the identities of creation
phenomenally abating to kinds and kindreds,
the household inscribes the Acts of the Emperor;
the logothetes run down the porphyry stair
bearing the missives through the area of empire. …

The morn rose on the Golden Horn.
I saw the identities imaged in a sapphire sea:
beyond Sinai Ararat, beyond Ararat Elburz—
light-sprinkling, flaked-snow-sparkling,
chastities of ranged peaks of Caucasus,
snow’s glow on the world’s brows
changed with deep vales of verdure.
… The Empire’s sun shone on each round mound,
double fortalices defending dales of fertility.
The bright blades shone in the craft of the dancing war;
the stripped maids laughed for joy of the province,
bearing in themselves the shape of the province
founded in the base of space,
in the rounded bottom of the Emperor’s glory.
… the lost name, the fool’s shame,
fame and frame of lovers in lowlands of Caucasia,
rang round snowy Elburz.
The organic body sang together.4


Each of these parts of the body is significant to Williams—that is, not just important, but signifying a reality. The buttocks, which he frequently refers to as the mounds or rondures of Caucasia, symbolize the body as a whole: their work seems merely grotesque to the airy spiritualizer, but (as Williams pointed out in an essay) the balance of any upright figure reposes on nothing else. Macrocosmically, the buttocks and Caucasia are reflected in Libra, the zodiacal sign of balance. The hands, which for Williams symbolize prayer and the sacraments, naturally rest in Rome, and the two hands correspond to the sign of Gemini3; the brain is in Britain, protected by the rocky Hebrides as a skull, and it is in the brain, the mind, that the quest of the Graal must take place, which is the quest of integrating the corporeal with the spiritual and the temporal with the celestial. That quest must pass through the watery wood of Broceliande in the southwest of Britain, which represents the unconscious mind; and in the macrocosm, the eyes in Logres are associated with Aquarius, whose waters (both murky and clear) metaphorically run all around the British Isles.

The word ‘sacramental’ has perhaps here served us a little less than well; it has, in popular usage, suggested rather the spiritual using the physical than a common—say, a single—operation. Eyes then are compacted power; they are an index of vision; they see and refer us to greater seeing. … So even with those poor despised things, the buttocks. There is no seated figure … which does not rely on them for its strength and balance. They are at the bottom of the sober dignity of judges; the grace of a throned woman; the hierarchical session of the Pope himself reposes on them … The Sacred Body is the plan upon which physical human creation was built, for it is the center of physical human creation. The great dreams of the human form containing the whole universe are in this less than the truth.5

But there are other powers in the world. Anachronistically, Williams makes the Islamic caliphate a contemporary force,6 using Islam as a stand-in for all the noble and restrained religion that draws back from the glorious vulgarity of the Incarnation—if you will, all that calls upon God but refuses the Mother of God. But this, though formally opposed to God-in-Byzantium, is not the primary evil of the world. There is an anti-Emperor: headless, muttering, a mockery of all human dignity and the divine image that that dignity is; he walks ceaselessly backward in undefined waters ‘beyond P’o-lu,’8 referred to as ‘antipodean Byzantium.’ And the waters of P’o-lu run right around the earth, mingling with the aquarian waters of Britain in the sea-forest of Broceliande, as darkness and the possibility of darkness mingle with the possibilities of light in the unconscious mind.


All this is a poetic expression of the doctrine (drawn from Patristic sources I think, though I don’t know which ones) that the Fall—the eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—was a specific kind of intellectual corruption. God knows all things, and all being, which Williams loved to call substance,7 is good; evil is not only parasitic on good, it is literally nothing more than the dissolution of goodness into incoherence, and finally, if the evil is not corrected, into nonbeing. Evil, having no substantial existence, therefore cannot be known by the human mind; and so for us, the only way of being ‘like God, knowing good and evil,’ was to know substantial good as if it were evil—to try and imagine what the good would be like if a contradiction were introduced into it, what being would be like if it were mixed with nonbeing.

The Adam in the hollow of Jerusalem respired:
softly their thought twined to its end,
crying: O parent, O forkèd friend,
am I not too long meanly retired
in the poor space of joy’s single dimension?
Does not God vision the principles at war?
Let us grow to the height of God and the Emperor:
Let us gaze, son of man, on the Acts in contention.

The Adam climbed the tree; the boughs
rustled, withered, behind them; they saw
the secluded vision of battle in the law;
they found the terror in the Emperor’s house.

The tree about them died undying,
the good lusted against the good,
the Acts in conflict envenomed the blood,
on the twisted tree hung their body wrying.

Joints cramped: a double entity
spewed and struggled, good against good;
they saw the mind of the Emperor as they could,
his imagination of the wars of identity. …


Phosphorescent on the stagnant level
a headless figure walks in a crimson cope,
volcanic dust blown under the moon.

A brainless form, as of the Emperor,
walks, indecent hands hidden under the cope,
dishallowing in that crimson the flush on the mounds of Caucasia.

His guard heaves round him; heaven-sweeping tentacles
stretch, dragging octopus bodies over the level;
his cope is lifted by two from his body,
where it walks on the sinking floor of antipodean Byzantium.
Let us gaze, son of man, on the Acts in contention.

