Joshua Gonnerman, a gay, chaste Catholic who is a theology doctoral student at Catholic University, may have blown up his academic career with his short, courageous piece in First Things today, saying that “Dan Savage Was Right” — just not in the way supporters of the anti-Christian gay controversialist say. Excerpt:
Before we can say that Savage was right, we must point out that he also was grossly wrong. Savage is of course wrong to refer to the Bible as bullshit. It is the prime document of the Christian faith, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and treasured by the churches throughout the ages. Only in Scripture can we encounter Christ and through him reach towards divinization, and the Scripture in which I was raised continues to provide the backbone to my own life of faith.
He is no less wrong to dismiss traditional sexual morality. On this point, Scripture and tradition always have spoken with one voice, and the churches cannot, in good conscience, reject that voice. The traditional sexual ethic is the only possible antidote to the rampant commodification of human persons in contemporary culture. As a Christian who is committed to chastity and who is also gay, I acknowledge and I accept the high claims that ethic makes on my life.
Last year, Biola professor Matt Jenson addressed students in chapel (like Savage’s address, also available on YouTube). After calling Christians to accountability for failing to make a real space for single people, he turns to the question of homosexuality. “The church is right to tell gay people the good news and call them to a life of discipleship, if and only if it is willing to live as their family.” If Christians have any interest in reaching out to the gay community, if we have any hope to speak a message which can touch their hearts as well, we absolutely must be willing to live as their family. Behind his blundering obscenity, behind his facile attempts to explain Scripture away, behind the blatant hypocrisy of his behavior toward those who disagree with him, what Dan Savage means to tell us is, “The church has far too often, and for the most wrong-headed reasons, failed to be family to gay people.”
And he’s right.
Boy, do I ever agree with this. It’s not only true for gay people, but also straights who are single, either by choice or unchosen circumstance. In my case, when I became a serious adult Christian, I knew that I couldn’t be a Christian conditionally. I had tried that; it didn’t work. Specifically, I had tried exempting myself from the clear, consistent teaching of Scripture and Tradition about sexual morality. I read all the liberal theologians, and tried to believe it — but it was, to use a Savage-ism, bullshit. And I was lying to myself to think there was any truthful way forward but the narrow path. Like Gonnerman, I found that the Church’s teaching really is liberating, even though it required a lot of painful asceticism on my part (the most painful of which was the real possibility that it might be like this for my whole life; there was no guarantee that I would ever marry). How much easier the burden of chastity as a single Christian would have been if I hadn’t felt so alone in church. The clergy didn’t seem to care much, either intentionally or not, nor did anybody else. Most of the young adults I knew who bothered with church at all had no interest in being faithful to its sexual teaching, and so were no help. Everybody else was bound up with family life, and the culture of family life.
What does a chaste Christian adult, gay or straight, do in such a circumstance? So often you go it alone, because you have no real choice, not if you’re going to follow the truth. It shouldn’t be this way. To live in Christian chastity as a single man or woman in this hypereroticized culture of ours requires deep reserves of faith. It’s very hard to do it alone, without the support of one’s community of faith. I have gay Catholic friends who, like Gonnerman, are caught between fellow Christians who share their belief in the Church’s teachings on sexuality, but who are afraid to befriend in a deep way gay Christians. Those who do want to embrace gay Christians like themselves more often than not want to affirm them as gay and encourage them to live in defiance of Church teaching — something they cannot in good conscience do.
The Catholic theologian friend who sent me that Gonnerman link adds:
Gonnerman takes a very brave stance as a gay Catholic who tries to live the Church’s traditional teaching on chastity and as a graduate student in Catholic theology who faces (1) a (Catholic) academy that mostly doesn’t want to hear that the Church’s teaching is true, definitive, and life-giving, and (2) a Church leadership that doesn’t want to talk about any of this stuff publicly but to live quietly and privately (and, especially among hierarchs, so not threaten the uneasy peace of the clerical closet). Gonnerman must not care if he ever finds a job in the academy or the Church!
I think that he sketches the only life-giving way forward for everyone. A gay priest friend of mine, who strives to live the Church’s teaching on chastity, speaks of the difficulty that he and others face: they want to live chastely, to integrate their sexual identity into their overall identity, and yet also feel an intense need for there to be public witnesses–saints–of faithful gay Christian lives. How, he tells me, can the Church credibly say to young Christians with same-sex attractions that its teaching is life-giving, if it doesn’t also offer them public witnesses–saints–of lives of honest, joyful homosexual chastity? This is the primary, necessary way that lives–and culture and politics–will be transformed.
More from Gonnerman, please! And over to you, TAC’s Eve Tushnet...