John Connelly Preview

I just found out about a book I am very excited to read! Please expect reviews of “From Enemy to Brother: the Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965” to appear shortly on this blog.

In the meantime, here is an article by the author to whet your appetite:

When we look at those who carried forth this revolution in Catholic teaching, we see few if any high clerics, few men “in red capes.” But we do see a rather remarkable coincidence: virtually every one of the thinkers and activists involved in bettering Catholic-Jewish relations was a convert, either from Judaism or Protestantism. In the 1930s, Oesterreicher, Thieme, and Dietrich von Hildebrand had taken inspiration for their polemics against Nazi racism from Christian intellectuals Erik Peterson, Annie Kraus, Alfred Fuchs, Rudolf Lämmel, Walter Berger, and Theodor Haecker—all converts. In October 1964, the two priests who joined Oesterreicher to write what would become the final draft of the decree on the Jews—Gregory Baum and Bruno Hussar—were also of Jewish heritage. And several years earlier, just before the council, when an international symposium took place in the Netherlands to draft theses that would guide De Judaeis, most of the participants—Thieme and Oesterreicher, along with Paul Démann, Gertrud Luckner, Jean-Roger Hené, and Irene Marinoff—were converts. Démann, a converted Hungarian Jew, had been publishing the review Cahiers Sioniens from Paris since 1947, and, with the help of fellow converts Geza Vermes and Renée Bloch, he refuted the anti-Judaism in French Catholic school catechisms. In Germany Thieme and Luckner printed the Freiburger Rundbrief, which exposed Central European audiences to the emerging Christian understanding of the Jews based in St. Paul.

That converts to Catholicism would oppose racism and anti-Semitism makes sense. After all, they had personal reasons to hold the church to its claims. Still, the efforts of converts like Oesterreicher and his contemporaries bring into sharp relief the nearly negligible numbers of “cradle Catholics” who gave themselves to this struggle for the church’s soul. Why this was so remains an important question. What seems certain is that without converts to Catholicism, the church in Europe would never have “thought its way” out of the challenges of racist anti-Judaism. If Providence remains visibly active for the Catholic Church in history, it can surely be seen in how the church has absorbed light from outsiders—persons originally beyond its visible membership, who devoted their lives to a religion based on love of neighbor, and in doing so reminded us that the church is, as Jacques Maritain’s friend Charles Journet wrote in 1951, at once “purer and vaster than we know.”


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Jews Vote Liberal, Evangelicals Vote Israel?

Jonathan Tobin has an interesting article up at the Commentary magazine website. He argues that Israel is rapidly becoming a critical election issue not – as one might expect – for Jews, but for evangelical Christians.

Jewish organizations and media outlets, Tobin points out, occasionally make an effort to argue that Obama is a friend of Israel. But largely they seem to be operating on the assumption that Democratic Jews – that is, most of America’s Jews, with the general exception of those on the conservative end of the religious spectrum – are going to vote for Obama regardless of whether Israel stands to win or lose from his election. Romney, on the other hand, has placed Israel square in the middle of many campaign speeches, knowing that taking the “right”stance – unquestionable support for Israel – will help garner him the much-needed evangelical vote.

The irony that American Christians (and not only American – see my earlier interview with Marie-Aude Tardivo) are more eager to protect the Jewish state than American Jews is perhaps not so ironic after all. It simply highlights a realignment of the alliances among four groups: religious Jews, secular Jews, religious Christians, and nominal/secular Christians.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews were united by their concern for the sheer physical survival of the Jewish people. Israel was seen as an opportunity to protect the Jews and ensure their safety and religious freedom. Religious Christians were generally perceived by Jews as uniformly adhering to a replacement theology, and therefore either indifferent or outright hostile to Jewish survival. Under this narrative, there was not much need to distinguish between religious and secular Jews, nor religious and secular Christians.

Many Jews retain this basic mental map today, which leads to suspicion of the evangelical pro-Israel phenomenon. The motives of Christians who wish to defend Israel, not in spite but because of their Christianity, are viewed as ultimately anti-Jewish – for example, wanting Israel to exist merely so that the Apocalypse may be fulfilled, with the result that Judaism would be finally discredited.

