What follows is an essay that has been stirring within me for some time. I have discussed a few of the thoughts expressed below with friends, but I have never had the courage – or, perhaps, the humility – to commit them to writing. This reflection deals with aspects of human sexuality, a topic that somehow remains perplexing for me even after sixty-three years of life and nearly forty years of marriage.
I wish to make it clear from the start that I do not write as a teacher of Catholic morality. Further, I make no claim to be a theologian, philosopher, or anthropologist. What follows are simply the ruminations of a man with faith, who has stumbled more times than he cares to admit in the sexual arena, and who also happens to be a husband, father, and grandfather within a beautiful, complex family.
Why tackle this topic now? I could rightly claim that I am motivated by prayer since the matter arises often in quiet moments with God; however, the deeper truth is that I write this especially for my youngest child, Matthew, who shall always be welcome in my heart and at my table.
By the way, two related stories are quite deliberately interwoven below. I hope the narrative won’t be too difficult to follow.
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When our youngest child, Matthew (Matt), was a toddler, he had a stuffed Pinocchio toy that he really loved. At bedtime, I would sit on the edge of his bed, assume my silliest Pinocchio voice, and bring the puppet/boy to life. It was a ritual we both thoroughly enjoyed.
Just before turning out the light, Pinocchio would always mischievously say:
Don’t forget to write.
Be careful, I might bite.”
Then, after a pretend chomp on Matt’s belly…
“You weren’t careful.” (Delighted laughter!)
It happened nonchalantly. My wife Marianne and I were watching a movie on the loveseat in our den when she suddenly pivoted, lifted her legs, and draped them over my lap. All the while, her eyes never left the screen.
It was not an overtly sexual act; still, it was quite intimate. There was no hesitation, no concern that I might not want her legs restricting my movement, no worry that her feet might smell after a long day at work.
I glanced down and instinctively began massaging her calves, but my mind was racing elsewhere. I was caught up in marveling at how far we had come, at how fruitful our difficult journey ultimately had proven to be.
Matt was a child of firsts: the first to keep us waiting, a full two weeks beyond his predicted delivery date; the first who, thanks to meconium aspiration syndrome, remained in the hospital for several days after birth before he could safely come home; the first whose skin assumed an orange tint due to his seemingly insatiable appetite for carrots and sweet potatoes.
Other firsts would follow years later: the first to try smoking; the first to dye his hair; the first to get a tattoo.
Being Matt’s Dad has not always been an easy proposition. He is the most temperamental of our three children and the one who has always seemed most willing to push boundaries. When he reads this essay, as I know he will, I suspect he may recall some specific examples. (Right, son?)
Matt is a talented musician and artist. He is highly creative, strong-willed, tender-hearted, and very passionate about causes and people he believes in. He is a devoted son, brother, and friend, and he has the gift of genuineness that can be both charming and a bit in-your-face.
On parent-teacher day, I recall his kindergarten teacher raving about his people skills and his tendency to coordinate social activities among his classmates. We were not surprised.
Growing up, Matt had a sincere faith in God. He was an altar boy in our parish, attended youth retreats, and enthusiastically entered into daily family prayers. In fact, one of the sweetest memories Marianne and I have of Matt’s childhood is when he would summon his older sister and brother to gather for prayer by calling out: “Guys, it’s time for we’re prayers.”
Marianne is an incest survivor. Her rapist was a trusted uncle, who began molesting her when she was only ten years old. His violations continued until Marianne was sixteen, when she rose up in her own defense and finally ended the horrific abuse. We didn’t know each other at the time, but I am so very proud of her courage.
Of course, I have Marianne’s permission to mention her ordeal here. Otherwise, I would never have brought it up. I will provide no further details except to say that such a sustained trauma cannot help but leave lasting scars. In the early years of our marriage, even though our love was genuine, building trust was the essential work of our intimate life. And it was precisely work, requiring a great deal of patience and perseverance from both of us.
Marianne was by no means the only wounded member of our team. I have written previously of the dysfunction characteristic of my first family and of the downward spiral ultimately leading to my parents’ divorce. I will not rehash specifics of my father’s abuse that caused me to doubt my worth and personhood. I will, however, offer one story that I have never told here before because I believe it exemplifies the awful confusion of my teenage years.
As my parents’ relationship deteriorated, they reached a point where they could barely tolerate being in one another’s presence. Almost anything could serve as a catalyst for their heated arguments.
One day, they were particularly incensed with one another and were screaming back and forth between different rooms in the house. I always assumed the peacemaker role, so I went to the kitchen to attempt to calm my mother down. Unfortunately, there was no consoling her. She broke away from me, walked to the doorway, and deliberately began banging her face into the door frame. Before I could pull her away, she had already violently impacted the surface multiple times. Then, she reached for the phone to call the police to report (falsely) that my father had struck her.
