Collect


Collect for the First Sunday of Advent

O almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through the same 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, August 30, 2013

Et in Syria Ego

It's sad to look back at the surge of hope that characterized the first news of the Arab Spring, when the government of Tunisia was overthrown by a real popular revolution, and look where it has come in two  and a half years since. Violence and civil war are not exactly strangers to the Middle East; neither is the persecution of Christians (or the near-silence about it in the American media); and yet, seeing these impulses of liberty and justice transfigured by bloodshed once again is cruelly disheartening. It's tempting to quote, turning the humor into bitterness, "And then winter gave spring and summer a miss and went straight on into autumn."*

And now, it seems, we are preparing for another war. Or to be more precise, we, the people, seem to be left out of the process entirely. The slogan of a 'police action,' that shabby device for avoiding an honest declaration of war while still employing the means and destructiveness of war, will doubtless be put to work once again, so that even our elected representatives in Congress will not be called upon to pretend that they represent anyone or anything in particular; and we find ourselves like children on a roller coaster, looking over into a huge abyss that we know we are about to swoop down into, and probably wishing that we could take back our decision to show off by asking to ride this one.

I don't flatter myself that this blog has national or international clout. But I want to say a few things, clearly and out loud, while there is yet time to do so.

First, there is no case to regard the likely-imminent invasion of Syria as a just war. Being dressed in non-bellicose language and surrounded by legal pedantries won't make it not a war, especially not for the people who will be killed by it. This is not a war being fought in self-defense, and the effects of violence anywhere in the Middle East are incalculable and uncontrollable, making proportionality of force virtually impossible to attain. If you just feel like being in agony, stick your face in a hornets' nest; it's faster and less expensive.**

Second, I cherish the hope that this will wake the churches up a little bit, especially the Catholic Church. I love the Church deeply, and have never regretted my conversion for an instant; but one of the things about American Catholics in particular that upsets me to the point of anger, is our squalid marriage of faith to political allegiance. This is not the special province of traditionalists-qua-conservatives; progressives-qua-liberals are just as guilty; I don't respect the contempt for Church teaching shown by Nancy Pelosi any more than I respect the contempt for Church teaching shown by William F. Buckley. The plain demonstration that the Democratic Party, when push comes to shove, cannot be trusted not to go to war any more than the GOP (which at least has the balls to be brazen about it), may perhaps dispel the idea that the political parties we have in this country are something other than ideologically-tinged opportunists.

Lastly, I rather hope it interests somebody in the American churches that the Syrian Christians themselves don't want Syria invaded. Cardinal Rai, the Maronite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, told Vatican Radio recently that the presence of Christians in the Middle East has been the chief moderating factor in the Middle East, and that every act of violence jeopardizes their existence. "As always, when there is chaos or war, Muslims in general attack Christians, they use them as scapegoats. I am sorry, but in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood were the ones to attack Coptic churches -- and Copts as well. Unfortunately this is the mentality of certain Muslims: every time there is a situation of chaos, Christians are attacked, without even knowing why." Middle Eastern Christians are one of the moderating influences in the region -- the tradition of dhimma is an ancient one, stemming from the Qur'an itself, and has borne fruit (if imperfectly) of plurality and harmony between the faiths. When the ostensibly Christian West deploys violent tactics, the natural scapegoats are the local Christians, and the Moslems who tolerate and defend them, so that not only do the religious minorities suffer, but even those members of the majority who would defend them are silenced, driven from the country, or killed, like the Christians themselves.


Clearly, what is needed here is more guns.

This is the result of something very simple and obvious, so simple and obvious that we have a difficult time believing it: namely, that war does not lead to peace. Not only do the ends not justify the means, the means are actually part and parcel with the end; it isn't simply that violence isn't noble enough to engender peace, it is that violence naturally breeds violence -- it is a matter of cause and effect. Self-defense can be justified, but let's not delude ourselves that that is what's at stake here. What is at stake is the false belief, which has become endemic in this country, that peace can be achieved by force -- a theory worthy of Looking-Glass Land.

We might, if we had been paying attention, have learned that lesson from the crucifix. Christianity was founded in an act of supreme self-sacrifice, of a deliberate refusal to counter violence with violence or hatred with hatred. Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be? The reason that the Church did not either turn into a political revolt, or wither and die, upon the death of her Master, had to do with more than the mere fact of the Resurrection. That, by itself, would not have dispelled the impulse of revenge. It had to do with the spiritual force of the Passion, the choice of Jesus to be a willing victim, absorbing into Himself the force of violence and answering with compassion.


See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

And that same power is available to us. That is the point of the Incarnation: the Divine love that embraces suffering, in order that suffering may by that embrace be ended within the lover, has been not merely shown to humanity but actually made present and possible, "not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God." Trying to use violence to bring suffering to an end is not just wide of the mark; it is an exact reversal of the solution set forth and accepted by God Himself; it is an assent to the theory that It is expedient that one man should die for the people.

