[Originally published in the June, 2003 issue of the New Oxford Review.]
Sodom and the City of God
Author’s Note: In the July/August 2002 issue of the New Oxford Review, the editors commented on an article by a Fr. James Keenan. They wrote: “Keenan lets us know he’s an unabashed dissenter — he favors having priestesses and doesn’t regard homosexuality as a disorder — but he doesn’t tell us whether or not he’s a fag.” In the November 2002 issue, the editors printed a letter criticizing their use of the word “fag.” In their reply, the editors defended the word, first because, etymologically, it is a good word to describe sexually active homosexuals, and second because the word conveys social stigma. It is important, they argued, to preserve social stigmas against sinful behavior, but clarified that they had no objection to chaste homosexuals, whom they would describe as “saints.” With encouragement from several members of Courage who had been deeply frustrated with the exchange, I wrote this essay, which was published (along with the following Editor’s Note) in the June 2003 issue of the New Oxford Review.
Editor’s Note: In the January 2003 NOR, in regard to the NORs use of the word fag, an Anonymous letter-writer who belongs to Courage (an orthodox Catholic group that helps those with same-sex attractions observe chastity) said: Perhaps instead of spending many paragraphs engaging in a contrived linguistic exercise [about the word fag], you could run a piece about the ministry of Courage and how it has changed the lives of so many men and women. We responded in the same issue: Were all in favor of Courage, and weve described Courages vitally important work in several issues of the NOR. No, we havent presented the kind of first-person account youre asking for, but wed love to print such a piece, even if pseudonymns are used. Ron (not a pseudonym) has taken us up on this offer. His article is most riveting (and was written before our further comments on the subject in our May issue, pp. 14-17). While we still believe that the word fag should be kept in common parlance (though not abused in the way Ron points out), we choose to honor his courage and fidelity by not responding. Readers who wish to respond are free to do so.
The Editors of the New Oxford Review say they would call a homosexually-oriented man who belongs to Courage and is living chastely a saint (Nov. 2002, p.6). I cannot, of course speak for others in Courage; but for myself I deny the charge categorically. The road to holiness climbs to far beyond Himalayan height, and I am yet only in the lowest foothills.
Leaving aside the other six deadly sins (all of which have a good record of pulling me off track), there is far more to the perfected chastity of sainthood than abstinence from sexual acts with other men. For what the achievement is worth (and it is certainly not worthless) I have maintained that abstinence all my life; but I must still strive daily to achieve custody of the eyes, modesty in speech, and purity of heart. When I fail (as I often do), you will find me in Church Saturday morning, standing in line at the confessional. A saint in the making I certainly strive to be. But a saint I most emphatically am not.
I was raised a conservative Protestant. This brought with it a very strong commitment to family values. But that term in itself suggests a problem. Values are subjective: I will not necessarily value the same things you do. There is a world of difference between Catholic sexual ethics (which are grounded in the objective revelation of God) and family values (which may in some ways resemble Catholic belief, but which are ultimately subjective and grounded in what I want, not what is objectively true).
Thus, my church prized fidelity in marriage, but allowed divorce when the marriage got unbearable in the partners eyes (and hence not valuable); then, because we valued marriage, it was obvious that we should allow divorced people to remarry, because lifelong continence was impossible, unreasonable. From this emphasis on the subjective, it followed that children should only be valued when the couple wanted them: and so contraceptives were accepted as a matter of course.
NFP was unthinkable because it was too much of a burden for married couples to abstain for a week or so each month. But if this was so, it seemed to me a little unrealistic to expect complete abstinence from teens. And indeed, many adults did not do so: one youth group leader said that masturbation was ok as long as it was not lustful a position which now seems about as logical as saying that swimming is fine as long as you dont get wet, but which seemed very practical and pastoral at the time.
Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out that given these premises (which are, incidentally, accepted by most Catholics in the West), it is entirely logical that homosexuals should demand the same freedom to find sexual relationships which are subjectively satisfying (The Ratzinger Report, p. 85). This logic certainly appealed to me when, at age fifteen, I realized that I was attracted to other guys. And in those days it was only a lack of opportunity which preserved my innocence, at least in an outward sense.
Gore Vidal once observed: Much has been made not least by the Saint himself of how Augustine stole and ate some pears from a Milanese orchard. Presumably, he never again trafficked in, much less ate, stolen goods, and once this youthful crime (a rum business, snarled the unsympathetic American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.) was behind him, he was sainthood bound. The fact is that all of us have stolen pears; the mystery is why so few of us rate halos.
It was, of course, more than a matter of purloined pears that kept Augustine from the pearly gates. In addition to shenanigans involving other peoples orchards, he kept a concubine for about a decade (and one shudders to think what the unsympathetic Holmes thought of that).
Vidal (a self-described fag writer) is certainly no expert on sanctity. But I believe that he does put his finger on the mystery of why so few of us rate halos: I suspect that in certain notorious lives there is sometimes an abrupt moment of choice. Shall I marry or burn? Steal or give to others?
There is, of course, a great mystery of grace in sainthood; but the mystery of grace does not explain the scarcity of saints, because God offers grace to all. Sanctity, however, requires not only grace, but also the prospective saints free choice to surrender himself or herself to that grace.
Augustines lament was not, late have you loved me, but late have I loved you. Gods grace was available from birth, but Augustine, even as he recognized the graces offered, resisted, praying Lord make me chaste but not yet. And hence the great mystery of sanctity is the mystery of free will. Without our full, free consent, even the omnipotent God will not make us a saint.
I was certainly powerfully drawn to follow Vidal and others down the road to gay liberation. That I did not is a testament to Gods grace, and also a testament to the power of the truth to set us free.
When I was about 10 years old, I read C. S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape tells his protégé that until a few centuries ago, the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as a result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other weapons, we have largely altered that... He doesnt think of doctrines as primarily true or false, but as academic or practical, outworn or contemporary, conventional or ruthless. Jargon, not argument is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.
Thus, several years before I entered the turbulence of adolescence, Lewis established in my head the idea that truth and falsehood matter infinitely more than mood or feeling. And so when adolescence came, though I hoped and even in a sense believed that a gay relationship could be just as good as a marriage between a man and a woman, I also believed that it was essential to demonstrate that this belief was not merely contemporary or practical, but was in fact true in an absolute sense. Needless to say, this was a somewhat quixotic enterprise.
I entered into all of this with the muddle of values I had absorbed from my environment and the (accurate) intuition that gay relationships were consistent with those values. I had a vague notion that traditional sexual ethics were based in superstitions that masturbation makes you go blind, that every sperm is sacred, etc. but that modern psychology would enable us to separate the wheat from the chaff and produce a coherent sexual ethic, which would certainly limit unloving acts (like promiscuity or child abuse) but would still allow for gay relationships. I proceeded in this more or less muddled way until a (most unwelcome) question pushed its way into my consciousness: could I really argue that contraception, serial marriage, and other modern sexual trends had really made it easier to be either happy or good?
The answer to this question was obviously no. Since I had worked so hard to show that gay marriage was the logical progression of these trends, if they were bad, then gay marriage would be even worse. Hoping, however, to avoid this checkmate, I set off down a different path: to prove that David and Jonathan were gay lovers. It sounds rather silly in retrospect, but seemed like a serious gambit at the time. In my defense, if two men in contemporary American culture acted as David and Jonathan acted (swearing loyalty to each other, wearing each others clothes, embracing, kissing, etc.) it is not improbable that some would wonder whether or not they were fags. But I came to see that this is more a comment on our cultures impoverished view of friendship than it is proof of anything about David and Jonathans morals.
And so, at the age of seventeen, before I had any kind of sexual contact with another man, I concluded that homosexual acts were wrong, and retreated to what I saw as a Biblical sexual ethic, which forbade divorce and contraceptives, sodomy and solitary vice and in fact bore a remarkable resemblance to Catholic teaching.
