James Alison. Theology

Letter to a young gay Catholic

This article was written for, and appears in the International Catholic Theological Review Concilium in the issue dedicated to “Homosexualities” (2008/1). The Italian translation of this article is available as a PDF document. Also, the Portuguese translation has been made available.

Carissimo,

What a privilege it is to be given the chance to write to you! So much so that I would like to savour the word “you” for a little bit and ask you to consider what a novelty it is, how open-ended a form of address.

How often have you ever been addressed by the word “you” in a Catholic publication? I don’t mean the word “you” in the weak sense as when advertisements ask “Have you considered a vocation to be a priest or sister?” Because those advertisements don’t really mean “you”. They really mean “someone who is like you in every way, but happens not to be gay, or at least is good at hiding it”. Normally whenever there is a discussion about matters gay in Catholic publications, the style very quickly becomes stiff, and a mysterious “they” appears. This “they” seems to inhabit another planet from the one you inhabit. Whoever is talking about “they” is, in fact, on another planet, one where a strange lack of oxygen makes it impossible to use the pronouns “I”, “you”, “we”. If someone does start to use those pronouns, you quickly sense that the only thing that gives them the freedom to do so is that they are heterosexual, and are honest enough to say that they don’t really understand what it’s all about.

You may have tried to talk informally about being a gay Catholic to a priest, or even a Bishop, whom your gaydar has picked up as likely to be “family”, and you will have noticed how, with all their desire to be friendly, a hidden check comes into their voice. A kind of internal restraining order means that when they say “you”, you can pick up that the “I” that is speaking has moved into a mode of masking, has become somehow official, and the “you” who is being spoken to is not being breathed into being, but somehow designated as ‘to be handled with extreme caution’. There is a “but” hovering in the background of the voice which speaks as loud as anything they say, because the “but” says “you, but not as you are”.

So here you are, reading a Catholic publication, part of that huge and fantastic worldwide communication network which is one of the joys of being a Catholic, and somehow something new is being allowed to happen. For you, a Catholic who happens to be gay (whatever that means), are being addressed as “you” by a Catholic who is able to say “I am a Catholic who happens to be gay, whatever that means”. I am being allowed to talk to you, who are aware of having the beginnings of a life-story in which being gay plays a part. And I am being offered the chance to speak to you not in an official capacity but as a brother, a brother with something of a life story which includes being an openly gay man. I am being given the chance of addressing you from the same level as you are, as one who doesn’t know better than you about who you are, and doesn’t even know very much about who I am. Yet a novelty has occurred. It has become possible in a mainstream Catholic publication for the word “you” to be pronounced in an open ended way, one which I hope will resonate creatively in your being, by an “I” whose tone has been inflected and stretched through living as an openly gay man within the Catholic Church.

Like all cowards, when I was faced with the privilege of taking part in this communication my first reaction was to run away. For a privilege is a responsibility. And there is something particularly awesome about this privilege, since there is only One who can address you as “You” in such a way as to call your “I” into being without displacing you or bullying you. And that is Our Lord himself. And he won that ability by going through death so as to be able to speak you and me into being and give us both an “I” not run by death and its fear. There is nothing cheap about being able to talk to another as “you” in such a way that it calls into being.

When the teaching officials of our Church remember themselves – which is usually when they are on the defensive – they point out that what they call the “magisterium” can never be a substitute for conscience, but can only be a voice alongside your own, at the same level as your own, as subject to the breath of Our Lord as your own. A voice prompting you, counselling you, helping you to form your conscience, and never one drowning you out so that you take on its voice instead of going through the hard work of allowing yourself to be given your own.

They are quite right in this. And I have no right to be any less careful than the magisterium is when talking to you. You see, the difference between my attempt to address you as “you” and that of the priest or the Bishop with the “check”, the glowering “but”, in the back of his voice, is not that he is a hypocrite and I am not, that he is constrained, and I am not. No, I am just as much a hypocrite as he, and I am just as constrained. There is a “but” in the back of my voice too, though it is not applied to you. However, it would be dishonest if I were to pretend that loving the Church as a gay man had not left some wear in the back of my voice. The realities which cause the priest or Bishop to talk to you in a tense and unnatural way are the same realities as force me to think long and hard about how I am to talk to you. And I dread to think how inadequate you would find me if you could talk to me face to face rather than encounter me through this mask which I am spinning with words, words which I can correct, and edit, and change before they reach you.

