Still Coming Out … as Catholic

“So, you’re still Catholic.”

I couldn’t tell from the inflection in his voice – was it a statement or a question? I suspect it might’ve been intentionally ambiguous, allowing me the choice of deciding how to reply.

I replied without replying, not answering his question at all.

“Are you?”

Nothing really unusual about that reply, I suppose. The Church is in the midst of an identity crisis, and many people who think, who question, who see faith and religion through what Vatican II called “reading the signs of the times” – they have shaken the dust from their sandals and left the Catholic Church. Some have found their “Home Away from Rome” in the Episcopal Church, others in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) or other denominations. Many others live in comfortable and quite peaceable atheism, agnosticism, or – for an epicurean few – Pastafarianism (not a typo; Google it). Trying to understand the Catholic Church can involve wading hip-deep in fear, hypocrisy, and worse. There’s NO shame at all in walking away from that. None.

So the questions – you’re still Catholic? – are you? – nothing odd there at all.

Except … except … the person who posed that question just a few months ago – well, he was – and is – a Roman Catholic priest. If I would have answered him most honestly, not because his church role but because of the human being he is– someone who has earned my trust in abundance – yes.  I am still Catholic.

But that wasn’t my reply.  I lobbed the question right back at him. If this were Wimbledon, it would’ve been an excellent volley back across the net. Point!

He laughed – a comfortable, relaxed laugh, and one that reminded me of what I know in the core of my being and know that he knows and believes as well – Catholic means universal. ALL. All means ALL, y’all. We share a religion, but how we each experience our faith is between ourselves and God.

Any answer to the question, “Are you still Catholic?” needs to be tempered with a healthy shot of humility. As Catholics, we have to be aware of the baggage of pain and alienation that our identification may quite reasonably trigger in other people. As odd as it might sound, “the love that dare not speak its name” these days may not be our sexuality, but our religious identity. Or, to put it bluntly, if our beliefs are central to how we engage with our sisters and brothers, it might be time these days to discern where, whether, how, and to whom we disclose our use of that label – the big-C “Catholic.”

My very presence on Bondings 2.0 was a matter of such discernment, too. In early 2017, a friend and PhD colleague at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley sent me a note. New Ways Ministry was looking for a few GTU students and alums to write a series of weekly Lenten reflections. Might I be interested in contributing a piece to the series?

I’ve followed New Ways Ministry for a number of years, attended the Symposium in Minneapolis in 2007, and – well, I fit the bill for the types of writers they were looking for:  I’m queer and Catholic and a theology student GTU. All boxes checked. Even so, I had some hard-core discerning to do. For a number of years, I wrote regularly for Street Prophets, a now-defunct faith and politics website, but I did so behind a screen name. Only a select group of participants there knew my true identity. My child was in Catholic school, we were involved in parish life, and I didn’t want to bring the wrath of conservative Catholics down on either my beloved son or the communities and priests who invariably welcomed us with open arms.

I didn’t really have that excuse in 2017. The kid was off at college, and we have different last names, giving him plausible deniability about anything his mom might write up on the internet. My secular employer flies a rainbow flag in front of its offices in June. I live in San Francisco. The risk to me of having my name associated with something queer is precisely zero. But then, call it Catholic guilt or being taught by the Jesuits, I spent some uncomfortable time in an Examination of Conscience. Something didn’t quite feel comfortable about writing under my own name, rather than the pseudonym I’d used for years elsewhere.

My examined conscience responded with a sharp kick to my backside. I didn’t feel comfortable coming out – as Catholic.

Many of the people to whom I’m closest in the world are ex-Catholics, Catholics-in-exile, “recovering Catholics” – they were here, and now they’re gone. Some who remain in the Church take “Mass holidays” from time to time, giving themselves a break from the cognitive dissonance between what they know to be true and what they hear from the pulpit. Then there are the friends who were never Catholic or Christian, and who see the damage wrought by a hierarchy that plays politics over piety or pastoral care. They simply cannot comprehend why a church leadership that seems so irrational, so ungrounded, and so hostile to LGBTQ identity, so biased against women, and in the US, so tightly tied with one political party, has any business trying to police the lives of those who aren’t even its adherents.