I did not accept this because it felt spiffy emotionally: to the degree that I allowed myself to be swayed by emotion, the decision seemed crazy. I accepted it because I believed it to be true, and I strove to obey it because I did not believe the command to be optional.
This is often the way in the spiritual life. Screwtape tells his protégé that Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemys [Christs] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
My hormones, of course, contributed to the emotional cloud which sought to distract me from the truth; but unless memory greatly deceives me, I was much more distracted by anger at the way that Christians treated homosexuality.
I first encountered the words fag and faggot on the elementary school playground. The words did, indeed, carry some hint of weakness or effeminacy, and certainly a strong element of stigma. However, the latter sense far outweighed the former. It is likely that the vast majority of those who were called a fag at some point on the elementary school playground did not develop homosexual attractions. The word served primarily to express the speakers desire to bully, not to put forward an allegation based on any evidence that the person being teased actually was a homosexual. It thus fell into the general class of abuse words with nerd, dork, jerk, bastard, and various unprintable equivalents. Indeed, the word bastard is particularly apropos because it has a clear etymology, and yet in contemporary usage it is far more likely to express the speakers contempt than to say that the person attacked was born out of wedlock.
In any case, at this stage, I had no clue about what a homosexual was, let alone that I would develop same-sex attractions. But I did know that a particularly effective method of abusing a classmate was to call them a fag.
The NOR editors say, St. Paul said of active homosexuals that they commit shameful acts (Rom. 1:27). By definition, whats shameful deserves shaming. So there may be times when uttering a word that shames is called for. I agree, up to a point. However, in the course of writing this article, I have spoken about it with more than a dozen chaste same-sex attracted men. Some of these men did have sex with other men before choosing chastity; others did not. But each and every one of them agrees that people who used the word fag did not help them to embrace chastity. Unless the NOR editors can produce a comparable sample of chaste homosexuals who will testify to the words efficacy in advertising chastity, then their case dies on purely utilitarian grounds. But I believe I can go further and explain why these chaste men objected to the word fag.
When I was in the eighth grade, a boy who was suspected of being a faggot was beaten up by five other boys with baseball bats. In this case, there were no allegations that the victim was involved in homosexual activity, though his attackers did believe that he had homosexual attractions (based on rather equivocal evidence). His attackers shamed and brutalized him for a temptation to sin which he may not have felt, or which he may have resisted.
The ringleader in this incident claimed that because the Bible condemned homosexuality, his attack was justified even that it was unjust for him to be punished for it. However, the Bible also condemns fornication, and he had sex with several girlfriends during the time I knew him. To my knowledge, none of his Christian friends (myself included) called him on his hypocrisy. And the blatant hypocrisy of this supposedly Christian boy who beat up fags and slept with his girlfriends gave me an excuse to wonder whether perhaps the Churchs opposition to homosexuality were based on nothing more than this kind of prejudice and nausea writ large.
Indeed, many who give no thought to either the Bible or the Church still feel great antipathy towards homosexuals. During my junior year in college, my roommate borrowed my diary and showed it to some of his friends, including someone Ill call Goliath, who was on the football team. One night, I returned late to the dorm, and found Goliath in the lounge, drunk. Hey, faggot, he said, having discovered my same sex attractions from my diary. Do you know what we do to faggots around here? I didnt bother to ask whether there was a special discount for chastity, for Goliath (who made no pretence of Christian practice) brought home a different girl every weekend. I just started to back away. Do you want to take a spill off the balcony? From the balcony, it was a 100 foot drop to concrete. I ran (literally) to a friends room on another floor and stayed there until I could arrange to move to another dorm.
According to the Church it is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Churchs pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986, #10). I, who know how ugly attitudes towards fags can get, am deeply thankful for the Churchs unwavering defense of my human dignity.
