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.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Raw Tact, Part II: The Brother of Beatrice

In keeping with my last, I want to continue from a highly subjective point of view. I consider objective truth infinitely more important than subjective truth; but subjective truth is still, in its fashion, true, and all truth must be communicated in a personal -- that is, a subjective -- context, because people are not objects but subjects. (If you happen to be squeamish about descriptions of homoerotic affections, even without any question of overt acts, you may want to skip this post.)

I fell in love for the first time when I was seventeen years old. I had just started college (long story), and that's where I met Victor.* He was a year older than me -- well, I suppose he still is a year older than me, but anyway. He was uncommonly good-looking, in that sort of rough-around-the-edges way that outdoorsy guys so often have: scruff, callused hands, a hilariously graceless dance step. But the things that really captivated me were his intense devotion to Jesus and his friendliness to me. I told him, trembling and ashamed, that I was gay while we were on a retreat with one of the campus ministries we were both involved in, and the first words out of his mouth were grace and acceptance. He radiated grace; meeting him was for me what meeting Beatrice was for Dante: Hic incipit vita nova, "Here beginneth the new life."

I don't think I'm overstating this. Falling in love is, of course, a very ordinary experience in one way, and does not have any intrinsic spiritual significance. Yet for many people, it is in fact a means through which God makes Himself manifest, and my enchantment with Victor was -- and remains -- one of those: thinking of him always calls me to a higher level of focus upon and surrender to God, irrespective of the cost. (That isn't to say I always heed the call by any means, but the calling remains.)

But of course there was conflict too. Not conflict with him, although we did disagree about some things, but conflict within myself. I knew already that gay sex was wrong; did it follow that gay affections were wrong? Must I abandon my romantic feelings? Could I even if I had to? That question was easily answered: I was powerless to feel otherwise than as I did. I spent two years pining in agony, wishing for the impossible requiting of my affections from a man who was not only a serious, not to say scrupulous, Christian, but quite possibly the most emphatically heterosexual guy I knew. (Not that he was a homophobe; I never once had a harsh or disdainful word from him about that.) His very holiness made me love him more -- was that better? Worse?

I came out of those two years an emotional wreck, tired and desperate. In retrospect, I don't think it's a coincidence that it was after Victor and I more or less parted ways (since we transferred to different colleges) that I tried to persuade myself that pro-gay theology was correct.** I was spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, even physically exhausted.

I did recover, largely through my conversion to the Catholic faith, which gave me nearly all the tools I needed -- Confession, spiritual direction, the writings of the saints and mystics, the Rosary, a ritual language with which to process my turbulent and often mysterious emotions, and, above all else, Christ in the Eucharist. But I could not have come to those very things -- not, at any rate, as I did -- if I had not fallen in love with Victor first. It broke me down in the way I needed to be broken down to be able to accept the Catholic faith, not as the conclusion of my own triumphant reasoning, but as salvation.

It is largely this which forbids me to regard homoerotic affections as being wrong or bad. There are other reasons -- as, for instance, that I don't think of romance as exclusively or chiefly a by-product of sexual desire, and so to make the jump from the wrongness of gay sex to a hypothetical wrongness of gay romantic love is an invalid inference, at any rate on the premises I hold. But my love for Victor so transfigured me -- saved my life, in fact -- and pulled me so consistently closer to Christ, and does even now, that I just can't react to it as something dirty.

Why talk about all of this? For two reasons: one is that everything has to be put in a personal context, as I have carved into the table before me and keep hammering with my shoe.

The other is that this is the matrix in which the discussion of homosexuality really has to take place. Whether or no a person falls in love, or, in doing so, experiences the affection sacramentally, this is one of the chief places where straight and gay experience both intersect and prove themselves alien to one another. The passionate sense of worth, beauty, and meaning -- hardly to be expressed save by the word glory -- that attends erotic love is something that lovers of every kind are acquainted with. There's a reason that Brokeback Mountain works about as well as Romeo and Juliet (and it isn't only that Jack and Ennis are less annoying than a pair of Veronese teenagers with no sense of proportion). But the divergence shows itself already in the dawning experience of first love: for a straight person, the first time your heart stops, it's thrilling and beautiful and you suddenly know what everyone was talking about all this time. For a man like me, that element is there in first love; but with it -- guilt, confusion, fear. The swoop in the stomach that one adolescent boy feels for a girl is matched by the swoop in the stomach that another boy feels for a boy; but the one has a public tradition of sexuality, including romance and theology as well as pop culture, to guide him, while the other may well be rudderless.

