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!

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12 thoughts on “A Review of Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet

  1. Thanks for the review !

    I’ve enjoyed reading Eve Tushnet on and off over the years and you inspired me to check out her blog on the Synod.

    God Bless

  2. Someone is in a serious fan girl mode. I mean that’s a really good review for eve and the mention of the impending interview….(goodluck!)
    I have been mostly not a fan of her work, but because of this review I am considering buying her book. Because I do enjoy books that…don’t spend a majority of the time trying to be overly intellectual. (I don’t like being bored to tears, at my own expense) And personal stories are great.
    Question: how long would I have to submit possible questions for the interview?

    • Let’s say until the end of the working week. We’ll send Eve our interview questions on Friday evening, and we will also ask her to watch this space for questions from our readers.

  3. Pingback: Reviewing Tushnet's Latest - Notes from Mere O

  4. OK, sorry for the anon and don’t expect you to post this comment (though you can if you like), but could you please ask Eve about celibate marriages where one partner has come out as gay or lesbian to the partner only, yet the couple remains together because of a child or children. Seems to me there should be some pastoral care for both partners in this instance because it can be very isolating for each side – sure, the couple has things in common and care about each other, even share kisses and affection, but, the lack of sexual intimacy has it’s struggles at times…

    • We can raise this issue. Can you be a bit more specific about your question? Are you wondering what Eve thinks about pastoral care for people in this situation?

  5. I continue to puzzle over ETs occasional repeat comments in passing that seem to read as if we all must solemnly require that love always is one or another kind of zero sum game. Is a crown real, if it is a gift rather than a call to let yourself be crucified? Is a cross worth bearing just because that is our shared human condition, and does not augur ‘…. another jewel for my heavenly crown’?

    That is to say, in this love, one or both or all people are too frequently ‘sacrificing’ in order to have something good to give, and the receiving person(s) typically seem to have to have a life or a life context that necessitates the ‘sacrifice’ in order to make the giving-receiving of love important and meaningful. Is love’s self-giving love, ever anything that does not pound a nail into somebody, somewhere, some time?

    To be frank, I feel an untoward hint of some framework too near to being toxic, insofar as: (A) Focusing on suffering and sacrifice over-simplifies the complexities of human giving interactions, and especially risks mistaking human with human loving at best, plus perhaps does similar flattening or oblique pirouettes? … to human with God loves?

    ….. (B) tends to sound like the ‘sacrifice’ or the ‘suffering’ is some kind of innate believer litmus test of how real, important, meaningful, or godly a loving is. I’m taken aback each time I come across what reads out like an undertow or an undertone which goes against the positive grain of the author’s message, to the extent that all lovers are drawn to the beloved who is cherished and that this drawing may be one of the forgotten keys to ‘vocation’ and even to ‘discernment’?

    Then, I have no sooner put those puzzlements into words, than I find another. I appreciate that ET has been able to live her way into a vocational compliance with the going Catholic no sex teaching. A nice light bulb goes on when she talks about life disciplines that make vocations possible, but which are not synonymous with the vocations as such. She does come across at times as a sort of acrobat of ‘sublimation’ or perhaps, ‘cross-bearing’?

    The human condition’s transmutations of loss, pain, suffering …. and also of being gifted by others, of discovering life’s ‘stone soops’, of lover-beloved being a two way neighborhood street if not at times a ten lane highway ….. seem so far to me to be much more varied, deeper, and much less virtuoso …. much of the time, especially in situations/relationships/loves-beloveds which we tend to regard over a lifetime as worth remembering as life lessons?

    I will grant that my puzzlements in these ways have something to do with my persistent continuing inability to ‘get’ being Catholic. So, factor my personal tone-deafness into the puzzlement mix.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I’m going to focus my response to the idea that “love always is one or another kind of zero sum game.” I think that it’s unhelpful to start with this frame of mind. I’ve seen it as more helpful to use more organic metaphors for love, like that of a growing plant. Thinking about planting a rose brush, there’s going to be effort expended to put the plant in the ground. We exert this effort because in hope of having a beautiful rose plant. We might inconvenience ourselves still further and track that our plant is getting adequate water, shade, and sunlight. But again, we exert this effort in hope of having a beautiful rose plant. In trying to tend to our rose plant, we might develop second, third, and fourth hopes for other plants where we eventually envision a beautiful garden. However, without starting small with the single rose plant, we might have never caught the vision for the entire garden. Additionally, most people who try to tend beautiful gardens attempt to ensure that they are the right size, so that a person’s garden matches the amount of effort they are willing to put into stewarding it. The plants grow organically, surprising the gardener along the way with joy. Sometimes the joy feeds more effort in the garden, but more often the joy feeds a desire to invite other people to see the fruits of the labor. What began as a single rose plant has now become a way to share joy with other people.

      I find stewarding one’s vocation to be akin to tending to a garden in the soul. One of the reasons why I regard both marriage and celibacy as mature adult vocations is that I believe the vocations blossom best when a person makes an active choice to plant a seed for these ways of life. Sometimes it does help to discipline oneself to undertake certain actions in obedience (much like the discipline of weeding in the garden), but at other times, it’s best to sit and enjoy the developing vocation (much like enjoying an afternoon tea in one’s garden). From my vantage point, I see that people are much more likely to emphasize the discipline of living a celibate life while emphasizing the joys of living a married life. However, both marriage and celibacy have their attendant disciplines and joys. -Lindsey

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