Replacing problems with persons: Eve Tushnet’s new book, Gay and Catholic
Over the last three days I’ve read Eve Tushnet’s remarkable book, Gay and Catholic. Tushnet, who is now in her mid-30s, realized that she was “gay” in middle school, admitted it to herself at age thirteen, and told her parents shortly thereafter. But while in college she began a different sort of love affair, a strong attraction to the Catholic Church. Without grasping it completely at first, she accepted the moral requirement to be chaste. Ever since her conversion, she has been growing in her understanding of how the particular challenges of homosexuality can be integrated into an authentically Catholic life.
Gay and Catholic is subtitled “Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith”. Tushnet is an entertaining writer with solid Catholic instincts and considerable insight into human nature, including her own strengths and weaknesses. She is widely published and she blogs on the Catholic Channel at Patheos. Perhaps the most important thing about her approach to this sensitive topic is that she does not insist that her own experience is normative—that all gays share the exact same set of problems and must resolve them just as she has done. But she does hope that some of the lessons she has learned will make it easier for others to come to grips with same-sex attraction, Catholic teaching, and the possibility of finding genuine fulfillment in the Church.
The best approach I can take to this book is to suggest how it furthered my own understanding of a complex subject.
What’s in a Name?
By far the most successful article I have ever written on the general problem of same-sex attraction was the one that most closely focused not on the attraction itself but on what it means for the real people who experience it (see Homosexuality: A Special Call to the Love of God and Man). I am no exception to the normal response to homosexuality, which is to see it primarily in isolated terms, as a condition or orientation, rather than as one facet of a particular unique personality. This tendency is actually fueled by the insistence on things like “gay rights”—as if “gayness” defines a separate class of human beings. In fact, the politicization of sexuality in our culture generally is proof enough that people across the whole spectrum are too often preoccupied with sexual orientation, allowing the condition to obscure the person.
Eve Tushnet does not make this mistake, either in assessing herself or in advising others. Reading her is a good way to gain greater understanding of same-sex attraction as it is experienced in the lives of real persons—persons who will necessarily respond to it in different and complex ways. This also has implications for terminology. I have always held that “same-sex attracted” was the best way to describe people with this characteristic, and I have argued that when someone self-describes as “gay”, they must be committed to the rightness of the gay lifestyle and see themselves as primarily defined by their sexual orientation. Tushnet, who avoids both errors, uses “gay”, “queer” and “same-sex attracted” with only minor differences in nuance.
This has taught me caution. The terminology may not always mean what I think it means. One must always get past labels to persons.
Vocation, Service, Friendship
Tushnet is primarily concerned in Gay and Catholic with explaining how much more helpful it is to discern the vocations (in a broad sense) to which God is calling us—the particular ways He is calling us to love others—than to focus on chastity simply as a negation. She points out that most priests are not “called” to celibacy; rather, they accept this discipline because they are called to a positive vocation which is significantly enhanced by it. She believes (no doubt rightly) that same-sex attracted Catholics, knowing that it is immoral to express this attraction in sexual acts, will benefit from seeing chastity in the context of what God is calling them to do, a context in which chastity positively enhances a special form of service.
Indeed, Tushnet realizes that we find fulfillment in giving ourselves for others, a fulfillment that is actually ultimately deeper than sexual satisfaction. She acknowledges that she herself seems built for sublimation—that is, she finds it relatively easy to channel erotic desire into authentic service. But she understands this may not come easily to others. Therefore she explores a range of relationships, apart from marriage, in which chaste gay Catholics can find fulfilment, love and mutual support; and encourages them to invest themselves in such relationships. Her treatment of deep friendship is noteworthy, for in our sexually-charged culture we have almost lost the art of friendship, which seems to linger only under a cloud of suspicion.
To care for others, and be cared for, is a fundamental human need. In prayer, God will help us find the right way.
Community and Solidarity
Then there is the related problem of community. Tushnet has considerable experience with gay groups and gay-straight alliances. She reminds us again that such groups are filled with persons who possess a variety of characteristics and gifts as well as a shared solidarity. She lets the reader glimpse the many good things she experienced and learned even in the groups she frequented before she became gay and Catholic and therefore chaste. Similarly, she recounts the experience of some gay men and women who, accepting chastity and obviously unable to form the families in which most of us find community, have sought to live in communitarian settings. Such close communities include people of all types who support each other and share an important sense of belonging.
What Tushnet gradually exposes here is each person’s yearning to “belong” and, in fact, to have at least one person or group of persons whom he can put first and who will put him first. The beauty of Tushnet’s presentation is that she realizes this yearning can be understood in an illusory way. It is, after all, completely fulfilled only in Christ—in the God who puts each of us first, and whom each of us must learn to put first in gratitude. But in a more human and tangible way, she urges all who struggle with same-sex attraction to consider whether the Church can become their special community. At the same time, she urges all in the Church to maintain an openness to those who experience same-sex attraction, so that they will have a genuine opportunity to respond to life in Christ.
For Tushnet, this is not a matter of concealing the challenge of the truth. It is a matter of making sure no one feels excluded from the liberating invitation the Church exists to offer.
