I Thought Gay Celibacy Was My Only Option — I Was Wrong
The most difficult part of convincing someone when you are begging for food is figuring out what kind of face to make — appearing both in need and deserving somehow. Look too desperate and they will think you might make a grab for their purse or ask to move into the spare bedroom. Too responsible and they’ll wonder whether you really need help at all.
I begged in France while living with a religious order. “We have nothing to eat. Do you have anything you could share?” I would smile and hold the straps to my backpack like an earnest schoolboy. Hungry, but honest.
I had never begged on the street before and was struck by how humbling it is — asking strangers to keep you alive just because they can. And you can’t.
“No,” the eighth woman I asked scowled at me from behind her front door. “Go away.”
I wanted to tell her No really I have no food, no money. I don’t have, like, options here. Do you want to feel my stomach rumbling? Check my pockets for a wallet?
Eventually, a man invited my companion and I into his house and began making each of us a sandwich with thick slices of cured ham. Standing in his kitchen he asked us where we were traveling and why we were begging.
“We travel simply, and go out two by two like Jesus sent his disciples,” Brother François responded. “Yes yes,” the man waved his hand. “I assumed that by your clothes. But why?” He looked at me like a cardboard American Happy Meal amidst his table of crusty bread and smelly cheeses as he waited for Brother François to finish translating. “Why have you come all the way across the ocean just to beg food from me?”
I hesitated and imagined myself answering him the way I had never been able to do when anyone asks me why?
“Because I’m gay,” I would say. “I have no other choice.” He would nod appreciatively and say how much better begging for ham sandwiches and smelly cheese on another continent must be than being gay on your own.
Most of my life I have not been able to articulate the reality beneath the surface. Nobody I knew ever wanted to know why gay people do the things we do, so I gave him the version I assumed he would like. “I may be a beggar, but I still have good taste.” I winked at him. “Where else would I come to eat besides France?”
As we left the man’s house Brother François and I said a prayer together in thanks for his generosity and God’s providence. God provides for our every need, if only we would ask. That is the promise I was putting to the test.
If you were told by those you trusted most that your sexuality was broken, was a threat to you and those you loved, how far would you go to protect the world from it? Would you hide it from your friends? Abandon anyone you ever fell in love with? Tell your family you had to leave them because you feared how you were hurting them? I did. I believed that promise. God will provide.
You could say I ended up begging on the other side of the world because I took the Catholic Church seriously about my being gay. Maybe that’s not entirely fair. France is not really the opposite side of the earth from Texas, even if substantively it is. But when you find yourself a gay Catholic man, you are told you only have three options. Become a priest for life. Become a monk for life. Or stay single for life. Celibacy — complete sexual abstinence — being a requirement for all of them. I guess I was someone sincere enough to try all of them.
Pope Francis shook the world’s assumptions about how the largest Christian denomination thinks about homosexuality with his famous “who am I to judge?” comment, though official doctrine shows little hope of changing. Catholic or not, millions of LGBT individuals and their families are impacted by an organization with such an extensive moral impact on the world. I tried the Church’s prescription for our gay lives, and what I can say definitively as one who actually followed it is, the official rules do not always work.
Growing up Catholic, I learned that life is about more than just you. There is more to existence than your own experience of it. More to worship than your personal tastes for it. More to human purpose than your imaginings of it.
They call it Tradition. Basically, people — mostly men, though with plenty of exceptions — had been thinking about this for a long time before you or I came along. And it is better to find a way to line yourself up with their consensus than to go your own way. That is what being a church and not just a belief was all about. Linking ourselves together in the faith that absent the egocentric leanings of the individual, we might actually recover a natural order to life. And what that consensus found in my case was that being gay was, well, not okay.
