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 Belated Thanksgiving

http://www.bluecoyotegallery.com/images/LotanLotanStSebastianMartyredatBoulderPass_000.JPG

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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One Extreme is Worse than the Other

Saint Sébastien soigné par Irène, Francesco Cairo, 1635. Oil on Canvas, 68x84cm. Musee des Beaux Arts, Tours, France

Saint Sébastien soigné par Irène, Francesco Cairo, 1635. Oil on Canvas, 68x84cm. Musee des Beaux Arts, Tours, France.

It turns out when talking to sexual minorities as a Church, it is very hard to say that “you shouldn’t have sexual relationships or get married” at the same time as “We love you and want to offer a path to personal joy and fulfillment in your life.” Recent Post II described when I stopped believing the second part because the first was so overwhelmingly loud. And Post III described when I willfully ignored the first message, because I bought into an exaggerated, mushy version of the second. Both times were terrible–I did call the posts “The Danger of Extremes”–but I believe one is worse than the other.

In my experience, the sense of rejection by the Church that I internalized for a period was far more damaging than the time I gave myself a pass on the Church’s sexual teachings. Why? Continue reading

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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The Danger of Extremes – Part I

sebastian for oct 3 try 3

In the last couple posts I’ve been wrestling with a way to interpret the Synod on the Family and attempting to frame the two “sides” in the debate about homosexuality (and other issues) which the media has encouraged and often exaggerated. This week I’m introducing a 3 4 post series* to show how the exaggerated portrait of each side can cause trauma for gay people–because that is exactly what has happened to me. Forgive me for only teasing you with an introduction this week.

As a brief recap of the controversy that has come to light throughout the synod:

  1. So-called-conservatives are frustrated that so-called liberals talk so much about mercy and love without sufficient reminders that certain acts like remarriage and gay sex are sinful. This could lead more people to doubt or ignore these moral teachings, and therefore damage souls and society.
  2. So-called-liberals are battling back so-called-conservatives who talk so much about the sinfulness of remarriage and gay sex without sufficient reminders that the Church’s core is mercy and love. This causes people to doubt or ignore these central realities of our Church and therefore leave or stop taking it seriously, which damages souls and society.

        *These two points are basically a better version of last week’s post–where I emphasized the need for so-called-conservatives to be more mindful about their own media representations.

Both sides consist of people who share the same beliefs about remarriage, gay sex, mercy, and love. Their debate treats the search for a rhetorical balance that builds the Church in Christ’s image. Both sides appear to be reactionary in a sense: one side reacting to the widespread perception of the Church as homophobic and unloving; the other reacting to the widespread perception of the culture that Church teachings on sexuality are antiquated and silly. Both social realities are worthy of some reaction/response (we don’t want to be silly, antiquated, homophobic, or unloving!)–but doing all that at once is a tightrope act with few to no masters–at least at the global level. A big part of getting the balance right is knowing your audience–Which extreme is more prevalent? More problematic? Who’s doing a good job of this already? Doesn’t the answer depend on who you’re talking to? I imagine that the message for LGBT Christians in Uganda and San Franciscio need to be different. Francis has repeatedly emphasized the role of pastors in using their pastoral judgement to work with individuals according to particular situations and needs. But we are also immersed by a global media and global platform (the Pope, the Vatican, the Synod documents, etc.) that should be leveraged to speak the Truth. So again, the question is how to leverage these tools to share the fullness of Truth to everyone without further damaging souls and society?

That kind of thinking leads me to appreciate Pope Francis’ inspired decision to invite Catholic families from various parts of the world to share their experiences, so that the Synod on the Family will listen to the voices of people who experience the challenges of the family today firsthand. Because the synod has been sidetracked by the issue of “irregular unions” (at least somewhat–even if the media has exaggerated the prominence of these debates), I think it would be rather helpful to actually highlight the voices of gay and divorced Catholics as well… but I digress.

What hit me like a brick wall on the bus this week (I spend a hideous amount of time on the bus) is that the two equally false extremes (“it’s okay to ignore the Church’s moral teachings about sexuality because God loves you anyway” and “the Church judges and rejects gay people because it cares more about its rules than human persons”) have both taken hold of my life at different moments, and both lies have done serious harm. Each of the next two posts will be a flashback of sorts to provide one concrete example of what can happen in the life of a gay Catholic who falls into one extreme line of thinking. It hasn’t been pretty, but I’ve learned a lot.

Part II

Part III

I decided to add a conclusion to these three, and called it One Extreme is Worse than the Other.

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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Rules of Engagement

After typing and then erasing large chunks of text for this second blog post which I expect no one to read, I have chosen to abandon the pretension of well crafted analytic or argumentative prose and procrastinate any thoughtful writing by merely listing some goals for this blog. I’ll tell myself that they’re a prerequisite to make any progress on the quality reflective writing I imagine putting up here …later.

1. I will write and publish some sort of post on Tuesdays during the school week. Why? Because there is a running club that I joined which meets on Mondays and Wednesdays, and today is Tuesday, and I find myself bored.

2. The ideal format will be a thoughtful mini-essay of no more than 500 words about a pointed topic, or (better) spiraling out from a particular inspiration like a news item, piece of art, scripture, recent experience, etc. Continue reading