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Out of the Closet and into Chastity
My pilgrimage from being a homosexual-rights activist to living life as a chaste Catholic began in earnest when I read the writings of a modern-day Protestant martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From there my journey to the Catholic faith was swift, drawn along as I was by the three realities which make the Catholic Church so attractive to homosexuals who seek to live in sexual purity and fidelity.
Outside of the struggles over abortion and euthanasia, there may be no greater battle in the Church today than the one raging over homosexuality. At a time when the Church faces a righteous tempest about the abuse of altar boys at the hands of priests, when gay rights groups target the Mass for sacrilegious demonstrations, and when disobedient clergy preside at same-sex “weddings”, it is no wonder traditional Catholics approach the topic carrying little but confusion, frustration, and anger. Most Catholics in the pews do not accept homosexuality, do not want to understand it, and wish, mostly, that the topic would go away — or at least back into the closet “where it belongs.” Others, a minority, in particular associated with the gay caucus Dignity, are only too happy to have the topic discussed — so long as that discussion leads in the direction of the Church changing its doctrine on homosexual acts.
As both a former homosexual activist and current faithful Catholic committed to chastity, I urge instead that all Catholics, laity and clergy, join together to preach the fullness of the Church's teaching on this matter. I implore this because I believe it to be a teaching filled with dignity, truth and self-respect for all people, one which, if preached in integrity and steadfastness, will bring many to a full life with Jesus Christ.
In making this case I will begin by telling a bit of my own history. I do so not to make public that which should be private, but because so much of the public discussion on this issue is either biased or aloof from the actual lives of homosexual people.1 I believe that offering the witness of my journey from gay activism to chastity is necessary to help fill what has become a vacuum in the conversation.
My pilgrimage from being a homosexual-rights activist to living life as a chaste Catholic began in earnest when I read the writings of a modern-day Protestant martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Before reading Bonhoeffer my short Christian life had been marked primarily by my translating sidewalk gay-rights activism into similar activism in the Anglican pew.
Homosexual orientation and the life I had built around it were so central to my primary identity that I could not understand how anyone could object to what I was doing. Disapproval, doubts, objections of all kinds could only be the result of either confusion about what Scripture says about homosexuality or outright bigotry.
After all, I was living proof that homosexual people could live a sexually active life which was both spiritually and temporally satisfying. I had a lover of five years, a condominium in a major urban area, a satisfying job, and a church life as an Episcopalian which, while not perfect, was still a treasure. What more could I want? Yet, in prayer and in quiet times of reflection, I could not avoid noticing some thistles which sneaked into my “gaily” -modeled life.
As committed an activist as I was, I had to admit the shallowness and sheer improbability of many gay-friendly theologians and scholars when it came to Scripture and homosexual acts. Beyond the solid observation that Scripture does not discuss homosexual orientation per se,2 authors as diverse as John McNeill (formerly S.J.), Sylvia Pennington, John Boswell, and Virginia Molenkott went wandering into scriptural speculations which, while creative, really asked their audience to suspend belief about the clear meaning of the original text.
When discussing what the apostle Paul “really” meant when he condemned homosexual acts in Romans 1:18-23 and 1 Corinthians 6:8-11, these authors alleged that Paul must have been condemning something other than the homosexual relationship of today since he could not have known anyone of confessed homosexual orientation. An argument for blessing homosexual acts was based on this reasoning, and it asked me to conclude that, had Paul known of the participants' orientation, he would have approved of the acts, even though nothing in his other letters indicated this would be so.
Likewise, the condemnations against homosexual acts in Leviticus were dismissed with the suggestion that the acts condemned there had more to do with ritual prostitution than with “loving” homosexuality. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed (Gen. 19:1-25), these authors allege, not because of homosexual offense, but because the people of the towns were greedy, corrupt, and inhospitable to strangers.
Each of these, while claiming fidelity to traditional scriptural exegesis, took interpretation in a radically new direction and ignored the strong possibility that greed, corruption, and inhospitality might have gone hand-in-hand with homosexual offense. Was it reasonable to assume that homosexual acts had nothing to do with the cities being destroyed, in view of the large part they played in the drama of Lot's departure?
