Playing Referee In Catholicism Vs. Queerness
Content Note: References to religious and internalized homophobia
The first time I heard someone described as a lapsed Catholic, I had already been living in Canada for six years. By then, I had also learned that lapse comes from a Latin verb that means to slip or fall, to perish, to go wrong. A verb that belongs to a special category called deponents — verbs that appear passive but are in fact active, deceptive at first glance, easily mistaken for what it is not in a quick moment’s assumption. It took half a semester, six weeks out of twelve, for deponents to come to me intuitively in translation.
It took six years for my understanding of my own queerness to come as intuitively as my perception of religion.
I spent the first thirteen years of my life in the Philippines, growing up under the care of missionary Benedictine nuns in an all-girls private school. Worship took the forefront in everything we did there, not only in the morning but before and after every class, before and after we ate, at times even before tests, routine enough that religious tasks were assigned in rotation. In a predominantly Catholic country, Catholicism was the only option growing up, and I had not chosen it so much as I had grown into it learning to form my identity around its values, its beliefs, its practices, and the collective desires of its communities.
In my teenage years, I claimed that I hated all of this — that it was something I was forced into, a subsection of a culture I had not learned to respectfully criticize just yet. This was a lie, one I desperately wanted to mean but never quite conditioned myself to; the truth was that I liked growing up in this community, and that I owe so many of the things I like about myself now to the daily routines I maintained back then. I loved it, even, in occasional flashes of something bigger than the monotony of a Mass or the redundancy of a prayer — moments where I was overjoyed to receive an award for ‘embodying Christian values,’ where I was determined to best my peers at Old Testament trivia, where there was nothing else I wanted than to keep listening to the same communion song because it made my heart expand and sing.
Leaving this behind did not once cross my mind as a child, no matter how often I complained about early Sundays, no matter how hard I tried to get out of Christmas Mass choir practice, no matter how much I passed on praying the rosary if given the choice. Even in my bouts of childish insolence I could see myself doing all this for the rest of my life, and there was a point I had seriously planned to become a nun, to dedicate myself to a life in service to God in whatever form that might take. In this, too, I was chasing the possibility of being part of such a large, active community for however long I would be alive, and to perhaps pass on to an afterlife where this would be my day-to-day for eternity. It was this intense desire to hold onto whatever scraps of identity I had already formed at this point that made me certain it was all I could ever want and need: how could I possibly detach myself from such a beautiful thing when the person that I already was could not exist without it?
Between all the technical routines, it never occurred to me to wonder whether or not I truly believed in God and the values associated with His teachings; it was a given that I did, in accepting and enjoying everything else that came with it. It was not a pick-and-choose situation, and it was unthinkable to not accept Catholicism as a package, even if that meant internalizing and accepting dogmas I should have learned to question a lot earlier in life. Singing the right songs and reading the right passages and praying the right verses in the right order were, for me, manifestations of my belief. Since I remained earnest and undoubting, I believed there must be something bigger than me for which I was doing everything. Something divine, something sacred, who understood this world better than I could at that age, and who had all the answers I would ever seek in life.
As long as I followed, I would be alright.
It was with this mentality and in the same Catholic school environment that I developed my first crush — a girl in my grade, whose full name and birthday and favourite colour I still remember, a prayer of its own. I hesitate to call it anything more when the only emotions that had carried over intact from that time were fear and confusion, but it might very well have been love. I was ten years old and too terrified of my own capacity to have these thoughts to acknowledge its truth, much less emotionally ready to dissect the whole set of connotations and labels that come with them. And because I was afraid and confused, I sought assurance from the only thing at the time that did not make me feel either of these things: I demanded answers from God.
I do not know what I had been expecting to get in return — a sign that I was wrong, a lightning strike leaving charred grass that spelled out You Are Straight, Do Not Worry? Praying, of course, did not scare the attraction away, but at the time I sincerely thought bisexuality was something I could ‘solve’ with enough belief in God. When praying did not work, I began cultivating this fantasy that God was not answering because He had already shunned me — that He had read the sincerity in my thoughts and had come to hate me for it. That, by itself, had not hurt me as much as it made me determined: I wanted to believe that the God I supported — the God that told us to keep loving one another earnestly — would not feel this way, and that if I kept praying and singing and reading in church, He would come around and understand that nothing had changed. I recited coming-out speeches in my head in those brief periods that preceded and followed communion, diligently staring daggers at the crucified Jesus above the altar as if waiting for it to move and give me a nod of understanding.