Of course, in a way, Caiaphas was right; St John says as much in his Gospel, stating that the High Priest unwittingly prophesied in those words. But the only reason he was right was because Jesus did choose to die for the people; in other words, he was right only because Jesus was the sort of man who would never have valued expediency over life.

*If you don't recognize something as universal as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I do not know what to do with you.

**Sticking one's face in a hornets' nest would probably lead to a trip to the ER, yes. But according to the internet, in which I have total confidence, the average trip to the emergency room costs a little over $1200. This means that if, say, we had not built the nuclear warheads we dropped on Japan sixty years ago, we could have afforded, as a nation, to stick our faces in more than eight million hornets' nests.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Raw Tact, Part V: Shrieking the Truth in Love

There are a number of phrases that one sees over and over in the Christian-LGBT dialogue: attempts at conveying Christian beliefs in a charitable, winsome manner, without sacrificing those beliefs to politeness. And they are terrible. I mean, cliches aren't, as a rule, a very effective means of communication; but these ones have the added defect of being Christianese, which makes them both opaque to those outside the churches and a borderline addiction for those within. I'd like to go over a few of them and why they so, so do not work.

"I'm telling you this because I love you."

In principle, every statement of Christian truth is (or rather, ought to be) based on love. If Christianity is true, then, all else being equal, one of the most loving things a person can do is try to persuade others of its truth; for knowing that truth means knowing how reality works, and we've all got to live here in reality whether we know the truth about it or not. Living without such truth might not mean getting hurt -- but then again it might.

One problem with this phrase is that it's the sort of thing that a parent says to a child. Obviously, some discussions of queer issues and their delicate, uncomfortable relationship to traditional Christianity do take place between parents and children. But in those that don't, for the traditional believer to take a parental role in the conversation is insulting. It implies that the gay party being addressed lacks the power, or even the right, to discern right and wrong independently.* This is not only presumptuous and intrusive; it also confirms the stereotype of the self-righteous, preachy Christian. And that is part of the problem: people aren't always fair in their dislike of Christians, to put it mildly, but a lot of the reasons that dislike exists have to do with the fact that Christians can be annoying jerks. It's one of the occupational hazards of being a human.

Another flaw is that, sad to say, an awful lot of us have experienced Christian "love" is some pretty damaging ways, enough so to make the whole concept (and its attendant lingo) repellent. Someone once remarked that "The Jews are a nervous people. Nineteen centuries of Christian love have taken a toll." LGBT people have often suffered from the same problem: many of us have been bullied, neglected, yelled at, even physically injured, by Christian friends, teachers, parents. Nor is it uncommon for such cruelty to have been couched in or justified by Christian language and theology; I know a man who was regularly beaten by his father, a pastor, and who now barely speaks to or about his son or allow his wife and other children to do so, because of his son's sexuality. Professions of love have to be earned with actions before they can be credible to someone who has suffered like that.

"We all struggle with chastity."

I see this one a lot in Catholic circles especially, possibly because of the admittedly austere demands that Catholic moral theology makes of human sexuality. And, yes, with the possible exception of asexuals, we do all struggle with chastity. But the plain fact of the case is that for those of us whose particular cross is queerness, that struggle is unique. It doesn't follow that we get special treatment, or anything of that sort; but the distinctness should be recognized as well as the commonality, and this phrase (and similar ones) suggest contempt for a difficulty that often cuts deeper than the normal struggles of heterosexuality. Gay traditional Christians have very little prospect of getting married, and the support structures for celibacy (outside the priestly and monastic callings) are imperfect among Catholics and, in my experience, practically nonexistent among most Protestants. In addition, most of us feel very much that we have no choice in the matter, and the sense of injustice that that can give rise to is often more of a burden than the trials of chastity as such.

As for those gay people who are progressive Christians, or not Christians at all, they don't grant the premise that being gay just as such is something to struggle with in the first place, and phrases like this implicitly relegate their relationships to the status of moral failings. By all means discuss morality with people you disagree with, when it's tactful and tasteful to do so; but be aware of what you're saying, and be aware that nobody is going to be persuaded by an argument that begins with premises they don't accept.

"Are you sure you're not just confused?"

Um, really?

"Christians have a right to their beliefs, too."

This is quite true -- and I shall be the first to admit that the LGBT community has not always been careful to respect this fact, either en masse or as individuals. Even as a gay man, there have been many times when I've been made exceedingly uncomfortable by other gay people, including friends of mine, even just for being a Catholic, let alone for professing the Church's teaching; in fact, even considering the anti-gay remarks I've been exposed to, such as being referred to as a faggot and a sodomite, I think I've taken more flak for my faith than for my orientation. Kind of hypocritical.