As a long-time reader of the magazine, I am willing to exonerate the editors of the NOR from a charge of hypocrisy or bigotry. I do not for a moment think they approve of beating those with same sex attractions with baseball bats or threatening chaste homosexuals with death by dropping. But when they say the word fag, I think of three seconds of free fall, ending in a splatter on concrete.
If this is a chaste homosexuals experience of the word fag, it should come as no surprise that those I consulted agreed unanimously that it would not inflame the soul with a passion for purity of heart. Rather, the word just rubs salt in old wounds and stirs up legitimate anger at real injustices.
Words are living things, and contemporary experience matters much more than etymology in determining the meaning a word will have in contemporary culture. If one really wants to be lumped in with sort of characters Ive described, then it makes perfect sense to use the word fag. But if one wants to make a principled defense of the Churchs respect for the human person and the human body, one should look for other words.
Consider an etymological analogy. We are at the moment shopping for Iraqi leaders to replace Saddam. Suppose we hear of an expatriate Iraqi intellectual who wants to rename the country The Peoples Republic of Iraq.
Now it is perfectly plausible on etymological grounds to claim that this would be a democratic regime. After all, Abraham Lincoln called ours a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And America is a republic. So one could make a good etymological case for calling America a Peoples Republic. But if one examines contemporary usage, one finds that the countries which call themselves Peoples Republics are either on or remarkably close to the Axis of Evil. We would have every justification in assuming that a man who wished to create a Peoples Republic intended to brutally murder political opponents, practice wholesale slaughter of his own citizens, and act as a more or less permanent threat to world peace. And if he did not intend this then it would be foolish to use the phrase Peoples Republic to describe his proposed government.
I think it absolutely essential to oppose the gay liberation ideology which has gained so much influence in the last 30 years. But using the word fag to do so is like dropping a nuclear bomb on a military bunker that happens to be located in a residential neighborhood next to a hospital: itll destroy the target, but its going to cause an enormous amount of collateral damage, and it wont help your reputation as a defender of human dignity.
Of course, most of the time the word fag is little more than a gutter abuse word. The fifth grader who calls the third grader with spindly legs and glasses a fag is not showing Christian charity, but is not a monster, either. Even when the NOR took the liberty of saying that Fr. Keenan doesnt tell us whether or not hes a fag (Jul.-Aug. 2002, p. 14), I took it as sophomoric humor which stretched the bounds of good taste, but was not worth a letter. But the NOR editors were not content to defend it as an exercise in adolescent wit. Instead, they argued that the word could make a serious point about chastity. And that argument is worth refuting, because the more seriously you use the word, the more destructive it becomes.
The Churchs teaching about human sexuality is true, and anyone who seriously studies it will discover this. But the word fag does not draw attention to the Splendor of Truth revealed in Christ. In my own life, to the degree that I allowed myself to be dominated by emotion, I descended into a thick moral fog. If I had focused more on how I felt than on what I believed to be true, I would not have become chaste, and I would not have become Catholic. And so those who wish to defend truth should not go out of their way to stir up powerful emotions which will only muddy the waters and obscure the beauty of the truth.
For Catholics, truth is never purely abstract: it is always incarnate. The Word of God became flesh in the Virgins womb. We receive His body and blood under the appearance of bread and wine. A priest pronounces the words of absolution in His name. His holiness is revealed in the lives of the saints. But when it comes to the Churchs teaching about same-sex attraction, we have presently a great disadvantage: those who choose to embrace the worlds teaching will find an abundance of role models, whether in the media, in the schools, or even in their own parish, for many parishes today have no shortage of publicly proclaimed dissidents. But those who choose to live a life of chastity will have the greatest difficulty finding any role models at all. Here, the Churchs teaching is almost always presented in the abstract, without in-the-flesh-models. And so it is quite common that those who realize they have same-sex attractions see no choice but to follow the world, because it is only the world that offers them role models.
