Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; 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.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

On Being Right the Wrong Way

This past weekend, a friend of mine, to whom I was pontificating at great length on the subject of gayness and Catholicism, said something for which I was deeply grateful. He hadn't said much, which I had at first mentally put down to my bitter tone; but he happened to explain that he was saying little because he didn't know the matter from within (or words to that effect). For this honesty, I thank him.

A lot of people miss this: the necessity of maintaining not only honesty, not only charity, but empathy. It is perfectly possible to be right, and to intend to be loving, and fail completely to communicate love because you have not grasped the other person's experience. In short, being right doesn't mean you know what you're talking about.

This may sound like a frivolous, Wildean paradox, but it is a fact of human experience. Anyone who has been told a fact is, sensu stricto, right about that fact; and anyone who has spent time around someone who has lots of facts but no context, knows that it's still possible to make a bloody fool of yourself thereby. They may be right, but they do not know what they're talking about; which wouldn't much matter, if we were rational in practice (rather than having a capacity for reason that we rarely use -- "I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it"). But unfortunately, if the people we are speaking to come off as idiots, then whether they happen to be right ceases to matter, ninety-nine times out of a hundred. It isn't fair or wise, but it is human nature.

This says more about me than about the dialogue in itself, I think, but nowhere have I seen this illustrated more plainly and painfully than in the relation between the gay community and the Christian churches. (In principle, this difficulty of dialogue could be illustrated from a number of issues; but I'll stick to this one because, about this matter, I know it from within, whereas if I tried another I'd probably only display my ignorance.) To avoid any ambiguity, my own beliefs about homosexual practice are quite traditional; they can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 2357-2359. But, unlike a lot of the people who most reference these beliefs, I know what it is like to see the Church, her members, and her language from both sides of the Tiber. I have taken more flak from fellow gays for professing my faith than I have from fellow Christians for being uncloseted,* but I've been caught in the general crossfire nonetheless, and that doesn't seem likely to cease in the foreseeable future.

The problem is not the Church's teaching on sexuality. The problem is that, frequently, those who voice it do so without any understanding of the experience of those (like myself) whom that teaching challenges at a fundamental level. The assertion that it challenges everyone at a fundamental level, while true, is not useful here; for those who are heterosexually inclined to tell those who are not how "We're not that different, you and I" -- while it is a well-intentioned effort to establish respect and break down the sense of isolation many of us experience -- comes across, rather, as a tacit statement, "I have problems too, so quit your whining." That this comes from people who, often enough, have an earthly happiness which is almost invariably inaccessible to us, that of a natural family with the blessing of the Church, begins making it seem like a comfortable man lecturing a homeless one about how finances are always tight sometimes. The problem isn't with the thing being said, it's with the person saying it -- and with their failure to comprehend the perspective of someone with a completely different set of experiences, difficulties, and dominating concerns.

Again, this same principle could be applied to any number of problematic discussions. My journey from evangelical Calvinism to the Catholic Church was a humbling one, as I repeatedly discovered that I had been not only thinking privately, but telling other people, that Catholic beliefs and practices were this and that and the other, when in fact I not only didn't know what I was talking about, but had no reason to think I did. Men dealing with feminism, atheists dealing with religion, bourgeoisie dealing with poverty, Caucasians dealing with racial minorities, all are vulnerable to this same myopia -- as are the opposite problems of women dealing with the male mentality, &c. There is no person or group exempt from the duty of comprehending the other person's perspective; it is the intellectual application of the Golden Rule.

Melinda Selmys, author of the book and blog Sexual Authenticity, sees this with crystal clarity. In the introduction to her book, she explains that every homosexual author whom she quotes in her own work "is someone I think I would like if I met them in person. This, I think, is essential. It is impossible to comment meaningfully on another person's experiences if you think they are stupid, ignorant, dishonest, or evil." (Unfortunately I've lent out my copy, so my quote may not be verbatim and I don't know what page it's from.) I cannot claim to be a paragon of this, as my last post touched on briefly; but it is an ideal I think well worth pursuing in every relationship, of whatever kind.

So what is the upshot of all this? An exhortation to do one of the hardest things in the world, next time you are talking to someone who is unlike yourself. Listen.

*My reasons for not keeping my disposition secret will require a separate post to do justice to them; but a substantial part of those reasons is simply that I am lousy at keeping my mouth shut.

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