But let's be honest: whatever injustices have happened, and whatever injustices are possible or even likely in the future, the track record of Christians in their treatment of homosexuals is a whole lot worse than the track record of homosexuals in their treatment of Christians (even if the only reason for that is that there hasn't been a gay movement for the last dozen or so centuries). Considering the ghastly way Christians are treated in China, or Egypt, or Indonesia, or Pakistan, or North Korea, or a smorgasboard of other nations worldwide, and contrasting it with the social prominence and power (however much they have declined and are declining) that the faith has always had in this country -- well, it puts me in mind of an album title: Some People Have Real Problems.

It doesn't at all follow from this that bigotry against Christian beliefs is acceptable. It isn't, and it should stop. Christians are no more categorically irrational than gays are categorically irrational. But talking as though Christians are primarily on the defensive, especially when the conversation gets Godwinized, is bad PR, bad taste, and bad spirituality.

Any non-sarcastic use of the phrase 'Adam and Steve.'

The number of people who are persuaded by such language of any part of Christian theology can be counted on one hand. With zero fingers. It was barely funny the first eighty times one heard it, and even then, it was a slightly dull, Christianese summary of a belief someone already held, not an argument for that belief.

"Homosexuality is no different from any other sin."

This one is a little different, in that it tends to come from a more genuinely charitable, and even a more sensitive, place than the others I've listed. The trouble with it is twofold. Part of that trouble is that those who use it have a somewhat disconcerting tendency to start comparing being gay to adultery or murder. In addition to finding that slightly over-the-top, I find it remarkable that being gay isn't being compared to, say, gossiping, or losing your temper, or overeating -- or any of a dozen socially acceptable sins that Christians are tacitly allowed to commit. Homosexuality is still (perhaps unintentionally) being placed in a separate class of sins, and with the "big" ones rather than the ordinary, unobtrusive ones that we all half-secretly want to excuse.

The other problem is that homosexuality is kind of a vague word. In this or that context (usually academic), such as theology or psychology, it can mean something specific. But there isn't a definite popular meaning of the term -- is it homosexuality for a girl to come out as a lesbian and explain to her parents that she's going to remain celibate for religious reasons? After all, she isn't doing anything, but her orientation is what it is. Or is it homosexuality for a straight guy to fool around with a straight friend when they're drunk? After all, their orientation is what it is, yet they're doing something. And so forth. What is being declared sinful here is so generic, that this phrase can indicate anything from a highly charitable traditionalist viewpoint to a barely-concealed rampaging homophobia.

Hey, speaking of which ...

"Accusations of homophobia are just a campaign to silence the Church."

Here again, I've seen this chiefly from Catholics, and it isn't altogether surprising: most Protestant traditions have a few evangelical versions of themselves and also one or more liberal versions, so that there is usually a gay-friendly version of any given Protestant heritage. But the Catholic Church has a very specific, very public, and very long-standing doctrine of sexuality, and also happens to be the largest single tradition in the country. It's therefore natural that accusations of homophobia should be launched more against Rome than against any other body of believers.

Many of those accusations are, in my opinion, wholly unjust. I think the term homophobia should be reserved for cases that exhibit marks of a properly psychological phobia; i.e., an irrational fear and hatred. The intellectual statement that homosexual behavior is wrong doesn't qualify; a person might disagree with it, but the statement is precisely a rational and philosophical one, even if it isn't true. That being said, the bad facts are, a lot of Christians (Catholic and otherwise) are irrationally afraid of and hateful of homosexuals. Westboro Baptist Church is everybody's go-to example, but subtler examples of unfair attitudes, words, and decisions abound, and saying that they don't displays either a gross ignorance of the actual lives of LGBT people, or a shocking callousness about them. Admittedly we're probably better off in this country than anywhere else, except parts of Europe; but the silence of many Christians -- including, miserably, the Catholic hierarchy here -- on the sufferings of gays and lesbians internationally, is doing serious damage to the credibility of the Christian claim to love homosexuals.


This shouldn't happen.

Of course the answer is not to swing the pendulum in the other direction, and make Romophobia socially acceptable (not that it hasn't been before). The point is, an unjust prejudice is an unjust prejudice, and, yes, Christians can be and have been guilty of it. That should be admitted -- not only for the sake of PR, but for the sake of decency.

"Love the sinner, hate the sin."

The classic.

One problem is simply that it is a Christianese cliche. Now, you could object to Christianese (and this example thereof in particular) on the grounds that it is trite, kitschy, ubiquitous enough to be insufferable, often theologically sketchy, dulls people's minds with pat answers to profound and difficult questions, and fails to communicate to those who don't already know the lingo. But ... well, no, I guess that's everything.

