Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Art of Staying Catholic

Cambridge, MA. Like many of you, I am sure, I was surprised that the Senate actually voted to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell before ending its lame-duck session. In retrospect, it seems as if the long discussions and testimonies seem to have made a difference, and a few skilled political leaders in the Senate did good work in persuading senators to vote in favor of the repeal. Democracy at work.

In this context, I cannot help but think about where we are regarding gay men and women in roles of leadership in the Church. The Church is not a democracy, we know, yet it is a highly political and politicized organization. Some of its politicians are more able than our senators, others more inept. The Church’s teaching on sexuality (on which I am admittedly not an expert, well-read, etc., and so I will not directly address the substantive ethical and human issues involved here) has been firm on homosexuality, and in recent years, in concern about the very idea of gay seminarians. Purity looms. And yet, as a very large and very global Church with fluid borders, we also know that it is impossible for authorities as it were to close the borders and achieve their ideal of an entirely heterosexual clergy. The historians and social scientists among us confirm that there never was, never will be, a Roman Catholic clergy that is entirely unambiguously heterosexual. Rome knows this very well too. Those of us who are alert and notice the life of the Church can also see that obviously, and to good effect, gay men and women have served the Church in innumerable ways, and most often to very good effect.


And so my question at this moment is more about what is happening — really — in the Church, when we are a wide and varied community of human beings, all sinners and all graced, a community that reflects the sexual diversity of the human race at all levels of Church society – and yet have no vehicle for the kind of imperfect, political and politicized, yet ultimately significant decision-making such as occurred this past week in the Senate. We neither have a clear policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, nor an apparatus for debate, affirmation, or repeal. (Or course we have bishops who meet and decide things, but they seem never to feel the pressure that senators do. Elections do clear the mind.)

In the current situation, some of us will just keep trying very hard to purify the Church, aiming at an entirely heterosexual clergy. Others among us will try very hard to resist that move, and to honor the sexual diversity that exists in the Church, making sure that our youngest members are welcomed and honored and advanced, whatever their sexual identities may be. Many or most of us will want to insist that the real issues are service to the community, a humane yet strict observance of celibacy (married clergy is another issue for another day), and doing our best to make sure that God’s call to religious and priestly vocations is heard and honored, neither silenced nor distorted nor denied by human schemes.

And all Catholics — gay or straight — will have to continue to seeing the Church from multiple angles, in multiple voices, at once: tradition matters as does Tradition; authority is essential to the Church’s well-being, even for liberals; the rules are not likely to change soon, and indeed the exclusion of gays from the priesthood seems to be a dominant goal at the moment, from what our leaders say; and men and women who are gay will still continue to serve in leadership roles in the Church, and still find themselves called to priesthood. Some Catholics have found all this intolerable, and have left, visibly or in spirit; most of us stay, and live with the ambiguities of how we actually are.

At a rather dreary level, it might seem that our situation as Catholics is some version of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, without the legislation actually in place or a rational plan for open discussion of what ails us. But ever the optimist - or better, ever hopeful - it seems to me that we are also forming an incredibly sophisticated membership, true believers – gay or straight, conservative or liberal – who have learned, continue learning, to read the Church always from multiple angles, never settling for anyone’s pure viewpoint. I suspect most of us wish for some kind of changes in the Church, but this unity-in-ambiguity, authority-with-sophisticated-responses-to-authority, might be a kind of adult Catholicism that is not so bad, after all, given how we are at the very end of 2010.

What do you think?

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8 years 1 month ago
Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, "the true light that enlightens everyone" (Jn 1:9), people become "light in the Lord" and "children of light" (Eph 5:8), and are made holy by "obedience to the truth" (1 Pet 1:22).

