To my friends at my baptismal parish

A reflection by Lindsey

I always start thinking about my baptism in October. I was baptized in my current Christian tradition on 31 October 2009. It’s a movie that I can replay in color immediately as I start reflecting on it. I invited friends from virtually every season of my life. It was an incredible day, and I’m immensely grateful of how God graced me with community, hope, and Himself in the sacraments.

Over the course of the last few days, many friends from my baptismal parish have gotten in touch with me. They’ve seen our posts about how we’ve been welcomed in our church here; and they’ve been contacting me to tell me that they’re sorry Sarah and I are having to endure these things. Some have even made their first comments on the blog in an effort to show me that they love me and that they want to support me, Sarah, and the relationship we have together.

To my friends at my baptismal parish: I’m sorry.

I’m sorry because I had no idea how to share my celibate vocation with you. I’m sorry that when you now click on my Facebook profile, you can see that I’ve shared every post we’ve ever published on A Queer Calling. Until today, I had the vast majority of you on a special Facebook list in order to try and preserve my privacy. I’m sorry for determining that I’d be taking far too great a risk if I shared our writing here with you.

I’ve decided to write to you today because some of you took the bold step of reaching out to me before I reached out to you. You could tell that I was struggling to figure out how to get myself to church on Sunday, and you reached out to me. Even though we’re separated by hundreds of miles, you managed to reach out and touch my heart. Thank you.

I’m sorry I’ve been so terribly gun shy about discussing my sexuality, my vocation, and my relationship with Sarah. I’ve taken to hiding in a hermetically-sealed cage because I have come to expect “welcomes” like the one I received on Sunday. I hid because I was afraid. I was afraid that the moment I actually confirmed the rumors that I am, in fact, a part of the LGBT community, I would be asked to leave the physical premises of most churches. I’ve developed a lot of coping strategies for when Christians discuss LGBT people as Public Enemy #1 or that it’s impossible to be gay and Christian. I’m constantly afraid that if Christians see me doing anything to help other LGBT people deepen their relationship with Christ, then they will demand that priests deal with me swiftly and decisively. The walls have been up for a reason, but I’m so grateful for every small way you’ve tried to edge just a bit closer to me.

Writing to you today is hard. So many priests have cautioned me against ever saying anything remotely public about my sexuality lest I cause a scandal. However, some of you have arrived at the doorstep of our comment boxes only to assure me of your prayers, love, and support. I hope I’m right in guessing that you’ve already let the cat out of the proverbial bag. I keep trying to take big deep breaths to reassure myself that some of you have commented on the blog precisely because you’re trying to let me know that I can reach back. But I’m scared, terrified even, because I’ve been told, time and time again, that I need to be incredibly cautious when I talk about these topics.

<Exhale. Deep breath. It’s going to be okay.>

I’m a celibate LGBT Christian who is one-half of a celibate LGBT couple.

I’m writing to you today because I want you to know that, yes, you actually do know someone who is LGBT and striving to cultivate a celibate vocation. I’ve learned so much about my vocation by watching how you live your lives. I’m still asking God for the grace necessary to run the race set before me; I’d covet your prayers. I know you are praying for me because you reached out to me before I reached out to you. I’ve been trying actively to keep my writing from some of you; however, you still found your way here, and I’m grateful.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

 

Welcoming Gays: A Response to Fr. Dwight Longenecker

Yesterday, Fr. Dwight Longenecker published a post called “Welcoming Gays: How Do I Do That?” We appreciate how he used a question mark in his title, and we hope he won’t mind us giving some honest feedback about welcoming LGBT people in Christian communities. Our goal in writing this post is to make some concrete suggestions about things pastors can actually do. Yesterday’s post had a reasonable litany of things best avoided.

When we welcome people, we usually want to know their names. We want to know them personally. It’s hard to feel welcome when people aren’t willing to come up to you, shake your hand, tell you their names, and ask you yours. On a similar note, welcoming a group of people means respecting how they see themselves as a group. We’ve known many a confirmation class from the United Methodist Church that has visited parishes within our Christian tradition as a part of their faith formation. We are always incredibly excited and supportive when our clergy decide to host a forum for these visitors after services to help them make sense of what they’ve seen in the Liturgy. In doing this, we’re treating them as candidates for confirmation in the United Methodist Church. There would be some differences in the ways our parishes would welcome an inquirer who is considering converting, a parishioner’s parents who are visiting from out of town, or visitors who are part of our tradition but come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

If you want to welcome gays, it’s important to know and respect what the word gay means within the LGBT community. Specifically, the word gay is “a word describing a man or a woman who is emotionally, romantically, sexually and relationally attracted to members of the same sex.” We deliberately took this definition from the Human Rights Campaign’s Glossary of Terms because we wanted to use a definition from clearly within the LGBT community. If we look at the American Psychological Association’s website, we’d see sexual orientation defined as, “an often enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions of men to women or women to men (heterosexual), of women to women or men to men (homosexual), or by men or women to both sexes (bisexual).” It’s important to note that within the LGBT community, LGBT modifies people and homosexual modifies sexual orientation. Swapping the modifiers to get homosexual person is indicative that the person doing the labeling is using a clinical definition of homosexuality.

Fr. Longenecker, people who are gay cannot be described accurately as: “those who are sexually active and committed not only to sexual relations with a person of the same sex, but also to what might be called ‘gay activism’. In other words, their ‘gayness’  is more than sexual activity. It also involves political activism and an ideological stance.” Equating being gay with engaging in specific forms of political activism makes it easy for conservative Christians to assume that every LGBT person is a menace to congregations and must be opposed at all costs. When parishes perceive LGBT people as a carriers of a social plague, they’re just as likely to welcome an LGBT person at church as they are to let an Ebola patient hang out with them at home. And we know that Catholics are taking in the families of Ebola patients: Catholics help people because Catholics are Catholic, not because these families are necessarily Catholic.

If you want to welcome gays, it’s best to use language that is not deliberately inflammatory. Talk to LGBT people about the Gospel; about Christ; about His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Talk to us about love and sacrifice, grace and truth, mercy and justice. Teach us how to pray, to fast, to feast, to serve, to worship. Guide us as we seek to follow Christ and to grow in our understanding of him. Hear our confessions. Sin is not a dirty word, but please do not assume that you know our sins before we tell you. Resist the urge to say, “The gay lifestyle is repugnant to any right thinking Catholic. The gay ideology is anti-Catholic and the gay manifesto is manifestly un Christian.” As LGBT people, we’re really confused about what you mean by “the gay ideology” and “the gay manifesto.” And honestly, publicly describing the lifestyle of any and all gay people as repugnant isn’t exactly going to offer us any assurance that we will be greeted with a handshake if we have the guts to walk through the door of your parish. Please know that we’re not crying “Persecution!” We’re concerned that people in your parish will take it upon themselves to speculate and query about how we’re abominations before God.

If you want to welcome gays, affirm where you see goodness within us. So many LGBT people have been called “repugnant” by Christians that it can be hard for us to see ourselves as “first and foremost brothers and sisters, fellow human beings created in the image of God and therefore good and precious eternal souls.” Many Christians treat us like we’re part of “certain pressure groups” out to get the Church to “change her basic stance on homosexuality.” We’d love the opportunity to be people who are assumed to enter the door in good faith. It’s really fantastic when pastors take time to say something positive they see in our spiritual lives.