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I found I was gay about the time most boys start to discover there is much in life to wonder and terrify them. Eleven, maybe twelve. I didn’t have any words for it, I just knew the way I looked at some of the boys differed from the way any of them ever looked back at me. When it dawned on me a few years later that the very worst insults those boys would call each other — gay, queer, fag — actually applied to me, I learned that even if there were words for how I felt, they were better left unspoken.
I did eventually come out to my folks and a few friends in high school, though it was far from the way I would have planned. There was no celebration or relief, and certainly no pride.
At that point I had never met a single gay person. Not knowingly, anyways. Tired of faking my way through girlfriends and tortuous school dances, I turned to the internet. Back before there were apps on your phone to tell you how close the nearest match might be, I lied about my age and found a college student a couple towns away who would buy me dinner and take me to a movie. I was sixteen and my leg could barely stop shaking I was so frightened.
On our second date I told my parents I would be staying the night at a friend’s house and instead spent the night with the first gay man I had ever met. It was Valentine’s Day and when I got in his car he handed me a dozen roses. I must have looked at him as if he had given me a baby giraffe. I never imagined someone in the world might buy me flowers.
When I woke up the next morning my phone had several dozen missed calls. In my haste I had forgotten to tell my friend to cover for me if anyone called and my parents had spent the whole night desperately looking for me. Arriving home, most everything came spilling out under my parents’ interrogation.
I had been with a boy. I am gay. I don’t know, the Church has been wrong about other things like Galileo, why can’t this be like that?
My parents seemed equal parts exasperated at the night I had put them through and concerned about what this coming out might forebode. The treatment for both, it seemed, would be to start taking church more seriously. Up until that point my family had gone to Mass most Sundays, but it was more akin to something inherited, like being Irish, than something chosen. Whether as punishment or remedy or both, my parents wanted church to become something personal.
And with some time, I genuinely grew to like it. The parish my family attended was another town over and had a big youth group which combined some of the more engaging practices of the surrounding nondenominational megachurches with the old school traditions of Catholicism. We had smoke machines and incense, adoration with our altar calls.
I had a genuine conversion experience and dedicated my life to God. Finding a new group of friends who were all finding a way to be Catholic and teenagers at the same time made me feel like I wasn’t so alone. Which was enough to help me set the gay stuff on the shelf for a while. Like a box I knew I could ignore but eventually find again if I ever needed to.
I didn’t really know what to make of the fact that I now felt closer to the Church that thought I was incapable of romantic love and intrinsically disordered. But I was seventeen. I knew not everything had to be figured out right then and there. No one at church needed to know I was gay. I could just keep that part hidden and see where things led.
So I started praying regularly. I tried therapy — not the conversion kind— but with a woman who told me I would only ever be happy in life as a celibate man. I got involved in leadership. And I did what I could to align my life with how the Church asked me to.
By the time my freshmen year of college rolled around, I started to feel a nagging in me, like an itch just out of reach, whenever I was alone, talking with God. I had gotten to know many priests and I saw the positive impact they were having on people’s lives. In time I started to feel like God was asking me to give it a shot.
I wish I could say exactly where this was coming from. Maybe it is just that so many of the priests I knew were genuinely honorable men with purpose to their lives. Maybe I rushed into it. But at nineteen I joined a seminary in Minnesota, to begin the eight year process of becoming a priest.
There were over one hundred of us. Men from all over the Midwest and South. My roommate when I arrived was a frat boy from Oklahoma with an infectiously charismatic perspective and played the banjo.
Officially, all of us were getting bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, though the daily schedule revealed a bigger plan. There was more to becoming a priest than classes. Prayers began at six a.m. There were times of “formation” and times of bonding. The rector — the priest in charge of the seminary — believed the American Catholic Church had undergone a crisis of leadership. Its cure must be a generation of priests who would remember what it meant to be real fathers for their flock. No more “liberal” theology. No more comfortable and insulated lives. Be a man and get out into your parishioners real lives.
