Homosexuality, Suffering, and “Coming Out”

An interview Joseph Prever about his experiences as a celibate, gay Catholic and the Church’s pastoral care for those with same-sex attractions.

A document preparing the groundwork for this fall’s synod asks some hard-hitting questions about homosexuality:

How can the Christian community give pastoral attention to families with persons with homosexual tendencies? What are the responses that, in light of cultural sensitivities, are considered to be most appropriate? While avoiding any unjust discrimination, how can such persons receive pastoral care in these situations in light of the Gospel? How can God’s will be proposed to them in their situation?

At the end of August, Ignatius Press will publish a book-length treatment of those questions entitled Living the Truth in Love. Based on a recent Courage International conference held in Plymouth, Michigan, the book will include a contribution from Joseph Prever, a celibate, gay Catholic who blogs at gaycatholic.com. Prever is known for his prominent role in an April 2014 documentary about gay Catholics entitled The Third Way. As a speaker and writer, he has been grappling with the same questions to be considered this fall in Rome.

CWR: What was it like to work on The Third Way? And what do you hope the film accomplishes?

Joseph Prever: The title of the film comes from the idea that we as a Church, and as a culture, need to find a third way to consider the question of homosexuality, and how to minister to homosexual men and women—some way that falls between the bigotry that’s often associated with the Christian right and the moral permissiveness that’s often associated with the secular left.

I became involved with the film when the filmmakers contacted me. They had heard my story via my blog, gaycatholic.com, and asked me if I’d be interested in being interviewed. That was a scary proposition for me, because at that time, even though I was writing regularly about my experience as a gay man, I was writing under a pseudonym [“Steve Gershom”]. This would require me to come out of my safe zone in a way I wasn’t totally comfortable with. But it turned out to be worth it.

My hope is that the film allows people to encounter gay men and women in a more direct way than they may have done before. I think some Christians tend to oversimplify the question of homosexuality, because they think of it abstractly, rather than as a human reality, and human realities are rarely black and white. But when they do this, it’s usually because they’ve never spent time actually talking with a gay person, at least not knowingly.

CWR: The Catechism contains only three paragraphs on homosexuality. Is that enough to establish a Church teaching on the issue?

Prever: In a sense, those three paragraphs are enough, because the Church’s teaching on homosexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s only one individual manifestation of her whole, broad, holistic anthropology, her whole way of understanding the human person and human sexuality. So the Church can’t possibly cover every variation on sexuality in one place. I think that’s the job of individual theologians, and the job of ordinary lay people, too, especially those who know the question from the inside.

In another sense, those paragraphs are insufficient because they don’t give a lot of practical ideas about how to live as a gay person—the positive as well as the negative: okay, we know what not to do, but what should we do? But I think this pattern of ambiguity is present throughout the Catechism: you have basic guidelines and principles, and a lot of the rest is up to individual prudence. This is also the case, for example, with the Catechism’s teaching on natural family planning: there isn’t a single, clean, clear list of times when it’s appropriate to use natural family planning to lower the probability of pregnancy, because human situations are not simple, clean, and clear.

I think this is a wise way to present the Church’s teachings, because it keeps us from becoming too rigid, and leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

CWR: Earlier in August, Courage sponsored a conference entitled “Love One Another As I Have Loved You: Welcoming and Accompanying Our Brothers and Sisters with Same-Sex Attraction.” You spoke on “The Curse of the Ouroboros: Notes on Friendship.” What was your talk about?

Prever: The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol showing a serpent in the form of a circle, and he’s in a circle because he’s swallowing his own tail. When I was younger, I took that as a symbol for myself, because I felt very closed up in myself—plagued by this sense of difference. I felt excommunicated from my fellow humans, and especially from my fellow men; and at the same time I had the strong sense that this was my own fault, as if all I had to do was let go of my own tail and I’d be fine—you know, just “be yourself,” like they say. So the talk was about the process of unknotting that knot—learning to love and be loved, to exist in relationship with other people, and not just as a closed system. Which is really the task that everyone faces; so, the Curse of the Ouroboros might really just be another name for original sin.

CWR: Can the curse afflict anyone, not just homosexuals? For example, some people are so consumed by their private or ideological readings of the Faith. That’s a curse too, isn’t it? How do we all overcome this curse?

