Learning to See: To Look or Look Away

Part 1: Obese People

My dad always had a thing about obese people when I was growing up–and as a family of genetically thin people, they were easy to gawk at and make fun of from a safe distance. Fortunately, my mother spoke up about how distasteful she considered these reactions to the strangers across the food court, the parking lot, etc. Usually Mom would remark that such individuals often have genetic or other less-than-controllable situations underlying their weight–while my dad would observe that since no-one was born that big they ate their way to that size, obviously doing this to themselves through what could only be spectacular ignorance or lack of discipline. I would often laugh with him but later nod thoughtfully to my mother’s critiques. In either moment, the most important rule was “don’t stare.”

Part 2: Homeless People

Around the time I started to ponder these things somewhat critically, I also started at a privileged Catholic high school which was located in a rough part of downtown by historical accident. Students made jokes about prostitutes roaming our campus at night, we were regularly panhandled going to and from the parking lots, and in a move which Pope Francis would certainly have discouraged, the administration removed the outdoor benches to keep the homeless from sleeping in our plaza. I did find the homeless particularly unnerving. I had a good friend with a phobia for the “hobos” the way other people are afraid of spiders who told spooky tales of close encounters. It was hard not to stare at them from the car on the way to school, even though staring is rude.

Thanks to my spirituality and the repeated and emotionally conflicting encounters with the obese and the homeless, I eventually devised a new response when tempted to gawk or comment about an outsider to a fellow person of privilege. I would silently pray: “Thank you God for this beautiful person you made.” Disfigured, disabled, dirty, or otherwise jarring people became a constant challenge for me to recognize their humanity, and sometimes pause for additional prayers. “Please protect this woman at the street corner and help her see that she is beautiful.” “Please guide this man toward whatever help he needs from the neighborhood’s social services.”

Only as I write now am I recognizing that the appropriate next step toward imitating the gaze of Christ on such people be working harder to answer those prayers with my own actions and outreach. Regardless, the power of looking with new eyes became wildly greater than looking away. Continue reading


A Different Sanctifiable Grace of “Gayness”

Nicolas Regnier, 1590-1667, Saint Sebastian.

Saint Sebastian, Nicolas Regnier, 1590-1667.

One debate about homosexuality is summed up nicely by Wesley Hill’s question and blog post “Is being Gay Sanctifiable?” The question takes the premise that gay sex is sinful in a conservative Christian ethic, but wonders what parts of “being gay” can in fact be helpful in pursuing Christian community and morality. Most of the writers at Spiritual Friendship, like Wesley, seem to suggest that there’s a lot of rich gifts that sexual minorities can offer their communities by sharing and reflecting on their experiences as sexual minorities. In other words, what is there to being gay that helps me build the Kingdom of God? If there are good answers to the question, this defends us from the Christians who seem to wish that gay people would stop wanting to be patted on the back and either cease to exist or at least admit being gay is so messed up that we should shut up about it.

Most of the voices in this discussion seem to focus on the close same-sex relationships–potentially approaching the eponymous spiritual friendship–that they see connected to their homosexuality. Wesley, for example, suggests that he prefers male company, felt a special not-genital-but-vaguely-sexual-orientation-related connection with his male dorm-mates, and consequently finds himself drawn to (healthy!) intimacy more readily with men than women, thanks in part to the natural spark or chemistry that seems related to being gay/homosexual/same-sex-attracted or whatever you want to call it.* Jeremy Erickson elaborates this same idea a little further in a recent post (again on SF) about his tendency to think about men when listening to music, and and an “energy” in getting to know another man that’s related to sexuality without being reducible to simply mentally undressing him. The relationships that can bloom from these experiences are good, and help suggest that yes, being gay is sanctifiable. These two pieces (along with their extensive comments sections) motivated me to chime in with this blog post.

I see a lot of talk about chaste same-sex relationships and intimacy in the discussions on Spiritual Friendship, but sometimes I leave scratching my head when I compare it to my experiences. When I think about my relationships with other men throughout my adolescence and into college, especially in conjunction with realizing I’m gay, the picture is anything but rosy.
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A Belated Thanksgiving


St. Sebastian Martyred at Boulder Pass, Arizona, Lotan Lotan, Oil on Board, Blue Coyote Gallery

Last week I had the joy of sitting down to dinner with some of my favorite people in the world: two Latin American seminarians who I look up to tremendously, and some of their peers. The conversation at the table turned to Pope Francis, and whether people agreed with all of his groundbreaking statements–a conversation I was excited to see taking place. Unsurprisingly, this led to a discussion of his famous “Who am I to judge?” remark–which he made in response to the idea of gay men serving the Church in the priesthood (which, as chance would have it, I firmly believe is my vocation).

