Catholicism, Clarity, and the Gay Problem: An Answer to Dr. Janet Smith and the Current Courage Confusion
“We must search for the laws of its simplicity and clarity, for its power and authority, so as to overcome our natural lack of skill in the use of the great and mysterious spiritual instrument of speech and to enable us worthily to compete with those who today exert so much influence through their word by having access to the organs of public opinion.” ~ Encyclical Letter on the Ways in which the Church Must Carry Out its Mission in the Contemporary World, His Holiness Pope Paul VI (Promulgated on August 6, 1964)
Along with most of my friends, I grew up a lost and confused little boy in the 1970s; nothing seemed certain back then, not even my tenuous ideas about God. Just this year, Cardinal Wuerl of Washington DC had this to say about that indecisive time: “When I was a young priest in the 1960s and 1970s, there was much experimentation and confusion in the Church. Teachers and clergy were encouraged by some to communicate an experience of God’s love, but to do it without reference to the Creed, the sacraments, or Church tradition. It did not work very well. Catholics grew up with the impression that their heritage was little more than warm, vaguely positive feelings about God.”During the same period, I distinctly recall a priest at school saying that “good” Catholics questioned everything about the Church; a catechism teacher taught that God never judged us; another said that matters of right and wrong were exclusively determined by our personal conscious. Yet, inside, I always felt that there was something distinctly amiss, because – I was attracted to other boys. This was a rather universal phase of suffering and denial that I found widely experienced by the majority of those I later got to know as a gay man. As I subsequently learned, most of us grew up seriously lacking: a secure male figure in our lives, a feeling of masculine assurance, or even the basic sense of personal safety. Therefore, with the Church offering nothing of substance – most of us looked for answers elsewhere. Then, the only confident solidity seemed to emanate from pop-culture and the burgeoning gay rights movement. To a lonely kid confused about his emotions, the masculine solidarity displayed by The Village People broached the senses as a near heavenly vision rivaling an angelic choir. Suddenly though, disco was dead as AIDS seemed to destroy that near nirvana of gay liberation. Yet, in the midst of it all, a new Madonna signaled a return to confidence through the ritual of “safe sex.” Yet, it all came crashing down – and hundreds of thousands would die. But, what went so horribly wrong?
Interestingly enough, during my entire stay in the gay lifestyle, my closest friends were all men who had been raised Catholic. Even though there was a nearby “gay-affirming” Catholic parish, to varying degrees, we had all pretty much left behind that part of ourselves. The one hold-out, an always serious guy who became obsessed with John Boswell’s book about early-Christian same-sex “wedding” ceremonies. As for the rest of us, our lack of interest had less to do with any conscious decision to leave the religion of our youth, but in a growing awareness of its own ineffectuality. Even John Paul II admitted that many were led astray: “One must be realistic and acknowledge with a deep and pained sentiment that a great part of today’s Christians feel lost, confused, perplexed, and even disillusioned: ideas contradicting the revealed and unchanging Truth have been spread far and wide; outright heresies in the dogmatic and moral fields have been disseminated, creating doubt, confusion, and rebellion…”* With regards to homosexuality itself, the Church acknowledged that: “an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good.” And, though we rarely discussed it, each of us could vividly recall experiences with priests that ranged from dead silence at the mere mention of our orientation to something resembling envious admiration. I will never forgot how, during a failed dinner party intervention organized by my parents, the slightly tipsy priest they invited to set their wayward son on the right path – patted me on the back and said I was doing just fine; in reality, things had gotten pretty dark for me and I wasn’t doing fine at all, but, at that time, being gay was the only life I knew. As a result, overall, the Church seemed indecisive and confused. Therefore, we took none of them seriously. To us, the inevitability of another Madonna pop hit, the feeling of euphoria experienced on the dance floor when surrounded by a hundred near naked sweating guys, and the caress of another man – those things were real, they were tangible; the Church was a meaningless bloated entity filled with bickering eunuchs. Protected within their convoluted bubble of endless insular “dialogue;” why should we pay them any attention? Looking back, even twenty years later, it’s still difficult to recall what happened to those lost Catholic boys I once knew: by 1998, they were all dead. The hardest one to understand – the death of my bookish friend who always seemed to reach for the highest moral plane then available to a gay man: he eventually settled down with a life-partner, only to become HIV+.