When I arrived for my first weekend, the rector held a conference for all of us new seminarians. It covered the basics of his vision and what to expect, as well as some potential pitfalls for where life as a seminarian could burden a nineteen year old as unprepared to pastor a flock as he was to pass a philosophy class. How to navigate dry time in prayer and former girlfriends writing forlornly from home, new schedules and notorious professors. He treated us like the future front line soldiers in a battle for the very heart of the culture we sought to serve, and we loved him for it.
On the second day of talks he mentioned that, statistically speaking, a small portion of us were probably gay. Of course he didn’t use the word “gay.” Officially speaking, the Catholic Church uses the clinically dry term same-sex attracted. As in, “some of you probably struggle with same-sex attraction.” Identifying as gay is thought of as being a kind of all-encompassing characteristic with a whole behavior set of which the Church disapproves. But being same-sex attracted, the rector said, would be an inherently isolating quality, and he recommended talking to one of the priests on staff about it at some point.
So the first time I had a meeting with him in his office, I told him I was indeed struggling with an attraction to the same sex. My heart was pounding. It had been over two years since I had mentioned my sexuality to anyone. His response was one of genuine compassion. He looked me in the eyes and told me it must be hard and was nothing I had chosen on my own. Concerned about my well-being going forward, he suggested we develop a sort of not-so-subtle code. If I ever felt like life was becoming more than I could handle, I would simply say, “Father, I’m at Defcon 4.” Or three. Whatever the state of alert might be.
The concern for me was real, though I rarely felt he was someone I could — or should — confide in about my sexuality. He was a good priest who cared about me deeply, but I knew what type of man he wanted his seminarians to be. Was the comment when he and I were alone about how annoyingly gay a campus administrator was a hint for me or just something he felt he could confide because I would understand? I didn’t know, but I did my best to impress him and repress the parts of me I knew disappointed.
Wandering the campus alone late at night sometimes I would pray and cry and smoke a handful of cigarettes beneath the massive Marian statue behind the school chapel. I hated the habit but it felt good to finally have some kind of manifestation of the ugliness I felt inside. I begged for a change, for any glimpse of healing. And when the sun came up I would leave a pile of tobacco ash at the statue’s feet like some kind of intrinsically disordered offering of burnt incense.
Eventually the time came to decide if I would continue on to the next four years of seminary before becoming a priest. Despite my inner turmoil, I had achieved a certain kind of esteem in the seminary, a kind of big shot in a cassock. Leaning on my status, it was for those years surprisingly easy to overlook just where all of this was leading.
In the end I had to ask myself, did I actually want to spend my life in the daily tasks of a priest — hearing confessions, celebrating Mass, visiting the sick, and baptizing babies? When I finally sat down and looked honestly, after almost four years of preparation, I had to say that I liked being a seminarian more than I could ever appreciate being a priest. I liked the community, the studying, the hoorah sense of purpose. If it was God that was giving my life some direction, I knew there were no signals I should end up a priest.
After graduating I got a job back in Dallas teaching at a local Catholic high school. I was hired to teach morality and social justice, coaching the JV baseball team after hours. At the time, morality was a junior level course at the school, so I started tackling the principles of behavior with teens at the same age when I had first started to explore my own sexuality. The timing wasn’t lost on me.
This time I was all in on Catholic morality but set out crafting a class where my students were challenged to develop their own conscience even as I broke open official Church teaching. As any teacher will tell you, it was exhausting work. I would stay up late into the night planning a lesson on immigration only to find myself inevitably sitting on top of an empty desk, sleeves rolled up, guiding a vigorous discussion about whether extraterrestrials could have souls.
The bigger problem was life outside of the classroom. In seminary I had a built-in cover. When you are training to be a priest, your sexuality is out of bounds. Nicknames like Father What-A-Waste may have been joked about, but people respected the idea that you were off-limits.
