“Gay” is a silly term. That narrow category misses the complexity of the human experience. And given the way that language grows and develops over time, I don’t think it will last the century. Just as “gay identity” has usurped “homosexual identity” in the culture at large, I now see “queer identity” coming into prominence. In a tumultuous rise and fall of “acceptable” language, the constant change of words demonstrates the fragility of identity politics. But I insist on calling myself a “gay Christian,” a “gay Catholic.”
To adopt the term “gay” is to adopt a certain kind of identity, with political, religious, philosophical, and social implications. This is part of why I use the word. To say “I am gay” is to say that I am adopting some part of this community, and that I am in some part responsible for it. This is also my answer when people ask me why, despite the clerical abuse and discrimination and historical injustices by Church leaders, I remain Catholic. Because I am choosing to take partial responsibility for these things. Because if I don’t claim them, and take responsibility for them, who will?
When I say I am “gay,” I am saying, in part, “These people (who also identify as gay) are my people. Between them and me, there is a we. They are mine, and I am theirs, and we must be responsible for one another. We must challenge and change and encourage one another.”
The language of “gay,” however, creates an additional difficulty for Catholics committed to promoting Church teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the terms “homosexuality” and “homosexual persons” (CCC 2357-2359). To speak with the mouth of the Church involves, at times, using this language.
This is one of my concerns with the Courage ministry. It often tries so hard to dismiss sexual identity labels that it ends up rejecting the catechetical framework for these issues. For example, Father Paul Check, former president of Courage International, said in a recent conference:
“We want to be very careful, as disciples, to avoid creating categories of people that fall outside Christian anthropology and that tend to overemphasize one aspect of a person’s true experience–lived experience–to the detriment of the whole person and his or her dignity. That’s why it seems to me our vocabulary should not include ‘gay’ as a noun, ‘lesbian’ as a noun, ‘homosexual’ as a noun, ‘transgender’ as a noun, and ‘homosexual‘ as an adjective to modify ‘person.’ It seems to me that we do an injustice to people by categorizing them in this way. In no way am I suggesting that these experiences of themselves are not important, or that they don’t deserve a proper hearing or attention…”
Similarly, the second part of the “Invited to Courageous Love” video series (sponsored by Courage International) includes one speaker who says:
“This is why identifying ourselves as gay or homosexual is an injustice to those of us with same-sex attraction. We’re more than that.”
This argument has become such a platitude among Courage advocates that one could easily miss its significance. It functions as an open and unapologetic rejection of the Catechism’s framework for these questions.
To say that using language of sexual identity does persons an injustice is to say that the Catholic Church’s Catechism promotes injustice when it speaks of “homosexual persons.” I thus worry that certain philosophical commitments—among them a rejection of “sexual identity” labels—of Courage advocates necessitates rejecting certain aspects of Church teaching and tradition, even while these advocates claim strict adherence to Church teaching. It’s an exaggerated fear of modernity that ends up rejecting the parts of the Church that happen to arise in the modern world (such as the Catechism and today’s English language).
Courage International certainly does much good work, and I’d highly recommend listening to Fr. Check’s conference remarks in full. He has a breadth of experience as a pastor and Church leader. But I disagree with him on this particular matter. I choose to adopt the label “gay” for this time in history, and I’ll use the term “homosexual persons” when I discuss the Catechism.
I adopt these labels, in part, because I affirm Church teaching, in full. I’ll take the Church, even the parts I don’t understand. Because She is mine. And I am Hers.
On a related note, see this piece by Ron Belgau on a very significant mistranslation of the CDF’s “Pastoral Letter on the Care of the Homosexual Person.” The only magisterial document I’ve seen condemning the use of the term “homosexual” is actually a mistranslation…
More on Catholicism and homosexuality here.
An additional thought: when I first started “coming out,” one response I would receive from friends was: “I never really thought you might be gay, because you were such a good Catholic.”
So one consequence of being an openly “gay Catholic” is to create a bridge, with myself, where gay persons might imagine what it would be like to be Catholic, and Catholics might have an openness to what it means to be gay. It is to create a bridge of the self, so that Catholicism really can be all things to all people, so that it really can flow into and transform all aspects of thought and culture.
Of course, one consequence of making a bridge of yourself is that people will walk all over you. But it comes with the territory. And if you do it for the sake of the Church, with the support of friends and family, you come to find it a joy.
And this changes your friends and family, too. No longer can they just talk about “gay people.” Now they talk about you, and so they must confront a new call to compassion and empathy, not only with you, but with all those like you.