If there is a difference between the tone of voice with which I am speaking to you and the one you are accustomed to hearing, it is largely one of accident, or grace, depending on how you interpret it. And yes, you will have to interpret it, you will have to decide whether I who am addressing you as “you” am able to do so only because of some slip-up, some crack in the system, or whether there is something of the Shepherd in this unauthorised voice which is speaking to you, something of the Shepherd, whose voice you know, and of which you are not afraid. I can lay no claim to being a channel of that voice myself. None of us can. We can hope to be used, or to be in preparation for being used. However only those who each of us addresses can perceive who it is, what mixture of voices it is, that comes singing through our airwaves.

If there is a difference, then let me confess, it comes from an act of stubbornness, of defiance on my part. A refusal to believe something. That is the “but” in the back of my voice. “…But the God who is revealed to us in Jesus could not possibly treat that small portion of humanity which is gay and lesbian to a double-bind in the way the Church has come to do. Could not possibly say “I love you, but only if you become something else”; or “Love your neighbour, but in your case, not as yourself, but as if you were someone else”; or “Your love is too dangerous and destructive, find something else to do””. And for a Catholic, an act of stubbornness or defiance doesn’t seem an awfully good place to start. It sounds satanic. Unless of course this refusal to believe something is empowered by such a strong sense of someone’s goodness that you know that you would be seriously offending them if you were to believe them capable of acting in the way that is imputed to them.

You can imagine, as I can, a wife refusing to believe in the guilt which a duly appointed court, and a jury of his peers, imputes to her husband concerning some financial dishonesty. All the evidence seems to point in the same direction, but still the wife stubbornly and defiantly refuses to believe that her husband could have done this thing, even when he himself sometimes wavers in his own defence, maybe so as to let her off the strain of having to support him. In some stories this affair will end with new evidence, or a shift in circumstance, completely exonerating the husband, and the wife will be shown to have been right in refusing to allow her faith in her husband’s goodness to be contaminated by public calumny. In other stories, there will be no happy resolution, and a generation of bystanders will consider the wife to be a pathetic figure, unhinged from reality, so deep in denial as to be unable to accept that her husband was a crook.

Well, I don’t want to pull the wool over your eyes! I am that stubborn and defiant wife, and the story hasn’t ended yet. Neither do I know, nor do you know, whether my refusal to believe that God could possibly treat gay and lesbian people in the way that the village elders and the local court say he does, is a refusal born of faith in a love which will turn out to be true, or is simply a sign of my delusional flight into unreality. Those who speak to you with a check in their voice know perfectly well that it is one or the other, and they are taking your safety seriously, not wishing to embark you on such a risky journey.

No, I don’t want to pull the wool over your eyes. For to invite you into the place of that defiant wife, and therefore the place of vulnerability and uncertainty until the story is brought to an end, is not something I do easily. It is a frightening place. For I cannot offer you a resolution. I do not know whether it isn’t an act of arrogance on my part which says “it is better to dare to go through the place of being afraid that being gay may simply be a lie, a form of self-deception leading nowhere, trusting that the Spirit of God will dissipate the fear, reveal the fear as a mirage, enable me to grow childlike as I face down the fear; better that, than to cling to the opinion that the fear is for our safety, protecting us from an abyss of meaninglessness, and so allow ourselves to be guided by the prudent “no” of our Church tradition”.

You see, I don’t despise the prudent “no” any longer. I used to. I used to hate the cowardice, the two-facèdness and the lies. But now that I realise the cost of stepping out of that, I also realise how careful I must be when addressing you. For which of us can tell whether some petulant desire for heroism might not be pulling our strings, rather than the breath of the Lord saying “Duc in altum!” – “Put out into the deep!” (Luke 5,4)? There where the prudent think there are no fish to be caught, no humans worth loving with equality of heart, only a swirling of messy and unrescuable desires. The cost of stepping out of the protective “no!”, of believing that someone might be addressing me as “You” without that dreaded “but”, is finding myself naked before the Spirit and more vulnerable than ever to my own self-deception. And the only resolution will be when the catch begins to come in, and that may not be in my lifetime, or in yours.

