Saturday, July 25, 2009

Happy Birthday, Your Lifestyle Is a Sin Against Truth, But I Love You: Being Gay and Living in a Church of Truth without Love

In two preliminary reflections about the new papal encyclical Caritas in veritate that I’ve posted on this blog (here and here), I’ve argued that Benedict is trying to put the rabbit back into the hat—to correct a weapon-like notion of religious truth that he himself set into motion when he headed the Catholic church's doctrinal watchdog office, the CDF. I argue that “the pope is now trying to reconnect what ought never to have been separated, if we want to call ourselves Catholic and orthodox: love and truth.”

And I note that, in its practical applications, the notion of truth derived from Benedict’s work (as Cardinal Ratzinger) in the CDF and from John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis splendor has been used in an eminently uncharitable way in the church in recent years, to hound valuable members of the body of Christ out of communion, to force unquestioning conformity to disciplinary directives that do not have the standing of absolute truth necessary for salvation. I state,

John Paul II’s teaching about truth, behind which Ratzinger stood always in the background, has translated, in American Catholicism, into something that is not adequately Catholic. It has translated into witch hunts and the reduction of a fine, complex, ancient tradition, particularly in the area of ethics, into an anti-intellectual set of formulas that are used not to provoke thought or to invite discourse designed to help us fathom and internalize the tradition. These simplistic, anti-intellectual formulas are not intended to help us immerse ourselves in the transformative Truth Who is God. They are intended to separate the saved from the unsaved.

Today I’d like to provide an example of the process I’m describing above. It’s one close to home, and is therefore one not easy to write about. It involves a family I love, one very near to me, which is at the same time not my own family of birth.

And so I feel a certain reluctance to talk about the business of this family in a public forum. I do not want to deepen divisions that already exist in this family. I try to live with the goal of healing the world, not making its wounds more prevalent.

At the same time, there is no healing until we identify what has to be healed—not just theoretically, but practically, in the world in which we live and not in some abstract fantasy world that exists inside our heads. And to identify what has to be healed, we have to analyze what is right there in front of us—our own lives, our own experiences, our stories. We have to tell our stories in a way that brings meaning to them, in order to discover meaning (and healing) in our lives.

The story I want to tell now does involve me, but it’s primarily the story of my life partner Steve and of his family. And I tell it with his permission.

Yesterday was Steve’s 58th birthday. Just as I finished my commentary yesterday on Caritas in veritate, in which I proposed that Benedict is seeking to correct applications of his theology of religious truth that have become destructive in the church because they have separated truth from love, Steve received a number of birthday cards from his family.

One of these was from one of his sisters. Steve has been in conversation with this sister for some time now about an incident that happened several years ago when he and I were visiting his family. For reasons still murky to us, this sister’s husband has taken a violent turn towards the two gay members of Steve’s family—towards Steve and one of Steve’s brothers who happens also to be gay. And towards me as Steve’s partner and the partner of Steve’s brother.

When we were visiting several years back, Steve’s sister invited us to come to her house. When her husband heard of the invitation, he threatened her and us with violence if we came to his house. He forbade us and Steve’s gay brother and his partner ever to set foot in his house, and informed us all that if we ever did try to visit, we could expect to be met with violence.

We’ve seen enough of this person’s behavior in other situations to know that if he threatens violence, that’s a threat to be taken seriously. And so we have never sought to visit Steve’s sister on any subsequent trip to his family. In fact, we have never been in her house at all.

Being with this sister and her husband (and their eight children) is now, it goes without saying, excruciatingly painful. What does one say to someone—to a family member—who has threatened to do violence to you? For being who you are. For being gay.

And who has never—not once—apologized for this outburst and for these threats. And to a sister who has never again alluded to them or sought to apologize for them, and who has never once lifted the ban on visits to her house. Who probably can’t do so, without courting violence herself.

How does one kneel and pray beside someone like this, as we were expected to do at Steve's father's funeral a year ago? What does prayer mean when such ugly words hang in the air between you and another person, and the person who has uttered them is unwilling to take them back or even talk about them?

In recent months, probably because Steve’s father’s rather sudden death a year ago has produced family soul-searching that, Steve had hoped, might lead to healing and rapprochement in his family, Steve has tried to talk to this sister about what happened on that visit. And about how it affects him and me, when we now visit Steve’s family.

One practical effect of the threat is that I simply do not want to visit Steve’s family again. This sister and her husband are one among several siblings who have refused to accept me, and who have been grossly offensive to me. One brother has refused to shake my hand when I offered it to him. Another brother has told us not to visit him or his family.

These are the siblings in Steve's family who have remained Catholic. Three other siblings have distanced themselves from the church and are generally cordial. One of Steve's brothers, who is not gay, has, in fact, been extremely kind to us. The pain, the insult and injury, are inflicted solely by the Catholic members of this family.

That in itself makes me not want to visit Steve’s family. I can't stand the tension, the shattering of all that I believe is sacred. At his father’s funeral last year, it struck me as wildly . . . well, strange and insincere . . . that we all knelt to pray the Rosary, with the brother who refused to shake my hand leading it, and that we all prayed for an increase of charity in our lives. While we refuse to shake each other’s hands. While we tell each other not to visit our house.

While we threaten violence to each other, if the banned members of the family visit the righteous members. What can it mean, this prayer, this Catholicism, which treats family members with such conspicuous disdain, in the name of Christian love?

