When people hear that I’m a Catholic, they often snort the same sarcastic line: ‘A gay Catholic? How does that work?’
I’ve had plenty of time to think about the answer. The problem is that these people often consider me as an obedient worshipper of Rome, hanging on Pope Benedict’s every tweet, feeling alarm and fear when he condemns my sexuality. In reality, the modern Catholic lives a very different life.
I have to admit, I don’t remember any anti-gay rhetoric in mass, or in any of my Catholic schools when I was growing up – this was in Northern Ireland, where your religion stands for a whole lot more and actually reflects a whole let less than just your religion. (Chew on that.) Growing up in this environment did mean I felt cautious about my sexuality, but only because of the remnants of old prejudices around gender and sexuality that still exist in most societies, and not because of anything I learned from the church. In reality, I feel comfortable as a gay Catholic, because I don’t particularly see the need for them to fit one another perfectly in order for both to be relevant to my life but I know that technically they do conflict, and recently it has become more apparent.
Under Pope Benedict’s leadership, the Vatican has become harsher in its criticism of homosexuality, and my generation in Ireland is now moving further away from the Church. The revelation of the abuse scandal at the start of the 21st century was a major turning point, but issues like gay equality – one which is now coming to the fore around the world – are certainly adding to this. It is a fact that fewer and fewer of us attend Sunday mass, and I heard from three different friends who walked out on Christmas Day because a priest was reiterating the Pope’s message against gay marriage. Many of my friends who do go regularly do so out of a sense of obligation, but the practice now sits further out of sync with modern life.
So what’s the point in the whole Catholic thing at all, if we don’t like mass and we don’t agree with the Pope? Well, being a Catholic is more than just attending a weekly gathering, and faith in God is more than just what you’re told by the clergy. It’s a way of life, and particularly in devout countries like mine, it’s something which binds the community together in schools, neighborhoods and organizations. Northern Ireland in particular is still a polarised state, with two sides divided on ethno-political grounds, where your religion is your label. Of course this has softened in recent years, but the roots run deep enough so that people still feel much more bound by their religion – whether they like it or not – than they might in a multi-ethnic country. Feelings of obligation to the Pope might be waning, but feelings of belonging among fellow Catholics are not. A community still exists, but its leader is being socially and morally ousted.
People who don’t support gay marriage should not be bullied into doing so, but they need to accept opposition. The Pope used his Christmas Day message to declare gay marriage is destroying the very ‘essence of the human creature’. This is lofty, damning rhetoric, both incorrect and offensive. Here, he gives himself and other Catholics a bad name. Had he said, ‘The church has always believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and despite the wishes of many, that it how the church’s position will stay’, that would have been fair; in fact, he said gay equality is an ‘attack’ on the traditional family.
On the contrary, the vision of many supporters of gay equality is one in which gay couples and families co-exist with traditional families. The Pope could have acknowledged this co-existence, as opposed to suggesting that gays are on a crusade to destroy the nuclear family – remember, not everyone is going to decide to turn gay in order to have a gay marriage. He also describes the path of sexuality as ‘man’s fundamental choice’, in which homosexuals ‘deny their nature… given to them by their bodily identity’. This is embarrassing, as it’s now almost universally understood that homosexuality is not a choice; indeed, to reject it would be against one’s own nature.
The split on homosexuality is reminiscent of how previous generations rejected the Church’s condemnation of contraception. The Church argues that contraception is against the wish of God because it prevents the creation of life. People in Ireland realize that contraception is the lesser of two evils (considering abortion destroys a life already created) and in the 21st century is a vital tool in international health. Put simply, they used it anyway. The Church condemns homosexuality? Guess what? Once again, Catholics don’t really care. It’s worth noting that of the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland – the DUP (largely Unionist, Protestant voters) and Sinn Fein (largely Republican, Catholic voters), it is Sinn Fein which supports marriage equality. The DUP are rejecting it, and indeed tried to prevent the decriminalization of homosexuality in Northern Ireland as recently as 1982. This democratic politics speaks louder for the views of the people on the ground than the voice of an unelected man in Rome.
So where do I see the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland? It’s been twenty years since Sinead O’Connor outed the abuse scandal on Saturday Night Live, and ten years since it exploded in full, with mass exposés of historic sexual offences within the Church. I now see a new generation of young people who still identify as Catholic, but reject some of the teachings of the Church. I know people who still pray and have spirituality, but don’t necessarily take it to the door of a chapel. I see communities who act out the positive, generous and loving elements of Catholic teachings, but have dropped the divisive and damning beliefs that have kept their country in fear, guilt, and even poverty, for the centuries in which the Church monopolized Ireland’s institutions. Many might say this sounds like picking and choosing – indeed it is a style of reform – but if it’s reform for the better welfare and happiness of people, why shouldn’t it be so? After all, faith is about being happy – religion became too much about control.
It’s not too late for the Vatican. I look at how the British establishment and the Royal family are reforming ancient laws about succession and religion as well as gay equality, and I can see how it could be done within the Catholic Church. Of course, the Church shouldn’t have to change its ways for every social change – who would want to believe in something, or someone, that changes their mind on an issue at the drop of a hat? (For any Liberal Democrat voters, that question is purely rhetorical.) But these are landmark issues, which are now already accepted parts of the lives of young Catholics, and the tide has turned – it will not turn back. These changes are forever, and the Church should assess its stance.
As with many religions, many years must be served before making it to the ultimate post of Pope, but considering it is a position of such power and personal influence, I truly believe it should become more of a presidential role, into which young priests and bishops can step, bringing with them the thoughts and beliefs of the masses. Call it cheesy, but I have a dream that Catholics could have their very own Obama to save the day. Sadly, I don’t hold much faith in this actually happening, but without it, the Church is facing rapid extinction. Now is the time for our renaissance; the dawning of a new social attitude, where ‘gay’ and ‘Catholic’ are not contradictory, but elements of a person which go hand in hand.
This article originally appeared on SoSoGay online.