In New Memoir, Writer Joseph Caldwell Calls Being Gay and Catholic a “Form of Grace”

Playwright and novelist Joseph Caldwell’s memoir In The Shadow of the Bridge is described by Kirkus reviews as “a tragic and uplifting story of enduring love,” and a new review in America Magazine discusses Caldwell’s relationship to his Catholic faith in the context of sexuality. Michael O’Loughlin writes that Caldwell’s book stands out for his “unabashed Catholicism juxtaposed with a fearless openness of his own sexuality.”

Caldwell’s efforts for justice are described as heavily influenced by his Catholic faith, including the work of Dorothy Day and others in the Catholic Worker Movement. On a more personal level, the religion of his parents was cemented for him at a young age, in a way that he describes as “never dangerously challenged.” Caldwell writes:

“I am close to being a congenital Catholic…it’s almost encoded in my genes to the same degree and with the same imperatives as my homosexuality. I could not not be a Catholic any more than I could not be of Irish ancestry, or than I could not be a male of the human species.”

His mother in particular served as a strong example of a lived Catholicism that focused on serving all people, regardless of their actions or circumstance. Caldwell recounts a time he challenged his mother about a guest of theirs he believed had recently had an abortion, expecting her to react negatively. His mother’s firm response was that even if his concern were true, it meant the woman needed their support ‘more than ever.’ He writes that this revolutionized his understanding of their Catholicism:

“I felt, with a quiet of my own, only amazement. So this is what our religion was about. It was not about sin and guilt and judgement. It was about caring—a simple caring for those most in need, no matter what.”

Joseph Caldwell

O’Loughlin’s article  in America is entitled The Complicated Catholicism of Joseph Caldwell. Yet if his mother’s straightforward reasoning of faithful care in all circumstances is to be taken as true, Caldwell’s story can be seen as less complicated than one might assume. Here is a man who has lived a full life as both Catholic and gay, experiencing little internal conflict in that duality. Despite some in the church’s best efforts, holding both a Catholic faith and an LGBTQ+ identity is a regular and natural state for many. Overall, he describes living as a gay Catholic as “a form of grace” that pushed him to “think for himself.”

Caldwell, who received the Rome Prize for Literature, lived in New York City during the height of the AIDS crisis. The memoir tracks one of his most significant relationships and includes key observations of how the church responded to those living with AIDS. Similar to the stories O’Loughlin recorded in part five of his acclaimed Plague podcast, Caldwell recounts the compassion that he witnessed volunteering with Sister Patrice Murphy in the order-approved AIDS hospice program she ran. While noting that many patients faced “the experience of abandonment…repudiation by family, the avoidance of longtime friends, and general isolation,” he worked in the hospital to provide some relief alongside the attending nuns. 

Caldwell’s life serves as a strong example of a prominent writer who has successfully maintained both integral parts of himself, and the book is in turn an encouragement for others to share their own personal histories too.

Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, February 25, 2020

2 replies
  1. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    Catherine Buck’s review of Joseph Caldwell’s “in the Shadow of the Bridge” inspires me in the certainty of my own experience that a life well lived is a grace not only gifted by our Faith but our own wisdom. Studying theology, I intuitively knew that it wasn’t a utilitarian exercise but the experience of spiritual transformation. Theology took when we are changed for the better. So with our sexuality and all our life experiences. We “play” them and make them “us”. Life does not “play” us. The exciting thing about all this– our lives, is that we are all creators in the exercise of living. Hope is a lived realization!

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