A second problem: take a look at that sentence. Not counting 'the,' one syllable in it is repeated, and that syllable is the word 'sin.' The focus is entirely upon sin. That's largely why it rubs people the wrong way; whether it's intended or not, the subtext is that the person you're saying it to is a sinner -- and you, maybe not so much. Groups such as Courage frequently object to words like 'gay' because they reduce people to a shallow identity -- doesn't this do exactly the same thing? Summing up a whole person and their experience of sexuality under the name 'sinner'?

Someone might object that it isn't a claim to sinlessness, and that in point of fact everybody is a sinner; and technically, that's true, but the force of the saying isn't supplied just by the technicalities. Consider:

And behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner. (From Luke 7.36ff.)

Did the Pharisee acknowledge, in principle, that he also was a sinner? In all likelihood, yes; we may be sure he knew the Psalms like the back of his hand, in which it says that the righteous man falls seven times a day. Was he wrong in identifying this woman as a sinner? Surely not -- everybody is a sinner, and, since 'sinner' was likely a euphemism for a prostitute, well, they stay in business because people know who they are, so that her sins were probably public knowledge. The Pharisee wasn't wrong in what he thought -- it lay all in how and why he was thinking it. I think that exactly the same problem lurks behind many uses of the phrase 'Love the sinner, hate the sin.' It has been made more generous-sounding than the Pharisee. But pride comes in patronizing and condescending forms as well as brutal and contemptuous ones.

Another problem still can be discovered through a thought experiment. Let's say you're a Catholic: how would you feel if a gay person said sweetly to you, "I love you, but I hate your Catholicism"?

Christians, especially Catholics in my experience, make a great deal out of gayness not being a metaphysical category -- gay men aren't a different kind of being from straight men, they just have a difference of disposition; the difference between them is an adjective, not a noun, if you will. That is perfectly true. But religion is a good parallel example,** because Christians are not a different kind of being from atheists and Moslems and Buddhists -- yet for someone to speak that way is manifestly insulting and hostile, even if the person means well in saying it, for the simple reason that a person's religion is a very precious thing, into which their conscience and sense of self is woven.

Am I saying that the same is true of sexuality? Um, yes. Absolutely. Nothing can be closer to the heart than how we relate to other people, and that is inextricably linked to sexuality -- as Blessed John Paul II taught in Theology of the Body -- for everyone from celibates to prostitutes. Whether we approve of our sexual dispositions, or of any or all of the acts that do or can flow from our sexuality, isn't relevant; they are a persistent and far-reaching influence in our whole experience of relating to people, and when you get right down to it, there isn't much in life that doesn't consist in relating to people, directly or indirectly. It is not only inevitable but appropriate that our sexuality should, therefore, be one of the major factors in our sense of self. A phrase like 'Love the sinner, hate the sin' seems quite calmly and contentedly to direct hatred to an aspect of the person that cannot be easily separated from the person as a whole.

That's all I have energy for right now. Vade in pace.

*I recognize the authority of the Catholic Church to set forth right and wrong in such a way as to rightly bind men's consciences. However, the individual person does not have the right to bind other men's consciences; and the relationship between conscience and authority is an extremely complicated one, to which I can't do justice in a footnote.

**Please note: I have said that it is a good parallel example, not a perfect one. I'm aware of the spiritual character conferred by the sacraments, most particularly Baptism and Confirmation.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Raw Tact, Part IV: Coming Out Christian

When I was in college, a group of weird fundamentalist preachers came to the campus to yell at us all. I wish I was just contemptuously summarizing what they were doing, but no, they literally stood there for hours, just yelling. While students from the Pride Alliance stood in front of them with a banner, holding a silent protest, the yellers said that God does hate some people, that they themselves didn't sin any more (fascinating), and that we were a university of masturbators. They called themselves Soulwinners Ministries International; we, well, called them other things.

In the wake of that, Campus Crusade's University of Maryland chapter had a counter-demonstration, saying that everyone, including Christians, sin and have sinned, and including public confessions; one girl who was involved with the Pride Alliance said that she was really grateful to see us there saying these things. A journalism student covered the counter-protest, and interviewed a handful of us, including me; I mentioned that I was a non-practicing homosexual, and he, intrigued, asked for a longer interview later on. I assented, and, a few days later, was a little shocked to find a picture of my own face taking up half the front page of the school paper. The article was far from perfect; it makes me laugh now, partly from the very melancholy picture of me it presents, and partly from a few minor inaccuracies; but, in retrospect, I think that was the most public and decisive coming out I ever had. So I guess that's ... something. Not sure what, but definitely very, very something.

