“The Catechism was not written to please you. It will not make life easy for you, because it demands of you a new life.”
— Pope Benedict XVI
In my younger days when I was kind of insufferable, I once provoked an argument with a friend over the issue of Catholicism. Danica* and I were driving home from church one night with our youth pastor, Ginger. Someone mentioned in passing that Danica’s stepmom was a Catholic, so I immediately started unloading the full arsenal of my biblical knowledge—because what good is memorizing huge portions of the Bible if you can’t use it to attack people?
“Catholicism is a counterfeit system of worship,” I said proudly. “The Scripture tells us not to worship idols, and that those who do are going to hell. Catholics pray to Mary and the saints, they all follow one man, and they think Jesus lives in a piece of bread. If you love your mother, you should be trying to save her out of this false religion. We can’t compromise with evil.”
“Boze, you need to be careful what you say,” said Ginger unexpectedly (for Danica had been reduced to tears).
“I’m just speaking the truth.”
“Yes, but your presentation needs work.”
“People are dying and going to hell,” I replied. “We can’t just sit around and let that happen. Love motivates me to warn people that they’re skating on thin ice over eternal fires! For example, if one of my friends was a lesbian, that’s a total abomination before God. I have to try and stop that person from living in an immoral lifestyle. Otherwise, her blood is on my hands.”
Ginger didn’t respond. But when Danica got out of the car, she invited me to move forward into the front seat.
“I think you should go home and read Romans, chapter 14,” she said. “Paul is writing to those who are strong in the faith. Do you consider yourself strong in the faith?”
Sensing a trap, I hesitated.
“You know you are,” she said. “And what does Paul say to you? He says, ‘Don’t start arguments about small issues.’ ‘Let not him who eats judge him who does not eat, and let not the one who does not eat judge him who eats.’ These are things that aren’t important. But Boze, what is it that’s important? He tells us at the end of the chapter: ‘righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ That’s what matters.”
I nodded quietly, sensing that the other shoe was about to drop.
“Danica’s stepmom is Catholic,” she said. “She’s also a lesbian. And what you just said to her was incredibly hurtful. And I know you had good intentions, and I know your heart’s in the right place, but you need to think about other people and how what you say to them affects them. Do you really think you needed to say those things?”
Thirteen years later, Danica and I are friends; she’s engaged to a woman; and Ginger is worried that I’m becoming too Catholic. I was still thinking about this conversation a few weeks ago when I was scrolling through Facebook during a church service and saw where Danica had posted pictures of her trip to the beach with her fiancée. I can’t help it; I get weirdly sentimental when I see pictures of couples being happy, whether they’re gay or straight. Maybe it was that, or maybe just some sort of weird penance for previous transgressions, that motivated me. I hesitated for a fraction of a second, as though terrified someone was going to see me, then posted in the comments, “I’m so happy for you!”
I felt like I had committed a mortal sin.
To be honest, I think one of the reasons I get attacked all the time is because of my ambiguous position towards gay people. I’ve never actually said a word in support of sexual homosexual relationships; but because I apparently haven’t been strident enough in my opposition to homosexuality, people perceive me as being weak or “apostate” or “part of the Antichrist’s system” and therefore destined for “the lake of fire” (these are things people have actually said to me). Big Ben’s* infamous comment on Facebook comparing me to Satan was prompted by his erroneous belief that I was coming out in support of gay marriage.
But I’ve never said that.
What I have said is that most gay people don’t choose to be gay; that it’s not a random “lifestyle choice”; and that I don’t think we should be sitting here in this Bible study just going on and on and on about the depravities of gay folks, when (a) most of us don’t actually know a single person who’s gay, and (b) viciously attacking them from the comfort of our sofas on a Sunday morning does nothing to advance our walk with Jesus, but just makes us into hateful people who are in danger of committing an even worse sin than the people we’re maligning—the sin of religious pride. The absolute worst sin.
