"Is he orthodox?"
Church teaching is like a brick: it can be used to build a home, or it can be used to smash windows.
Since I started writing about being gay and Catholic roughly ten years ago, I have regularly gotten the reaction from fellow Catholics: "Well, if you identify as gay, that's just taking one step down the road to rejecting Church teaching." I know that, as other LGBTQ+ Christians have explored my writings, fellow Christians have warned them similarly. They've been told, "You don't want to read his stuff, he's just going to go off the deep end eventually."
I was trained in the Western philosophical tradition, which involves exploring arguments and considering various points of view, and doing analysis, integration, and critique to try to get to the truth of things. I loved Catholicism for its philosophical power and tradition, for its investment in difficult questions and its ability to provide answers.
In recent years, however, I've come to appreciate some of the psychological dangers associated with the ways in which the Catholic intellectual tradition, and critical analysis, is often presented. Looking back, I now realize that the "truth seekers" I often admired in Catholic circles had reinforced blinding insecurities that have prevented me and others from asking good questions. That is, they often conditioned us to experience fear instead of curiosity, and to prioritize security rather than the truth.
For example, I've been told at various points that (1) Catholicism is the real intellectual powerhouse compared to other traditions and that (2) the Catholic tradition will ultimately stand up and win when challenged by any other intellectual tradition or by any positions contrary to the Church's teachings. I have also been told at various points that, in part because of this, (3) people who don't agree with the Church's teachings just "don't get it." They're intellectually lazy or misguided or blind. If someone disagrees with Church teaching, the argument goes, it's because they lack adequate intellectual virtue. I also situated myself in communities that placed high priority on intellectual excellence, seeing it as a marker for general achievement. I now see that where all this positioning can lead is the creation of psychological barriers to intellectual inquiry and open discourse, and also the temptation to shoehorn contrary positions into a haphazard and unsustainable pseudo-integration. I know it. I’ve done it.
The shoehorning cuts in both directions. Suppose someone grew up in conditions and communities similar to mine, and he places high priority on Catholic orthodoxy, while at the same time trying to make sense of his experiences as a gay man in a positive way. On the one hand, he may get excited about a change in perspective he needs to make but which, unknown to him at the time, is in conflict with the Christian tradition in ways he does not see. In that situation, he might force a number of mental gymnastics to try to shoehorn that perspective into what he thinks is an integration with Christian orthodoxy, but which may eventually disastrously implode. This occurs in large part because, since he is so fearful of stepping outside of orthodoxy, once he sees something as orthodox he must defend it as orthodox at all costs. Orthodoxy here becomes an all-or-nothing game of irreconcilably opposed opposites.
For example, I have heard at various points that a “homosexual identity” is an identity centered upon intrinsically disordered desires and, thus, it is an injustice to use the term “homosexual” as an adjective to describe a person. (One proponent of this position is the former leader of Courage International, Fr. Paul Check.) A moral genealogy of the term “homosexual” is given, presenting the term as arising from the modern era’s promotion of sexual license. I had also been taught to reject “modernity,” and to accept instead the “natural law tradition” which rejects such labels. So in my late teens and early twenties I eagerly adopted this position as part of my commitment to Catholic “orthodoxy.” I looked around at the time, and most of the people I knew who promoted the adoption of a “homosexual” or “gay” identity held some positions I considered at variance with Catholic orthodoxy. And so I dismissed any arguments they made in favor of such an identity, holding that this adoption is associated with and will lead to other forms of heterodoxy. If I adopted the use of a “homosexual” or “gay” identity, other aspects of Catholicism would fall apart.
What I did not see, however, was that my position was at variance with Catholicism, at least as it is presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism uses the term “homosexual persons.” And so, to the extent I rejected the use of such a term, I was rejecting the Catechism. But, if I accepted this argument as valid, then would I be rejecting my previous frameworks for orthodoxy, especially given that the most prominent defenders of orthodoxy promoted those frameworks?
In this situation, which comes out of a fixation on orthodoxy, orthodoxy is something that becomes crystalized and thus extremely fragile. The fear of stepping outside of orthodoxy has, ironically, made orthodoxy both dangerous and endangered. And when that crystalized orthodoxy does shatter, the most natural consequence for many is to just reject orthodoxy, and Christianity generally, altogether. It’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy.
The Unasked Questions
Such a Catholic may be conditioned to not really consider certain questions or ideas at all. Consider the Catholic whose ultimate fear is "becoming a heretic," whose communities equate moral righteousness with notional orthodoxy and moral failing with heterodoxy, and, accordingly, for whom goodness and orthodoxy are inseparably intertwined and nearly synonymous realities. We’ll call this person Peter. For Peter, hearing, "stepping down that path will lead you away from orthodoxy," will prevent them from putting a single foot on the path. He will thus be prevented from walking down a bit to see where it might lead, or who he might see along the way.