This is also part of why gay marriage is such a sensitive topic, and why the commonplace polemical attitude adopted by so many Catholics has been far worse than useless, speaking from an evangelistic perspective. The heterosexual traditionalist Christian has a sacrament by which romantic love, a perception of glory in an individual creature, is made a formal vehicle of Divine grace, as well as a respected institution in society, and among one's Christian friends and one's family in particular. That, as related specifically to erotic love, is something that the gay traditionalist Christian normally does not have.*** When that experience of loneliness crowned with loneliness is met by lectures about disordered inclinations, and left at that, it is idle to protest that accusations of homophobia are a conspiracy to silence the Church -- because even if Catholics aren't homophobes, their actual behavior is so clumsy that it seems a more economical explanation than otherwise.

Of course, rather than trying to imagine what it would be like to feel what I felt for Victor, a much simpler expedient can be used. Imagine for a moment (if you are straight) that the shoe was on the other foot, and that the person whom you loved was out of the question -- not because they were claimed by someone else, but because it was wrong to act on your heterosexual impulses. How would you feel? How would you propose to live? How would you relate to God?

*For his privacy, I have of course used a pseudonym and changed a few personal details. Everything else is accurate to the best of my recollection.

**I do not for one instant suggest that this is true of pro-gay theologians in general. Of some, it is doubtless true, but only because every belief has adherents who cling to it for bad reasons, Catholicism included; conversely, there are Christians who differ with the Catholic Church on this point, as on others, of whose sincerity and devotion I am quite confident. In this essay I am talking about my own bad motives, and do not consider the possibility of others' bad motives my business.

***Gay Christians who espouse the traditional doctrine of sexuality can, and sometimes do, still contract valid and sacramental marriages with people of the opposite sex, and I'm not decrying this -- two of my favorite authors are in mixed-orientation marriages to straight spouses. I am talking specifically here about the link between the subjective experience of eros and the objective institution of the sacrament of marriage, which isn't in my view the most important element of marriage by any means, but is one of the most profound human experiences and should be treated with profound respect.


  1. I just wanted to thank you for writing this blog. As an early-20s gay Catholic male, I really appreciate the fact that there is someone out there who is orthodox, but at the same time is able to express the experience, the good points and the frustrations, that many of us feel, in a way that isn't insanely-censored out of fear for being called heretical or a sincere but overly strict interpretation of the Church's teachings that are next to impossible for many of us to follow (and is not required, due to the principles of probibilism and aequiprobibilism).

    I have actually recommended your blog to a priest in the confessional once when we were discussing what it was like to be a gay Catholic. Thanks again for writing. You are in my prayers!

  2. Hi Gabriel -
    I love this post and the gracious way you've written it. I also truly appreciate how you generously share your personal experience. Thank you for doing this.

    Here's a question for you. I've been giving serious consideration to what, exactly, bigotry is and what it isn't. To me, the language of the Catholic catechism is really offensive and is used to justify bigotry. And I believe that the church leadership acts in excessively intolerant ways (e.g., the school teacher who was fired because her spouse was listed in a funeral announcement, the fight against providing legal protections to gay couples and their children, etc).

    I'd really love to hear more of your thoughts on why you don't think that's so.

    I'm happy to dialog offline if that's more appropriate.

    All my best to you.

    1. I certainly agree that the language of the Catechism has been used to justify bigotry, and that, even granted Catholic moral premises, a lot of practical decisions made by officials of the Church herself and of Catholic institutions have been unnecessary, unkind, or worse. Whether the language of the Catechism is intrinsically bigoted is a subject I want to address in a post unto itself; for now, I will say that the reason it does certainly come across as pretty harsh is that a lot of technical terminology in theology consists of words that are also present in the English vernacular, as it were, but have different meanings. There are other examples of this ("necessary," "grace," and "infallible" all spring to mind).