That was two years before I entered the Catholic Church. I knew, before I swam the Tiber, that I was in for difficulties of various kinds -- not least the exacting ethic of chastity that the Church believes. But one unexpected thing, which I didn't even begin to pick up on until I had been a Catholic for two or three years, was a great dislike on the part of Catholics for gay people coming out of the closet.

I have always been at a loss to understand this. I've read a lot of the reasons set forth by various Catholic authors, and I think I understand where they're coming from; as that gayness should not be a person's chief identity (and -- let's face it, fellow queers -- a lot of people in the LGBTQ world are pretty immature about gayness as an identity, or a substitute for an identity), or that jumping from any same-sex feelings to a categorical "Well I must be gay then" is foolish, or simply that people's privacy should be respected if they don't want to come out (something else that a lot of folks in the gay world aren't always tactful or tasteful about). The objection that the word gay signifies a moral and political stance in addition to a general disposition of sexual attractions -- i.e., that gay means someone who believes gay sex is morally equivalent to straight sex -- was true, say, thirty years ago and more; but language has shifted and that is no longer the case. Frankly, none of the reasons I've encountered for not coming out, even the reasonable reasons,* seems adequate, aside from a simple desire for privacy. And honestly, if privacy is a person's reason, no further reasons should be necessary.

What has always struck me about a lot of Catholic rhetoric on the subject, though, is how totally it fails to understand the actual lived experience of a gay person. (I say "a lot" because there are exceptions.) The weird abundance of scare quotes in such rhetoric kind of suggests this lack of understanding, but the real evidence of it comes in explanations, from those opposed, of why a person would come out. For example:

"The act of 'coming out' is not the simple moment of openness which the 'gay community' advertises it to be. It is a dangerous trap which puts both persons in the conversation and their relationship at risk ... All the writers coach the person coming out to hear only two possible responses: Total rejection or total endorsement. The mindset is passionately black and white, highly charged, and very difficult to respond to. ... The 'coming out' step is more than a step into full membership in the homosexual movement. A second purpose ... is to seek 'converts' among 'straight' friends and family members to the cause of 'pro-gay' values. The price of refusing those values is often the break-up of the friendship or the family relationship -- a steep price indeed, which has sometimes been termed by those who have been offered those two dark options: 'emotional blackmail.'"**

Yes, because The Gays want their families and friends to reject them, and have never been mistreated or threatened by those they love, ever. Nobody has ever been kicked out of the house by their own parents as a teenager for telling the truth about who they're dating, or berated and beaten when they admitted to same-sex feelings and asked for help; and The Gays are simple-minded creatures who cannot understand the complex moral and emotional factors that influence people's reactions.

Sarcasm aside, the only thing to be said about the passage that I have quoted, is that it is not true. There are people, including authors of books on coming out, who grossly oversimplify the issue and perhaps even contribute to familial conflicts; and there are others who don't. Unlike the person who wrote the passage above, apparently, I've read some of the latter. And I've spent enough time with other gay people, not to mention my own family, to know that, yes, the fallout from coming out is complicated, and has to be handled with tact and patience on both sides, especially when there are conflicting beliefs between the parties. 

Now, far be it from me to say that there are no people whose coming out of the closet was downright Machiavellian. All sorts of people behave in all sorts of ways, and that kind of manipulation can't be said never to have happened. And it must be admitted that a lot of us, especially activists, have not been considerate of our families' feelings in the way we've come out; it's understandable, given that just being gay is an emotionally fraught experience, but the difficulties of parents, siblings, and friends have often been disregarded, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes on the grounds that other people's feelings don't matter when the cause of gay rights is at stake. But the notion that such emotional abuse is the chief or sole motive behind the desire to come out is absurd, and, even from the wholly orthodox Catholic view that I espouse, can be demonstrated to be categorically false by a simple perusal of what Joseph Prever of the Steve Gershom blog has called a gay Christian renaissance: Melinda Selmys, Joshua Gonnerman, Ron Belgau, Eve Tushnet, Aaron Taylor, Josh Weed, Wesley Hill, Jeremy Erickson, Julie Rodgers, Brent Bailey, Daniel Mattson (though he approaches the subject quite differently), and Joseph Prever himself, to name just twelve. (The periodical First Things and the blog Spiritual Friendship house a great mass of essays by the above figures.)

Well, why would somebody come out, unless they were supporting the gay agenda?

First of all, the gay agenda isn't really a thing -- or, it is only a thing in the same sense that the Christian agenda is a thing, or women's agenda, or the black agenda. Any subcategory of "everyone," whether religious or sexual or racial or whatever, is defined by a certain degree of shared experience; but it doesn't follow that everybody in that subcategory has the same views and desires. People are incorrigibly plural. That should point us to the fact that "Why would somebody come out unless they were supporting X?" is the wrong kind of question. Why would a person come out, period?

