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Michael Pettinger Headshot

Not Comfort and Joy for All

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The Sunday after Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Family. It's a dangerous day if you're queer, Catholic, and want to go to mass with your family, at least in the diocese in which I grew up. By some accounts, the Catholic Church is flourishing in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. It has nuns. It has seminarians. It has some young priests.

One of them is the assistant pastor at a church my parents attend. He always struck me as good-hearted and loving, though not, perhaps, the sharpest knife in the drawer. Perhaps that is why, after opening the mass with a hearty welcome to those of us visiting the parish during for the holidays, he turned over the task of giving the sermon to his friend, another young priest who was visiting from a small town. The visiting priest warned us that he was going to start his sermon in the deep-end of the theological pool. Perhaps he wanted to show off what he had learned in seminary. Below is a blow-by-blow account of the theological highpoints from that sermon, along with my own commentary.

"We are all created male and female." Actually, we aren't. According to the Intersex Society of North America, one in a hundred persons in this country is born intersex. In other words, their chromosomal structure and/or genitals are neither typically male nor female. If that statistic holds true, there should be several hundred intersex people in this priest's hometown. There might even have been a few intersex people sitting with me in that church. But it seems that Father did not take the time to think about how his words might sound to them, nor did he wish to trouble the thoughts of his congregation with them.

"But even before the Creation, there is a story of great love. The Father so loves the Son that he gives to Him the greatest gift he has -- Himself. And the Son is so joyful and thankful that he wishes for the Father to have the same joy. So He offers back to the Father the one gift that He has -- Himself." The idea of two beings, both understood as male, in a relationship of joyful and loving mutual self-giving, seemed much more promising. At least, it seemed more promising to a gay Catholic man, sitting with his siblings and his elderly parents in the front of a church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

"In a similar way, Adam gives himself to Eve, and Eve gives herself to Adam in complete submission, knowing that he only wants what's best for her. He wants to lead her to God." But then the priest has to play the male dominance card. True, Genesis never says that God spoke directly to Eve as an individual. If that's all that we knew, we might actually believe that access to God runs like a one-way street through males. But Christians have the Gospels as well. The angel came to Mary with the Word and Mary said yes to the angel, without any man showing her what to do. It's Mary who brings her husband face-to-face with God incarnate, not the other way around. And speaking frankly, isn't this borne out in the day-to-day life of Christian marriages? Don't women lead men to God at least as often as men lead women? But what would a priest know about the day-to-day life of Christian marriage?

"But I don't need to tell you this. Essentially, all of you are doing it." That's when I really started to worry. What if you're not? What if it's not your calling? What if you're a single heterosexual? What if you're transsexual or intersex? What if you're a gay, Catholic male, sitting in church with your siblings and elderly parents, wanting to pray and receive the sacrament with them?

"But some people take offense at what I'm saying. Some people take offense when we say that there are things out there masquerading as love. They take offense when the star of 'Duck Dynasty' quotes the Bible. They take offense because he says that homosexuality is a sin. They take offense when we say the same thing. And yet all we want is what's best for them. We want to lead them to God." I admit, those last words might not be quite right. By that time I couldn't really pay attention. I was too busy making my way through the pew, past my siblings and elderly parents, and walking out of the church.

I wish I could have laughed it off. I wish I had stood up and said something to this priest. I wish I had turned to the congregation and asked whether anyone else in this church had LGBT children, or siblings, or friends, and whether they would sit still for this. I wish I had not walked out on that sermon. I wish I had not been the only one to walk out. But most of all, I wish I had not felt like a child again, being shamed, again, by the clergy of my Church, yet again.

I walked around the block a few times. I tried to get control of my breathing and my feelings. Despite some of the things I've written about it, Lincoln has charm, even in the dead of winter. Two rows of trees, their branches stripped and tangled in the twilight above the street like the ceiling of a cathedral. An old guy waving to me as he drove past on a deserted lane. The sort of silent afternoon that never happens in New York. These things have their beauty. But they don't replace the Eucharist.

This particular Eucharist, however, had become a celebration of shame. I wasn't ready for that. In my own parish in New York this kind of sermon would have been inconceivable. And the sweet demeanor of the assistant pastor, his words of welcome at the start of mass, had lulled me into imagining that the same kind of change was taking place even in Lincoln. Perhaps I've become naive. Or perhaps that change is coming. The fear that this kind of sermon might somehow become impossible in a Catholic church might have made it all the more urgent for the visiting priest to make it now.

And perhaps, just perhaps, the deepest heart of that priest's fear is the recognition that the Church's official teaching on sexuality is toxic and abusive. I'm not the only one to see its effects on those of us who grew up queer and Catholic, even while it feeds the sinful pride and psychological violence of heterosexuals and professed celibates. And yet, despite the self-satisfaction visible on this priest's face, his sermon contained the seeds of something greater.

You might recall that he said that heterosexual coupling finds its origin in the mutual self-giving of the Father and the Son. The self-giving relationship of the persons of the Holy Trinity is often called perichoresis, a Greek word that means "interpenetration." In a talk given at the Queer Christianities conference in 2012, the theologian Victor Anderson noted that this perichoresis, this mutual penetration of the Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, whose gender is ambiguous, is very, very queer.

By speaking generically of "self-giving," the priest avoided the messy details of human bodies: arms and legs, eyes and lips, mucous and saliva, anuses, penises, vaginas, and all the differently configured genitals of intersex people. But by starting with the interpenetration of the Father and the Son, he suggested the many ways that the mutual self-giving of the Holy Trinity might be made manifest in the mingling of human bodies. Whether the union is sexual or not, whatever the genders and bodies involved, the act of loving and mutual self-giving is the sign of God's life among humans. Awe before its power is understandable. But when that awe turns into fear, when that fear turns to hostility, when that hostility tries to disguise itself as love, the members of the Church fail to live out the life of the Triune God. And what family is holier than that?