There was not a sign. Neither was there returning from having tasted shame, no matter how self-inflicted it may have been. I might have successfully convinced myself that love was love in God’s eyes had I allowed myself more time and space to work my way through it, but sitting through homilies that proclaimed otherwise was another thing altogether. My fantasy of an uncommunicative God whose love I would be able to someday regain, was something I could cope with. But being faced with rejection from a community I loved, a community that did not even know it was rejecting me and which I did not realize before then was capable of such bald-faced, black-and-white rejection regardless of what they preached, terrified me in ways I was not equipped to work around. I was sure I would not have anything left were my very community to reject me. I still have no doubt now that I would have been correct.
I did not allow this certainty to grow beyond theory. Within months, my crush had been cut and uprooted, and my stubborn determination redirected towards finding proof that this was a fluke incident. Fear, however, unlike attraction, was harder to pull out by the root. I grew paranoid after that, retrieving birthday cards written by friends and writing over the parts where they told me they loved me. The fact that I did this is comical to me now, but at the time I was afraid my grandparents would find the letters and know. Even harmless incidents, small moments between friends — kissing each other on the cheek or clasping hands or interlocking arms or sipping from the same water bottle — evoked the same instinct to recoil. I was afraid that my reflexive reaction would give away something about me.
Internalized homophobia is the technical term, I would later discover in high school. It was all just cold fear for me at that age.
Despite my efforts, being part of the Catholic community had not been the same since. I learned to perform for it, to act the part and believe in the necessity of maintaining my role, but the love had disintegrated, having crumbled in response to the hate I had already associated once with it and kept doing so as I grew older. It was this spiritless attachment to Catholicism that I took with me to Canada, immigrating at thirteen, three years after that first crush. This time, I was starting to entertain different beliefs — tiny, near inconsequential in going up against the decade that came before it, but it was there, a seed planted, the growth of which slowly but steadily gained traction as I went through the growing pains of transitioning to a new world altogether.
Most central to my culture shock then was a freedom from religion that I would not have anticipated as a child. I was enrolled in a Catholic school for Grade 8, but the gap between this and the experience I had in my old school was so vast that to compare the two would be unfair. Pre-lunch prayers were recited half-heartedly, if at all, and my new peers, a significant percentage of whom did not identify with religion at all, were more than happy to persuade me into skipping masses. This new version of Catholicism, shapeless and undemanding of me, urged me to recalibrate my loyalty to it. It shone a light on an escape route I never thought I would have needed.
Habits are not readily broken. Habits as fixed and life-encompassing as religious ones, even less so. But by the time I entered high school, Catholicism had started to take a new form, falling away from my immediate life and allowing me to form a worldview separate from it. The Catholic Church, I came to realize, though my upbringing had told me it was something bigger, something more vital to my identity, was only one of many examples of organized religion, selective in its perceptions despite claiming to believe in opening arms to all, distrustful in how much harm it had inflicted despite preaching kindness and love. That I ever felt differently about it was yet another reason for self-hate, joining the ranks of censure I had been directing inwards for years. It was a cyclical brand of self-hate, one that always found a way to revolve around my being raised Catholic. I had nothing but criticism for it in those early teen years, though never in defence of myself as much as it was on behalf of a more general population of which I did not consider myself a part: the Church can shove its homophobia up where it hurt, yes, but I did still have the privilege here. I was not personally affected by it; I was straight.
If anything, I believed that as a born-and-raised-Catholic heterosexual, it was my responsibility to atone for all the discrimination that I supported and was taught as a child, even if unknowingly. And in order to properly do this, I must approach the religion that shaped my childhood with nothing but the antipathy that I took too long to discover within it. Though I learned to be vocal and tenacious in my rejection of the Church’s ideologies, however, I could not quite convince myself to reject God, or to completely shed the fondness and genuine joy with which I remembered my early memories of being part of the Church community. I still prayed, still paid attention to the mandatory Masses of my Catholic high school, either too rule-abiding to skip them or too unresisting to oppose this one particular remnant habit. But these small private acts, too, were coloured by guilt, and again, on and on, the cycle continued, leaving me unmoored, nothing to anchor complete belief upon.
A few months prior to the summer before my senior year, a friend came out to me, and the simplicity of being trusted with that, as well as the bravery of such honesty, had rapidly teased out the same questions I had not wanted answers to as a child. There was no object of attraction this time to sculpt my feelings around; I knew what I was avoiding, and knew even better that there was no avoiding it forever. I knew I liked girls. I knew, objectively, that there was nothing wrong with this. Being able to process this impersonally, still, was much easier than looking at myself and applying the same philosophy of Catholic Church denouncement.