Jonathan Lear gives an example of a similar challenge:
“Children can learn to say ‘no!’ to utter their protests before they learn how to negate propositions. Indeed, children can scream ‘no!’ as a way of disrupting their parents’ attempts to tell them what to do. The parents may not be able to finish their sentence — or the child’s scream will drown it out. The children are not thereby forming the contradictory judgment to that of their parents. In some cases, they are attacking their parents’ attempts to make the judgment at all.”
Lear, in his book Freud, argues that we can also do this to ourselves. We can become conditioned to encounter psychologically challenging situations with this same response: when we encounter something that scares us, we can deploy psychological reflexes to keep ourselves from having to really encounter the thing we fear.
Consider again Peter. He may see others walking down different paths who appear to be holding on to "orthodoxy." But he will be conditioned to tell himself, "Well, sure, they're orthodox for now. But they're on that path, so it won't last." Or Peter will tell himself, "That person says he's orthodox, but he's either lying or deluded." Peter will have these reactions, not because of what he has observed, learned, or considered himself, but because of what he's been psychologically conditioned to think — or, rather, to not think. Instead of asking questions, engaging in dialogue, or doing critical analysis, he is blocked from genuine curiosity, compassion, and consideration by psychological barriers.
Again, note how such responses don't function to overcome arguments, but to prevent them. To the extent they do this, they are anti-intellectual, anti-rational. They are signs of psychological conditioning, rather than intellectual rigor. They suggest to the outside observer that, contrary to what many Catholics might claim, Catholicism is not an intellectual powerhouse and the Catholic tradition can't overcome challenges.
None of this is to say that those paths won't lead to heterodoxy. Perhaps they will. But it is to say that Peter and those like him have been conditioned to believe two contrary things: that his tradition and community are those with the courage and capacity to see reality as it is, and that one must not engage in certain considerations because of the specter of possible heterodoxy. If Peter comes to realize this, he might be inclined, not just towards heterodoxy, but a rejection of the orthodoxy that he now recognizes is based on psychological control rather than on the power of principle.
"Is he orthodox?"
When this all filters down into Catholic culture, it often comes in the form of the question: "Is he orthodox?" A friend recently shared something that I wrote, and one Catholic gave a common response: "This is a helpful piece. But I saw he identifies as 'gay.' Does he mean that he struggles with same-sex-attraction, or is he openly engaging in homosexuality?" The question sought details about my sexual life to make a determination concerning the validity of my ideas.
The interesting thing about this response is that it has little bearing on the content of the piece itself. In terms of the closed world of the piece, it could have been written by someone who loves Church teaching on homosexuality or someone who hates it. What this response reveals is something more akin to a cult consideration than to a serious intellectual question. It's a form of objectification meant to color or discolor anything I write, regardless of the merits of my arguments on their own terms. It demands and lives in a world of bad faith.
Thomas Flynn writes of a form of bad faith, in the existentialist sense: "[One form of bad faith] allows another subject to determine the 'identity' to which we try to conform... He has become the slave to an image that others' expectations have imposed on him and which he has appropriated... [T]he agent dismisses any other kind of behaviour as inconceivable... Pre-reflectively, he is aware of the game but reflectively, he has focused on the job to be done in this particular way and chosen to overlook his sustaining project of excluding other possibilities."
This form of bad faith occurs when, for example, a gay Christian accepts the narrow objectified identity as "orthodox" in a way that is proscriptively controlling of the entire identity and excludes the complexity of a full human person. To use an example from Flynn, it is like a waiter who is unable to engage others in any way except as a waiter. Bad faith would be also encouraged by others who refuse to engage the man in any way except and insofar as he is a waiter. They are unable to conceive of him in any other way, and thus they are unable to engage him if he conceives of himself differently.
It's a sort of cult dynamic where "orthodox Catholics" are really only able to maintain bonds with other "orthodox Catholics." This may be why, in my experience, such groups tend to be largely homogenous, in terms of race, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, and other characteristics, where outliers tend to be tokenized, where they, in G. K. Chesterton's words, are the "exceptions that prove the rule." "Orthodoxy" in this conception is often tightly wound up in a conception of "the good life" centered on marital chastity, right wing politics, and "traditional" piety. This would help to explain the expectations of a shared background for group membership. I recall, for example, a student from my Catholic Studies program who felt he could never really "fit in" to the program because he came from a family with divorced parents. I recall another student who broke up with his girlfriend because he believed her background from a family with divorce would make marriage for her unnecessarily challenging.
The narrower the conception of "orthodoxy," the more personal histories and characteristics will be scrutinized, whether directly or indirectly, and certain groups unable to find belonging. These dynamics will be largely invisible to those already in the group, because the lack of "belonging" will be attributed to "unorthodoxy," rather than to the group dynamics which discourage or prohibit the coexistence of both "orthodoxy" and the person's background or characteristics. This is partly why "orthodox Catholic" groups tend to insist that LGBTQ+ persons not discuss their sexual orientation, while endlessly talking about their own sexual-romantic interests. The rules of the game are not neutral, but exclusionary. But they are given a sense of "neutrality" to those who are able to operate within them without having to undergo self-scrutiny or spiritual self-mutilation. It feels and is presented as "natural" because it takes their experiences as natural. This can also help us understand why Christian apologists give such bad advice (especially on issues of sexuality).