Pope Francis’ news-making comment pulled me between joy and a simultaneous sensation of underwhelm. I know that there are plenty of gay priests and seminarians from both statistical and anecdotal evidence. I also know that many or most bishops and religious superiors have ignored or liberally interpreted the Vatican’s confusing directive about denying men with “deeply seated homosexual tendencies” admission to priestly formation for decades. For me, the pope was simply acknowledging something that was profoundly obvious to most thoughtful people, and deserved to come to light already–that both gay and straight men can be wonderful priests.

However for my companions at that table, this statement by the pope was a disorienting revelation. They spoke about allowing gay men to be priests as though (1) this wasn’t already happening, (2) such people are more likely to cause scandal to the Church through sexual sins and crimes, (3) such people would probably have problems with celibacy, and (4) such people would upset the single-sex religious communities where they would be members.

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The Danger of Extremes – Part III

This is part III of a series introduced in this post.

The last post dealt with the consequences when I fell for the lie that because the church opposes gay marriage, both it and the God it serves rejected me as a gay person and offered no positive direction for my life.

This post will treat the consequences when I fell for an opposite collection of lies.

God loves me no matter what–so I can do whatever I feel is right. Being celibate is unrealistic. Sex is not that big a deal–I’m not walking funny or growing hair on my palms. The Church’s teachings about sex are idealistic, but in the real world it’s more complicated. I’m evolved enough to separate casual sex from love and family.

It’s a pretty typical story I think. It’s summertime, friends of friends come together for parties and long weekend trips, a lot of alcohol is consumed, signals are sent, sleeping arrangements are subtly manipulated, and the slippery slope of sexual experience is primed. As anyone who knows anything about such situations will tell you, lines get blurry in those situations, and I woke up after one such evening a little bit satisfied after a pleasurable experience and a little bit unsettled at losing my virginity. So much of my early adolescence had built up that hypothetical moment as the end-of-the-world moral sin that would ruin my life.  Continue reading

The Danger of Extremes – Part II

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.
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Managing Media Messages, on the Left and Right

In my last post, I called out one mainstream media story for misleading its average readers in stating that the Synod on the Family was debating the truth of Church doctrines about sexuality and marriage. Such stories were not hard to find–but my own perusal of internet news met with mostly nuanced portrayals that reflected the reality that no Church leaders are debating these teachings, or even desire to do so–especially and including the Pope. Since the Synod, there appears to be a collective freak-out from conservatives who think that a confused or false message came out of the Synod (or at least the controversy it generated–thanks to it’s Francis-driven and unprecedented transparency). The media have seized even the most mild of generous posturing toward “people in irregular unions” and celebrated it. The reaction from conservatives seems to indicate their belief that this will confuse people into thinking the Church teaches that divorce, and remarriage, or same-sex marriage are fine–or worse yet–open space in which leaders actually question the doctrines. Throwing sand at the doctrine is problematic because that would defy Truth and (probably) enable sin. Thus one reaction logically follows that is that open-hearted sentiments about irregular unions should either (1) Not be uttered, or (2) only exist alongside such strong reminders about Church teaching about doctrine that even the media can’t ignore them, or (3) only be uttered behind closed doors. I disagree with those conclusions, for reasons Michael Sean Winters stated elegantly for the NCR.

But now I want to point out that unhelpful narratives about the Synod and its participants can happen to the other side too. As evidence for this, I share a tortured article from the National Catholic Reporter. Here’s the headline: “Archbishop Chaput blasts Vatican debate on family – says ‘confusion is of the devil.'” The article does not cite enough source material to convince me this the headline is justified–in fact it leaves me with great doubt this is what deserves to be emphasized. And writing that an Archbishop “blasts” the synod (and later that “+Tobin Slams Synod Too“) adds to the same narrative brewing on the “left” in the mainstream media: nice progressive Pope Francis wants to change Church teaching and people who uphold Church doctrine are therefore upset. But here’s what the article actually shares:

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How will we teach? A thought on gradualism, the Synod, and “pastoral challenges”

I had no idea how to address the moderate craziness ensuing at the Vatican right now, and even wilder craziness the media has spun out (although, to be fair, there is a good deal of level-headed and accurate reporting to be found in mainstream outlets like TIME). Then I read this amazing article by Mark Shea at Patheos which you should stop and read right now. I’m such a fan that all three four hyperlinks go to the same place. Among many thoughtful points, he incisively highlights how the most extreme members on both sides are operating as atheists. (Perhaps more on that later.)