I cannot speak for everyone. But I get the impression that some of my reasons are pretty common ones. For myself, the following were major causes:

1. Survival. Not everyone reacts to their sexuality this way, but for me, the weight of being the only one who knew about me was crushing. It was like carrying a huge stone on my head, all the time. Telling other people helped me to actualize my theoretical belief that my being gay was not the end of the world. If I hadn't, knowing me, my shame and fear would probably have devoured me: suicide would not have been out of the question. Coming out, far from locking me into a lifestyle, helped me to concretely affirm that there was more to me than my sexuality, because I got to experience first-hand people not reducing me to that once they knew about it. And that helped me learn a little bit of courage and trust. (I experienced a lot of other things first hand, too, but everything has downsides.)

2. Honesty. If there is one thing that I have believed (believed, not practiced) thoroughly for about as long as I can remember, it is that truthfulness is obligatory, about everything, all the time. It does not follow that we have to tell everybody everything or that we have no right to be private, or polite, about some things. But it does mean that one must not tell lies. And it is surprisingly hard to make it through one's life without people assuming that you're straight, for the simple and valid reason that most people are. It is also rather unpleasant, if you're not, to try to carry on conversations and indeed whole relationships, when someone is making a multitude of assumptions about your experiences that simply aren't true.

3. Weariness. Even if a person doesn't feel that they are being dishonest or evasive when others assume they're straight, reworking your instinctive responses to a host of things is necessary if you wish to avoid outing yourself. I'm not just talking about correcting for lisp (when applicable), but about discussing crushes you've had, explaining your difficulties with chastity, telling friends that you aren't interested in dating this cute girl they know, and the like. Even if you're 100% comfortable with both yourself and traditional Christian sexual mores, the mere busywork of keeping it private can be truly exasperating.

4. Witness. The Church says, rightly, that she needs practicing Christians who show in their own lives why her teaching is good, true, and beautiful, not only in spite of but even because of its highly challenging nature. Is anybody in a better position to be a witness to that than a gay Christian, in our time and place? Isn't telling gay Christians that they should stay in the closet, or re-closet themselves somehow, a little counterintuitive? Or, conversely, viewed from the perspective of those outside the Church, doesn't it call into question the Church's professions of love and acceptance, when she doesn't even want the matter discussed by those to whom it most urgently pertains?

5. Concern. I was terribly alone as an adolescent. I would have been anyway -- I was a fairly atypical boy as far as interests, both in terms of liking things many boys don't and not caring about the things most boys enjoy; and my depression certainly didn't help. But one of the worst things was feeling that there was no one who was safe for me to talk to. The silence, and the animosity toward the whole gay subculture, was so oppressive that it made me feel that my orientation was not only bad, but so filthy as to be unspeakable. I decline to regard this as having the least imprint of Christian charity upon it. And I don't think it's a helpful mindset to get teenagers with same-sex feelings in, either; they, of all people, need to feel that the Church is a safe place. I don't want anyone to have to feel as scared and helpless as I did. The Church should truly be a sanctuary.

6. Humor. Awful, awful humor. I'm a fan of South Park, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and so forth. I really like making terribly tasteless and offensive jokes. And if people don't know I'm gay, I can't safely make gay jokes.***

*There are of course people whose reasons are simply and categorically homophobic -- i.e., based on an irrational fear of and/or dislike for homosexuals. I don't consider these reasons worth answering.

**The full article can be found here, and may explain why, despite its status as thus far the only Vatican-approved ministry to homosexuals, I am not specially eager to touch Courage with a ten-foot pole.

***No, seriously, this was one of my reasons. But, you know, not in a gay way.
Okay, that one was terrible, but you get the point, though.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Music: O Virgin Pure

This is an English version of a Byzantine hymn called Agni Parthene, or O Virgin Pure. I discovered it when some friends of mine included it in the music for their wedding. Like all Orthodox music, it is almost painfully beautiful -- hypnotic. I've put it up in celebration of the Assumption of Mary (known, in the East, as the Dormition, i.e. falling asleep), which is my favorite of all the Marian feasts of the Church.


O Virgin pure, immaculate, O Lady Theotokos,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
O fleece bedewed with every grace, O Virgin Queen and Mother,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
More radiant than the rays of sun, and higher than the heavens,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
O joy of virgin choruses, superior to angels,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
O brighter than the firmament, and purer than the sun's light,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
More holy than the multitude of all the heavenly armies,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!

O Ever-Virgin Mary, of all the world the Lady,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
O Bride all-pure, immaculate, O Lady Panagia,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
O Mary Bride and Queen of all, the cause of our rejoicing,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
O noble maiden, gracious Queen, supremely holy Mother,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
More honored than the Cherubim, beyond compare more glorious,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
Than the unbodied Seraphim, transcending the angelic Thrones,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!