But the truth is that the traditional alliances no longer hold. Many American secular Jews seem to have decided that world anti-Semitism is no longer a threat – and hence that Israel is neither essential as a protection against it, nor at any real danger of being destroyed at its hands. They also seem to have recognized that, with its endlessly precarious military situation, Israel is unlikely to become a paradise for socialism, gay marriage, and environmentalism anytime soon, and moved on to focus on these issues in more promising, safer places – like the United States.

The new relevant groupings with respect to Israel, then, are religious Jews and religious Christians, on one hand, and secular Jews and secular “Christians,” on the other. The first of these groups is driven, it seems to me, by two beliefs: first, that both the Jews and the Holy Land are a living testament to God’s promise; and second – not unrelated – that neither God, nor the devil and his anti-Semitic associates, are finished with the Jews quite yet. Both these beliefs spell out support for Israel as a Jewish state – a state whose mission it is to preserve the Jewish people, both physically and spiritually, in the face of adversity. The second group, naturally, holds the opposite view – that being Jewish is one of many largely equivalent religious preferences, which can be effectively protected in any country.

What does this mean for Jewish Christians? I’d love to hear what you think. Personally, I suspect there might be cause for tentative rejoicing. Christian support for Israel may finally signal to religious and other right-wing Jews that – unlike many liberal Jews – Christians believe in the Jewish people, even if not in Judaism. From there, it may become easier for us to explain ourselves.

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Living on the Offensive

My mother is vacationing with a somewhat observant Jewish friend from Israel. I invited them to come visit us on their way back home. “We could go out to dinner,” she said, “but there’s no way I can bring her to your house.”

I would love to think that the problem with my house is that it’s too small or too messy. But unfortunately that’s not a convincing lie. The reason our house is off-limits is that our bookcases prominently display images of a certain Jewish carpenter, his mother and friends.

Even with years of conversations like this under my belt, it still hurts. Moreover, I still don’t know how to respond in practice. When I’ve offered to put away my icons to accommodate visitors, it felt like being ashamed of Christ. When I’ve insisted on keeping them in place, it felt like sacrificing family and friendships to religious self-righteousness. Both “solutions” made me feel rotten – and failed to make my parents feel comfortable.

So many of us converts find that, for our family and friends, our lifestyle is not merely baffling or disagreeable, but offensive. The offense may be that we’ve betrayed the heritage our parents strove mightily (or thought they did) to pass on to us, or that we’ve embraced that which they find abhorrent (I’m thinking of my Catholic friend whose parents are abortion advocates), or that we’ve aligned ourselves with a group our parents perceive as “enemy” or “other” – or all of the above. The way my family feels upon seeing my icons is, I would imagine, similar to the way some evangelical Christian parents feel upon discovering paraphernalia of a homosexual lifestyle and gay-marriage advocacy in their child’s bedroom. It is a surge of pain, which quickly leads to irrationality.

And, six years in, I can say with bitter conviction that there truly is nothing that I, on my own strength, can do about it.

Here is something to consider. When God was offended by the sins of the Amorites and other inhabitants of Canaan, he sent the Israelites to destroy them and build a holy nation over their ruins. But had the Israelites brutalized the Canaanite population of their own initiative, surely they would have suffered a terrible fate at God’s hands.

In other words, we are not the ones to decide how to deal with the offense given by those living on (what appears to be) the opposite side of God’s law. Some of our decisions may be of the violent variety (like bullying gay teenagers), while others, just the opposite, may legitimize and cover up offense which must not be abided (like ordaining gay bishops). Too many of them, of either kind, are myopic and poor.

Instead, we must wait – patiently, and seemingly forever – for God Himself to give judgment. In the meantime, while I don’t know how to deal with my own personal little crisis of offensiveness, here are some things that have NOT worked out well:

Lashing out. My first reaction to my mother’s comment was the desire to say something like, “If my house is not good enough for you and your friends, please don’t ever come here.”  Glad I kept my mouth shut.

Telling them what to think. I am frequently tempted to philosophize about how it is sinful blindness and intolerance that leads my parents to condemn my Christianity; if only they were more enlightened and more loving, everything would be honky-dory. Then I imagine myself in their position.

Turning to worldliness. It is helpful to stay away from the source of disagreement or offense and focus on what you have in common. That works for me, up to a point – the point where I discover that, in my constant efforts to keep things friendly with my family, I become more and more focused on the worldly things that they and I have in common, and less and less focused on my life in Christ.

