Collect for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of thy Name; increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Deplorable Word

In C. S. Lewis' novel The Magician's Nephew, the sorceress Jadis (later to be known as the White Witch) explains to the central characters why her world, Charn, was utterly dead when they discovered it, save for herself. She had been engaged in a war for the throne against her sister, and finally elected to employ her most inexorable weapon:

"It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and softhearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it. ... Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun."

Probably I am overreacting, but I sometimes feel as though the Catholic Church believes that gay is the deplorable word. Not that Catholics can't stand gay people -- most of my friends are Catholics (or some other variety of Christian), and most of them know I happen to be gay, and most of them don't treat me any differently on that account. It is literally the word which they can't abide. I'm sometimes challenged on my use of it: I've heard everything from "Why would you call yourself that?" to "First of all, you're not gay."

Now, to do justice to the situation, some of the motives behind this aversion are good ones. The Catechism says explicitly that "men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies ... must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity" (para. 2358); and one element of this is a concern among many Catholics -- especially, I think, clergy -- that people not reduce their human dignity and identity to a single aspect of their character. To regard yourself solely, or even chiefly, as deriving selfhood and meaning from your sexual proclivities would be seriously dehumanizing, and not just on the assumption that such proclivities are wrong. It is, therefore, a credit to their sincere desire to respect people that so many Catholics have trouble with the statement, "I'm gay."

A related problem is the belief that calling yourself gay or queer signifies not only homosexual attraction, but a broader understanding of homosexuality: namely, that homosexuality is part of your essential makeup -- that queerness is not only inborn and immutable, but even metaphysically or spiritually different from heterosexuality. This idea has been nicknamed essentialism, and is admittedly incompatible with the Catholic doctrine of sex, which recognizes only one essential difference among human beings as such, that being the difference between male and female. It's feared, frequently, that the word gay causes scandal -- a technical term, in moral theology, for drawing other people toward sin (deliberately or by accident) -- by appearing to support essentialism.

Unfortunately, to anybody who is not coming at the matter from exactly that angle, these concerns sound so ridiculous as to be simply not credible. I have occasionally run into other gay men, lesbians, and so forth, who do espouse essentialism; but the theory was never universal even in the gay community (regardless of how universal it may have seemed among LGBT lobbyists), and, to judge from my reading and my experience, has been declining in popularity. Nor do I recall that I've ever met anybody, except Catholics, who connected the use of the term to the essentialist theory. When most people say "He's gay" (or whatever), what they mean is, "He likes other guys"; they aren't making a philosophical definition by the use of the Deplorable Word any more than they would be if they said, "He's a redhead." Furthermore, identifying somebody just by their sexual orientation is indeed stupid, tasteless and insulting -- and it was already known to be so by queer people. Why was it being supposed that we didn't realize that?

In consequence, when most people hear discomfort with, or outright opposition to, the use of the word gay, what they hear is -- discomfort with even the idea of homosexuality; with any public discussion of it; with any knowledge that a given person is attracted to the same sex. Naturally, this strengthens the impression most people have that the Catholic Church is an intensely homophobic institution -- the concerns about such terms, once expressed, giving an impression of nothing more than a whitewash of hypocrisy.

Now, ideally, it would be possible for Catholics to simply point to their well-known reputation of hospitality and respect for everyone, in order to refute this picture.

Obviously, we can't. And, while the media are not exactly friendly to Catholicism by any stretch, our inability to simply point to our speech and conduct as proof that we do love and respect queer people is not the result of a conspiracy among journalists and entertainers. It is the result of our speech and conduct.

Why won't the explanation (that gay people don't mean what Catholics think they do in using the term) dispel the discomfort? Some of this must admittedly be put down to queer advocacy and its habits. An awful lot of gay men and lesbians are defiant, contemptuous, and provocative, both in their support of LGBT causes and in hostility to those who oppose such causes, in any way and for any reason; the Church, naturally, is a major target of such things. This anger is quite understandable, but it doesn't make for fair-minded or intelligent discourse. Calling Pope Benedict a Nazi, or same-sex kissing in front of Focus on the Family's headquarters, is not calculated to make one's opponents any more open-minded than they were before; it just satisfies (or, possibly, inflames) the desire to shock -- and perhaps, in some small way, feel avenged.

But surely that can be left aside? Provided that everybody knows what everybody else means, is there really a reason to fight tooth and nail over terms? Well, there can be: the Church is rightly protective of her terminology, which is essential to her theology for practical and traditional reasons; and given terms may have rather unsavory associations. A lot of people may leap up at this point, to argue that that is precisely why they avoid the word gay, and use same-sex attracted instead.

Which is terrible tactics, if you're talking to a queer-identified person. The phrase same-sex attracted has a decades-long history of being employed by psychiatrists attempting to cure homosexuality, often through behaviorist conditioning -- chemically induced nausea and electric shock being among the less barbarous means employed. And the association of that phrase with those tactics is of much longer standing than the association of the term gay with anything intrinsically incompatible with Catholic teaching; the word is notoriously mutable.

