I'm sometimes asked what I think about the origins of homosexuality, very much as if I know what I'm talking about. I try to embellish that impression, except when admitting its inaccuracy with ironic frankness, as a piece of witty social self-deprecation. It consistently charms people.
The nature-nurture debate has been thrashed ferociously between the LGBT community and the churches in this country for perhaps a quarter of a century. The usual tropes are that gays believe homosexuality is genetic and therefore immutable, and Christians believe it is environmental and therefore alterable. That there are plenty of unchangeable things that nobody claims are good, and plenty of changeable things that don't need changing, is rarely considered in this fracas.
The exhaustion of unsuccessful speculation and research has drained me of anything more than mere intellectual curiosity on the subject -- not least because I am not convinced that there is any one answer, people being as incorrigibly plural as we are. How does homosexuality start? Is it nature or is it nurture? "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" Framed in those terms, the problem is a torment if it is unsolved, and a worse torment if it is solved, for either the one or the other must be made a scapegoat as well as a sufferer. But Jesus waives the question. "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." That mode of approaching the problem is wrong; we need a new mindset to go with our new hearts, as believers.
This passage from John has been much in my mind of late. I was journaling on that, among other things, after an appointment with my spiritual director last month, when, rather to my own surprise, I penned the sentence, "Possibly, I am not celibate because I am gay, but gay because I am celibate."
This was a startling step forward. Hitherto, I have tended very much to view my vocation as both highly confusing (which, to a limited extent, it is -- like every vocation), and as a second-best, a "leftovers" helping of Divine grace and purpose (which it is not). After all, all of what we might call the obvious vocations -- marriage, the priesthood, the religious life -- are closed to me; partly because of my orientation, more importantly because I have discerned all of them as not being for me. It's easy, in that situation, to view yourself as the unwanted detritus of the Church. It's easy, too, to view being gay as a curse laid upon you: thus has our Father seen fit, if not actively to bar you from the real vocations, at any rate to allow you to be barred from them.
But suppose that our Father's plan is, logically, the primary, and the circumstances of our lives secondary. (Crazy, I know.) Can it be that my homosexuality was incorporated, or permitted, by God, so as to help me discern my vocation to lay celibacy?* "That the works of God should be made manifest in him." This possibility has allowed me to see both celibacy and homosexuality in a quite different light ("'Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,' which is by interpretation, Sent"). Lay celibacy as something positively desired for me by my Father has a different character, and an attractiveness I did not perceive. It is not simply an absence of another vocation, but a specific call to a distinct direction in life, one that would be fulfilled less perfectly if marriage, or priesthood, or consecration to an order, were involved.
And homosexuality takes on another character here as well. I'd already come to think of it as having a slight resemblance to sickle-cell anemia, which has the surprising benefit to those who suffer from it of making them immune to malaria. Likewise, on Catholic premises, there are distinct drawbacks to being attracted to the same sex, but there are definite compensations -- a markedly lower tension in relating to the opposite sex, for instance; a unique perspective on the nature of gender; for gay men, a more intuitive understanding of certain forms of mysticism, such as that of St. John of the Cross. Conceived of as a concomitant to my vocation -- as a result, rather than a cause, of a call to celibacy -- it draws my mind to St. Paul's rejoicing over his "thorn in the flesh."
Of course, it's important to note that I don't think all gay people are called to celibacy. Some, for a combination of theological and personal reasons, do get married. Some do become consecrated religious. And depending on the interpretation of the canons and the granting of dispensations, some become priests. Nor do I suppose that I have cornered the whole of my vocation just by discerning lay celibacy. But the point is the Divine intentionality, the embrace, the -- to quote the Athanasian Creed, "not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God"; that is, not by God taking His cue from us, but by His making every element of ourselves an occasion of grace, a vehicle of the Glory.
I am not done yet. I am not perfectly chaste; I am not even wholly reconciled to lay celibacy: I continue to have twinges, not only of natural human loneliness (which affects everyone regardless of their state in life), but of rebellion, despair, and bewilderment. Nor is my understanding of that vocation much fleshed out as yet. But all of these hardships have assumed a different form. Where before they seemed the very fabric of my life, they seem now more like individual threads -- parts of the background of a more vivid pattern. I feel as if I have gone from seeing things upside down to seeing them the right way up. And, whatever else goes on in the foreground of my exterior life, or in my ever mercurial emotions, I can sense a deeper bedrock of peace. Thank You.
*Strictly speaking, lay in Catholic terms denotes simply everyone who is not ordained; so that, in fact, all religious sisters and some brothers are technically laymen. However, the word is also used colloquially to signify those who are neither priests nor vowed religious, and it is in this colloquial sense that I intend the phrase lay celibacy. Theoretically, there ought to be another word for this, but if there is one, I don't know it.