Pretending there’s no problem. I’ve often concluded that the fights my family and I have had about religion were really fueled by something else – personalities, old conflicts, etc. That is true to a significant degree, and addressing those other problems will help. But at the end of the day, God is bigger than our petty conflicts. Once we can see through them, we see Him – and He stands either alongside us or between us.

Carrying the burden of solving the problem. You’re choosing your words carefully, controlling your anger, doing your best to show the love of God, and coming down hard on yourself when you fail to do all those things. But by focusing too hard on what you can do, it’s easy to ignore the agency and dignity of the other party – and above all, the fact that this is really God’s problem to solve.

 Shutting down. Not talking is easier than talking – or so it seems. Half the time I avoid mentioning to my parents what I did Sunday morning, where I volunteered last week, what I wrote on this blog. It prevents unpleasant conversations, but it is also a way of giving up on the relationship, and on the souls of the people on the other side.

Take away all these tempting “solutions,” and what you’re left with is a raw and painful mess, right in the place where human beings are supposed to encounter one another.  Perhaps the lesson is simply this: Can’t go over it, can’t go around it, gotta go through it – every day, year in and year out, until God brings about His resolution.

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An Interview with Father Patrick Reardon (Part III and Last)

Finishing up the series from yesterday and the day before

You mentioned earlier that you don’t understand how any Jew can become Orthodox. What would you say to a Jew who did seek to join the Church?

The only reason for anyone to go to an Orthodox Church is Jesus, and this is the same for a Jew as for anyone else.

In my book, The Jesus We Missed, I try to make very clear just how Jewish Jesus is. Another great book is that of the former Rabbi Zolli of Rome, Before the Dawn. His book is incredible. He was the rabbi in Rome all during the Nazi occupation and was working with the Vatican to save Jews. After the war, he became Catholic and took the name Eugenio to honor Pius XII.

How would you respond to the idea of a Jewish rite or a Jewish community within the Orthodox Church?

If there is a sufficiently large population of Jewish converts, I think that would be great. I have no doubt that my own archdiocese would be open to that. As a side note – several years ago a group of Amish in NW Penn expressed interest in coming over to the Orthodox Church, and we were open to that as well – in fact, I was sent out to interview them. It turned out to be a hopeless undertaking, unfortunately.

Given the Semitic routes of the Liturgy of St. James, it should be easy to restore a more Hebraic rite without any break with Orthodox worship.

Unfortunately, the Jewish converts in the Church are not really organized as a community.

If we were to write Liturgy in Hebrew tomorrow that was completely recognizable and continuous with Jewish Temple worship, not a Jew in my town would recognize it as such. Though I personally would enjoy that as an exercise.

And then there’s the tendency for Jewish converts to “disappear” through intermarriage.

Right. Intermarriage is supposed to even out the Jew and the Greek, but the practical result of this is that the Jew disappears. But I don’t know that that’s how it is always going to be. I do suspect that the Great Tribulation we will eventually face will blur all distinctions among Christians, and possibly even between Christian and Jew – though no one but God can know this. The Antichrist will somehow make all this very simple for us, I suspect.

The Orthodox Church has always been worried about Judaizing. Do you think observance of Jewish practice by Jewish Christians is Judaizing?

It depends on the extent of the practice. Once the synod of Javneh replaced the Sanhedrin, Christians and Jews have gone out of their way to distinguish among themselves. I would not be in favor of undoing some of these distinctions.

One example is changing the weekly fast days to Wednesday and Friday, instead of Monday and Thursday. If someone proposed that we go back to fasting on Monday and Thursday, I would disagree with that. Wednesday and Friday have a theological significance –Wednesday is the day on which Jesus was betrayed, and Friday the day on which the Bridegroom is taken away from us. But then again, I don’t know why anyone would want to go back to that, especially since the Jews themselves no longer keep these fasts. Another example: in the Didache, the Our Father is substituted for the 18 Benedictions used in Jewish prayer (at the same time as the Jews amended the Benedictions to include an explicit curse against the Christians). This was another distinguishing mark that separates the Christian from the Jew. To resurrect such Jewish practices, which were explicitly excluded in the early period, would be a bad idea.

On the otherhand, calling your priest rabbi is not a problem – we know from St. John of Damascus that Christians in the Middle East did that into the 8th century.

But if one were to resurrect the Paschal meal – to celebrate the Passover as Jews do – that would be a problem indeed. The problem is the sacrificial lamb, which is an important part of the ritual. We call the consecrated bread the Lamb – it’s a substitute for the original lamb. The Christian Jews seem to have done away with the Passover lamb early on.

