This is part II of a series which is introduced in the previous post.
By my 20th birthday, I was a confident and happy young man who had spend the last 6 years as a proud Catholic who was actively discerning a vocation to the priesthood. This identity survived a lot during that time, including the private recognition that I was gay. Over the next year I pursued a desire to be more open about my sexual orientation with both myself and close friends–an impulse which I think was healthy and necessary. However, I got swept up in the media maelstrom surrounding gay marriage and lost my sense of vocation and my faith as a result.
When I first came out to close friends, most of whom shared my Catholic faith, they were extremely supportive and understanding. However, I did not let these interactions determine my perception of what being gay should mean for me as a Christian. Instead, because I acknowledged that I was a gay person, and because I was (and still am) a news junkie, I paid a great deal of attention to what was said about gay people in the media. I could easily read a dozen stories about LBGT issues each day as the culture wars over gay marriage raged. As a gay person in the process of figuring out what my sexual orientation should mean for my life, I started to take what I read personally. When I read something positive about gay people and their relationships, I felt affirmed. When I read something negative about gay people or their relationships, I felt insulted and indignant. And over that year there were many opportunities for indignation in relation to the Catholic Church, and none in which I felt affirmed.
I paid close attention as a cast of Hollywood all-stars reenacted the blockbuster Proposal 8 trial and lampooned the defenders of California’s gay marriage repeal and their comically irrational and ignorant arguments. My Church had proclaimed itself an ally to that side of the debate. Other groups on the larger “side” of the culture war included the Westboro Baptist Church (of “God hates fags”) fame, and the hateful lies that gays were child molesters, bad parents, and wanted to “turn” kids gay.
Obviously the Catholic Church was not responsible for all, or even most, negative statements about gay people. However, it had publicly situated itself on that side, and appeared to make no effort to emphasize the parts of the Catechism (which I knew well) about non-discrimination and love for homosexual persons. I saw absolutely no gestures attempting to moderate or step back from the most hurtful claims circulating about gay people and relationships, or even to acknowledge the existence of Christians like myself who had hoped to build an authentic life within its walls. The bishops certainly contributed to the impression that gay people getting married was rivaled only by abortion as the most serious political issue facing the nation. I know that my perceptions were mediated by the media establishment. However the message that rang in my head week after week–even as I continued to attend Mass and don’t recall a single homily that touched the issue–was one of “you are inferior to straight people and any romantic relationship you could pursue would be diabolical.” When I thought about being a Christian and being gay, it seemed like gay = enemy of the Church. I saw no roadmap for integrating the two. Since me being gay was neither a choice nor changeable, and me being a Christian was both of those things… you can see where this is going.
After about three months of frustration it seemed like the only way to integrate my understanding of myself as a gay man in my vision for my future was to find fresh air outside the Church. I think I would have been open to reflection about my sexual orientation within the Church, if I had seen positive space within its walls for people like me. Instead any mention of gay people from the Church in the fraught gay marriage debates across the country seemed to emphasize “those people” and their relationships as a threat. It seemed that every time I searched Google news there was another Church leader speaking out against gay marriage, trumpeting “no” to something that started to look like the best opportunity for inclusion in society as an openly gay person. Christ always invites us to a “yes”–but what my “yes” as a gay person in the faith could look like was completely lost in all of the “no.” Meanwhile, the world outside the Church was happy to offer an alternative “yes.” Be true to yourself, get married, you can have it all! Just leave the haters behind. I privately decided to live according to a vague athiesm/agnosticism in which I could decide my own morality. In the heat of the moment it felt like a relief.
I gave myself space to pursue a romantic relationship, and put all my hopes for finding meaning into that. This collapsed, as did my sense of vocation, my sense of a higher purpose in my life, and relationship to anything transcendental or divine. I dreaded the alarm and the walk to class every morning. I became one of those people I swore I’d never be–the zombie-faced ones wearing headphones on the way to class, closed off from the world around them. If things hadn’t turned around within a couple weeks, I would have been well advised to pursue treatment for depression.
A profound spiritual experience of Christ’s personal love for me woke me up to the fact that my sexual orientation was irrelevant to His desire to be close to me and my calling to a particular vocation–and I might share more about that in a later post. But suffice it to say that for a few months of my life I fell victim to the false image of the church that is created when an obsession with moral prohibition and culture wars overwhelms the greater message of love and mercy.
What’s ironic about that chapter in my life is that I never actually came out to a priest, or talked to a spiritual director about how I felt rejected, irritated, oppressed, etc. (Of course, my desire to have that kind of conversation decreased as I allowed each of those feelings to stew in an ugly downward spiral.) And upon later reflection I am confident that if I had been willing to have an honest conversation with someone in campus ministry at Notre Dame, they would not have made me feel rejected, irritated, or oppressed. But I let the caricature of the mean, gay-bashing Church get into my head and the sense of rejection carried over to the back pew at Mass and even my campus ministry group, and whittled my faith down to virtually nothing.
This is what I perceive as the danger of the first extreme which leaves the impression that “the Church judges and rejects gay people because it cares more about its rules than human persons.”
As a Church, we must find ways to ensure this lie is not what dominates anyone’s understanding of what we believe.