Gay Catholic Disclosure as Civil Disobedience
Sometimes “be like Jesus” means, “Be annoying to people in authority, and don’t really answer their questions.”
“‘You gotta wise up. The oligarchs love it when you use the passive voice in any form whatsoever. That’s their first victory over us… Every victim has got to be a willing accomplice to his victimization, even grammatically, don’t you know that?’ he asked.”
- from Charles Baxter’s The Sun Collective
Much of my life has been characterized by guilt-laden disclosures. When I first came out as gay roughly ten years ago, many Christians responded by saying that my new “gay identity” was a blight on my faith, an identity fundamentally inconsistent with Christian faithfulness. A few years later, when I met with my pastor for spiritual direction for the first time and shared my sexual orientation, he responded with, “Why do you feel the need to share that the first time you meet someone?” Then he talked about the sin of pride. I was pressured into feeling that, in sharing this part of myself, I was doing something wrong. That part of me was shamed into silence.
I felt that way, again, when I wrote publicly that I had an internship offer rescinded by both the Holy See and my Catholic university because of my sexuality. Even though all that I was doing was shedding light on unjust discrimination I had experienced, I felt in some twisted way that I was wronging the Church and my school by my disclosure. I felt a worry that, by sharing my experience, I was harming the Church. Others, including those who have been abused in Catholic parishes, have felt similarly when bringing their stories forward.
Over the years, I’ve come to own my disclosures. I’ve learned that I should take pride in them. By shedding light on injustice, we participate in God’s justice and charity. We are transformed from victims to moral agents. And we become more ourselves.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and others can help us make sense of this. LGBTQ+ Catholics would do well to study the struggle for civil rights and Black liberation. Pathways towards both immediate and long-term liberation can be found in the struggle of African American Christianity and, in particular, the Christianity of Dr. King. His ideas concerning civil disobedience can help LGBTQ+ persons transcend our status as victims of unjust discrimination in our churches and take on new roles as agents of social change.
In his essay “Beyond Critical Legal Studies: The Reconstructive Theology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Anthony E. Cook examines the ways in which King’s work can both expand upon and provide correctives to Critical Legal Studies.1 As part of his essay, Cook looks at the seemingly paradoxical way that King both promotes and challenges “law and order” through his idea of civil disobedience.
For King, unjust laws should be resisted because they are “out of harmony with the moral law… [and are] not rooted in eternal and natural law.” In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King writes: “I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.'”
At the same time, King believed in the goodness of law and order in society. According to Cook, King “refused to place the goal of a reconstructive community above the means used to achieve it.” So King would openly disobey the law, and then willingly accept the punishment prescribed by law. This submission to legal consequences for his activity was, paradoxically, subversive. When the punishment and the horrific tactics of enforcement were given attention through media coverage of mass civil disobedience, the injustice of the law came out into the light and became visible to the public. Cook writes, “Through civil disobedience, one could simultaneously demonstrate respect for the rule of law in preserving social order while opposing laws supportive of unjust social orders.” Indeed, through mass nonviolent civil disobedience, the application of the law would be the means by which its injustice would be highlighted. King would force the law to act so that it could expose itself as evil. Injustice would be thrown into the light.
Through nonviolent mass civil disobedience, then, King and others are transformed from victims of an unjust law which coerces them into oppression, and they become agents of change who coerce the law to act and expose itself as unjust. They are immediately liberated from the role of victim, making themselves agents of truth. And they simultaneously work towards the long-term liberation of society from the unjust law they are exposing.
LGBTQ+ Discrimination in the Church
LGBTQ+ persons in the Church would do well to learn from King when considering our own experiences of unjust discrimination. Many of us have experienced discrimination in the Church and have suffered quietly, mostly isolated, though occasionally sharing our stories and experiences with others as we process our religious traumas. Doing so in the dark, however, runs the risk that we will be stuck in our status as victims and that we will fail to take advantage of what the injustices we have experienced might facilitate.
Consider, instead, what might be achieved through sharing stories openly en masse to highlight unjust policies and practices. Consider what might happen if, rather than treating our stories as isolated incidents committed by individual actors, we join together our stories of unjust discrimination to highlight a deeper narrative, one in which large portions of the Church maintain unjust policies and practices which marginalize and harm LGBTQ+ Catholics. When joined together, these attacks are attacks by Church leaders generally against LGBTQ+ persons generally. Bringing these stories into the light collectively can help transform the story from being about a few people harmed to being about unjust policies and practices that need to be addressed and changed systemically.
Second, we should bring forward ourselves as LGBTQ+ persons, as well as our stories of unjust discrimination, so that the Church will be compelled to respond, whether through further marginalization of our communities, adverse employment activity, reactionary and harmful statements by those in positions of power and influence, or even with silence. (Ideally, concerted action will occur in such a way as to make silence a non-option.) Bringing ourselves and our stories forward for unjust retaliation repositions us from passive victims of discrimination to moral agents who compel injustice and evil to show themselves for what they are.
It’s certainly understandable that many LGBTQ+ Christians would not be able to share their stories at this point. For some, their careers and livelihoods are dependent upon silence. Others may simply not want to come forward, rightly recognizing that the remedy for queerphobia in the Church should not fall on the shoulders of LGBTQ+ people. But for those who come forward, even as individuals, their stories and the paradoxically humble boldness with which they receive injustice in response to disclosure, serve to subvert the power dynamics of queerphobia, forcing evil to expose itself and empowering them to take on the role of moral agent working towards social change in accord with the Christian vision.