Gay and Catholic is partly an autobiography and partly a manual of possibilities which she hopes other gay men and women will find helpful. It has authority because the author shares the very predicament she is addressing. For example, I am always prone to emphasize that homosexual inclinations are objectively disordered, and must be combatted just as other disordered inclinations are. This is certainly true, and Tushnet agrees, but by itself it displays no awareness of the immense variety of ways this works itself out in real persons, or of how one might go about the four-fold task of recognizing, denying, channeling and perfecting the various aspects of our personalities which combine to form our overall affectivity.
Tushnet covers far more ground than I have indicated here. There is, for example, the twin question of what causes homosexuality and whether it can be cured. Answers are in their infancy, and one size clearly does not fit all. There is the related issue of whether tracing a form of blame back to “upbringing” does more harm than good. Then we have Tushnet’s account of her own struggles with alcoholism, and her recognition that transformation does not occur overnight (the chapter dealing with Confession is titled “Lather, Rinse, Repent”). The last chapter explores the special dangers which can arise as a same-sex attracted person begins to discern his or her God-given vocation to love. In three appendices, she offers further resources, answers frequently asked questions, and makes practical suggestions on how the Church can become a place of welcome for those who are same-sex attracted.
It is important to recognize at this point how difficult it was for Tushnet herself to learn about those same-sex attracted but chaste Catholics who had gone before her. At first she thought she was charting a brand-new course. But that is not true at all. Eve Tushnet would like all gay Catholics who are determined to live chaste lives to “come out”. We need them to enrich the experience, sensitivities and resources of their parishes. This would go far toward creating a positive Church environment which is truly attractive to others who may be open to the same leap of faith.
Gay and Catholic is must-reading for those who experience same-sex attraction. Fortunately, it also enables the rest of us to better understand and address the issue. This is mostly because reading Tushnet is like having a conversation with a deeply Catholic friend. Stereotypes give way to vision. To see those who are same-sex attracted with Catholic eyes, to see them in the Scriptural sense as our neighbors…well, that is really the whole point.
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Posted by: jlw5094538 -
Nov. 23, 2014 5:23 PM ET USA
Thanks for this good column--- I've been reading Eve Tushnet online for years, and thinking of reading her book, but now you've spurred me to buy it. Tushnet is very encouaging, not only to those who are trying to walk the way of chastity, but also to all who seek to understand the hopes and struggles of people who experience this someimes disturbing characteristic of same-sex attraction. I sure wish she could speak at the Synod....
Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Nov. 16, 2014 9:22 AM ET USA
I too have not read the book. ...interesting alcoholism is also in Ms Tushnet life. I wonder how many w/ SSA struggle w/ addiction. How painful if SSA is the addiction for some. I believe there is more here-no excuses-than we fully appreciate. Before analyzing any sin, loving the person is what God asks. Love is not pointing out sin; love is a relationship in spite of another working through sin. After all, are we not all doing that to some degree - working through our own sinful behaviors?
Posted by: Jerz -
Nov. 15, 2014 2:00 PM ET USA
Finally, ideas on this issue that have depth! We need good, orthodox SSA Catholics (dare I say saints?) to light the way for others.
Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Nov. 15, 2014 11:37 AM ET USA
timothy.op: You raise a reasonable question. But I would argue that you are not answering it correctly, though the right answer might vary from person to person, and the proper context is important. So let me take a little extra space here to make Tushnet's point more clearly. Very frequently it is those who have experienced particular kinds of problems and dealt with them according to God's will who can be most helpful to others. Someone who has struggled successfully with alcoholism, in being open about it, does not identify himself primarily as an alcoholic, but as a person who has learned how to be spiritually whole even in the face of his tendency toward alcoholism. The same is true of someone who has suffered abandonment and divorce but still honors the validity of his marriage bond. If the Church were to insist that those who have struggled with same-sex attraction in accordance with her own teachings must keep themselves hidden, she might actually perpetuate the stereotype that such persons are, in fact, defined by SSA and therefore are a sort of dirty secret. When we overcome our sinful tendencies, and are willing to interact and talk with others about that process in the right way, we are in fact affirming that we are NOT defined by our temptations and sins. This can be a great help to others who feel overwhelmed by the same conflict.
Posted by: Victoria -
Nov. 14, 2014 8:44 PM ET USA
A million thanks for this thoughtful, nuanced essay! My teen daughter has chosen not to be Confirmed in the Church because of her loyalty to beloved same-sex attracted relatives and it is hard to find resources to help her to see beyond the Church's teaching on gay marriage. I will look this book up ASAP. Victoria
Posted by: timothy.op -
Nov. 14, 2014 8:29 PM ET USA
Though I've not read the book, I must object to Tushnet's suggestion that same-sex attracted Catholics 'come out.' Doesn't the very act of 'coming out' involve the same misguided attempt to define one's self by their attractions? Bound up in the gay identity are so many diabolical lies about the human person and about sexuality, that I fail to see how it could be helpful to claim such an identity. Catholic ministry will be enhanced by eschewing worldly ways of thinking, not by embracing them.