A Review of The Third Way

Recently, we’ve received several emails asking us for our thoughts on The Third Way. One reader indicated that this film “explains exactly what you’re talking about with your lives.” With such a ringing endorsement from a person who had watched the video, we thought that it would make sense to feature The Third Way among our resource reviews. Because this resource is a film, we’ve provided a significant synopsis of The Third Way to help readers understand the reasoning behind our critiques. As such, this review is a bit lengthy. Nonetheless, we hope that providing detail will help our readers locate the most relevant sections for their own needs and interests.

It seems fitting that this film will be the third resource we’ve reviewed. You can also click on the following links to read our reviews of God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines and Generous Spaciousness by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter. As with all of our reviews, this one will attempt to answer two questions: What does this resource have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this resource contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

According to the film’s promotional materials, “The Third Way will dispel common misconceptions about homosexuality and unveil the [Roman Catholic] Church’s truly compassionate and forward-thinking position on the issue.” Produced by Rev. John Hollowell and directed by John-Andrew O’Rourke, it runs just over 38 minutes. The video is comprised largely of different people speaking with their faces to the camera about experiences with same-sex attraction and the Roman Catholic Church. The voices include those with direct, personal experience of same-sex attraction and straight Catholics known for their public presentation of official teaching on sexual ethics. We thought that The Third Way had some strong points relative to the lives of celibate LGBT Christians, but we are concerned that the people interviewed in this film do not represent the diversity of LGBT Christians committed to celibacy.

After an opening sequence featuring scenes of violence against the LGBT community and the question, “Is there another way?” we meet seven Catholics, identified simply by first name, who describe how they came to know their experiences of same-sex attraction. Almost immediately, the film turns toward emphasizing various negative experiences as causal mechanisms for homosexual orientation such as a troubled home life, sexual trauma, an emotionally dependent friendship that became too close, and a disconnect with a positive cisgender identity. Specifically, David mentions that his father was an alcoholic who physically abused him, stating emphatically, “Everything about masculinity scared me, terrified me, I hated it. ” Julie says that her relationship with her mother “was like ice.” She shares, “I grew up hating men. I had been molested as a child, and in my mind, men were just vicious brutes who just only wanted one thing from you. And I wanted nothing to do with them.” Joseph speaks well of his parents and his upbringing. Charles describes how he grew up feeling very depressed because his mother frequently told him that he was unwanted. Richard expresses not fitting in with his father’s expectations of manhood. Christopher describes how his being artistic and creative lead to trouble bonding with other boys his own age. Of all the people who describe their home lives and upbringings, Joseph is the only person has anything positive to say about how he grew up. The other stories featured have many elements used by the ex-gay movement to justify “reparative therapy” in order to reorient a person’s sexual orientation from gay or lesbian to straight. The film does not advocate such therapies directly, but LGBT people who have survived abuses within the ex-gay world will likely find these stories troubling.

Melinda Selmys, who appears in the film but whose growing-up story was not featured, expressed concerns about looking at a person’s home life and upbringing to explain the causes of homosexuality. After The Third Way was released, she published a blog post about how an unintended consequence of this documentary might be the shaming of good parents for “causing” their son or daughter’s sexual orientation. We considered Melinda’s contribution one of the film’s highlights. In the middle of this montage about the causes of homosexuality, she explains, “You have to understand that for women especially it’s very often not so much a matter of strong physical attractions to one gender or the other gender. It’s a matter of how you emotionally interact with people.” This quote is the film’s only indication that gay people may not view their sexualities as being principally orientated towards a desire for sex, but rather as an indicator of a broader way of interacting with other people. Melinda’s viewpoint may resonate with celibate LGBT Christians who don’t see their sexual orientations and gender identities as being primarily about desire and attraction.

A strength of The Third Way is that it gives voice to the realities of bullying based on real or perceived sexual orientation, and both celibate and non-celibate LGBT Christians will find commonality with the interviewees’ stories of mistreatment. Nearly all of them talk about the cruelty they experienced in school, among church members, or within their families. David shares about how his peers were relentless, flicking him on the back of the head while spouting anti-gay slurs. Christopher describes how he didn’t feel like he could talk to people at church about the bullying he experienced so he sought refuge within the gay community. Julie tells about an experience in a Pentecostal church where she was told that it wasn’t enough for her to “leave the gay lifestyle,” and that she also had to become heterosexual in order to be a good Christian. Elements of all these tales are familiar to LGBT Christians who might view The Third Way.

