Tuesday, March 5, 2013

If I were a zygote

Hungry after my shift at the grocery store today, I picked up a hot fish sandwich from the deli for $1.99 then agonized over whether to purchase a cold Coke for an additional $1.79. The Coke wasn't strictly necessary; I could drink water just as easily. But there's just something about a Coke to wash down a fish sandwich.

Since it was for my supper, I splurged. 

It was a perfect symbol, I thought, for what my life has become: Painful decisions about trivial matters brought on because I work part time making minimum wage. There isn't a dollar to waste. There is no comfort zone, no savings to fall back should an emergency arise. 

Even if I had a full time job, I would not have enough income to afford my own place to stay, which means I must continue to rely on the kindness of my brother and his family, who allow me to stay in their spare bedroom. If not for them, I would be living in my car or on the street.

I am going to give up liability insurance for my car, even though it's mandatory. I've been driving for more than thirty years and have never had an accident. I will have to take my chances because I can't afford to continue to throw away money on insurance I never use.

Despite a medical condition, I no longer take needed medications because I can't afford them. I'm just asking for trouble, I know, but what to do?

I will soon have to turn my phone off because it's hard to justify spending $100 a month just to have a cell phone. The only reason I have kept my phone is because it allows me to connect to the Internet although my Internet service is very limited and not very good.

Needless to say I don't have cable TV or any of the other bells and whistles of modern American life.  

I buy the Sunday newspaper religiously and immediately turn to the classified section, which consists of two, perhaps three pages. While there's a lot of demand for truck drivers, there are few help-wanted ads for anything else. There are never ads for writer/media types like me, or anything even remotely suitable for my qualifications.

The online job boards are more promising, but most of the companies currently hiring are the big box stores like Dollar General and Lowe's, companies looking for cashiers and customer service clerks at minimum wage.  Almost all are part time, no benefits to speak of.

Complicating matters is the fact that I'm an older worker. Jobs are scarce for older workers. Another complication: I don't go to one of the big churches. I've been told several times that unless you go to one of the big churches, you won't get a decent job because you have to be connected with a church family. Whether that's true or not, I can't say, though I suspect it is. Even if I showed up religiously at the First Baptist Church in downtown Tupelo, what are they going to make of a gay man? That's another problem all by itself. They'd just as soon see me swinging from a magnolia tree.

It's a bleak picture. It's hard to see what sort of future -- if any -- waits for me. 

People have asked me why I don't simply move somewhere else. The answer: I don't have money to relocate somewhere else. At the moment I've got $52 in my bank account. How far is that going to get me? 

I try to be optimistic, but it's hard, and each day it gets harder. I find myself with feelings of increasing desperation. I sometimes think about putting an end to it. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with helplessness and despair. It's embarrassing to not have money enough to pay your bills, to make your own way in the world. It's demeaning, dehumanizing. 

I find it hard to fathom that almost half of all Americans are either at poverty level, where I am, or damn close to it. For three decades our economic policies have favored the wealthy elites, the huge corporations, Wall Street, bankers, stockbrokers, the Mitt Romney types. We were told the wealth would "trickle down." It hasn't. Instead, the middle class has been gutted and millions have been thrown into poverty. 

I'm just one of those millions, one of those hapless statistics, in the wrong place at the wrong time, just one more person for whom the American Dream was only a dream and never anything more.

Poverty is man-made, the natural result of decisions and choices that we, as a society, make. Poverty is the outcome of the economic policies put into place at the state and national levels. Poverty persists because we allow it to do so. As a society, we have decided that we have endless billions to throw away in subsidies for the oil industry, or for war, or for never ending tax relief for the wealthy, but there is no money to help the working poor. 

And so there I was, when my shift ended, agonizing over whether to purchase a Coke for a meager supper. That's what my life has been reduced to. 

I write about it knowing full well there is nothing anyone can do about it, and knowing, too, that others are in far worse shape. 

We are all caught up in America's particularly harsh form of hyper-capitalism of profits at any price, and profits over people. Always profits over people. 

What saddens me is that so many Americans don't realize there are alternatives. Far easier to dismiss me as just one more taker on food stamps than to admit there's something seriously wrong with the way we do business and the way we treat our own.