That same summer, my family and I returned to the Philippines for the first time since immigrating, and for three weeks I was thrown back into the same lifestyle that produced me — but there was no affection there now, nor even polite patience for it. This time, when I was hit by the same be-all-end-all proclamations that once tormented me, there was neither shame nor anger, only the barest hints of disappointment at best. And, abruptly and melodramatically, I was trapped in this Final Jeopardy moment where in order to accept this revelation about my sexuality, I also needed to accept that it would preclude me from the Church absolutely and permanently. Vivid and devoid of any loopholes, black-and-white and unquestionable as all Biblical interpretations: I had to abandon one, in order to fully, sincerely accept the other. The choice, surprisingly, was not as difficult as it would have been at any point before that; this time, I had friends I knew would have my back, a handful of whom had reached the point of their lives where they have embraced everything about identifying as queer. I did not need to hold on to a community for the sake of having a community to hold onto — I had a support system of my own.
I returned to Toronto from that trip to the Philippines with newly shorn hair and a lighter chest, but that lightness did not last long. My senior year, I grew close to a girl with enough of the same upbringing as I had, so close that it was impossible not to feel immediate kinship with her. She immigrated to the Philippines in her late childhood too, and was born and raised in a Catholic household and educated in a Catholic private school. Yet where I had detached myself from that life as a consequence of being a product of it, my new friend remained connected to the Church, a proud and regular participant of Youth For Christ, an earnest church-goer, the only person in my Religion class who truly meant everything she wrote in her test answers. In this, I envied and resented and loved her in equal measure, seeing her at times as a reflection of the person I could have been had I chosen not to repudiate the Church.
In the times I had been vocal about my renouncement too, she had eagerly challenged it. She never backed down; the entire period of my life that I was friends with her, she invited me every month to her chapter’s monthly retreat, without fail and always with faith that I would say yes. Each time, I almost did. Nothing else had replicated the familiarity and warmth I associated with the Church as a young Catholic, and the temptation would pop into existence like clockwork whenever she described these retreats to me.
But my desire for my loyalty to lie exclusively with the LGBTQ+ community always won in the end. To embrace a social institution that has given such grief to people like me — for where they were like me, being one of a long list of queer people that the Church had alienated, if not directly harmed — was to me betrayal of the insidious kind. No matter my underlying feelings about what the Church could be for me, it did not change what the Church was and had been for a long time. This tension was not one I could reconcile for myself — not when my acceptance of my own self was so nascent, still unfamiliar in some parts, still paralyzing.
So I let this friendship fall away, kept saying no, kept telling myself her life was ultimately different from mine. But university replaced this with a new friendship, this time with a Christian boy who, at dinner one time, abruptly and confidently blurted out that he was bisexual as if he had been sitting with it for so long he could no longer help but explode with it. This was the first time I heard anyone refer to their self as such, and for it to come from him, openly religious though not Catholic like me, triggered momentary cognitive dissonance. I replayed this scene multiple times in my head the night after, kept returning to it like the first time he asked me if I wanted to attend a Mass in Latin with him to practice our real-time comprehension of it. I spent too long separating these two things into categories that cannot touch that I was ridiculously stumped by the existence of a person who did not seem bothered by the intersection of the two at all, and who was able to seamlessly pick and choose what he agreed with and supported and which ones he did not. The only constant for him was his belief in God, everything else around Him subject to nuances and adjustments based on values that were more personal than religious. When I finally found the words to ask him about it, both of us nineteen and sitting outside an Airbnb because he had come out to his devoutly Christian parents the night before and had been asked not to come home for the weekend to give them space to think, his answer had been simple: But isn’t religion for us in the end? Doesn’t that make it just a little bit personal?
It is difficult not to feel silly about thinking otherwise when he puts it that simply.
Still, the truth remains that it is not that simple.
So much of my first decade of life had revolved around being Catholic, though I was not cognizant of this at the time; so much of the second decade cemented itself around coming to terms with my sexuality despite what came before it. To syncretize the two seemed to me an act of sacrilege in itself, not only in consideration of Catholicism, but of my LGBTQ+ identity and all its overtones. It felt before that I was doing either party a disservice by believing I could ever have both at the same time, disappointing both sides in my inability to choose one. I know now it is not this black-and-white, and that it never will be. Turning this mentality on its head, however, is not something that just clicks overnight. It is a journey uphill that sometimes sends me slipping down a rough slope partly of my own making. That slipping and falling that forms the etymology of the world lapse, with me constantly vacillating between the half of myself that will always feel Catholic — the part that aches when I walk past a church and hear the echo of a hymn from inside, that still prays before starting the car and before falling asleep because prayer is still the only thing I can trust to comfort and reassure me, that does not want to resist my mother and best friend’s requests to come to Masses with them — versus the half that is faithful to and protective of the queer community most of all.
