Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Raw Tact, Part VIII: The Lavender Menace

To say that homophobia is a touchy subject among Catholics is a little like saying that Hurricance Katrina got New Orleans quite unusually wet. Many Catholics, including the leadership of Courage, imply or even state categorically that there is no such thing as homophobia: the idea is dismissed as a campaign to silence the Church's voice in the public square.

I must say from the start that I have a difficult time maintaining objectivity about this, and especially about Courage. I've never been to a meeting, or had more than the most cursory interactions with any members; but its language on its website is so repugnant and hurtful that I can barely contain my conflicting desires to yell at my computer screen or else burst into tears. This is admittedly not a very good place from which to approach anything objectively. But I don't think this series can do without discussing the subject, and so I'm going to try my level best to be as fair-minded and honest as I can. If I fail in that object, I apologize in advance.

I'm sure he's yelling a heartfelt "Mea maxima culpa" at the 
blog commenter who finally showed him the error of his ways.

Now, I will say first that the claim that homophobia doesn't exist is a true one, in exactly one sense: the DSM-IV, the standard diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals, doesn't list it. And I will say further that plenty of things are called homophobic by people in the LGBT movement that are, quite simply, moral or philosophical opposition to a particular political idea or set of ideas, and aren't based on hatred or irrationality. I will add that Romaphobia is as real, and as pervasive, as homophobia -- I've experienced more bigotry about my religion than about my sexuality, and I've heard people who wouldn't dream of doing something as relatively harmless as making a tasteless gay joke, say in so many words that they hate Catholics. The double standard of American culture here is an active and unhappy reality, not just Catholic paranoia.

But I am talking predominantly (so I gather) to a Christian audience, and we cannot repent of other people's sins. For that matter, when it comes to being treated with flagrant injustice by the World, the majority of the teaching and examples we are given in the New Testament move us toward a posture of acceptance of such suffering, grateful that we are being conformed to Christ by it. What we can repent of, and should be more concerned with, is our own sins and flaws, both as individuals and as a body, and it is to these that I now turn.

The word homophobia in itself is not, in my opinion, very significant. It's true that the DSM-IV doesn't list it, but so what? It's a colloquial coinage, and besides, insofar as a properly psychological phobia is an irrational, disproportionate fear of something,* there can in principle be such a fear of homosexuality, simply because there can in principle be a phobia of anything. I doubt that the listing in the DSM-IV was meant to be absolutely exhaustive in any case. The point is, such irrational fear and hatred of homosexuality does exist (just ask a queer-identified person from Russia or Uganda or Iran), and the assertion that homophobia is just a conspiracy to silence Christians ignores that grave fact.

This would be bad enough by itself. What complicates it yet further is that, in a culture in which queer issues are among the most discussed ideas of the day, the claim that there is no such thing as homophobia (warning: the linked article contains language which may trigger those who have experienced anti-gay traumas) does not even come across just as petty pedantry: it comes across as an assertion that no kind of vile treatment of gays is actually wrong. When groups like Courage proceed to spend a vast tract of their time** insisting that certain kinds of discrimination are acceptable, that those who even use such terms as "gay" or "lesbian" are doing so in order to introduce politically motivated heresy into the Church, and that all homosexual behavior is predatory and self-marginalizing, it tends to leave an outside observer (one who hasn't closed the browser in disgust) wondering what they would consider an unjust way to treat queer-identified people.

Refusing us tickets to "Wicked"?

Courage spends several paragraphs of multiple articles on ambiguous and disingenuous language. I can't help but feel that it is a bit hypocritical to be (as it seems to be) unwilling, or unable, to realize what other people mean in what they say, and the dissonance between normal Catholic terminology and normal normal terminology.

It is, I suspect, tempting to reply with something along the lines of, "Christians shouldn't have to change our terminology! We're right!"

First of all, no, you're not right. Christianity is right. And you are a Christian. But you are not Christianity. You are a sinner; that's how you got in in the first place.***

Second, yes, Christianity -- and, I would say further, the Catholic Church specifically -- is right. But so what? Being right does nobody any good when it's accompanied by being too stubborn to communicate clearly, and defining your terms is only one side of clear communication; the other side is listening to how the other side defines their terms. Otherwise, all the being right in the world will amount to jack shit when it comes to mutual comprehension. What's more, being right doesn't mean the other side has nothing to offer you: you may well be talking past each other, or have an incomplete picture that they can help you fill out, if you're humble enough to listen. This is nothing new. Learning to speak a new language is one of the chief duties of any apostolate: or, to put it another way, you don't go to China and start preaching in English, and you especially don't then get angry with the Chinese for not speaking English.****

Third, the brute fact is that Christians have frequently treated homosexuals horribly, and still do to this day. The extent of that horrible treatment, and the reasons for it, have been confused, exaggerated, and manipulated, of course. But the horrible treatment was and is there, and requires apologizing and asking forgiveness, and few convincing apologies open with phrases like, "You know, you shouldn't have made such a big deal out of what I did to you, but ..." Asking forgiveness is, by definition, a decision to swallow one's pride, and there's nearly always at least as much ego in any defensive reply as there is simple desire for accuracy.

So what am I saying needs to be changed, or repented of?