      For instance, to take the phrase "objectively disordered," in the Catechism this doesn't mean at all what it would said by the theoretical Man In the Street. It sounds like "You're sick, whether you admit it or not." But, due to the philosophical underpinnings of Catholic vocabulary, it means something like, "a desire directed toward an incorrect object," which obviously is pretty different. (A parallel example would be the phenomenon of pica, the urge to eat things that aren't really food; this could equally be described as an objective disorder, because the impulse of eating has been ordered, i.e. directed, toward a wrong object -- hence, objectively disordered.)

      The added headache comes in with several other facts: for instance, that both the technical and the popular meaning may be operating in a given person's heart or mind at the same time, and they may only be aware of one of them; that a lot of Catholics who care about right theology in the first instance are perfectly willing to be jerks about it; that, having accepted the Catholic view of the matter, the specifically political and social implications of that view are not automatic deductions; that there is still such a thing as homophobia (which I take the Catechism to implicitly acknowledge, though of course not under that name); and that a lot of people on both sides cannot get past the language to deal with the substance of the doctrine, so that they wind up talking at cross-purposes at best and drowning each other in vitriol at worst.

      As I said, I want to write more on this subject. Thanks very much for your feedback.

    2. Gabriel -
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response.

      I wholly agree that the clinical* terms in the Catechism are misunderstood in the context of common usage. I'm not sure your pica analogy is inconsistent with the common understanding of "intrinsically disordered" to those of us who understand homosexuality to be a normal variation of human sexuality.

      One of my major challenges as an affirming gay Christian is to combat the desire of my LGBT tribe to marginalize conservative Christians (who are now in the moral minority). It's putting me in conflict with several important people in my life. I gotta say...the Catholic church leadership is not making that task any easier (see Timothy Dolan's response to the Pope's recent change in tone).

      I look forward to your future thoughts on this really important topic.

      Thanks again. I wish you well!

      *for want of a better word

  3. Thank you for another beautiful post :). I understand what you are talking about although I am a straight, married woman. God bless you Gabriel.

    1. Yes, I do, too, Rachel. Yes, another beautiful post.

  4. This "Side A" Orthodox is an unabashed fan of your blog :)

  5. What recourse does a gay Catholic have other than to accept the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in spite of its hurtful language? Catholicism really isn't big on arguing with the higher-ups...

  6. Gabriel,
    Who are those two favorite authors you mentioned in your post?

    1. Josh Weed (I think his last name is actually Weedinger, or something like that) and Melinda Selmys, both of whose blogs can be found among my Sites That Rock Reasonably Hard. Both are out, both take a traditional view of sexuality and marriage, and (very importantly) both were out to their spouses before getting married -- in fact, long before marriage was even on the table, as it happens.

  7. Hi Gabriel,

    Thanks for the post; you always seem to be writing about the very issues I am struggling with at the moment. I enjoyed reading about your relationship with Victor; in some ways, it is the mirror of a friendship I had in college. And I am so glad that God used this to draw you closer to Himself, even though I am saddened by the pain you must have went through those two years.

    So, if I, the complete stranger, might ask you a personal question, would you be friends with Victor if those romantic desires were still present? I know many of my married straight friends avoid friendships with any woman to whom they feel even a slight bit of attraction. But would you offer the same advice? You know first hand how destructive, intoxicating, and beneficial these types of friendships can be. Do you think that the benefits outweigh the pitfalls, or do you think it is best to let the romantic feelings subside?

    1. Last things first: I don't know whether letting romantic feelings subside is a good or bad or neutral idea. This is because, for me, they kind of don't. I mean, I'm not still fairy-tale gaga over every man I've ever been in love with; but you never feel exactly the same about a man you have loved when the eros proper goes away, and the eros has conspicuously not gone away in any absolute sense in two out of three cases, for me. I am, to be honest, still in love with Victor, and I tend to think I always will be; I'm not exaggerating when I compare it to Dante's feeling for Beatrice. So, in sum, I probably can't give an intelligent answer to your last question, because for me, it's either be friends irrespective of romantic feelings, or don't be friends. I seriously doubt that that's true of everybody -- but for that very reason, I feel I have no right to formulate a general rule.

