Today’s post is from guest blogger Jason Steidl, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Theology at Fordham University and a member of the ministry team for Out at St. Paul, the LGBTQ ministry of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan.
I first attended a Courage meeting when I was 24 years old and a student in the Master of Theological Studies program at the University of Notre Dame. I heard about the organization from a therapist who belonged to the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, a now-discredited group that promotes conversion therapy. After sharing my sexual history with him, he diagnosed me with “same-sex attraction” and prescribed Courage as part of my treatment. There, he suggested, I could find like-minded Catholics to support me in the struggle against my sexuality.
I grew up in a conservative evangelical home in small-town Ohio. We took prohibitions against sex outside of heterosexual marriage as seriously as the green bean casseroles we carried to potlucks. Purity culture was a convenient excuse not to date women my age. I never exactly knew what purity was, but I hated myself when I lost it.
I first noticed my attraction to men in my early teens. Abstinence allowed me to postpone questions about my sexuality until college. I attended Georgetown University where I was active in College Republicans, sang in the choir at a local Baptist Church, was a leader in campus ministry, and majored in theology. Catholic tradition promised answers for all of the questions I had about faith. I fell in love with the liturgy, the Real Presence, and even the saints. At my confirmation in 2009, I professed belief in “all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
Catholic teaching repeated what I had come to believe as a teenager: my sexuality was dangerous. The catechism said my desire for sexual intimacy with another man was “intrinsically disordered.” As a convert, I believed the stakes were much higher than before. Genital activity with another man, or even myself, became a mortal sin that separated me from God and could send me to Hell. At my first confession, I told the priest that I had hooked up with three men and looked at gay pornography. He told me I was probably a sex addict and should seek treatment. I thought shame from the experience would keep me from sinning ever again.
I arrived at Notre Dame determined to marry a woman and have a sizeable, contraception-free family. To my friends, I was a traditionalist who looked down on Catholics compromised by the world. I created a profile on catholicmatch.com to find a wife who shared my values. I also discerned about joining the priesthood. Neither path was realistic. God and I knew the pain that was eating me from the inside out. I acted on my desire for sexual intimacy with men. Chat rooms. Bathhouses. Even a short relationship with another student that ended after a couple of weeks. I blamed my Christian faith for my inability to sustain a healthy relationship. I was afraid of who I was. My life disintegrated because my faith seemed so incompatible with my sexuality.
In desperation I sought help from a Catholic psychologist and began to attend Courage meetings. The group was small, with maybe four or five members on a good day. The gatherings were structured like Alcoholics Anonymous with introductions, time for sharing, reading Courage literature, a commitment to “work the steps,” and prayer. I was relieved that there were a couple of other young people in the group. One, still in high school, came because of parental directive. Together, we examined our ongoing failures to live up to Church’s teaching.
Pseudo-psychology helped explain why our lives were broken. We talked about how we grew up too close to our mothers, had been sexually abused as children, or didn’t fit in with the other boys on the playground. It wasn’t always true, but we made the narratives fit our lives. The program pathologized our sexuality.
Meetings were at the local Catholic parish and led by the same heterosexual therapist who introduced me to the group. He shared plenty of platitudes, but nothing that helped. Depression was rife in the group, and there was little hope that life would ever get better. The god I met at Courage was capricious and created me for a lifetime of suffering. My sexuality was my theodicy, a cross to bear with the promise of redemption in the life to come.
Attending these meetings widened the chasm between my faith and my sexuality even more. Repeating Hail Marys, echoing tropes from Courage’s outdated psychology, and spending time with others who suffered as much I did from mental health issues did little to bring healing and integration.
Mercifully, time intervened and I graduated from Notre Dame. I returned to Ohio, where I lived a double life as a rule-following Catholic theologian by day and a transgressive gay man by night. My soul was rent in two.
The following year I moved to New York City to begin my PhD in theology. I was determined to find healing and integration. The theology department at Fordham University was full of LGBTQ colleagues, mentors, and friends. They did not tell me I was disordered when I came out to them. My academic community challenged me to consider whether my prior beliefs helped me flourish as the sexual person God created me to be. They did not, so I began to choose LGBTQ-affirming theologies of life.
Recognizing the historical failures of Catholic theology was an important first step. I read how, for example, Church teaching had once supported colonialism and slavery. So, at least on those issues, Church teaching had been wrong. I learned about popes who condemned democracy and cast aspersions on the freedom of religion. The hierarchy messed up. I read the documents of Vatican II. Theologies that we take for granted today were anathema just a couple of generations ago. I came to appreciate how the Church, embedded in history, can change. The Holy Spirit guides believers in every age and ongoing discernment allows the Church to change. Was it possible that Church teaching was wrong about LGBTQ sexuality and gender?
I surrounded myself with affirming Catholic communities. My parishes—first at St. Francis of Assisi and later at St. Paul the Apostle, both in Manhattan—showed me Jesus’ love and embraced my whole person. In queer Catholic circles I saw the gifts that LGBTQ believers bring to the Church. Empathy. Creativity. Loyalty. Humor. I recognized the systematic homophobia and transphobia that had hurt myself and so many others. I understood the self-loathing spiritual pathologies of Church leaders who repress their own sexualities and condemn loving same-sex relationships. In these matters, they do not represent Jesus Christ or reflect the God of Christian revelation. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
In New York City, I heard stories from survivors of the AIDS epidemic. Partners stayed together until the very end. There was nothing disordered about their love, which came from God. After years of searching, I finally fell in love with another man myself. The relationship was difficult, but good. I learned what it means to offer myself as gift to another person. I became less selfish and grew more confident into the sexual man God created me to be. Our relationship bore fruit in holiness and opened us up in service to others. Sexual intimacy with my partner reinforced and reflected God’s work in my life.
Integrating my faith and sexuality has been an ongoing project. I thank God for the community that sustains me in faith. We belong to a generation that embraces our God-given sexual desire as a gift to the world and to the Church. We are not ashamed of who we are, either as LGBTQ people created in God’s image or as active members in the body of faith. Our presence in the Church reflects generations of struggle, and we remain for those yet to come. God is moving in our day, and our lives are a sign of that work.
–Jason Steidl, Fordham University, September 16, 2018