In the same program, the Catholic Studies program (from which I received my Masters degree), it would be common for students to ask of someone, “Is he orthodox?” Students would ask this about Catholic speakers coming to campus, about Catholic authors they would read, about priests they didn’t know, about new professors, and even about potential friends.
On the one hand, the question could serve an orienting role, so that the student had a foundational basis upon which to engage the person. A commitment to Catholic notional orthodoxy involves a number of intellectual and spiritual dispositions, and so knowing whether one has a commitment can help one jump more quickly into another’s work. This is the case for any number of positions that could be held by a person.
But for the most part, the question played an anti-rational role. It was not used to provided an orientation point from which to begin engagement, but as a gate to determine whether engagement really occurred at all. It’s the difference between a person who listens to hear and a person who listens to respond. Where engagement did occur, the orthodoxy question usually did not serve to provide a framework of positions with which to engage, but to determine whether one engaged the work of that other with an expectation of goodwill or with a committed skepticism which was primarily in search of breaking points in their work. It was a litmus test. It served to help identify whether you needed to fix or (if you couldn’t fix) reject the other.
I myself am often the subject of litmus tests. When I write about being gay in the Church, the first response of many Catholics is: Do you agree with Church teaching?
Perhaps the most offensive time I received this response was when I shared my story of having a job offer working for the Holy See rescinded after sharing that I was gay. (If they had read the story, they would have known that at the time I was speaking publicly about being a gay Catholic in defense of Church teaching.) It's hard for me to understand the point of this question, other than to dismiss my experience of unjust discrimination. The question often only functions as a way to objectify and dismiss gay Christians.
The question is not inherently bad. There may be times when people ask it, hoping to work through their own questions about Church teaching. So at times, I'll now respond:
Question in return. Is this question:
1. A litmus test for me?
2. Something you're wondering about yourself and want to explore together?
If the latter, then I may be willing to engage, as a way of mutually exploring hard questions together in good faith. But if the person only wants an answer to the question so that they can know which box to put me in ("orthodox" or "unorthodox"), then I'm not interested in answering. I ask hard questions in order to explore hard questions, and I'm no longer interested in being objectified in bad faith by other Christians.
There’s a possible shift to a new place, one which actually believes both in the the power of the Church and in the value of asking the hard questions. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that many people fall into two camps: one of orthodox hererodoxy and one of heterodox orthodoxy. Pure orthodoxy and pure heresy are rare, if they can be found in this life at all. Instead, most of us shade in and out of these in various times, in conflicting and confusing ways.
One way to lean towards orthodoxy heterodoxy is through a preoccupation with orthodoxy. The tendency towards orthodox heterodoxy is a tendency to latch on to various forms of heterodoxy that operate under the guise of orthodoxy. There are various ways in which preoccupations with orthodoxy can lead to disorder. At times, this disorder can be related to fundamental fears about the strength of the Church. A need to grasp onto notional orthodoxy can at times betray insecurities about the Church’s ability to withstand scrutiny, development, and change. If the Church can change, according to this position, then the Church is weak. In its darker forms, orthodoxy-making can be so distorted that it even helps support the dynamics behind atrocities like institutionalized child abuse.
On the other hand, the acceptance of a heterodox orthodoxy, arising with the tendency to do whatever it takes to find the truth, including challenging our own conceptions of the truth or positions on the truth defined by certain persons in positions of influence and authority, can be an acceptance of the fundamental strength of the Church. Accepting the label of “heretic” or “heterodox” from the power brokers of the Church can, paradoxically, evidence one’s fundamental belief in the Church. Christian theology is often characterized by paradoxes, and this may be a paradox fundamental to Christian belief.
Orthodoxy: Good or Bad?
None of this is to say that Christian orthodoxy is bad. Instead, I would argue that "orthodoxy" is something that tends to be used and abused by Christian communities. Rather than being a pathway to Christ, lights to the Good News, "orthodoxy" is often used as a tool to oppress, marginalize, and self-affirm. This is a form of orthodoxy which goes against the type of thing with the Church is. That is, it is a form of heresy. As a friend recently told me, “If this doctrine was true, it wouldn’t hurt me in this way.” (One might question whether the problem was the “doctrine” or the way it was presented, but that is a question for another time.) Another friend once told me that Church teaching is like a brick: it can be used to build a home, or it can be used to smash windows. Part of the problem for many Catholics is that they can no longer tell the difference.
I'm very tired of all the window smashing. And I'm sorry for the ways I've done it in the past.
In other words: if you’re looking to me to be an exemplar of an easy Catholic orthodoxy, you won’t find what you’re looking for. Maybe they were right. Maybe I am going off the deep end. And maybe that’s what it really means to believe in the Church, to dive in to the deep.