The Canon of Queer Catholic Saints Requires Some Invention, Writes Theologian

Flora Tang

In a recent National Catholic Reporter essay, Flora X. Tang, a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, shared a beautiful reflection on what she describes as the “unofficial canon of queer Catholic saints.”

While some of the people highlighted are canonized saints, recognized as holy by the church and also claimed by LGBTQ+ Catholics as models of queer sanctity, others do not have the church’s official backing. Some are biblical figures whose stories lend themselves to queer interpretation. And some are queer elders whose stories “[complexify] who we understand to be a saint and a spiritual ancestor.” To identify these queer saints, Tang writes:

“Queer Catholicism, for many people who identify with it, involves a spiritual practice of grasping at traces of queerness in church history, of capturing vignettes of queer presence. We look to moments of same-sex friendship in Scripture and tradition as models for our own queerness as Christian love. We search for reasons to believe that queer people have always been there in the church throughout history.

“Queer Catholicism demands a spiritual practice of bold imagination and history-searching despite what is recorded. Using bold imagination and persistence, we find ourselves in the otherness of the church’s saints and at the heart of Christianity.

“In other words, queer Catholicism relies on some form of invention in its story-telling and lineage-tracing. Our spirituality rests upon a recognition that we may never truly know if the queer saints are actually queer or not. Nevertheless, we continue to imagine a past (and a future) in which vestiges of our queer selves are present in the spiritual lineage of the church.”

Tang notes that some people may regard this creative spiritual interpretation with suspicion, finding it scandalous to seek traces of queerness in canonized saints and other traditional holy persons. But she points out that invention is familiar to all stripes of Catholic spirituality, especially saint-making, and this practice is a testament to believers’ faith and imagination.

“[M]any stories of the saints are also stories of inventions of the past,” she writes. “These hagiographies are invented not for the sake of falsity, but out of longing for a spiritual ancestor who shares in their faith and their struggles for survival.”

This project is familiar to Catholic communities of color as well. Tang writes:

“For queer and marginalized Catholics, recovering traces of our presence from a predetermined archive is not enough…. Invention, coupled with mourning for what is irrecoverably absent, becomes a necessary spiritual practice for all those who cannot find their own ancestors and saints in the canons of church history.”

Tang calls on Catholics to consider opening up their spiritual practices to make room for a more expansive communion of saints:

“Through this dual act of mourning what is absent and inventing a new possibility of presence, the incomplete fragments of church history and its myriad possibilities come to haunt and disrupt all of us, demanding us to remain open to who our saints are and who our saints could be. 

“I return, at the end of my workday, to my home altar of queer saints, whose blank spaces in between all the queer-coded iconography bear witness to the many Catholic and non-Catholic ancestors I will never know. I light a small candle under the altar, not only in remembrance of Perpetua and Felicity, Sergius and Bacchus … but also of all the generations of queer faithful who have instilled subtle yet subversive queer meanings onto the stories of these saints. I light a candle in remembrance of each queer seeker in history who prayed to the Litany of Saints, imagining and finding echoes of themselves in the silences between each invocation and each name.”

Grace Doerfler (she/her), New Ways Ministry, January 18, 2023

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