The La La Land test: a love letter to illogical Catholicism
I’m learning to accept this paradox, that what I once thought was darkness were actually lights.
"But they were supposed to be together!"
That was the beginning of the end for me, in many ways. You and I left the movie theater with the chasm between us finally cast into light. For two hours, we had watched La La Land. Aspiring actress Mia and jazz pianist Seb fall in love, fight, love, fight, and love again. In the last minutes, we are left with ambiguity about their relationship. And then, finally, in the movie's final moments, we discovered that Mia and Seb didn't end up together. They had chosen careers that drove them apart.
"That was so great!" I said while we walked to the car. "In the end, it wasn't just about romantic love. It was about the good of pursuing their art, about how that's worth choosing, and sometimes worth even giving up love for. It's about how you don't have to end up together."
You said what one young man wrote in Ethika Politika: "They chose wrong." You told me, "They were supposed to end up together!"
I thought about your conclusion for weeks, and then years.
In 2017, I was pursuing celibacy, even as I decided to start dating other men. It was going well at the time. I so badly wanted to live by Church teaching, to live the life that my Church leaders and graduate school professors and roommates wanted for me. The life that you wanted for me.
You did not agree with my decision to date, and you knew that I knew that. You believed that God wanted celibacy from me, that dating was "playing with fire," that I was deluding myself and letting "disordered desires" get the best of me. I was open to singleness, to the sublimation of desire into art and friendship and community. But I had also fallen in love before, had done it in a way that supported my faith commitments, and I believed that this could be a path for me.
You were one of my brilliant friends. You had read "all the right things," and more. You explained bits of the Theology of the Body to one of my atheist law school classmates at a house party. We shared many novel loves. You wanted a life of faithful orthodox passionate Catholic intentionality. You were the model graduate of the Catholic Studies Program of the University of St. Thomas. You were exactly what they hoped for.
I suspect I will never be. And so much of it came down to La La Land.
I wrote my own piece for Ethika Politika, a critique of what that young man had written. I can now admit that I also had you in mind:
"Chalk's piece turns La La Land into a cynical world 'that emanates from the epidemic of divorce,' where Mia and Sebastian adopt a 'pedestrian careerism' over the 'radical self giving' of erotic love. It's actually quite condescending how he calls the choice to pursue art rather than each other a 'pedestrian careerism,' as if everything should be sacrificed on the altar of sexual romanticism and the man or woman who doesn't pursue marital intimacy as an end-all-be-all is deluded in his or her aspirations to love and create. He ignores the fact that the Western tradition has viewed art as an essentially erotic work and that countless Christian artists lived unmarried lives, creating art that was inspired by their love of particular people but didn't necessarily diminish those loves because they weren't pursued in a marriage.
“Reading his article as a gay Catholic in pursuit of a very vibrant, complete, and loving life, I can't help but experience his piece as undervaluing, even if unintentionally, the validity of that life in a celibate context. And I read my friends' identifying reactions to his review in much the same way. I realize that this life isn't just up against a ‘secular’ worldview, but an entire culture within which we all live, and which resides within each of us. Chalk, like many of us including myself, criticizes a culture to which he mistakenly views himself external, rather than as a participant, beneficiary, and unwitting contributor. We are all the authors of Windsor.
“One might wonder how Chalk's review would change if the two stars were in a same-sex relationship, whether Chalk (and many of my friends) might praise them for finding beauty in art rather than in a homo-erotic relationship. I would still consider it an achievement, and for the same reasons I have given above. I believe, however, that Chalk's reasons would have to change, absent an argument that same-sex love is somehow less valuable than even 'pedestrian careerism.' I wouldn't want to speculatively attribute such a view to him, but I'd happily attribute it to American Christian culture at large."
One of my own failures at the time was a failure to take the advice: "When someone tells you something, believe them."
I saw that, for all of those studies, for all the time we'd spent together, for all the care and concern and love you had for me, something wasn't quite right. I saw that you, that ideal Catholic Studies graduate, were saying things about queer people that didn't make sense. If I lived the logic of the romantic life you created for yourself, then I would sacrifice that pursuit of sublimation and just accept that romance was the calling which merited the sacrifice of everything else, even my tenuous “belonging” in my Catholic community.