      I do think that rules of thumb can be offered for those kind of situations, though, and these are the ones I've found (through reading, direction, and experience). The first is that no two loves are alike. Eros is an incorrigibly individual experience. In the Grail cycle, Arthur's love for Guinevere is a very different thing from Lancelot's love for Guinevere, even though it is two very similar men (and good friends at that) in love with the same woman. And her differing loves for each of them are very different, even though it is the same woman loving. In consequence, I think that a given experience of eros has to be judged on its own merits as to whether it will, probably, be predominantly positive, predominantly destructive, or fairly neutral. That requires wise guidance more than a black-and-white rule.

      The second is that I am rather suspicious of rules, as opposed to morals. Morals are a very good thing. Rules, i.e. the things we set up to try and make morality easier, are sometimes helpful, invariably oversimplified, and, when they are confused with morality, extremely dangerous and corrosive -- that is exactly what the Pharisees were doing. Similarly, my suspicion of rules goes up in proportion to the tendency of those who believe in said rules to insist that they be applied to other people. The lives of consecrated religious are a great example: for a given man or woman to believe that it will help them grow closer to God if they renounce all their possessions, is not only valid, but praiseworthy. For them to say that everybody must renounce all their possessions to grow closer to God is serious heresy. So here; I can easily believe that, for this or that person, avoiding all friendships with anybody other than a spouse to whom they feel attracted is the best course of action. For them (or anyone) to say that that is the only right way of handling attractions isn't, well, right. For me, not to make my male friends uncomfortable, it would literally result in my not having any male friends at all. And that is not only a lunatic solution (to be fair, some lunatics have been very holy -- look up St Christina the Astonishing some time, or St Catherine of Siena for that matter), it would result in far worse disorders due to starved affections, because the heart does not stop needing friendships merely because the brain decides that they contain an element of risk to the genitals.

      And that is kind of the catch of it all. There is no pattern of life, certainly not of the spiritual life, that can be lived without risk. Wisdom consists, partly, in learning which risks are the right ones to take. Which means coming to right and wrong, and coming to know yourself, those being two of the chief means through which we come to know God.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experiences and feelings. Regarding falling in love with someone who is off limits, that temptation exists for everyone. As a married, heterosexual man, if I find myself attracted to someone other than my wife, I have to tell myself "not to go there" with certain thoughts and close the door, so to speak, in my mind and heart. Same thing held when I was single and had to be careful not to think too much about certain married women. I suppose that's something that comes with maturity, no matter to whom you are attracted.

    I can do just fine without being friends with women other that my wife, but it sure is nice to have other male friends. So, it is much easier for me to keep my distance from other women. If you have same-sex attraction, you still need your same-sex friendships, so it is probably more of a challenge to keep your distance from a potential troubling situation. Good luck!

  9. The church needs more people who can communicate as well as you do, Gabriel. You demonstrate so effectively just what so many gay Christians go through, and make those experiences very relatable to others.

    I think you bring up a good point, too, that not every experience of a gay person is bad, as so many Christians seem to want to believe. There really can be good things such as affection, kindness, love, and personal growth that each of us can experience as a result of our orientation, and those things are not intrinsically sinful simply because we are gay.

    1. Definitely agree Brandon! And thank you Gabriel for your post and comment replies--all extremely insightful, they really help me better understand my situation. God bless!

  10. "I knew already that gay sex was wrong; did it follow that gay affections were wrong? Must I abandon my romantic feelings? Could I even if I had to? That question was easily answered: I was powerless to feel otherwise than as I did."

    It is a blessing that you were able to ask those questions. When I realized in 1959, at the age of sixteen, that my affection for other boys was homosexual — — I took it for granted that those affections were wrong. In the intervening 50+ years there has been plenty of time for the Church to reflect on homosexuality and to see the value of intimacy in the lives of homosexuals as well as heterosexuals. For me, more than thirty years went by before I was clear on the point. Meanwhile, I had developed habits of caution which caused my friendships to be needlessly stunted. I'm still trying to learn how to be fully open in my relationships.