During the debate over Galileo, some theologians appealed to verses of Scripture to “prove” that Galileo’s sun-centered model of the solar system could not be correct. For example, Psalm 93:1 says, “the world is established; it shall never be moved.” Along with 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 96:10, and Psalm 104:5, this was taken to show that Galileo’s claim that the earth moved around the sun was contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures. Ecclesiastes 1:5, which says, “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises,” was interpreted to show that the sun does move. Taken together, these were thought by some to provide a conclusive biblical refutation of Galileo’s heliocentric arguments.

The problem with this kind of interpretation is that these interpreters were mistaking phenomenological language, which describes appearances, with ontological language, which tells us about things as they really are. The sun does appear to rise and set, but this is caused by the earth’s rotation, and not by the motion of the sun. The earth appears fixed and immovable, but in fact, it rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun.

One of the most persistent mistakes made by critics of the crop of celibate gay Christian writers that came together around the blog Spiritual Friendship is the assumption that when we use any language that they don’t like (most commonly, though not limited to, the word “gay”) to describe our experiences, we are using that language to make ontological claims.

My primary interest is not in an abstract philosophical discussion. I am primarily interested in engaging gay and lesbian Christians in a conversation about what it means for us to love and obey Jesus Christ. In an interview published in America Magazine last summer, Pope Francis said:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

I am interested in entering into the mystery of the human being, which is ultimately an ontological question. But the point of entry is not ontology: it is phenomenology. To meet the person where they are is to begin with the phenomena of their life, and to strive to engage them in such a way as to enable them to see that their own phenomenal experience can, if they listen closely, reveal the truth of the Catholic vision of the human person. (For examples of this approach, see What Does “Sexual Orientation” Orient? or My Alternative Lifestyle.)

If someone else wants to begin with ontology, I have no objection to that. That, too, can be a fruitful inquiry. But if they not only begin with ontology themselves, but insist on misinterpreting my phenomenal approach in ontological terms, then they have ceased to inquire fruitfully and become obstacles to a legitimate and fruitful line of inquiry.

If I say, “I’m gay and celibate” in a writing aimed at engaging gay people with the claims of the Gospel, I’m not elevating my sexual orientation to the most fundamental aspect of my personality. I am using the same language that the Pope uses when he talks about reaching out to gay people, and using it for the same motive that he uses it: to engage with them, starting from their situation.

For centuries, the Church’s credibility as an institution that seeks truth has been called into question due to the error of theologians who mistook phenomenological language in Scripture for ontological language. Today, those who are too quick to find ontological claims in the phenomenological explorations celibate gay Christians should take more care to understand the kind of claim they are dealing with before they rush to condemn it.

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