Phosphorescent gleams the point of the penis:
rudiments or relics, disappearing, appearing,
live in the forlorn focus of the intellect,
eyes and and ears, turmoil of the mind of sensation.

Inarticulate always on an inarticulate sea
beyond P’o-lu the headless Emperor moves,
the octopuses round him; lost are the Roman hands;
lost are the substantial instruments of being.9

And by summoning the lie, we lent it as much insubstantial existence as it could possess. They had their will; they saw; they were torn in the terror. The significance of the Headless Emperor is not merely moral corruption. It is there that headlessness begins: but in him, evil has reached the last perfection of corruption, the final stage before dissolution—the only thing that is still there to decay further is the plain fact of being. That is why his body is so disgustingly distorted, with the acuity of the brain, the fertility of the sexual organs, the purposive activity of the hands, and the foundational dignity of the buttocks, all destroyed.


Hands Up by Stephane Benedett

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1When I say magic here, I mean the term quite seriously and simply: I’m not paying his verse a flowery compliment. Magic, i.e. the belief that the human will—either directly, or by commanding or entreating spiritual entities—can effect paranormal results, has existed since antiquity and continues to exist, in both noble and debased forms. Note that nobility and baseness here have nothing to do with virtue; the crudest cunning woman may at least mean well, while the gracious and sophisticated lady may be a murderess. Nor have either vulgarity or virtue anything to do with whether magic works, which is again irrelevant to its usefulness as a language by which to express truth; e.g., you could say that somebody’s ‘a textbook Virgo’ to describe their personality without assenting to, or even understanding, astrology as a discipline.
I believe there are innocent forms of the acceptance of magic (perhaps this was what let the Magi interpret the star correctly?), and that Williams was an exponent of that tradition; nonetheless, power corrupts, spiritual power corrupts more terribly than any other, and nearly every technique associated with the history of magic is perilous at best—often profoundly evil. The temptation to spiritual pride, the worst of all possible vices, is more aggressively present in the study of magic, I think, than in any other study except mystical theology.
2Logres (pronounced log-ress), related to the Welsh Lloegyr for England, is the name used by Williams, among others, for Arthurian Britain.
3The Twins evoke Romulus and Remus of imperial Rome and Peter and Paul of pontifical Rome. Sometimes Williams’ cosmos seems to exploit itself, as if eager to shower meaning on any attending mind.
4The Vision of the Empire α.1-11, β.1-7, 11-17, 20-23.
5From The Index of the Body, originally published in the Dublin Review and later anthologized in The Image of the City.
6If there was a historical Arthur, he probably lived in the late fifth or early sixth century, and it is certainly in this period that the tradition places him. The Prophet did not arise until the early seventh.
7I believe he drew this habit from Lady Julian, who, in her famous Revelation of Divine Love, frequently speaks of sensuality and substance, terms which partly correspond to the corporeal and the spiritual elements of human nature (though her usage is more complicated, and often obscure). It’s also likely he had the Scholastic use of substance in mind. Lady Julian herself may well have drawn her own wording, directly or indirectly, from the Schoolmen.
8The name P’o-lu (which Williams spelled several different ways) seems to be taken from a historical city in China, Po-lu-pao; that the Headless Emperor lives beyond P’o-lu is almost certainly significant, since Williams was very exact in his imagery. The description of the antipodes, in this poem and elsewhere, is also reminiscent of Chesterton’s words in The Everlasting Man about ‘Where Asia trails away into the southern archipelagoes of the savages … it is all the same story; sometimes perhaps later chapters of the same story. It is men entangled in the forest of their own mythology; it is men drowned in the sea of their own metaphysics.’
9The Vision of the Empire η.1-20, θ.17-35.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Understanding Homosexuality from a Catholic Perspective, Part Two

This lecture was given at Mount Calvary Catholic Church on October 23rd, 2016, continuing from its immediate predecessor. As before, there were slight differences between the talk as written and as read, and the Q&A is included.


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Last week, I tried to establish some context for dialogue between Catholics and LGBT people. I’d now like to discuss what makes for effective fellowship and evangelization; the key here is imaginative empathy, but the phrase needs to be fleshed out.

Full weight must be given to the word imaginative: the imagining must be deliberate and intelligent. A sentiment like I’d feel awful if I were gay, so I should be nice to gay people is well-intentioned; but it doesn’t enter into the mind and heart of the other person—it’s still about how I feel. What does this other person care about and why? What makes them sad, happy, angry, or bored? What convictions are precious to them (not which ones make sense to me, but just what are those convictions)? Only once you clearly understand where this other person is coming from—imagine what it is like to be that person as best you can, not simply imagine how you would feel in that person’s circumstances—only then can you sympathize intelligently.

Empathy can also be tricky. It’s easier and more satisfying to our ego to pity somebody who ‘doesn’t know the truth’ than to grieve the pain they’re actually feeling or be glad about the happiness they actually have. We may be right that they don’t know the truth, but that doesn’t in any way protect us from pride. In order to empathize, we have to humble ourselves, laying aside our rightness, and do our level best to understand, respect, and share the real feelings of the other person.