Veritatis Splendor
8 years 1 month ago
"Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." 16 He then said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep."
John 21 12-16
Winifred Holloway
8 years 1 month ago
Unity in ambiguity is an excellent and pointed bumper slogan for these times in our church.  I think the more mature we become, the more we get that ambiguity pretty much reigns , certainty much less so.   It's a messy world. The cognitive dissonance manifested in the pronouncements of the hierarchy regarding homosexuality and particularly outlawing gay-oriented men as candidates for the priesthood is alarming in its level of denial.  Seriously, the laity are not that dumb.  We sigh and say whatever.  Certainty is not faith.  If we were certain, we would name our belief "certainty."  We wouldn't call it "faith."  We take the leap.  When I try to determine what is really important in life, I envision myself in space, high above earth and looking down on our tiny speck in the cosmos, trying to make a decision about what ultimately matters.  Whom one loves and/or is attracted to doesn't even make the list.  We waste a lot of our limited time on earth in making these silly distinctions.  This is not faith, or morals or ethics.  It is fear.
ed gleason
8 years 1 month ago
Some astute observers say that the percentage of gay oriented priests is 3 to 5 times higher than the general population. Not all gays are active just as not all heterosexuals are active.  Maybe because of mandatory celibacy this large number of gay oriented has always been the case. I say that the younger people know this now  and are turned off by the Church's 'don't ask don't tell' stance. And the oldsters many are steeped in denial or  don't believe the numbers. This does not bode well for the Church's present  stance. The closet door has been permanently opened and a door stop has been nailed down. . 
Crystal Watson
8 years 1 month ago
One reason that the legislature can repeal DADT and t the US Bishops don't even   address the issue is that we voters have some say in the governing of our country while we in the pews don't have any say about what happens in the church ... more's the pity

Andrew Brown had a recent post about this in The Guardian - "Pope tries to ban gay priests, again" ... ... in which he mentions the pope's latest negative remarks on gay priests in the book "Light of the World".

I think we should do away with the present "unity-in-ambiguity", which seems to me to be a kind of cowardly passive-aggressive discrimination against  gays/lesbians,  and  we should instead  adopt a straightforward message of inclusion.

PJ Johnston
8 years 1 month ago
It sounds both promising and pastoral, a definite effort to be faithful to the magisterium and to tend Christ's sheep.  I also suspect it is likely to be met with a certain degree of suspicion even from some of those most attuned to the strategy, and incomprehension from many others.

I think David Smith was on to something in an earlier message - generally (with exceptions) people who grow up in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture expect religious teachings to be unambiguous and unequivocal, neither complicated, nuanced, nor admitting of ambiguity or casuistry, nor permitting significant gaps in practical application.  The alternative is usually perceived as disloyalty and/or dishonesty, even a form of deception.  The idea of positive and salutary cognitive dissonance doesn't easily translate, and this pattern of mutual incomprehension between Germans and Latins probably goes back even further than the Kingsley-Newman debate (perhaps it was even a major contributing factor to the Protestant Reformation).  (I wonder how this usually works among the Celts!)

Even if they have some kind of special cultural or theological background that allows them to "get" the idea of positive cognitive dissonance, there are still factors that can make it less likely gay Catholics will believe there is a place of welcome for them in the Church in this kind of pastoral scenario.  Past experiences of rejection greatly increase caution even when there is not major social/psychological damage, and so many people will want to know that the official (not merely de facto) policy is full acceptance before they will feel they are "safe" enough to be part of the community.  And the matter is worse when the official and even de facto policies are NOT full acceptance - and there you have the story of Christian disaffiliation in the Gen X and Gen Y age groups in America pretty much in full, with homosexuality as the most important wedge issue in the culture war.

