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.

St. Philip, the Massimo Miracle, and the Priesthood

The raising of Paolo Massimo (Source).

On March 16th, 1583, St. Philip Neri worked one of his greatest miracles. Having been called to the deathbed of Paolo, the young scion of the noble Massimo family, he arrived to find that he was too late. The youth was half an hour dead and, what’s worse, unshriven. But time and its corrosive powers are nothing before the grace of the Almighty. Thirty minutes of sorrow were given as the short prelude to a feat that would win this servant of God a heavenly renown and, for the youth himself, an eternity of joy.

We can imagine the scene well enough. The wailing mother, pressing her tear-stained face into the breast of her grieving husband, the servants praying for their dear lost lord, the doctors already retreating with a grimace of embarassment at their failure. Into this scene walks the silent old priest, calm as the eye of a hurricane. He receives the news with a stoic frown. Then, lifting his eyes in prayer, imploring the power of the hand that once raised Lazarus, he breathes upon the eyes so lately shut. He whispers,

“Paolo…Paolo…”

This invocation brings forth a mystery beyond reckoning – the boy stirs and wakes, as if he had only nodded off a few minutes before.

We can only imagine the joy that fell upon the hearts of the mourners. What stunned clamor must have erupted in that little chamber! Yet the saint is ever in control. He commands all to leave, that he might hear Prince Paolo’s confession. Having cleansed the boy’s soul with the assoiling balms of penance, St. Philip spoke to him for thirty minutes. Would that we had some record of their conversation! There can be no doubt that the solicitous confessor was preparing the soul to meet God.

For that is the strangest thing of all in the story of the Paolo Massimo’s resurrection. It was only temporary. The thirty minutes of death are undone, yes, but only for about another thirty minutes of life. The parents of the young prince were, no doubt, bitterly disappointed at this second loss, a departure made even more painful by the desperate hope it stirred in their hearts.

Yet it was a miracle indeed – and it shows us a salutary truth about miracles. They are not for our comfort. They are not granted to appease our desires, however noble. Providence instead works all things, natural and graced, with only one end in view – the greater glory of God. St. Philip was sent to bring Paolo Massimo into eternal life, not to grant him any more time on earth. That was his duty, the quintessential duty of every priest.

We live in an age when the priesthood seems so mired in scandal and banality, torn this way and that by the worldly ambitions of the clergy, stained with sins of every kind. Lust, violence, abuse, pride, vanity, greed, division, cruelty, party faction – all of these wicked tendencies and more have obscured the nobility of the sacerdotal office, a dignity drawn entirely from the crucified Heart of our Great High Priest.

That is why we must remember the story of St. Philip and Paolo Massimo. It reminds us of why we have priests – of what the priest must do, and of what he must be.

The priest is a conduit of grace. His steps, his works, his words, his hands do not belong to him, but to God. They step into the wounded rhythm of our natural life and bear the healing presence of the supernatural. They raise us from the dead, but only that we might make a better death in the end.

St. Philip’s miracle today is commemorated with a proper Mass. May he pray that all of us might rise from the living death of sin and enter a dying life of grace.