Gay, Catholic, and Thriving: A Review of Gay and Catholic by Eve TushnetOct 19th, 2014 | By Casey Chalk | Category: Blog Posts
The recent conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family has generated headline media discussion implying that the Catholic Church reached a near-watershed moment in supposedly considering revising traditional Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Echoing many American political leaders, commentators have asked whether the Church will finally get on the “right side of history”? The synod also notably coincides with the publishing of a new book on Catholicism and homosexuality by popular blogger and writer Eve Tushnet, providing us further impetus to revisit and reflect on Catholic doctrine.
For those unfamiliar with Ms. Tushnet, whose writing has been featured in The American Conservative, First Things, and The Atlantic, among others, such a conversation cannot help but be both entertaining and thought-provoking. Who wouldn’t want to know more about a Jewish atheist homosexual from Washington D.C. who decides to convert to Catholicism and live the chaste life? Such a conversion is quite a counter-cultural decision in a place that seems to be propelling cultural sentiments on this very topic. Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith does not disappoint as Ms. Tushnet tells her story with humor, but more importantly an honesty and vulnerability that is striking and commendable. The first half of her book provides not only a depiction of her “coming out” and later conversion, but also the deep dregs of alcoholism which defined a large chunk of time after she entered the Catholic faith. The latter half of the book is more of a guide to various ways gay persons who wish to be faithful to the Catholic Church can find deep and fulfilling senses of community and vocation in their new home. Although certainly important, the second half is thus less relevant to Called to Communion’s goal of furthering Catholic-Protestant ecumenical dialogue. This post will consider Ms. Tushnet’s reflections on Church teaching and tradition on homosexuality, and distill what in Ms. Tushnet’s narrative speaks to the ecumenical exchange.
A Most Unlikely Conversion
Ms. Tushnet grew up in the 1980s and 90s in a wealthy, urbanite family in Washington D.C., not far from me in time or space, though quite a different childhood indeed! She decided she was a lesbian when she was thirteen (at that age I was more interested in exploring tennis than my sexuality), a decision which, unlike that of many other teenagers, was accepted and affirmed by both her family and school. She spent the remaining years of high school exploring her sexuality as well as alcohol… and apparently her books as well, given she was admitted to Yale for undergrad. It was here that she first met conservatives she could respect in debate, including a Catholic divinity school student who argued that philosophy, exemplifying the eros of wisdom, was more important than literature. Ms. Tushnet was intrigued by the Catholic Church and her claims, and quite amazingly, entered the Rite of Initiation for Christian Adults during her sophomore year of college. Despite her reservations regarding the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and what impact this might have on her future, she was received into the Church the following Easter.
This is a good place to stop briefly and comment simply “wow.” “Wow” firstly because other than the grace of God, what persuades a lesbian Jewish girl at Yale to become a Catholic? “Wow” also because Ms. Tushnet was sufficiently persuaded by the authority, beauty, and truth of the Church to accept her in her unfettered, uncompromising totality, despite the fact that this decision would have dramatic and immediate effects on her personal life: not only sexually, but relationally with friends and family. What does Ms. Tushnet say about facing these sweeping implications of becoming Catholic? “I don’t think you need to understand every single element of a Church teaching in order to assent to its authority in your life.” This recognition of the Catholic Church’s unique doctrinal and moral authority reflects the deep gift of faith she received in this conversion process – a recognition that allowed her to realize that if the Church truly is what she claimed to be, even the confusing or demanding aspects of her teaching are morally binding on the conscience. In a sense, it reflects St. Peter’s own deepening understanding before Jesus the God-man, declaring to Christ, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Ms. Tushnet later extrapolates on her decision:
I was faced with a choice. I didn’t understand the Church’s teaching on this issue, didn’t like it, and suspected it might well be very relevant to my later life… But I knew that even Thomas Aquinas couldn’t understand everything about God. I couldn’t demand perfect intellectual understanding from myself, even on issues close to my heart. Part of the reason we have a Church in the first place… is so that we’re not left to make up our own minds on every single issue. We’re not left in the state an evangelical Protestant friend of mine self-deprecatingly described as, “So there we were, just me and Jesus…” with only the liturgy we like and only the morality we understand. The Church exists because even the saints need guidance and, often, correction.
Ms. Tushnet intuitively realized something many of us at Called to Communion also grappled with and ultimately accepted: even when we retain doubts and reservations regarding the Catholic Church’s many claims and teachings, we are faced with the question of who, if anyone, has the authority and right to interpret Holy Scripture and define doctrine? As we have argued elsewhere, the Church has a historical, credible claim to teach on behalf of Christ and His disciples. As Ms. Tushnet’s friend noted, the individual Christian standing alone with Jesus has no historical or credible claim to such an authority. Faced with the choice of deciding whether the Church has authority to teach sexual morality, or whether gay sex is morally neutral, she amazingly decided to go with the Catholic Church.