If you want to welcome gays, be willing to listen to our stories of how we have been hurt by pastors and other Christians. We honestly wish it were true that in most churches “the homosexual person is welcomed without prejudice if he or she truly wants to be part of the family of faith.” Surveys indicate that while over 70 percent of gay adults identify some connection to Christianity, 42 percent don’t attend church. We find this incredibly sad. Many LGBT people have grown up hearing that it’s impossible to be a gay Christian. Lindsey was 29 years old before a pastor had ever said to Lindsey, “You are welcome in this parish.” It remains a singular experience but Lindsey makes a habit of replaying that memory when feeling discouraged. It’s important for priests to know how to respond if one of their brother priests denies a celibate gay person absolution because of the gay person’s sexual orientation. Yes, this does happen even if it’s not supposed to happen. Too often, straight Christians behave like ostriches when LGBT people tell stories about experiencing discrimination in church. One can dismiss these stories easily by saying, “Well, that priest was wrong to deny you communion if you weren’t sinning. That’s not what the Church teaches. Surely the priest had other reasons to deny you communion.” This kind of response accuses LGBT Christians of lying and gives straight Christians an excuse to keep their heads in the sand.

To answer your question, Fr. Longenecker, “Do [gay people] want to be assured that simply because they experience same sex attraction they will not be vilified, ostracized and excluded?” The answer is Yes. We would also like it if straight Christians could stop ignoring how LGBT Christians have been mistreated by clergy and laity alike. It would be awesome if an LGBT person could tell a story of hurt and be greeted with empathy, reassurance, and perhaps an apology if one is warranted. Speaking for ourselves as a celibate LGBT couple, we’d love it if clergy in our Christian tradition could help us sort legal matters to ensure that we’re able to care for one another. There’s been a lot of ink spilled over the question of gay marriage where many Christian traditions have concluded that it’s inappropriate for a couple like us to enact a civil marriage. However, we’re still wondering about how best to sort issues of health care, financial interdependence, and other practical matters. Not always, but often in the past when we’ve raised these issues with priests and others we trust at church, we’ve been accused of being over-dramatic and looking for an excuse to call our relationship a “marriage.” We’re grateful to have a priest now who sees us as people rather than as problems. Nonetheless, it would be nice to have some assurance that we would be treated as people if we went to a different parish within our Christian tradition. It would also be fantastic if we had a sense that our fellow parishioners felt like they could give us an authentic welcome.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

When the Church’s “Welcome” to LGBT People Hurts

In the last several weeks, we’ve noticed an uptick in messaging that churches do not need to extend a special welcome to specific groups because churches follow Christ’s example and welcome everyone. We believe that any time a local church extends a special welcome to any group, that welcome has its roots in past hurts. Even a celebration like Mother’s Day came after society realized it was not particularly appreciative of mothers. Neither of us has ever attended a local congregation that has explicitly identified itself as a community that welcomes LGBT people. On occasion, we’ve attended churches that are generally regarded as places that are willing to journey alongside LGBT people even if they don’t say so explicitly. At present, we feel blessed to have a priest who appreciates and respects our desires to live celibacy while assuming the best about our intentions. Nonetheless, this past Sunday was probably the most traumatic experience we’ve ever had in a church environment, even though we had done our best to prepare for the worst.

Churches that teach traditional sexual ethics tend to be traditional in other areas as well. Traditional churches often recognize places where the Gospel praises seemingly disparate approaches to life. They strive to find a good balance between extremes. They see it as important to proclaim both Love and Truth, to have space for both Justice and Mercy. They value both right belief (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthopraxy). We firmly believe that churches need to present a balanced view of the faith. Like many Christians, we know that the way of Christ is indeed a narrow way that can be hard to find. Like many Christians, we’ve experienced seasons of needing to be reminded of God’s law and other seasons of needing to be reminded of God’s grace. Growing spiritually can sometimes be two steps forward and one step back as we frequently overcorrect along the way. It seems fitting to suggest that maturing in Christ is a lot like bowling with bumpers where all things good and holy try to direct forward progress.

Just as individuals can struggle to find the narrow way of Christ, many church communities teaching traditional sexual ethics do struggle with welcoming LGBT Christians. Every week, we experience a mixed bag of “welcome” when we attend church. You could think of it in terms of our necessary adaptation to a certain undercurrent. On a typical Sunday, we might experience between 1 and 3 interactions that indicate a person feels considerable animosity towards LGBT people. We know to expect it and even truly welcome the occasional presumptive “understanding” of what our lives are like. It doesn’t offend us when people try to be welcoming, but struggle. We’re glad to educate those who want to be educated. People asking almost-stupid questions directly can be a sign that they trust us enough to let their guards down and open up to learning more. However, while we’re used to hearing questions that contain some arguably innocent misconceptions, a particularly pointed discussion about LGBT issues in the Church has the potential to rip our hearts out through our noses. It’s especially bad when misconception stacks on top of misconception, and discussants drift away from considering LGBT people first and foremost as people. We’ve seen this trend in multiple local church communities, so we wanted to take the opportunity to say what not to do if you are trying to “welcome” LGBT Christians:

  • Use the first possible opportunity to ask the pastor publicly to clarify teaching on homosexuality because you suspect that there are LGBT people among your church’s membership.
  • Explain that LGBT people are welcome only because all sinners are welcome, assuming that all LGBT people struggle with lust.
  • Zoom in on a vague sense of “sinful behaviors” when discussing LGBT issues without offering any discussion about what said behaviors are.
  • Defend conservative reactionaries who have been “hurt” by gay activists before acknowledging the emotional and spiritual strains on LGBT Christians who are constantly accused of any number of outrageous activities.
  • Permit cisgender, heterosexual people space to talk openly about LGBT issues while telling LGBT people to remain “discreet” about their sexual orientations and/or gender identities.
  • Discuss the sexual orientations and perceived sins of specific members in the congregation with a priest or pastor while less than 6 feet away from those members.
  • Glare over your shoulder directly at suspected LGBT people while talking about them.
  • Accuse celibate LGBT people of a well-crafted charade to corrupt a perfectly good congregation with a hidden “liberal” agenda.
  • Suggest that LGBT people are secretly flirting with one another at church.
  • Demand proof of exactly how pastors know celibate LGBT people aren’t having all sorts of sex.
  • Accuse celibate LGBT people of lying about their celibacy.
  • Inform LGBT people they’re being “too sensitive” if they give examples of people saying hurtful things.

To be crystal clear, we’ve directly experienced all of these things in multiple congregations. Moreover, we know other celibate LGBT people who experience comparable “welcome” from their congregations. Enduring this litany seems to be part and parcel of the parish experience for many LGBT Christians, both celibate and non-celibate, who attend churches teaching a traditional sexual ethic.

The natural next question is, “So why don’t you just find a different church?”

Short answer: it’s not that easy.

Longer answer: These experiences are shockingly common. Especially within conservative Christian traditions, it’s challenging to find parishes where several items on the above list don’t happen on a regular basis. Seeking a parish and a priest is emotionally taxing beyond description. It’s like dating while knowing full well that 8 of your 10 first dates will involve verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse. It requires being willing to try out a specific church, actually going, meeting with the pastor, being prepared for the severe condemnation that usually follows, taking a week or two to recover from that encounter, then repeating the process again and again until finally landing in a parish that seems not ideal, but survivable. Both in the past when we were single and now that we are a couple, we’ve found that it can take months or years of searching before finding even one priest in our tradition who is willing to see us as people instead of pastoral challenges. At this point you might be wondering, “If the two of you are celibate, why are you encountering such problems?” When it comes to our presence within a parish, our celibacy matters very little to culture warriors who see us as nothing more than incarnations of a political agenda.

