The Gods Of California And North Carolina Fist Fight In Heaven

I was raised a Catholic in a small parish in a small town on California’s central coast. Unlike what you hear about Catholics and Catholic priests and their various scandals in the media, my experience was very boring. Every Sunday morning my parents roused me, my brother, and my sister, got us dressed, and together we all attended mass. On weekdays after school we attended Catechism at Richard’s Hall, beside Our Lady of Refuge. Neither during mass nor in Catechism do I remember the subject of homosexuality coming up.

We weren’t ignorant of homosexuality; my uncle, my mother’s brother, son to my grandmother and grandfather—the most devout Catholics I’ve ever known—was gay. Not only was (is!) my uncle openly gay, he’s an advocate for LGBT rights. And still, during my childhood and today, I think my uncle considers himself Catholic.

This morning while listening to NPR I sat appalled as the sound bites rolled in from North Carolina after the announced results on the passage of Amendment 1, which banned same sex marriage and civil unions by amendment to the state constitution. I listened as a woman at a celebratory gathering cut into a wedding cake. “We are celebrating,” this woman said, “because it’s now acknowledged what a marriage truly is, and that is between a man and a woman.”

It’s been years now that same-sex marriage—either its acceptance or abolition—has been a hot-button topic in American media. Massachusetts legalizes it, Georgia bans it, California legalizes then repeals that legalization, then upholds the legalization. All extremes. Often, leading the charge against same-sex marriage are the religious conservatives, and those favoring equality in the right to marriage: liberals. What you never hear about are the moderates. In particular, you never hear about religious moderates.

This isn’t about acknowledging same-sex marriage, although I’ll have you know that I fully favor equality in rights for all people. Instead I want to show that while some religious fervently oppose the expression of such a right, not all religious feel the same way. The problem is that you never hear about these people in the media. My guess is that it’s because they’re boring. A Christian, Muslim, Jew — whatever — who’s willing to acknowledge that people ought to be able to marry whomever they love simply doesn’t make as good a news story as the vitriolic woman wielding a knife and slicing through her wedding cake of oppression.

As a boy my mother explained that my uncle’s lover was his roommate. This seemed good enough an answer as to why they were always together. We called him Uncle Roy. We loved seeing them, because Uncle Roy was hilarious and we rarely saw them at all, since they lived in Southern California. Roy was always cracking jokes, and he was an artist, and we’d plead for him to draw us pictures—my brother as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, my sister as a regal princess, me upon the pitcher’s mound. Uncle Matt and Uncle Roy lived in Santa Monica, and we were all situated in northern California, a seven-hour drive away. So we didn’t see them often, but when we did it was always a family gathering, usually at my grandparents’ house in the Napa Valley. Aunts and uncles, my cousins, Uncle Matt and Uncle Roy. We all went to the pool down the street during the hot summer months, during which we’d celebrate my August birthday under the wood lattice that shaded us. Easters we hunted eggs after mass at Saint Helena Catholic Church. They were happy times, and I was happy to see my uncle and his lover.

By the time I was old enough to realize that it was odd for two grown men to have been “roommates” for so long, when I asked my mother and she laughed and said, “Oh, honey, they’re gay; I thought you knew,” it made sense to me. I thought, of course they’re gay, duh. And I didn’t care that they were gay. In fact, it would have been creepy if mom insisted they were heterosexual and still “rooming” together. And it would’ve made me sad if my uncle and his lover had separated. They were a unit no different than my parents. Shortly after this age my uncles were comfortable enough to openly express their love for each other in front of me and my siblings, and they’d kiss on the lips, and no one ever felt uncomfortable about it (or at least I never did, and no one ever said they felt uncomfortable). When California legalized same-sex marriages, my uncles were among the first to get their marriage license and celebrate their legal union. I received pictures of the ceremony in my Gmail.

Legally, it wasn’t always like this in California. The state’s history is Catholic. Franciscan friars were the first Europeans to set permanent feet on the soil, and their position on homosexuality was decidedly conservative. I learned this while writing a book about the state’s colonial history, and about my life growing up as a Catholic there. Among the excerpts from that book is the following:

Among the Ohlone of Santa Clara the padres were astonished to find men who dressed and acted like women. The fathers, investigating, asked other Californians, who assured the Franciscans that indeed some men preferred to be considered as women. Fathers Fray Tomás Peña and Joseph Murguía, along with armed corporals, detained one individual, undressing her to determine her sex and upon finding his sheathed penis forced him at gunpoint to don the clothing of other male Indians, which was nothing at all. They kept the transvestite native at Mission Santa Clara against his will, ashamed of his nakedness. They forced him to perform menial tasks such as sweeping the mission plaza. The depressed native was told that he should not dress as a woman and that he should live among god-fearing men in sin. Then, finally, the priests allowed the man to leave. Later reports assured the fathers that his conduct persisted as before. Further investigation turned up coias—as the natives called men who dressed as women, and who were the wives of other men—in tribes throughout the region. When the missionary fathers saw two neophyte men—one dressed as a woman—enter a reduccion dwelling together, the Spaniards accosted them and found the two engaged in acts that would surely offend a Catholic God. The padres punished the men, though the one protested that the other was his wife, and the Franciscans replied with instructions about the most execrable sin they had been committing. The friars hoped that with the spread of God in the area, such evil and detestable people would be eradicated and in their stead adherents to the fold of the Holy Faith would reign for the greater good of all those native and degraded people.