But many Christians do celebrate the Passover.

I used to do that as Episcopalian, as did my whole parish back when it was Protestant. They were winging it, and I made them stop because they were making it up – they wanted to feel like Jews, but there was neither ethnic nor theological basis for what they were doing. I didn’t make them stop keeping Sukkoth in the fall – the weather took care of that.

On the other hand, they never celebrated Hanukkah before I got there, but now we mark it liturgically, and I always preach on Maccabees.

Why Hanukkah?

I think it’s a beautiful feast. Besides, it was never incorporated into the Christian calendar. Almost all the other Jewish feasts were. Rosh Ha-Shana became the Crown of the Year – the start of our liturgical calendar, on September 1st. Yom Kippur became the Feast of the Cross on Sep. 14th, Pascha and Pentecost were preserved. In the West, even Sukkoth was preserved – Danielou talks about that in The Bible and Liturgy. But Hanukkah didn’t make it in.

I keep close tabs on the Jewish calendar. Our Touchstone calendar includes that.

Is there a way to celebrate Passover that is proper for a Christian?

I think we are doing it right with Pascha.

What about the date?

The Council of Nicea in 325 gave a date for Pascha and explicitly excluded adherence to the Jewish calendar. At that time, the Middle Eastern churches still followed the Jewish calendar, and celebrated Pascha on any day of the week that the 14th of Nissan fell on; the Western church insisted that it be on a Sunday. Contemporary Orthodox have reintroduced the idea that we cannot celebrate Pascha until the Jews have celebrated Passover. That’s simply silly; we must either follow the Council or change its decision.

I am tempted to ask also about the day of the Sabbath…

It is clear in the first chapter of Revelation, as well as in 1 Corinthians, that the Sabbath is Sunday. Christians seem to have shifted the Sabbath observance to Sunday as early as the 1st century. But they still observing Sabbath as the day of rest. Incidentally, most members of my parish rest on both Saturday and Sunday in honor of both observances (note: the same, apparently, is done traditionally in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church).

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An Interview with Father Patrick Reardon (Part II)

Continuing the interview from Monday’s post. Last part coming Friday.

In the 20th century, the Catholic Church has given serious thought to its relationship with the Jews and attempted to make amends and articulate a philosemitic theology. What has kept the Orthodox Church from doing likewise?

The short answer is that the Orthodox Church has not yet caught up to the 20th century. Most Orthodox are associated with Russia – the nation with perhaps the most virulent modern history of anti-Semitism – and many of them still want their Czar back.

Orthodox Christians in the Middle East have been dispossessed of their homes by Israelis – this plays a huge role. A recent article of mine in Touchstone caused an Antiochian priest colleague of mine to accuse me of defending the State of Israel – despite the fact that the article did not mention Israel at all, and barely mentioned Jews.

But even for these Middle Eastern Christians, isn’t Islam their traditional enemy – indeed, can’t much of the hardship they have suffered at Israel’s hands be traced back to Muslim provocation? It seems to me that it should not be so predictable that they would pick the anti-Israeli side.

Here I agree with you; it should not be so predictable. The enemy of the Christians in the Middle East has always been the Muslims. But at the same time, the Christians had to band together with the Muslims in several ways throughout history, notably against the Turks.

Also, Christians in the Middle East have had to struggle for survival, and would align themselves with any regime that would protect them.

Not very different from the Jews…

That’s right. In Syria they universally support the Assad government – it is their protection against the Sunni majority. The Christians in Iraq supported Saddam Hussein – he was their protector as well. The same is true in Jordan. So if the Assad government is anti-Israel, which it certainly is, the Christians align themselves against Israel. They had more enlightened leadership in Egypt than in Syria – Mubarak really protected the Christians, now they are killing people and burning churches.

And we can’t forget that Israel itself is not the biggest fan of all things Christian.

Israel’s history is very complex. There are deep fissures in the body politic. The 1967 war marked a big change: from that point on, very few people in the Israeli government were willing to accommodate the Arabs. At the same time, there is no doubt that Israeli Arabs have a much higher standard of living than Arabs anywhere else in the world. It is very complex.

This strikes me as particularly ironic in light of Father James Bernstein’s argument that modern Middle Eastern Christians, particularly in Syria and Palestine, may well be physical descendants of the original Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem.

