Reflections on Language, 2

In this respect, Catholic publications, and Catholic "ministries," can be especially bad.

In my previous post, I discussed language, creativity, vocation, and control. This post will focus on who speaks and why it matters.

“He meant to impugn my father for being rich and living far away and having nothing to do with me, but all these qualities, even the last, perhaps especially the last, made my father fascinating. He had the advantage always enjoyed by the inconstant parent, of not being there to be found imperfect. I could see him as I wanted to see him. I could give him sterling qualities and imagine good reasons, even romantic reasons, why he had taken no interest, why he had never written to me, why he seemed to have forgotten I existed. I made excuses for him long after I should have known better. Then, when I did know better, I resolved to put the fact of his desertion from my mind.” -Tobias Wolff

Speaking involves breath, the principle of life. We spend much of life trying to kill off the things within and around us which we fear, by denying them breath. What actually happens is that we bury them more and more deeply within us, so that they don’t actually die. And they never leave us either.

To give a word breath is to give it life, but it is also to let it escape us, and to form it, and to decide to no longer let it form us. We give it life through our breath, but we give it shape and form through our lips and tongue and tell it, “You will no longer dwell in a chaos within me! I will name you, and you will have a part in Creation!”

To speak is to make firm the shapeless water which might otherwise drown us, to begin to walk on that water, to exercise humility in the face of our helplessness before a hidden chaos, to shape with another the shapelessness of our fears. In language, we build a culture. In speaking from the deepest depths, we bring the breath of life to the darkness. We cast out fear.

But casting out fear can only happen when we speak from what we have within our very own selves. A couple of months ago, I responded to an article by Anthony Esolen on “coming out” to your father. One issue I had with Esolen’s advice was that it seemed overly optimistic about American fathers’ abilities to respond to a son or daughter disclosing attractions to the same sex. In fact, I thought it was so optimistic as to be absurd. Esolen writes, for example:

“If you are worried, talk to your father. If you have done something dumb, something you are ashamed of, by all means go to your father. You may be astounded by the old man’s wisdom. He will have seen a lot more than you will believe. Go to him. Do not go to the school counselor; do not go to any adult who has a vested interest in your failing. Talk to your father.”

I agree that talking to your father is an important thing to do, but I also cautioned:

“For some gay kids, this advice could lead to homelessness or emotional (or even physical) abuse. We should expect this in a culture where fathers often struggle with their sexualities just as much as their children. I know many straight adults who struggle to have healthy relationships to their sexuality. And under the influence of certain Freudian psychologies (spread by many influential Catholics), many Christian men consider fathering a gay child to be a mark of their own masculine insufficiencies, the coming out of a child to be the supreme sign of fathering failure.”

What amazed me most about Esolen’s prescriptive universal advice was that it seemed to present an overly idealized image of fatherhood. Anyone who’s been fathered (or, presumably, who has fathered) knows that parenting is full of mistakes, insecurities, and missteps. And even the best fathers desperately need the support of wives, family, friends, and (eventually) their own children.

Esolen’s idealistic presentation of the father-son relationship could have been written by one of my friends with a father who was mostly absent or who was so terrible as to hardly merit the title. Those without personal experience of a good father-son relationship tend to either over-idealize what such a relationship would look like, or to dismiss the institution altogether. It’s like new converts who believe that priests are perfect, or fallen-away Catholics who only knew one priest growing up, the local child molester. Esolen’s “tell your father” insistence struck me as pretty naive about what these kinds of conversations actually look like in real (i.e. mixed bag) lives, even for kids (like me) who have pretty good relationships with their fathers. I found Esolen’s account of fatherhood eerily idealized and lacking nuance, not only when he describes an ideal, but also when he makes practical demands of his readers. I think to myself, “Surely this can’t be borne of actual experience.”

It reminds of of a presentation I watched by one of those celebrity Catholics. The self-described straight man gave a talk to Catholic teens on “same-sex attraction,” which I considered actually quite good. But with the large number of gay/homosexual/same-sex-attracted Catholics in the country, I wondered why one of them wasn’t asked to speak (and here, I awkwardly raise my own hand).

It would be silly to have a priest give a lecture on NFP, when there are so many vibrant married Catholic speakers available. A priest would never really be able to answer a question like, “What’s the hardest part about living out this teaching, and how do you work through that?” [1] So why not have a gay Catholic speaker?

I suspect that the answer is similar to the reason why Courage International for many years required its SSA (“same-sex attracted”) speakers and writers to use pseudonyms (while non-SSA commentators used their real names; this for a long time was the policy even for SSA Catholics who wanted to use their real names). Or it may be similar to the reason why the pro-life movement has struggled at times to understand abortion-minded women. The problem is that stories of actual persons can be unpredictable, and so can their voices. If you can control who says what and when, and separate out issues from the persons most directly affected by them (by having a person adopt a persona through a pseudonym, for example), you can filter for unpredictability. Real life is dirty, and we seek to give clean curated narratives to the public at large. Publications have editors because writers can’t be trusted.

The problem is that this means all publications eventually become formulaic. In this respect, Catholic publications, and Catholic “ministries,” can be especially bad. They promote a “type” of Catholic for their purposes, and anyone else just feels kind of out of place. Eventually even the founder doesn’t meet the job description. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if Catholicism were meant to be a pre-packaged mass-produced product, a kind of mask that could be put on anyone whose face doesn’t quite meet our aesthetic expectations.

But it doesn’t work like that. Catholics have always proved unpredictable. Especially the best ones.

If you’re interested in writings by today’s gay/SSA/homosexual Catholic young adults committed to Church teaching, I’ve listed a few below. Feel free to comment with more suggestions!

[1] This isn’t to say that priests or unmarried/straight people can’t or shouldn’t have things to say on these matters. It’s just to say that their perspectives will be limited in many ways by lack of personal experience.

4 comments on “Reflections on Language, 2

  1. Pingback: Weekendlinks | Strength of His Might

  2. Pingback: Why Catholics Should See ‘Call Me by Your Name’ – A Blog by Chris Damian

  3. Pingback: Courage and Freud: Why is Catholicism committed to a Freudian ministry for homosexuals? – A Blog by Chris Damian

  4. Pingback: I, too am responsible: reflections on the abuse crisis – A Blog by Chris Damian

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