I realized that your approach to queer people wasn't an extension of a logic of love, but a break in logic. I realized that the rules didn't apply in the same way for both of us. There were two rules. For straight people, romantic love was the greatest pursuit and most real connection, and sacrificing it for something like art or a career was a failure of humanity. But for queer people, romantic love was a death sentence. Queer people were doomed to a “less real” love and second-rate relationships, and yet the Church also claimed to offer us the greatest love? If Seb and Mia were failures when it came to love, then all the Church had to offer my love was failure. The only way I could make sense of it was to admit that it didn't make sense.
For some reason, and for so long, I forced myself into that difficult nonsensical life.
And now this is the La La Land test: If you believe that Mia and Seb made the "wrong choice," then your belief that people like me can lead our fullest lives without romantic commitments doesn't make sense. Your belief is not one of logical sense, but of self-service. And I shouldn't seek to live by your rules for me. You need to sort out your own confusions about love and faith before you start making judgments about mine.
From there, it all made sense. The theologizing of the body was often not a pursuit of "the tradition" or of the logic of creation. It was the pursuit of something that served you and not us. I want theologizing to serve you. I want your happiness.
And somewhere between there and here, I realized that I wanted my happiness, too.
In the end, you were making the arguments of so many super-Catholic Catholics, those which inadvertently became arguments for same-sex love and marriage. You weren't the only one. It was everywhere. It is everyone. It's the marriage prep program, the one from the Augustine Institute, "Beloved," where they talk about "Why Marriage Matters" and give statistics about how people who are married live longer, how they have more successful careers, how more marriage leads to less violence in society. People like me hear that and immediately see the argument for same-sex marriage. If those statistics are the case, and they're the ones we want to emphasize, then is the Church condemning gay people to shorter lives by denying us marriage? Is the denial of marriage for us a public health issue? Is that "Why Marriage Matters" for people like me?
The Church is constantly giving us mixed messages, the highest expectations and then structures that set us up for failure. And everyone else gets celebrated. I now realize that so much of their celebration is because they are not us.
When someone tells you something, believe them.
I choose to believe the Augustine Institute.
So I decide to choose differently, to let go of that illogical logic. For so long, I believed that you could be right about only one or the other, that either romantic love is the thing that must be pursued or that people like me shouldn't pursue it. But maybe you were wrong about both. And I needed time to learn to accept it.
For a long time, I felt angry with you. I felt angry for that illogical logic that you never seemed to grasp, for the ways that it tore at my being, that it cut me apart in the places where you failed to see it didn't fit together, for all the concessions that were allowed for people like you, for all the doors cut out of walls that you never wanted me to walk through.
But then I did. And, if I'm being honest, I'm not sure I could have done it without you. I think back on so many conversations between us, so many views you shared with me, and I now see them as little lights strung along a pathway to somewhere else. I still have a long ways to go. But I’m learning to accept this paradox, that what I once thought was darkness were actually lights. In the end, I decided to believe you. And that was how I came to see it. Now every Catholic who spouts off nonsense in response to my love feels like validation. I think that is grace. That is God.
So thank you. This is it. This part of me loves you. I want happiness for you. And that happiness you never really wanted for me... I can want it for myself. Maybe one day we’ll both bask in freedom, in the light of our loves. In the meantime, I’ll celebrate it for the both of us.
I think this is improper logic. I understand the basic view expressed here. I have suffered from this in my own life. As a man attracted to other men (I don’t particularly care what term you attach to this basic definition) I have dealt with people telling me that being single, not dating, not pursuing romantic interests, and never marrying is no big deal. I’ve even, rather callously, been told that being single is wonderful because you can keep all the money you earn for yourself and buy a big, expensive home and fill it with expensive things. As if money and stuff is an adequate substitute for human companionship. Usually, I was told these things by married persons. Obviously in their own lives, they chose to pursue someone they were attracted to, to date, marry, and have children. I used to respond, “What if I took all that away from you? How happy do you think you’d be?” I certainly don’t want to deny anyone, anything, nor do I have any issue with the sexual ethics of the Church. My issue always lay with the lack of consideration and empathy shown to me and people like me. I never felt like I was being treated as a real person. The feelings, the desires, and the needs that everyone else had, didn’t seem to apply to me and I didn’t understand how people could so comfortably seek to deprive me of the very things they had pursued and prized in their own lives. Of course, this ultimately has nothing to do with other people or their supposed will for my life.