Practicing imaginative empathy is hard. We rarely step outside of our own social and ideological circles—after all, we’re usually friends with people who are similar to ourselves. But imaginative empathy is usually necessary to help us love our neighbor, and the more different our neighbor is from us, the more necessary it’ll be. It’s possible to love and respect somebody who seems insane or evil; it’s possible, but only barely. And we’re rarely so right and balanced that we can’t learn from others. A patient, honest, exact understanding of another person will usually be costly.

This raises the question of identity. One of the recurring ideas in the gay world is that being gay is part of who we are; not all we are, yet part of it. But a lot of Catholics are uncomfortable with language like I’m a lesbian or I’m bisexual or what have you, just because it seems to define the person by their sexuality. The Catholic Church recognizes three basic, ontological categories of person: a being made in God’s image (i.e., a human); a man or a woman (i.e., a subset of human); a child of God (i.e., a baptized human). Can this ontology be reconciled with LGBT language?

I think it can: by recognizing that words like lesbian, gay, and so forth are just adjectives. I’m sufficiently influenced by gay culture to say that they’re important adjectives—and I think the weight theology gives to sexuality confirms that importance. The Catechism states the following in its discussion of sexuality and chastity:

God is love, and in himself he lives a mystery of personal, loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image … God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. … Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in 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 love and communion with others. Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity … Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person, and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. … This integrity … tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech.1

Any discussion of sexuality is complex, because it affects every level of our being. The unity of the body with the spirit can make being chaste difficult, regardless of our orientation. It isn’t just a question of wanting sexual pleasure, though of course we do; the desire for sexual intimacy seems to hold out the promise of every kind of intimacy in one. If we were sinless, perhaps our desires would be so harmonious that the promise would even be true. Regardless, sexuality does invoke all the energies that animate man—spiritual and physical—and it’s naturally challenging to give it its right place in our sense of self, and to integrate it with our conscience.


But all that said, does sexual orientation have a right to be included in identity? Well, what do we mean by identity? If we mean what a being intrinsically is, then no. Most of the things we consider important aren’t going to make that grade. Being human, being a Christian, and being female or male have that kind of importance (on Catholic premises); nothing else.

Still, I’ll eat my hat if you can show me someone to whom only those things that matter to their sense of self—sense of self being what we often mean by the word identity. If we’re talking about what the experience of being a person is like, we have to allow sexual orientation a place in that. Otherwise we falsify the relational context in which we exist. Our whole life is a web of relationships: domestic, social, professional, romantic, spiritual; and if what St Thomas said of the Trinity is true—relationes ac proprietates in personis et personæ ipsæ sunt, ‘the relations and properties in the Persons are themselves the Persons’—how much more is that true of humanity, made in the divine image?

I do also tend to favor identifying as gay because of the dishonesty I’ve often seen in those who refuse to. I’ve known people who avoided calling themselves gay as a pretext not to acknowledge their sexuality. They’ve invariably been some of the nastiest people I’ve met. That’s what refusing to deal with things does to your insides. Hence I’m generally a little worried when somebody ‘isn’t gay,’ unless it’s because they’re straight or bi; sourness creeps and clings in the soul like ivy on a rotting wall.

This isn’t to say anybody should constrict their sense of self to align with their orientation. That’s as silly as ignoring it altogether. Whatever is actually in your soul is what you have to make a self with, and must be either used or repressed. A given person might not happen to find their orientation a big part of their sense of self, and that’s fine. It’s equally true that a given person might put too much weight into their sexual orientation. But equally, they might put too much weight into their nationality, or their politics, or their job, or their personality type. Wisdom, not a set of rules about what sorts of identity are okay to have, has to guide us, and we have to be prepared to respect other people’s decisions—wrong or right.

If orientation has a justifiable place in our sense of self, what about coming out? The US Conference of Catholic Bishops gently discourages the practice: it doesn’t forbid coming out, but it goes out of its way to state that homosexuals who are attempting to practice chastity usually don’t come out of the closet. (I don’t know whether that’s true today, but I expect it was when the Conference wrote it.) Many Catholics vocally oppose coming out, feeling that it risks scandal and solidifies gay identity in an unhealthy way. My friends and I have even been attacked in Catholic publications on occasion as being heterodox narcissists, partly because we choose to live out of the closet.

Personally, I don’t think coming out risks scandal any more than not coming out risks scandal. I mean, if example is what we’re talking about, then giving people an example that being gay doesn’t keep you from being a faithful Catholic, is an excellent way to prevent scandal. As to unhealthily solidifying gay identity, that’s possible; but after all, there’s nothing to prevent you from reducing yourself to your sexuality if it’s a secret, either. Indeed, it may be easier. It was for me. It wasn’t till I’d come out of the closet, and experienced first-hand that most people didn’t reject me or look down on me, that I was able to really see it as just one of many facets of myself. The haunting fear that If people knew, they’d be so disgusted that nothing else about me would matter had to be disproven by experiment.