So, there were little cracks in the theoretical foundation upon which I had built my life. There were also problems with how I saw “gay theology” lived out around me. Most gay Christians I knew differed little in their lives from gay pagans, agnostics, and atheists. Gay Christian worship services, while sometimes worshipful, were also often as sexually charged and “cruisy”3 as most bars I visited. Early on I decided to try to make a nearby non-gay Episcopal parish my spiritual home, and my experience there, contrasting sharply with what I saw of gay “worship”, forced me to admit that many of my arguments in favor of gay Christianity were modeled more on a theoretical ideal than on practical experience.
A final source of pre-Bonhoeffer doubt came in the relationships I formed with non-gay, theologically orthodox Christians. Here were people who, I had been told, should have hated the very ground I walked upon and despised me for my sexual orientation. After all, hadn't much of the gay flight to the cities been to get away from traditional Christians? Yet the people I encountered loved me, even while they strenuously disagreed with the choices I was making in my life. Agreement, I came to realize, might be nice, but it was not a prerequisite for friendship and real affection. The ground was ripe for the Holy Spirit to work a revolution, and that revolution began in a dramatic way, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I remember the day clearly. It was early in the spring and raining. My then-lover and I had spent much of the miserable day in a shopping mall and had split up to pursue our own bargains, his in clothes and mine in books. I was in a discount bookstore, poring over a disorganized pile of titles, when I saw it, The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I opened it, and I can still remember its first sentence as though I were reading it right now: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.”4
I was hooked. It was as though those lines had been written just for me at just that time. Scooping together the loose change in my pockets, I bought the book, brought it home, and devoured it. Here, from this man martyred on Adolf Hitler's order, I heard a message which both commanded and terrified me. Would I, could I, give my life for Christ? Where had I compromised? Did being a Christian really mean going along with what my world was telling me, or did being a Christian mean being different, being wholly Christ's?
Swiftly I began reading everything about Bonhoeffer that I could get my hands on. With Bonhoeffer came other committed Christian authors, some of them Catholic. Augustine's Confessions convicted me of my own spiritual timidity and encouraged me that God never gives up on us. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle awed me with the depth of communion possible in prayer, and Mother Teresa's life and writing showed me the potential fruit of such a prayerful life.
These took residence on my shelf next to books by Richard Foster, who writes powerfully from the Quaker tradition. His Celebration of Discipline and The Challenge of the Disciplined Life made me want to re-examine the role Christianity played in my all-too-modern life, specifically in the area of my identity and sexuality. Gradually I began to understand that my sexuality was not something I owned, but something God owned in me, and that the clear witness of Scripture was to a dual purpose for sexuality. Sex, in God's intention, is meant to do two things: provide for the procreation of children and build up husbands and wives in the love, respect, and life of each other. How did this square with the kind of sex with which I was most familiar, particularly in light of its inevitably transient nature? After all, homosexual sex is completely and unalterably divorced from the responsibility of procreation. Is this really how God intended we should use our sexuality?
After many months of indecision, I could remain dishonest no longer. The life I had been living for so long was a life of cheap grace and I knew it. In the light of Scripture, Tradition, and reflection I could only conclude that God demanded of me the same thing he demands of all unmarried Christians: a chaste life. So it was that I stepped out in faith from almost everything I had thought most important and dear to me. If Christ wanted chastity, I would be chaste. Everything else and everyone else I placed in his hand.
From there my journey to the Catholic faith was swift, drawn along as I was by the three realities which make the Catholic Church so attractive to homosexuals who seek to live in sexual purity and fidelity.
First, the Catholic Church is the only Christian institution that not only preaches the truth of chastity for homosexual people but offers practical, tangible help for achieving it.
Second, the Catholic Church is the only major Christian institution to recognize that we really do not know what causes homosexuality. The Church will not demand heterosexual conversion as a condition of fellowship, nor will it decide, in advance, that homosexual people are not capable of being responsible for their own decisions and actions. This position contains, as its corollary, the dramatically counter-cultural notion that homosexual people have as much human dignity as anyone else and deserve not to be patronized — something which my more liberally-minded Episcopal Church did (and does still) with depressing regularity.