Suddenly, back in Texas, I was forced to explain why I was so delaying jumping back into the dating life. Every mom in the church seemed to know of the perfect girl. I was young, good-looking enough, and I even used to be a seminarian. In church life, that’s the jackpot. Girls would openly admit being on the lookout for former seminarians like a forbidden fruit put back on the menu. I just wasn’t the least bit interested. And couldn’t tell a soul why.
Friends’ weddings were the most bittersweet of occasions. I was in my early twenties so there were plenty to attend, but I always knew they would be followed by a depressive funk. Most of my friends were involved in church, so they were not only a massive party, but had been marinating for years in the knowledge that this was a divine act. Not just a decision, but a vocation. The priest would preach on the heroic and beautiful sacrifice the spouses were making. They would be open to kids. They would live for each other. They would be the very foundation of humanity. I sat through those weddings wondering why I was incapable of all those things. What kind of person I must be to be incapable of such love.
As one wedding ended, when we all bowed our heads to pray, I closed my eyes and imagined what it would be like to be standing in front of the altar myself. Wearing a tuxedo for the first time since I took Sarah to prom. I pretended I was holding my fiancée’s hands, afraid to look away from his eyes for fear the moment might not last forever. My friends and family would all laugh because the priest was telling us to do something but we were too caught up to notice. I remember sitting down as my friends walked down the aisle, my head in my hands and tears streaming down my cheeks. To be honest, what I sensed imagining my own wedding was not relief. It was the first time I had ever actually allowed myself to picture it happening to me, and it felt like the dirtiest thing I had ever done.
I considered confiding in friends about being gay, but thought better. It was a small enough community that word would inevitably get back to the Catholic school where I worked. I would see news reports about a choir director or an English teacher was shown the door after administrators found out about a boyfriend or students just found out somehow. People from my church would usually share the story on Facebook with a warning about the creeping lack of religious freedom if anyone wanted the teacher reinstated.
But what kept me closeted even more than a fear of getting fired was a fear of losing my community as well. Texas has its progressive pockets, but they felt lifetimes away from my town. I didn’t know what would happen if people found out I was gay, but I could guarantee they wouldn’t stay the same. At least like this I had a happy life on the surface.
There was a lake nearby I would drive to when feeling depressed. I would go sit with my feet in the water and imagine a world where I wasn’t hopelessly broken. Sometimes a close friend or family member would casually remark how gross a gay kiss on TV was and it would be enough to send me hyperventilating to the water’s edge. How could I be so well-liked on the surface and reviled underneath? I loved my job and accepted that I would have to be single for life, but loneliness would gnaw away at me at night until I began to realize I would not be able to keep up this path for much longer.
A priest once told me that gay couples were much more violent than straight couples, that they had much higher occurrences of domestic abuse. I told him I didn’t know that. And it’s true, I didn’t. I’ve looked it up since and it turns out the statistics are incredibly inconclusive. But he seemed quite pleased to have discovered this fact. He didn’t explain why he thought it was important but I think I understand.
If gay relationships are inherently wrong, then there must be something wrong about them. Catholics can get pretty abstract when talking about this stuff. You start floating in a sea of terms like “procreative” and “unitive” and “telos.” It helps to just be able to say “Hey, romance makes them more violent.” It’s not true, but it’s helpful.
What I know is that listening to this priest I looked up to telling me about this violence I had curled up inside me like a dragon sleeping in his cave waiting for anyone foolish enough to say they loved me felt like I was being hollowed out. I didn’t know there was no good evidence to support his claim. I trusted him. I imagined myself cooking a meal as my partner came home, turning and punching him in the face as Tony Bennett crooned in the background because he forgot to pick up milk on the way home. I had never been in a fight before in my life. Is this what awaited me if were to fall try a relationship? Forget going to hell. Were those my only options? Stay single and alone or become a monster?