Touching on ex-gay rhetoric once again, the film then moves into discussing the emptiness of “the gay lifestyle.” We hear from Julie about how she was involved in gay community organizations to the point of “pretty much [running] the gay church.” Charles shares that he had a boyfriend with whom he broke up with because “this isn’t who I am at my core.” David says, “I felt extremely depressed living in this life. The depression was overwhelming. The loneliness was overwhelming.” Christopher says, “I was really stuck in the middle of not being able to connect with men and not being able to have a healthy relationship with women.” This segment might have resonance with some celibate LGBT Christians, but will likely strike others as overly generalizing and relying on harmful stereotypes.

Throughout all of the interviews, we see two young actors walking outside in the snow. The young man and young woman are featured in isolation from one another. Eventually they end up in an abandoned, derelict building with graffiti featuring phrases like “Goodbye Tomorrow” and “Go where you love.” The meaning of this sequence is unclear and could be read in many ways. The actors might be walking alone in the snow to portray the isolation felt by the interviewees growing up. The empty shell of a building could be an attempt to portray the false promises of “the gay lifestyle.” The building might be (and closer to the end of the film, seems to be) an old church that has been defaced, perhaps trying to shame members of the Catholic Church into providing additional support. From context, it seems like the dilapidated building is trying to describe “the gay community” as a poor substitute for the community one should find in church. As the participants share their stories of living “the gay lifestyle,” the actors stand beneath a doorway reading “Out” contrasted against another doorway reading “In.” We found that bit of symbolism rather disconcerting.

At the 17 minute mark, the video begins to shift to the interviewees’ stories of why they became Catholic or became more fully committed to the Catholic Church. For a film based on Catholic experiences of spirituality, some of these stories have curious echoes of the American evangelical Protestant “and then I got saved” narrative. Julie chokes up with emotion as she says, “I was just so lost and so broken. And I knew that I needed God. And I knew that the Catholic Church was the right church and there was something that I didn’t have.” David notes changes that started to happen when he focused on God: “I stopped sex, I stopped alcohol, I stopped drugs, and I verbally forgave my dad.” Joseph reflects on how a confessor made himself available to hear more about his story and help him process his experience, being a real father to Joseph, supporting him on his journey. Celibate LGBT Christians may find the separation between one’s “gay life” and one’s “Christian life” as portrayed in the film distressing, particularly as ex-gay rhetoric continues to permeate this segment. However, Joseph’s contrasting story with being able to talk through questions about sexual orientation with a spiritual director will be encouraging. We would have appreciated hearing more about the roles of other people’s spiritual directors in helping them navigate questions of sexuality and vocation.

Celibate LGBT Christians might be aware of key places where popular sources misrepresent Catholic teaching. The Third Way highlights three such places: homosexual acts as intrinsically disordered, homosexual persons as called to chastity, and Catholics as called to combat unjust discrimination that targets homosexual persons. Five well-respected Catholic educators, who–unlike the gay interviewees–are identified by their full names and occupational titles, explain discrepancies between how people perceive Catholic teaching and what the Catholic Church officially teaches. Together, these voices present what “disordered” means in the Catholic Church and argue that this tradition’s teachings are not actually bigoted against LGBT people because everyone has disordered desires of some kind. Rev. Michael Schmitz says, “All of us are in the exact same boat. Every human being, regardless of what you actually desire, you’re made for more than what you might desire right now.” Jason Evert makes a distinction to clarify that homosexual desires are not chosen. Celibate, LGBT Christians might be encouraged to hear well-respected Catholic educators explaining what this tradition means by “intrinsically disordered” as so many who represent Catholicism have used this phrase to justify discrimination against LGBT people.