For me, using the Deplorable Word rather than same-sex attracted is largely meant to avoid scandal. Scandal, not to my Christian brethren, but to other gay men and lesbians. They may be surprised that I hold the views I do, but their surprise is not based on the words I choose; it is based on the fact that an openly gay man should nonetheless assent to the Church's doctrine of sexuality and of homosexuality.

Catholics are, in my limited experience, very alive (rightly) to the danger of scandal; and also very unrealistic about what is likely to scandalize people. Or, they are focused wholly on the scandal of setting a bad example -- almost never upon the scandal that results from setting a good example in a way that is opaque, ugly and alienating. Respect, compassion, and sensitivity? It's common sense to let somebody else describe themselves to you, especially if you do not share a major experience they are describing. Gay people don't need the Church to tell them that they have human dignity; we knew that already. Gay people don't need the Church to agree with them about the morality of homosexual acts; speaking as a gay man, if we want others to respect our opinions, we must set an example by respecting theirs.

Nor do queer people need Catholics to talk about how much they love and respect homosexuals. We've been hearing that, from Catholics and a lot of other people, our whole lives. What we need is proof. And that, Catholic reader, is up to you.


  1. I am glad you took the time to write it all out. One point I would make is that what you are attempting to do with you sexuality, and what I've been working on as well, is so radical as to deserve its own name. It doesn't seem to matter what that is: "gay according to traditional catholic teaching?" For those not making that attempt I will probably also continue to avoid the term gay, not for any of the reasons you listed, but because it describes everything and nothing. You can claim that it means attracted to the same sex, but it signals much more because of its history. Two examples. The word "black" has not been a passive member of our language. Strategists have begun various campaigns "black power" "black is beautiful" "black is the new PC" in order to alter perceptions. If someone woke from the 80's and started using this common word, we might be horrified, though "it only describes a color of skin!" Can any less be said of the overworked word "gay?" Perhaps you will say that its entire history has been one of stripping additional meanings, but even a billboard that says "I AM GAY" to me changes the meaning of the word itself. The second proof is that saying "gay christian" is really no longer enough; as in, that will always leave many question marks. If modifying the word brings less clarity, how can the word be so obviously descriptive?

  2. I was not aware that the term "same-sex attracted" has heavy associations with controversial (and inappropriate) methods psychiatric behavioral condition. That is good to know. I often have used the term SSA in order to avoid the association that the term "gay" has with aspects of LGBT popular cultural that are incompatible with Catholicism and non-intrinsic to homosexuality. Of course, I never found the need to quibble with others about their use of either term, especially with those using either of them to describe themselves.
    When, for one reason or another, I find it necessary to use one of these terms - or a similar one- which one would you recommend?

  3. @ Noah: Thank you. As for what I'm attempting to do being radical, I don't know about that -- people have been learning chastity as homosexuals for many centuries; what is comparatively new is frankness about the matter. A neologism could still be useful, but I've yet to encounter any compelling ones. (I've tried hard to come up with a clear, catchy portmanteau of some variant on 'Catholic' and some variant on 'gay,' and even the slang of the two respective worlds has proven intractable; the best I could come up with was 'So-man Catholic,' which only makes sense if you know Polari, which, well, you can see where this is going.)

    As for phrases like 'gay Christian' not being enough, I agree with you completely; but I think that rather reflects the institutional and theological chaos of the churches in this country than it does the nature of the word 'gay.' Considering that we have people ranging from Gene Robinson to Fred Phelps involved in the discussion of how homosexuality and Christianity do, or can, intersect, I'm not at all sure the difficulties of terminology can be solved either quickly or elegantly. I think the only real solution is to be found in individual lives, lived according to truth and love (which are ultimately one), and that an easy descriptor will have to wait, maybe for another generation. It's happened before, in other areas of life. In the meanwhile, I use the word 'gay' partly in order to avoid alienating those outside the Church, and partly because most of the alternatives are (to me) either extremely distasteful or not adapted to common use.

    @ Thomas: I'd tend to recommend 'gay,' but a better answer is to use whatever word the person you're talking to is most comfortable with. I know homosexuals who dislike the word 'gay,' sometimes for reasons totally unrelated to religion; I know other homosexuals, some of them very religious, who refer to themselves and one another as fags. (Be careful about using that one, though :) -- it's the sort of word you have to earn the right to use.) Always rely on knowledge of the person first, and then use rules of thumb to fill in the gaps. And, honestly, you can usually straight-up ask "What do you prefer?" as well; not many people are offended by that.

  4. Wow that's very interesting, thanks.

  5. Are you a theologian? You write and make reference to a lot of things that make it seem like you are a theologian. It's a good thing. :)

  6. Asking someone what term they prefer you to use is usually the simplest route but also the least-used. It's awkward, for sure, but sometimes it takes a little awkward to get to the comfortable part (like scooting past people in a row of theater seats). For example, I actually am a little miffed when people insist on calling me "African-American." I prefer "black," but I'll give them credit for trying since I have discovered myself to be more racially ambiguous than I once thought.