The shame and embarrassment of that afternoon are chiseled into my memory. I was seated on the front porch, in full view of the neighbors, with the flashing lights of the police car drawing attention to the scene, as the two responding officers questioned me about the incident.
“He’s not a good husband or father,” I recall myself saying, “but he didn’t do this.”
My mother was a genuinely dear woman with unyielding faith and a deep love for her family. Under supreme stress, however, she broke that day, and I was left to pick up the pieces.
I believe I was 17 at the time.
When Marianne and I wed, we embraced a shared and hopeful future; but, if we were to grow together, we would also need to confront our emotionally shattered pasts.
The Catholic Church teaches that a married couple’s sexual expression should always manifest both procreative and unitive dimensions. This is a beautiful, holy ideal; and, many Catholic couples strive heroically to live out this commitment, particularly through the practice of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Many others, however, for complex reasons known only to God, the couples themselves and, perhaps, their confessor(s) and/or spiritual director(s), come up short of full compliance. Marianne and I fall into this latter camp.
While I believe in the possibility of a Divine plan for human sexuality and really do cherish the ideal the Church sets before us, I also recognize it as exactly that, an ideal. Though I am not proud of our struggles, especially in the procreative dimension, neither do I allow them to shame me/us disproportionately. They are a part of our intricate reality, and our forgiving God has met us most generously along that path.
One day, some years ago, Matt asked if he and I could have dinner together that evening. I queried if there was something particular on his mind, and he replied that he had something to share with me that might make me uncomfortable but that could prove a breakthrough for him. I booked a reservation at a nearby restaurant, waited, and wondered.
I suspect he wanted to talk with me first (and alone) because, for whatever reason, he saw me as a larger hurdle than his mother. Over dinner that evening, in an act of liberating courage, my youngest son told me that he is gay.
Based upon Marianne’s and my lived experience of ministry to one another, I would broaden the Church’s understanding of the fruit of marital sexual expression to include a third dimension, co-creative, and I would easily give it equal weight. Within this framework, such things as honesty, transparency, prioritizing the spouse’s needs above one’s own, sharing the daily burdens of temporal life (jobs, chores, etc.), active listening, empathy, compassion, patience, forgiveness, shared meals and tears, prayer, laughter, and exhausted hugs are all, in my opinion, co-creative expressions of married life and love.
I once heard a female comedian say something like: “The sexiest thing a man can do at the end of the day is wash the dishes.” I think that’s often true.
Since we committed our lives to one another, Marianne and I have been all about co-creating with God, helping each other become the person God created us to be. I am unquestionably a better man due to this amazing woman’s enduring love and support. My bride has been a channel of God’s grace in my life, and I pray (and believe) that I have been the same for her.
Indeed, it is “not good that the man [or woman] should be alone.” (Gen 2:18)
During his teen years, as his sexual identity apparently came into clearer focus, Matt became vulnerable to the kinds of wounds only the Church and/or its members can inflict. As a result, he began to rebel against Catholicism, which I mistakenly interpreted as a faith crisis. I have since come to understand that he was actually struggling to reconcile his blossoming sexual awareness with his heretofore faith community, and it wasn’t going particularly well.
Just a few days after “the dinner,” Marianne and I departed on a previously booked cruise vacation. Early on, we learned that a priest was onboard and that he would be ministering to passengers throughout the trip. I requested a one-on-one appointment with him to talk through issues related to what I’d recently learned from my son. I was seeking an objective, compassionate ear, and, initially, I was warmly received; however, as soon as I mentioned Matt’s news, the priest’s entire demeanor changed. In an oddly hostile way, he began angrily railing against “sodomites.” I tried to listen politely, but it was all too much. He was demeaning my son, albeit circuitously. I left that ugly meeting without confrontation (thank God!) but with a much clearer understanding of what Matt was facing, at least in some quarters of the Church.
I once knew an elderly woman whose middle-aged gay son lived with her. In many ways, her unconditional love for her son was a model of acceptance. Her devotion to him was sincere, but she always secretly held on to an unrealistic hope. On more than one occasion, she discreetly whispered to me: “I hope he finds a nice girl and settles down.” This fantasy, I believe, was her coping mechanism.
Many parents, I suppose, nurture an idealized vision of how their children’s lives will unfold – good health, a joyful childhood and adolescence, a great college experience, a satisfying career, solid friendships, a loving marriage, adorable children, a nice home, ample money reserved for those anticipated “rainy days,” sufficient retirement savings, and, ultimately, a burial plot in a particularly lovely part of the cemetery. Marianne and I were guilty of that too; and, Matt’s news, initially at least, seemed to throw those prefabricated plans – our plans – into disarray.
By God’s grace, we have come to recognize that our calling is to embrace the reality of what we have learned about our son. Matt’s gayness is not temporary. It is not a phase he will outgrow. It cannot be prayed or reprogrammed away. While he could, theoretically, “find a nice girl and settle down,” we know that doing so would be fraught with complications that could undermine even the strongest of relationships.