When I was in high school I once came close to driving my car into oncoming traffic. It was dusk and the steady stream of headlights whooshed by, each one like an invitation heading straight toward me only to miss at the last moment. I knew that would be an awful way to do it, probably taking a bunch of other lives just because I didn’t want keep on living mine. But the desire for some relief, any kind of break from how much I hated myself for the way I was — perverted and incapable of love — in that moment I would have welcomed the crash.
I made it home safe that night and even though for years I would wish I could die young instead of letting this loneliness go on, I knew deep down that I shouldn’t let myself get to that point again. Where the headlights seemed to be calling out to me. There had to be something better than killing myself. Even if it meant leaving my job teaching and doing something drastic. On the surface I was calm but inside the rubber bands of my stamina were being stretched to their raw ends. Soon, I could feel, they would snap.
During a semester studying abroad in Rome, I had gotten to know a religious community based in southern France. They were a new branch off a very old order and I immediately felt at home amongst them. Joy radiated from their bones even as they begged for their food and travelled by hitchhiking. They were like the old stories of the saints I had grown up with come to life. When I realized my life alone as a single, Catholic man was unsustainable, I wrote the order to ask if I could join.
To prepare for entering, I sold all my belongings and said goodbye to my friends, knowing I would probably never see them again and hugged my family not knowing when or where the next time together with them might come. They were an old school community in that respect, you left behind everything and everyone, sending a letter a month to keep in touch during your first year.
Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the motherhouse of the community was simple and beautiful, with living quarters on opposite sides of the property for the women and men who made up the order. I was given a room with a small, handmade desk and chair and a wooden chest that doubled as my bed. There was a small icon and a crucifix on the otherwise blank plaster walls. Sitting down on my bed at the end of my first night in France there was only one prayer on my lips. What the fuck have I done?
I decided I had come too far and given up too much not to be honest with the community. So I confided in just about anyone who would ask that I was near certain this was not going to work out. It was more than being homesick — I knew in my bones I wasn’t made to be a brother. The counsel I received was unanimous. Give it one year. It simply takes that long to know. Relax, and let things run their course.
But if there was one thing that I saw clearly now that I was walking through the tall grasses in those ancient hills, it was that I had run away from the problems that came with being gay. Five thousand miles and an ocean away, I hadn’t escaped who I was, only amplified it.
Between meals in silence and the hours each day spent quietly in work and prayer, I saw myself more clearly than ever. Saw my gifts and my weaknesses as they echoed around in my head. I didn’t need a lake or a late-night cigarette under Mary’s stoic gaze to see the whole me. My days and nights had become like a sense-deprivation tank for discernment. And in the silence I could hear the whispers of reality roaring.
There were plenty of times when I did think maybe I needed to stick it out. That I might have hidden my poor intentions in joining the community from even myself until they were staring at me from every corner of my bare cell on the first night, but what if God still had a plan for me with the community despite all that? I would sit in the quiet beneath a gentle paraffin lamp and watch the humble instincts of the brothers and sisters and realize there was something undeniably beautiful there.
In the winter we built a tiny cabin out of a trailer for a group of the sisters in nearby Toulouse who had been invited to come live in a Roma — gypsy — camp there. They saw the sisters begging for food and recognizing kindred spirits, people who saw the world from their perspective, welcomed them into their camp on the outskirts of town. One of the most reclusive and reviled groups in all of Europe — seen by society as nothing more than foreign beggars and thieves — and the community had the humility to say it would be an honor to share a home with you.
How do you not see the very heart of the Gospel in that? How do you not fall in love?
But then I would have moments with the community that would remind me that I could never in my heart say the vows that would make me one of them. The foundress of the community told a handful of us a story of a time when a family close to the community lost a son who was openly gay to suicide. The family asked if the community would perform the ceremony of the funeral, an act that for the brothers and sisters, would be a great affair, keeping vigil the whole night in prayer with the body. When the funeral was over, another local woman came up to the foundress, concerned, and said, “Sister, I didn’t realize the Church approved of homosexuality now!” The foundress gently explained that a dignified funeral did not, in fact, signify a major change in Catholic teaching, but she then reflected to the rest of us gathered around for the story, that had she known it would have caused such scandal and confusion, she would never have agreed to allow the community to perform the funeral.
