Over time, repeated payments of blackmail lose the sense of their actual cost – a sum often in excess of actual money. Although the analogy is not perfect, it is useful in the case of the homosexual man or woman who stays loyal to Roman doctrine and directive. Practically speaking, she or he must check their souls at the door of the church. Once inside, the gay Catholic endures a steady pressure to submit before a power they can neither see nor resist, as in numerous incremental ways they are coerced into silence, being quiet, not talking about it, accepting the very minimum. One can only imagine the consequences of such spiritual penury. Making do, spiritually, with less and less – such an anorexia of the soul reflects how starved the church keeps its gay persons, no matter how “gay-friendly” any individual parish might seem to be. Informality and oppression go hand in hand, and “gay-friendly” must always stop short of canon law and doctrine.
To consider only one point, let’s take the church’s general refusal to acknowledge homosexual love as of any value. Straight persons are allowed, indeed encouraged, to enter a publicly blessed union, without threat; rarely do they consider the hardship it must be NOT to have that right. In the same way, heterosexual persons who are allowed to “associate with each other” fail to understand the burden carried by the homosexual person where such association is tantamount to being “near occasions of sin” (Ratzinger, Letter to the Bishops, 45). Under such conditions, the homosexual male or female who wishes to remain a “good Catholic” must by definition experience every personal moment as a potential for trauma, even sin. The question is, then, how and why do homosexual persons manage the dissonance? Gay Catholics who trim and tuck their private lives for the “privilege” of a place in the pews find themselves being, by necessity, dishonest with themselves – continually discounting the efforts they must make to “pass” and to straighten up in (Catholic) public spaces. Or, worse, they find themselves, unawares, engaged in a bizarre, placating relationship with those who do not have their interests at heart. Like captives who are forced to share intimacies with their captors, for an absolute minimum of care, Gay Catholics can forget the cost to soul and intellect of such abjection.
On the other hand, it is true that belittlement of this sort is shared by many Catholics. Gays and lesbians are not alone in being refused the sacrament of marriage, nor are they alone in being turned away from the Eucharistic table and from other sacramental moments. Woman, famously, find their sacramental access limited by gender, since there are some sacraments (Ordination) from which they are barred. The surprise is that even in the present crisis over an inept, frail, and possibly out-dated priesthood, many Catholics (perhaps most), men as well as women, have, in the conciliatory phrase, made their peace with the exclusion of women from the altar — even though the example of other Christian congregations shows Rome’s practice to be, at the very least, out-moded. I can understand why men hew closely to Rome’s lead; patriarchy takes care of its own and the men have nothing to lose and everything to gain. On the other hand, why do women accept the status quo so willingly? How does compliance reward them?
Many would argue that in fact women do not accept this state of affairs; they merely remain quiet under duress. This, again, is my point: authority installs a pressure very much like extortion upon many Catholics. Like their accommodating homosexual brothers and sisters, women accept these conditions as the cost charged simply to be included – partial payment, you might say, for the privilege of being in the pews. What are the benefits? What is the duress under which such decisions are made? Indeed, do the benefits outweigh the spiritual and moral corrosion of the prices enact for them? In many Christian denominations – including some branches of the Catholic — restrictions against gay and lesbian unions and the ordination of women do not obtain. In the American Catholic Church, for example, I bless single-sex unions with church sanction. Clearly, then, women and homosexual persons who remain “Roman” Catholic accept these diminishments against themselves, probably for as many reasons as there are persons. There are other choices — numerous, well-established and some well-known Christian communities welcome homosexual persons and women as equal persons.
I would like to consider for a moment the implications of this fact. One could say to homosexuals and to woman alike: How has our consent been manipulated that we become complicit in our own subjection? How have we been disarmed from the very defenses we need the most? In other words, what work must be done by homosexuals (to be specific) in order to manage what amounts to be a systematic attack on her or his self-worth? A large part of the effort is probably accomplished without reflection; the daily small asides or disavowals needed to ignore, discount, explain away, even, astonishingly, to defend the church’s doctrine or policies. When it is a gay or lesbian person doing this, it is equivalent to taking the enemy’s weapons and doing their work for them, while conveniently leaving their hands empty and guilt-free. One could argue that any gay or lesbian person who remains faithfully quiet in the pews at some level thereby exonerates those who do the violence to them.