And being able to be authentic with others is deeply freeing. Remember, the alternative to coming out isn’t just not coming out; it’s staying in. It’s giving an avoidant reply, or flat-out lying, when people ask you about your romantic life. It’s refusing to reciprocate when someone confides in you about the trials and the joys of their relationship, or of their celibacy. It’s disguising the fact that, in discussions of homosexuality, you speak as one having authority and not as the scribes. It’s wondering if you need to keep certain interests and mannerisms hidden in even the most casual conversations. It isn’t necessarily lying to stay in the closet, but it is, inevitably, erecting a wall between yourself and others.


Now, no one is obligated to make their orientation public. (A prospective spouse has a right to know, I think, and it’s foolishness to keep secrets from your confessor or director, but those are special cases.) It’s deeply personal, which means I’d rather not is always an adequate reason not to come out. You have a right to erect a wall. But walls aren’t usually good for people; man was made for truth. We, as Catholics, need to be hospitable to coming out—if only for the sake of the scandal it gives when we’re not! If the Church founded by Love made flesh isn’t a safe place to be honest, how believable are her professions of charity?

Some LGBT advocates claim that, in discouraging coming out of the closet, the Church is trying to erase gay people and silence accusations of homophobia. I’m not sure what I think of this; not I’m sure they’re wrong, but I’m not sure. On the one hand, I’m loth to attribute that kind of manipulative callousness to our shepherds, or indeed to anybody. On the other, when we’re not able to be open about our experiences, then yes, those experiences do get erased, deliberately or not. And when many Catholics dismiss all complaints of homophobic speech and conduct as anti-Catholic propaganda—well, it looks pretty bad.

The aftermath of the tragic shooting in Orlando this summer provides a regrettably concrete example. I grew up seeing news of people like Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard being beaten to death, but it wasn’t until this June that I ever feared for my own safety. Yet out of four hundred and forty-nine American bishops, only two (Archbishop Cupich of Chicago and Bishop Lynch of St Petersburg) publicly acknowledged in so many words that it was a crime against queer people as queer people. That may sound like nitpicking, but think about it: if it had been a synagogue or a mosque, would they have failed to express solidarity with Jews as Jews or with Muslims as Muslims? Or turn the question around: when’s the last time you heard of someone in this country being battered to death or gunned down for being a Catholic? And if they were, how would you feel if, say, the Episcopal Church decried the violence as terrorism but carefully refused to make any allusion to anti-Catholicism?

Anna Magdalena, a trans Catholic blogger, wrote:

I understand those who shrink back from Bishop Lynch’s exhortation are full of pious intent. They feel scapegoated, unjustly blamed for the actions of a man they are … ideologically opposed to. They feel like their Mother Church is under attack. But it’s not about a blame game. It’s not about equity or finding someone to sue. … It’s about figuring out why, again and again, LGBT people receive the brunt of such violence. … Some LGBT Catholic friends of mine and I recently participated in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, sung in honor of the Orlando victims. At the end many local religious leaders, mostly Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, came forward with prayers for the dead. The absence of a Catholic priest did not go unnoticed.2


Of course all this doesn’t mean any of the bishops were secretly okay with it, nor that it would have been less tragic if a hundred and two people had been shot for some other reason. But the moral and political stances the Church takes demand a far more robust response to anti-gay violence, if her professions of love are to be at all credible. We need unqualified sympathy in the face of homophobic violence, and clear rebukes to its perpetrators and those who pave the way for it, especially from our shepherds. The massive silence, whether malicious, negligent, or accidental, has been gravely scandalous, and I’m bitterly sorry to say that it’s part of a pattern.

So how can Catholics accompany and support LGBT people? The solution that springs to many people’s minds is Courage Apostolate, and that’s a good fit for some. But it isn’t a perfect solution, for three reasons.

One is that Courage largely operates on an addiction-treatment model. Now, some people are sexually addicted, and it’s certainly wise to have a ministry tailored to them. But plenty of LGBT people of faith don’t experience their sexuality that way at all, and trying to force them into such a model is demeaning and alienating. It makes the same mistake ex-gay groups made: defining the problem and solution in theoretical terms, without reference to the actual person who’s supposedly to be helped. I think this has more to do with our desire that every problem should have a tidy resolution than it does with real experience, or real compassion.

The second reason is—I’ll be frank—Courage has left an ugly impression on the LGBT world. I gather its style has matured since Fr. Paul Check took over leadership, and my friends who’ve participated in it tell me its atmosphere varies considerably between one chapter and another. But the materials available on their site as recently as 2013 were so off-putting that I was disenchanted with the very idea of Courage: their descriptions of LGBT culture were rife with exaggeration, paranoia, even flat-out falsehood. Their current website shows marked improvement, and I’m glad of that. But even if everything goes as well as it possibly can, it’ll be a while before Courage gets past its unpleasant reputation among LGBT people.


Finally, Courage Apostolate isn’t the solution to the challenges of being a gay Catholic, because sending people off to a ministry is never the solution to any spiritual challenge. It can help; it might even be necessary, depending on the person. But healing—or from Latin, salvation—has to take place in the context of the whole Body of Christ. The members, in modern English the organs, of the Body work together, and if they are not together they do not work. A gay person needs to fulfill his or her vocation with the support of the Body like anyone else, and no ministry can substitute for that communion. Welcoming and loving our neighbor is our job, not somebody else’s.