Later in the book Ms. Tushnet recounts the varying responses she received from those she told that she, a homosexual person, had become Catholic and was determined to live the chaste life. “Oh, you poor thing!” remarked one woman, “why would you do that to yourself? Why don’t you just become an Episcopalian?” This line of thinking reflects another intersection between Catholicism and Protestantism’s methods of understanding homosexuality. The Catholic Church has never taught anything different than that homosexual behavior is morally sinful, given Holy Scripture’s varying condemnations of a practice that goes against the natural sexual order. Reformed Protestantism has also historically affirmed this teaching, and many Protestant denominations continue to express publicly their condemnation of homosexual behavior based on their reading of the Bible. As Ms. Tushnet’s interlocutor wryly notes, however, some ecclesial communions such as the Episcopal church have warmed to homosexuality, and have openly declared it to be morally acceptable and defensible on scriptural grounds.
I remember reading the book The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues by Victor Paul Furnish, assigned in my undergraduate Pauline studies course, which argued that St. Paul did indeed endorse homosexuality. One can easily find many similar scriptural studies affirming that the New Testament, and Christianity more generally, affirm homosexual behavior. This raises an important question: how does the individual Christian go about determining the best interpretations of scripture on homosexuality? And at what point can that individual decide he or she has given the due diligence to understand sufficiently all the various nuances to the interpretive debates in order to arrive at some authoritative conclusion? The answer, I would hope one would see, is that one could never reach the end. Unless there is an interpretive authority of Scripture’s teaching on homosexuality, we are left to our own personal interpretations and inclinations. To go against conscience is “neither right nor safe,” but is our conscience the ultimate authority of religious truth? “Right now I think the Bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong… but if sufficiently persuaded by Scripture, maybe I won’t!” This is not to caricature unfairly those in Protestant communions who continue to reject homosexuality on biblical grounds, but to acknowledge that those grounds are shifting sands, and as they have on contraception may change with time and sensibilities or developments in biblical interpretation.
A Most Worthwhile Read
There are many other elements of this book worth praising. Probably most significant is the admission that the Eucharist is the centerpiece of Catholic life and devotion. She writes, “your vocation will flourish most when it is founded on the Eucharist and continually draws you back to the God who is love.” Indeed if the Eucharist truly is what the Church claims it to be, the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, then it is the wellspring of life that will support, form and shape us as we seek to live our Christian callings and find heaven. What better place to find refreshment, especially when one seeks and needs intimacy and spiritual communion? The Eucharist is profoundly humbling as well as we suddenly recognize that God has ordained Himself to be united to us under the species of bread and wine, that His communion with us can be so mystical yet so natural. This is appropriate in Ms. Tushnet’s own journey given how willingly and humbly she catalogs her brokenness and the mistakes she made along her journey before and after coming to faith in Christ.
One of her most striking reflections is found in her description of her struggle to overcome her alcohol addiction, remembering that at one point she found liberation in inviting God into the most embarrassing moments of her previous life, and imagined God there, still mercifully loving her. This is a profound truth, and one we can all ponder with great joy and thanksgiving: that whatever our past failures, however deeply embarrassing and shaming they may be in our own memories or sense of self, Christ was there, and He is here, still loving us, still blessing us, still pushing us forward to Himself. Ms. Tushnet has many strong words of comfort and wisdom that can apply to many of our darker moments, including an amazing anecdote regarding St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, a Chinese opium addict who was barred from the sacraments for 30 years but was martyred in the Boxer Rebellion and subsequently attained sainthood. For those striving to live the Christian life but consistently sliding back into former ways of sin and despair, such stories provide strong inspiration to pick ourselves up once again, frequent the sacraments, and live the cruciform life.
Gaps and Theological Difficulties
One void I detected amidst Ms. Tushnet’s compelling narrative and following guide to living the chaste homosexual life was the lack of a discussion of Marian devotion. She briefly mentions the rosary at two points in the book, but this is the most we hear of it. This is possibly because the book is more of an introduction than a survey, though one wonders what role the greatest of consecrated virgins might play in the life of homosexuals, and particularly lesbians, seeking to live chastely. Certainly many saints have emphasized the importance of Marian devotion in their spiritual development: St. Louis de Montfort and St. Maximilian Kolbe among many others. I would think that a broader discussion or reflection on how Mary our blessed Mother might be uniquely suited to aid Christians struggling with homosexual desires would have been most welcome and insightful.
