Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith
by eve tushnet
ave maria, 224 pages, $15.95
I have almost no conscious interest in the possibilities of being gay and Catholic, so I find it hard to explain why I was first drawn to Eve Tushnet’s writing over a decade ago—or, for that matter, why straight Christians need to get their minds around Gay and Catholic. What spiritual need is met by this book? I would say, a kind of healing of a cultural schizophrenia that affects conservative Christians.
After the sexual revolution, conservative Christians got ideological about sex, filling their popular literature and journalism with images of and arguments for the joys of procreative sex within sacramental marriage. I don’t knock this: Something like the theology of the body was absolutely necessary in this era. Meeting the sexual revolution with the imperfectionist legalism of an older era would not work. Alluding to homosexual acts as “naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins,” as Charles characterized his relationship with Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, would be like sending out cavalry to meet a division of tanks.
Modern Christians needed a new romanticism with respect to erotic love to match the romanticism of their secular contemporaries. They got it from John Paul II and a host of Catholic and Christian authors. This romanticism led to a new rigorism, and like all rigorisms, it is perfectionistic. For the past thirty years, I have seen a veil of irritation drop over the eyes of many Christians upon mention of a stepmother or stepfather. How these people deal with gay children I do not like to imagine. Believing Christians have rightly cultivated in our minds all kinds of good and even perfect images of when and what sex should be like, so much so that people who don’t fit the picture come across as unwelcome intrusions of an imperfect reality. Gay and Catholic helps heal the cultural schizophrenia that accrues from the denial of incongruous but real people.
Liberals are prone to the same cultural schizophrenia. Tushnet describes being shown in her liberal high school movies that taught the moral that only wicked people tease and bully gay kids. “Straight people on both sides . . . tell themselves self-comforting fables in which the allegorical figure of the homosexual replaces actual gay people,” Tushnet says. These fables “make it impossible for the well-meaning straight people to see the objects of their gentle emotions.” One of the most important moral intuitions framing this book is the imperative to give up “the perfect image” of people we love, in order to let them be the persons they actually are. Cultural schizophrenias of all persuasions tend to deal not with real but with allegorical gay and straight people, cardboard cutouts from their various ideological scripts.
Gay and Catholic is about how to live as gay and Catholic without breaking under the strain of the perfectionist gaze, which wants to white out the gay or erase the Catholic from its view. At the start of one chapter, Tushnet quotes Andrew Sullivan. “In over thirty years of weekly churchgoing, I have never heard a homily that attempted to explain how a gay man should live. . . . I have heard nothing but a vast and endless and embarrassed silence, an . . . unexpressed desire for the . . . nonexistence of such people, . . . for a word or a phrase, like ‘objective disorder,’ that would . . . abolish the problem they represented and the diverse humanity they symbolize.”
Tushnet’s citation of Sullivan is in part approving, in part refuting. She quotes him refutingly, because the purpose of the book as the author sees it is to show other gays that it is possible to live a fulfilling life as a celibate gay Christian. But Tushnet also quotes Sullivan for the grain of seeming truth in his objection to Catholic attitudes to gays, and, like him, she appears to reject the characterization of the homosexual orientation as an “objective disorder.” In Catholic commentary about this book, the fact that Tushnet continues to self-identify as gay, and refuses to accept the claim that she ought to become straight, is taken as ultimately undermining the value of what she has to say. Many people I know would prefer to be reading a book called Ex-Gay and Catholic.
But this is not the book we have. Tushnet is a kind of Catholic Lena Dunham, in the sense of being nakedly who she is. (The author’s first girlfriend broke up with her because she didn’t want to be as “out” as Tushnet.) She cannot keep her identity or personality in the closet. Still, the book is not all about Tushnet and her identity. It’s also about the God who calls her to be a certain kind of person.
So while the first part of the book describes her gay identity, the second part is about her Catholic vocation. Tushnet writes that “one of the biggest truths about all vocations, not just gay people’s vocations,” is that “the sacrifice God wants isn’t always the sacrifice you wanted to make. And when you know how ready you are to sacrifice a great deal, as long as you get to do it on your own terms, it can feel . . . painful and unfair when God asks you for something different, a sacrifice you never wanted. Good gay relationships are often sacrificial. . . . But they aren’t the sacrifice God is calling you to make.” We must say “fiat,” “thy will be done” (or refuse to say it), but our vocation is chosen or selected not by us but by God.
Beyond the arguments about whether gayidentity can be changed, by psychiatry or charismatic prayer or other means, there’s a more positive discussion to be had about gay vocations within the Church. How can churches and Christian families make room for gay Christians?
One way Tushnet suggests is the acceptance of celibate gay couples who are living together. Gay and Catholic includes a chapter in which she suggests that the Church should conduct “pledge of friendship” ceremonies for such couples. I find that suggestion cringe-inducing, even if the antiquity of the practice is confirmed by Robin Darling Young, who attended a friendship-pledge ceremony in a Middle Eastern church.
I can see, as Tushnet argues very vigorously in this book, that “loneliness provokes more sin among queer people—even more sexual sin—than intimate same-sex friendship.” It just seems to me that there’s something inherently erotic about “vows,” so that “vowed friendship” (as Tushnet calls it) is friendship perpetually on the verge of turning into erotic friendship. Tushnet offers valuable practical advice here about how the gay Christian calling is one to friendship, and this practical advice should not be overlooked amid debates about whether cohabitation has to be an occasion of sin for gay men and women.
Tushnet understands her gay-Catholic vocation as one to sublimate desire for other women into service to those women, by offering them pregnancy counseling. She writes: “I tend to think in terms of how I can express my desire for women in ways that are beautiful and pleasing to God. Others will think in terms of how they can sacrifice their same-sex erotic desire, nail it to the Cross or pour it out like oil over the feet of the Beloved, and that is perhaps an even more sublime and poignant way of serving God through our desires. It’s probably a harder way, but if sacrifice rather than expression is the road you’re called to walk, there’s no point in avoiding it.” For some people, she says, the gay-Catholic calling will involve the abandonment of sexual desire, not its repurposing as service.
For the past century, Christians have permitted their own practice of sacramental marriage to coalesce with the secular, romantic-couple-with-kids family. The secular romantic-couple-with-kids family is impermeable to outsiders. It cannot accommodate grandparents for any length of time, let alone unmarried friends, be they gay, medically schizophrenic, or just boring straight singles. Years ago, in The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis took to the lists in defense of friendship over marriage, arguing in near-misogynistic terms against the destruction of friendship by “coupledom.”
Any contemporary study of human love—and Gay and Catholic is essentially a book about how to love—has to discuss how friendship love and familial love bear on one another, because our hunt for familial love has driven friendship love to near extinction. Lewis’s problem, which reflected the culture of his time, was that he saw familial and friendship love as being in competition. For Tushnet, on the other hand, “being a good friend includes being the kind of friend who you’d want to hold your chuppa,” and it “includes being the kind of friend who can help his friends make it to the altar.”
Tushnet is perhaps a bit rosy-eyed about how easily Catholic families will learn to accommodate “aunts,” “uncles,” and other “friends.” But she is surely right to claim as she does in conclusion that it is only with conversion that the people of God will open their hearts to gay Catholics (and single straights, single schizos, single Down’s people, and single dogs). She writes: “If our churches began to change to welcome gay and same-sex attracted people, . . . the churches won’t be exactly the same as before, only with more people. The churches themselves will change: new concepts of vocation, new questions, new challenges. Things will get weird. If you welcome someone, be ready for them to change you. That’s part of what love does to a person.”
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.