No, I don’t want to pretend that being an openly gay Catholic is something easy or obvious. It isn’t. For a start, merely the fact of your wanting to read a letter like this at all is a sign of how many obstacles you must have overcome already. You may have faced hatred and discrimination in your own country, from family members, at school, at the hands of legislators eager for cheap votes, through shrieking newspaper headlines that sear your soul, and in the glare of which you are speechless in your own defence. And you’ve probably noticed that at the very best, the Church which calls itself, and is, your Holy Mother has kept silent about the hatred and the fear. While all too often its spokesmen will have lowered themselves to the level of second-rate politicians, lending voice to hate while claiming that they are standing up for love. The very fact that, through and in the midst of, and despite, all these hateful voices, you should have heard the voice of the Shepherd calling you into being of his flock is already a miracle far greater than you know, preparing you for a work more subtle and delicate than those voices could conceive.

You will share in all the contempt which the modern world has for the Catholic Church by virtue of holding firm to the faith you have been given – you will be considered as having little of worth to offer. And by virtue of being a Catholic you will always be on the brink of being considered something of a traitor to whatever project your contemporaries seek to build. No surprise there: that goes with the turf. However you will face something in addition, for you will be considered something of a traitor within the Church as well. “Not quite one of us”. And certainly not someone who can publicly represent the Church, be a visible part of the sign which leads to salvation. And how could it be otherwise? For if being gay is a defect in creation, as is held, then the only sign of grace attaching to being gay would be the removal of being gay from what makes you or I to be.

Do not be surprised, then, that they will be considered loyal and trustworthy who pursue every conceivable psychological false lead with a view to finding scientific backing for the claim that being gay is a pathology. They will receive approval as “a sign of contradiction”, of not yielding to the spirit of the age. While you will be considered a bad Catholic, if a Catholic at all. For, long after the evangelical groups which gave birth to “reparative therapy” and the “ex-gay” movement have moved on, and their leaders apologised for leading people astray, such ideas will find Catholic backers and supporters, since they flatter current Church teaching. But don’t be afraid of those ideas, and don’t hate their propagators. They are our brothers. The very fact that these brothers understand that if the Church’s teaching is true it must have some basis in the discoverable realm of nature means that ultimately it is the evidence of what is true in that realm which will set us free. It will be bigger than what either you, or I, or they, can guess right now and it will set us all free.

But what of the long “meanwhile”? For you, called by your name, just as for me, who am learning to receive an “I”, being Catholic implies a vocation to some sort of ministry, some sort of creative acting out, some sort of public imitation of the life and death of Our Lord. So I don’t want to pretend: you will find yourself developing a ministry, as I find myself developing one, without any public backing from Church authority. It will be as if you did not exist. You will have to learn to live in the silence of being neither approved of, nor even disapproved of. You will fall out of the gaze of men, and if you are anything like me, desperate for an approving glance, you will experience this as a form of dying. For each of us is given to be who we are through the gaze of others, and we respond to that gaze, allowing it to give us who we are to be, and we behave accordingly. So, to drop through the floor into a space where there is no gaze, no approval, not even any disapproval, is a terrifying and risky business.

For of course, I may have dropped through the floor into the space where there is no gaze because I have become hermetic in my own pride and self-deception. In which case I will never find a gaze, but will dance to the rhythm of that deception, thinking myself very holy and special until death comes. Or, if I am being led by the Spirit of God, the place where there is no gaze may turn into the space where I am found in the regard of God. And this will be experienced by me as a “nada”, a nothing, all around, and only others may perceive that there is an “I” being called into being by One whose eyes I cannot see, but who can see me, a breath I cannot feel, and yet upon which I am being held. And of course, others will not necessarily understand what they see coming into being any more than I will.

