The Catholic Church hates gays, right? Of course right! Everybody knows that.
Or maybe not.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once famously said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
Never has this been truer than when it comes to the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality. On this issue, I wonder if Archbishop Sheen wasn’t being optimistic. Of the million people who hate the Church’s views on homosexuality, I doubt if we could find even 100 who know what those teachings actually are.
It doesn’t much help that Catholics themselves seem so confused about what they believe (or are supposed to believe). And I’m not just talking about the solid majority who see nothing wrong with gay “marriage.” The same goes for the minority who speak knowingly of “hating the sin, but loving the sinner,” but who in practice seem incapable of actually distinguishing between the two.
Joseph Prever, one of the best-known gay Catholic bloggers, talks about the time that he wrote about what it’s like to be a same-sex attracted individual who believes totally in the Church’s teachings and who has therefore chosen to live celibately. The first comment in the comment box under the article? “Repent!!”
Well, alright. It's kind of hard to know what to do with that.
Into this confusion comes a new film by Blackstone Films, called “The Third Way.” The title is obviously a reference to the filmmakers’ belief that the Catholic Church’s teachings constitute a kind of a “middle road” between the bigotry and ignorance that we can easily find on both sides of the debate. The film itself is a compelling, and often exquisitely beautiful, exposition of what the Church actually teaches about homosexuality, and how that teaching is not necessarily a recipe for misery and homophobia, but possibly (as crazy as it sounds) the path to all sorts of good stuff like true intimacy, understanding, spiritual and psychological healing, and authentic joy.
Not that this will appease all the critics, or answer all the questions. Far from it. Gay activists, for instance, will find repugnant the mere suggestion that celibacy is the higher, and ultimately the only moral, response to erotic attraction to a member of the same sex. And some Christians will find unsettling the allegation in the film that the Church has not yet formulated an adequate pastoral response to homosexuality, or that there is room for them to re-examine their “orthodox,” but not necessarily helpful personal responses to homosexuality.
Meanwhile, although the film undoubtedly does present a template for a more effective and compassionate pastoral approach within the Christian community, it does little to untangle the many knots Christians must deal with in responding to the phenomenon of homosexuality in the broader culture. For instance, even if we agree that compassion should be a guiding force, what are we to do when the local gay activists go walking in flagrante through our city streets during the annual gay pride festivities? Or when we are forced to choose between violating our conscience or losing our jobs, as in the cases of marriage registrars in states where gay “marriage” has been legalized? Or when our child’s teacher reads him King & King, helps him paint a gay pride poster, or teaches him the finer points of gay sex, without our knowledge or consent? Etc.
The Third Way doesn’t answer these “culture war” questions. And that’s ok. That's not the point of the film. Instead, what it does do is carefully prepare the space for a level-headed dialogue about these more difficult issues, by laying out some pretty basic principles from which we can then begin to extrapolate. I suppose these can be boiled down to the principles of love (caritas) and truth (veritate), and in particular, the often misunderstood intersection between the two.
The film accomplishes this largely by featuring the testimonies of Catholics who have lived the homosexual lifestyle, or experienced unwanted same-sex attraction, but have found real peace in living according to the Church’s teaching. In other words, it turns out that in practice the truth (that same-sex attraction is disordered, and cannot morally be expressed in a sexual relationship) perfectly dovetails with love, rightly understood (authentic concern for the welfare of the other).
In this way the film simultaneously topples the caricature of the perfectly fulfilled gay or lesbian that we find in the media, and the utterly corrupt and unredeemable purveyor of sin that we find in certain Christian circles. Instead, we’re left with the messy stuff of real life: real men and real women who, like us, are sinners, and who, like us, are bowed down under the weight of their particular cross, but who, like us, are struggling to make something beautiful out of the raw material that life has thrown their way.
Christians tend to like their answers to be clean and simple. The Third Way doesn’t muddy the clarity of doctrine, but it does honestly face the fact that the intersection of doctrine and lived life is not as tidy as we’d always like it to be. We are, all of us, dealing with our own “disordered” tendencies, and our efforts to overcome these will be lifelong. The Third Way makes the point that merely by acknowledging this fact we give same-sex attracted individuals the space and freedom that they need to begin the process of finding healing and peace, and ourselves the awareness that we need to approach our same-sex attracted brothers and sisters with the understanding and compassion that will support them in their journey of healing.
In some ways, despite the moderately grandiose promises of its opening scenes, the film only presents the first step of the necessary response to the behemoth that has become the public debate over homosexuality in the past decade. But in many ways it's the most important step, and certainly a beginning well worth making.