What do I mean? In the first place any Catholic gay or lesbian must come to terms with, or in some way discount, clear acts of discrimination that in a secular context would be punishable by law. In civil society laws exist against emotional and physical abuses that are routine church practice. One rarely thinks in these terms as one drops the lover’s hand in church, or decides it is not “worth the trouble” to baptize the adopted child, or that it “is worth the trouble” to dissemble enough to receive communion. Sitting in the pews, one can be seduced by very real comforts of place and familiar companionship. Against such simple human pleasures, moments of insight into how these are used against oneself recede from attention, precisely because the mechanics of shame and silence are “routine.” The actions, so ordinary-seeming, are no longer recognized as the violence they are; in exchange for the comfort of the familiar all that is asked is a willingness to deny a significant part of your soul.
Recognizing the pattern of such deflections is hard work (“I go to church for the music”); so is acknowledging the denial involved (“The church is fine with homosexuals; see the 5:30 Mass at such and such parish”). Recognition and acknowledgement are demanding tasks in themselves. However, like chronic pain, unremitting distress of this sort also takes a toll not always observable. Pain’s constant pressure — whether emotional or physical, indeed, spiritual — results in death, sometimes of the body, but always of the emotions and spirit. Chronic distress and diminishment also foster indifference to pain, one’s own and others. Gradually one forgets just what the costs add up to; we become complicit in the damage to our souls and psyches because, well, we like the comfort of going to church “for the music”; we fear what the change will do to our friends, or ourselves.
There are other mental maneuvers routinely performed by all Catholics. Catholic canon law forbids sacraments to persons in grave or “mortal” sin. Nonetheless, implementation of this policy is easier said than done, since its success depends upon an individual’s willingness to accept such judgments (grave, mortal) upon her or his actions. From the administrative point of view, of course, ideally all sinners will act with appropriate abjectness and voluntarily abstain from the sacraments, thus sparing the church from having to police – or worse, being perceived as doing such. On occasion the “notorious” sinner must be made a public example of, but more often than not most Catholics, properly subject, obligingly refrain.
While it may seem a startling comparison, it is this common self-imposed silence in which “gay-friendly” Catholicism invites the homosexual to participate. That is, bluntly put, the church need not actually refuse the sacraments (baptism, communion, marriage) to this or that person because, happily, the “sinners” often police themselves. But suppose they did not? What would happen if all divorced and remarried Catholics, all participants in abortions, birth control, or adultery marched up for communion? What would happen to the whole apparatus and taxonomy of sin by which the church maintains its doctrinal control? Or, consider the contrary: what would happen if all those who cheat on income taxes — or all those who engage in the daily venery that accrues to even a half-attended human life — kept to the letter of the law: how few communicants would we have? The church would be empty at the Eucharist and even on good days the pews would be full during communion.
But this never happens. Most ordinary Catholics, straight or gay, wildly sinful or just moderately bad, most of the time exercise a church-given right to their own “conscience.” They do as spiritual need dictates, in the same way that they would nourish other aspects of their lives. However much in other areas they might take stands that are seen as “political”, in church they nourish themselves as and how we can, even recognizing that in doing so they may be living out their own version of Don’t ask, Don’t Tell. But the institution invites this response, even compels it. Consider a person who asks a priest whether, as a “practicing” homosexual (or adulterer) he or she should receive communion. The response can vary, of course, and this is what I mean when I said that informality and oppression work hand-in-hand. While this can work to the individual’s advantage on occasion, it can also be a distinct detriment. In some instances an “enlightened” clergyman may respond with sympathy, and invite the person neither to ask nor tell, but simply to avail him or herself of whatever sacramental aid they wish or need (in private, of course).
A similar duplicity governs the lives of gay and lesbian Catholics, and it is called being “gay-friendly” (or worse, “gay-tolerant”). [“Does your dog bite? No, it is gay-friendly”]. Consider an analogy. What would happen if a parish were known to be “adultery tolerant”? or “abortion-tolerant”? Indeed, the parallels are not far-fetched. In any parish the percentage of non-canonical divorced or remarried couples (technically adulterers) probably exceeds the number of homosexuals; the same can be said for those who have committed, or been party to, abortions. All such persons by law are dis-invited from the communion table. In practice, however, the exclusion depends upon the extent to which individuals “flaunt” or make this irregularity public. (And lest my example be thought specious: Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles recently asked the newly-elected mayor — a divorced and daily communicant — to abstain from public communion. The Cardinal’s argument: what had been manageable as a private affair becomes a “scandal” in the public life).
Author and educator Rev. Edward J. Ingebretsen is an ordained Roman Catholic priest and Associate Professor in the Department of English and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University. He earned his Ph.D. from Duke University and M.A. and B.A. degrees from Loyola University. He is the author of Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King and Robert Frost’s Star in a Stone Boat: A Grammar of Belief.