I'm finishing up grading for the semester and then (hopefully!) going on retreat to a nice positive Catholic guest house in somewhere Oklahoma, so this has really got to be my entire two cents all at once, not the initial post in an on-going blog conversation.  So I must depart wishing everyone a very merry and blessed Christmas and the new advent of the Christ child in their lives.
8 years 1 month ago
"The Church’s teaching on sexuality (on which I am admittedly not an expert, well-read, etc., and so I will not directly address the substantive ethical and human issues involved here) has been firm on homosexuality"

I think that America Magazine should have an editor who is an expert on this important topic.  This person could help explain the reason for the teaching so that those Catholic readers who reject the teaching at least understand what they reject.
Comment: Definitely! But I am not on the staff, am expert in other things, etc. FXC
8 years 1 month ago
As someone who has experienced and witnessed amongst friends and relatives the strong sociological/cultural forces that form one's sexual identity, I wonder why no one ever discusses the likelihood that the Church's teaching on homosexuality (amongst other environmental factors) has prevented many a confused adolescent/young adult from choosing a homosexual lifestyle, and many others from even developing same-sex attraction.  Why is the effort always focussed on acceptance of the condition instead of reinforcing those factors that can prevent it from occurring in the first place? 

Of course the answer is in great part that those who find themselves with homosexual inclinations genuinely believe that they could not have developed in any other way (as many who live heterosexual lives believe about themselves), and in a society that idealizes the procreative value of male-female relationships, they feel like outcasts.  Those who have never had homosexual inclinations have no incentive to fight to preserve a status quo that they feel they were born into.  And an unknown number - and I suggest a large number - of men/women who have resisted their homosexual inclinations and chosen heterosexual lives remain silent, for what heterosexual person enjoying the virtues of society's ideal relationship would ever admit to his friends, family and acquaintances that he/she had ever had same-sex attraction?

What good comes to society from sexual acts between members of the same sex?  What good comes to society from discussing homosexual inclinations between members of the same sex? Isn't our society best served by encouraging male-female relationships, the only relationship that produces children and encourages mothers and fathers to take responsibility for their offspring?  While we can't deny the fact that many people have same-sex attraction, I don't understand why -and apparently the Church doesn't either - we push acceptance of it, exposing countless children, adolescents and young adults to such a lifestyle, instead of acting with compassion in helping those who have such attraction to deal with it privately or in support groups with others afflicted with such temptations.  

Is it suddenly wrong to promote male-female relationships as an ideal because an outspoken, well-funded minority doesn't fit into - or chooses not to fit into -that ideal?

As the acceptance of sexual promiscuity, against the Church's best efforts to inhibit it, has wreaked havoc on the traditional family and society, I think deference should be given to the Church's teaching on homosexual acts.
Stephen Murray
8 years 1 month ago
Half the problem begins at ordination.  Diocesan homosexual candidates make a solemn promise before the bishop not to marry, and in the case of religious orders, a solemn vow.  How can the Church impose something on an individual for which he is incapable?  The candidate is put in an impossible situation and ordained leadership/life in ministry begins with a lie. 
8 years 1 month ago
Thanks Fr. Jim,

I look forward to your defense of the teachings concerning sexuality (I assume you are the expert?).

Can you some day elaborate on how this respect for individuals with same sex attraction is compatible with the Church's objection to ''Gay Marriage'' and the vatican's recent statements about the seminary?  It would help if you also gave a vigorous defense and explination of these statements since there seems to be confusion about this.
David Nickol
8 years 1 month ago
The Catechism states that gays and lesbians shoule be treated with ''respect, sensitivity and compassion'' and that ''every sign of unjust discrimination'' should be resisted, which is what the repeal of DADT does. 

The Catechism doesn't mention ''gays and lesbians,'' it only speaks of ''homosexual persons.'' In the CDF document ''Some Considerations Concerning the Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons,'' we find the following: 

11. There are areas in which it is not unjust discrimination to take sexual orientation into account, for example, in the placement of children for adoption or foster care, in employment of teachers or athletic coaches, and in military recruitment. 

As I read the document, homosexual persons may be ''justly'' discriminated against in military recruitment on the basis of orientation alone, not merely on the basis of behavior.  It goes on to say:

As a rule, the majority of homosexually oriented persons who seek to lead chaste lives do not publicize their sexual orientation. Hence the problem of discrimination in terms of employment, housing, etc., does not usually arise. 