Somehow, I barely survived and after a decade of living as an unapologetic gay man, the bottom (literally) feel out of my world. Too sick to even crawl, I was carried away to a place of safety; at the time, I was anemic from years of continuous rectal bleeding, my anus had recently prolapsed, my immune system was shot from too many antibiotic cycles that were becoming increasingly ineffective against a repeated string of STD infections, at 29, I had lost my looks and no longer existed at the center of attention in the bars and discos, but found myself relegated to the periphery – haunting the darkened and seedy halls and lavatories of the sex-clubs and bathhouses. Most of my friends had since died of AIDS – so, I had little left to live for. Only, for some reason I couldn’t even begin to comprehend, the Lord took pity on me; and, as he did with the woman caught in adultery, not to mention the countless other social rejects, lepers and hopeless demoniacs – He said little, but He saved my life with a simple gesture of kindness: sending away those who sought my destruction and forgiving me of my sins; instantly dispelling confusion with the promise of healing.
Later, during those first initial months after my rescue, I was immensely curious about everything related to Christ. All I knew was that somehow this strange man cared about me; but He remained completely mysterious. But, I didn’t know what to do next; as for the Catholic Church – I was rather terrified, would another priest patronize me and send me back to the Castro. Then, rather miraculously, I spotted the heavily sun-bleached spin of a book hidden amongst the numerous editions scattered casually on my mother’s bookshelf: “The Catechism of the Catholic Church.” A substantial volume, it felt sold and real in my hand. That first time I picked it up, I swiftly turned to those pages having to do with homosexuality; initially, seeing the rather short paragraphs, my first thought was: “Out of this thick book – That’s it!” But then I read through them: “grave depravity,” “objectively disordered,” “intrinsically disordered;” I said to myself – “Okay…Maybe a little difficult to comprehend at first, but it felt genuine and strong.” It was clear, simple, and the Truth. I took the book back to bed and slept with it for weeks on end. And, here I was lying upon my often blood-stained sheets, awaiting to go through a series of painful surgeries that would hopefully repair my damaged lower digestive tract, and the more I thought about it, I became convinced and I understood just how “disordered” I once was; part of the confusion that permanently marked so much of my past began to dissipate. Because, from that point onward, in my own ravaged body - I could plainly see in the mirror where confusion had brought me. What I found vastly more difficult to recognize and understand was how and why I became so open to disorder. For those physical wounds seeped and constantly drained blood, but the mental ones – though just as serious and painful, were buried within me. As a result, I grew conflicted. Almost on a daily basis, I wavered in between the worlds of solidity, represented by “The Catechism” and the more shadowy realm of conflict ruled by my still unresolved emotions. At an impasse, I self-resolved the problem: I could be chaste, but I was still gay; I may have been hurt, but I wasn’t broken.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, there appeared a newly ordained priest. I inadvertently met him while apparently happy and content with being Catholic, gay, and chaste. Only, he could see through all that. By then, the physical wounds were healing. But to those with a unique perception, a “discernment of spirits,” I still looked battered and bruised; I looked confused. When I introduced myself to him, he said only a few words, but was so kind and unassuming that I immediately wanted to trust him. However, I got sort of worried when he asked if he could pray over me. The years of confusion and uncertainty about the Church had built up a wall of suspicion around me, but, for some unknown reason – I calmly said: “Okay.” Part of my acceptance was that he also reminded me somewhat of Pope John Paul II; again, through “The Catechism,” my one lifeline to the Faith, and then George Weigel’s book, I began to appreciate this solidly built and immovably steadfast man; reading the immense biography – I cheered inside when the supremely masculine John Paul shut down “dialogue” amongst those constantly pushing for the ordination of women; it was a consummate triumph of order over confusion. In a strange way, this priest did the same – making me feel at ease while calmly turning off my relentlessly distracting inner-chatter. Away from everyone else, in a small room, only assisted by his biological father, the priest I had known for barely five minutes, put a stole over his head and began to pray. Next, for some reason, which I did not understand, he placed the end of the stole on my shoulder and I immediately fell to the floor; all at once, some unseen force was pulling my head from side to side and in between the weird grunts and barks that emanated from my mouth – I begged Father to help me; without hesitating, he kept praying. This went on for a while, but Father didn’t stop praying for a single moment. Slowly, whatever entity that still resided within me, the clinging spirit of my persistent confused gay self, was pulled out and finally expelled. It was over.