I am not saying that the Church's teaching needs to change. I don't believe that. I am, in that way, a walking contradiction to the claim that people like me, who speak the language of the queer movement, are always and necessarily opposed to traditional orthodoxy.

I am saying that homophobic treatment of queer people is wrong and needs to stop. I use the word homophobia in its colloquial, popular sense: an attitude that presumes that gay people are problematic in other ways that that attraction: assuming that they are promiscuous, for instance, or unprincipled, or likely to be pedophiles, or emotionally stunted. This would be wrong and need to stop anyway, for the sake of justice and charity. But it is even more crucial that it stop in our own era, because it has the power to seriously damage the Church's credibility. The Church professes to love gay people, but that love needs to consist in more than telling them about the wrongness of gay sex: it has to consist in actively asserting (not just admitting, with a tone of concession) the dignity of LGBT people, and actively opposing what many of us have experienced: the bullying, the being thrown out of our homes, the outright violence.

Melinda Selmys said recently that "Preaching to gay folks starting with the 'truth about homosexuality' is like proposing to a woman by offering to correct her faults." My thoughts exactly.

*Thanks, Wikipedia!

**I mean, of their time explaining themselves online. Obviously their actual practice will be different, and I've heard much more positive accounts of that from several authors whom I respect, such as Eve Tushnet, Joshua Gonnerman, and Melinda Selmys. But I am dealing with self-representation here.

***The pastor of my old church said once in a sermon that, in membership interviews, he often said that "One of the requirements to join this church, or any church, is that you have to be a sinner. And sometimes I'll add, maybe under my breath, 'And to join a Presbyterian church, you have to be totally depraved.'"

****Sorry, Bill O'Reilly. ZING!


  1. I guess, in order to appreciate Courage fully, you'd need to experience how it operates in real life, as opposed to its chemically pure ideological manifestation on the Internet. Perhaps the arguments you're finding problematic now are communicated differently at the "ground level" of the individual chapters. I've certainly not felt as emotionally volatile at a Courage meeting as I have in front of a computer screen.

    Having said that, I've also been made to feel at home and at ease among Mormons, Freemasons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Greenpeace activists and even naturists. So, my subjective experience of these groups is quite independent of my acceptance of whatever shared belief has brought them together. Courage fits into that category for me.

    Perhaps a more fruitful area of critique might be whether the things you're complaining about are either helpful, superfluous or antithetical to the original Five Goals Courage is supposed to foster.

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    1. I am not proposing that homophobia be declared a mortal sin (which, strictly speaking, the Church doesn't do in any case: she defines certain things to be grave matter, which is one of the three conditions of a mortal sin, but full knowledge and deliberate consent remain). For that matter, I'm not specially attached to the term homophobia; I use it because, in our cultural context, it is an important term for rhetorical and sociological reasons, not because I give it separate status as a special kind of thing. Considered from the perspective of moral theology, it would simply be one form of the sin of hatred or contempt of one's fellow man, something about which we already have theology and moral precepts. They only need to be applied.

      The reason I wrote this, and used the particular words I did, is twofold: one, I see homosexual inclinations (inclinations, not acts) often used in Christian circles to justify hatred, pride, and other sins; and two, I am concerned with our capacity to clearly convey the truth to those outside the Church. That communication requires us to speak their language, even if only as a preliminary to explaining our own language; for, while it may not be in Latin, Catholic theology has a sort of private language like any discipline does, and that can lead to serious, even critical, confusions of meaning if it is stubbornly insisted upon in informal conversations without being explained.

      I have never on any occasion on this blog suggested that we ignore natural law or the tradition of our most holy Mother. I have no interest whatever in conservatism, true, but I have a very great deal of interest in orthodoxy, which is something quite different. If anything I have written can be shown to be inconsistent with the dogmas of the Roman Church, then I shall give my assent to her over myself, because I trust her. Until that shall have happened, I shall opine on practical matters by doing my best to extrapolate from both theology and my own experience, and I see nothing inconsistent here between what I have written and the infallible teachings of the Holy See.

      As to a moral imperative to reprimand sinners, that is indeed one of the works of mercy. But it should be done wisely; and a part of wisdom is taking the trouble to know the person you are speaking to and what effect your words are likely to have on them. Refusing to take that into account is not zeal, but a failure of charity. For a rebuke delivered in the wrong way will almost certainly be either dismissed (probably with a concomitant hardening of heart), or else plunge the one who hears it into despair. To say that those things are the other person's problem suggests an interest in delivering rebukes for its own sake more than an interest in helping others. A righteous rebuke has to be delivered with love -- which means, among other things, gentleness, humility, and a deliberate recognition of what is and isn't one's own business.

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  3. I agree with Irksome1. I attend Courage and have found it to very good. Perhaps you could try it? I have experienced Courage to be anti-homophobia and pro-LGBT dignity in the way you desire.

  4. Thanks Gabriel. I practically agree everything you've said about the unhelpful, impersonal, and technical terms used by the Church in expounding homosexuality. Most people are turned off by this kind of cold, clinical, heavily academic, theological language. Perhaps we ought to petition to Pope Francis for a clearer and easily understood explanation of homosexuality in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.