But I grew up in a very different California. My mother tells me that my grandparents went through a transition period where they learned to deal with the fact of their son’s sexuality. But as a kid I couldn’t have known that. My grandfather laughed at Roy’s jokes, and my grandmother leaned in to hug and kiss both of them when they left to head south at the end of their visit. We sat together at the same table for meals, prior to which we took hands and chanted “Bless us, oh Lord for these our gifts . . .” Then my grandfather would bless all the dead dogs and we sat together and ate, my gay uncles and the rest of us.

And of course I can only imagine what the “transition” was like for my uncle, as he decided to come out to his Catholic family. How he must’ve been afraid, how he must’ve forced himself to be strong about who he was.

My parish priest was Father Scott McCarthy, a rather tall man, with long red hair, and a big red beard. When he wasn’t covered in his vestments for mass, he usually sported Birkenstock sandals, khaki shorts, and a tie-dyed t-shirt. For three months out of every year he left us to live with the Sioux in Wyoming, where he preached to them and was granted honorary tribal membership. Yes, this was a Catholic church that I attended, and Father Scott was a Catholic priest.

I fulfilled the Sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, Reconciliation, Conformation. I’m married now, but I was not married in a Catholic ceremony, so technically I’m not sure I’ve committed that Sacrament. While we didn’t talk about homosexuality with Father Scott, I remember asking him why there were so many different kinds of churches. My best friend, Randy, was Presbyterian. We’d visited relatives in England who were Anglicans. The funny men who sweated in their gaudy suits on TV on Sunday afternoons called themselves Baptists. Why, in the Apostle’s Creed, does it say, “I believe in the holy Catholic church”? What did God think about all these other churches, and which one was right? I must’ve been eight or nine years old. Father Scott smiled at me and said, “There are many ways to love God, and God loves all His creatures.” And that settled it. It seemed like a pretty darn good answer to me. Why would God care how people loved him as long as they did?

When I went away to college and began reading Descartes and Nietzche and Darwin and hundreds of other thinkers, and I questioned the faith under which I’d been brought up all my life, I told my family about it and we had stimulating conversations on the subject of God and history and evolution and indoctrination. My sister, who was in Catechism for her confirmation at the time, told her class and Father Scott about my questions, about my challenges to the tenets of Catholicism. Father Scott smiled—as he always did—and said, “Many times throughout your life your faith will be challenged. These challenges help your faith to grow.” When I picked up my sister from the parish house that evening, after her class had ended, Father Scott smiled at me and shook my hand, said how nice it was to see me. I only learned what my sister had told them on the drive back home, and so I was embarrassed. But now, looking back, I’m overcome by the class, dignity, and character of Father Scott.

My imaginary conversation with Father Scott about my marriage goes like this:

Father Scott: Do you love your wife?

Me: Yes.

Father Scott: Then I’d say you’ve committed to the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

My imaginary conversation with Father Scott about homosexuality goes like this:

Me: Why do some people love other people of the same sex?

Father Scott: There are many ways for people to express their love for one another, and God loves all His creatures. TC mark

image – Yury Prokopenko

More From Thought Catalog

  • anonymous

    One of the best articles I’ve read on Thought Catalog. I also grew up in a very liberal Catholic family. I had a few gay relatives as well who were always welcome at our family reunions and holiday parties. Once I got to college, I discovered that most of my peers mistakenly believed that all Catholics were conservative who did not believe in gay rights. But from experiences with my family and the members of my parish, there are many liberal, Democratic Catholics who do believe in these things. We are not all Rick Santorums.

  • Mary

    Good article!  I, too, grew up Catholic, in Northern CA (SF) no less (I went to St. Helena Catholic Church last Oct. for my cousin’s wedding).  Two of my uncles were gay (they have passed away from AIDS), and this fact was never an issue in my family.  I pretty much have the same feeling as Father Scott.  We all love each other in different ways, and who am I to pass judgement on anyone else?  Who am I to say what is “right” or “wrong?”  The religious conservatives who insist that gay marriage means the end of the world practically are only concerned with themselves and see gay marriage as a threat to their way of thinking, and it’s very closed minded to me.  Personally I don’t see what the problem is, at all. 

    Also, there was a Newsweek cover story a few months ago that talked about religion, catholicism, and social issues (I think it came out when the abortion laws were getting going).  According to polls, Catholics are the second most liberal religious group in the U.S., second to Judaism (and half, if not most, favor gay marriage).  However, the leaders of the Catholic church (the bishops, the pope, etc) are very conservative.  So, I think Catholics get the reputation that they are all very conservative (and yes, many are of course), because the church leadership is what makes the news, but if you ask the general population of Catholics, many are pretty liberal.  I recommend the article if you can find it.  And re: Rick Santorum- I’m not a fan.