At one time, confusion sent me to the gay lifestyle; now, it was the simple strength of clarity, represented in this humble and faithful priest, which decisively brought me out once and for all. And, this is always what the Church has done best, as Christ Himself did, taking in the diseased, the unwanted, and the disregarded of the world – healing them, casting out demons, and imparting the simple message of Faithfulness and Love; bringing peace to lives of the confounded; most famously, even widely known among those without a Christian mindset, this idea is found in the axiom attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel - use words only if necessary;” what he more accurately said was this: “I also admonish and exhort these brothers that, in their preaching, their words be well chosen and chaste... in a discourse that is brief, because it was in few words that the Lord preached while on earth.” Nevertheless, the message is clear, truly exemplified in a once disoriented libertine who dared to comfort and tend the wounds of the broken, the poor, and the outcast. This exact sentiment was picked up hundreds of years later by Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “Spread the love of God through your life but only use words when necessary.” As Pope Paul VI stated, it’s this “search…for simplicity and clarity” in both words, and in actions, that Saved me; in opposition – the lack or absence of clarity breeds confusion, and, in the case of those I knew – death.
Sadly, many have gotten away from the simple message of healing and the simplicity of Christ’s Love for each of us; at a recent event: the conference “Accompanying and Welcoming Our Brothers and Sisters with Same-Sex Attraction,” jointly sponsored by the Archdiocese of Detroit and Courage International, a message of confusion has overshadowed the Truth and the fate of souls hangs in the balance. In fact, one of the organizers, Dr. Janet E. Smith, stated: “We knew there was a risk of some confusion arising, but we thought the risk worth it.” First of all, as someone who was once extremely confused about what the Church taught with regards to homosexuality, an especially heady problem in the days before the publication of “The Catechism,” I find her willingness to admit the reality of “confusion arising” and her complicity to just letting it happen, extremely alarming. Because, we must never lose sight of the fact that precious lives are always at stake: what we say, how we openly dialogue, or what we publicly discuss, does not remain in some academic vacuum far removed from the everyday struggles of gay men and women; someone is listening, and someone is being affected. For instance, the priest who essentially told me to go back to the gay lifestyle, in essence – he could have been telling me to jump into the grave, in retrospect, used a rhetoric highly influenced by the teachings of dissident former pro-gay priest Fr. John McNeill; through the years, no matter what else may have transpired with McNeill or the Church, those words survived. As will the current batch of misunderstandings and out-right departures represented by Eve Tushnet and Joseph Prever who inexplicably claim that being gay and Catholic is not an oxymoron; to help in their dispersion while acknowledging that they may cause “confusion,” is reckless at best, and, at its worst, sacrifices a few lives in the interest of intellectual curiosity. Secondly, Dr. Smith also feels that in her estimation, the risk of causing such confusion is “worth it.” Dear Dr. Smith, is it worth sacrificing one human life? And, who are you to make that determination? Because this isn’t just about simply: “listening carefully and charitably to those with whom we dialogue,” and it’s not about some theoretical exercise by which: “we wanted to establish the nonnegotiable foundational principles of Christian anthropology,” it’s about gay men becoming infected with a non-curable disease and dying as a result. What you are doing isn’t benefiting anyone, and words and ideas have consequences; my generation and I had to find that out the hard way.
Since this nightmare began, in the US alone: over 300,000 gay men have died from AIDS. Isn’t that enough? Or do we need to slaughter more upon the altar of confusion? Shame on you Janet Smith, because you should know better. This argument is over, the “dialogue” is over, and, the confusion is over. It’s not worth it. One memory, I will always take with me – a dear friend dying of AIDS who looked up at me and said: “It wasn’t worth it.” “It wasn’t worth it.” As for the rest of my poor dead friends, and all those who lost their lives because of confusion, I think God will look kindly and mercifully upon them, because they “were but a few of the beaten and butchered and betrayed.”