[This is a revised and expanded version of an article that was originally published as part of a special feature on homosexuality in the Summer 2004 issue of Notre Dame Magazine. In 2005, the Catholic Press Association gave first place in the “Best investigative writing or analysis” category to the authors who contributed to the special feature.]
It’s a love that has wings, a counter-cultural calling that turns restraint into the joy of liberation in Christ.
“Looks about half full,” I say as I hand the dipstick to my friend Mark. I’m perched awkwardly on the wing strut of a Cessna 172 under a drizzly Northwest sky. After tightening the fuel cap, I climb down from the wing and check the oil level, while Mark inspects the control surface linkages. Then we get into the cockpit, strap in, and go down the pre-start checklist. The engine rumbles to life, and we taxi out to the runway. After another checklist, Mark opens up the throttle, and we’re off, down the runway and into the battleship gray sky.
As we climb over an open field at the end of the runway, I remember: Almost a decade ago—long before Mark and I became friends and began to fly together—my friend Jason and I lay side by side in that same field, our hands behind our heads, watching the summer stars.
“Think there’s Someone out there?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Probably.”
We had both lost the easy certainties of childhood, and were wandering in the shadowlands. Scientific evidence about evolution made it difficult for me to accept the Bible, and modern psychology made the church’s sexual morality seem out of date. Jason’s doubts were more about the problem of evil: How could a good God allow so much meaningless pain and suffering? How could one believe in a God who let innocent children die? Yet through the doubt and confusion, we still could not shake our sense that God existed. We often doubted that He cared about the details of individual lives. We also resented His existence: we were both breaking free from our parents’ authority and disliked God’s interference even more than the kind imposed by adults. But as we both wrestled with these uncertainties, we also felt that the alternatives offered shallow answers to life’s deepest questions: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? The highest wisdom of modern philosophies seemed to be “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And so we lay in this field, where the dry grass prickled our backs and the sky stretched overhead, and talked about these questions and about things ephemeral as well.
A distant humming caught our attention, and we sat up. Far away to the east, a small constellation of blinking lights banked toward us, then hung stationary in the night sky, gradually growing brighter as the noise rumbled louder and louder. We sat, arms hugging our knees, watching. Details materialized out of the darkness: the skeletal arms of the landing gear reaching down from the wings, the ghostly outline of the cockpit windows. And then several thousand pounds of aluminum, a few dozen passengers, and two powerful turbine engines roared about 30 feet over our heads. We quickly craned our heads around and watched the plane settle onto the runway behind us.
As our breathing returned to normal, we lay back, and again gazed into the eternal silence of space.
We had met the previous fall. We were standing by the food table at a party, trying to make small talk. “I’m terrible at this social-mixing thing,” I said to a face I knew slightly, the sort of acquaintance you nod at in passing on campus.
“I don’t like it that much either,” Jason replied, creating an instant sense of solidarity: two sane introverts amid the mixing, extroverted crowd. Balancing a plate of chips and vegetables in one hand, holding a plastic cup in the other, we moved off to find a corner where we could chat. We spoke awkwardly of this and that, stumbling through topics like the weather and the food.
“So, what do you want to be when you graduate?”
“An aeronautical engineer,” said I.
“A pilot,” said he.
In memory, the party becomes a vague blur, like farmland from 30,000 feet. Yet the light in his eyes and the image of his hands illustrating maneuvers in the air between us remains.
Hours later, as the party died around us, we found an empty stairwell, where we kept talking—about flying, about our lives, about the dreams we hoped to accomplish. We continued to talk until the night was almost gone, when finally, short on sleep, parted on the promise to meet again.
“Nervous about the speech?” Mark asks, breaking into my reverie.
“Yeah,” I reply.
If you’d told me during my teens that I would be talking to a group of gay Catholics about why I believed in celibacy, I wouldn’t have believed you. In high school I had my career mapped out as a gay-rights activist. During my senior year, I made it to state semifinals with a speech favoring gays in the military.
Yet God has a way of throwing curveballs. In my late teens I was talking with friends, making fun of Catholic sexual ethics (“every sperm is sacred” and all that). Then the thought struck me: The sexual revolution may be easier than Catholic teaching, but does it make people happier? I thought of families I knew, broken by divorce. I thought of my friends’ dating dramas. I thought of my mother’s work with AIDS patients. But I quickly shoved all such thoughts out of my mind, because even to think them was intellectual heresy. An educated, postmodern person would no more become a Catholic than he would join the Flat Earth Society. So I went on trying to be modern, but with the same uneasy feeling I have when my car is running rough and I can’t afford to take it to a mechanic.
Was I searching for God? Not really. I had plenty of gods: romance, academic success, and money, just to name a few. I wasn’t looking for One who said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” God, however, was looking for me. In those days I had no car, which forced me to walk from place to place. During these walks, I became more and more aware that God was walking with me. I didn’t see or hear anything, of course, but I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was not alone.
This worried me, because I didn’t want Judeo-Christian morality. An abomination, the Bible called it, to lie with a man as with a woman. Those who did so without repenting, Paul said, would not enter the kingdom of heaven.