Also of interest is Ms. Tushnet’s dislike of the word “struggle” to define her life as a homosexual Catholic seeking to live chastely. In one place she writes,
…People sometimes refer to me as “struggling with same-sex attraction.” That language ignores the fact that I don’t particularly struggle with my orientation. (I struggle a lot more with resentment toward well-meaning straight Christians who assume that I struggle with it.) And, more importantly than that, I find that it’s much easier for me to follow Christ when I think of myself as surrendering to him in all of the places where I’m tempted. Picturing myself as “struggling” with temptations of any kind makes me feel like I’m relying on my own strength and competence.
Of course, “struggle” is a word used throughout the Christian life, and not just in reference to sin. We also struggle to comprehend and accept all of the Church’s teachings, struggle to love our neighbors as ourselves, struggle to believe, again and again, that the priest’s consecration of bread and wine makes them truly God.
Yet the reasons why Ms. Tushnet doesn’t believe she struggles with homosexuality may run a bit deeper: she is dissatisfied with the Church’s teaching that homosexuality is inherently “objectively disordered,” a concept that first appears in the 1975 Vatican document Persona Humana (PH), where in section VIII the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (CDF) declared that, “homosexual relations are acts which lack an essential and indispensable finality” and that, “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of.”1 This idea was affirmed in then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s 1986 “Letter of the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” in which the CDF declared in paragraph three, “although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”2 It is this document in particular that Ms. Tushnet criticizes, writing:
…This passage encapsulates my basic problem with the jargon of ‘objective disorder’ when applied to homosexuality. It assumes a clear distinction between sexual desire and other forms of love, when I think the vague term ‘same-sex attraction’ does more justice to the complexity of our desires. If I make soup for my girlfriend, I’m “acting on my lesbian desires” insofar as I’m motivated by our relationship, which is a lesbian one; and yet these actions are obviously not prohibited by the catechism. To call homosexuality ‘objectively disordered,’ always directed toward and fulfilled in sexual acts, is to reduce the tangle of emotional experiences we’ve decided to call ‘homosexuality’ to only those expressions that are forbidden by the Catechism and ignore all the expressions that aren’t. I view “objectively disordered” as theological jargon that attempts to express something true but will be refined and perhaps even rejected as times goes by. The teaching will not change, but the jargon with which the teaching is articulated obviously does change and will change again.
If I am interpreting Ms. Tushnet correctly, she seems to want to find a way for the homosexual inclination or desire to exist peaceably within Catholicism, and if it can, it must in some sense be objectively good. She seeks to accomplish this by emphasizing that homosexual desire should not simply be reduced to the inclination to engage in homosexual acts with another person; rather, it would also include all the objectively good things found in romantic love more generally: service, self-sacrifice, love, charity, and all the rest. She explains this by way of imagined scenario where a lesbian does an act of charity for her girlfriend. Since the act of charity is motivated by homosexual love, this demonstrates, so Ms. Tushnet argues, that homosexual desire can be objectively good.
Yet before we accept Ms. Tushnet’s argument and imagined scenario as an accurate reflection of reality, it would be good to remind ourselves that several separate Church documents since the 1970s, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church3 have all called homosexual acts and inclinations intrinsically or objectively disordered. Exploring why this might be the case will illumine whether Ms. Tushnet is correct that the language of “objectively disordered” is ineffective at conveying the true reality of Church teaching.
Let us first consider Ms. Tushnet’s imagined scenario. Does a homosexual person’s act of charity demonstrate the intrinsic goodness of homosexual romantic love? We consider first by comparison the natural sexual relationship: man and wife. When a man does a charitable thing for his wife, he may be motivated by heterosexual love. But he is not necessarily de facto motivated by heterosexual love. He may simply be motivated by the same sort of love of neighbor that motivates him to do the same act of charity for his child, his brother, or his friend. He is simply exemplifying virtues found in human friendship, and nothing about the act of love towards his wife necessitates that it be sexual per se. If this is the case, then it would seem that heterosexual love more properly serves as a sub-category of human friendship, rather than the reverse. In turn, if a homosexual person does acts of charity out of love towards another person to whom he may be romantically attracted, this doesn’t necessarily reflect something objectively good about homosexual desire – it reflects something objectively good about human friendship and the virtuous desire to seek another’s good. Sexual love does not drive human good will and subsequent action. Sexual love is rather a particular form of human good will and action. Thus there is nothing particularly “gay” about an act of love demonstrated by a homosexual person towards a romantic interest, just as there is nothing particularly “straight” about an act of love demonstrated by a heterosexual person towards a romantic interest. Both are acts of virtue conducted within the broader category of human friendship.