We were especially encouraged by the film’s handling of the Catholic belief that “homosexual persons are called to chastity” because it focuses upon celibacy as a meaningful way of life. Celibate, LGBT Christians who have worked hard to integrate (rather than repress) their sexualities will likely cheer when Joseph explains, “The chaste person is not the asexual person. The chaste person is somebody who knows what to do with their sexuality.” Equally, Sr. Helena Burns discusses the importance of intimacy for all people, noting that intimacy need not be sexual. As we have highlighted the importance of defining a celibate vocation by what it has rather than what it lacks, we are glad to see intimacy defined broadly. We hope this might encourage celibate LGBT Christians to continue to integrate their sexualities and find greater freedom to develop meaningful relationships with others.

The video’s next segment moves back to the topic of bullying and harassment, this time as discussed from the perspective of the film’s straight interviewees. We appreciated the forthrightness of the speakers in acknowledging that Christians, including Catholics, have contributed to LGBT bullying. Jason Evert bemoaned his own behavior as a high school student:

“You know Christianity in general is in a position where we need to start asking forgiveness for those people who have been bigoted to those who have these attractions, whether it be their own family members, whether it be their pastors, kids in their youth groups. Like we need to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Some of these people have suffered a lot and that’s their notion of the Catholic Church. Maybe that’s all they know of the Church. You know, I’ll admit, I went to an all-guy’s high school. And I confess I took part in it. You know, this ‘You’re gay! No, you’re gay! You’re gay!’ Just this stupid, stupid behavior. And I ask, I ask forgiveness on behalf of the entire community of people who experience these attractions that you’ve experienced any of this stuff from people who claim to be Christian like me, claimed to be Catholic. I did it.”

Listening to the stories of David, Joseph, and Julie as they shared their own experience of unintentional bullying at the hands of Christians provides even more weight to Jason’s apology and the film’s call for Catholics to do more to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Unfortunately, it’s not until minute 31 of this 38-minute film that we actually find out what the title means. From what we inferred, the “third way” means holding to a firm belief that same-sex sexual activity is inappropriate, but loving people who experience same-sex attractions. Rev. Michael Schmitz says it this way:

“The Catholic Church puts forth a third way: to treat every person, but in this case particularly persons with same-sex attraction, to be able to say, ‘We do not in anyway hate or condemn or fear or want to isolate you. At the same time, we can’t embrace everything that you choose.’ So we’re going to choose this third way, and that third way is love. We’re going to love you.”

Though some of the film’s messages might be comforting to celibate LGBT Christians, particularly those who are Catholic, we perceive that the storyboard detracts from the broader message of The Third Way. The film begins with an aggressive portrayal of the causes of homosexuality, where each cause has potential to make people search for love “in the wrong places.” Then the film highlights the “emptiness” found in the gay community. We’ve seen many reviewers focus on the apparent disconnect between unconditional love and “We can’t embrace everything that you choose.” After the explanation of the term “third way,” many of the film’s voices describe why the Catholic Church is the place for same-sex attracted people to receive love, but it’s unclear how they would respond to LGBT people making choices that cannot be embraced within the Catholic tradition. We can appreciate this skepticism, especially as the last spoken words of the video are from David, stating, “I know that I am a Catholic man. That’s my identity. I used to think I was gay. I’m not gay. I am David, a Catholic man.”

Watching The Third Way is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about homosexuality and the Catholic Church. For all this film’s attempts to clarify Catholic teaching, many people will not be able to hear that message because the apologies are few, and for some, too little and far too late. Further, it seems that all the gay/same-sex attracted people featured are at least 30 years old, with most being older. The video does not engage with how to support young people wrestling with questions of sexual orientation and gender identity, and the latter topic is not discussed at all. We think that opening with a seventeen-minute montage about the perceived causes of and “emptiness” within homosexuality was a bad choice on the part of the producer, and many LGBT people will simply turn off the film rather than watch it in its entirety. The Third Way has potential to be a strong conversation starter in Catholic parishes about how Catholics could work to address LGBT bullying. However, we are unsure about the film’s effectiveness at presenting a more compassionate view of LGBT people because it reinforces many destructive stereotypes about those who use words like “gay” and “lesbian” to describe their sexual identities.

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