By Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 7, 2016
Catholic writer Kaya Oakes has done a wonderful service to the readers of U.S. Catholic in her recent article on women authors who are not often recognized for their Catholic identity. What caught my eye was that one of those authors happens to be one of my all-time favorites: Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winner. Though it has been years since I read her astonishing Song of Solomon and her monumental Beloved, I still gasp when I pick up my well-worn copies of both books and read selected passages. Though I have read a lot about Morrison, until Oakes’ article, I had not known she was Catholic, and a convert to the faith, to boot.
But Oakes’ article also introduced me to someone I had never heard of before: Rebecca Brown, a novelist and essayist who happens not only to be a Catholic and a convert, like Morrison, but a lesbian, too. Brown’s personal story is a powerful one, especially since she joined the Catholic Church as an adult, well after she had recognized herself as a lesbian. Oakes’ article quotes other interviews with Brown, in which the author describes some of her faith journey:
“Brown was received into the Catholic Church in 2012. In an interview with Moss magazine in 2015, she reflected that there had always been “a real sense of dark and light” in her writing. ‘There’s a real sense of someone dying, and then getting to live again,’ she said. Prior to becoming Catholic, because of the sex abuse scandal and the church’s historical treatment of women, Brown had a sense of Catholicism as ‘the worst.’ But ‘something drew me—and keeps me drawn to it. Some longing, hunger, draw, whatever, to the mystery of incarnation, redemption, mercy.’ She adds, as many Catholics would, ‘I can’t explain or justify it.’
It is ironic that Catholic teaching frowns upon the physical love of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, because it is often Catholicism’s valuing of the physical, through its incarnational theology, that draws people, including LGBT people, to the faith. Brown explains her own attraction:
“As an out lesbian, Brown would seem to occupy a marginalized place in the church, but, as she told Fact/Simile magazine in 2012, her Catholicism, like much of her writing, is embodied. ‘I’m drawn to passion and to the elemental physicality of it—the rituals of standing, kneeling, sitting, the laying on of hands, the bending of the head in prayer, the baptism by water, making the sign of the cross, the Sacraments as signs of divine presence.’ In her most recent book of essays, American Romances, her essay ‘Priests’ describes childhood reenactments of communion using Necco wafers.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that Brown’s best-known work is entitled The Gifts of the Body, a novel about caring for people with HIV/AIDS, which won the 1995 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction.
Brown also is aware that Catholic means ‘universal,’ which in a big sense, means diversity:
“In 2013, Brown wrote an essay for the Stranger about her hopes for Pope Francis as a ‘super-feminist, gay, lefty Catholic.’ A friend’s question about what kind of Catholic she wanted to be helped Brown understand that there was no such thing as a Catholic. ‘There were,’ she writes, ‘as there are in most large groups of people, clueless, terrified fundamentalists, but there are also struggling, hopeful, trying-to-be-decent slobs like me.’ “
And Brown also seems to have gotten to the heart of Pope Francis’ message about the gospel, inferring a message of welcome and new life:
“As she parsed the complexities of Pope Francis’ journey and his attitudes toward LGBT people, Brown also came to understand that ‘Jesus didn’t come here to condemn us human lumps; he came to show us mercy and forgiveness and the goodness of the just and loving heart. He came to show there can be life even after you feel like you’ve been dead, and that even after someone’s been horrible or had horrible things done to them, they can have another chance.’ “
Brown’s musings are perfect answers for LGBT people when they are asked why they remain in the Catholic Church. They describe sentiments I have heard over my two decades working with LGBT Catholics. As marginalized people in the institution, LGBT Catholics are often made to feel second-class, but Oakes points out that the writers she profiled, while on the margins of the Church, have embodied the message of the faith. Oakes concludes her article:
“Brown, Morrison, and [Fanny] Howe are all risk takers. They write books that challenge readers intellectually and emotionally, that center marginalized characters—people like women, single mothers, people of color, or LGBT people. The Catholicism that runs through their work is one of deep empathy for the struggle of others, of ritual, and of redemption. But it is also countercultural, in the manner of Dorothy Day or mystics like Hildegard and Julian of Norwich: It pushes back against the dominant structures of greed, the refutation of mystery, and the insistence that being Catholic simply means following a set of rules. For all three of these authors, Catholicism is an intellectual negotiation as much as it is a spiritual one. It is, in many ways, the Catholicism of our time: a faith of heart and mind, but also of gut instinct.”
I know I want to run out and read one of Brown’s novels and essays right away! Does anyone have any recommendations?