There is often a double standard in many Catholic spaces in how gay and straight Catholics are perceived to engage in sexual sin. Many commentators seem to treat being or identifying as gay as being inherently unchaste or as presenting a uniquely strong or even insurmountable obstacle to chastity. Chastity itself then becomes the sole virtue of importance when discussing or interacting with gay Catholics. The perception that this creates is that lacking or not cultivating this virtue is the overriding problem for gay people, something that is not widely believed about practically any subset of straight Catholics. Where do we see this, and why does such a perception exist?
The impression that one gets is of an automatic presumption of moral guilt on the part of any and all gay people, or at least on the part of anybody who self-describes as gay rather than through squeamish circumlocutions. The presumption of guilt may not even be rebuttable; if it isn’t, it starts to look an awful lot like the conservative Catholic peanut gallery thinks gay people have a double dose of original sin that it’s possible not even the sacraments can remove. (Much of the Catholic world held this attitude about other groups in the past; Jewish people are probably the best-known example. Similar ideas are theologically acceptable in Calvinism, but even there the “reprobate” don’t and can’t map onto recognizable demographic groups.)
The heightened suspicion is not even analogous to the treatment of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics; given the rhetorical atmosphere around this subject in the Church of late, it’s easy to lose sight of this, but in practice at the parish level there is simply no comparison. Divorced and remarried Catholics were fully incorporated into parish life in many parts of the world even before Amoris Laetitia established a defined road map for doing so. Even in communities where the divorced and remarried have faced forms of exclusion by other Catholics, there has always been at least the assumption that they have the possibility of regularizing their situations. Gay Catholics, however, are seen as inevitably unchaste, and the key thing is to catch them out (unless, of course, they say the magic words and start describing themselves as “same-sex-attracted” instead of “gay”).
Once caught out, they can then be assumed to be completely unconcerned with and unserious about their faith, in a way that, again, not even divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are assumed to be despite the nominally similar-to-identical barriers to their full sacramental participation. About the only imaginable subgroup of straight Catholics who are subjected to more or less analogous paranoias are married couples who have no or few children. Even then, prurient insinuations about contraception or abortion will generally only be made in a certain kind of parish culture that is relatively easy to avoid, and besides, I would argue that those insinuations are unacceptable as well.
The assumption that any gay Catholic who mentions being in an emotionally intimate relationship must also be sinning sexually (Eve Tushnet, who recently began publicly noting that she is in a relationship with another Catholic woman, is the most recent high-profile target of this) is an obvious example. One occasionally sees perceptions along these lines even at very high levels; bishops, cardinals, and even Vatican dicasteries sometimes make what would historically have been regarded as the very strange assumption that all such couples are sexually active and expressly attempting to imitate sacramental marriage. However, on the informal, cultural level the problem tends to start earlier. It shows up in the positively gleeful attitude demonstrated to perceived situations like Tushnet’s, where this or that commentator just knew that the person would “slip up” eventually and retroactively justify previous shabby treatment of them.
What are we to make of this? That many in the Church have an unduly suspicious, hostile, and, yes, bigoted stance towards gay Catholics is an obvious conclusion to draw. Corollary to this, however, is a less-discussed issue of an unduly positive attitude towards many of the cultural trappings of heterosexual coupling. Catholics have picked up a tolerance for many elements of standard heterosexual culture concerning relationships, love, and marriage that are wildly morally disordered, not in an action-based Thomistic sense but in the broader sense of exerting a sort of gravitational field that warps the virtues, much as a black hole’s gravitational field warps, and finally breaks, light and time. The most obvious example is probably the tendency to see casual sex between men and women as a mere peccadillo wildly out of proportion to the serious damage that it can do, but it might not be the most severe example. Casual sex is, whatever else can be said about it, at least a straightforward way of addressing a very common type of physical desire and frustration to which most (not all, but most) people can relate. With practices like hanging on in relationships or even marriages with people one neither likes nor respects because of the perceived social censure that comes with singleness, or rebuilding one’s entire social circle from scratch every time one starts or ends a romantic relationship, one starts to suffer emotionally and morally in other areas of life, often dangerously so. It becomes very difficult to avoid the conclusion that an idol is being made of sexual attraction and coupling behaviors, as long as the practices involved are conventionally heterosexual in character. Cultural preferences take on a moral veneer, contributing to double standards.
Some people see this approach to sexuality and the gender roles that go with it as morally praiseworthy in and of themselves, or even as things that the Church itself teaches. We could list programs like Exodus 90, ways of talking about masculinity and femininity in parish men’s and women’s groups, gendered “for him” rosaries with beads in more durable materials and drabber colors, and the like as examples of this. Moreover, the fact that many or most parishes have events and programming arranged by gender, marital status, or both, while not implying an excessively generous treatment of heterosexuality per se, implies a hypertrophied understanding of marriage as a normative and inevitable stage of life. As with the classic traditionalist criticism of Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (that it didn’t seem to have much to say about celibacy), this makes for an oddly constrained focus coming from a religion in which both marriage and celibacy—singleness, in the world’s terms—can be expressions of a vocational ideal. Baselessly assuming that everybody is going to be both straight enough and stable enough to enter into a successful and holy marriage is supposed to be a Protestant problem.
One would expect people subjected to the level of suspicion described above to be stressed, hypersensitive, and lonely. Indeed, many gay Catholics are, sometimes for sex-related reasons but other times for other reasons like addiction, money headaches, run-ins with the law, or difficult relationships with friends and family. There are other gay Catholics, however, who are remarkably breezy and self-confident, especially considering their precarious positions within both the Church and the LGBT community. Some gay Catholics are sexually chaste, others are not but make frequent recourse to the confessional or decline to present themselves for communion, and still others interact with the Church and the sacraments as if their sexual behaviors do not present a moral problem. The astute reader will have noticed, by now, that almost every word of this describes straight Catholics as well. Gay Catholics, as a group, and straight Catholics, as a group, are identical in all of these respects, even though the proportions of the two groups that face this or that particular problem are probably often quite different.
Gay Catholics are, in other words, above all else simply Catholics. This is a point often loudly insisted upon but rarely actually adhered to by the people who work themselves into a tizzy over how dare one describe oneself as “gay” in the first place. (I suspect the fact that “same-sex attracted” is a term that draws far more attention to itself than “gay” does is not actually an accident.) Some make an idol of sex, to be sure, but so do some—many—straight Catholics.
The pointedly and enormously different treatment deployed against these two forms of the sex idol needs to stop, because it is warping Catholic culture into a shame-based minefield that encourages baseless censure and hyper-suspicion of others. If Catholics keep doing this, they are going to keep driving away earnest, God-fearing people, boxing them into impossible positions from which the only possible avenues of escape are giving up on their faith or forcing themselves into a level of self-annihilation that almost nobody would think it reasonable to demand of any other broad category of Catholic believer.
Image: Herrad of Landsberg’s illustration “Filii Israel Choreas Ducunt coram Vitulo” (“The Children of Israel Lead a Dance before the Calf”), from the twelfth-century encyclopedia Hortus Deliciarum.
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.