“And I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.” –Pope Francis
When I curiously returned to the religion of my youth, after spending over a decade as an out and proud “gay” man, I came back to the Church as a bleeding, broken, and bruised man. As a teenager, I turned to “gay” after a wholly ineffectual education in the Catholic Church of the 1970s and early-80s, where I was constantly encouraged to follow my own inner conscience; a conscience that had never even been rudimentarily formed. In fact, For the most part, I was repeatedly taught that the conscience was only important in terms of how we treated others, with an emphasis in high-school on social justice issues and the power within Christianity to influence and change global political initiatives by way of Liberation Theology. As for our own personal moral decisions, that was entirely up to us. In fact, we were instructed to form our own set of moral imperatives based upon personal feelings and reactions towards certain situations. Although the Church promulgated particular standards, our individual allegiance to those ideals were always subject to our conscience. We were told that our conscience would react positively towards the good; in my case, I always felt good in terms of my overwhelming sexual attraction to other men – therefore, that is good – for me. Later, I was informed by a highly confused and conflicted, but sadly well-intentioned priest, that because I had been “born gay,” an active life of homosexuality would never be considered sinful because God created me with this inclination. My only moral responsibility was that I act safety in the age of AIDS in order to protect the physical health of myself and others.
It was with this hazy background that I ventured into the unknown world of male homosexuality. There, I discovered a set of doctrines that were never ambiguous or open to individual interpretation, but were rooted in our genetic coding and a hidden history of gay affirmation and celebration in the Church. The current centralized institutional swerve towards conservatism within the Catholic Church, then symbolized with the apparent intransigence of Pope John Paul II, was a denial of the true teachings of Christ which focused on inclusion and tolerance. For a while, I subscribed to this interpretation of Christianity, yet slowly I began to abandon Christ and this religion of the self as Jesus no longer appeared in any way special. He was just another teacher in a long line of enlightened thinkers; a pantheon which included the Buddha, Gandhi, and Harvey Milk. They were merely examples of perfected humanity, not any sort of divine revelation.
For the next ten years, I spent countless hours writing and rewriting my own set of rules; generally, these guidelines changed as my life and relationships changed. At first, I was somewhat strict with myself concerning what I would and wouldn’t do. By the time I left homosexuality in 1999, there was practically nothing that I considered off limits.
The authoritarian following of my own inner light seemed to always push me further and further into darkness. When I was completely lost and left with few to no options, I inexplicably chose to return to Catholicism. Miraculously in my case, the first two books I opened on my journey to the Truth were The Bible and The Catechism of the Catholic Church. In The Bible I was immediately attracted to the compassion and the clear and concise directive given to the public sinner Mary Magdalene; in The Catechism I right away turned to the section on homosexuality which was equally succinct.
The uncertainty of my life till that point, the horror of having to watch as young men died, and the traumas inherent within a wayward existence, somewhat left me denuded and open to a far more disciplined and rigid way of life than what I would have considered before. What I wanted from the Church, and her ministers, was the same mercy shown by Christ to sinners and the inarguable directives expressed in The Catechism. Hoping beyond hope, I stepped inside a confessional for the first time since I was in Catholic grammar school. I prayed for a caring and honest priest who would offer absolution and some direction. I got neither. Instead, I was advised to return to the aimless world I had just narrowly escaped from; because, after all, I had been born gay and although I was struggling, I had done the best I could. Now, I should just simply keep trying.
At the time same, I was also attempting to return to the Liturgy of the Church. Overall, it was how I remembered it from the 1970s: overly laden with incessant guitar strumming and cloying selections from the St. Louis Jesuits, the sermons where entirely forgettable and focused on meaningless anecdotes and semi-humorous stories which had absolutely nothing to do with the Gospel, but merely restating that pretty much all Christ lived and died for was a series of hollow platitudes summed up in progressive attitudes towards inclusion and tolerance; in other words, any sort of belief in a moral authority was sign of bigotry and a lack of charity. As for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I was reminded of an outdoor “Cosmic Mass” I once attended in Berkeley with the renegade priest Matthew Fox. At that event, Fox “consecrated” loaves of bread, scattered among the various worshipers seated on blankets; afterwards we ate generously, talked loudly, gathered up the left overs, and shook out the crumbs onto the grass. Years later, now sitting in a Catholic church, I recognized about the same level of reverence and respect.
As far as I could see, there was nothing in the Catholic Church for me: no guidance, no laws, no sacredness. Just as I was about to give-up, I somehow found out about a Latin Mass celebrated several miles away in a neighboring city. I was desperate and had nothing to lose – so I went. I had no idea what I would be attending, I thought it was simply the Mass I had grown up with, but spoken in Latin. Yet, instantly I was struck by the simplicity and beauty of the Mass, the lack of distractions. While I had no idea what was being said – I was keenly aware of the details, especially the position of the priest as he faced the altar in the same manner as the congregation; therefore, our collective prayers became singularly focused on God, not misplaced in a back and forth between the priest as focal point and the people in the pews. Increasingly, I felt as if I were being swept forward and then I couldn’t look up anymore because my feelings were so intense and the nearness of Christ became overwhelming.
Rather quickly, I got to know the priest at this parish and he was an immensely kind and patient man. In addition to being the priest I went to for Confession, he was also my Spiritual Director. In this capacity, he modeled the Lord in both his mercy towards me and in the direction that he offered. Our starting place was always Scripture and The Catechism. And, far from perceiving the Church’s stance, and choice of language, concerning homosexuality as overly harsh or condemning, they were incredibly liberating as God’s expectations (of me) and requirements were clearly articulated and conveyed. I didn’t need special sensitivity, I didn’t need to be babied, and I didn’t need accompaniment. What I needed was the Truth. Afterwards, what I ultimately decided to do with that Truth – was entirely up to me. And, in my case, because I had devastatingly crashed while going out on my own, I was willing to accept the Truth.
Though I somewhat understand what Pope Francis is trying to express about the Latin Mass, and those who attend, because I did experience a certain unattractive exclusivity and narrow-minded judgmental attitude among a few parishioners, but, for the most part, the faithful, and more importantly, the priests who offer the Latin Mass do so with a solid devotion to Liturgical orthodoxy which also manifests in a similar confidence in the Church’s teachings on homosexuality. Conversely, it’s been my experience that Liturgical looseness and experimentation are also indicators of doctrinal indifference. What the Holy Father perhaps does not understand is that the harshness and sometimes inescapable perversity of modern life, and the crushing affect this has had on the soul, frequently leaves our fellow human beings feeling incredibly damaged and hopeless. To those, the Church is frequently a beacon of calm sanity, of the preservation of Tradition, of moral absolutes, of sacredness, and of the Truth. While those Truths are certainly not exclusive to the Latin Mass, the surety of finding them unadulterated where the Tridentine Mass also exists is usually a reliable conclusion. And to those who have spent their whole lives restlessly searching and finding nothing, we are tired of looking. For others, like myself, the presence of rigidity in the Church is not offensive, but the reason why we chose Catholicism.