I understood a simple woman’s disorientation about the implications of the funeral. But I hugged my knees that night and rocked against the wall of my cell, wondering what kind of person I must be if this community I loved so much would willingly build a home in the mud on the tattered edges of a city with the Roma but wouldn’t bring my cold body before God in their church if the neighbors knew it had been with a man. How could I join for life a community that wouldn’t stand by me in my death?
After three months, I requested a meeting with the head of the brothers and in a small chapel huddled around the fireplace I spoke my best French and he his best English. I told him I thought it was time for me to leave, that I was gay and had realized that I had come here more to escape that reality than to embrace another. But, I told him, I didn’t want to leave without the community’s blessing.
I still had enough of those old Catholic instincts kicking around to remember even this decision was not just about me. Discernment in a religious order is a two-way street, with the community choosing the individual as much as they choose the community. With a great deal of affection in his eyes he asked for three days to pray about it, and told me he would get back to me with an answer. When we sat down again, he told me he agreed it was best for me to leave. And within two days I was back home in Texas.
It might seem reasonable to ask, why not try another community? If I were really committed to following Church teaching, just because one group did not fit, would that mean another could not be right? I suppose all I can say is, yes, it would. Ten years of emphatically imperfect submitting to Church authority and only being driven closer and closer to a hatred of self and hopelessness for any future I might have and I began to see those headlights calling out to me again.
One night I cooked a quiche for the brothers when a visiting Polish man interrupted the silence of dinner to praise me for how much he enjoyed it. I whispered a thank you to him, looking down at my hands laying in my lap. “You don’t get very many compliments, do you?” He said, baffled by my muted response. It wasn’t true. I was used to getting them all the time. But I realized then I had basically decided the best hope I had surviving celibacy was finding a corner of the world where I could disappear and kill off as many of my own desires and dreams as possible.
Which is not to say that a religious order inherently destroys personality, only that I had grown so distrustful of my own, that I found the most extreme place I could to lock mine away and minimize its expression.
You would think that when I arrived home in Texas I would feel relief. But after the joy of seeing my family and friends settled down, what was left was a kind of anger and frustration that had long simmered beneath the surface, and was now undeniable. I had done everything there was to be a good Catholic. Or at least a passable one. A Catholic who was irrevocably gay but desperate to avoid hell.
I tried to become a priest. I tried to live celibate and single. And I tried to join a religious order. Each led me farther from reality, farther into a twisted and masked version of myself.
Back home, I struggled to find a community and a routine that would help make sense of this new reality I found myself in. I tried writing, but when I took a position criticizing the way many Catholics were treating gay people on social media and in person during the firestorm surrounding the Supreme Court arguments on LGBT rights, the reaction in my hometown was quick and strong. Some agreed, but many claimed I had crossed a line and treated those just standing up for Church teaching unfairly.
I suppose that was a kind of line for me too. If I couldn’t suggest treating gay Catholics with a little more empathy without it causing controversy, then, I realized, I couldn’t pretend this was a healthy place for me to call home any longer. I needed to get out, and the farther the better.
I left the country again, but this time, instead of running away from myself, I was retreating in the literal sense. Regrouping to where I could learn to be me. That refuge just happened to be in the murder capital of the world — Honduras.
The Church I was so deeply a part of — and which was so profoundly a part of me — believed being gay was not actually how I was made to be. And yet no matter where I went, it seemed indisputably at odds with the life I was expected to live. I was convinced the key to figuring out who I really was — no matter how anyone felt I was made to be — would depend on getting back to Gospel basics.
Love. Humility. Service.