We’ve never made a public statement about our LGBT status. People simply assume that we’re public sinners because we have committed the unthinkable act of showing up for Liturgy. We’ve had to recalibrate our sense of welcome and what it means to have realistic expectations about acceptance. To us, “welcome” frequently means that there are at least two people present who won’t scowl at us for every person who does. That’s not the kind of welcome other groups of people receive at church, yet so many parishes where members behave in the ways described above seriously think they’re doing all they can and all they should need to do in order to welcome LGBT Christians. How is it welcoming to foster an environment where parishioners are constantly suspecting other parishioners’ actions and motives? This is why thinking about exactly how we experience “welcome” hurts. It hurts a lot. 

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Confessions of a Former Bad Catholic

A reflection by Sarah

Another surprise blog post today. We seem to be in a season of life where the need for these is popping up quite often. After a very intense response to my ear injections yesterday which kept me riding an evil tilt-a-whirl all night, I’m spending the day working from home. Usually my vertigo episodes continue steadily for minutes to hours until coming to a sudden end, but last night I had about an hour of respite around 3am, during which time I read this article by Aaron Taylor at Ethika Politika. Taylor cites the story of Louise Mensch — a divorced and remarried Catholic who is not currently receiving communion due to her own convictions — as an example of the quickly dying (perhaps already dead) “bad Catholic” archetype:

Reactions to Mensch’s piece fell predictably into two camps. On one side, “liberals” decried Mensch for being self-loathing, for not dancing to the beat of the modern, sexually enlightened drum. On the other side, “conservatives” were baffled as to why, if Mensch really believed the Church’s teachings, she would not abandon her lifestyle as an “adulteress.” What both critics share is the belief that Mensch’s situation makes little sense because one cannot simultaneously uphold a set of moral standards and fall short of those standards.

Yet, until fairly recently in Catholic history, women and men like Mensch were easily understood by others in the Church as conforming to a particular type: the type of the “bad Catholic.”

“Bad Catholics” knew the moral rules taught by the Church, and they broke—even flouted—them, particularly when it came to sex. They did not, however, argue that the rules should be changed to confer moral approval on their behavior. Despite their moral failings, bad Catholics also tended to maintain a high regard for the Church’s sacramental and spiritual rules and practices. They attended Mass, were devoted to the Virgin Mary, and expressed love for the Blessed Sacrament precisely by not receiving it in Communion when in an unworthy state to do so.

Taylor goes on to point out that Mensch’s story is not representative of what generally happens to today’s “bad Catholics,” who usually end up identifying as “liberal Catholics” or leaving Catholicism altogether. Without judgment upon anyone’s faith journey and without intending to stigmatize anyone who identifies as a liberal Catholic, I am inclined to agree with his basic point. This is what becomes of today’s bad Catholics. I’ve seen it myself more times than I can count. As I’ve already outed myself on the blog as a former Catholic, I can say openly that this article struck a strong chord with me. My own reasons for leaving the Catholic Church for a different Christian tradition are completely removed from any moral teaching or behavioral expectation. (If you must know, the final nail in the coffin was my inability assent to papal supremacy after significant theological study on this doctrine’s development, but perhaps that’s a post for another time.) However, after reading the article I spent the rest of the night — at least what time I wasn’t focused on asking God to save me from falling off the floor — in reflection. I suppose I ought to thank Eve Tushnet for this as well. Somehow I’m feeling both unusually brave and extra vulnerable after my recent read of her new book.

Confession time: not only am I a former Catholic, but I’m also a former “bad Catholic.” And today, I’m still entirely capable of being a bad Christian within my current tradition. Yet despite this awareness, most of the time I don’t feel free to admit it to anyone other than Lindsey and our parish priest. I don’t have permission to be a bad Christian, and when I think seriously about it I realize that this was also true during my years as a Catholic.

Let’s back up a bit…

Though sexual sin has never been a serious struggle for me, I’ve experienced seasons in which I’ve been unable or unwilling (or both) to behave morally in other ways. Everyone who practices rigorous honesty can identify with this to an extent. But somehow, it’s still easy to presume that if a person is engaging in unchristian behaviors, his/her spiritual life is nonexistent…or alternatively, that if a person engages regularly in spiritually healthy devotional practices, he/she must be living in a way that is fully aligned with the teachings of the Gospel.

As I thought about this last night, I was taken back to my college and early graduate school days. Without hesitation, I can say that I was a deeply devoted Catholic. I attended Mass almost every day, not out of compulsion but because I woke up each morning with an eagerness to hear that day’s Gospel proclaimed, to be present with the very small daily Mass-going community in my college town, and to be in the same chapel where bread and wine mysteriously became Christ’s Body and Blood despite my inability to see this happening. I had a consistent daily prayer rule and engaged regularly in theological conversations with friends. But quite often, my most profound spiritual moments were intertwined with my most immoral behaviors.

I was a very good student and never had trouble maintaining excellent grades, and during my freshman and sophomore years everyone in my residence hall knew me as the girl who would sit in the lobby and study for hours into the night. As I immersed myself in the works of Aristotle, Tertullian, Shakespeare, and Virginia Woolf, I would take frequent mini-breaks to say a Chaplet of Divine Mercy and snort an Adderall, crushing it beforehand with my copy of the Langenscheidt German Dictionary…or the Daily Roman Missal. There wasn’t an evening that passed without my calling out to the Theotokos, whom I referred to as “Mom” at that point. On weekends after I had finished all my homework, I would load my pockets with prayer cards, a rosary, some cash for cocaine, a fake ID, and head off to a party with my sorority sisters or friends from work. I remember one night when after my eighth jello shot and an untold amount of Bacardi and diet coke, I sat in the backseat of one of my sisters’ cars, pulled a rosary from my pocket and began praying it loudly on the way back to campus. My sisters all found this quite amusing, and I remember one requesting jovially, “Pray one for me too, Sparky!” Then, there was also bulimia — the “good girl’s addiction” that I had developed by age 12. Saying the Litany of Loreto or part of Vespers/Compline on my drive to the grocery store and between binge/purge sessions was a common practice of mine for several years.

I have no doubt that some readers are horrified by this point in the post. I’m anticipating getting some nasty comments and emails from pious individuals demanding to know what possessed me to engage in such appalling and irreverent behavior. Sometimes, I wonder that myself. I wondered about it at the time too, which is why despite going to Mass almost every day, more often than not I didn’t commune. And while I always took these matters with me to confession, I never attempted to approach this sacrament if my attitude was, “I know what I’m doing is wrong, but I’m not ready to repent and amend my life.” During these times I always held onto the hope that God would eventually guide me to a place of desiring repentance. I was a bad Catholic, and I knew it and accepted it as the present reality.

I’m sure my reflection today will also receive many responses from readers who are wondering, “Why are you beating up on yourself? Why can’t you see that these behaviors you’re describing are indicative of mental illness, not sin?” I’m not beating up on myself. I’m calling a duck a duck. Sin and illness are not mutually exclusive. Yes, there’s a level at which my culpability for some of these actions was compromised. Identifying these actions as results of sin is not the same as blaming, shaming, or implying that struggles with substance abuse and behavioral addiction are my “fault.”

