September 2005

First published September 29, 2005, in Between the Lines

Back in the 1980s, I aspired to the Roman Catholic priesthood. After investigating various orders, I eventually gravitated toward the Franciscans, not so much on theological grounds as for having clicked well with the vocation director, “Fr. Larry.” (Or maybe I thought that brown was the new black.)

Shortly after I became a candidate, Fr. Larry left the order. Only later I discovered that he was a gay man who decided to pursue a relationship. Soon after, I came to terms with my own gayness and subsequently left to pursue life “on the outside.” My fellow friars were supportive, even singing “Climb Every Mountain” as I marched out the friary door.

Okay, so I made that last part up. But it’s true that the priests and brothers helped me not only to confront my gayness but also to channel it in healthy directions. “Take your time,” they counseled me. “Explore your options.” It was, for this sheltered, sexually immature nineteen year-old, excellent advice. Some of these men were gay (though celibate) themselves, and their personal candor was invaluable to me.

Fast-forward to 2005. The Vatican has just announced that it will prohibit gay men—including celibates—from entering the priesthood. This is a profoundly stupid policy, both theologically and practically.

Theologically, the policy suggests that the temptation to homosexual conduct is somehow irredeemable. This suggestion conflicts with the Church’s own previous statements: in the 1986 letter to the bishops “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), criticized the “unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive.”

Even if you grant the Church’s false view that homosexual conduct is always wrong, you’d have to have a pretty poor opinion of God’s redemptive power to suggest that he cannot provide gay men called to the priesthood with sufficient grace to remain celibate.

Perhaps this criticism is unfair. It is not that God’s grace is insufficient, the Church might argue, but that for practical reasons we can’t risk taking any chances. But this practical rationale for the policy is even more stupid, since it duplicates the culture of secrecy and repression that was a major cause of the current sex-abuse scandal. With the new policy in place, the only gay men who enter the priesthood will be those in deep denial about their sexual orientation (or, perhaps just as bad, those willing to lie about it): not a good recipe for a healthier, more sexually responsible Church.

I say this as someone who’s “been there, done that.” When I began the order’s screening process at eighteen, I told the interviewing psychologist that I was “basically straight, though I had occasional gay feelings.” Amazingly, he didn’t press me on it. Amazingly, I really believed it, even though I didn’t have any “straight feelings,” occasional or otherwise. It was a brilliant example of how otherwise smart human beings can ignore clear facts, refusing to draw the most obvious inferences when the conclusions are rendered sufficiently frightening.

Fortunately, I entered an order that understood that (a) there are gay men in the world, (b) some of them become priests, often very good priests, and (c) this fact is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. And so we read books with titles like “Being Sexual and Celibate” and “The Courage to Be Chaste,” and we talked openly about our own urges, challenges, and commitments. Thanks to that environment, I was eventually able to acknowledge my sexuality and to explore it in a healthy manner.

Suppose that a gay ban had been enforced. Notice that it would have not kept me out, since both the psychologist and I believed that I was “basically straight.” Notice, too, that I would have entered not only as a gay man but also as a deeply immature and repressed one. Again, not a recipe for a healthy Church.

I’d like to believe that things would have turned out okay, even under such circumstances, but it’s difficult to know. Sexuality has a way of asserting itself sooner or later. To close off healthy avenues for expressing it—even discussing it—invites disaster.

The recent Church scandal only underscores this point. Most of those implicated were ordained at a time when homosexuality was taboo. Thus, in blaming the scandal on tolerance of homosexuality, the Church is not only scapegoating innocent gay men: it is setting the stage again for systematic denial and abuse. It is sinning against its priests, its aspirants, and (most of all) its flock. If ever there were a time for believers to hope for God’s redemptive power, this is it.

Read more

First published September 15, 2005, in Between the Lines.