And so Steve’s sister’s birthday card yesterday. It contains a touching apology for the pain her husband’s threats of violence may have caused Steve and me (but not a revocation of the order never to visit her family). Then it goes on to say, “While I cannot condone the gay lifestyle because it is a sin against Truth . . . most importantly I love you and I love Bill.”

And now what do we do with that statement? If it affected only me, I know precisely what I’d do: I’d ignore it and continue my intent never to visit Steve’s family again, if I can avoid doing so. That’s a decision I don’t make easily, since I have no right to write off any human beings in the world, to act as if they don’t exist. And they’re his family, for God’s sake. He is connected to them by blood and being alienated from them hurts him like hell.

And I’ve learned in life never to say no. I’ve learned that just when I say I will not ever do something, that’s when life teaches me a lesson and forces me to remember that the reins of my life lie not in my hands but in God’s.

I can’t just ignore this birthday-greeting statement of Steve’s sister now, and go about my business, for another reason: this is that I see on a daily basis how these statements and the ugly, excluding, judging attitudes that lie behind them rob him of soul. I see first-hand and every day how these statements hurt him.

This birthday statement comes on the heels of a decision one of his nieces has just made, to invite Steve and his gay brother to her wedding, but to exclude their life partners. The niece is Catholic Catholic Catholic. She’s a product of the Franciscan university at Steubenville, and has spent some time living in England at a charismatic community based around the Birmingham oratory, which has close ties to her alma mater.

She majored in theology, and she has chosen to be married on the feast of the Assumption. Catholic. Did I say Catholic?

And she has deliberately (and, to my mind, coldly) chosen to pretend that neither I nor the partner of her other gay uncle exists, for her wedding. It’s not as if she is oblivious to the pain this has caused her uncles, either. Steve, at least, wrote to tell her of his reaction. And so did two of his brothers—the ones now distant from the church—who told her they will not attend her wedding out of solidarity with their brothers, whom she’s hurting by excluding their partners from her wedding.

Did I say Catholic? Steve’s niece and his sister are doing what they are doing out of sincere devotion to what they regard as the truth—the Truth, as Steve’s sister’s birthday greeting says: “I cannot condone the gay lifestyle because it is a sin against Truth.” But I love you.

Happy birthday. I love you. And oh, by the way, have I told you you’re a sinner? But I love you anyway.

How do people, religious people, work themselves into such intellectual, emotional, spiritual prisons? What kind of human being uses a birthday card to inform her brother that he’s a sinner? And relies on religious sanction as she does so?

And thinks she can then go on to talk about love?

Something’s wrong in the church today. And that something has everything to do with how the rubric of truth has been used in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, to exclude brothers and sisters from the family of God. To deny salvation to one’s brothers and sisters. To berate and threaten and demean one’s family members in the name of God.

While claiming that what one is doing is about love and not about plain old meanness that does not have a scintilla of sanctity about it.

I don’t get it. But it’s the world in which many of us live nowadays—many of us who are gay. The story I’m telling here is one that many other gay people could also tell about their dealings with their families, especially with their Christian families.

It’s a story of “truth” that has taken leave of love, and as a result, of “truth” that is damaging the church at its very heart—which is supposed to be all about love and about truth in the service of love, if the church has anything to do with Jesus. What kind of family—what kind of Christian family—believes that it is necessary for one family member to inform another that he’s a sinner, on his birthday for Christ’s sake? What kind of Christian family thinks it has the right to talk about loving someone whom it has just slapped in the face?

The sister sending this letter had her first child prior to marriage. I would not for the world have dreamed of informing her that she was a sinner as she struggled through that experience. Not my business. Who am I to look inside her heart and make that judgment? How do I know what circumstances led to that unfortunate event in her life?

And what would I accomplish by telling any member of my family that he or she is a sinner? If we’re all sinners, then why would I wish to single out one particular sinner and try to make his or her sin the prototype of all sin in the world? Why not focus on what’s much harder, dealing with my own sinful ways and my own stubborn heart, trying to foster love where suspicion and pain prevail?

I just don’t get it. But I do see, crystal clear, where Steve’s sister is coming from. Behind her statement that the gay lifestyle is a sin against Truth lie several decades of hard-hitting Vatican rhetoric about the splendor of Truth.

That rhetoric has done untold damage to the church. How the rhetoric has been applied, particularly in American Catholicism, has hurt countless numbers of people.

And these developments have made it much harder to talk about what should always have been central to the life of the church, but has been lost sight of by many of those who have chosen to set truth against love, with papal sanction: this is charity. Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found.

That venerable old hymn talks about God being found where love dwells, not where truth prevails. Love, first and foremost: because God is love, and those who love abide in God. Love, first and foremost, because we delude ourselves if we claim to love God when we cannot love God in the people around us. Love, first and foremost, because love sums up the whole law and the prophets.

We have gotten away from what is first and foremost in our tradition, with our noise about Truth in the past several decades. It may now be too late to reconnect that absolutely central Christian insight about love first and foremost to all the “truth” floating around in the church in recent years, for many of us who have been the primary victims of this “truth.” I applaud Benedict for trying. But I'm not sure he's going to succeed. For too many of us now, the church has become an impediment, as we seek God.

And as we look for love, healing, salfivic love, in a church in which truth has been played against love in a way that tells us, over and over, that we have no rightful place in the family of God, no right to expect any real experience of love and acceptance from brothers and sisters who claim the right to see themselves as loving even as they threaten and demean us. In the name of truth that has long since taken leave of love.