I have spoken to literally hundreds of gay men.
Just as I used to be, the vast majority are former Catholics, usually having been raised in a Catholic home and attending Catholic parochial schools. After hearing this: I always ask: “Are you still Catholic.” The answer is almost unanimously: “No!” I inquire: “Why?” Here, the answers are strikingly similar. And, they have absolutely nothing to do with words like “disorder” that some Catholics say are off-putting in the Church’s language about homosexual acts. In fact, none have even heard of it in terms of Catholicism and homosexuality.
[See also: How the Famous Sell Their Soul to Satan]
In reality, the reason they leave is rather simple, like many in my generation, heterosexual and homosexual alike: it was just plain apathy. Especially for gay men, with a world of “love” and acceptance awaiting in the gay world, the Church seemed irrelevant. What could compete with instant fulfillment after a life filled with isolation and emptiness?
Looking back to the point when I gave up any still lingering allegiance to Christ or His Church, it wasn’t so much a singular moment in time, but a process that started in childhood. And, this is where I would make the argument that gay men do not leave the Church because it is too conservative, but because it is too liberal.
As gay men, growing up rather confused and isolated, as adults we become instinctively attracted to order and community: this is evidenced in the often obsessive fastidiousness of gay men and the rather fascistic pecking order of masculine dominance seen everywhere from gay porn to the local dance club and bar. Gay men are also preoccupied with an apparently endless calendar of social and political events: parades, rallies, street fairs – at which, although attended my thousands, they seem to know and hug everyone. Combined with this, is a near indestructible love of beauty. In the midst of bloated and blotched bodies dying of AIDS, gay men still worshiped the beautiful male form. I saw it everywhere in gay porn; believing it, I half expected to arrive in San Francisco and see no one that was sick.
In the post-1960s Vatican II era, the church-going experience, at least in California, become a rather sappy and folkish affair with guitar playing and lots of hand-holding. In the late-80s, I was fascinated by some ex-Catholic homosexual men that I knew who oftentimes made pilgrimages to high-Anglican services, relishing the beauty of the music and the graceful gestures of the ritual. In Catholicism, the once exquisite church interiors, in particular the lush poly-chrome statues of the Saints, were stripped in favor of a more clean and decidedly un-ethnic appearance. The florid sort of Italian-Catholicism I grew up with at home was nowhere to be seen in our local church-in-the-round.
But, at the same time, in the late-70s to early-80s, gay culture was exploding, reaching a high-point with Madonna and her music-video “Like a Prayer,” a cunningly deceptive, but stunning, piece of propaganda which mixed old-world Catholic imagery and pornography. The powerful iconography that Catholicism was no longer interested in, Madonna picked up. In my head, this was real. What felt incredibly false was being forced to sing once again the tired lyrics to “The Sounds of Silence” at our school Mass.
And, just like the men I talk with, as boys and teenagers, we had absolutely no idea what the Church taught with regards to homosexuality. Despite what some imagine, I never experienced a rejection from the Church. No one ever spilled vitriol about homosexuality, said I was going to hell, or made me feel like I had a “disorder.” If anything, I came to believe that gay was rather inconsequential; like masturbation, a private matter that we didn’t discuss.
During my twelve years in Catholic school, I can recall the subject of sexuality only being mentioned once: a rather intense looking associate pastor at our church, filled-in as our instructor for “Religion” class. During that hour, our laywoman teacher was nowhere to be seen. When she got back, in the middle of his recitation concerning the evils of masturbation, I could plainly see that she was irked. Afterwards, Father got the bum’s rush and our teacher began to apologize profusely. At least for the day, it was quite the scandal. After school, I remember hearing the other children speak of the incident: everyone blew it off and regarded the priest as a loose nut.
While Catholicism seemed confused, hopelessly conflicted, and stuck in a weird sort of hippie-Jesus phase, gay culture looked solid and offering the ultimate answer. And, following my wasted childhood in Catholic school, gay was not only who I was, but what I believed, and how I thought. It offered an identity and a philosophy. when I arrived, gay theology was still based on survival and the demand for AIDS research. In the early-90s, everyone was tired of the stink from death and wanted to party again. The focus shifted, at the time I thought bizarrely, to gays in the military. After the salvation of viral cocktails, the gay train pumped steam heavenward, returned to its disco-era roots of bang till you drop, and, at nearly thirty, I couldn’t keep up anymore. I fell down and didn’t want to get back up.
Today, the men who are beginning to contemplate a deeper meaning to their lives besides “gay” are nearing a similar point of over saturation. Like I did, they have done nearly everything sexual that there is to do and yet they still feel curiously empty. I ask them if Jesus is anywhere on their radar. For the most part, the answer is “No,” as they are stuck in the memories of a Catholic Church that was in the midst of an internal upheaval in the 70s and 80s.
Today, their opinion hasn’t changed, with gay internet web-sites featuring such headlines as “Belgian bishop says Catholic Church should bless same-sex couples” and “Mexican Catholic bishop says homophobes are the sick ones not gay people” and “Catholic Bishop Cites Leviticus, Claims Gays Deserve Death.” To many, the Church still looks confused and chaotic. Combined with the bad press surrounding the priest-sex-scandal, most gay men see the Church as a closet filled with latent homosexuals who are obsessively self-conflicted and endlessly caught within their own world of bureaucratic dialogue.
The answer: an honest and courageous full revelation of the Truth. Despite what some think, the Catechism and its wording is neither off-putting nor un-pastoral. What it does offer to gay men is a sense of solidity. And, to those who are searching, it does offer an answer. Albeit a difficult and challenging one, but an answer.
For, although it breaks my heart, most gay men will only start to question the concept of their “gayness” when they reach a crisis stage: either someone dies, they get dumped one too many times, or they get seriously ill. Then, they begin to question. That’s precisely where and when I meet them.
Right then, now, the Church needs to be a Father to these men. Like the Prodigal Son, they know they have made the wrong decisions and are tired of literally sleeping with the pigs. They need the love of the Father.
Here, the Church must provide: strong, resolute, and manly men. And, they do exist. Back in April of this year, I met two Franciscan Friars of the Renewal on a somewhat chilly day in San Francisco. Here, I was, bundled in my heaviest winter coat, freezing, only about 60-65 degrees outside, and the New York City based Friars are walking about in bare feet. These were real solid men, something the Church seems to lack at times.
And, this is why so many lost and lonely boys turn to gay culture, for despite the “fairy” stereotype, the homosexual world is filled with oily flexing-hyper-pumped men. In my youth, the priests always felt affected and strangely neutered. Yet, what authentic and unafraid Catholicism has to offer is bold and not conflated like the gay steroid-prima-donnas. It’s real, and it’s the answer.
Remarkably, it all comes together: when I saw these outwardly rough and tumble men, radically change, and then become radiantly beautiful while offering the Sacrifice of the Mass. Man transformed. And, the possibility of gay men transformed.
That is my prayer.