Fr. Bernstein’s book is the only one I’m familiar with on this topic. But his thesis is very plausible.

I don’t think Middle Eastern Christians are aware of this hypothesis. I suspect my own archdiocese is not that familiar with Bernstein’s thesis (note: even though Fr. Bernstein is himself part of the Antiochian jurisdiction).

Do you see a way forward for the Orthodox Church on this issue of its stance toward the Jews?

The mechanisms for it are there. But anti-Semitism is a very severe heresy. As Fr. Hopko would say, the disappearance of heresy often requires a sufficient number of funerals. I identified it as a heresy in my article on Marcion, which was published in our archdiocesan journal, Again Magazine, ten or twelve years ago. People read it, but there was not much reaction. Nobody took the trouble to disagree with me. It did not strike people at the level where recognition of the problem could take place.

I certainly don’t anticipate any steps toward a resolution or even admission of an anti-Semitic problem in the Russian Church in my lifetime. We still have a lot of work to do.

It seems to me that anti-Semitism these days often masquerades as condemnation of Israel’s policies. There is of course a legitimate place for disagreement with what Israel does as a nation, but the lines begin to blur when its very right to exist is questioned, I think.

I would agree with that.

Now I should note that, in my parish for example, there is very little awareness of this as a problem. My parishioners don’t have a trace of anti-Semitism; many of them are pro-Israel, though that’s because they are Republicans rather than because they are Orthodox Christians.

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An Interview with Father Patrick Reardon (Part I)

A couple of months ago I had the privilege of speaking with Father Patrick Reardon – an Orthodox priest and scholar, editor of Touchstone magazine, and former Trappist monk no doubt familiar to many of you. I will post the interview here in three installments, of which this is the first.

Father Patrick, you write a good amount, in Touchstone and elsewhere, about the Jews – their role in Scripture and in the Church. What is the nature of your interest in this topic?

I have, and always had, an enormous interest in everything Jewish. I subscribe to the Jewish Review of Books and several other Jewish magazines. I’m always keeping an eye on what is happening within the Jewish world.

I think this interest comes from a deep, subterranean need. I grew up during the Shoah and learned about it when I was quite young. It left a profound mark on me; I felt an enormous sorrow for the plight of the Jews in the modern world. It’s a deep emotion with me that’s hard to explain. When I was young, I taught myself Hebrew. I use it to read the Bible; for the Mishnah and Talmud, I have to rely heavily on translations.

I know there is a deeper theology of the Jewish people – Romans 11 is one of the passages that makes it clear. I know that, but I am myself unable to read the signs. Several decades ago I read a book called My People, My Land, which draws attention to the Prophets, with their emphasis on justice, and argues that the state of Israel should be the fulfillment of the prophetic word: a model for how to treat the poor and the dispossessed. He was critical of the state of Israel, where he saw oppression of parts of the population. That led me to start thinking of Israel as a state that had to prove itself as a model of justice. But by now I have lost all faith in Israel’s ability to prove itself in this way. I see events there going in a very tragic direction; it appears to me now that the state of Israel is in great danger, set up for an even worse Shoah. Sometimes the situation appears to me to be hopeless.

I have a love for the Jews in principle, and I’ve found it very easy to love the Jews I’ve gotten to know. I love the Jews particularly because of Jesus and His mother and the apostles. I know that God can raise up children for himself out of stones; in fact I am one of the stones. But if we truly believe in the incarnational principle, it appears to me that there should be a great love for the Jews within the Christian tradition. I think God is still speaking to us through the Jews – which is why I try to stay abreast of the news. But I am not sure what He is saying.

I keep coming back to the social teaching of the Prophets and the Wisdom literature. A colossal breakthrough was made in the 8th century BC: the writings of the Prophets, unlike the Torah, were directed to all people, not only to Israel. You can see that in Amos, verse 4, for example. And if this is true of the Prophets (nevi’im), isn’t it true of the Wisdom literature (ketuvim) – do we not see there a response to other schools of thought in the Middle East? The Wisdom literature is a very explicit effort to dialogue with the wisdom traditions of Egypt and Babylon; in the case of Ecclesiasticus, also with Greece.