That’s what I’ve said. And somehow I’ve developed a reputation as being soft towards gay people.
But I just feel like it’s so easy to attack people because we’re insecure in our own faith. And again, I’m not saying the assertion that homosexual actions are immoral is necessarily a wrong one. But I think when our experience of religion has been primarily theoretical and abstract, we can too easily dismiss the very real sufferings that other people have gone through. I’m finding that’s one of the greatest dangers of an “un-crossed” theology, of a religious system that has not encountered the bleeding Messiah. We brush away the loneliness, frustration, conflictedness, and profound spiritual searching of those who have wrestled with this issue for years and years, retreat into our comfortable religious certainties, and say, “It’s wrong. That’s what God says, and that’s all I need to know!”
And I’m not just talking about homosexuality. I think you can do this with anything. Music. Art. Writing. Hobbies. Certain jobs that some people might deem as “not truly Christian.” Even certain denominations—Catholicism, for example.
And I think that’s one reason this is such a painfully sensitive issue for me. Because while I don’t endorse gay marriage, I’ve also noticed that some of the exact same things I hear people saying about gay people who they barely know are the same things they say about me.
“Lord, tell Boze to stop wasting his time writing fantasy.”
“Boze, what are you going to do in heaven when you don’t have any of those weird books you like because they all got burned in the fire?”
“Boze, I promise you, when you’re healed, you’re not going to love rain anymore. You’ll enjoy sunshine just like the rest of us.”
“Boze, why would anyone who truly knows the Lord join the Catholic Church?”
The same exact things, over and over again. Legalistic religion just can’t help itself: it has to control other people, especially those who are different. And I see the same dynamic at work in the attack on gays and their identity.
In the first week of January when my friend Teryn wrote a blog post about finally just being herself and ignoring all the haters, it became a sort of unintended rallying cry for my gay and atheist friends. Among other things, it received the “Official Blake Hilton* Gay Atheist Seal of Approval” and the “Danae Quell* Atheist of Undetermined Sexual Identity Seal of Approval.” I’m guessing that’s probably not what she had in mind when she wrote it, but in reading it again, it makes a certain kind of sense. As an artist, as a writer, as a sensitive person in a coarse, calloused, and unfeeling culture, I’ve struggled for years to be accepted by others before finally just throwing up my hands and saying, “You know what? I just have to be me.” And I think that’s the same struggle that so many gays and atheists go through, and I think that’s why I feel connected to some of them on such a deep level.
Besides all which, there is—first, last, and always—the issue of my friend Betania.* Late last summer she married a man who seems to have been totally convinced that Jesus had cured him of homosexuality. He had lied to himself, to her, and to every other person in the small community he was leading. If he had only been honest with himself, if he had realized (as Exodus International all but admitted last week) that homosexual attraction is virtually incurable, my friend would still be alive.
But she’s not. Either she was murdered to keep her from revealing the secrets she was close to exposing, or she killed herself under the pressure of having to bear all Tyler’s demons. Either way, she’s dead, and there’s no bringing her back. And when I hear people callously say, “Homosexuality is a choice!” I get furious.
So this issue is one I’ve been struggling with for a really long time. And I’ve basically carved out a position that isn’t going to make anyone happy. I support gay people, immensely, but I don’t support gay marriage.
Mind you, I’m not saying the state can’t permit them; I just don’t support them.
I’ve tried to compromise, I really have. I’ve spent hours talking to my friend Blake about the history of acceptance of gays in the Church. Last summer I bought and read an entire book about John Paul II’s “theology of the body” struggling to make sense of Catholicism’s sometimes overly convoluted teaching on human sexuality. I’ve argued the matter with fellow Christians; made random and sometimes arbitrary suggestions (“why can’t the Church just have one kind of marriage, and the state have another?”); and interrogated my RCIA director (who fully supports them) seemingly without end.
