TL;DR – Good book. Although I’ve some style issues in Part 2 and 4, all the parts are all engaging and thought provoking. All parts, too, are educational both in a spiritual way (if you want to be a faithful RCC) and in a “getting inside the mind of” way if you don’t want to be RCC at all. Excellent as a spiritual guide for the faithful, this book would also be a strong placement alongside other works with differing POV in a group discussion setting in or outside the RCC.
Back in 2014, reviewing Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic, I took issue with her ascribing a sense of beingness to her sexuality. It seemed to me that Eve’s approach was “I am this way, and now I have to live – still being this way – into the Church’s rules.” Reading with her filter in place, it was easy for me, from outside the Roman Church, to interpret all of RCC teaching the same way. My objection to this line of thought as posted in that review was:
I “am” gay because I like sex with guys as I “am” a carnivore because I love bacon. I can be a vegetarian – but I’d still love bacon. I can even be an “ethical vegan”, opposed to the anthropocentric use, objectification, and slaughter of other living creatures – but still admit that the taste of bacon is one that I love. I “am” gay rather as I love bacon. It’s fun. It’s a preference, but it doesn’t mean I am gay in my being.
My essential response was “I am Orthodox and a sinner.” (You can read: Review part 1 and Review part 2 if you wish.)
Now I’m Catholic, and it is largely because of a group that I met at that time, ironically, as a result of reading Eve’s book. I discovered that Eve’s tack isn’t really all of the RC’s teaching. This doesn’t surprise me: I’m a convert too.
This idea that one is gay the way one used to be considered male, or white, or 53 years old seems to be common. In fact in a culture where much of what used to pass for “identity” seems fluid, orientation is given an oddly concrete status. It is also rather recent and socially constructed – as people from Foucalt, to Paglia have pointed out. What we do with this sense of being we have, though, that’s the important part.
Into this conversation now comes Daniel C. Mattson with his wonderful and challenging Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay. It is the spiritual autobiography of a man trying to live faithful to authentic Christianity’s teaching on sexuality – towit, that sex as a vibrant and powerful gift from God, is intended to be rightly used in one context, and outside of that context it is not only wrong in a moral and spiritual way but also harmful to the human person.
Liber est omnis divisa in partes quinque.
The whole book is divided in five parts, but I’ll address the review in two posts. Here parts 1 and 2, then there will be another post on parts 3, 4, and 5. In defence of this division, I note that Parts 2 & 4 are the ones I had trouble with so that will divide these two posts into “some good/some bad”. And I do not want, in any way, for the discussion of the bad to eclipse the good.
Mad props for getting Robert Cardinal Sarah to write the foreword! In the front matter, the book raises a crucial issue: Cardinal Sarah and Fr Paul Check (writing in the introduction) both point out that we need a Church that moves along side of those who are struggling. Tushnet points this out as well. Two of my brothers in Christ recently punched a hole in my gut talking (also in two parts) about the compassion that Catholics need to feel along side these struggles (The Catholic Man Show, Episode 61, and Episode 62). A recent movie, called “The Third Way” did this as well. It does my heart good to feel not-alone, but fully a part of the Body of Christ in ways that mere denial or mere affirmation never allowed me to feel.
Part 1 is the most autobiographical. It’s the story of a boy conceived on the night of the first Moon Landing (I rather like that story more than mine, which involves the weekend of the JFK assassination, but anyway…) and who grows up feeling lost among boys and men who are athletic and jocular, easy going with themselves, confident and outgoing with women. His own sense of inadequacy was such that he got turned in on himself.
It continues with him sexualizing these feelings, and then finding ways to express those sexualized feelings. Once the feelings get sexualized, then it becomes only a matter of finding ways to express them.
It’s worth a read: I had the exact same experience. All the way through I was like “um, wow.” And the same story came up again in another place recently, a film. So alike were Daniel’s story to the other story that I had to jump to the film’s credits to see if this were not the same guy! There may be a number of reasons for having these feelings, but “Falling for the guy I want to be” and then sexualizing it seems to be the most common one. It also explains why some men get locked into dating the same aged guys over and over again: that’s the age that one wants to be, wants to be for ever, that one keeps trying to “fix”.
There were a couple of places where my experience parted from Mattson’s path, most notably in his adult attempts at dating women (which I stopped trying to do in college – even then hurting dear friends). Also, I had the departure from the Church phase, coming back at about the same time as the author, although I only had anger at the Church – in a real sense – for a couple of years in my darkest occult phase. Still, the author’s stories of flipping the finger at a church made perfect sense – and I’ve seen others do it as well whenever they passed a church.
The sense of disempowerment in the World of Men becomes, itself, the driving force. Although Daniel is not going to get to this phase (or if he did, he didn’t discuss it), the inadequacy and downward spiral can continue, until – far from eroticising the men you wish you were like – you end up eroticising the inadequacy itself. You stop acting the role of the class clown, the jokes on me, look I’m about to swing a bat… and you end up playing the class fool: go ahead, beat me up, please.