If I were a zygote, or a corporation, I'd have scads of people passionately caring about my well being. But I'm not a zygote or a corporation, so I'm on my own, as though modern life is nothing more than some half-assed replay of the Wild Wild West. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

What Homosexuality Taught Me About the Catholic Church

I can safely be accused of a great many things, including taking things too seriously, which is exactly and precisely what I did - and for many, many years - with regard to the teachings of the Catholic Church on homosexuality.

The polite version of church teaching on homosexuality is that homosexuals are "intrinsically disordered" because a sexual relationship between two people of the same gender does not offer the possibility of procreation. While the church urges its pastors and followers to be "compassionate" with the poor, sad gays, in no way does it condone homosexual activity, even within the confines of a committed, monogamous, long-term relationship. Any homosexual act is a mortal sin. If not repented and confessed, the homosexual guilty of such act(s) will go to hell.

The impolite version is rather more extreme, and too well known to repeat here.

Catholics are to "love the sinner but hate the sin." Any gay man or woman who falls in love with another gay man or woman is only deceiving themselves because their affections are intrinsically disordered and gravely sinful.


"Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."

Now former Pope Benedict, he said during his recent Christmas message that gay marriage is a "threat to justice."

As a Catholic teenager drowning in hormones, I was faced with a choice: Either believe what the church teaches about homosexuality, or take my chances and risk almost certain eternal hell fire.

Now pushing 50, my life to date has been a long string of phases involving one or the other of these choices.

I don't know that I'm capable of explaining the agonies of conscience and self-recrimination I've put myself through, the years of tortured self-doubt and self-loathing that always and eventually reached the tipping point, at which time I would throw all of it to the wind and sow some wild oats, often losing myself for years at a time in the "gay community."

During my teens and twenties, I was repulsed by my own sexuality, which was like some alien lifeform inside my body that I could not control, could not "pray away," could not escape. I could only laugh bitterly when well-intentioned friends opined that all I had to do was choose not to be gay and it would go away. It was, after all, a choice. I could un-choose it. If I refused to do that, well, they weren't about to feel sorry for me.

The agony I experienced led often to half-assed attempts at suicide, but also a few very serious attempts that fortunately did not succeed. I hated myself with a frightful intensity. I hated myself far more than the folks at the God Hates Fags Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

When this hatred became overwhelming, I went completely in the opposite direction, fully embracing the "gay lifestyle." After thoroughly dousing myself in this moral decay, I eventually wound up feeling shamed, morally compromised, sinful, in need of redemption. I would inevitably find my way back to a confessional when the whole sordid tale would be spilled in the hopes that God would forgive me. I would then try again very hard to be a good Catholic, to be faithful to the teachings of the church.


I used to believe that homosexuality was a cross that God had given me as a test to see whether I really did love Him with my whole heart and soul and mind and body. If I did, I would resist the temptation to get involved with my gay peers. I would accept the loneliness, the sacrifice of my youth and affections, my need to be held, loved, comforted, talked to. I would accept these sufferings in exchange for a crown of glory in heaven, at which time I would be amply rewarded.


"What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross. That Cross, for the believer, is a fruitful sacrifice since from that death come life and redemption. While any call to carry the cross or to understand a Christian's suffering in this way will predictably be met with bitter ridicule by some, it should be remembered that this is the way to eternal life for all who follow Christ."

At some point in my early thirties I came to a strange realization: The Catholic Church could very well be wrong about the matter. That's an astonishing thought for a Catholic. That's heresy. That's playing with fire. It was far more likely that I was a lusty sinner looking for a loophole. Wasn't it? But of course it was.

How could the Catholic Church be wrong about something it had taught for many centuries, going (supposedly) all the way back to St. Paul in the New Testament and his "man working with man that which is unseemly"? Isn't the pope infallible? Doesn't the Holy Spirit guide the church and preserve it from error in faith and morals?

As a Catholic, I was often told that God cannot deceive or be deceived, that the church guards the deposit of faith and cannot err in matters of faith and morals. Protestants can err, and often do. Muslims, Jews, Hindus -- they don't have the divine promise of infallibility and immutability that the Catholic Church has. Everything the church teaches is absolutely and utterly true; to question or suggest otherwise is tantamount to heresy.

But ...