What might you be embarking on? Let me give you an analogy. I don’t know whether you are old enough to remember the Cold War? Or indeed whether the Cold War had enough of an incidence in your part of the world to have made much of an impression on you as you grew up. One of the spin-offs of the Cold War was a literary and cinematic genre of spy stories, tales of intrigue and underground life waged (in the worst cases) by goodies against baddies and in somewhat rarer, better, cases by morally ambiguous people on both sides of the NATO/Eastern Bloc divide.

Try to imagine yourself an agent for one or the other side – from my perspective it is easiest to imagine myself as a western agent buried deep in communist lands. Now imagine that long ago you received your instructions from the head of the agency which is to “run” you, and were given appointed “handlers” for your mission. So, confident that you were being backed up by them, you plunged into your work, starting to build up community, small signs of the kingdom you serve, deep in enemy territory. Then imagine that something weird happens, there is something of a coup within the agency that sent you out, a policy shift, and all the people who had “handled” you, knew you, and prepared you, are quietly retired. So you find yourself with no direct line to anyone back at the agency. You are deep underground, and you are suddenly without cover, without back up, without resources, without even recognition. So much so that the new agents sent out by the agency don’t even know of your existence, and would probably heartily disapprove since if you are who you say you are, then you are part of an older and currently discredited approach to the “enemy territory” in which you have long gone underground.

And of course, there are people in the agency who might know about you, but they can no longer afford to say so. For to be seen to have contact with you would put into jeopardy their own standing in the agency. In short, you find yourself having become a non-person. “Doesn’t exist on our books, Madam” is the answer given to any enquiry at HQ made by someone foolish enough to have claimed to have known you. Plausible deniability is the lubricating oil by which the agency works.

What are you to do? You are still loyally at work, loving the project for which you were originally sent out. But communications have become seriously patchy. You can hear on the Radio the official pronouncements of the agency. You can read between the lines the ‘real’ meaning of what is being said, but you do not exist, you have no line of communication back to HQ, you are a no one. So, do you allow your anger and resentment at your treatment by the agency to cause you to give up working on the project for which you were originally called and trained? Or do you so love the project that you are prepared to love the agency which now hates you, confident that eventually, things will work out? Loving the agency when it loves you is easy enough, but loving it even through the time when it disowns you? Now there is the finger of God!

This is where I would urge you, as I urge myself, often with a fainting spirit, to see the privilege of what we have. Yes, there is a communication black-out with an HQ which can only talk about a “they” and never address “you”; yes, they either don’t know of our existence, or need plausible deniability for their own sakes, but meanwhile here, deep in enemy territory we can carry on building not just a wee little corner of something defensive, but the Catholic Church itself – the full thing, the whole whack. And curiously, with less interference from busybodies than would be the case if the lines of communication were up. So, do we dare to have our love stretched by building without approval, as we wait longingly for the day when some Berlin Wall comes down, and communication is restored? Can you take responsibility for that? Can you persevere?

“¡Esto va para largo…!” “This is going to be a long haul!” – that was the sage advice to me of one of my formators, one of my handlers, who in addition to being a gay man is an historian. He was telling me, as I am telling you, that the process of adjustment to truth in this sphere is going to take a long, long time. And it will only happen if people like you and me are prepared to love the project and not mind the turmoil in the agency, if we are generous in giving the handlers time to summon up the bravery to seek us out and talk to us as co-workers. One of the things that will keep us going is that we can keep returning to those weird cold-war meeting places, the drop-boxes of spy communication, where very quietly, from beneath ancient texts and through bread and wine, our original formator and our first handler, the One who first enlivened the project for us, will whisper courage and strength and perseverance into us, while the current agency boys run distraction, creating senseless noise, but fail finally to quench the ancient code.

Who knows, my friend, whether this opportunity for communication will be repeated? Who knows whether this is just a blip in the ether, whether the blockers of the Catholic radio waves will manage to prevent further open exchange between a Catholic “I” and a Catholic “you” both of whom happen to be gay? Or whether there is not some thaw in the ecclesiastical permafrost, and talk will get much, much easier? One way or another, let me tell you what I have discovered in my years underground in enemy territory: you are not alone, and His promises are true.

With a big hug
from your brother,
James