In combating this, I greatly appreciate the NORs willingness to publish a first-person story from a Courage member. But is the mere temptation (never acted on) to have sex with a man so shameful (in a time when a large percentage of Catholics cohabit openly before marriage) that the NOR editors must offer me anonymity, lest I experience some horrible backlash from their readers?
Actually, I know perfectly well why the NOR editors would offer anonymity, and I would not blame any Courage member who took them up on the offer. There is a tendency to assume that a man who admits to having homosexual temptations is automatically some kind of sex maniac. When I was in college, I belonged to an Evangelical Protestant Bible study group. We were broken up into same-sex prayer and accountability groups, facilitated by an older leader. I eventually told the group of my struggles with homosexuality; the group was generally supportive, although a number of the members seemed rather pleased at their ability to show Christian love to such a notorious sinner.
One night when I was absent, the leader pointed out to the group that they acted as though they extended great charity to me. But in fact I was not looking at pornography at all, while many of the guys in the group were; and I had never had sex by any definition, though the majority of the guys had engaged in inappropriately physical relationships with their girlfriends, and still struggled with such boundaries in present relationships.
The Church teaches that the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a heterosexual or a homosexual and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986, #16).
While I was writing this article, I called a friend (who also struggles with same sex attractions, and also has never acted on those temptations), and we talked about this. At one point in the conversation, he exclaimed, Im tired of acting like Im doing something wrong when Im not. And that, I think, is the rub. For many Christians, same-sex attractions are almost as shameful as same-sex acts. Thus, even the temptation cannot be admitted, leaving many unable to find support from the Christian community. I am prepared to agree with the NOR editors that there may be a time to shame those who engage in same-sex acts. But if our Church culture is almost as ready to shame chaste men with same sex attractions, I think we need to carefully re-examine our consciences, especially when there is often less shame attached to actual fornication or adultery than to being a chaste homosexual.
I do not mean that most Catholics reflectively believe this to be true; but many act unreflectively as if it were true. The fact that the NOR editors recognize that a chaste man who resists homosexual temptations might be afraid to admit to an orthodox Catholic audience that he has been tempted only underscores this point: Christians efforts to shame those who engage in homosexual acts spread their net of shame far too wide. In the last 30 years, the efforts to shame the unchaste have largely failed; but the chaste are still ashamed, and so the Church fights the gay liberation movement with its best weapons saints in the making who struggle with same sex attractions hidden far from the front lines.
I would not end on a negative note. Church teaching is true. But human beings are not robots. We need not only Reason, but also what may be called reasons of the heart. C. S. Lewis writes, As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the spirited element. The head rules the belly through the chest the seat... of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest Magnanimity Sentiment these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
When I decided, at the age of 17, to become chaste, I had a very great grace: my friend Jason. While friendship could be a temptation for me, the Catechism specifically commends friendship (among other spiritual helps) for men with same-sex attractions (#2359). It also teaches that the virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship... Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion (#2347).
It is not difficult to see friendships value. In the first place, while there were certainly temptations, I cared very deeply about Jason. To yield to any of those temptations would have meant inviting him into behavior which could separate him (and me) from God forever. It thus became very clear to me that my concern for Jasons true good stood in sharp contrast to the selfishness behind sexual temptation. True friendship became a powerful weapon against lust, a school of virtue in which my heart joined with my head in pursuing authentic good.
To embrace the truth seemed (at first) well-nigh impossible. But Catholic teaching is not arbitrary: it reflects our human nature, and in embracing the truth, all aspects of our person heart, mind, and soul are quickened. It is difficult to be chaste: but ultimately more difficult to be unchaste, because the immoral person sins against his own body (I Cor. 6:18), and unchastity is self-destructive. By obeying Christ first, I not only draw closer to God: I also discover human friendships warmer and deeper than anything the world promises. It is sad that many straight Catholics (for whom it is in many ways easier) miss out on the grace and truth I have found in chastity. But in the end, it is not those who are most tempted who perish eternally and those with lesser temptations who inherit eternal life. For those who choose to surrender to Christ, His grace will be sufficient for any weakness. Neither temptation nor trial nor persecution nor injustice will keep us from our reward. Indeed, God often delights in choosing improbable characters like the Prodigal Son to prove that sanctity is the fruit of His grace, and is open to the most spectacular sinner. But for those who do not choose to surrender, no temptation will be too trivial to separate them from Christ.
