Saint Joseph, Spouse of Mary and Patron of Queer Unions

Today’s reflection for the Solemnity of St. Joseph is from guest contributor Jennifer Van Boxel (she/her), a lifelong Catholic who has been active in lectoring, greeting, catechesis, and outreach to the needy. She splits her time between work as a data analyst and freelancing as an editor of gaming materials. She enjoys writing, birding, and playing tabletop games with her wife Danielle.

It was April of 2022, and I was sitting in my customary pew at church, trying not to cry. The usual rituals of Mass—the ones I’ve participated in my whole life—were going on around me, but that day I was troubled, so I was only vaguely aware of them. I was focused on other matters: Did I belong here? Could I stay here? Despite all the hymns that claim “all are welcome,” was I really welcome now that I, a woman, had a wife? My marriage, which had appeared to be a completely typical heterosexual union when consecrated at a Catholic church ten years earlier, had been turned on its head by my beloved coming out to me as a transgender woman. Who could I look to as a model for how to proceed?

You may be surprised to hear that the model I identified that day when I was crying in church is St. Joseph, Spouse of Mary. In the church’s calendar, today is the Solemnity of this saint under that particular title.

When my beloved announced the news, I was already a queer Catholic, but a stealth one. A few months earlier, I had shared with my spouse that I’d found a word for my experience of physical intimacy, something that I’d been grappling with for the decade we’d been together. That word is “asexuality.”

I didn’t view this conversation as coming out; it was more a matter of finally finding a word for something we both knew was a part of me. However, having that label—and along with it the recently gained knowledge that other people in the world experience romantic love without sexual attraction—made it so much easier to talk with and interact with my spouse on those levels. Seeing that load lightened for me, seeing how relaxed and comfortable I was with the new level of openness between us helped my spouse realize what was possible not just for me, but for both of us.

When my spouse came out to me as transgender, some of the things that most weighed on me were fear for her safety and fear for the future of our relationship. These are things St. Joseph knew well. When Mary told him about her pregnancy, he didn’t want to expose her to the dangers of the law, but he also wasn’t sure how they could be together. He was already in a formal marriage contract with her, and here she was, telling him that things were not going to be the way society expected them to be. She was pregnant with a child, not his. And if we accept the doctrine of perpetual virginity, their marriage was going to be a celibate one.

Joseph was conflicted: should he do what society expected and end the relationship? Prayer, however, showed him another way: a loving marriage that didn’t fit the norm. I spent a year after college with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and one of the things I learned during that time was the practice of lectio divina, a meditative reading of a Scripture passage. On that day in April 2022, I came home from Mass with the thoughts of St. Joseph I had discovered there and turned to this practice. The lines in Scripture about Joseph are few, but I pulled out my bible to spend some time with Matthew 1:18-24: 

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.

I put myself in Joseph’s situation. I pondered what he, “a righteous man,” felt. Did he feel a sense of loss? Or once the angel showed him a way forward, was it relief he felt? Perhaps he, like many saints praised for their “sacrifice” of celibacy, might have been happily asexual. Of course, we can never know the interior feelings of St. Joseph, but I think he would recognize the commonalities between my marriage and his own.

With Fiducia Supplicans, the Vatican document allowing blessings of same-gender couples, so prominent in the news these days, I find myself thinking about St. Joseph again. I have come to consider him as the patron saint of “irregular” unions like my own and so many others experienced by queer people. I’m a Catholic woman, married in the church, though my spouse isn’t Catholic. We remain in a happy marriage, one that was blessed by the church when neither it nor we knew this relationship was queer. We comfort and support each other, and we nurture the next generation (our niblings and our friends’ children) even though our sexuality and gender combination means we’ll bear none of our own.

It has been two years since my wife came out to me as transgender, and I am slowly growing braver about being openly queer in my local parish community. I’ve started wearing my rainbow pin when I serve as lector or greeter, hoping to feel less alone in my Catholic queerness. And once I’ve gotten to know fellow parishioners a bit through shared ministries, I’ll casually refer to my spouse as “my wife” when chatting with them. So far, no one has responded poorly, but if ever someone does and wonders how I could remain in such a marriage and still be a “good Catholic,” I shall point to St. Joseph as my model.

My crisis of faith back in 2022 wasn’t whether I should stay with my wife, but whether I could stay with an institution that views our relationship as “irregular.” With St. Joseph’s help, I have come to realize that my Catholicism is as intrinsic a part of me as my asexuality. Catholicism and asexuality have both been with me my whole life, and I need both to thrive. And I need my wife, too.

Jennifer Van Boxel (she/her), March 19, 2024

5 replies
  1. Fr. Paul Morrissey
    Fr. Paul Morrissey says:

    Oh my gosh! What a brave and enlightening message. Thank you! This gives an entirely more expansive meaning to “Fiducia Supplicans.” And the great St. Joseph! I have thought of St. Joseph as a passionate young Israelite with such love and hopes for himself and Mary and their eventual family. If this were the case, he would have been asked to give up a deep desire by the angel’s message, maybe like all those called to religious or single life, not out of asexuality but some other deep mystery and call by God. Maybe both images of Joseph–and ourselves–can help us celebrate today.

  2. Olivia Maria Latiano
    Olivia Maria Latiano says:

    Thank you for this moving meditation on the vocation to LOVE and how authentic love is never “irregular.”

  3. Eric Van Boxel
    Eric Van Boxel says:

    A most Excellent writing of your struggle within your personal beliefs. You and your wife are a blessing for all to see as an inspiration of great courage and determination on your path forward.

  4. Thomas Deely
    Thomas Deely says:

    I read your most interesting and challenging contribution the other day. I am kind of impulsive and so I had to “ponder and savor” much of what you said. But, as I often, as a straight and male Roman Catholic priest…REDEMPTORIST, who mostly because of my dear gay, now deceased brother of 79 yrs and my non binary nibling (niece) have become a searcher and, hopefully, “advocate” of much happening in NEW WAYS. But my initial reaction to your article was…”WOW!!” I didn’t write it but just prayed and thought a lot about it. It reminded me of a similar situation that Fr. James Martin spoke of in one of his short books trying to help us Roman Catholics and others understand things better. If I remember it correctly and maybe I don’t two “women” came up to talk with Fr. James after a talk he gave…But one of them a bit into the conversation shared with him that they had been married, long before her “husband” came out as a transgender woman. I think maybe that was the first time that I have heard what I now hear many times..Because when the woman noticed Fr. Jame’s chagrin or whatever it was ..surprise she said…LOVE IS LOVE. Thanks again Jennifer


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