Homosexual persons who assert their homosexuality tend to be precisely those who judge homosexual behavior or lifestyle to be “either completely harmless, if not an entirely good thing” (cf. no. 3), and hence worthy of public approval. It is from this quarter that one is more likely to find those who seek to “manipulate the Church by gaining the often well-intentioned support of her pastors with a view to changing civil statutes and laws” (cf. no. 5), those who use the tactic of protesting that “any and all criticism of or reservations about homosexual people... are simply diverse forms of unjust discrimination” (cf. no. 9).

Since the purpose of repealing DADT was to allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military, and since every official Church document I have ever read is against gay men and lesbians being open about their sexuality, I do not see how Fr. Martin can claim, from the Catholic point of view, that DADT was ''unjust discrimination.'' 

As I have argued before, the Church does not even want gay people to exist. To proclaim oneself gay is to openly disagree with the Church's teaching that homosexual behavior is ''behavior to which no one has any conceivable right.'' The Church recognizes limited rights for celibate ''homosexual persons,'' but gay men and lesbians may be legitimately discriminated against for engaging in ''disordered behavior,'' which includes living quietly with a same-sex partner or (where it is legal) getting married. 

I wish most or all of the above were not true, but I believe I am correct. 
8 years 1 month ago
Yep. And then it is one short step to the legalization of homosexual marriage. Father, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not require erudite scholars to decipher its meaning...
David Nickol
8 years 1 month ago
Fr. Martin,

I couldn't agree more with Senator Wyden. But we didn't hear the same thing said by Archbishop Timothy Broglio, Archdiocese for the Military Services, nor will anything vaguely resembling it be found in documents from the CDF.  
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 1 month ago
And if you really want to resolve confusions, try my good friend, Dr. Danny Maguire, who teaches Moral Theology and Ethics at Marquette University.
ed gleason
8 years 1 month ago
Here is a look at the score card for US bishops and their allies. Read the loss column and get a new plan.  
Losses on all the following; banning birth control , abortion, divorce and remarriage, same sex marriage, DADT. adultery, heterosexual fornication, homosexual activity. and Sunday blue laws.
 Now get over it!!  
As  members of the vast Catholic laity We do not need the civil laws of the pluralistic republic where we live, in order to live and conform to the Gospel message. We are followers of Jesus not political trends or parties. I suspect that the old 19th century  Catholic disrespect and fear of the liberal democratic republic lingers in your hearts by education and Roman bias.   Our allies are the Communion of Saints who all stood firm against their political rulers and the civil laws, yet lived the Gospel. To quote from Sierra Madre " We don't need no stinkin badges'    
8 years 1 month ago
Fr. Clooney,

You say:  ''In the current situation, some of us will just keep trying very hard to purify the Church, aiming at an entirely heterosexual clergy. Others among us will try very hard to resist that move, and to honor the sexual diversity that exists in the Church, making sure that our youngest members are welcomed and honored and advanced, whatever their sexual identities may be.''

It would help if we knew whether you want purity or whether you want to ''honor the sexual diversity that exists in the Church''.  Would this diversity only include those who want to marry and those who want to remain celebate?  Or does this extend to those who are attracted to the same-sex, multiple sexes and multiple partners?  Does it extend to those who believe in premarital sex and contraception.  Does it include swingers?  Does it include those who are attracted to younger bodies and younger minds?  Why limit the diversity?  What is your limit of diversity when it comes to sex?  Why discriminate at this certain level?