Coming full circle to the article’s discussion of what happens to bad Catholics, I’ve seen stories similar to mine play out very differently in the lives of other people I’ve known. There are folks who leave Catholicism or Christianity altogether because of the pressure to be perfectly free from sin before ever approaching the church’s front stoop. They know that they can’t be perfect, so they stop trying. There are others who experience pressure from secular society to ease up on themselves to the point of dismissing Christian teaching altogether, or picking and choosing the parts that are gentlest. They hear from friends and mental health professionals that thinking about their struggles in any way related to sin is pathological and masochistic. Because issues of sin that are directly related to mental health can be highly sensitive topics, these people may find that the only way they can move forward in life is to reject the moral expectations of traditional Christianity and replace them with whatever counsel is helping at the moment. I’ve noticed that these things happen frequently when a person struggling with serious sin attempts to discuss it with a priest or pastor who is more concerned with quoting dogmas than attending to the needs of a deeply wounded soul. Another common instigator is members of the parish who do not trust their priests to steward the chalice, so they take it upon themselves to protect the Church from sinners. Such people use passive aggression or sometimes direct confrontation to inform the sinner that his/her lack of repentance is scandalous. And fellow parishioners who encourage abandoning truth in favor of grace also contribute to the problem.

At this time, I am (mostly) in a positive space with regard to the spiritual issues I’ve discussed in this post. But I am still a bad Christian, and still capable of fitting the “bad Catholic” archetype at times. I can’t speak for anyone else, but seeking space where I can be accepted as a “bad Christian” or “bad Catholic” has been necessary for my spiritual growth. Such spaces are woefully rare, and I can’t say that I’ve ever belonged to a parish where the community fully appreciates what it means to accept those who believe, have committed to being obedient, but do morality poorly most all of the time and are willing to admit it. It troubles me that at our current parish, neither Lindsey nor I feel free to abstain from communion when necessary. If we do, the culture warriors begin imagining that we must be having sex. Sometimes people indicate to us that they know exactly what our sins are, and if we aren’t ready to repent of them we shouldn’t even show up. If we aren’t able to commune for whatever reason on a given Sunday, we’ve taken to visiting a large parish where we can be invisible. It also troubles me that when I’ve been a member of parishes with more “liberal” members, I’ve not felt free to abstain from communion. In these settings, everyone — no matter how much or how little he or she knows about my spiritual life — has been eager to tell me that whatever is bothering me, I should approach the chalice because God loves me and nothing else matters. What’s a person to do when he or she feels caught in the middle of all this? I ask myself that question at least once a week, usually on our drive to Liturgy. But like Taylor, I am convinced that until we all make room once again for the “bad Christians,” the entire Church will suffer from their absence.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

A Review of Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet

We are so excited to be featuring Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith by our friend Eve Tushnet. We’ve been eagerly awaiting this book for several months.

As with our other reviews, our review of Gay and Catholic will focus on two primary questions: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

At the risk of being too causal, we’re going to begin by stating that this book is awesome. Seriously, it’s great. We’d even encourage you to go buy yourself a copy right now and check out the book extras on her blog in the meantime. Keep reading to see why we’re recommending this book so enthusiastically.

Tushnet takes a fantastically conversational approach to discussing faith and sexuality. The reading pace of the book reminds us of a stand-up comic’s routine. We simply couldn’t put it down. It’s whimsical, it’s fun, it’s engaging, and it broaches intense topics with compassion and lots of dry humor. Gay and Catholic can journey with you whether you’re relaxing at the beach or trembling before the meeting with your pastor when you intend to tell him or her that you’re, uhm…er…uhm…<deep breath, exhale>… gay.

If you’re looking for a book that makes an argument for a traditional sexual ethic, we’d recommend searching for an alternative. Unlike many books written by people who hold conservative beliefs on Christian sexual morality, Gay and Catholic isn’t an apologetic. Tushnet takes the traditional sexual ethic as a given and admits that she doesn’t always understand the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on human sexuality, noting that one can strive to live in accordance with teachings while still having a lot of questions. We find it absolutely refreshing that this book is not an argument for LGBT celibacy.

We found ourselves cheering as Sarah would for the St. Louis Cardinals or Lindsey for the Boston Red Sox when we read Tushnet’s description of how her approach to sexual ethics has changed:

When I first entered the Catholic Church I thought of my role–a lesbian-gay-bisexual-queer-same-sex-attracted Christian–as having two parts: the negative act of not having gay sex and the positive act of intellectually understanding the Church’s teachings. I now see my task much more simply, as the discernment and living out of my vocations: figuring out how God is calling me to love and then pouring myself out into that love. p.4-5

A great deal of our life together as a celibate couple has been seeking God’s will for how we are to love the world around us. Tushnet emphasizes what happens when celibate people say “Yes” to God and offers an authentic discussion of the various ups and downs associated with celibate ways of life. LGBT people exploring the possibilities of celibacy will be inspired by this book’s focus on all the ways God says, “Yes.”

Tushnet is exceptionally candid about how she did not have any role models for a faithful gay Catholic life. The process of discerning one’s vocation is neither a linear process nor without struggle, and she has plenty to say about its joys and sorrows. Tushnet’s candor includes her disclosing about how struggles with alcoholism shaped her understanding of vocation.

As I’ve said, when I first converted, I basically thought that chastity for a gay Catholic was purely a negative rule or outer boundary: don’t have sex with girls. Over time I learned that you need to structure your life in such a way that you are living out a positive vocation to love. You are called to something, not merely away from something. And similarly, I don’t think sobriety is the same as not drinking. I don’t think my task is best understood as a negative one of avoiding drunkenness or avoiding alcohol. My project right now is to build a way of life in keeping with my God-given vocation. pg 59

We appreciated how Tushnet discusses her struggle with alcohol alongside comparatively easy acceptance of her same-sex attractions. As a person in recovery from multiple addictions, Sarah found this aspect of the book especially relatable. Many who will read this book are well aware of how ex-gay ministries and some denominations as a whole counsel gay Christians to say that they “struggle with same-sex attractions” instead of “identify as LGBT.” Those who have experienced such language policing will find comfort in Tushnet’s clear message that all Christians struggle to live our vocations, and it’s unhelpful to limit the challenges celibate gay Christians face to “lust.” As we read, we kept coming back to the reality that similar problems manifest differently in different people, and we did a lot of reflecting on our own areas of spiritual difficulty. Noting Tushnet’s observations of her struggle with alcoholism, celibate LGBT Christians might find it beneficial to consider individual spiritual struggles rather than assuming that same-sex attractions are necessarily at the root of their spiritual difficulties. Tushnet’s writing has pushed us to think more deeply about how pride, anger, envy, greed, and other passions impede purposeful living. She rightly describes the spiritual struggle as searching for paths aligned with your God-given vocation.

We found Chapter 6 “What Vocation Is and Is Not” one of the most helpful sections of the book. To give you a taste of how Tushnet defines vocation:

A vocation is a path or way of life in which God is calling us to pour out our love for him and for other particular human beings. Vocation is always a positive act of love, not a refraining-from-action. So celibacy, in and of itself, isn’t a vocation in this sense, although it can be a discipline that frees one up for one’s vocations. pg. 75.

Tushnet defines vocations holistically where most people have more than one vocation. There is a great diversity in how we can pour out our love for God and for other people. We can pray. We can teach Sunday School. We can spend hours in theological study… and we can care for the sick, we can design buildings that maximize their ability for social good, we can teach, we can play with children…She offers many insights into what it means to live a vocation. According to Tushnet, vocations emerge at the intersection of our choices and God’s call. Rightly discerning vocation requires a realization that “every vocation has a cross as well as a crown” (pg. 78). Tushnet says that learning to love people is the key to doing one’s vocation well. Our vocations should draw us towards God.