Indeed to reflect further on the implications of Ms. Tushnet’s reasoning, in her understanding of sexual love, any time individuals perform a virtuous act for someone to whom they are by chance attracted, they seem to be acting out of a sexual desire. Yet all persons, single, married, or in religious life, find many people sexually attractive and do many charitable acts towards those same people. These actions are not all motivated by sexual desire, and to claim so seems quite Freudian, as if everything about the human person can be reduced to the sexual impulse. But we as Catholics do not reduce the human person to a bundle of unfulfilled, repressed sexual desires. The Catechism teaches that “chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.”4 Meaning that sexuality is integrated into a much broader and more beautiful definition of the human person than something reduced to sexual passion, one that includes an individual’s unique personality, interests, skills, and spiritual gifts, among many other things.
Finally, let us briefly consider what the Church means when she calls homosexuality “objectively disordered.” To borrow from the reasoning of Persona Humana, homosexual desire, though not by itself sinful, is still a departure from God and nature’s intended order. Only sexual desire between a man and a woman is ordered towards sexuality’s proper objective end. Even for a Catholic homosexual to live a life of chastity, inasmuch as homosexual desires remain in that person, these desires remain fundamentally disordered. That person, like Ms. Tushnet, may successfully orient much or even all of that desire to good, non-sexual ends in charity and friendship. But nothing about that reorientation towards the good remains categorically homosexual. Any heterosexual person could develop the same level of love, friendship, and intimacy with someone of the same sex.
To compare this to another behavior which defined part of Ms. Tushnet’s life, the act of getting drunk is objectively immoral. Likewise, the alcoholic’s inclination to get drunk is objectively disordered, as that inclination to sin, though not itself sinful, is oriented toward an immoral end. Even if one never commits the sin of drunkenness, there is nothing the individual can do to make the inclination to drunkenness a good thing in-and-of-itself. It remains, ad eternum, disordered, because it’s telos is disordered. The same would be true about other objectively disordered sexual impulses: viewing pornographic images, illicit sexual acts, etc. There is likewise nothing we can do to make the homosexual inclination a good thing per se.
Thankfully for homosexual persons there is nothing uniquely homosexual about what the chaste homosexual person does in living the Christian life through works of mercy. I say this not in any way to downplay the tremendous virtue and good of chaste homosexual persons’ life and actions, nor to limit their unique personhood within the body of Christ. I understand that to make such an argument can sound quite terse and unsympathetic to the lot of homosexuals as if I or the Catholic Church are denying them an important part of their self-identity by rejecting the unique goodness of their love for others. But in effect to parse out “straight” works of mercy from “gay” works of mercy is to make a distinction the Catholic tradition has never made, and which is opposed to reason. There are simply works of mercy, and doing them is not by nature heterosexual or homosexual. Even the medieval practice of forming deep, covenanted bonds of friendship, a tradition Ms. Tushnet so helpfully illuminates, was not uniquely homosexual, even if some participants could have had such desires.
An Important Contribution to the Conversation
We should and must affirm the goodness, beauty, and power of the life of chastity embraced by homosexuals, especially given increasing antagonism towards the Church and her teaching on homosexuality. Those who seek faithfully to live that life are incredible allies in the witness of the Church because they demonstrate that it is hard but not impossible to follow Christ through the narrow gate. We need to communicate clearly but charitably, cogently but compassionately, Catholic doctrine on this controversial subject. Yet in that pursuit, we should be wary of moving beyond the boundaries of dogma and tradition. It does us no good in our attempt to welcome and love homosexual persons to give them less than the full magisterial teaching, even when it seems difficult or unpalatable to stomach.
Alternatively, as Michael Hannon noted in a recent First Things article, there is plenty of room for humility on the part of those with heterosexual desires, given the plethora of ways we flirt or indulge other illicit forms of sexuality, yet play them off as in some sense more acceptable or less disordered than homosexual behaviors.5 Such thinking does us no good as we lie to ourselves about the deeply broken and soul-crushing over-sexualized culture of the West, while only further alienating those with homosexual impulses. It is then quite important that there be more books that are affirming to those who often have felt unjustifiably rejected or marginalized, and that point helpful ways forward toward fulfilling the call of Christ and the Church to love and holiness. No one would deny that the path of those willing to live the Catholic Church’s call to chastity as a homosexual person is a difficult one. Yet it is the right one, and Ms. Tushnet’s book has done tremendous good to provide encouragement and inspiration to those who will follow the course she has chartered. May God help and guide them, and us, as we all struggle to discern and live our vocations to love, to give, and to glorify God with all of our bodies, minds, and souls.
Our Lady of the Rosary and Perpetual Help, who so faithfully lived the chaste life, and offers us a model of devotion and self-sacrifice, pray for us!