I do think that you should be careful about publishing essays on a topic which you admit to not have an expertise.  Your question about ''purity'' in the Church is fundamentaly connected to the Church's belief concerning sexuality. 
8 years 1 month ago

Fortunately the bishops don't keep score.  They are teachers not scorekeepers.  Regardless of the score they need to teach the truth.  Same goes for America Magazine.
Jim McCrea
8 years 1 month ago
“Some of us, supposedly standing for law and order, are merely clinging on to old habits, sometimes to a mere parrot vocabulary, its formulae worn so smooth by constant use that they justify everything and questions nothing.”   

(The Diary of a Country Priest.)
8 years 1 month ago
Good quote, Jim M.; however, it does not read quite the way you would like.

The current "law and order" and "formulas" of the dominant culture are ones of political correctness and enforced liberal ideology.  Our "old habits" are now the deconstruction of all limits on human desire and the individual - it is sentimental and unquestioning ideology.

It is the faithful to the Church who are the revolutionaries now - all those who cheer these libertine customs and the extreme autonomous individual are part of the established and dominant liberal class.
8 years 1 month ago
Father: Food for thought...

"Setting aside one's private judgment, we should keep our minds ready and prepared to obey, in all matters, the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, that is our Holy Mother, the hierarchical Church [Spir. Exer., "Rules for Thinking with the Church"].

St. Ignatius
8 years 1 month ago
From Slate: "If DADT repealers are correct that sex is a matter of personal liberty and it doesn't matter "who you love," why shouldn't that defense cover polyamory and sibling couples? Switzerland is proposing to drop its incest law on exactly this basis.

In the United States, the lawyer for David Epstein, the Columbia professor recently charged with incest, asks why tolerance of "what goes on privately in bedrooms" shouldn't extend to his client. "It's OK for homosexuals to do whatever they want in their own home," the lawyer notes. "How is this so different?"
8 years 1 month ago
Can not the polyamorus person now claim that they are born the way and/or should be able to love anyone they want if they are willing to "fight for the nation"?  Based on this decision, why not?
ed gleason
8 years 1 month ago
Brett, The USA  has polygamous towns in south Utah. Too bad.. but I bet you and I are not going to bring civil law enforcement there. What's not to understand.. that the gospel does not demand that the believers have to make civil law conform to the gospel. This civil law enforcement of the gospel was an ugly overreach by  too ambitious churchmen in the past. Led to crusades, religious wars. torture and so many ugly events. Basta. St Francis  'preach the gospel and if necessary use words'  He  never even got close to mentioning laws... thank God.   
8 years 1 month ago
I said this before several months ago when this issue came up.  There is a reason the military is a different situation and not all military situations are relevant.

If you have a group of men and all are heterosexual then there is no romantic attraction of anyone for the others.  So such feelings are not an issue.  Put one homosexual man amongst these heterosexual men and you then have one who could have a sexual attraction to one or more in the group.  The military operates such that these men are close to each other physically, sleep next to each other, shower with each other and fight with each other.  In such situation a sexual attraction of one member for another could affect their judgment on how they act and who might live and who might die.  That type of judgment should not exist.

That is one reason why the military resists homosexual participation in their ranks, especially in combat situations. .You do not want one member looking over his shoulder and not trusting the judgment of those who he is in combat with.  There are obviously lots of assignments in the military where that would not come into play.  Those who blithely say it is discrimination should look at themselves in the mirror and say am I being  prejudiced when I criticize those who do not support homosexuals in certain military situations as bigoted.
Crystal Watson
8 years 1 month ago
I don't mean to go off topic, but for those who keep mentioning Ignatius and his rules for thinking with the church  - as John O'Malley wrote in The First Jesuits,  "the relatively little comment and controversy aroused in the sixteenth century by the "Rules for Thinking with the Church" indicate that they should not be invested with the exaggerated orthodoxy that they were often later made to represent." (p. 50)

An article worth reading is 'Ignatius and Church Authority' by Philip Endean SJ, The Way Supplement, 70 (Spring 1990), 76-90.
8 years 1 month ago

Philip Endean SJ sure does sound like a modern Jesuit.  He would fit in well here at America Magazine.


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