So again, what does it look like to accompany our gay neighbor? Well—this might sound like a blinding flash of the obvious, but ignoring the obvious is one of the great curses of humankind—get to know them first. People need different things. The only way you can find out what they need is by getting to know them. Knowing about the categories they fall into can give you some educated guesses, and that’s great, but that’s all it does. Every person must first be treated as a person.

There are general rules for how to treat people in any category, though. First, respect: a serious recognition of the other person’s independence. God gave them free will. They have a right to make their own choices, and those choices may not involve listening to you. A lot of stuff I hear from Catholics, directed to gay people, is good at being gentle, but so bad at respecting their autonomy that it just comes across as condescending, saccharine, and self-righteous. And you know what people hate? That. Now, the Church is a mother, and a Jewish mother what’s more, so it’s always going to be hard to avoid. It’s one of the occupational hazards of being right while sinful. But that just means we have to strive for the virtue of respect like we strive for any other virtue.

One of the most important parts of respect is listening. After all, if you respect somebody, you presume that they have something worthwhile to contribute, especially if they have direct experience of the subject. You might still disagree, but that can be left to one side for at least as long as it takes to listen—really listen, not just wait for them to stop talking. (And yes, the assumption that someone has a worthwhile contribution might turn out to be false. But, paradoxically, you can only find out by first making the assumption and acting accordingly.)

Listening can be scary, because a lot of the things you’ll hear will not fit neatly into your worldview. It’s far easier to adjust or dismiss things than it is to acknowledge that their jagged edges stick out on all sides and leave deep, bleeding cuts. It’s far easier to take a Pelagian view of the gospel—if people just try, they’ll find happiness in virtue—than it is to say sincerely that we cannot save ourselves and that doing what’s right can break your heart. But there’s no good believing in Christianity, or anything else, if we falsify facts to maintain our belief: the truth has nothing to fear from honesty. And Scripture is far readier than we are to deal with nasty facts. It’s the raging and questioning Job, not his theological comforters, who is approved by God at the end of the book; the Virgin herself cried to God in anguish, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing, and received what looks like cryptic sarcasm in answer. We have to be ready for mess and paradox and uncertainty. That’s where faith operates; it’s the only place it’s needed.


The heartbreak and the bleeding come about because, given the Catholic doctrine of sex, it’s easy to feel singled out as a gay person. Marriage isn’t normally an option for us: you’ll find the occasional person who falls in love with someone outside their normal, uh, preference, but that will always be rare. And yes, the Church has a high tradition of celibacy; but to feel you’ve been crowbarred through no desire of your own into a difficult, solitary vocation, because of something that doesn’t seem to hurt anyone, while all the surrounding culture (including some Christians) is telling you that earthly happiness and erotic love are practically synonymous—well, it’s enough to dampen your enthusiasm for the heroics of eating and sleeping and waking up alone all the time.

I think one reason God appointed some of us to bear this cross is to make us a sign of community. The breakup of the family and the village, till nuclear families and ‘singles’—horrible word!—are the expected social units of society, is a major disaster, and I think it’s largely responsible for the Sexual Revolution. We weren’t meant to be so isolated; we were meant for community; when we lack what we need, we turn to substitutes, and the Sexual Revolution made some extremely attractive substitutes available. Anybody whose vocation includes unwanted celibacy is a de facto sign that we need more than parents and siblings to thrive as human beings.

In her second book, Melinda Selmys wrote:

The most common cause of sexual sin is isolation and loneliness. The sexual appetite is an urge to overcome isolation, to give and receive another person. … Unless you have strengthened your will to a superhuman extent it’s not possible to starve yourself to death. Likewise, unless you’ve devoted a huge number of character points to picking up the ‘Stoic’ superpower you will simply not be able to endure the kind of social starvation that negative chastity demands in the contemporary world. … Within this insular existence sex is a powerful means of escape. Telling people that they can’t have it is like telling a child who has eaten nothing in days that she shouldn’t eat a lollipop because it’s bad for her teeth. The distant threat of cavities will simply sound hollow … compared with the present experience of hunger pangs.3


From where I am, I can just see chastity on a clear day; the reason I can is that people deliberately chose to make me a part of their lives. Friends invited me in and made me, almost literally, part of their families. They shared chores and joys, worries and pastimes, and they invited me to reciprocate. They had me over at all hours, they listened when I was hurting, they accepted and displayed generosity of every kind: my best friend and his wife even had me over on Valentine’s Day after my ex-boyfriend and I broke up. All of that hasn’t made my very imperfect attempt at a chaste life easy—there are times it’s been like a nightmare—but it would’ve been flatly impossible if not for their gift of themselves.