Rejoice, the song of Cherubim, rejoice, the hymn of Angels,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
Rejoice, the ode of Seraphim, the joy of the Archangels,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
Rejoice, O peace and happiness, and haven of salvation,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
O sacred chamber of the Word, the flower of incorruption,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
Rejoice, delightful paradise of blessed life eternal,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
Rejoice, O sacred Queen of life, and fount of immortality,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!

I supplicate you, Lady, now, I fervently entreat you,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
O Queen of all, I earnestly implore and seek your favor,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
O gracious maiden, spotless one, O Lady Panagia,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
I call upon you ardently, O holy, hallowed temple,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
O help me and deliver me, protect me from the enemy,
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!
And make me an inheritor of blessed life eternal.
O rejoice, Bride unwedded!

Theotokos means 'Mother of God,' a title used in popular devotions since at least the second century and defined as the Church's formal confession in the fifth, at the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451). Panagia means 'All-holy,' and is one of the popular liturgical titles of the Virgin Mary in the East; in the West, the partially equivalent titles 'Immaculate' and 'Conceived Without Sin' are more in use.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Raw Tact, Part III: What the Thunder Said

This was an extremely hard post to write, though its premise is a simple one. I sat in front of my laptop for about five minutes without typing a letter, trying to work up the courage to start. (Despite the fact that this top section is substantially shorter than the part after the asterisks, the top part is the main note. The bottom part is essentially a clarifying appendix.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following in its paragraphs about homosexuality (2357-2359):

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant attraction to members of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Some of my readers may have gone through that and thought it a pretty balanced, unexceptionable statement of traditional Christian beliefs on the subject. Others may have been unable to finish the first paragraph due to disagreement, anger, pain, or shame.

I do not propose, here, to argue with either side. I believe the teaching of the Church, and that firmly, but the purpose of this post is not to discuss that. Below is an analysis of the text, which I hope clarifies parts of it -- much Catholic terminology has the misfortune of seeming to coincide with normal English but not actually doing so. But the chief purpose of the quotation is that this is one of the things that forms the backdrop to the whole experience of being gay and Catholic. Try to sympathize; that is, to put this doctrine in a personal rather than an abstract context. Try, heterosexual reader, to imagine believing all of this, not about somebody else, but about yourself. If your imagination fails you, try this as an aid:

Heterosexuality refers to relations between men and women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the opposite sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents heterosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "heterosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

Now: how do you feel? How will you live?

*     *     *

What follows is basically an appendix, purely for purposes of clarification. In explaining what the Catholic Church is stating here (to the best of my ability), I am not setting forth an apologetic for that belief; that is a task worth doing, but it is not what I am at the moment aiming to do. For that reason, on this post specifically, I will make no reply to comments arguing against -- or for -- the Church's teaching; they are germane to the subject, obviously, but they will sidetrack my purpose, and I'm having a difficult time focusing that purpose as it is. I won't suppress such comments either, except on the same grounds that I would suppress any comment, i.e. abusiveness, total irrelevance, or gobs of crazy.

1. Note the Church's definition of the term homosexuality: she defines it specifically as involving sexual relations, not simply as a general disposition. Sexual orientation is a modern term for a comparatively modern concept (dating, roughly, to the nineteenth century); not that it wasn't known before then that some men had a general and lifelong preference for other men, or women for women, but that it wasn't thought of as making you a different kind of thing. For this reason, when the Church (using the term) talks about homosexuality, she doesn't have persons in mind -- only actions. This may not be a useful or a clear way of speaking; or then again it may. In any case it is what she in fact means.

2. The phrase grave depravity probably makes it sound like the Catholic Church regards gay sex as a uniquely evil thing. This isn't the case. Depravity, though it is more rhetorical and therefore sounds more severe, is simply one of the synonyms for "sin" used by the Church. It therefore doesn't in itself say where on the scale of seriousness something lies, between torturing someone to death and enjoying caustic thoughts about them.

The term grave doesn't change this. Being derived from the Latin, it is used in Catholic terminology as a synonym for "serious" and an antonym for unimportant; as taking a nickel that a coworker has left lying on his desk is probably unimportant, but taking five dollars would be serious (not as serious as stealing his paycheck, but serious nonetheless -- it's his money, for one thing, and he might need it for another). For comparison, masturbation, which is an extremely common sin that the Church spends little time fulminating against, is equally termed by the Catechism "an intrinsically and gravely disordered action."