I felt far from God and from the Church, but maybe if I could just go be a companion to some orphans, away from everyone that wanted to tell me how much I didn’t belong, I might find some direction again. So I signed up as a two year volunteer at a children’s home on the northern coast of Honduras.
I went south with a plan. I gave myself a year to adapt to life in the tropics, on a Catholic home for abused and abandoned children. But once I had gotten a decent grip on the language and found a kind of balance amidst the new community where all my fellow volunteers knew I was gay and the kids had at least started to trust me, I got to work. It was time to to take off the shelf the box I had placed up there when I was sixteen. I was ready to dive deep into what the Catholic Church really teaches about homosexuality and not fear what I might find.
What most terrified me was not that I might agree with the Church’s logic, but that I would find it lacking. That the biggest part of my life might have a flaw. Where would that leave me then? I had spent a decade trying to position myself where the Church would approve of me. Finally I gave myself permission to examine where the Church stood with me.
I spent several weeks pouring over all the relevant Scripture passages, the Catechism quotes, the Catholic intellectuals. After my days with the kids of the children’s home, I would spend my nights with Ratzinger, Weigel, and Wojtyla, then wake up early before the day started with Neuhaus, George, and Congar. I analyzed and summarized the best arguments against gay marriage they and others had come up with, writing late into the night.
Then I read those who precisely because of their faith, disagreed. Catholics. Protestants. Anyone willing to take up their arguments on the merits.
Catholic analysis of homosexuality is more nuanced than it is often given credit. Probably because there is so much reductive and damning reactions coming from religious sources, it is lumped in with the larger gay = bad narrative. In reality, the Catholic Church does not teach that all gay people are bad, or even that they have chosen their same-sex attraction.
Rather, the language goes, they are “intrinsically disordered.” A distinction is made between the desires we experience, and the actions that might be taken to satisfy them. Sort of like the difference between feeling attracted to your neighbor’s wife and actually sleeping with her. Except instead of the prescription being waiting for the girl that’s right for you instead of stealing your neighbor’s, it turns out every girl in the world is already taken and your fate is to feel attractions that would always and everywhere be wrong to act upon. And that singling out of the gay experience was what I ultimately realized I couldn’t agree with.
The part about the Catholic Church’s line of thinking that had so crippled me emotionally, driving me both to think I was better off without my friends and family and holding me deep underwater in bouts of depression — was the belief that I was incapable of romantic love. I have often been told that I am more than just my sexuality. Catholic priests have to be celibate, why should I be so different? And it is true that there is so much more to a person than their desires for sex. But that’s exactly the point. To fall in love. To build a life together. To challenge each other — and if you are believers — to bring each other closer to God. To raise children in security and affection. To feel the peace of knowing that you will try to be there for each other through everything, no matter what. These are not small things.
Those instincts and emotions and desires are there in me just as intensely as anyone else, but I am told that I am incapable of all of them. If I feel them towards a man, then they are intrinsically disordered. That if I were to do what comes naturally to everyone else, it would be a most unnatural and abominable thing. In fact, it would be a threat to everyone else’s love and the Church must defend the entire society against it. That it would be self-destructive, not self-giving. That it would cut me off from God, not bring me closer to him. That, in truth, it would be better if I not even try. What does that really say about a person? And how is it supposed to make me a better Christian? The comparison with the celibate priest is irrelevant, for he is offering those things up to God. I, on the other hand, apparently have nothing to offer.
So I took an honest look at my own life. This was the one step I had been hesitant to do for so long. I know it would have come instinctively for most, but I had always resisted using my own experiences as evidence. It felt so subjective. Better to stay abstract. But finally I realized that if the abstractions have no grounding in reality, if they cannot play themselves out and actually work, then they are worthless.
There is a famous GK Chesterton quote where he writes, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.” Which is probably true on most fronts, but is also the type of adage that could be claimed by anyone not satisfied with how far someone else is willing to go. But what if there was a mandate that was found not difficult, but impossible?