That’s the support the celibate gay person needs, and that’s also generally the best witness of love to the non-celibate. Have them over for dinner, go to the Aquarium with them, go to their book club, get coffee with them and kvetch about your respective partners. Some Catholics worry that interacting with gay people (especially as couples) without carefully articulating the Church’s teaching risks scandal; but her teaching isn’t secret, any more than her teaching on divorce and remarriage is secret. In the profound and often hilarious book Gay and Catholic, Eve Tushnet hits on what I think is a better approach, describing her own conversion.

I tried to get my friends to explain the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. They had never raised the issue with me before, which showed great intuitive insight on their part. They answered the questions I was already asking, about larger concepts … rather than the questions the surrounding culture might have assumed I was interested in. They waited for me to raise the Gay Question. This approach turned out to make me much more ready to hear what they had to say. I think if they’d assumed that they were ‘supposed to’ witness to me by talking about God’s plan for my sex life, I would have been put off by the arrogance of their assumptions: assumptions that they knew better than me which questions were important to my spiritual life and assumptions that they as well-meaning straight people understood homosexuality better than I did. When I did ask, I found their answers unsatisfactory; but then, they’d had the humility to do their best with a question I had pushed on them. I could respect that.4

This touches on another key part of relating to anyone outside the Church: you have to earn the right to be heard. I’ve often heard Christians complain of not being given a fair hearing, and it is a terribly frustrating experience. Given the anguish so many LGBT people have experienced at the hands of believers, plenty of us maintain that we’ve heard enough already. But even at its most unfair, there’s nothing to be done about it. People will not, in fact, listen to you—especially not about something that threatens their relationships and their sense of self—unless they trust you enough to risk those things. And that kind of trust always has to be earned.

God did not receive a fair hearing; indeed, we, we religious people and responsible citizens, had him executed for being a political nuisance. I believe we must be ready to apologize and ask forgiveness for the pain that others have suffered at the hands of Catholic fanatics, because as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. St Paul’s words aren’t only a statement of the work of Christ, but a description of the whole divine economy in Christ. We coinhere with one another, inter-animate one another; our sins are sociable—that’s part of the reason we must confess them to a priest. And our graces are given to us for others, not for our private enjoyment. The treasury of merit operates not because our good deeds can be detached from us like coinage, but because we are all aflush with each other’s lives, and Christ is all and is in all. Even the famous hermit St Anthony said, Your life and and your death are with your neighbor.

None of this is magic. It won’t make your transgender son, your lesbian friend, your coworker and his husband, change their minds. It isn’t magic, it’s love; true love’s kiss is always opposed to magic. All our love does is help provide a context in which growing closer to God is possible. So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.


In walking with anyone who’s queer-identified and is also a person of faith, or even considering faith, you have to be ready to be patient, to listen, to forgive, to ask forgiveness—in brief, to do all those things that are really necessary to any Christian life and that nobody likes doing. And a place where it can gets scary is the horrible question, Why would God do this to me? Why would he cut me off from being happy with a partner? I beg you, resist the temptation to correct this question. It’s harder to be gay than it is to be straight; that must be admitted. God has the power to stop suffering and doesn’t, and that must be admitted, too. And there are questions we haven’t got answers to, like Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? Don’t belittle agony with dogma. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do except stand by, and listen and watch, and perhaps give them a mouthful of vinegar to drink. You’re going to have to be okay with that.

Another temptation that must be resisted is that of hunting out ‘success stories’—proofs that you can live a happy, fulfilled life as a celibate. That is possible, but it isn’t guaranteed; and frankly, it can be demeaning. It treats us like mascots, or worse, weapons to be used against our fellow LGBT people. If you want to read testimonials and the like, go ahead. I can give you several suggestions of smart, eloquent, orthodox gay authors. But read them as a way of listening, not as a way of proof-texting, like a Protestant fishing out embarrassing-sounding anathemas from Trent.

And on the reverse side, try not to make assumptions about what homoerotic love can and can’t be. It can draw people away from God, but it can also draw them closer to him. Radclyffe Hall, one of the most prominent lesbian authors of the twentieth century, became a Catholic through the influence of a partner; Marc-André Raffalovich, a pioneering scholar of sexology, converted for similar reasons and became a Dominican tertiary; Dunstan Thompson, an American poet who settled in England after fighting in World War Two, wound up leading his lover to the faith after rediscovering his own, and the two were given permission to ‘live as brothers’ by their bishop. I’ve reason to know about it from my own life: my relationship with my ex-boyfriend didn’t just make me happy and help me grow in confidence as a man—it taught me more about self-giving and ultimately sacrificial love than any other single experience in my life. Even earthly loves turn our gaze away from ourselves, toward another, and God is prepared to take full advantage of the fact.

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John: In terms of the clergy, it appears to me, anyway, that the leadership of the Church is not ready to acknowledge gay priests. Do you think there’s any hope that that will happen in the future?

GB: I think it depends where you are—I haven’t really made up my mind how important I personally feel the acknowledgment of gay priests is. Now, how I feel about is not one of the more important questions, just because it affects their lives and the Church as a whole much more than affects me. … Whether there’s hope of having more hospitable contexts for priests coming out, I really don’t know. And I don’t know what importance to assign to it.