The Function of Identity
The only way that queerphobia, homophobia, and other unjust harms against the LGBTQ+ community can continue would be for those of us in these communities to fall more deeply into the margins through silence. Not everyone must speak out, but it is through speaking out that our experiences of harm can be used to combat those harms. The harms we have experienced can be the means by which we are empowered. That is, through our stories, we can turn evil back against itself.
This is one reason why silence is so important to the persons and structures which want to maintain the ability to continue these harms. It is one reason why many Christians pressure LGBTQ+ persons not identify as LGBTQ+. If we do not have a coherent and shared identity, then we cannot articulate the ways in which harms are directed towards us as a group.
“Color-blindness” functions similarly when it comes to racism. If society refuses to identify race, then society will be unable to identify racism, and racism is given free reign to perpetuate itself. So for those of us who are members of the BIPOC community, the first step in combatting racism is accepting and proclaiming our racial histories and communities. Just as “color-blindness” arguments tend to shut down conversations about racism (and thus protect racism), arguments against “LGBTQ+ identity” can function to prevent addressing problems and concerns specific to LGBTQ+ people. So the first step in combatting unjust discrimination and harm against LGBTQ+ persons is for us to identify as members of this community. In identifying ourselves, we have already begun the process of subversion against the practices and policies of evil.
This has been especially powerful when gay priests have “come out,” often to the chagrin of their dioceses. The “coming out” is a singular process that cannot be undone. This is why all of the power of silence on the part of oppressors is pushed against that singular act. Once a gay priest “comes out,” the power of silence dissipates, along with all of the hopes and dreams that those in power had placed in lifelong hiddenness. If those in power have placed all their chips on the bet that they can keep gay priests in the closet permanently, they are forced to confront a reality they are unprepared for when a gay priest opens up about his experiences. And that gay priest subverts the power structure, becoming the real authority on the role that silence and hiddenness play in the lives of clergy today. He speaks himself into public being, and in this way he creates a new space for gay priests everywhere.
Some might say that this confrontation-via-open-disobedience-to-silence is a form of escalation, something that a “true Christian” would forego for a more “gentle” and cooperative approach to social and ecclesial change. But the Gospels themselves suggest something quite different. Consider how Jesus responds when he is questioned, first by the Sanhedrin and then by Pontius Pilate.
When Jesus is brought before the Sanhedrin for questioning, he is asked by the chief priest about the rumors that he will destroy the temple and build another one. We might expect any normal person to explain that this is all a misunderstanding, to answer the religious authority directly. But instead, Jesus just stands in silence, giving no answer. And then when Jesus is asked if he is “the anointed one, the son of the blessed one,” Jesus responds in a bizarre way. He says, “I am, and you’ll see the son of mankind sitting to the right of the power and coming with the clouds of the sky.” If I saw someone respond to a religious authority in this way today, I would think he was being incredibly obnoxious and that he wanted to piss off the priest. Or he was mentally unstable.
Jesus is similarly annoying when Pontius Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds with a non-response, saying, “You say so.” Pilate questions Jesus again, and Jesus doesn’t respond. If this happened in a courtroom today, the defendant on the stand could be guilty of contempt of court. If we read these passages through the context of normal human relations, we might wonder whether Jesus is egging on the religious and civil authorities. One is tempted to think, “Things might have gone better for Jesus if he would have just cooperated with the authorities.” (See also Jesus’ argument with the high priests in Mark 11. This should also caution Christians inclined to ask whether black Americans killed by the police were “cooperative.”)
Even if Jesus were egging them on, he perhaps had good reason to do so. But so do our gay Christian brothers and sisters when faced with the previous injustices they encounter in the Church. Sometimes “be like Jesus” means, “Be annoying to people in authority, and don’t really answer their questions.”
This mode of discourse in the face of legal questioning is something that was imitated in the early Church. The early martyrdom account of Deacon Sanctus tells of his interaction with the civil authorities:
“But he opposed them with such firmness that he did not tell them even his own name, nor that of his nation or city, nor if he were slave or free. In answer to all these questions, he said in Latin, ‘I am a Christian.'”
When many Christians were facing persecution, and even martyrdom, they would be asked their names. Often, they would respond: “Christian.” They would take up that which was persecuted, the name which their persecutors sought to remove from the face of the earth, and make it their whole identity. In receiving persecution through the identification of who they were, they gave power to this identity, and also brought themselves together into a shared community.
When gay Christians come forward and are mistreated for doing so, some may be inclined to say, “Well, they created this situation, so they asked for the mistreatment.” This argument would be similar to saying, “Jesus deserved to be crucified.”
Lessons Learned and then Cross-Applied
“Coming out” and coming forward are acts that drive justice. They participate in in the life of Christ by activating the memory of the injustice faced by Christ, and allowing us space to connect our lives to His. If we are unjustly condemned, then like Christ and like Dr. King, we can still dwell in a place of hope for what is to come, even if only after our own time on earth and through others who have found inspiration in the risks we have taken for the betterment of society.
These are only some lessons and possible ways forward that might be gleaned from looking at the work of Dr. King and others. Of course, the lessons gained from Dr. King, and from African American Christianity generally, should not be received and appropriated in a unidirectional manner. If one gains insight from and finds meaning in the lessons that Dr. King and others provide, it behooves oneself to take those lessons and apply them in joining the struggle against racism and towards racial justice and charity. The lessons of the Black community can be a gift for us; we can accept this gift, and then offer our own gifts to the Black community as well.
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Critical Legal Studies was a movement in the United States that started in the 1970s and aimed at challenging what was perceived to be the “neutrality” of legal doctrines and exposing the ways in which the law marginalized certain groups in society.