This has been a year of clashes, sometimes quite fierce, between the Catholic Church and the rapidly expanding rights of gays. In a series of skirmishes throughout the spring and summer, Catholics made the case for their freedom to uphold traditionalist teachings about sex and marriage. Then, in the fall, the Vatican's synod on marriage and the family provoked outrage among Catholic conservatives for, among other things, proposing to treat homosexual desires and relationships with a modicum of dignity and respect.
Even though I support same-sex marriage, I have taken a strong stand in favor of religious freedom. I have also made the case that opposing gay marriage is not prima facie evidence of anti-gay bigotry. I still believe that — though a recent egregiously anti-gay article in the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis is enough to inspire some doubts.
First, the backstory.
The Catholic Church teaches, right in the Catechism (Paragraphs 2357-2359), that homosexual desires are "intrinsically disordered." This has led most gays and lesbians to reject the church wholesale, and a few sexually active homosexuals, like Andrew Sullivan, to stay in the church unhappily, aware that no matter what good they may do in the world, no matter how often they attend Mass, pray, or follow the example of Jesus Christ in other ways, church doctrine will judge them "bad Catholics" for engaging in the mortal sin of homosexual acts.
But those aren't the only options. In recent years, a small (but growing) number of devout lay Catholics who experience same-sex desires have decided to bring themselves into conformity with their church's teachings on sexuality by embracing celibacy — permanently denying fulfillment of their sexual desires. The so-called "celibate lesbian Catholic" writer and blogger Eve Tushnet is the best known of them. Joshua Gonnerman, a PhD candidate in theology at Catholic University, is another. Both participate in various groups whose aim is to convince gay Catholics that celibacy is a viable and even appealing option, opening up spaces for other (non-sexual) kinds of emotional connection and intimacy.
Now, you might think that Tushnet, Gonnerman, and other celibate gay Catholics would be treated as heroes or saints by conservative Catholics. Unlike the many who either denounce the church for its strictures against homosexuality or actively work to bring about liberalization and reform, here are gay Catholics who publicly affirm church teaching and actually live it. In doing so they not only deny themselves the kind of intimacy and satisfaction of physical and emotional desires that heterosexuals get to enjoy and readily take for granted. They also open themselves up to severe abuse for bucking cultural trends that valorize sexual expression and fulfillment. And they do it all out of a love for the church and a conviction that some of its most controversial and counter-cultural teachings are true.
I know plenty of conservative Catholics who admire Tushnet and her compatriots. Austin Ruse, author of the Crisis takedown, is not one of them.
Now, maybe I shouldn't take him too seriously. He is, after all, a man prone to Breitbartian rhetorical excess. He got in a bit of hot water last March, for example, when he wrote that "the hard left, human-hating people that run modern universities" should "all be taken out and shot." He later clarified that he didn't mean his call to arms to be "taken literally." (Apparently he was advocating metaphorical lethal violence.)
Ruse's latest anti-gay rant was provoked by a positive profile of Tushnet and Gonnerman on the front page of the Washington Post's Style section. After some oddly nasty commentary on the photo that accompanied the Post story (we hear about Tushnet's bare feet and Gonnerman's crossed legs, pursed lips, and "dirty socks"), Ruse gets to the point. While Tushnet and Gonnerman — whom he dubs "the New Homophiles" — are "95 percent there when it comes to Church teaching," the "last 5 percent is a serious problem."
What exactly do they get wrong? First, they affirm a gay identity. Second, they think that this identity gives them distinctive spiritual gifts. Ruse thinks both assumptions are false, because they treat homosexuality as something fixed or given, and even as something positive in certain respects. The truth, for Ruse, is that homosexual desires are the problem — and they shouldn't be granted any from of validity. On the contrary, they should simply be overcome, transcended, cured. Like a disease.
This is nothing new. Variations on this view have been espoused by anti-gay bigots for a very long time. But that doesn't make it any less grotesque. Especially for a Christian.
Ruse's argument resembles nothing so much as those deployed against gay priests at the height of the pedophilia scandal just over a decade ago. Whereas some argued that the problem was a failure on the part of a subset of priests to abide by their vows, others claimed that it demonstrated that no one with such disordered desires should be admitted to the priesthood in the first place. As long as those who hold such starkly anti-gay views wield influence in the church, accommodation between Catholicism and homosexuality will be impossible. Gays will be faced with a stark choice: leave the church for good or somehow make their homosexual desires vanish. Exile or erasure.
There is no third alternative. Not even celibacy.
This holds gay Catholics to an absurdly high standard — one far higher than any straight Catholic is ever expected to meet. It would be like telling all Catholics that they are henceforth expected not only to stop acting sinfully but also to stop being drawn to or tempted by sin at all. This amounts to insisting on redemption as the precondition of communion with the church, rather than the other way around. It gets things exactly backward.
Then there's the fact that Ruse's position blithely ignores a mountain of scientific evidence, not to mention a similarly vast testimonial literature by homosexual men and women, that same-sex desires are innate to certain individuals (across a range of species). They are not some temporary or imposed disorder that can be argued or prayed away. They are not a choice. They are not an excuse for perversion. They're real. Some people are just born with them.
That's why Tushnet and Gonnerman irk Ruse so intensely — because despite their manifest devotion to the church, and willingness to endure the deprivations of celibacy for the sake of their faith, they nonetheless insist on treating their homosexual desires as givens that may possess a particle, a grain, a tiny scrap of dignity, rather than as traits that deserve to be denied, explained away, or consigned to oblivion.
In the end, the problem for Ruse and like-minded Catholic conservatives is that homosexuals refuse to disappear.
At one point in his essay, Ruse insinuates that in talking and writing about their experiences of coming out as gay, Tushnet and Gonnerman display narcissism. Perhaps so. But what about a man who sets himself up as the Grand Inquisitor, eagerly casting stones at people trying, however awkwardly, to abide by the extraordinarily demanding strictures of their church? I'd say that's a person so consumed by hatred of homosexuality that he's willing to risk looking like a complete jerk — and willing to make his church look like an institution deeply, almost existentially, devoted to cruelty.
Eve Tushnet, Joshua Gonnerman, and others like them show a different way. If the Catholic Church hopes to avoid seeing the gates of hell prevail against it, it will have to follow their example — and make abundantly clear who the real "bad Catholics" are.'
Editor's note: This article originally misstated Joshua Gonnerman's first name. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.