I want to respond to one thing:

1. (in a list of one) The scope of what is at stake here

First of all, the document causing the kerfuffle is a “relatio post disceptationem” which is a totally non-binding collection of some thoughts so far that have been aired (and were not even voted on or meant to reflect a majority–just commonly mentioned ideas as recorded by a few of the participants), in the first smaller segment of a Synod (which is a meeting of Church leaders lower than a Council with no ability to change doctrine, that I know of…), which will take two years, which was called by the Pope to discuss the topic of his choosing: “Pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”

This topic alone indicates that the participants of the synod are NOT doing what the BBC reports in a byline: “Senior clerics taking part in a review of Catholic teachings on the family.” For me this conjures the laughable notion of bishops studying for a theology midterm by re-reading their professor’s PowerPoint slides one more time. But for the public, this misleading sentence indicates that the teachings about the family are “under review”–that people are deciding if they are good or bad. This is not the kind of thing that happens at a Synod anyway, and it also defies the purpose of the meeting as outlined by the Pope… to discuss “pastoral challenges.” Perhaps this term lacks obvious meaning–which is just one more example of the big problem at stake: The language (and related mindsets) of our Church leadership is lost on the public. That’s why this synod was a great idea.

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What to Watch? Reflections on “Transparent” – Part II

My largest fear in coming out came from a sensation that other people wouldn’t or couldn’t “get it.” I struggle to pin down what it means to “get it,” and I apologize. However, it has to do with the hope that when I come out to people that they simultaneously understand something of what I’ve experienced as a queer person, but also continue to see me as a whole person without applying stereotypes. I suspect one (and perhaps the only) way to reach that balance is to be willing to hear multiple, nuanced stories of queer people that are unfolding in the world around us, and here the media can help and hurt.

Today there are many more LGB characters on screen, from Glee to Modern Family (although this does not mean they have totally escaped from unhelpful stereotypes). More importantly, there are more out LGB people who can serve as real life role models who also break through stereotypes and provide a reference point for people who don’t imagine themselves as clearly in their parents, pastors, relatives, etc. I think that both of these realities can help LGBT people feel less isolated and imagine more possible (happy!) futures than without such representations. It also has allowed the people around us have gotten used to the idea of gay people existing in normal parts of society. When I tell someone I am gay, there are now enough examples of what that could mean floating around that it does not put me in the kind of box that I imagine it would have 10, 5, or even 2 years ago.

Mainstream media has offered fewer role models and representations of transgender people than other members of the LGBT community. Even as a fellow “LGBT” person, I definitely struggle to understand the experiences of trans* people. I’ve read the Wikipedia page and taken gender studies classes, but that doesn’t mean I’m adequately prepared to empathize with the unique constellation of struggles many members of that group face. This is where I see a great value in Transparent and shows like it. Maura and her family raise a tremendous number of issues worth considering:

-the the fear of coming out is far greater with those with whom we are closest, and the hardest part can be starting the conversation (Maura’s kids think she has cancer when they are invited over for dinner out of the blue)

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On building and being bridges

I have often encountered my sense of vocation in the image of a bridge–to live in the tensions between insider and outsider; rich and poor; student and teacher; etc. In these tensions I see possible spaces where people who live in opposing worlds can encounter and accompany one another to unpack their shared humanity. I’m particularly drawn to these spaces as a committed Catholic and gay man who finds himself no less one for the other.

What do I mean? I’m thinking of my pastor–who leads a ministry for struggling gay Catholic men–who can quietly observe that the sense in a gay bar that everyone’s slept with everyone in fact points to something related to communion. He is a bridge across which a leather bear and a holy roller might see something of their shared humanity. I reminisce about long dates with my “sex-positive” feminist friend who works for Planned Parenthood yet is still drawn to Mass on even her groggiest Sunday mornings. In our relationship we find bridges as we learn from one another, which could never happen if one of us came to every conversation with an agenda. I’m also hearkening to the writers at spiritualfriendship.org, as I aspire to tread in their intellectual and ministerial footsteps.

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