Finally, the Catholic Church possesses the truth, not simply in this dogma but in all its dogmas. Seeking assistance to live a chaste life may have been the road I traveled to Rome, but once it was in my view I could see so much more. The Catholic Church, I came to understand, was meant in itself to be a means of grace in my desire to lead a life closer to God. In its sacraments, particularly reconciliation and the Eucharist, it offered an enormously important avenue for drawing nearer to Jesus, and it would offer those to me no matter my sexual orientation.
Yes, I had doubts. No one in my family had ever been Catholic. Many of them were and remain anti-Catholic. Yet the truth which had drawn me this far would not let me tarry longer than absolutely necessary, and I entered the Catholic Church at Easter 1993.
How has it been? Rough but wonderful. Nothing could have prepared me for the strength I would draw from a Catholic relationship with Christ and no one could have prepared me for how difficult it would be to lose friends and strain family relationships because of this choice. Anyone who thinks there is a gap between Catholicism and evangelism either is not a Catholic or is not living a Catholic life in an open way. Simply to confess a belief in a Catholic view of Christ is to take a counter-cultural position which demands apologetics and explanation. Faithful Catholics who are homosexual do it every day and find in both the exterior witness and interior dialogue a remarkable path to deeper faith.
Occasionally I am asked what I expect of the future, and I sometimes run out of time trying to answer. The truth of the Catholic Church's doctrine on the subject of homosexuality and homosexual acts is so profound and such a real expression of love that it can easily dominate conversation. Yet it is a teaching which is frequently ignored among traditional Catholics and derided by heterodox Church members. This is a shame and must be corrected, for the sake of all those hundreds of thousands who seek a similar message and might enter the Church if they heard it. In my opinion clergy and laity, have an obligation to state the truth of Christ wherever we are and to whomever would hear it. We cannot allow a person's orientation to be an issue if we are to be faithful to the One who has called us. Here then is what I would hope Catholics would do in the future:
First, I hope all Catholics will learn what the Church teaches about homosexuality. Homosexuality, in the Catholic view, is a tendency toward disordered sexual acts, but it is not a sin in and of itself. In this it can be said to be no more sinful than an inclination to heterosexual fornication or adultery. The vast majority of homosexuals cannot be said to choose to have the desires they have, and many, including myself, find living with them, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a “trial” (CCC 2358).
Second, I hope traditional Catholics will get over being shocked and disapproving that homosexual people exist in our world and culture. This is an attitude that goes beyond simply and properly disapproving of homosexual acts; it comes perilously close to condemning homosexual people as human beings.
I think we must all agree that this is something Jesus Christ does not and would not do and, in fact, warns us away from doing (Matt. 7:1-5, Luke 6:36-37). This disposition, I believe, has done much to swell the ranks of homosexual Catholics whose behavior seems bent on hell — not simply out of the blindness of sin, but also because no one has ever offered them the truth in love. Love without truth can degenerate into selfish violence, but truth without love is brutal.
Third, as hard as it might be, faithful Catholics must learn to recognize that not all homosexuals are child molesters. The current scandals of priests abusing altar boys has lent a level of popularity to this prejudice, but making the term “pederast” interchangeable with “homosexual” is not only uncharitable, but borders on slander.
Fourth, I hope Catholic clergy will be more encouraging to homosexual people about their dignity as human beings, created in the image of God, and their vocation to chastity, which they share by virtue of that dignity. More homilies ought to take this admonition from the Catechism to heart: “Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession, and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead” (CCC 357).
This essential dignity is insulted when traditional Catholics condemn homosexual people out of hand and when heterodox Catholics patronize us by trying to make believe that homosexual activity — like other genital activity outside of marriage is not sinful and damaging to our ultimate relationship with God. Ironically enough, both groups are guilty of much the same attitude: defining homosexual people not by the virtue to which they are capable with God's grace, but by activity which that grace can empower them to resist.
Fifth, I hope more bishops, clergy, religious, and lay people come to acknowledge and support the powerful ministry of Fr. John Harvey, O.S.F.S., and his group, Courage.5 Starting from a small seed of concern, Fr. Harvey's organization has grown over the years to become a vital and supportive presence to thousands of homosexual people who are either leaving an actively gay life or who struggle privately against an inclination to homosexual sin.