Much of what has come out of my mouth over the years in relationship to this topic has come from a place of intense hurt, anger, and a sense of extreme injustice. The Church has always been hard on issues of sexuality, as it has a very rigorous moral standard. Theology of the Body and its acceptance in the Church has in part been because there are many hetero Catholics who have felt a great deal of shame simply because they have a desire for sex or because they enjoy it. So for many, it’s been a way of embracing their own sexuality in a positive way and shaking off the shackles of shame. At the same time, they have elevated human sexuality and marriage to a degree that perhaps is out of proportion. We have to remember that priests are celibate and that our religious take vows of chastity. These things are not just sacrifices or hardships to be endured. Their lives are not miserable, or they don’t have to be. Spiritual marriage is real and by this, I mean marriage to God. Celibacy is not possible without a deeply profound relationship with Jesus, though this is not easy.
I recently went on a retreat partially organized by Theology of the Body. While many of the ideas presented are beautiful and provide straight Catholics a more dignified understanding of their sexuality, it does so almost to the detriment of those who remain single and unmarried. I’m sure this is not the intention, but it does feel like a silent critique of the celibate/single lifestyle, which is even more baffling when considering the history and tradition of celibacy in the life of the Church. Obviously, there isn’t necessarily anything in Theology of the Body for the same-sex attracted, at least when looking for a way to embrace the reality of your sexuality and to incorporate it into life as a Catholic. Much of this retreat was focused on understanding the dignity and purpose of sexuality, with the conclusion being that not only can the same-sex attracted not pursue relationships, but that the same-sex attracted shouldn’t exist because the attraction in of itself is an assault on the natural order. It was said by one of the speakers that a man is not really a man unless he dates. He needs to date for self-actualization. The overall theme was that we are all a bunch of halves, walking around, looking for our other half. There are a lot of things wrong with this, but that is too much to get into here. It’s really an extreme interpretation of the Biblical narrative of Adam and Eve and the idea that “it is not good for man to be alone.” It turns us all into these desperate, grasping individuals who are looking for wholeness from another, rather than developing a secure, loving relationship with God and then bringing a complete, whole, and secure person into a relationship with another so that we can give and not just take.
By the end of this retreat, it was understood that the same-sex attracted should just choose to date someone of the opposite sex if they wanted to begin to be “healed” and to be complete. I’d heard this many times before, but I was shocked that there wasn’t any place for celibacy. In fact, celibacy was seen as a cop-out. Really this group of people represented many same-sex attracted who were attempting to live by the traditional Christian ideal and were struggling to figure out how. There are only so many options: 1.) Accept sexuality and remain single. 2.) Accept sexuality and date. 3.) Don’t accept sexuality and choose to date someone of the opposite sex. The real conundrum for those who adopt the first option is how to live and how to interact with your sexuality (if at all), how to identify, and how to love yourself. The issue for those who embrace the second option is that it is difficult to remain in the Church, so you either leave or seek to change the Church. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be understood that uprooting and disposing of the Church’s teachings on sexuality will deal a mortal blow to the Church by shattering its foundation and destroying any authority it has. At which point, the Church is superfluous and this conversation need not be had.
I get that we all just want to find a way to live, to be happy and whole and to not feel degraded and abused all the time. Many describe my attraction to men as a cross. I’ve often responded with, “What makes it a cross is the unkindness of others.” Celibacy can be a tough pill to swallow, especially when it feels imposed upon you. It can also be hard to make sense of why God has allowed you to be gay. You wonder, “What is the purpose? Don’t You want me to be happy, Jesus?” I’m not sure there are any happy answers, not for the religious gay man at least. Not everything or everyone comes to a happy end and we don’t always get our way. For the gay man who chooses to date and marry women, this is a lack of acceptance of an obvious reality and perhaps, even a form of self-hatred. For the gay Catholic seeking compromise, I’m not sure there is one and this represents another inability to accept reality. The Church’s teaching on sexuality cannot be undone. If it is, it is the end.