  • Wdeanis

    I’m glad I clicked through and read this. After months of fighting so hard here in NC, reading every bit written about Amendment 1, and subsequently losing the campaign, I couldn’t take anymore on the issue. Pro- or anti- equality it didn’t matter, it put my mind in a terrible place and it affected me daily. My boyfriend (really tired of having to call him that after 4 years…) and I are just battle weary now. It’s reassuring to see articles and comments like these that show the moderate voices… So thanks for that

  • kate

    Thank you for writing this. I am a moderate Catholic and support marriage equality.. I think there are definitely more of us out there than the media makes it seem. Nice article

  • Sarah

    I’m not religious at all but it still upsets me when there are those who hide behind religion as a way to perpetuate hate.  Thank you so much, Jamie, for showing that religion is not about hate.  This was a very beautiful article!

  • Gabrielle G

    Very well-said. Not once, in all the Scriptures detailing his teachings, does Christ condemn homosexuality. So many people need to make sure they actually know what their Holy Books teach before they purport to believe in and stand for them.

  • Challam

    You (and I) were incredibly fortunate to have experienced Catholicism in the Monterey Diocese, where sterile and heartless Church law came in a far second to the love of the real Jesus — modeled by the terrific priests and religious women and men serving there. I wish (seriously wish) all those Catholics who hide within the harshness and inhumanity of Church Law could have also enjoyed this freedom. I’m centuries older than you and grew up in the church of the 1940-1950’s, so I know the real difference between the practical theology of that time, as compared to the fresh air that entered our Diocese in the 1970’s. Thanks for your article…God bless you.

  • Karoline

    This article was so beautiful. I, too, was raised a Catholic, going to Mass on Sundays every Sunday with my family and still do now that I’m in college. In Massachusetts, we never had a “cold” church, but it certainly isn’t completely accepting of many moral stances. I’ve always been a supporter of gay marriage, but I never really knew the stances of those aroun me. I was watching the news with my mom last week, and they showed the interview with President Obama in which he expressed his support of gay marriage. My mom turned to me and asked “what do you think my stance is?” I told her that I really had no idea, but I thought that she was at least moderately in support of it. She looked at me and said that she was. She had been born and raised in the catholic faith, going to Catholic schools from grade 1 all the way through college. It made me really happy to see that adults like my parents, who can tend to have more conservative views on other issues, were so willing to embrace the live of all people :)

  • PiratesLife4Me

    This was a great article, but I would like to comment on something kind of frivolous.   Why is it that people always say “I was raised Catholic”, as you did in the first sentence?  I have never in my life heard someone say “I am Catholic”.  It’s always “I was raised Catholic”, as if it was something forced upon you that you are ashamed to admit.  No other religious group uses a phrase like that to identify themselves.  I wasn’t raised Jewish, I just am.

    It’s just an innocent observation, and I mean no offense to the Catholic community.  I just find it interesting that the phrase exists when Catholics describe themselves.

    As for the article, I am really glad to hear the viewpoint of a Catholic who is not the stereotypical conservative bigot you hear about constantly in the media.  Whatever religion, I believe people should just be as open-minded and accepting as you clearly are.  :)

    • Jamieiredell

       That’s a good question, and one I’m happy to answer, if you don’t mind that the answer’s a bit lengthy.

      I was raised Catholic, but I’m not a Catholic now, not in the sense of a Catholic in Communion with the Holy See. I don’t attend mass, and–as this little piece attested to–I didn’t commit the most recent of the Sacraments in true-to-Catholic-form. Who knows what my future might hold. I’ve still got the anointing of the sick, and my last rites. Sure, once one undergoes Confirmation (and, nevermind the “conformation” typo in the text above), one is a Catholic “for life.” But it’s easy enough for the Church to excommunicate one of its members–not that I have been, but I think that if anyone in Rome had read the other things I’ve posted on Thought Catalog, they’d be quick to enact said indult.

      I guess that, unlike Judaism–which is both a religion and an ethnicity and/or nationality (if one’s Israeli)–Catholicism is built almost entirely on choice. To quote a fake Jewish convert fictional character in a silly movie (i.e., John Goodman as Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski): “When you get divorced you turn in your library card, you get a new license, you STOP BEING JEWISH?”

      That’s a joke of sorts, but I guess it’s easier to stop being Catholic than it is to stop being Jewish; it’s not as much a part of one’s cultural identity–especially if one grows up in the United States.

      On the other hand, Flannery O’Connor, in her excellent talk/essay on the Catholic writer in Mystery and Manners, says that the Catholic writer has to (and I’m paraphrasing here) tell the truth as he or she sees it from his or her point of view. And if I take that to heart then, no matter what I’m a Catholic–Holy See or not–and if I look at things that way, which I kind of do, I agree with you. But it’s easier, rhetorically, for one to get to such an explanation, if one starts by saying one was “raised Catholic” and does not consider one a “traditional Catholic” now.

      Anyway, I hope all that makes sense.

  • Mamajamerson

    So beautiful! I’m convinced that this moderate belief and willing tolerance represent the majority of us, we are just not a vocal majority. As you stated, the voices we hear are, almost exclusively, those of the far right and the far left. But those living with the repercussions need for us to speak up. Thank you for doing just that.

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