On Sexuality, Christianity, and Language

The knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, burned before the walls of Zürich for sodomy, 1482. (Source)

The recent controversy in ACNA about the language of homosexuality has been deeply unedifying. It has been aggravated in the last few days by an open, co-signed letter that, while doing the bare minimum, nevertheless was far more affirming than the original pastoral statement to which it replied. In a move I can only describe as scandalous, the principal author’s bishop then stepped in and ordered him to take it down.

I am for the most part uninterested in the internal politics of ACNA. I have friends in that communion, and after all, it is neither my circus nor my monkeys. I am, however, keenly interested in the issue at stake: what kinds of language sexual-minority Christians use, why, and what this says about their broader place within Christianity. Especially as some of these same issues have come up repeatedly in the Catholic context as well. That relevance to my own situation moves me to write, when I might otherwise keep silence.

When the original statement came out last month (no pun intended), a gay Christian friend of mine wrote, “I am starting to think that this tired conversation about sexual identity language is actually *designed* to keep the Church from caring for sexual minorities by addressing its pervasive homophobia.” Much of what follows therefore comes from what I wrote in reply, with a few edits and additions here and there.

It seems to me that this debate about language – the alleged moral valences of words like “homosexual” or “gay,” and whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to self-identify with these words – serves a multipronged function:

(1) It distracts from urgent issues, like sexual minorities being disproportionately subject to homelessness, political oppression, intimidation, healthcare discrimination, targeted murder, and suicide.

(2) It subsequently distracts from the historical and ongoing complicity of heterosexual Christians in these phenomena, and absolves them of any effort to help fix it.

(3) It puts the entire onus of subjectivity-formation on the gay Christian individual and thus places them in a defensive posture which prevents them from making further demands. It does this in three ways:

(4) It deprives them of a language in which to articulate their own subjectivity and needs.

(5) It isolates them by preventing them from using the language by which they can form bonds of solidarity with other sexual minorities.

(6) It further isolates them by cutting them off from the history of other sexual minorities, whatever terms they may have used (sodomites, inverts, homosexuals, fairies, queers, gays, LGBT, etc.).

(7) All of which is to say, the debate mainly functions to control sexual minority Christians by making their own experience more and more illegible to them.

(8) It works very well because it exhausts a lot of emotional energy from LGBTQ+ Christians. This is intrinsic to the debate’s function as a mechanism of control.

(9) It is doubly effective when, as in the ACNA document, it reverts to the most clinical and pathologized language imaginable. “Christians afflicted with” or “who struggle with same-sex attraction” is not only unwieldy, it’s obviously stigmatizing. SSA might as well be leprosy.

(10 This is not to say that gay Christians who feel that the language of “same-sex attraction” or SSA best expresses their experience shouldn’t use it. We should all use the language that best fits our own embodied story. But when straight Christians use it this way, they are robbing them of the freedom to make that decision for themselves.

(11) In the Roman Catholic Church, there is the added rigmarole around vocations. No man with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” can be ordained…but what does this mean? If you have sex with men (or at least want to) but don’t call yourself gay, do you have these tendencies? What are we to make of the considerable number of gay priests that are already ordained? It hides hypocrisy.

(12) I am reminded, for instance, of what Roy Cohn says in Angels in America.

(13) The most insidious thing about the ACNA statement, though, isn’t even the matter of terminology. It’s the deeper point from which the terminological discussion grew: a claim that homosexuals can become straight again.

(14) If this were coming from an old-school queer theorist or even second-wave feminist who insisted on the radical flexibility of gender and sexuality, I wouldn’t have too much of an issue. But the obvious problem here is the latent moral imperative that moves from is to ought (also the erasure of bisexuals, but that’s a bit of a tangent).

(15) Going from “some people can move between kinds of attraction” to “you must become attracted to the opposite sex,” as this document does implicitly, is an awful lapse into conversion-therapy thinking. And we know how harmful this is, especially to queer youth.

(16) But this pathologization is itself, once again, a mechanism of control. Religions are social bodies that require adherents in order to survive. And like it or not, gays have historically been a major part of the Christian fold – including in Anglicanism!

(17) The reasoning advanced by ACNA is thus, quite precisely, an ideology. It is a logic that helps the oppressed buy into their own oppression. They are hardly unique in this; many in our own Church of Rome offer the same false narrative for the same ends.

