Mark Dowd is a long term member and supporter of Quest. Last night, I and several other Quest members enjoyed the London launch of his impressive new book, “Queer and Catholic“. (Members from up North, attended an earlier launch in Mark’s hometown of Manchester).
The book is subtitled “a life of contradictions”. However, as the book itself demonstrates, there is no inherent contradiction between being queer and Catholic. Mark’s life has been steeped in Catholicism, from childhood in a deeply Catholic family, through education, to professional life as a broadcaster specialising in religion, to his current activities. At the same time, he has always known he was gay – from the age of eight, before he knew the word or what it meant – and at least from university, he has always been open about his orientation. This is a life fully gay, fully and deeply Catholic. The title however is not “Gay and Catholic”, but “Queer and Catholic”. This is significant. In its original meaning before it became a pejorative, or was later appropriated by queer theory, the word meant simply “strange”. There is something very strange indeed in the Vatican horror of homosexuality.
The only contradiction that exists between being queer and Catholic, as Mark himself states in his introduction, is within the church itself, where he states that the church is so anti-gay, because it is so gay. This is an internal contradiction that the church will in time be forced to resolve. Indeed, there are encouraging signs that even now, important leaders of the church, from Pope Francis himself, through senior cardinals and professional theologians, to lay Catholics in the pews, know that things must change. Pastoral practice in many dioceses and parishes is already vastly better than it was a few decades ago, even to serious discussions taking place about blessing same-sex unions. Changes in pastoral practice will eventually and inevitably lead to changes also in underlying theology.
This book then, is important. Our stories, of lives both Catholic and LGBT are a form of Christian witness, testimony, that highlight the inherent contradictions in formal sexual doctrine. That doctrine views same-sex relations as being all about physical pleasure and self-gratification, which will inevitably lead one away from God. Mark’s account of his own loves solidly refutes that. He describes his own loves as transcendent and graced – and shows how same-sex relationships can indeed be filled with the mutual self-giving that Vatican documents imply are the preserve only of heterosexual married couples. Such testimony contributes to what the French theologian Alain Thomasett calls “narrative theology”, which as it accumulates provides a body of evidence on which any further development in the theology of human sexuality can build.
“Queer and Catholic” is an important book. Much more than that, it is also quite simply a good read. Mark is highly intelligent, well-educated and well-travelled. He has a remarkable gift with words, and is able to tell a story well. There are anecdotes which had me laughing out loud, balanced with others that had me feeling with him, his anguish and pain at moments of bereavement or lost loves. For people who like Mark are both Catholic and lesbian, gay or transgender, this should be compulsory reading. For Quest members, there are other delights. I never had the privilege of meeting Mark’s mother, but have heard about her several times in conversation. Longer serving Quest members will have done so, at conference. A particular enjoyment in the book, was following her journey from outright horror when she first had reason to think that Mark as a young boy might be “one of those”, to her later acceptance, and then enjoyment of annual Quest conferences, and catching up with her lesbian friends.
For those who are Catholic but not gay, or LGBT but not Catholic, this is a read which will help to explain the apparent contradictions. For everyone, there are other further good reasons to read it. In addition to being a Catholic/LGBT memoir, this is a moving personal story, well told, covering coming of age, loves won and lost, and family bereavements. It is also fascinating social history. Mark is a professional journalist, and with his professional eye for detail, he illuminates much of how the country has changed over some five decades. It’s informative, it’s fun – and for Catholics, it’s inspirational.
(Cross-posted, slightly amended, from “Queering the Church”)
- Share Your Stories – It’s a Theological Obligation
- WHY Our Stories Matter
- LGBT Catholics’ Prophetic Responsibility
- Our Stories As “Sacred Texts”
- Narrative Theology: The Value of LGBT Lives
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