Prever: Of course. I think a lot of people associate homosexuality with being turned inward, with a kind of narcissism. But this doesn’t sync up with my experience of actual gay men and women. There are narcissistic gay people just like there are narcissistic straight people, but it’s also terribly prejudiced to assume that someone is characterized by this kind of self-absorption just because he’s gay. Again, this contradicts our lived experience of meeting and getting to know actual men and women who are homosexual.

I think the only way anyone ever overcomes anything is by suffering in some way. To “suffer” originally meant “to undergo,” to be acted upon, to experience something outside the self. And in fact when we experience reality as existing independent of our own desires—especially when we experience other people as existing independent of our own desire—this does cause us to suffer, because suffering really just means not getting your own way.

But if we embrace this experience with the understanding that we have to conform ourselves to reality, and not the other way around—and if we embrace the experience of suffering while uniting our suffering to that of Jesus—that is when we start to overcome the curse, and that is when our suffering can become a source of healing, both for ourselves and for others; and that is when suffering turns us into compassionate people, instead of bitter people.

CWR: Some people seem to want the issue of homosexuality to go away. A good gay Catholic is a closeted gay Catholic, according to them. How can we welcome and accompany those people? What have you learned about how to deal with those people?

Prever: With questions like this, I always try to start from my own experience, because that’s more convincing than abstract arguments, and it’s also more difficult to refute. My own experience is that my life changed radically once I started letting people in on the secret of my homosexuality. For me, letting people in on this part of myself was a way to relinquish control over the image that other people had of me. It was a way to learn to be vulnerable, which is a prerequisite for any kind of intimate human relationship, and I think a prerequisite for holiness, too. It was a way to start to engage life in a different way, and to engage other people more deeply.

I have some sympathy for the idea that people should not make their sexual orientation public on the grounds that it will cause unnecessary pigeonholing, or simply because one’s sexual orientation isn’t everyone’s business. I do think the decision to come out, or when to come out, or to whom, is extremely personal, and I do think some people rush into it and then regret it later. I think it might not be advisable to come out young, since there’s a lot of sexual confusion among young people, and you want to be sure before you label yourself one thing or another.

But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach—it’s a matter between the individual and his or her spiritual director. To say that nobody should ever come out publicly—I can’t imagine what kind of knowledge or expertise would give anyone the right to make such a broad statement. And at the very least, I think the life of a gay person who wants to practice continence is totally impossible, not to mention incredibly painful, if he doesn’t make his orientation known to at least a select few.

CWR: Since you came out, have you become associated with the “Side B” group? Tell us about that group.

Prever: The “Side A / Side B” terminology originated with the Gay Christian Network as an easy way to refer to the two basic positions that gay Christians take. “Side A” Christians believe that there are some contexts in which same-sex sexual activity can be morally licit. “Side B” Christians believe that same-sex sexual activity is always morally wrong.

Other than that, Side B people don’t represent a single unified position. I do think that most people who use the “Side B” terminology tend to favor a more positive approach to homosexuality than has been sometimes taken. Many of us emphasize the need to move towards self-acceptance and away from shame. For this reason we often stay away from the language of “disorder” and “brokenness” that often surrounds the issue, even though we understand the reasons for using terms like these. Many of us are more comfortable with the term “gay” than Christians have sometimes been, for various reasons. But we are a pretty diverse group, and even the things I’ve mentioned here aren’t true of everyone who uses the term “Side B.”

CWR: How does a gay Catholic make his way in the Church? Do you feel called to a special task? Is your prayer different from your straight peers?

Prever: I tend not to believe that gay people in the Church are called to any particular task by the mere fact of being gay, but I’d say that at this particular cultural moment, some of us are called to be particularly vocal in the conversation that’s going on about homosexuality right now, only because that conversation is getting more urgent and more unavoidable. I’ve also heard the idea that gay people might have something to offer the Church that straight people don’t. I don’t know whether this is true, but I don’t usually find it helpful to generalize in this way.

Do I pray any differently from my straight peers? No, I don’t think so. We are all meant for union with God, and we are all meant to catch on fire with the Holy Spirit, one way or another. We’re all meant for love.

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About John Paul Shimek 0 Articles
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.