One of the delights of being a philosophy professor is that I occasionally come across charming texts in the history of ethics. Here’s Mary Warnock in her 1960 classic Ethics Since 1900:

Many people…feel strongly that some kinds of behavior, though utterly harmless to other people, should nevertheless be avoided for their own sakes, and that this is a moral matter. They may feel, for instance, that to indulge in some kinds of pleasurable activities, such as reading novels in the mornings, is wrong…because they feel that to indulge in them would be to start some kind of downward trend, some degeneration which is their duty to avoid.

Reading novels in the morning?

Perhaps reading novels in the morning is the 1960 equivalent of watching reruns of “The Surreal Life.” But I’m sure that even Mrs. Warnock (as the dust-jacket blurb quaintly calls her) could think of better examples of pleasurable activities that, though harmless to others, supposedly lead to degeneration.

I came across Warnock’s text shortly after returning from Last Splash, an annual gay party in Austin, Texas. Last Splash, which takes place on Lake Travis at Hippie Hollow, Texas’s only clothing-optional public park, has recently evolved into a long weekend of circuit-party events in addition to the activities at the lake. There’s nudity. There’s alcohol and other drugs. There’s flirting and kissing and groping and all kinds of so-called “naughty” behavior. In short, it’s the kind of event that makes Pat Robertson’s skin crawl.

And I love it.

Let me backpedal for just a second before proceeding full speed ahead (with a column that’s bound to be quoted out of context anyway). There are aspects of Splash weekend that I find deeply troubling—for example, the growing use of crystal meth and other hard drugs—and I strongly oppose them. You should too. But these activities need not be—and for the majority of us, are not—what the weekend is all about.

What the weekend IS about varies from person to person, but the common thread is pleasure—and in particular, physical pleasure. Why read novels in the morning when you can swim naked in the refreshing waters of Hippie Hollow, or sunbathe on the rocky shoreline, or kiss a beautiful stranger on a crowded dance floor? (Or take him back to your room, where you can do more than just kiss?)

Some readers will be surprised to find me—“the Gay Moralist”—seeming to advocate hedonism. Isn’t that precisely the sort of self-indulgent posture that our critics love falsely to charge us with?

Yes, it is. Which is why I aim frequently to prove that gays are as responsible, altruistic, and moral as anyone else. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that, because we are not interested only in pleasure (as hedonists are), it follows that we aren’t interested in pleasure at all.

That fallacy—call it the “prude’s fallacy”—is by no means new. Hedonists and their opponents have been around at least since Plato. I for one think the hedonists are wrong: there are goods besides pleasure. But from the fact that pleasure isn’t the only good, it does not follow that pleasure isn’t good at all, as the prude falsely believes.

To deny pleasure’s value is just silly. And to deny that sex is sometimes mostly about pleasure—and nonetheless valuable for that fact—is even sillier. Straight people know this, and are generally quite comfortable with it, the right-wing’s protestations notwithstanding.

It is easy to understand why gay-rights advocates feel defensive on this point. Responding to myths about our being obsessed with sex, we sometimes appear to disclaim any interest in it at all. Eager to show that we understand its deep, serious, transformational aspects, we downplay its raw, playful, recreational side. Fighting for marriage rights, we sweep “casual sex” under the carpet. And these defense mechanisms are a shame, for they obscure the simple joy of physical intimacy.

This is not to say that the pleasures of sex are purely physical (far from it) or that sex is the only or the most important kind of physical pleasure. Gourmet food, fine wine, a vigorous massage, lavender-scented candles, a beautiful sunset…pick your favorite(s). They all have a place in a well-rounded life.

Nor do I deny that pleasure can be taken too far, can get in the way of other goods, can be dangerous when out of balance. That’s true of most good things, although pleasure is especially tempting in this regard. Still, part of encouraging people to “play safe” is encouraging them to “play.” All of us need to do that sometimes.

And so when I see thousands of people descend upon Austin to celebrate themselves and their bodies and their affection (even lust) for one another, I haven’t the least inclination to wag my finger. Perhaps I would if I thought that there was nothing more to their lives than this—but that too would be a fallacy. It’s possible to read novels on vacation and still hit the philosophy books with full force later on.

Read more