I found this first part as valuable in understanding the spiritual journey as I found parts of Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and for much the same reason: it underscores that no one has a unique story. There is only one story, with variations on the theme. In my pride I want to be the only one. But really, we all have the same story. It only takes the breaking of a rare few things to result in the same scars, the same inflection, the same inversions, as they used to call it. Reading this story though, was earth-shaking. Each moment of “What, you too?” was like a brick gone from my wall: not a loss, for it was never a gain, but still, an absence to be filled by Grace. When the whole wall is gone, then I’ll be dead… but it will be a pretty bridge.
The second part, though, I wrestled with. As a blogger I can hear the blogger’s voice. This is not a voice for putting thoughts in print. In fact if it had continued for much longer I would have put the book down and written a bad review never realizing there were other parts to read. To my mental ears, this part is Daniel’s “I was in Hell” moment. It’s his chance to say how unsatisfactory the gay world was. I get that. My experience though is this anger is like admitting one has had sex with an astronomical number of people: it may be true, but the left doesn’t care and the right only cares for the scandal. Yes, the idea of “Coming out” is all empty promises. But so what? This seems to be the part of the book written for other people – not for people struggling with church teaching on sex, but people who want to be scandalized or at least titillated about people not wanting to live that way. It’s the part that will sell the book to people who don’t really care about a collection of struggling Christians, but do want to feel superior to them. This is the part I imagine I’ll hear quoted in certain circles – this part and part 5. I’ll discuss this more, though, in the second post. Part 2 is not the longest part, though. I agreed with most things said, but it’s the tone. (I begin to think tone is everything in Evangelism.)
What else can a book about the sexual teachings in the Church be, but evangelism? As I said, this would be a good book in a discussion group with different points of view. But this book raises some interesting issues – especially in the “this is my life” portion. These are not all comfortable questions, perhaps, for the author. I’ll get to them later. But – vague spoiler – here’s where I think there is a huge difference between several sorts of books in this genre. They fall on a spectrum:
1) I hate this. I love God.
2) I hate this. I hate God.
3) I love this. I hate God.
4) I love this. I love God.
Each category then asks different questions. All four category can be written with one of four endings:
1) Yes-Gay Yes-God
2) Yes-Gay No-God
3) No-Gay No-God
4) No-Gay Yes-God
Eve Tushnet’s book falls into category 3 with something of a 1-4 Hybrid ending. Mattson seems to be a Category 2 with a 4 ending.
I don’t think that’s good evangelism, but it is a good part of mystagogy, the after- initiation teaching. Tushnet’s book was good evangelism in that it’ll get you through the door.
I have not yet talked about the title of the book – but the title is why I bought it. In 1995 or 96 I was getting off the N train at 42nd Street with my housemate, Ray. Ray was explaining to me why he didn’t feel a part of anything called the gay community. “Basically,” he said. “The only thing we have in common is what we like to do in bed. And, really, we don’t even have that…” It was a throwaway line that I ruminated on for nearly a decade. We have nothing in common. Wait, if there is no gay community, is there a gay? And all through college and on into adult life, I met well adjusted folks – most of whom were also attracted to the same sex – who said things like “I don’t want to be called gay” and “I hate gay as a noun”.
The fact that most all of these people were “Teh Ghey” – and sexually active, etc – but yet didn’t want to be using the word was interesting to me. And, like I said, made me examine my own thoughts, words, and deeds in this area. There are some that might say most of those folks suffered from some sort of internalized self-hate, but I’m not a psychotherapist and I don’t want to diagnose people based on my level of Psych 101 at NYU.
I did feel uncomfortable reading parts of Mattson’s book. There were places where he sounded remarkably sound, able to navigate the nuances of a person working out his salvation in fear and trembling. And there were places where he sounded simply hurt and angry. I found myself in those places saying, “I’m not sure what went wrong here, but you don’t seem to be telling the whole story.” Like in Seven Storey Mountain where Merton never comes clean about fathering a child… but notes his life was a mess sexually. I don’t want Mattson to do a kiss and tell chapter, or write out a true confession of his life, but the Bio Part seems a bit short, to be honest, and a bit light on the workings. Has much as I loved it, I wished there had been more.
That would be evangelism, I think. And it would be the blogger’s voice rightly used. It may also require a different life pattern – one where “This felt really good” was a thing. I think of St Mary of Egypt, really. Although, later in life, she realized she had made a grave error – earlier it was not that way. And she was honest about it not being that way. I don’t think she laughed or bragged, but she was honest that the younger girl was not prone to really care about morality.
Daniel Mattson’s story might work for some while St Mary of Egypt’s story works for others. I hope there’s a “Gay St Mary” out there… forgive my phrasing.
In the second posting on this book I will discuss parts 3, 4, and 5. Which I think are the spiritual fruit of Mattson’s labor in some ways – and quite well done in all ways.
That’s for reading – part 2 is here.