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?
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.