Rather than abandoning parental dreams for our son’s life, we find ourselves rethinking them in light of this new – or, newly understood – reality. Matt, our former “orange baby,” is gay!
Since faith and active participation in the Church are central elements in our lives, our rethinking must also consider how to reconcile our love and support for our son with our experience of God.
When Marianne spontaneously draped her legs across mine, I saw in that simple act a hard-won, uncomplicated trust, an affirmation of safety, a sign of the maturity and beauty of our love.
Our path had certainly not been “ideal,” but it had been authentic.
According to the Catholic Church, the only morally acceptable option for homosexuals is to live a life of chastity and celibacy. This may be a holy and high ideal, but is it realistic? And, does the Church honestly support it?
Before continuing, I will reiterate that I write only as a Catholic Dad, who knows and loves his gay son, and not as a teacher of morality. Some readers may be disappointed by my ideas, but they faithfully reflect my conscience.
Recently, I spent some time reviewing web-based information about the formation of Catholic priests for a life of chastity and celibacy. In the pieces I read, the difficulty of this calling and the special grace required to fulfill it are repeatedly emphasized. I also discovered that seminary educators and formators are specially tasked with cultivating in their students a deep sense of the “precious gift” of celibacy, especially insofar as it prepares one for priestly ministry.
The website of The Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit included this statement on the topic:
”… Depending upon when a man enters the seminary, his formation can last from between six to eight years. The seminary has a well-developed and comprehensive curriculum for chaste celibacy. This curriculum outlines and examines key formation components: study of the Church’s documents; Sacred Scripture foundation; the history of celibate priesthood; psychosexual development; counseling others; prayer and a personal relationship with the Lord; celibacy and the evangelical counsels; intimacy in human friendships; discerning a call to celibacy; moral theology; and strategies for living celibacy and purity.”
Embedded in the excerpt above is a link to the “curriculum for chaste celibacy,” which helped me to understand more fully that Seminary’s comprehensive approach.
While I think it is entirely appropriate to form seminarians so carefully and comprehensively – over a six to eight year period – for a life of celibacy, I am left with some disturbing questions. Where is the corresponding formation for single and homosexual lay people? Are chastity and celibacy less demanding for them? Or, is their vocation simply valued less within the Church?
The truth is, many LGBTQ people, including Matt, already feel unwelcomed by, or alienated from, the Church. And, when people like Fr. James Martin, S.J., attempt to build bridges of healing with the LGBTQ community, they are often met with strong resistance, including from some brother priests.
Even if formation in chastity and celibacy were to be made widely available in parishes, which is where most Catholics live out their faith, significant reparative work would likely need to precede the offerings in order to encourage participation. Further, and perhaps more importantly, I question whether a contemporary Catholic audience in Matt’s age group values or even understands celibacy.
Knowing Matt as we do, Marianne and I seriously doubt that he will choose to live his life without a romantic partner. He is currently in a relationship, in fact, and it certainly seems to be blessing him, including helping him to trust and to heal from the wounds of his past.
I can easily imagine someone with the mindset of the priest on the cruise becoming apoplectic at the suggestion that a committed gay relationship could be a blessing; yet, can we really deny that possibility?
It is a cliché, of course, but some of our best friends are gay. As I write, I am thinking of a particular couple, Richard and Frank, who have been together for many years and are still very much in love. Their relationship richly demonstrates commitment. It also offers ample evidence of the fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23).
Can this be ignored?
Perhaps I’m grasping at straws, but I find hope in the groundbreaking work of the Council fathers at Vatican II, who drafted and approved the Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis redintegratio.
That decree was written against the backdrop of the long-held Catholic view that there is no salvation outside of the Church. The Council fathers, because they could not deny the evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in separated Christian denominations, acknowledged a salvific, albeit imperfect, communion between those bodies and the Church. In so doing, they both confirmed the long-held teaching and recognized salvific degrees of incorporation/communion within the Church.
I wonder if the Church might one day apply a similar rationale with regard to human sexuality, i.e., uphold the ideal of marriage between one man and one woman wherein every sexual expression is both procreative and unitive, but also recognize degrees of incorporation within that ideal for those of us – the majority, I suspect – who fall short of fully realizing that ideal.
Yes, I wonder.
Along the continuum of views regarding homosexuality and the Church, I know good people on both extremes: some who would read what I have have written (above) and conclude, without hesitation, that I am advocating grave sin; and others who would simply say that God made Matt gay, and he should pursue his truest self.
Marianne and I are decidedly closer to the latter view than the former, but we are still somewhere in between. There is, however, one thing we can say with certainty. Matt is our beloved son, in whom we are well pleased.
And, we’ve really no doubt that God feels likewise.