Oh sure, I could have learned to clench my teeth and push on a little longer. But the truth is, I’m too Catholic for that. For one, I always knew deep down that if I was veering in the direction of desiring suicide, I had gone too far. That the road was leading to a place I was never meant to go. I refused to let myself follow a belief system that broke me so much I preferred death over life, and I could feel myself craving a quick exit.
But also, I knew that Grace, if real, should flow freely. That while nothing good in life is easy, if God is with you, he will help you. Yoked, you will manage the load. When I looked back on my years leading up to Honduras, I realized I had surely not managed. I was a living example that proved an exception to the official rule. You could do everything the Catholic Church asked of you, and still end up miserable, broken, and hopeless. It wasn’t until I returned home from Central America that I let myself try something I hadn’t done since I was sixteen — go on a date with someone I actually wanted to be with, and who wanted to be with the real me.
I want to be very clear, though. I am in no way trying to imply the paths chosen by other gay Catholics are false. Some gay men may be incredibly happy as priests. Some women and men may find a deep fulfillment in religious life or a celibate single one. My point is merely that I cannot in good faith claim one of those will work for all of us. It simply won’t.
I think there is a way forward for the Catholic Church as an institution which may not involve overnight change, but does learn to listen to those of us that have taken its prescriptions about our homosexuality seriously. What does that actually look like in our lives? Is it working or are the depression and suicide numbers silently disappearing sincere parishioners from amongst the pews around you?
And for those of us that have decided to stay Catholic and not demonize our sexuality, are we happier and healthier by the Church’s own standards? If you examine us by the fruits of our actions, looking at more than just our relationships but our whole lives, what do you see? There are many of us still amongst you. Pope Francis has ushered in a new tone of listening which parts of the Catholic Church are beginning to heed. But if you are afraid to truly look at our lives, what does it say about your own commitment to the truth?
The fact is, most Catholics I know will admit there’s some kind of gap between all that intrinsically disordered business and what they see in their gay friends and family members. Their children are not the monsters they have been told they are. They are a twelve year old girl or boy, in need of some love, and desperate to know they will have someone to love too.
Sometimes I imagine being given an option. I could go back and become that twelve year old child, but this time not born Catholic. Raised some belief that never taught me I was intrinsically disordered and that I could fall in love and raise kids just like the rest of the world. Or I could become that twelve year old boy, but still Catholic. Do it all over. Smoke cigarettes under Mary’s stony gaze and cry by the lake and be told my funeral would be a scandal best kept private. But the Church would learn something from it. And the next generation of gay kids raised Catholic would have it different. Have it better. Which would I choose? Without hesitation I would choose a whole lifetime of that pain and never know its relief if it meant those kids would be able to love themselves.
It would be worth every damn day.
Because after all, life is about more than just me. Being Catholic taught me that.
That time I spent knocking on strangers doors and asking for food, asking them to keep me alive, just because they could, would bring me back to a scripture passage about a foreign woman who asked for a small mercy for her child from Jesus. He tells her coldly, if accurately, that bread meant for children (the Jews), shouldn’t be given to dogs (the foreigners). She responds that even the dogs gather the scraps from under the table where the children eat. Knocking on doors with a empty stomach I would remind myself that. Even the dogs eat the crumbs.
To be honest, I don’t know exactly what all I hope the Catholic Church and Christianity in general will share with me. But I know I was under the table for a long time. I did my best to eat what was given to me, wherever it led. But like that woman in scripture, I am coming on behalf of someone else now. I don’t have any children of my own, but there are millions of kids within and influenced by the teachings of the Church.
To the parents and the pastors, the siblings and the strangers, will you share what you’ve got? Because what falls to the floor, I can say from my own life, it does not sustain. At your table you have something better than the inherently disordered shame and silence and loneliness off which we have been trying to survive.
Will you share dignity? Will you share love? Will you share marriage?
Because you can. Keep us alive. Just because you can.