Courage chapters around the country provide an important ministry of compassion because it is often in such places that the bare bones of Church dogma can be fleshed out in chaste friendship. It is not good for a man to be alone, Scripture teaches, and groups such as Courage can provide a needed antidote to the loneliness or emotional isolation which can inflict many who seek to live a chaste life. The Church recognizes this necessity: 'Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” (CCC 2359).
Given that this teaching is the authoritative doctrine of the Church, how is it that so few of the dioceses in the United States have a Courage chapter? It is a scandal that some dioceses have not even explored beginning a Courage chapter — or have rejected one outright. To deny homosexual Catholics a haven at the foot of the cross is a sin against charity and provides evidence of disturbing meanness of spirit.
Sixth, if there is one overarching teaching that the Church should emphasize in the future, not only for homosexual Catholics, but for all Christendom, it would be the role Christ our Redeemer plays in the formation of our primary identity.
Identity is like a pair of glasses. It is through our understanding of self that we interpret and view God, people, and our world. This is why Paul, in writing to the Church in Corinth for the second time, explained, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way” (2 Cor. 5:16).
What was it about his readers that Paul thought would change their way of looking at themselves and each other? It was living in the light of faith in Christ Jesus. Consider this definition of “gayness,” which I have developed after over a decade of reflection on the question: Being gay means giving oneself over to one's sexual orientation to the point where it becomes a foundation and center of one's identity.
One can be a person with a homosexual orientation, but one cannot be “gay” in the modern context and be a person with just a homosexual orientation. In the act of self-identification, “coming out,” which is so important to the gay community, one sacrifices individual personhood for identity in the group. Homosexual orientation moves from being a peripheral aspect of one's personality to being a defining aspect.
If you are a Christian who has made this choice, I believe there is reason to examine your heart for evidence of idolatry. I have observed that once a person has made a decision that he is not merely homosexually oriented, but is gay, then orientation tends to be a dominant aspect of his identity and everything else — society, faith, institutions, and even God — will be viewed and judged through that particular lens. Homosexual orientation is not a choice for most people, but being gay is, and it is this choice which motivates homosexual groups ranging from Dignity to Act UP.
Such a wrong understanding of our identity, I believe, is the source of these disastrous errors because rooting ourselves in anything outside of Christ undermines our efforts at obedience or following him.
If I, whether homosexual or not, do not unite my primary identity first and forever with that of Christ, then any notion I might have of ruling or restraining behavior will never succeed. It is to the identity of Christ, his whole self present in the Eucharist and remembered in the creed, to which I owe my first allegiance. All others, relationships, desires, thoughts, and hopes should be ordered around that one great truth and exist only in relation to him.
In the three years since pledging myself to a chaste life in obedience to Christ, I have communicated about this issue with dozens, if not hundreds, of homosexual men and women, people of all faiths and of none. God has seen fit to use some of what I have written to influence a few to re-examine their assumptions about faith, sexuality, and identity. Some have been led to change their opinions. Others have not. I have been struck at how few have rejected the teaching of the Church outright. Instead, at the risk of being overly broad, the objections I have faced have been of three general types.
First, in an argument based on confusing celibacy and chastity, some advance the notion that while a few may be called to be celibate, the vast majority of homosexual people are not meant to restrain their sexual desires for a lifetime.
Second is a closely related argument which can be summed up, roughly, as “God made me this way, so what I do must be pleasing to him.” Here too a few raise the objection that to expect them to sacrifice genital sexuality is to ask them to act “unnaturally.”
Finally, some say, “God is love. What I do with my lover has love as its focus. Therefore God must approve of what we do, or at least not disapprove of it, since God is love.”
I have encountered a mix of these almost from the beginning, and I think it might be useful to point out how they might be answered. People who confuse chastity and celibacy need to be reminded of what the Church actually teaches about the two (paragraphs 2348-2350 of the new Catechism are a useful resource) and they need to have that distinction brought home in a practical manner. They often need to be reminded that homosexual people are not the only ones God has called to lifelong chastity as lay people. After all, if a heterosexual man or woman can live chastely, why is a chaste life impossible for a homosexual man or woman?