There was, I hoped, some mistake here. So I tried to explain to God why a gay relationship would be okay. I pointed out that the Bible condemned divorce, but that was accepted by many Christians. I reminded God that the men of Sodom and Gomorrah had not merely desired homosexual relations—they had planned to gang-rape the angels. I pointed to David and Jonathan in the Old Testament, whose love was “greater than the love of women.” For weeks God listened silently to my slowly evolving theories on the subject. Then the silence ended.
I hesitate to say that God spoke. I heard no words. Yet a thought landed in my mind with all the force of a bomb. “Love,” it said, “is not the same as sex.” It does not seem so profound in hindsight—indeed, at some level I already knew that it was true. There is a difference, however, between knowing and acknowledging the truth. At that moment, as my carefully constructed arguments had been shaken to their foundations and lay in ruins around me, God forced me to acknowledge my dishonesty: though I had argued from the Bible, I had not really sought to understand His will.
It was in the aftermath of this earthquake that Jason and I met at the party and discovered our shared love of flying. As I walked home that morning, I wanted to make him the protagonist of an epic novel about the early days of flight, or to sculpt a statue of him (very Michelangelo, very David) and put it in the center of our campus. For the umpteenth time since I had turned 15, I had fallen for another guy.
Thus began a period of intense cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, I was grappling with the realization that my previous arguments were more rationalization than honest seeking; on the other I was falling more and more deeply in love with Jason.
Unlike many previous crushes, this was not just physical desire. What did I want? I think the most honest answer would have been “to be near him forever.”
We soon discovered, as we spent more and more time together, another common interest: arguing politics. Conveniently, we took opposing sides.
He dreamed of a military career, and when he heard about my speech on gays in the military he lost no opportunity to tell me why they should not serve. I, in turn, spared no effort in convincing him that he was behind the times. Again and again we tackled the argument, hammer and tongs, often late into the night. One evening in November we were once again debating The Topic. “Doesn’t the concept of two men holding hands weird you out?” he asked.
Then he reached for my hand.
My body froze. Don’t show any emotion! Remember to breathe! I tried to keep my face a mask as I explained that my personal feelings about whether or not two men holding hands was weird did not factor into the question of whether gays and lesbians could honorably defend their country. Fairness, I said, isn’t about how comfortable I feel—for example, the idea of my parents having sex weirds me out, but that doesn’t mean I would discriminate against them (I had used that line in my speech, and it usually got a good laugh, so I was always ready to recycle it in conversation).
“But aren’t you totally weirded out by two guys cuddling?” he persisted. Then he laid his head against my chest, where presumably he could hear my heart race. We sat like that for the next couple of hours—he maintaining that homosexuality was disgusting, while I maintained that, whether it was disgusting or not, we should not discriminate against those who happened to be gay or lesbian. The next day, he went out of his way to reiterate that he was not gay.
“I never said you were,” I replied, choosing my words with some precision.
The strange dance continued. One night a couple of months later, we watched Out of Africa, his head again resting on my chest.
“Have you ever thought about becoming a missionary?” he asked. (On viewing the film again recently, I wondered how he got the idea of becoming a missionary out of the story of an adulterous affair; but from that first viewing, I remembered nothing of the affair—our attention was on the adventure of living in the African wilderness, and in particular on the magnificent aerial cinematography when Denys takes Karen up in his plane and they fly above mountains and waterfalls, over grassy plains and sandy beaches.)
A missionary? “Sometimes,” I replied, not quite truthfully.
We talked, long after the movie had ended, about getting a plane and doing missions in Africa, but I was far more interested in the idea of being with him than I was in bringing the Gospel to remote tribes. Were we searching for God? Perhaps, but my heart resisted more than it searched, and I feared above all that my love for him would be the first thing God demanded I nail to the cross.
Meanwhile, life went on. We built a radio-controlled airplane, and after weeks of gluing balsa wood together, we took it out for its first flight. He took the controls. The plane rose into the air, climbed a hundred feet or so, stalled and spun into the ground—a complete loss. To this day we debate whether the crash was due to my failure as an engineer or his failure as a pilot.
The Cessna hits a pothole in the air, jerking my attention back to the present. A glance at the instruments: We’re moving at autobahn speeds, half a mile above the traffic that winds slowly along Highway 101. We’re extremely safe, I remind myself, safer than we would be on the highway—and yet the jolt of turbulence is a reminder that a few seconds of inattention at the wrong moment can be deadly. That is why there is a rigid structure to the freedom of flight: training, checklists and regulations. Yet this structure sets us free to fly above the constraints of roads, land and water.
The reality of flight seems very different from my early dreams. I did not fall in love with flying because, as a boy, someone took me aside to explain the Federal Air Regulations. Yet Mark and I fly safely these days because those regulations protect us. Without that structure, the reality would not be more like my dreams, but less so—deadly tailspins played no part in the dreams of flight that Jason and I shared as we lay under the stars at the end of the runway.
Now, as then, I think the friendship with Jason was a good thing. Even a decade later I have many powerful memories of those days, recollections too big for my mind, which spill over into my heart and gut. In the long conversations we shared about life and about God, I began resolving the doubts that held me back from deeper faith. In addition, loving him taught me a lot about loving God. This should come as no surprise: Like all human beings, he was the image in flesh and blood of the God who numbers the stars and calls each of them by name.