It takes courage to be chaste, and still more courage to be a witness to chastity so that others who struggle will not struggle alone. But though it takes more courage to walk the steep and narrow road to Heaven than to take the broad and easy road to Hell, it will be much more pleasant to enjoy the banquet of heaven with the saints than to endure the torments of Hell. And so, though the way to sanctity is hard and I may stumble ten thousand times before I reach the top, it is the only road for me.
In 2003, Justin Lee, the founder and Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network, invited me to write an essay defending the traditional Christian belief that homosexual activity is wrong, and that gays and lesbians who are unable to marry a person of the opposite sex are called to celibacy. Justin wrote a companion essay arguing that God blesses gay marriage. Justin has made the two essays into a prominent GCN feature called the “Great Debate.”
For the Summer 2004 issue, Notre Dame Magazine planned to do a special issue focused on homosexuality and the Catholic Church. They invited me to contribute an essay describing how I came to accept Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Rather than focusing on theological arguments, they asked me to focus on telling the story through my own journey and experiences. The whole package won the 2005 first place Press Award for “Best investigative writing or analysis” from the Catholic Press Association. This is a somewhat revised version of the essay. Click here for the original version on the Notre Dame Magazine website.
In late 2002 and early 2003, there was an ongoing controversy in the letters section of the New Oxford Review over the editors’ use of the word “fag” in an article. With encouragement from several members of Courage who were deeply frustrated with the exchange, I wrote this essay, which was published in the June 2003 issue of the New Oxford Review.
This essay was originally written in 2003, in response to the planned protests of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings in Washington, DC by Soulforce, a pro-gay group. Edited slightly to remove references to the original protest, it still provides a good overview of some aspects of Catholic teaching related to homosexuality.
Also written in response to the Soulforce protests, this essay examines prejudice against gays and lesbians, and attempts to provide a Catholic Response.
This is the keynote speech I gave at the January, 2007 Gay Christian Network Conference in Seattle, WA. It voices frustration at the ways that gays and lesbians are sometimes treated by Christians, and focuses on the importance of obedience to God, even in the most difficult circumstances.
If you knew nothing about human biology, you could listen to most of our debates about abortion and never realize that men are involved in any way. We talk about the woman’s body, the woman’s right to choose. We in the pro-life movement talk about the unborn child’s right to life. But what about the father? In this speech, delivered at the March 25, 2006 Symposium on Life Issues at St. Monica's Catholic Church, I looked at the role of men in building the Culture of Life.
On January 22, 2006, the Knights of Columbus invited me to give a brief reflection at a memorial service for the unborn, held at Mt. Angeles Memorial Park to commemmorate the 33rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
On November 3, 2005, the Philosophy Club at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette invited me to debate Dr. Rick Swanson on the question: “Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” I do not have a complete transcript of the debate; however, I have made my opening statement available here.
On January 23, 2004, the Washington, DC chapter of Courage and the Georgetown University chapter of the Knights of Columbus invited me to speak at Georgetown about Catholic teaching and homosexuality.
[The responses in this section were originally written in response to questions I received from friends or others. Before posting them here, I edited both question and response in order to enhance clarity and readability.]
Question: In God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door, Alan Chambers writes, “This is why I believe that it is so important to clarify that just living a celibate gay life is just as sinful as living a sexually promiscuous one. The sin is in identifying with anything that is contrary to Christ, which homosexuality clearly is” (218). Would you be willing to identify as a “gay Christian”? How do you think such an identity relates to the arsenokoitai of whom Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 6? [ Read response ]