Why Do I Remain a Catholic – By Beth Garascia
“Why do I remain a Catholic, staying in a relationship which could often be described as an abusive one? “ asks A, a middle aged gay Catholic man who didn’t come out to himself until he was in his mid forties. Over and over, Catholic LGBT persons use negative words to describe their experience of discovering their sexual orientation. These descriptions range from different and marginalized to outcast, damaged goods, and unclean. Their feelings about themselves as they initially realized they were attracted to persons of the same sex caused a painful internal struggle, which could have been alleviated from the beginning by a supportive community.
Of the many official statements of the Catholic magisterium on the issue of homosexuality, one that causes much pain to gays is the phrase “intrinsically disordered”. These two words are distasteful as well as misinterpreted. If you ask a theologian, you will be told that this phrase means that a gay orientation is simply not ordered to the procreation of children. Yet many people take the phrase to mean that there is something deeply wrong inside with the person who is gay, that the person is “deeply, intrinsically disordered.”
Implying as it does to the average Catholic that gays are less than normal in their essence, this description causes them to feel like they are an aberration. Members of the Church’s hierarchy, however, defend this phrase as expressing a philosophical truth, not offering to reexamine it in the light of the real distress it causes to many of their members. The magisterium not only does not consider rewriting words which are so hurtful, but it also insists that gays remain celibate if they want to claim to be faithful Catholics, refuses to takes a stance in favor of anti discrimination clauses that include sexual orientation, defines gay civil unions as a threat to heterosexual marriage, and doesn’t educate itself about the latest research from sociologists and psychologists on GLBT orientation and other issues. Adding insult to injury, young men who identify themselves as gay are no longer allowed to enter the seminary and study to be priests.
There is no difficulty in understanding, then, why gays and their families feel unwelcome in Catholic churches. The Church magisterium emphasizes its own teachings and seems uninterested in the wisdom of the experience of its members, so gays and their allies perceive it as being rigid and unaccepting. The hierarchy also forgets the importance of centering on persons and listening to the wisdom of other disciplines. One can easily understand then, that, Catholic gay teens feel that their longings and deepest desires are unnatural. F, a young adult male, describes his experience of being gay in a Catholic high school as an issue you just should not talk about. He thus denied who he was to himself even though his parents asked him about his sexual orientation. Because of this repressive school environment, he felt uncomfortable, unnatural and disordered.
P describes her experience at a Catholic school stumbling on John Paul II’s Letter to Women in which he writes about the complementary fit between men and women as the pathway to becoming fully realized in one’s humanity. She says that passage lept off the page, not resonating with her adolescent heart. As she read more about natural law, chastity and homosexuality, she didn’t understand the exclusion implied. This caused her to learn more about poverty, racism and injustice. Ultimately, it inspired her to take seriously Jesus’ imperative to treat others as they would treat Him, especially those beyond the reach of comfort, acceptance and love. This sense of solidarity with all who are disenfranchised by the Church and/or society was expressed by most of the LGBT persons who wrote for this article.
Why, then, do they stay in the Church? Although for some it was the through the magisterium of the Church that their faith was almost lost, most say it was a combination of the belief that they are loved unconditionally by God and the support of the wonderful and faithful people of God that they were saved. Spiritual directors, community members, fellow parishioners, other gay and lesbian persons, and family members provided the support they needed to recognize themselves as beloved children of God.
Many cite feelings of a certainty of God’s bountiful love as core to the coming out process. N speaks of listening to and respecting his own inner voice that wanted to embrace and understand his reality as no one else could, especially in conversation with God. C states that he feels like he literally died to the self he knew and thought he would be so that he could be reborn as a happy, healthy, whole person. This included a strong desire to be a priest. Before coming out, he was living a lie and he had to give up all hopes for a traditional life. As a result of coming out, he is a stronger person, closer to God than ever before. Coming out enables gays to claim an authenticity of self in relationship, first of all, to family and friends, and, in the end, to God. Perhaps it was a discovery of this authenticity that led A to light a candle when he first wrote the holy words that described his same sex attraction. He says this realization took his breath away; for him it was a sacred time.