I knew from my own painful experience that homosexuality is not a choice. Teenagers don't wake up one day and decide to be straight, or gay, or transgendered. It just doesn't happen that way. At no point in my life did I decide that I wanted to be attracted to members of the same sex. It just was. It just happened. While other guys were talking about Farah Fawcett, I was thinking about Freddie Mercury. I could no more fathom their interest in female breasts than they could my interest in penises. And because it was so shameful and sinful and shrouded in such disgust, I could never tell anyone what I was thinking or feeling, what was passing through my mind. I could not ask anyone for an explanation.

From a small town, I was alone. There was no Google search engine to turn to, no gay book store on the corner, no Amazon.com from which to discreetly order gay books, no possibility of making gay friends. It was just me and inexplicable feelings that would not go away.

Why would anyone in my position choose such a confused, painful path in life?


In my early twenties, I fell in love for the first time with a man named Bobby. It was a mad, crazy thing. When I was away from him, I felt like I couldn't breathe. When I was with him, I had to be touching him, sitting with him, talking to him -- he was like a drug. The feelings of happiness and intimacy I experienced were quite beyond anything I had ever hoped for.

How could those feelings be "sinful"? What did it mean when something was "sinful?" These questions led me to ponder for many years the question of sin. What, exactly, was sin? Of course, I knew the definition given in the catechism, taught by the church. I also knew the definitions to be found in the dictionary. But what, I wondered, was "sin?"

To hurt someone, to stab them, to steal their property, to kill them, to cheat people, a man beating his wife or kids, a man drinking up his pay and letting his family starve -- that was sin. It was sin whether or not the church said so. In fact, to my mind, it made no difference what the church said about such matters. To hurt others was sinful. Didn't matter what your religion was, what your beliefs were, what god you worshipped. If you were hurting other people, you were sinning.

Who was being hurt by the fact that I had fallen in love with a man? Me? Bobby? The neighbors next door? Society at large? Who, exactly, was being cheated, or robbed, or beaten? What possible sense could it make to say that the love I felt for a man was somehow hurting someone, when clearly it had nothing to do with anyone else except me and the man I loved?

At this juncture, I was introduced to the church's concept of "self-harm." Something is sinful when it hurts others, or ourselves, the church said.

With regard to my love nest situation with Bobby, I was hurting myself because I was sinning and therefore I would lose my immortal soul and spend an eternity in hell. I was choosing temporary, fleeting physical pleasures rather than the good of my own soul.

The same argument is made in regard to masturbation, which Catholics often call self-abuse. It's not that anyone is being physically (or in any other way) hurt by an act of masturbation; it's that we're sinning and risking our eternal salvation.

I was not mature enough to realize this was a circular, self-referencing argument that ultimately made no sense. On the other hand, I was smart enough to know that loving another man -- bringing him breakfast in bed, or cuddling up with him to watch a soap opera -- was not the same as a husband beating his wife. It was not the same as a serial killer beheading his latest victim.


Like most young Americans, I knew about our history of slavery and I had some vague notions about the Civil War, but at college, I began to study American history with much more seriousness. I stumbled across Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a book that had a tremendous influence on me. This history of the treatment of Native Americans literally broke my heart. From there, I moved on to the Civil War and the issue of slavery, and for the first time I began to get a glimpse of what slavery actually was -- and again, my heart was broke. Not for myself, but for all those people who had gone down these terrible paths at the hands of my ancestors. It was unspeakably evil, I thought, what we had done. It disgusted me.

Study of these matters destroyed my illusions about the founding of my country, those carefully perpetuated bits of nationalistic pap that pass for high school history. I could never again view Columbus Day in the same light.

For years I could not understand why these things distressed me so much. I tried to talk about them to other people only to receive odd looks or rolled eye balls. My interest in such matters was not shared by anyone else I knew.

I identified with Native Americans, with slaves, with the oppression they experienced, the sadness of their lives, their constant struggle for dignity, but I could not understand why.

At some point I came across an odd thought: If the Bible was wrong about slavery -- and it was -- then could it not also be wrong about other things?

This thought was like a thunderbolt. It seemed to me that I had searched my whole life for this thought, this idea, this sentiment, because slavery was clearly a moral matter. And the church had gotten it wrong. The church had changed its mind. The church no longer told slaves to be "subject to their masters," to quote St. Paul. The church had decided that slavery was immoral, was a violation of a very basic human right.

There was more. Jesus himself had never said a word about slavery. How odd. Slaves were common in the old Roman Empire, under whose heel Jesus lived. Did he truly have nothing to say about it? Nothing to say about the idea that people could own other people, could breed them like cattle, could work them until they dropped dead in the fields, could take their babies away, sell of their spouses, their kids, could trample on their dreams, crush their hopes, whip them, abuse them, annihilate their dignity and self-respect?

