Saturday, August 17, 2013

Revisiting 'Gay' Saints

The Church proposes the example of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honour of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one's own life.
Martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God's law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God's image and likeness. - Veritatis Splendor

"Canonize a gay saint...
Those with same-sex attractions need the concrete example of someone who has known the unique and often lonely struggle they endure and has come out of it successfully. To say that there may be some anonymous gay saint is woefully insufficient as it invites the making of an imaginary construct suited to encompass whatever faults an individual would rather not work on. If the only other example you can point to is a few smoldering corpses beneath the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, then you’ve utterly failed to communicate anything other than a wrathful God." - An Interesting Letter from a Gay Catholic
The above was taken from Mark Shea's post, "An Interesting Letter..."  Ever since I began blogging I have written on the subject of gay saints.  Revisionists claim many saints were gay - because they fit some modern 'profile' or 'stereotype' of gay behavior.  Some gay activists speculate about many great souls, insisting they were gay. Their conclusions are often based upon 19th and 20th century understanding of homosexual behavior and culture. The modern concept of homosexuality did not exist before the mid to late 19th century.  On some level, looking for 'gay' saints represents a kind of 'pious narcissism' - with the aim to canonize same sex attraction.  The writer cited above clearly does not have that aim in mind, he sees it as a need for "the concrete example of someone who has known the unique and often lonely struggle they endure and has come out of it successfully."

To be honest, I missed that the first time I read it.  I simply read it as a call for a gay saint - not so much someone who came 'out of it successfully.'  I'm not sure how that would work for 'gay-Catholics' who, though celibate and chaste, consider the inclination itself to be morally neutral.  The Church clarifies that misunderstanding here:
  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. - Letter to Bishops

The CDF document goes on to recommend "special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition..."  Perhaps canonizing a person who remained faithful to Catholic teaching and lived a life of heroic virtue would be helpful to persons struggling with SSA, but I'm not sure that's the kind of saint 'gay' Catholics are looking for, although the author of the letter to Mark Shea might be looking for a saint like that.

Saints like us.

I once asked a monk if he thought any of the saints had been gay, and he answered that he did not know of any. He went on to explain that the temptation to homosexual acts was likely to have afflicted some of the saints, but it would have been viewed as a temptation to lust, or in some cases, an inordinate attachment to another person. Before the 20th century non-sexual same sex friendship would have known and preserved boundaries, especially as regards that sin they used to say was too awful even to name. We today can't even imagine that kind of discretion.

Now days many people want to claim this or that saint was gay. Even very good Catholics do this. Not a few insist Blessed Cardinal Newman was gay because of his extraordinary friendship with Fr. Ambrose. Others speculate that the Carmelite Fr. Hermann Kohen was involved in intimate same sex relationships, yet there is absolutely no evidence for such a claim, especially as it is well known that before his conversion he had love affairs with women. Such speculation demonstrates the human desire to have saints be just like ourselves. There is nothing wrong with that, although in some cases it opens the door to validating immoral inclinations or acts, and leads to what I mentioned, a 'pious narcisissm'. Wishful thinking is nothing but a deception and a trap.

Saints demonstrate heroic virtue - not vice.

Having said that, all saints are powerful intercessors and models for the faithful for a variety of needs, thus it is good to look for those with whom we have some affinity and can identify with. Yet even the most pure and chaste, such as Therese of Lisieux knows and understands the suffering of souls, her sensitivity for the weakest amongst us surely makes her one of the greatest helps and models for survivors of all kinds of abuse, sexual disorders and addictions, and so on. Of course, it is the Heart of Jesus who understands the suffering, wounded soul the best - he alone knows the most hidden recesses of our hearts and descends into depths of our misery to redeem us in his Blood.

I think in our day and going forward, we will get to know of candidates for sainthood whose intimate lives are very well known. I'm sure we will be hearing of saints who were raped and died, or those who survived to become saints, as well as survivors of abuse. And undoubtedly, there will be saints who had been former sex workers, as well as former active homosexuals, who repented and abandon those lifestyles. Perhaps some of these will even be martyrs. 

Christians who are homosexual are called, as all of us are, to a chaste life. As they dedicate their lives to understanding the nature of God's personal call to them, they will be able to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance more faithfully and receive the Lord's grace so freely offered there in order to convert their lives more fully to his Way. - CDF

If we hope to bring others back to the Church, we must acknowledge that there will be amongst those persons returning some who have been in long-term relationships and partnerships or commitments.  The Church says living out of this (homosexual) orientation in homosexual activity is not a morally acceptable option.  But the Church does not forbid chaste friendship and mutual support.

If there is anything good about gay people claiming particular saints as their patron - if indeed they have devotion to them, which also means seeking to follow their example - then the Holy Spirit may have greater access to their conscience as it were, and perhaps better able to correct it.  The saints are powerful intercessors and God always draws good out of evil.

Saints - male and female he created them.

Going forward, I want to highlight saints who would be good patrons for gay people, commenting on their lives - although I doubt any were 'gay' - nevertheless their example and patronage would be undoubtedly beneficial and inspiring for people seeking to sanctify their lives.  Some may be penitents, others ordinary souls who demonstrate the greatness of ordinary life. 

Unfortunately, as noted in the beginning of the post, many gay people today claim saints and Biblical figures were gay based upon their legends and writings.  If ever there was a favorite amongst gay people, St. Aelred certainly ranks at the top of their list.  (He was mentioned in the combox of Mark's post.)