What is simple is stripping my understanding of Catholic principles down to the bare bones, back to square one, back to that Grade 1 classroom where my teacher tried to explain in child vocabulary that Jesus Christ had died for us out of love. That in itself was the exemplar Catholics begin with, and which I, staring up at the crucifix above the blackboard and wondering how someone could willingly endure such pain, began with: this intrinsic understanding that love can save, and that the most fundamental trait we have as human beings is our capacity to love one another. Catholicism taught me that. The true shame is not in that I disappointed its teachings; it is in that its teachings had disappointed me in not being what I thought it was when I was seven.
“My son,” reads a line from Proverbs 3, “do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” Who embodies this better, I think now, than members of the LGBTQ+ community? Than people who love boldly and unapologetically in a world determined to hate us, who never waver in our love and desire to protect one another, who are fearless enough to accept ourselves for who we are even within societies determined to erase us? People bound at the neck by their desire to love, and who do all this because sometimes it is all we can do — to not let them turn us unkind to ourselves, ashamed, fearful, and to keep finding reasons to abide by the “gentleness that comes,” as poet Richard Siken writes, “not from the absence of violence, but despite the abundance of it.”
There is bravery alone in loving as a queer person. I cannot think of anything more sacred than this simple act of love and courage.
Earlier this year, a group of Christians, some of them perhaps even regulars at parishes I visited for Holy Week as a child, stood holding signs at the Pride parade in my hometown, apologizing for how the Church has treated the Filipino LGBTQ+ community. Though I am sure the show of support meant a great deal to many Pride-goers, one sign, one apology, unfortunately, does not take back many of the things I felt as a child, nor fix any of the things I still have left to undo, nor actively help the fight in getting the queer community the rights we want. But at the bare minimum it is at least a start — for me, for the Filipino Christian community, the Christian queer kids who might hopefully grow up without having to feel the rejection I felt.
I think of myself as a lapsed Catholic now because my connection to the religion as a whole cannot repair itself and probably never will. But I am on speaking terms with God, as I longed to be throughout my teenhood, though it is critical that they are my terms. I would love more than anything, too, to say it has gotten easier. Most days, however, it is easy only because I had learned to form my own definitions of the same vocabulary I was taught as a child. Creative liberties taken in translation, remaking the words so that they are mine instead, or taking a second look at words that I misread at first glance because its morphological forms took a while to come to me intuitively.
Love to me may not be love to the priests that sculpted my early worldview, but that should not stop me from following the principles I learned as a child and substituting in this new definition I cemented in young adulthood. My understanding of my sexuality and the love it makes me capable of does not preclude the parts of Catholicism that I do feel speak to me. In settling with my new definitions, I do not want to be stopped, not anymore, from reclaiming my very first definitions of love and community. No matter how long it will take me, no matter how slowly I have to go up this slope, because this used to be mine, and I want to believe that my friend is right — my personal, intimate relationship with religion is mine alone to define and shape and not suffer for.
I grew up with a manifestation of religion that I do not hesitate to call Spartan now. Religion does not have to be that — domineering, hurtful in ways even when it does not intend to be. I do not have to support every single thing that comes with it to have a connection to religion, to have an open pathway to God. And I could not be a nun now, anyway; the early hours alone would make an insomniac like myself a bad fit for such a lifestyle, much less everything else involved.
Loving earnestly, though, I can do. Love and prayer and kindness are enough for now, if only as starting points. That is what I want to matter. That is what I want to support. I want that to be enough, this time.
Lapsed Catholic: A person who had been baptized Catholic but is no longer believing in or practicing the teachings of Catholicism.
Internalized homophobia: A set of negative beliefs about the LGBTQ+ community directed internally, sometimes manifesting in queer youth as repression or forced conforming to heterosexual norms.
Dignity Canada — An organization of and for Canadian Roman Catholics seeking to spread new understandings of the homophobic teachings of the Church.
Equally Blessed — A coalition of three Catholic organizations working for and on behalf of LGBTQ+ Catholics and their loved ones.
New Ways Ministry — An organization under Equally Blessed that seeks to challenge homophobia and transphobia in the Catholic Church through dialogue, publication and education.
President of DignityUSA, an American organization seeking to represent the LGBTQ+ community in the Catholic Church — on why being a queer Catholic is in itself an act of bravery.www.advocate.com