Nothing to say?



Sketched above, briefly, is the path I followed in my understanding of homosexuality, which led me from long meditations on the nature of sin, to the study of actual sin, such as accounts of the treatment of Native Americans and slaves, but also true crime accounts of serial killers (I spent many years being fascinated by such tales).

I was also fascinated by religion, in general, and began a lifelong study of the various religious traditions. Catholicism and Christianity, of course, but also Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. At one point, I even became a Muslim. Later, I got involved with the Hare Krishnas. These days, I'm basically a Buddhist who is still open to the question of God.

In my sometimes very intense religious wanderings, I inevitably found myself asking what each particular religion had to say about homosexuality. It was all of a piece. Homosexuality was sinful, shameful, to be avoided. It was unmanly, unseemly, selfish. Its presence signified a troubled, disturbed soul. Even the Buddha, as enlightened as he undoubtedly was, did not want homosexuals to follow him in the homeless life as monks.

Yet none of these religions could provide convincing reasons for this almost universal condemnation.

We tell men not to kill each other. No explanation needed for why we do this, or why we call it sin.

We tell married couples to stay away from adultery because our collective experiences have shown that adultery threatens not only the marriage but the children involved - the safety and stability of the family itself. Adultery has real potential to do harm.

We tell people to avoid incest. It's taboo. Any study of the matter will quickly reveal why, and our current understanding of genetics only adds more proof to the table of the harmful effects of incest.

Do not steal. Do not lie. Don't mug old ladies on the street. Yes. Of course. Did God really have to explain such things to the Israelites?

But two men who love each other? Who is being harmed?

If society is being harmed, how and in what fashion, exactly?

Surprisingly there are no answers to these questions.

How can this be?

The only possible arguments left are perceived threats to the community, or to the "sacred institution" of marriage, or the supposed injustice of two people loving each other but not producing babies. These are pretty rarefied arguments, and very tenuous. They are of a similar nature to the pope declaring that gay marriage is a "threat to justice," whatever he might mean by that.

But approaching this question from the other side sheds some illumination. Many Christians are appalled at gay marriage, which they see as something of a mockery of what they consider a holy state. Some, like Rick Santorum, suggest that if we allow gay marriage, then pretty soon people will be marrying their pets.

In other words, these people are worried about what gay marriage might mean for them, for their own marriage, for their own sense of self-esteem as married people. It's all about them. It's not a question about whether two people of the same gender can love each other and make a marriage work. It's about the reaction of others, mostly Christians: How they feel about it. How it threatens their bigotry. How it frightens them. How it calls into question the entire idea that marriage is holy sacrament instituted by God himself and can never be changed or modified.

At this point, we're arguing subtle abstractions which, in the light of history, are going to prove not very satisfactory.

They are not so different from the arguments used to justify our treatment of Native Americans, whom we dismissed as illiterate savages desperately in need of the civilizing influence of white folks.

Did we take away their land, cheat them out of their land, violate our treaties? Well, never mind, because God gave us America as the promised land. It was God's will. A handful of naked savages had to get out of the way. No matter. It was our manifest destiny to colonize America and create a glorious society for the glory of God. Or whatever.

We used the same arguments on African Americans. They needed our civilizing influence, our religion, our culture. They were backward, sinful, savage. They needed Christianizing. Besides, the Bible doesn't condemn slavery. St, Paul even told slaves to be subject to their masters, to obey the lawful authorities placed over them.

In all such arguments, the good of the people being harmed is not considered. They are helpless bits of flotsam caught up in the tidal waves of history. Too bad for them.

It's only when we begin to personalize the matter, to consider slavery from the point of view of the slave, to consider what it was like for Native Americans when the white guys landed on their shores, that we begin to see the injustice being perpetrated. At this point, we leave off from the pretty abstractions and deft rationalizations and begin to confront cold, harsh realities.

Now, it seems to me, the same is being done with homosexuality. We are beginning to tire of the abstract arguments put forward by popes and priests. We see two men loving each other, living together, eating dinner together, even raising kids together, and there does not appear to be any great harm being done to anyone at all. The only people who are suffering are the bigots.