I’ve exercised my reasoning and emotional faculties to their limits, but in the end it really comes down to a single issue: the Church has a very clear teaching on marital homosexual relationships. And I can’t, in good conscience, deviate from that teaching.
Ironically, it was the same section of the Catechism that solidified my conviction that targeting gay people for discrimination is wrong, that has pulled me away from joining the rest of my generation in full-throated support of gay marriage:
2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.
Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
It’s ironic, I know, that a person who prides himself so much on only believing what can be tested through empathy and reason should finally admit that even reason has its limits.
And I think that’s what I’m really getting at in writing this post. I’m finding something even deeper and more beautiful and more rewarding than believing things because reason and experience prove that they’re true. It’s called faith.
I have to admit that I don’t understand a lot of the Catholic teaching on sexuality. For example, why gay marriage is wrong because it’s not a union that’s open to the possibility of new life, but couples who are infertile are allowed to marry. I don’t get that. It seems arbitrary to me. It seems inconsistent.
But all that means is that I don’t understand everything.
And that’s okay.
And I trust that the Church’s teaching on sexuality is wiser than the scope of my limited understanding because the Church has been right on so many others issues where I was wrong time and again. It happened over and over again in my journey out of fundamentalist Christianity that I was confronted with a disagreement between what I had believed and the teaching of the historical Church. And, over and over again, when I studied the issue carefully, the Church was right.
On the issue of Scripture: the Church teaches that while the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, it was written by human authors with all the uniqueness of their own individual personalities, history, experience, and temperament. The Bible is fully God and fully man. Just like Jesus.
On the communion of saints: all this means is that those who have passed on to heaven before us are present in a dimension that transcends time and space. “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” and they are gloriously alive in His presence, and we can speak to them.
On the sacraments: the whole earth is alive with the beauty and promise of God. He reveals His glory to us through the humble stuff of earth. Through material things: books, music. Sex. Candles. Oil. Bread. wine. This world is a good place, redeemed by the Incarnation and alight with the wonders of His goodness.
Earth-shaking stuff, especially for a zealous, young fundamentalist who was so certain he had all the answers. I fought some of these teachings for close to a year before giving up and admitting that the Church might have been wiser than I. And, when I finally did, I could not have been happier.
And that really does something to a person, when they see someone else being right, again and again, on issues they were wrong about. Over time, you start to trust that person. Even if you don’t mean to, you begin listening to them.
As Chesterton said, struggling to explain his own conversion: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong.”
And that’s all I’m saying.
And I realize that this isn’t going to make anyone happy.
Because even though by faith I believe that gay marriage is wrong and celibacy the preferable option for those who have same-sex attractions—I refuse to join in the narrow, vindictive spiritual and verbal assaults on gay people that seem to be a pastime among those I hang out with. And for that, some have condemned me to hell, and I’m okay with that.
Because, even though I wholeheartedly support the personhood, integrity, and identity of my friends who are gay, though I have to defend them on a near-daily basis, I can’t bring myself to the position that everything they want to do is okay.
And I think that’s really what this is about, because as Americans today we want to believe that life is about being happy and that marriage is fundamentally about romance and fulfillment.
But I don’t think life is all about following your bliss and doing whatever makes you happy. We all want to escape from suffering. But maybe suffering isn’t something we should be running away from. This may seem callous coming from someone who isn’t himself gay, but coming from someone who’s been single his whole life not entirely because of his own choices, I can attest that each of us suffers grievous trials which, if responded to rightly, can transform us over time into the image of Jesus.
But if you haven’t been willing to go with Him through that valley of suffering, if you’ve never drunk from that chalice, if you can’t go into the depths of the world’s pain and brokenness and isolation and wretchedness and identify, like Him, with the poor and unbelieving and marginalized and mistreated—then it’s probably best that you not speak at all. Not until you’ve encountered the crucified Messiah. Not until you can recognize who He calls truly blessed.