I don’t argue with them. I frankly don’t believe I have much of a case to make there, and also find too much of the church teachings around sexuality and gender to be regressive and repressive. To use my fancypants theological education, those teachings simply haven’t been received by the faithful. Church teachings aren’t authoritative just because someone in authority says them, as it turns out. The authority of the teachings takes hold when the people of God say “Yeah – that makes sense and conforms to what both my rational mind and well-formed conscience ( see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1783) says is true.”  Until or unless that reception of the teachings happens, they’re not binding on the Catholic conscience. (Lumen Gentium 12)

It’s precisely that combination of rational thought (enshrined in Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes 36) and quite well-formed consciences, thankyouverymuch, that has led many people to leave the Roman Catholic Church. The departees include not a small number of priests and religious who couldn’t teach what they know to not be true. Indeed, ten years ago this summer, my Catholic school-educated son went on vacation with me in the summer after he completed fourth grade, and found himself the official wedding photographer for the marriage of two beloved friends. One half of the couple was in the process of leaving the priesthood. It was a bit of a shotgun wedding due to the looming vote on California’s Proposition 8, and so my son had the unique experience of seeing a family friend preside at Mass, and then several weeks later, say “I do” to the man who became – and remains – his husband.

It was a teachable moment, perhaps one of the more important ones in my 12-year career as a Catholic school mom. He knew one of the men as “Father” – and excellent catechesis in school, church, and home taught him the significance of that role. But he also was receiving even more important catechesis in honesty, integrity, and courage. Perhaps above all else, I wanted him to know that no matter what the Church or his dear old mom might ever say, he had to follow his own conscience, his own heart’s desire.

I knew that in a few short years he’d hear more about the Church’s teachings on homosexuality from people other than me, and while his conscience was to be formed to be his own, he needed to know that no – I did not, have not, and cannot receive those teachings as they stood then or now. My conscience is strong on this one, and my understanding of science, biology, sociology, and humanity is in pretty decent shape, too. So, too, is my own comfort in at least that part of my identity. “Queer as . . . something” as my byline read in the late 1980s. I still claim it as my own.

And yes. I also claim “Catholic.” I claim it for the Sisters of Mercy who taught me as a child to stand up when I see injustice. Our school even had a club – “Catholics In Action” – or “CIA.” (No, not creepy at all. I mean, love you dearly, Sisters, but really? CIA?!?) I claim it in the name of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, and Thomas Merton’s “Seven Storey Mountain.” I also claim it in the name of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who have served the people of San Francisco and beyond for generations, caring for “the least among these” – people dying from AIDS and living on the streets. Jesus said, “Whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50) when someone was driving out demons from those suffering terribly. So all of my Sisters – I claim you, even if you don’t or can’t claim Catholicism right now.

Labels? Labels are messy. I think – no, I know – that the priest who innocently asked me, “So you’re still Catholic?” –gets that. He exudes peace and compassion, but probably also encounters people who expect judgment anyway. That’s what seems to be the Church’s specialty these days.

But that’s not all we are.

So yeah. I’m still Catholic. I’m saying it here, and it appears that I’ll be writing here from time to time, under my own name, as long as they’ll have me. Life and the Day Job™ take my time too, but I’m hoping to offer y’all a little bread for the journey, and receive some as well. Be Church and show that “church” doesn’t mean fear, rejection, or damnation. We can say it and claim it too. Catholic. Still Catholic. We’ve got this. Thanks be to God.

Sarah Gregory, New Ways Ministry, June 10, 2018

8 replies
  1. James
    James says:

    Thank you for the heart&soul-felt and theological post.
    I get this question too, first because I am a trans man, second because, after many years of stripping layers off of my self-protection, I am also gay.
    It has been intensely liberating to grow into my best self. It’s a shame I’ve not been able to maintain the physical church connection, save for a dear nun who has not given up being my faith companion.

    Reply
  2. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    Thank you for coming out! What a beautiful testimony to your son on displaying your courage and honesty, Sarah. I look forward to reading more of your contributions.

    Reply
  3. Theophane Young
    Theophane Young says:

    Thank you, Sarah, for this honest, and inspiring, piece. The role of a well-formed conscience is indeed so, so important. For me, a balanced understanding of history in its broadest contexts (East-West, your own and others’ religions and cultures, etc.), and of Bl. John Henry Newman’s idea of the “development of doctrine” are most helpful aspects of such a well-formed conscience. I believe that, at 78, either despite or because of my 19 years of Catholic school education, including 7 of those years in the seminary (not ordained), and 30 years now as a Catholic monk, my conscience is still being formed. Thank you for contributing to that. Your loving brother, MT Young

    Reply
  4. Kris
    Kris says:

    I love this piece.

    Love its cheeriness; its truth and truthfulness; its self-ease, and healthy sense of self-worth.

    Above all, I love its confidence, in the author, and for the future…for all who are LGBT and Catholic.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  5. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    Sarah, this is a wonderful, sometimes whimsical (but also very serious), and moving personal reflection on why someone remains -or does not remain – associated with Catholicism. Keep on sharing in this space! Even though I do not share many of your life’s experiences, this really resonates with me. And it tugs at me to acknowledge more fully those aspects of my own experience that make me who I am spiritually. Delightful!

    Reply

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