Matt: Firstly, I think you used the term ‘unwilling celibate’? You know, it seems to me that there are a lot of unwilling celibates in the world; I mean, people who—heterosexuals who want to get married, but they haven’t found the person, that kind of thing. How is it different for an LGBT unwilling celibate versus a heterosexual unwilling celibate? What’s different in the struggle? Beyond the fact that—coming out, not coming out, you know, that kind of thing, just in terms of living life? Like someone in your situation: you’ve come out, you’ve made very clear that you’re an orthodox Catholic, you’re trying to live that way, and all like that. What struggles are different for you, for someone in your situation, than for a heterosexual?

GB: Well, I do feel it’s worth saying first that I think that the amount of shared experience between unwilling celibates is probably greater than any difference in their experience.

Matt: What do you mean?

GB: If you’re celibate and you don’t want to be—the amount of experience you share with any other person who’s celibate and doesn’t want to be seems to me like it’s probably going to be … more significant, or more general, than the differences in your experience. I could be mistaken. But it’s the impression that I get. But, to address your actual question. … I think, probably, the thing that I would point to is that an unwilling celibate who’s heterosexual—at any rate, the impression that I have, is that the possibility of marriage is … more possible, and concrete. We don’t generally have that. There are exceptions, but they’re very rare; and they don’t always work. Now, that’s true of every marriage; but it’s very easy to feel like you’ve been … singled out for no reason, and saddled with an arbitrary command.


Lee: In part of my talk, I mentioned that many men reject or distance themselves from Christianity because they identify it with the feminine, and find it a man’s thing to say, ‘I’m not with the feminine.’ And, another way you mentioned, of course, is to say, ‘I’m not gay.’ And I think a lot of violence against gays is not—it may have religious coloring sometimes, but really it’s sparked by that—you have to prove, and sometimes think they violently have to prove,5 ‘I’m not gay’ by hurting in some way, sometimes physically, and other ways. So, that, but—not out of a positive way of saying ‘I’m masculine,’ but by a negative way, that results in a rejection of both the feminine and rejection, that sometimes leads to violence, of gays. And so I think a cultivation of a positive way of being masculine is, would help to overcome that rejection and the violence that that rejection leads to.

GB: I think that’s quite true. One of the reasons that I tend to talk about religiously motivated violence against LGBT people is that we are religious people, and the only sins that we can effectively repent of and confront are our own. I mean, we can certainly speak against and even rebuke the sins of others, and when it’s appropriate we should absolutely do so. But our own conduct is the only conduct we can control.

Tom: So, communication with love, the best way to approach is love, with LGBTs, gays, if they’re researching faith, they’re looking around—Christianity has a hundred and seventy flavors.5 What’s the best approach, you would say, to evangelize those who, sometimes people go looking for the answer that they want to hear, rather than the answer that they need to hear?

GB: Absolutely. We all do that. After all, the things we want to hear are what we want to hear, and that’s always nice. Honestly, I think it’s gonna depend entirely on the person. The only specific recommendation that I would give is, in discussing faith, whether intellectually or experientially or in any other way, always share what you have. Don’t try to share what you think they need. Because that’s always gonna be fake. And people hate fake things. Unless they’re what they wanna hear.

Jane: You mentioned the Church’s response to the Pulse shootings; I thought that was a really good example of how the Church kind of as a whole could have a different approach to the LGBT community. What else do you think the Church could do as the Church to welcome and evangelize to the LGBT community?

GB: I’d be very glad to see another ministry that operated alongside Courage, but was differently built. I’d be reluctant to see Courage change its character, because it fills a niche that needs filling. But I would like to see a ministry that helps to give community and education to LGBT people—whether Catholic or not, though, yeah, it’s probably gonna be mostly Catholics—in a way that isn’t really aimed at treatment. Because that just isn’t really appropriate for everybody. That’s one concrete way. Seeing our pastors speak up against anti-gay violence would be … really nice. I was bitterly disappointed in the USCCB’s response; and when I was doing additional research for this, I eventually had to stop, because I was getting too depressed reading about all the cases. The number of shootings, and arsons, and murders just floored me; and if anything it seems like they’re increasing, which I was not prepared to find out.6 So, I mean—we need our fathers.


Michael: So, I am a psychiatrist, and I hear about these issues periodically, I have several gay patients; and different psychiatrists feel different ways about this, but I’m pretty big on saying absolutely nothing about myself to my patients. They have no idea that I’m a practicing Catholic. Every one of my gay patients has told me about the religious people who’ve said awful things to them. I realize that the Church can do things and the USCCB can speak out on big things, but how do you think we individuals can try to heal that?

GB: That’s a really tough question to answer, and I’m not sure. I mean, obviously, treating them—treating us, I should say—with civility and respect, just in general … I mean, I think that’s probably going to do more than any tactical response. That’s all I got.

Noah: There’s always the question, ‘What about the children?’ So as a parent, I have little ones, I wanna make sure that they get brought up in the faith, and all this sort of thing, loved and cared for. You don’t want to say, ‘Okay, eleven-year-old: you like to hold hands with boys, let’s call you gay now,’ or, you know. If I had a son who ended up on that course of life, I at some point would want to affirm their identity, but I wouldn’t want to—one of your points was about solidifying the identity, and if you’re kind of in-between, or you want to encourage them on one side to make their life easier, but maybe that would be misguided. What do you tell a parent when they ask that question?