At the close of the book, Tushnet includes three appendices to assist people along their journeys. The first appendix provides additional resources, most of which are specific to the Roman Catholic Church. The second appendix features Tushnet’s responses to frequently asked questions where answers didn’t fold neatly into the rest of the book. The third appendix — which we found especially helpful — muses on what churches can do to be more welcoming to LGBT Christians. Given some of our own recent experiences at church, we wanted to point out a paragraph from that section, where Tushnet urges church communities to reflect on what “be more welcoming” actually means:

Be honest about what you’re praying for. It’s easy to say that we want our churches to be places of refuge and welcome for gay and same-sex attracted people. But then somebody takes us seriously! Somebody shows up with her partner and wants to get their kids baptized, or somebody seeks to become a member of the church and wants to have tough conversations about Scripture. Maybe the pastor asks your newly welcome churchgoer to give a testimony of how Jesus rescued him from homosexuality, but he points out that that isn’t how he sees his life at all.

Everybody wants to wants to take in a shivering kitten. Not everybody wants to deal with a grown up cat. (pg. 209)

In sum, Tushnet’s book is awesome, but it makes no claim of being perfect. We did have some trouble relating to Tushnet’s discussion of her childhood, relatively easy acceptance of sexual orientation, and minimal experiences of discrimination. She admits that especially regarding the latter two, many LGBT Christians have had more difficult experiences. Because of this, there are parts of the book where some readers will find themselves unable to relate to Tushnet’s story. Still, Gay and Catholic has arguably the most thorough discussion of how an LGBT person might discern his or her celibate vocations…and it’s fantastically fun to read. Get your own copy, and drop us a line in the comments about your thoughts. We have plans to interview Tushnet in the near future and publish her responses on the blog. Please feel free to submit your questions for our consideration.

Happy reading!

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

In Which We Decide to Go to Church

We don’t want to make a habit of posting on Sundays, but late Saturday evening we found ourselves needing to work ourselves out of an emotional funk. This post is our best attempt at that.

For LGBT Christians, the news cycle can be vicious. Many media outlets are primed to look for any way particular churches may be increasingly open to people in same-sex relationships. Last summer, World Vision made news in Protestant circles when it briefly signaled a move toward potentially hiring Christians in same-sex marriages. This week, controversy has abounded after a mid-term report from the Synod on the Family signaled that the Roman Catholic Church might shift to more welcoming language regarding gay people. We, like many people in the English-speaking world, were rather astonished to see a Catholic document that said,

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

Fast forward to just a few hours ago, and it became clear that many bishops viewed the welcoming language as inviting too much compromise of Catholic teachings on marriage and family. Even though our Italian isn’t that great, it seems that the newly ratified document treats the mere presence of LGBT people as a challenge to the family. According to the approved version, some perfectly faithful families headed by married heterosexual people may have to deal with the presence of a gay person in the family…and that’s pretty much it. The new document does not have any words for LGBT people themselves. It seems talking directly to LGBT people is just too scandalous. Apparently, it requires much less trouble to talk to their parents who have the parental obligation of staying close to their wayward children. And of course, the Roman Catholic Church will be there to help the prodigals “move beyond the confines of the homosexual label to a more complete identity in Christ” provided that the prodigals are willing to take Step 1 of admitting they were powerless over homosexuality.

We’re not writing this post because we have a horse in the race when it comes to LGBT Catholic issues. Though Sarah was once a member of the Roman Catholic Church, we are not Catholic. But we do feel a great deal of solidarity with our friends having to make the choice about whether and where they’re attending Mass tomorrow. Honestly, most of the time when we see this much news coverage about LGBT people in the Church, we decide it would be a great week to visit a different parish even though our specific Christian tradition rarely makes headlines. However, today we’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the reality that we’ll be with our home congregation tomorrow. We’re serving coffee hour, and we both felt knots in our stomachs this Saturday as we made plans for our chicken pot pie, lasagna, and chocolate chip cookies.

Coffee hour is always tricky for us. We’ve grown accustomed to it being a staging area for a number of folks deeply involved in culture war issues. The hour right after Liturgy can be challenging even during tame news cycles. This week, it’s been nearly impossible to find anywhere in the English-speaking world that does not have all eyes fixed on Rome. [We would have preferred joining one of our Twitter followers and spending the week brushing up on our Spanish instead.] But given the conversation we know we’ll observe this Sunday, we can’t decide what scenario would be worse: 1) rantings about the Vatican being on the verge of radical apostasy for including a paragraph that welcomes gay people specifically, or 2) proclamations of relief that the Vatican’s courageous conservative bishops saved the Catholic Church from heretical teachings on sexuality. We’re bracing ourselves for a good dose of the latter because one hears everything when one serves coffee hour. Of course, Sarah might be somewhat fortunate to have a low hearing day, or conveniently forgetting hearing aids is a strong temptation…

Or we might have another day like Saturday where Sarah wakes up with some intense vertigo and other symptoms. Meniere’s disease is extremely unpredictable. But, no matter what happens, we’ve decided that Lindsey will certainly be at church. After all, it’s our turn to serve coffee hour.

Sometimes, deciding to go to church requires a whole heap of grit and determination. It’s especially hard to go to church on days when we feel the weight of having to police our language. We avoid certain topics of conversation altogether. Some members of our parish seem absolutely scandalized to know that after coffee hour, we’ll be going home (or somewhere else) together rather than going our separate ways as single people do. Around the holidays, we see a fair amount of awkward blushing from folks who ask us about travel. When we say, “This year, we’re heading to Minnesota to see Lindsey’s family,” instead of telling them that we each have individual plans, they never know how to reply. Very often, church people will end an interaction with us by stammering something like, “You two are really good friends to each other,” as if to assure themselves that there’s nothing especially meaningful about our relationship. A few readers on the blog have suggested that by claiming to be partners, we devalue the term “friendship.” But at coffee hour, we’re reminded every week that when people refer to us as friends it’s usually not because of a willingness to honor the beauty of love between friends — it’s to downplay the idea that our relationship has any sort of significance beyond “close roommates.”

During coffee hour, the two of us face similar yet different sets of problems. Lindsey, whose physical appearance pings straight people’s gaydars without fail, experiences universally awkward interactions with culture warriors. Sarah, whose appearance is very traditionally feminine, experiences the frustration of being viewed as any other member of the parish until Lindsey pulls up a chair and sits next to Sarah. Though it’s not always direct, there’s an impulse among our fellow parishioners to “protect” the Church from public sinners, and coming up against that every week is exhausting. Part of the reason it’s exhausting is that heterosexual people at our church tend to treat all other heterosexual people as though their virtuousness can be assumed. Being in an environment where one is not heterosexual and is therefore assumed to be a public sinner becomes taxing. Oftentimes, we wonder if there’s anything we could possibly do that would lead the skeptics to see anything even slightly virtuous in our relationship. All of this becomes heightened each time the news cycle includes extensive coverage of controversies involving LGBT Christians.

If you’re wondering at this point why we don’t just leave our Christian tradition and join an Open and Affirming denomination, read this post where we’ve already answered that question. As for this Sunday (and we hope all Sundays in the future), we have decided to go to church. No matter what will await us at coffee hour, we plan to wake up in the morning and join the other members of our parish for Liturgy because we — sinners, public and private — are all the Body of Christ. We will go to church because always and especially at times as uncertain as these, we have a desperate need to receive grace through the sacraments. We need the peace and wholeness that only Christ himself can offer, and challenging as it is to commune with people who find our presence inconvenient at best and scandalizing at worst, every soul who stands before the altar needs God’s love just as much as we do. When we go to church, we are faced with the reality that — in the words of Dorothy Day — “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” And after Liturgy has ended, the food has been blessed, cups are filled, and conversation starts to get messier than the dishes, we will do the same as we do every sixth Sunday: we will serve coffee hour.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

After writing this post, we noticed that it fit nicely into the theme of Coming/Going of the Queer Theology Synchroblog.