While it is true that this is not a reality all willingly embrace, it is nonetheless true that the same call of obedient dignity that precludes homosexual genital activity also precludes heterosexual genital activity outside of marriage. Chastity is not a matter of extraordinary grace, but is a minimal standard for Christian men and women, no matter their orientation.
Those who argue that homosexuality is God-given need to be reminded of basic facts. Homosexual people are not mentioned in the Bible at all, and if God really created an entire third gender of human beings, wouldn't he have said something about it? Moreover, that something exists does not prove that it exists as God envisioned it. In fact, Scripture teaches the opposite.
Death, disease, and pain came upon not only human beings, but upon all of creation because of Adam's sin (Rom. 5:12, 8:20-23). We bear this fallen creation in our bodies and in our minds, down into our very genes if the evidence of such diseases as hemophilia and Tay-Sachs are to be believed.
That most homosexual people cannot recall ever deciding to be homosexual does not mean that God loves homosexual sex any more than he loves adultery, fornication, or idolatry. Orientation may not be a choice. Actions almost always are.
The third line of reasoning can best be addressed by probing what is meant by “love,” both in the mind of the persons engaged in the conversation and in the mind of Christ as well as the magisterium of the Church. If one truly loves another person, does one join him in activity that frequently causes harm? (Even before the arrival of HIV, sexually-transmitted disease in homosexually-active men was the subject of epidemiological concern). If one loves the other person, does one demand that he serve as a sexual object? Can sexually-active homosexuality ever be more than this, given that there can be no other ultimate object than pleasure?
Modern people need to be reminded that God destined a dual purpose in sex, unity between man and woman as well an avenue for the procreation of children. When one completely and intentionally removes either one of these conditions, the use of sex degenerates into misuse.
I have left love for the end because, in the end, that is what this debate is all about. There is an old saying that all the best lies have an element of truth. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the discussion of homosexuality.
Gay activists appeal to the public mind by defending their “right to love whom they choose.” In doing so they count on the muddled understanding of love which is so much abroad right now, and on the lie that all loves are equal.
But while they teach truth in generality, there is falsehood in their specific. As much as gay activists might wish to claim gay love imitates the divine, it is simply not so. At the heart of divine love is the transcendent desire to lose self in the good of the other, and, as both my life's experience and reason have taught me, an actively homosexual life precludes that desire. True love, Christ's love, will not bow to the whims of erotic enchantment or desire. True love knows restraint.
Christ told us, just before he showed us, that there is no greater love than that we lay down our lives for our friends (John 15:13). The greatest love is his, the perfect sacrifice of self that others might benefit. It is this most holy, most difficult, most chaste form of love to which homosexual men and women are called. We are summoned, like the apostle Paul, to pour ourselves out for the good of the Kingdom, sharing with many the talents and fruit which, had we been heterosexually oriented, we might have shared primarily with spouse and children.
I do not mean to write glibly about this particular cross. If my words here sound bloodless or impersonal, it is only because I do not wish to make myself the focus. The story of the emotional struggle and sacrifice which have come with this path is long and deep enough that it cannot be told here. Although I have not dwelt on the emotional details, faithful Catholics need to know that there are devoted, chaste homosexuals in their parishes, religious orders, and apostolates and that many of us live lives of deep sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom. Most of us are quiet. Many of us you will never know. But all of us stand in need of your prayers, charity, and good will.
I end with two quotations relevant to identity and discipleship. The first is from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Julia is explaining her decision not to marry her lover, after their affair and after divorcing their original spouses. Her words have to do with choosing to serve God or something else — a choice we each face:
The second is from Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship:
Anyone interested in participating sincerely in this ministry is invited to send e-mail to me. My address at American Online is dcmorrison, and on the Internet it is firstname.lastname@example.org. Each correspondent's identity will be kept confidential.
Morrison, David C. “Out of the Closet and into Chastity.” This Rock (July/August 1994): 10-16.
Published with permission of Catholic Answers Inc. This Rock is a journal of Christian Apologetics published by Catholic Answers Inc. out of San Diego. To order call (888) 291-8000.
David C. Morrison is the author of Beyond Gay published in 1999. Mr. Morrison resides near Washington, D. C. and is a writer, editor, and student and a regular visitor to the religious forums on electronic bulletin boards.
Copyright © 1994 This Rock