3. Intrinsically disordered, like objectively disordered a few lines further down, has probably caused more anguish than the rest of the Church's language put together. To clarify: intrinsically is being opposed to accidentally; so, on Catholic premises, a man lusting for a woman who is not his wife is accidentally misdirected, because there's nothing perverse about wanting a woman, but that desire is supposed to be fulfilled between husband and wife only. In principle, the woman our theoretical man is lusting after might have been his wife, and that circumstance would be relevant. Conversely, there aren't any circumstances (according to the Church's teaching) in which the desire of a man for a man could be morally fulfilled, and so the misdirection lies in the desire as such.

Likewise, objectively is frequently taken to mean "as any sane person can see," perhaps influenced by frequent Christian talk about objective truth. That isn't what the Church is driving at here at all. It has, rather, to do with what the Church says is misdirected about the desire: its object. Wanting to have sex, just as such, isn't wrong (it is, indeed, too amorphous to be wrong, or right). It is the specific object (someone of the same sex, either in general or in particular) that the Church considers problematic.

Lastly, disordered. This single word has probably been the worst element in the Church's PR on the subject of homosexuality; I don't know whether it can be avoided, for philosophical reasons, but those philosophical reason bear explaining. The Church speaks of desires as being ordered to an end; the language derives, I think, from Aristotle. A synonymous phrase would be that desires are directed to a goal. That is why, in the preceding paragraphs, I spoke of direction and misdirection, rather than of order and disorder. In theological language, the word disordered does not have the psychiatric associations it does in the English vernacular.

None of this is an argument. And none of it makes the Catechism palatable -- certainly not to me. However, it does explain the difference between the Church saying (or meaning to say), "You want something you ought not to want," and the world hearing (or thinking it hears), "You're a sick lunatic."

4. Natural law deserves a much more thorough treatment than I am about to give it here. Since homosexual behavior does occur in nature, and since the phrase "law(s) of nature" occurs more or less exclusively in scientific contexts today, most people read this as simply an instance of blatant disregard for what, you know, actually happens, on the Church's part. But natural law theory, which is what she is citing, is quite different. It is another philosophical phrase that the Church has derived ultimately from Aristotle. To begin with, theology has in mind humanity specifically, not material existence in general; in addition, the kind of law that the phrase natural law here signifies is along the lines of a law to pay taxes, not the law of gravity. Defiance of the law of gravity isn't something that happens -- the most someone can do is attempt to defy the law of gravity; but people can and do violate the laws of taxes. Natural law, in the Catholic sense, is a law that commands but does not control.

A laughably short summary of the Catholic doctrine is that the sexual act is meant to be open to life, and that acts which either deliberately obstruct that possibility (contraception) or aren't capable of being open to it (homosexuality, masturbation, and some others) are therefore morally out of court, as separating the act of sex from its meaning. It doesn't follow from this that people who engage in these sorts of sexual acts always do so from the same motives, but good intentions, while crucially important, are not by themselves adequate from this perspective.

5. The genuine affective and sexual complementarity is a topic I am not entirely fitted to address; my understanding of gender is fairly imperfect. I will therefore confine myself to saying that the Church regards gender as being something that is objectively true about a person, with an inherent significance, regardless of variations of personality and self-presentation (St. Joan of Arc is a good example of a very unconventional gender-presentation). The complementarity under discussion here is not simply getting along, nor even being well-suited to one another as companions, but something woven into gender and sex themselves; I suspect that it has a spiritual and mystical character, not least from Ephesians 5, but I've come to the edge of my comprehension of the subject here.

6. The second and third paragraphs, read thus in isolation, could leave the impression that the Church expects chastity of LGBT people more sternly than of straight people; or that it requires us to be celibate; or both. Of the former, this impression can be corrected by reading those parts of the Catechism addressed to heterosexual intercourse. No one is exempted from Christian perfection.

As for LGBT people being called to chastity, that isn't necessarily incompatible with marriage. It is quite true that the Catholic Church will only recognize a marriage between a man and a woman (and there are further modifiers which need not detain us just now), but, if they freely choose to do so, a gay person is just as welcome to enter such a marriage as anybody else. They may not be much consoled by this, and I can't blame them (us, really); I am concerned only to indicate that the thing being required is the same for everyone -- not that some of the people of whom it's being required haven't got a pretty raw deal. Also, to distinguish properly between chastity and celibacy. Celibacy is only one form of chastity, for chastity means simply the integration of chastity into the whole human person, in part achieved by and resulting in the practice of sexual virtue. The thing is, for a married person, having sex can be sexual virtue. A wife could have sex more often (and probably with more pleasure) than a prostitute and be, not just alongside but in that very fact, highly chaste.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Reblog: Idea Channel

(Is it a reblog if I'm ripping it off YouTube?)

Anyway. A cool channel's cool video. About bronies. And the nature of gender and such, but mostly bronies.


By the way, despite her absence from the video, Fluttershy will always be the best pony. (Okay, technically she's a pegasus, shut up.)

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.