Saturday Symposium: Family, Morality, and Gaps in Understanding

Good morning, all. Thanks for the thoughtful engagement this week. We’ve enjoyed connecting with readers from all over the world within the past seven days. This has been one of our best weeks on the blog to date. We are looking forward to another great week of learning and sharing stories.

Let’s get to our new Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: This week, our most viewed post was Sarah’s open letter to Cardinal Burke. In this letter, Sarah asked several questions regarding the way straight Christians ought to respond to LGBT people, particularly LGBT family members. We’re wondering about our readers’ thoughts on morality and areas of disagreement with family members. If you experience disagreement with a family member in some area of morality, how do you communicate with and show love to that family member? We’re also interested in knowing how you talk with family members about gaps in understanding each other’s viewpoints on moral issues. Perhaps you and a certain family member don’t disagree per se, but view issues from different angles. How do you initiate these conversations within your family, and how does this impact your relationships?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!

Blessings,

Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

“Why do you call yourselves a celibate LGBT couple?”

Almost daily, we receive inquiries about why we use words like LGBT and queer to describe ourselves, stern rebukes for our preferred terminology, or both. Many people caution us about how these words can be applied politically, contending that we shouldn’t be surprised when people react negatively to us because we insist on referring to each other as partners. We’ve addressed the questions as they come up, on our About page, and in our Frequently Asked Questions. But because we’ve noticed a recent increase in this type of reader correspondence, we want to provide a reasonably comprehensive answer as to why we think LGBT and queer are helpful terms for describing ourselves and our relationship.

Before we go any deeper, let us offer some important clarifications. The only places we discuss our experiences as a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple are this blog and with select groups of friends. We’re open about being partners if and when a person asks, but we value privacy in our daily lives. At church, we go very simply by Lindsey and Sarah. People are aware that we are partners without our needing to say anything. We don’t walk around with LGBT tattooed on our foreheads. However, members of any parish we ever visit tend to assume that Lindsey is gay the instant Lindsey walks into a room. Sarah frequently receives different treatment when socializing individually versus socializing with Lindsey present.

So why do we use the language we use on the blog?

We use LGBT because we are both LGBT people. We’re surprised that straight people take issue with this point continuously. There are a lot of blogs existing at the intersection of faith and sexuality. It would be false to assert that no one cares about how the Church responds to LGBT people: it’s one of the most discussed and debated issues of our time. However, we find it remarkable that despite so much work to explain sexual orientation, many heterosexual Christians insist that being gay necessitates having gay sex, and that if one is not having gay sex, then one is not gay. Neither of us came out as LGBT because of an appetite for gay sex. Both of us came out because we realized that this terminology provides useful context as to how we experience our sexualities.

Many people who adopt LGBT language do so to communicate that they experience the world differently than folks who are straight and/or cisgender. For us and others, it’s not about sex at all — it’s about a sense of otherness that encompasses far more than the question, “What kind of person pings up my sex drive?” Feeling different or other can be both a blessing and a curse. Lindsey realized comparatively early that Lindsey was not the same as other children. As a child, Lindsey couldn’t be bothered by gender norms and had a recognizably different deportment than most kids. Lindsey’s parents did a great job at helping Lindsey pursue any and all interests while allowing Lindsey ample freedom for self-expression. At 20, Lindsey started developing sexual attractions. It was hard for Lindsey to make sense of these experiences. Eventually, Lindsey realized that Lindsey had no desire for a heterosexual marriage and was not called to monastic life. When Lindsey met other LGBT Christians, Lindsey finally met people who could relate deeply to Lindsey’s own experiences.

Sarah grew up assuming that being attracted to girls instead of boys was an unusual though irrelevant experience. Because of cultural expectations, Sarah spent all of childhood and the vast majority of adolescence thinking that every young woman (except nuns) eventually met a young man to marry, marriage was a requirement for leading a full adult life, and one’s sexual attractions had little to do with the decision to enter a marital vocation. But as an older teenager, Sarah realized that Sarah had no desire to marry a man and would find heterosexual marriage a miserable and draining way of life. Equally important, Sarah had a powerful model of what a purposeful non-married life could look like in a favorite high school teacher, Ms. Chafin. All the while, Sarah had been growing in awareness of Sarah’s sexual orientation. In continuing vocational discernment, it was Sarah’s attraction to women that drew Sarah toward celibacy in the first place. The sense of a personal calling to celibacy came when Sarah could appreciate the nature of Sarah’s sexuality.

We’ve both experienced periods of extreme anxiety and discomfort because of the ways other people have tried to label our sexualities. Sarah grew up in a geographic area where young people would typically marry straight out of high school or in some cases, immediately after graduating college. When Sarah began to reach “marrying age,” Sarah couldn’t help but notice how family conversations became more and more about Sarah’s future husband. No one particularly knew or cared to know about how Sarah was experiencing sexuality differently. Coming out created space for Sarah to feel at ease among loved ones. Even being referred to as an abomination resulted in less anxiety than pretending to be someone Sarah was not. Early in Lindsey’s coming out process, it became apparent that many of Lindsey’s acquaintances believed sexual orientation could only have meaning if one was having sex. When reading Rob Bell’s Sex God, Lindsey had an epiphany that one could focus one’s sense of sexuality on a broader pattern of relating to the world — that there was more to sexuality than sex itself. Immediately, this made sense to Lindsey, who had experienced a great deal of frustration when talking with other Christians who could only discuss sexuality in terms of marriage. No one among Lindsey’s Christian friends in college seemed to have space for the idea that God might call people to live celibate lives — overseas mission work being a possible exception.

When it comes to our life together, we frequently say that we’re building the plane while flying it. We don’t have a lot of models upon which to build. We often hear people discuss three principal ways of life: marriage, monasticism, or living as single persons in the world. Discovering our vocation as celibate partners has involved a good deal of trial and error. We recognize that our vocation is unusual, and it is for this reason that we refer to it as a queer calling.

Some people would say, “Just get over yourselves already! You’re single people living in the world. You’re friends. You’re housemates! You don’t need any other language.” However, the same honesty that drove us towards using LGBT terminology for ourselves encourages us to call out some ways our life together differs significantly from the single people we know. The following observations are in no particular order.

Financially, we are interdependent. We share quite literally every penny. We don’t have an arrangement that is simply “Let’s each pay 50% of the rent and utilities on the apartment” or “Let’s keep our incomes completely separate.” We consider every cent we earn to belong equally to both of us. When we save, it’s an investment in our future as a pair, not in our futures as individuals. We share car insurance and health insurance, and have committed to taking on each other’s debts as our own. Before we met, not only did both of us have student loans but Sarah also has an enormous amount of medical debt. We don’t know any sets of “friends, roommates, or housemates” where one person would willingly and gladly take on joint responsibility for the other’s medical bills that reach six figures.

Our strongest sense of team spirit probably comes in the realm of looking after one another’s physical and mental health. Sarah has had an extensive medical history that Sarah managed solo before we met. Now we work on tackling issues together. Whether it’s making sure Sarah’s rescue inhaler is refilled or discerning a proper course of action for Sarah’s Meniere’s disease, we are committed to walking through the issue every step of the way as a team. We’ve mentioned before that Lindsey is learning American Sign Language alongside Sarah so that we can make sure we never lose the ability to communicate and that Sarah is never left out of any conversations. One person at our church said to Lindsey a couple of weeks ago, “Wow. You’re going above and beyond the expectations of friendship here. Sarah is so lucky to have a friend like you.” The truth is, we see such a commitment as an integral part of our relationship. This is not the sort of commitment that would be expected in a close friendship.