(18) I would like to end this thread on a hopeful note, though I have very little hope to speak of. The best I can say is that LGBT Christians need to make their own communities. We need to use the terms that best express our own subjectivity. This is quite apart from the issue of sexual ethics, which does not hinge on what we call ourselves.

(19) Straight Christians, including Catholics, should accept that we are going to use the terms that we choose. It is not up to them. Their time would be better spent helping on the very urgent issues I outlined earlier. And maybe trying to understand what it’s like for (Christian) sexual minorities in the Church and in society at large.

(20) Finally – the best thing to help on the issues of terminology is for sexual-minority Christians, where it is safe to do so, to come out. Even clergy. Articulating your own experience is truly liberating, even as it opens up a new vulnerability. But freedom is worth it. Honesty is worth it. Visibility is worth it. Life is worth it.

Elsewhere: Courage, the Cardinal, and the Sex Abuse Crisis

When I converted, Timothy Dolan was widely seen as the face of a bright new future for the Catholic Church in America. My, have things changed… (Source)

Ron Belgau has a very good summary of yet another scandal erupting in the American Church – this time, in the Archdiocese of New York. An excerpt:

Last Thursday, Catholic New York, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, published a notification that Fr. Donald Timone has (at long last) been removed from priestly ministry. He was suspended in December of last year, and the Archdiocesan Review Board only just determined that allegations that he sexually abused minors were credible and substantiated, though the diocese had paid for two six-figure settlements after abuse allegations in 2017. The story obviously implicates Cardinal Dolan. Last December, the New York Times reported that even after the Archdiocese of New York had paid out the settlements for sexual abuse of teenage boys by Fr. Timone, Cardinal Dolan kept him in ministry, despite the clear requirements of the Dallas Charter [pdf], and the fact that these were particularly egregious allegations: one of Fr. Timone’s victims, Timothy Murphy, had committed suicide.

Ron Belgau

Cardinal Dolan isn’t the only one whose clay ankles are on display in this inglorious affair. Fr. Timone’s depredations also implicate Courage, the bishops’ apostolate to “same-sex-attracted” Catholics. Here’s Ron with the pertinent details:

Fr. Timone was a longtime collaborator of Fr. John Harvey, OSFS, the founder of Courage. In addition to their close working relationship, Fr. Timone was a popular speaker at Courage conferences for 25 years. In 1989, he met with a small group of parents and other relatives of gay men, and helped them to organize Encourage, the Courage-affiliated ministry for parents and friends. He began editing the Courage Newsletter in 1992; in the pre-Internet era, the Newsletter was one of the most important ways for Courage to get its message out. From 1994 to 1995, while Fr. Harvey took a sabbatical to write The Truth about Homosexuality: The Cry of the Faithful, Fr. Timone served as interim executive director of Courage. (For more on Fr. Timone’s historic role in Courage, see Courage: A Ministry of Hope, published in 2018 by James Beers, a long-time member of Courage. Beers’s first effort at publicizing Courage was a 1995 article about Courage in the Staten Island Advance in which both he and Fr. Timone were interviewed.) Last Fall, Crux Magazine offered an overview of several ways that Fr. Harvey contributed to the sex abuse scandal. Fr. Timone’s story shows that Fr. Harvey’s past continues to haunt Courage today.

Ron Belgau

One hopes that Ron’s excellent reporting will cause members of Courage to demand a full ecclesiastical inquiry into the organization’s leadership and history. The fact that Fr. Harvey, Courage’s founder, publicly advocated for restoring sexually abusive priests to ministry already casts deep doubts about the apostolate’s relevance and ongoing role in the Church. This scandal only deepens that crisis. Ron explains why:

Fr. Timone’s case is not that significant in the scope of the abuse scandal in the United States as a whole. It is, however, quite significant for Courage. This case apparently involves the chair of Courage’s episcopal advisory board [Cardinal Dolan] ignoring the Dallas Charter and giving false information to other Catholic institutions in order to keep a former executive director of Courage in ministry, including ministry within Courage itself.

Ron Belgau, emphasis in original

It is, in short, a colossal failure from all the pertinent ecclesiastical authorities involved – especially the Cardinal Archbishop of New York. We can take comfort that Fr. Timone has been removed from the sacerdotal office at last. The fact that it took so long, however, speaks louder than this rear-guard action.