Taken at face value, the subtitle of this book suggested that it might be an easy read; possibly a more up-market version of ‘Orthodox Gay Catholicism for Dummies’. I could not have been more wrong. From the outset, I have to confess I found this book profoundly irritating. On first becoming aware of the book’s existence my reaction was, “Why another book on the subject of being gay and Catholic?” Haven’t we been here before? Scripture, patristics, the magisterium, etc – in short, “the usual suspects” – when it comes to wrestling with the topic of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, these have been covered at length by so many authors in recent decades. A glimpse at the lengthy bibliography, however, failed to reference some of them; specifically James Alison, David Berger, John McNeil, Marcella Althaus-Reid, Gerard Loughlin, Donal Godfrey, et al. Then I noticed the write-up on the back cover indicating that for the author, Stephen C. Lovatt, most or all of the above would not qualify as orthodox theologians. The author’s contention is that writers attempting to deal with the matter of being gay and Catholic generally fall into two camps: namely those who are pro-gay but theologically liberal and those who are anti-gay and theologically conservative. I conclude from these words that those who are pro-gay and who dissent from the moral or disciplinary teachings of the Church – which are, after all, peripheral to the central truths of the Christian faith – are somehow heterodox when it comes to its essential doctrines. If this is the author’s view, then it is an arrogant one and should be challenged.
On turning to the book’s comprehensive Alphabetical Index, one looks in vain for references to Christ or Jesus, which for me begs the question, what constitutes an orthodox Catholic, gay or otherwise, if a book such as this can make such little mention of the founder of our faith? It was only on reaching chapter 19 (The Theology of Sex), towards the end of a book comprising twenty-one chapters, that the reader encounters any references to Christ, and then they are limited to just two pages. At the very basic level, the foundation of belief and, therefore, of orthodoxy, is the Christ proclaimed in the Nicene Creed. That surely has to be the starting point of any book seeking to be Faithful to the Truth, for Christ is the embodiment of Truth. In his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth), Blessed Pope John Paul II raised the question, “What is truth and how does it relate to human actions?” The answer he provided was that truth, intellectual and moral, has been revealed by God throughout history, but especially in the person of Jesus Christ. We are all too well aware, however, of the distortions and accretions that have served to mask the image of Christ over the centuries. The intolerable burdens the institutional structure of the Church imposes on people; the absurdity, injustice, severity and perverseness with which people have had to wrestle when balanced against the grace, love and infinite mercy revealed to us in Christ. So the question persists: what does this book add that others have omitted? Well, it does punch a hole in the argument that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered, but then many of us long ago came to this conclusion without the supposed benefit of this book. The question that sticks in my mind is whether this book will convince a traditional/conservative gay Catholic – assuming that is the audience the book is directed at – that it’s ok to make whoopee with a boyfriend/girlfriend without the need to rush off to the nearest confessional at the earliest opportunity (a subject covered in ch.20). I have my doubts. I rather think that they might be of the opinion that the author is himself a dissenter and therefore to be considered as heterodox.
I would go so far as to grudgingly admit that the book represents an attempt to grapple comprehensively with its subject. The book’s chapters are, in the main, concise and supplied with abundant footnotes (sometimes to the point of being thoroughly annoying) and usefully sub-divided into bite-sized chunks. Yet, when it comes to exploring the New Testament passages most often used to condemn, or which could be interpreted as referring to, male homosexuality – women barely get a mention – the author presupposes that his readers have a knowledge of New Testament Greek. In order to appeal to as wide a readership as possible, he could at least have made greater use of transliteration (the conversion of a text from one script to another) to make his points; which, interestingly, he does only in respect of Hebrew passages from the Old Testament.
Lovatt has missed an opportunity in dealing with the Church’s teaching about a disordered sexuality (ch.18) in not referencing the abundant research and clinical literature of the past forty years indicating that same-sex sexual and romantic attractions, feelings, and behaviours are normal and positive variations of human sexuality. If the Church can change its teaching that the Earth is the centre of the Universe to accepting that the Earth and planets revolve around a relatively stationary Sun at the centre of the Solar System, then it should be possible in the twenty-first century to acknowledge that its teaching on human sexuality is also in need of revision.
If I had to name one thing in this book that irritated me beyond measure it would be the advice Lovatt gives to penitents in the aforementioned chapter 20. There the gay penitent is advised to seek absolution from a liberal priest for any sins that implicate that person as gay, if she/he despairs of “finding an orthodox confessor who will absolve you, knowing of your conscientious dissent from the teaching of the Church (on homosexuality)”. But Lovatt does not stop there because he goes on to advise the penitent to repeat the confession a week later to an orthodox priest, omitting all the sins that implicate the penitent as being gay. Why? Because the “second confession will attract a more appropriate penance and perhaps obtain better council” (I believe he means ‘counsel’). This twaddle masquerading as advice is most seriously flawed.
The concluding chapter consists of testimonies from gay priests and lay people, the contents of which will resonate with the gay and lesbian reader, though not all would share the liturgical preferences of the correspondents (i.e. their intense dislike of the vernacular Mass introduced post-Vatican 2).
The book’s Preface begins with a quote from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 document on the “Remission of the excommunication of the bishops of the Priestly Society of St Pius X [SSPX]”. In it Pope Emeritus Benedict identifies within society a tendency to single out groups “to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate”. I took the reason for including this quotation to mean that not only has the SSPX been despised and rejected within the Church, but so too have gay and lesbian Catholics. Benedict was clearly keen to bring the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of SSPX, back within the fold of Holy Mother Church. The author feels that the time has also come for gay Catholics to have the stigma attached to them to be removed. On this we would agree. And yet, the underlying current of this book perpetuates another division within the Church, i.e. between those whom the author deems to be ‘orthodox’ or ‘traditionalists’ and ‘liberals’. Why cannot we also accept and celebrate the diversity in the Church rather than persist in adopting a ‘them’ and ‘us’ approach? On these grounds alone, this is not a book I can recommend.
This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 68 (Winter 2013-14)