We share our spiritual lives intimately, and we’re committed to helping one another towards holiness. We can offer each other a new sense of perspective that comes from the day-in, day-out realities of doing life together. Both of us can tell when the other person is experiencing spiritual lows. We’re constantly reminding each other about the various aspects of the Gospel that are so important to keep our lives in context. While its not impossible that friends would do this for one another, we see it as an essential part of our daily living that we’re committed to maintaining for the rest of our lives — not merely a season of being “roommates.”

We share our emotional lives 100%. We have an absolute commitment to being honest with one another about all things. We share our highs, lows, triumphs, defeats, frustrations, joys, and everything else no matter how hard it is to discuss. We do have deep, emotionally intimate relationships with friends, but none of those relationships has the exact same sense of vulnerability as does our relationship with each other.

We share physical space and love being in each other’s presence. We go out of our way to share time with each other. Currently, we’re excited because Lindsey’s work schedule allows us to share our commute on most days. We have always made it a point to share dinner together, even when our schedules do not cooperate. And if one of us were to need to relocate for whatever reason, the other would go too. There would be no question about this, no matter what challenges were involved. Our commitment to each other does not end at an annual apartment lease.

What this comes down to is a very simple question: how are terms like “partnership” defined, and who has the right to define them? It seems unreasonable to us that straight, cisgender, conservative Christians — many of whom are married — should be the sole determiners of what constitutes partnership, celibacy, and gayness. Ultimately, we are not seeking to prove to you that we are indeed a celibate LGBT couple rather than “single housemates who both have same-sex attraction.” Our relationship is ours to define. It takes a great deal of entitlement to tell another person, “I know who and what you are better than you do.” It’s vastly inappropriate, and we would never assert that we know better than a married couple what marriage is, better than a monk or nun what religious life is, or better than a single person what the celibate single vocation is. We do understand why questions about our ways of identifying will naturally arise because of our unusual situation. All we ask is that all our readers show us the same basic respect that we show them in providing space to share share stories and learn from one another.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

An Open Letter to Cardinal Raymond Burke

A reflection by Sarah

Dear Cardinal Burke,

You probably don’t remember me, but we met once a few years ago when I attended Mass regularly at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. I am a former Catholic who is now part of a different Christian tradition. I am also a partnered lesbian. Before I go any further, I want to make clear that my reasons for leaving Catholicism were in no way related to the Catholic Church’s teachings on same-sex relationships or any other aspect of human sexuality. My current Christian tradition also teaches a conservative sexual ethic, and I was aware of that upon entering. I am writing this today in response to your recent commentary on the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, specifically the talk given by the Pirolas of Australia who shared about experiences of inviting their gay son and his partner to family gatherings. But what you’re about to read is likely not what you might expect given the content of my first paragraph.

I’m not going to argue against the Catholic Church’s theological position that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” I received my theological training at a Catholic university, and am aware of the philosophy and theology that undergirds this statement. My personal feelings about its wording are irrelevant. Unlike many Catholics and non-catholics alike (including a large number of priests I’ve met), I do not mistakenly interpret this bit from the Catechism to mean that the Church believes I have a mental disorder or I am a lesser human being than my heterosexual brothers and sisters. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t be defending the teachings of the Catholic faith. As a bishop, this is your job and it would be unreasonable for any person to suggest otherwise. Lastly, I’m not going to complain about how any of your statements — recently or in years previous — have impacted me emotionally as an LGBT person. I don’t intend on giving the reactionary internet trolls yet another reason to dismiss LGBT Christians as crybabies who are only interested in a soft, watered-down version of the historic faith.

Now that I’ve laid out plainly what I’m not going to say, I’ll get directly to the point: I believe your response to the Pirola family fundamentally distorts the conversation about LGBT people in the Church. Anyone with authority to present Church teaching needs to do so clearly and also needs to be careful not to stereotype, caricature, or misrepresent. I don’t see either of these qualities in your response to the Pirolas’ talk. I’ve looked carefully at it over the past couple of days and have engaged in a number of conversations about the issues it raises. I have some questions that I hope you will consider answering.

First, I find it difficult to understand the meaning of your statement that gay relationships, and presumably some other kinds of relationships that you do not specify, are disordered. The Catholic Church makes very clear its teaching about homosexual activity, but I’m curious as to what renders a relationship as a whole disordered from your perspective. My partner and I are intentionally celibate and committed to continuing in celibacy for the rest of our lives together. I experience no sexual or romantic attraction toward Lindsey, though I love Lindsey more than any person in the world. But it’s also true that our relationship is a queer partnership. Having written a number of blog posts about our relationship, I’m well aware that this kind of arrangement is controversial and many people refuse to believe that couples like Lindsey and I exist, but there are many other couples like us. Would you consider our relationship an example of what you refer to as disordered? Furthermore, in the case of a sexually active same-sex relationship, would you assert that there is nothing good, holy, or Christlike about the way two partners interact with and attempt to guide each other through life? Does the presence of sexual activity and romantic attraction in a same-sex relationship automatically render the relationship disordered in its entirety? If sexual and romantic attraction are not present, does this matter at all? Couldn’t it also be argued that every human relationship is partly or at least occasionally disordered, except in rare situations where perfect love is always present? I would be grateful for some clarification on where the line is between a disordered relationship and an ordered relationship, and what makes a relationship so disordered that children should not be exposed to it.

Second, I’m wondering what qualifications you believe that families should impose upon their gay loved ones before permitting them to attend gatherings, especially where children are present. If it is inappropriate to invite one’s gay son and his partner (and family members in other kinds of disordered relationships) to Christmas dinner, what questions should a parent be asking in order to determine who can come? Should every potential attendee of a family function be required to inform the hosts in detail about his or her sex life? Or should it be assumed that if the hosts have any doubts or curiosities about a family member’s morality, sexual or otherwise, said person ought to be crossed off the invitation list without further inquiry? How qualified do you think parents are to determine whether or not their adult children’s souls are in a state of grace? Perhaps I’m wrong, and if so I’m open to being corrected, but to me it seems spiritually detrimental for a person to spend any amount of time speculating about another person’s sins. It also seems to me that your advice regarding parents with gay sons and daughters encourages this unhealthy spiritual practice. I sincerely hope I am reading you incorrectly on this point because it would trouble me greatly to think that a bishop is counseling his faithful to busy their minds with imaging what may or may not be happening in a loved one’s private life.

Third, I would like to know how far along the journey to overcoming a particular sin you believe a person ought to be before he or she is welcomed, not only at family gatherings but also as an active member of a parish. In addition to working toward repentance, what must he or she do? Spiritual fathers cannot break the seal of confession, so it would be impossible for members of the parish to verify without doubt that so-and-so is no longer living in sin. Should it be a requirement that the penitent be completely free from this sin before participating in parish life in any meaningful way? Must the penitent then focus on doing everything possible to prove his or her repentance to every person in the parish? What if doing so becomes more about pandering to the neuroses of the pious than attempting to follow Christ without compromise?