Slavery was a moral matter, about which the church had nothing to say for many centuries. In fact, it did not really begin to condemn slavery until the 15th Century -- rather late to the party, one might say. Only at Vatican II did the church take a firm stand declare that slavery was a poison to society.

We need to consider this very carefully. I can't think of an all-encompassing evil quite like slavery, the thought that one can own another human being, can exploit them their entire life, can take their babies, can treat them like cattle. If this is not evil, then what is? Are we to understand that such a grave evil, such a serious violation of the human person, did not attract much attention from the Catholic Church until only very recently?

What are we to make of this? The church was willing to kill heretics like the Arians - but it had nothing to say about a genuine evil like slavery? It has been willing, almost from the start, to condemn gay people out of hand, for reasons which are hard to fathom - but it had nothing to say about slavery? It had no problem going after fornicators and adulterers - but somehow owning slaves was okay?

It's not hard to conclude that the church has gotten the moral issue of slavery complete wrong, that it has, in fact, done a massive face plant on the issue.

If it can be wrong on slavery, what else might be it be wrong about? Might it be wrong about homosexuality?

The next conclusion I reached was that an institution like the church, or even the U.S. of A., has an infinite number of ways to justify and rationalize its excesses and the evil it does. If the treatment of Native Americans and slaves could be so easily justified, and rationalized, and excused away, and trivialized on such a massive level, might not its similar rationalizations for its treatment of homosexuals be also called into question? Might we not be able to now pull the curtain back and reveal the wizard behind this particular sad chapter?

Another book that literally changed my life was Foxes Book of Martyrs, stories about the treatment of Protestants at the hands of Catholics. You cannot read such a book and fail to understand the horror of inter-religious squabbling and the massive murder and death it led to. And you cannot read such a book then look at the Catholic Church in quite the same way as you used to.

But this, too, has been rationalized and explained away, and is now nothing more than a footnote in history. Does the church now claim the divine right to kill heretics? But of course not. Is not the killing of heretics a moral matter? So it was once okay to set a Protestant on fire, but now it's frowned upon?

Finally, I realized in a very concrete way that loving another human being was not -- and could not be -- wrong. When I loved, I was the happiest I'd ever been. I felt complete, healed, energized, hopeful, happy, joyful.

To tell another human being that he or she must not love someone else in a way that seems natural and right to them is monstrous, and is, itself, a far greater evil than homosexuality could ever be. I know that because I experienced both love and the absence of love. I know, from experience, what it's like to be lonely, to hurt, to want to be held, to want to share my life with someone. I know what it's like to be denied that possibility, to be forced to consider the crazy-making idea that my "love" is intrinsically disordered when it very clearly is no such thing.

The idea that a church that professes to worship the "God of love" would tell some of its members not to love each other is preposterous.

To tell God's homosexual sons and daughters that they must violate one of the 10 Commandments and bear false witness against their true selves .., what sort of madness is that?

Homosexuality has taught me that the Catholic Church is sometimes wrong about moral matters. It was wrong about slavery and killing heretics and pretending that kings had a divine right to their often despotic reigns. It has, in recent years, quietly shifted gears on divorce and remarriage. It no longer claims that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, which it once used to do, and quite vociferously.

It may, in future years, quietly shift gears on issues like contraception and sexuality as more information becomes available and ignorance on these topics is overcome. It is not the all-knowing completely Divinely-inspired and utterly unerring entity that it claims to be. It can -- and sometimes does -- fall flat on its face.

For my entire life, the church has asked me to deny what I know to be true about myself, and to pretend that there is something wrong with me, when there isn't. It has told me my love is harmful. It ain't. It has told me I'm incapable of genuine love. That's a lot of hooey.

At the same time, it has asked me to not bear false witness, to not lie. It has told me, over and over, that honesty is the best policy.

It has also told me that I must someday stand before God and render an accounting of my life, which I am quite prepared to do.

Homosexuality has forced me to realize that the truth is worth fighting for, no matter how many forces are arrayed against you. The truth is found in one's heart. That is the only truth one can actually know for certain. If the church asks me to turn my back on that truth because that truth makes it uncomfortable, I am not doing either the church or myself any favors by complying. If I were the only one in this position, the only gay man in the world, the possibility of my being in error would be very great. But I am not the only one, not by a long shot. All throughout history there have been people like me, saying the sorts of things that I have been saying.

Instead of frightening us into silence, the church might consider listening.