St. Aelred of Rievaulx.
An English Cistercian abbot and contemporary of St. Bernard, Aelred wrote much on English history and spirituality.  The saint is especially known today for his treatises on charity and spiritual friendship.  The writings on spiritual friendship form the basis for the claim Aelred was "gay" - a novel theory postulated in the mid-20th century.  Again, those who make the claim are looking at this from our 19th-21st century perspective and contemporary understanding of same-sex sexual relations as posited by gay culture today.  The contemporary phenomenon of open, public homosexuality has been unheard of in Western culture since ancient pagan civilizations in Greece and further east to Persia.  That said, even in those times it remains highly doubtful that it was generally practiced, or across the board accepted, as we see and understand promotion of the practice today.

It is not surprising that in monasteries the vice of homosexuality would present itself as a temptation to sin, which is why we read in the desert father's admonitions against admitting boys to the life, or looking long upon a boy, etc..  The vice was reported in some monasteries or hermitages, and the brothers were dismissed.  Cassian also writes about these things and even condemns such things as involuntary nocturnal emissions.  Hence St. Aelred would have been very familiar with the writings of the Fathers and first monks regarding chastity, as well as understanding the writings of St. Paul and other scriptural condemnations of homosexuality, just as orthodox Christians do today.  To suggest he lived a homosexual life, or permitted same-sex familiarity and romantic love within the monastic community is certainly a distortion of authentic monastic observance, spirituality, and Catholic teaching.  In other words - it is absurd.

Perhaps a better patron for those struggling with homosexuality.

Did Aelred experience homosexual temptations?  We do not know - in the lives of every saint, a great variety of temptation enters to purify and sanctify the soul - even as we get older, our concupiscence and the devil suggests unheard of horrible sins - therefore no one should be surprised if this was the case with St. Aelred.  Nevertheless he could not be a saint if he had condoned a lifestyle so clearly contrary to natural law and God's will - or plan for creation.

What St. Aelred does offer however, is sound teaching on wholesome and holy friendship.  It is said he was strongly attracted to a monk named Simon - on account of the other's perfect observance and spiritual demeanor.  As I always say - men and women are naturally attracted by beauty and grace and goodness, but it doesn't mean that the attraction is carnal or sensual.  And this is where Aelred contradicts the contemporary revisionist interpretation of his life and teaching. 


  1. "...the inviolability of the moral order..."

    I could meditate on that for quite a while. Excellent post. In our times (from what I observe and have experienced), the natural attraction to goodness gets quickly enmeshed with carnal attraction on the same-sex level. Because we're fed with a steady diet of "if you love me, we'll get physical." It's like a trigger; a knee-jerk reaction.

    What makes it more difficult is that, being physical creatures, we need that physical touch. A warm embrace; a gentle pat on the shoulder. And the good gets mixed up with the erotic. I think this is where self-knowledge is a big help (knowing what one's particular defects of character are and where the boundaries need to be drawn to safeguard the moral life).

    Same-sex affection and love (read: agape) is natural, normal, and beautiful. Mutual support in the spiritual life is vital, undergirded by a *disinterested* friendship.

    St. Charles Lwanga, pray for us ... and help us to live and love rightly.

    1. I am confident that there are saints in heaven (perhaps many) who struggled their life long with temptation to same sex lust and who succeeded in finishing the race in their perseverance in grace. There were most likely bishops, priests and religious among them and no doubt married people. I think the term 'gay saint' is an oxymoron though I know what you mean when you use that term. The world wants "saints" who were "gay" and bought into the lifestyle and went to Church and were unrepentantly sexually active in order to affirm them in their sin. We desperately need to be edified by men and women who inspite of their same sex attraction attained to heavenly glory and who embraced that cross, carried it and were through grace victorious in winning their heavenly crowns.

  2. Fabulous post, Terry. In the past, people did not define themselves based upon a sexual inclination. They did not have anything called homosexuality for most of human history. Rather there were people who committed acts of sodomy. If a person had a temptation to commit an act of sodomy, that temptation did not (and does not) define the entire person. The human person, made in the image of God, was seen as more than a set of sinful inclinations, which could (and can) be overcome through grace.

    1. Perfect Elena. It's taken a long time to get it through my head that my sins are something I do, not who I am. If I am sin than there's no hope. The best thing is what's the best thing for anyone going through anything: daily mass, daily rosary, frequent confession, and adoration. I need to stop seeing that my sins are "different" from anyone else's sins. Unfortunately that's all that's been rammed in to my head since as far back as I can remember and it's difficult to think differently.

      Terry, thanks for a very edifying post.

    2. Thanks Elena - your comment is perfect.

      Thanks Donald.

    3. Thanks Terry and Donald!

  3. I read something in the life of St. Philip Neri that I found interesting...

    "...henceforth he received the grace to suffer no more from the motions of the flesh, nor even from nocturnal illusions; and Baronius affirms, that the Saint himself told him he should almost die of grief if such a thing happened to him, and that in this matter he had become nearly as insensible as a log of wood, as he had received such grace from God, that to touch a woman or a boy, was no more to him than touching a stone."

    1. That is interesting a couple different levels. I've always thought St. Philip experienced many temptations as a young man. The other point, about his 'immunity' to motions of the flesh is well attested to in spiritual literature - this really happens - it is a genuine grace. The desert fathers mention it, and John of the Cross indicates it as well.

  4. I'm hoping a blogger gets canonized soon - I need a patron saint of "letting everyone know my opinion on everything".


    1. There are many canonized bloggers online already Larry - you just don't read Patheos.


    2. I'm sooooooooo kidding - you knew that though.

    3. Nice knowing you, pal. Check your doors at night. Watch for long knives.



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