Because the discovery that one is gay often occurs during adolescence, a time of emotional turmoil in which the relationship with one’s parents is more distant, the shame gays feel about their sexual attraction is generally at first endured outside the family crucible. In his book Coming Out, Coming Home, Michael C. LaSala describes four stages in the process of adolescents coming out to their families.
In the first, the Family Sensitization phase, the fact that they are attracted to same sex persons and the stigma attached to this is slowly dawning on the adolescents. Parents, who might sense their child’s sexual orientation at this point, have an anticipatory anxiety about this process and the conflict and distance that might emerge because of it.
LaSala describes the second phase as the Youth Comes Out stage. It is the previously mentioned desire for authenticity that often prompts young people to reveal their orientation, most often to their mothers, according to LaSala. If parents are able to accept their gay child unconditionally when they hear this revelation, a foundation for authentic love of the LGBT person as a child of God in the family has begun.
For most parents, being told by a young adult child that he or she is gay is not good news. For many of us there is a grief response. The news causes us to worry about the safety of our children: will they be made fun of, accepted by the extended family and society, be able to make their way using their gifts in the same way they would have were they not gay? There is also a letting go of dreams we all have as parents of a traditional wedding with an opposite sex partner, a home in the suburbs with a white picket fence, and grandchildren. For Catholics parents, there is anger at our Church, which will only welcome our children if they remain celibate. Turning to God with the grief and anger eventually brings comfort, but the outrage we feel at the anti-gay stories we read, for example, about a Church official stating that the development of same sex attraction is attributed to “the evil one”, is ongoing.
During the third phase described by LaSala, Parents React, the coming out process continues. Parents go through a grieving phase of their own, feeling guilt that the child’s orientation might be their fault, sorrow that their child may lose a “normal” life and fear for the future of their gay child. There is sometimes a distance between parents and gay children during this phase, which is liberating for all involved because they are free to process their feelings.
The final phase is Recovery, during which parents often educate themselves and look for support. If the family can be a place where a gay child experiences a deep seated self acceptance, beginning to understand the love of God through the love of family members, it’s a wonderful gift in the initiation of a spiritual journey for all family members.
At the end of a long journey to self acceptance, gays and their families come to see LGBT persons as a gift to themselves and their loved ones. One group of Catholic parents who love and affirm their lesbian daughters and gay sons calls their families fortunate. According to Mary Ellen Lopata in Fortunate Families, the name was chosen because Native Americans appreciated the qualities of their children who exhibited traits of both sexes. They were seen as having two spirits and, according to ethnographer W. W. Hill, their families were considered very fortunate.
A gay child’s willingness to trust his or her parents with the news of his or her sexual orientation combined with the parents’ unconditional love of their child can be the beginning of the family’s slow march toward integration. The deepening awareness of themselves as gay, especially in the loving embrace of an accepting family, can enable LGBT persons to retain their rightful place at the table and assist fellow disenfranchised humans to do the same, rather than being relegated to living on the fringes of their communities of faith.
Walking along the edge of acceptance keeps gays and their allies hungry for God, and Scripture passages ranging from several of the psalms to Isaiah to the Beatitudes have provided much support. “Blessed are they who mourn” is a particular favorite because at some point all who are gay grieve because of a perceived lack of normalcy, family rejection, dismissal by co-workers, social exclusion or no job security. P describes the realization of herself as on the margin, longing as we all do for a closer connection to others and wholeness. Embracing the woundedness of grief and disequilibrium that is sometimes the result of revealing that one is gay provides comfort. Themes for many gays are the love of God for all that God made, God forming us in our mothers’ wombs, not judging others, and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
All of us, gays and allies, who collaborated on this article pray that the magisterium will eventually listen to our stories and reflect with us on our religious understanding of the gifts LGBT persons bring to the table. We firmly believe that Jesus walks with us in our struggles and suffering. In experiencing the initial feelings of distress, the spiritual growth that follows, the acceptance of who we are by fellow Catholics and the comfort of Scripture passages, we have come to acknowledge the gifts associated with being gay. We implore God along with Thomas Merton who prays that ”You will lead us by the right road although we may know nothing about it. Therefore we will trust You always.”
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