As a celibate gay person, I find that more often than not, people in my parish assume that I’m committing sin regardless of what I do or say. Some would be unsatisfied with anything less than a breakup of my partnership, a firm commitment that we never see one another again in any context other than church, and assurance that both of us will spend the rest of our lives in solitude so as not to risk impropriety with either women or men. There are LGBT members of my Christian tradition and yours who desire the fullness of the historic faith, but are terrified of causing an uproar on Sunday by simply being present. For the past two days, I’ve heard dozens of faithful Catholics asserting that this is as it should be, and drawing their arguments primarily from your statement. There are Christians — both Catholic and non-catholic — who have taken your words to mean that every LGBT person who darkens the doorstep of the church should be subject to an inquisition. As a bishop, you need to be aware of this.

I could continue with more questions, but this is already getting quite lengthy. I’m curious to know your thoughts on the sufferings of children exposed to gay relationships as compared to the sufferings of other family members who would be impacted if gay loved ones were uninvited from gatherings. I’d like to know how you reconcile the fact that in many non-western cultures, people are more affectionate with each other in general. This includes men being affectionate with men, women being affectionate with women, and married people being affectionate with folks other than their spouses. I’d also be interested in knowing exactly how you think the mere presence of a gay couple, sexually active or not, will communicate to children that gay sexual activity is morally good. Presumably, young children don’t know anything about sex, and there’s no reason to believe that a gay couple is any more likely than a straight couple to begin conversing with children about sex.

What I would be most interested in hearing from you is why you have chosen to respond to LGBT issues discussed at the Synod in a way that focuses exclusively on prohibitions against same-sex sexual activity. I’m reasonably confident that you will not understand this, but gay Christians do not define ourselves primarily by our sexual attractions or sexual decisions. When “intrinsically disordered inclinations” becomes “disordered relationships” the speaker distorts the conversation. Questions about whether people should be invited to their families’ Christmas dinner tables distort Christ’s welcome to everyone. If people are expected to answer questions about their sex lives before receiving any degree of welcome, then it’s only natural to assume that the Church is incapable of seeing people fundamentally as beings created in the image of God.

I understand that as a bishop of the Catholic Church, you have a weighty responsibility to present the Gospel in its fullness. A synod on difficult pastoral circumstances will naturally spark conversations where one bishop’s approach differs from another bishop’s approach. I hope that you feel encouraged by your brother bishops while discussing these complex realities. Finding the ideal language to use after such extensive conversations is hard, if not impossible. In a world where people are grappling constantly with new challenges while attempting to avoid misunderstanding, your clarification on these matters would be helpful to Catholics and non-catholics alike. I hope that you will consider responding to at least some of these questions because I am not alone in wondering what your answers would be.

You remain in my prayers, and I would appreciate also your prayers for me.

Sincerely,

Sarah

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Changing Course, or Changing Tone? Recent Shifts in Pastoral Responses to LGBT Christians

The news cycle has a funny way of repeating itself. We first had the idea for a post on this topic several months ago when many Evangelical Christians were grappling with the implications of generous spaciousness and perhaps offering a “Third Way” when providing pastoral care for LGBT people. This morning we awoke to news regarding the midterm report from the Synod on Marriage and Family in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Herald has called the document a “pastoral earthquake,” suggesting that there is a great deal of anxiety among the faithful about whether spiritual directors are changing course in one way or another.

On our blog, we focus many of our comments on these issues on LGBT people who are living celibacy or interested in exploring the possibilities of celibate vocations. Our experience is that we have discerned calls to celibacy. We also affirm the experiences of LGBT people who choose celibacy out of obedience to their Christian traditions.

When a person is trying to live a celibate vocation, often he or she cannot find any kind of meaningful support for this way of life. Many Christians present marriage as the de facto vocation for all people. Finding books that positively and practically discuss friendship, singleness, and celibacy can be impossible in most Christian bookstores. We’re aware that many LGBT Christians who are trying to live celibate vocations feel like they need to go it alone or figure out this vocation with a general sense of “spiritual” support attained by participating in the spiritual life of the Church. We can empathize with our friends who wonder if churches just starting to celebrate same-sex marriages will have any interest in continuing to support LGBT people who want to explore celibacy.

Celibate LGBT Christians have been through the wringer when it comes to finding spiritual directors. Some people counsel us (broadly, not the two of us specifically) to give up our celibate vocations, to stop denying ourselves sexual experiences, and to explore the possibility of sexually active same-sex relationships. Other people counsel us to give up all LGBT language and avoid any other actions that straight, cisgender Christians might consider scandalous. It’s difficult for us to find trustworthy spiritual directors. So many pastors default to using auto-scripts, especially around topics of sexuality and vocation. The search for a helpful, compassionate, and rigorous spiritual director often feels like a quest for a diamond in the rough.

It’s hard to think of other places outside the Church where the divide between “rigorous spiritual direction” and being an absolutely insensitive jerk is so thin. Speaking candidly, we know that there congregations we’d never visit because the pastor has made it abundantly clear that he is incapable of seeing anything good in an LGBT person. It’s amazing how many people assert that being LGBT is synonymous with having sex outside of marriage. As with many misunderstandings, it seems there’s a break-down in communication.

Relative to everything we’ve stated, people across gamut of Christian traditions — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — are anxious about how their pastors might change their approaches to LGBT issues in the near future and long-term. People wonder, will their pastors follow trends of affirming, celebrating, and even advocating for same-sex marriage? Will their pastors make it clear that every person should find his or her identity exclusively in Christ and that any identification with words like “gay” must be avoided at all costs? Will the pastors take approaches of refusing to engage in any of the controversies?

When spiritual directors shift course, or simply shift tone, it’s worth considering what approaches they are moving away from and what approaches they are moving toward. There’s a troubling tendency among conservative Christians to assert that any change is going to have its inevitable end in moral relativism and/or spiritual death. In reality, many Christians change tone on these issues because repentance is part and parcel of the Christian life. If pastors do not consistently wrestle with how they approach tough pastoral questions, then they are not doing their duty as pastors. Tough pastoral questions are considered tough because a pastor walks away wondering, “Did I really do the right thing there? What would I do if I encountered a similar situation in the future? How did I consider the unique circumstances of this situation?” We’re confident that any pastor reading this entry could reflect back on times where he or she truly wanted an opportunity for a do-over.

Our situation as a celibate LGBT Christian couple is certainly uncommon. We’ve been so grateful to meet pastors who can affirm our desires to grow into the fullness of faith in Christ. However, when we consider the moves for more space in some traditions, we can’t help but be afraid of reactionary impulses within our own Christian tradition. We wonder if we constantly push our priest to his very limits, especially as our pastoral care needs get more complicated with Sarah’s health problems. We do our best to talk to our parish priest, to pray with him and for him, and to consider his counsel carefully even if we end up pushing back on some of it. Additionally, we both seek direction from our individual confessors. Amid the screeching of the culture war, we can’t help but feel like we and our priests walk on a razor’s edge.

Recognizing that razor’s edge, we think that many people confuse changing course with changing tone. Churches can teach on Christian maturity, vocations, sexuality, and relationships without sounding like drill sergeants or dictators. Pastors have options to help people grow towards Christian maturity that do not involve threatening to shun them at every possible opportunity or treating them as though their very presence is a liability to the community. It’s possible to talk with LGBT people rather than simply talking at us. As we sit back and read the midterm report of the Synod for Marriage and the Family, we can’t help but hope that maybe as a result of these conversations among bishops, celibate LGBT Christians who are part of the Catholic tradition will have an easier time finding compassionate spiritual directors. We wonder what things might look like if everyone encountered a church community that is capable of seeing the gifts they bring rather than assuming they are only present to create controversy.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.