Therein, however, lay the danger. Precisely because there was so much good in our friendship, I could make him into an idol. Would I honor God by putting his commands ahead of my desires? Or would I, as I was strongly tempted to do, put my desires for the relationship ahead of God’s will? Was I willing for him to put God first, or did I want to be the center of his life? I would like to say I had an epiphany that helped me understand perfectly what I needed to do and why, but all I had were two shadowy intuitions: God seemed to exist, and the Bible seemed to prohibit sex between two men. Whenever I tried to ignore them, my conscience would nag me. So I tried to obey what God seemed to be saying, even though I felt little assurance and feared that obedience would be very lonely.
And God threw another curveball: Obedience actually deepened friendship. We had been drawn together by our shared passion for airplanes and by our search for meaning amid the confusion in life. Years later, those things—objective, real, able to engage the intellect—prove to be of enduring worth. The emotional drama of “he loves me, he loves me not” was a thing of the moment, a powerful distraction that threatened to tear our friendship apart, and did, I think, play an important role in the distance that was to come.
More important, however, obedience brought an inner peace and rest in God that had been missing from all the years of my heart’s restless hunt for love. Instead of fighting against the growing awareness of God’s presence, fearing interference in my plans, I began (at least a little) to welcome that presence and seek to be guided by it.
Saint Augustine says that God gives the law to educate desire. Out of the hopes, dreams and desires of my heart grew actions—actions that would either help love grow or tear it down. When we built our radio-controlled airplane together, we did not get someone to teach us how to fly. The result was that our dream was destroyed less than a minute after takeoff. But when it came to our friendship, I tried to obey God’s law, with happier results.
A couple of years after we met at the party, he went to the East Coast, while I remained at the University of Washington. To this day, we stay in touch. His doubts, nurtured by disastrous turns of fortune’s wheel, have grown into a full rejection of God and a deep frustration with life. My baby steps into obedience have born fruit in a deepening inner peace and a growing hunger to know God’s will for my life.
And now I am on my way to tell my story for Seattle’s Archdiocesan Gay/Lesbian Ministry. Most in the audience will reject Catholic sexual ethics, thinking a life without sexual intimacy is a life without love, that celibacy means self-hatred. Gay culture—like contemporary American culture generally—seems to idolize the body and make love the center of everything—“it’s love that makes a family.”
Center stage, all is bright lights and beautiful faces. But in the shadows, if we dare to look, we often find that this obsession leads not to celebration, but to self-hatred. We celebrate the body: but only bodies that have been whipped into shape by a personal trainer, tanned to just the right degree, spruced up by plastic surgery, encased in the right designer clothes. In a thousand subtle and less-than-subtle ways, we absorb the message that our value as a human being is determined by our physical appearance—and that our appearance is judged by our ability to seduce beautiful bodies into our beds. But if we judge ourselves on the basis of physical appearance, there will always be someone better looking; and we may look in the mirror in the morning and feel a stab of self-hatred, and the question, “how can I be worth anything if I do not look like a movie star?”
Christ points to a better way. Our bodies, the Apostle Paul reminds us, are made in God’s image and are meant to become temples of His Holy Spirit. It is precisely for this reason that we must guard against sexual impurity, lest we defile His dwelling place within. It is not the world that offers infinite joy, and God who interferes. Quite the opposite. C. S. Lewis once pointed out that “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Though I am no longer ignorant as I was, I have not seen the joys of Heaven. Yet I have had a foretaste. In friendship—with Jason, with Mark, with others—I have felt something of the weight of glory to be found in a human soul. Even if I have only caught glimpses of truth amidst the shadows, I can still hope for the fuller vision still to come. But in the meantime I struggle with how best to describe the hope I have within me to others.
I let out a sigh. “It’s not so easy to get across the positive side of obedience,” I say to Mark, gesturing at my notes.
“One thing you might mention,” he says.
“You know how sometimes you just want to forget about God, forget about the struggle and just ‘feel good’? So you tell yourself that it’s normal, that everyone’s doing it, that you’re only human. And maybe it does feel good for a few minutes. But afterward you feel awful because you know in your heart that what you did was wrong.”
I nod my head. As a teenager, I thought my straight friends could not possibly understand what I was going through. But with Mark, I have found that the differing details of our struggles and temptations are much less important than our shared desire to follow Christ. For him, discipleship demands purity in his relationship with his girlfriend; for me, it means celibacy. For both of us, it is a path that demands struggle, sacrifice and self-control. But it is a path that we can walk together, challenging and encouraging each other to grow. He continues, “With following God, it’s the opposite: You have to fight. And the fighting can last for hours, even—off and on—for a lifetime. But God’s peace will last forever. And even in this life nothing compares with the joy and peace of overcoming temptation. But it’s really hard to keep that perspective, because lust is right there, and we can’t see eternity.”
But seeing is not necessarily believing. We are half a mile above wind-swept water, without visible means of support, flying as free as birds.
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 ]