I’ve published commentaries on Job and Ecclesiasticus, and will probably publish more if the Lord gives me a few more years to live. I believe that, seen from a Christian perspective, we have in Ecclesiasticus a real, definitive step toward the Incarnation. He is writing in the 2nd century BC, at the height of the prevalence of a politicized Greek philosophy; yet his attitude is so different from both the Maccabees and Daniel, of whom he is a contemporary. In Job, we see the writer coming to grips with various cosmologies, represented by Job’s three comforters – they are spokesmen for schools of thought in the Middle East. These writings appeal little to the Torah, and more to God’s law written on man’s heart – Amos, in particular, doesn’t cite the teachings of Torah at all when he criticizes the brutal practices of pagans. There is a universalism to the Prophets. Contemporary Jewish moralists make a great deal of this, and are right to do so.

Thus Jewish thought is addressed specifically to the Gentiles. This phenomenon has not been explored yet. I see the prophets and the wisdom literature as the link prior to Jesus between Hebraic thought and the rest of the world. Even if you take Jesus out of the equation, there would be an enormous existential link between the prophetic literature and the rest of world culture. This link started with the Septuagint. Amos would never have agreed that the Prophets were written for the Jewish people only. He had some terrible things to say about both Israel and Judah. In the very first sections, it is as if he draws an X through the four corners of the Holy Land.

I know you don’t mean to imply this conclusion, but one could see how this point may be used to support replacement theology, the claim that God has rejected the Jews.

The idea that God had rejected the Jews is heresy. They will be God’s children forever. Anyone who says God has rejected the Jews is a heretic.

What about the wording in some of our Holy Week services, regarding God’s curse of the “Hebrew race”?

I don’t particularly like the wording of these services. But in all fairness it must be pointed out that it’s not any stronger than anything in the Gospel of John and in the writings of Paul. Of course they are allowed to say anything they want, because they are Jews themselves. It’s like me telling Irish jokes. Paul says some awfully sarcastic and nasty things about Jews, but his love for them is explicitly stated and indisputable. To raise these statements to the status of metaphysical truths about the Jewish people is completely wrong.

Why, then, has the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Jews been so fraught?

The Orthodox Church is a crazy mixed-place, more crazy and mixed-up than any other place in the world. Only Rome is comparable. Everything we could have done wrong, we’ve done wrong, and nowhere more so than in our treatment of the Jews. I can’t understand how any Jew joins the Orthodox Church. It’s a marvel of God’s grace.

Why? Because of the sin in every man’s heart. Or perhaps because the Church began its life by being expelled from the synagogue. Later the early Christians wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the revolution of Bar-Kokhba – claiming not to be part of it, not to be Jews.

In the most extreme form, there was Marcion – he believed the Jews worshipped an altogether different God. That thesis was condemned. However, after the edict of Milan in the 4th century, when the Christians came into power, many of them wanted to get back at the Jews and make their lives difficult. The Church was very preoccupied with doctrinal questions at the time, and did not pay enough attention to moral issues. People like Ambrose and John Chrysostom turned a blind eye to the burning of synagogues.

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The Minority Report

Not to make too stark a transition from babies to homosexuals, but – I really liked what Eve Tushnet wrote in response to the question of why, as a Catholic faithful to Church teaching, she continues to self-identify as gay.

Replace “gay” with “Jewish” in several paragraphs, and Eve’s text may sound familiar to readers of this blog. Which is not to say that the story of every minority in the Church is the same story. But there is a shared story of simply being a minority, specifically one with a strong sense of identity – reinforced by society, or history, or family. That story is worth telling, and Eve tells it well.

For some reason I can’t figure out how to link just to the relevant post, so here goes the whole text:

I was kind of startled that the “Why do you identify as ‘gay’?” question didn’t come up in Denver. Possibly that’s just because I talked way too long, so the q&a was cut short. Anyway my impression is that lots of people, both straight and not-so-much, really want to know about this question. I don’t know if I understand the question too well since it isn’t one which has ever exercised me–but here’s where my thinking is right now, on what some people may be hearing when I say I’m gay and what I’m actually saying. (A previous post on this subject, written in a sort of galumphing-drunken-elephant style, is here.)

First, I think for some people taking on a gay identity is seen as setting up a competing community to the Church, which commands our loyalties in the way only Christ should. It’s seen as surrender to something other than Christ. I’m sympathetic to this since I do think our surrender to Christ must be total and unique, and it’s obvious that other communities and identity groups can compete with that surrender. The most obvious example for me is nationality: It’s clear that one’s self-concept as an American can compromise one’s identity as a Christian.