GB: I’m not sure how much good encouraging a child toward one sexuality or another is going to do, just because it develops organically, from inside. I do think that it’s important not to rush people. Whether they’re your children or not, but, you know, the temptation to rush a child is going to be very hard to resist, because you love them and you want them to be happy. Just waiting on the child to make their own determination is gonna be the most important. And that’s gonna suck. There’s no way around it. ‘Cause it takes forever. But I don’t think there’s really anything else to do.

Patricia: Gabriel, I’m puzzled. Now, as you know I’m part of an Encourage group, and you said early on that Courage operates on treatment—

GB: Largely.

Patricia: I’ve never heard that from Courage, and I think that’s a perception, a false perception in a part of the community. Maybe in the past they have, but I’ve always heard just the opposite from Courage, that—in my experience, they don’t feel that treatment or conversion is—you know, they’ll always be gay or LGBT. That’s their orientation; the only—chastity is the only decision to make.5

GB: Ah! I should have made a distinction. Treatment in that sense is probably talking about sexual orientation change efforts, which Courage has never specifically pushed, and I didn’t mean to give that impression. It has tended to make room for sexual orientation change efforts, or ex-gay therapy, but it’s never specifically endorsed them. When I spoke about treatment I was referring to the use that Fr. Harvey made of the twelve-step model, which influenced the Five Goals of Courage, and so forth. That isn’t at all the same as ex-gay therapy. And, you know, when I say that it operates on an addiction-treatment model, I am generalizing. The use that it makes of that model varies from chapter to chapter. And, you know, the goal is indeed chastity, not heterosexuality, which is good, because God didn’t command us to be heterosexual, he commanded us to be chaste. But so, yes, I didn’t mean to give the impression that Courage was an ex-gay organization or anything of that kind.


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1The Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§2331-2333, 2337-2338.
5I’m not totally confident in my transcription in these spots, as there were small children proclaiming the winter of their discontent at various times while the ladies and gentlemen were speaking; but the substance should be intact.
1973. The UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, is destroyed by arsonists. Thirty-two dead, fifteen injured. This remains the single biggest act of homophobic violence until the shootings at Pulse forty-three years later.
1988. In Texas, Richard Lee Bednarski murders two gay men. Judge Jack Hampton gives him thirty years instead of the life sentence requested by the prosecutor, remarking: ‘I put prostitutes and gays at about the same level … and I’d be hard put to give somebody life for killing a prostitute.’ The judge is later cleared of bias charges.
1993. In Nebraska, Brandon Teena is raped and murdered by two acquaintances after they find out he’s transgender.
1997. In Honolulu, Kenneth Brewer meets Stephen Bright at a gay bar; at his apartment, Brewer makes advances, and the other beats him to death. Second-degree murder charges are dropped, and Bright receives one year in prison for third-degree assault.
1997. Eric Rudolph bombs a gay bar in Atlanta. Five injured.
1998. Two Wyoming men torture Matthew Shepard, fracturing his skull, and leave him tied to a fence comatose; he dies six days later without ever waking up.
1999. A gay bar in London is bombed by a neo-Nazi. Three dead, seventy injured.
2000. A gay bar in Roanoke is attacked by a man who said he wanted ‘to shoot some gay people.’ One dead, six injured.
2000. After months of bullying (both verbal and physical) by fellow young people in London, Damilola Taylor is stabbed in the thigh with a broken bottle; his femoral artery is severed and he bleeds to death.
2001. In Vancouver, British Columbia, Aaron Webster is beaten to death by a group of men wielding baseball bats. Ryan Cran, one of the perpetrators, is convicted of manslaughter three years later, and released after serving four years of his six-year sentence.
2003. Paul Moore murders transwoman Nireah Johnson, after having been initially attracted to her and then discovering her birth sex.
2007. In Florida, two men stab Ryan Keith Skipper twenty times and slit his throat, later bragging of killing him ‘because he was a faggot.’
2009. An eleven-year-old boy in Massachusetts, whose classmates had harassed him constantly with homophobic slurs, hangs himself with an electrical cord.
2010. New Jersey college student Tyler Clementi commits suicide, after roommates film him being intimate with another man and publicize the footage.
2012. After being bullied in person and online and receiving death threats, fourteen-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn commits suicide in his home.
2013. Musab Masmari sets fire to a gay bar in Seattle; the fire is extinguished before anyone is hurt.
2014. Kandy Hall, a Baltimore transwoman, is found dead, due to trauma from an unknown object, in a field near a school.
2015. Bri Golic, who identified as androgynous and pansexual, is stabbed to death by his father in their home.
2015. In Kansas City, Missouri, transwoman Tamara Dominguez is run over multiple times by an SUV in the wee hours of the morning on August 16th.
2016. ‘Goddess’ Diamond, a twenty-year-old black transwoman, is found dead in a torched car in New Orleans; it is determined that she died from blunt force trauma before the car was burned.