And yet when somebody says he’s Greek, the response of the non-Greek Christians around him isn’t immediately to respond, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek!” and to assume compromised faith on his part. There’s an understanding that national identity both must and can be taken lightly, considered as a part of one’s situation rather than a warped lens through which the Gospel is distorted. (The majority of people to whom I describe myself as “gay” view that identity the same way. They don’t actually perceive any contradiction–they might see an added and maybe weird difficulty, but not an internal contradiction–in saying that I’m gay and celibate.)

Second, “gay” describes a community (or really, a big, contradictory, feisty tussle of communities) and a relationship to that community, and if you don’t have any notable or positive relationship to that community then that is a fact about you which presumably would lead you to identify differently. My sense is that people who have had very little experience with gay communities, or whose experiences have been largely negative, are a lot more likely to identify as “same-sex attracted” and resist identifying as gay. My own relationship to queer communities has been important to me, largely positive, and characterized by belonging, and that’s what I mean when I say I’m gay.

But there really are no terms which don’t in some way mark out a community. “Same-sex attracted” is identity-jargon too, delineating a specific way of understanding one’s eros: a new way, a way which would be as difficult to explain to St. Aelred (for example) as “gay.”

I’ve written before (from a somewhat different perspective than the one I have now) about my coming-out process: that click of recognition, the key turning in the lock. I thought at the time that my alienation was explained by my sexual orientation. “Oh, so that’s all it was!” That turns out to be only partly true–my alienation stems really from the Fall, not from being queer, but queerness is one way I’ve experienced a heightened or stylized version of that universal alienation. That experience was really important to me–and, ultimately, important to my conversion to Catholicism. Explaining it without “self-identifying” as queer would feel really artificial and strained.

Similarly, look, I was a pretty self-centered kid. I don’t know how much progress I’ve made there, but I know that gay and queer communities were among the places where I learned to try to listen to other people, admit my own faults and blind spots, and generally be more giving and less awful. I’ve said before that I was a better girlfriend to girls than to guys and I expect that’s related to my self-identification as well: “Gay” names a place where I became a somewhat better person. I want to honor the people who put up with me.

My sense is that if you’re Christian and you’ve had experiences like these, you’re more likely to self-identify as gay, and if you haven’t, you’re more likely to self-identify as same-sex attracted. (Although for a contrasting perspective, see here.)

Also, notice the real but limited role played by sexual desire in this description. “Because I’m gay” I’ve been sexually drawn to women; but also, “because I’m gay” I’ve felt intense difference from those around me, felt recognition and a sort of exhilaration when I found writers and musicians and artists who described queer experience, felt a need to be of service to women, and been a part of various communities which shaped me. Collapsing all of these elements of my “gay experience” into wanting to have gay sex seems to me to be a misunderstanding of eros–and a willful erasure of every possible element of gay experience which might form part of a positive path toward Christ and conversion. It seems like a demand that the path from the gay community to Christ must be a path of rejection rather than reunderstanding.

Christianity has always confronted specific communities which were held together by elements which seemed inimical to the Gospel. One major response has been to identify the “unknown gods” in those communities, the places where their own self-understandings indicated a longing for Christ. The community could then be baptized rather than rejected or destroyed. One reason I really loved Frederick W. Roden’s Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture is that he talks about the ways in which the cultures and communities which eventually transformed into “gay culture” had intrinsic affinities for Catholic faith. It’s obvious to me how my eros could be baptized, and I’ve written about that stuff a lot here.

Third, I persist in thinking that the tangle of experiences we’ve decided to call “being gay” is interesting. I’ve said, cattily, that I oppose gay marriage because I think homosexuality is interesting rather than banal. A lot of the “don’t identify as gay” stuff seems to me to be an attempt to gloss over real differences in experience, to pretend that homosexuality makes no important difference in one’s life path as a Christian in contemporary society. That seems to me to be an effort to understand gay difference and gay experience as banal. (“I’m not married, so I have to be chaste too! Our situations are just the same. So why are you acting like you’re different and special?” No. Our situations may have important lessons for one another. Your situation may be harder than mine in various ways, e.g. I don’t sit up nights wondering why I haven’t found a nice girl to marry me. But solidarity requires acknowledgment of difference, not suppression of it.)

And finally, “gay” is a blunt term, a quick tabloid kind of term, garish and in-your-face. I like that in a girl!

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