This story is fiction. The city of Clifton, and the University of Clifton, exist only in my imagination. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. These stories have as their main character a sexually active gay college student. If this is offensive to you, or if it is illegal in your area, or if you are under age, please leave now.
This story involves a search for personal acceptance, worth, and meaning. There is a religious element in these stories. If you don't like that, maybe now is a good time to leave.
My stories develop slowly. If you're in a hurry, this is probably not for you.
Thanks to Colin for editing.
Constructive comments are welcome on my e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bryce, Chapter 35 - Church Teaching
As Bryce approached his appointment with Father Miller, he felt entirely confused. Everything which had occurred since his last meeting seemed to bring up more questions, and there did not seem to be answers which all persons of good will could agree upon. Where do we go from here?
At the Newman Center, Bryce again found Patricia Murphy at the reception desk. Remembering her name, he greeted her. "Hi, Patricia. I'm here again."
She looked very pleased that Bryce had remembered her name. "Hi yourself. How's that friend of yours who got beat up?"
"Much better. He's beginning to be obstreperous again."
"Good for him," Patricia proclaimed. "Hey, how come we never see you at Mass or any of out discussions?"
"Well, I attended Mass here once, on my first Sunday on campus, and didn't like it at all, so I attend at St. Boniface now. As to the discussions, I'm just too busy for now. I'm pledging a fraternity, and taking three upper division courses in my first semester on campus. Maybe some other time."
"You like all the ceremony, and incense, and bowing and stuff at St. Boniface?" Patricia asked, somewhat amazed.
"Yeah. If I were an Anglican, I would be called high church," Bryce confirmed.
Patricia laughed. "I heard Father say once there never used to be high church or low church Catholic Masses, but only Masses which were well performed or poorly performed. All that changed after the council."
"I think he's right. A lot changed after the council, and I suspect a good deal of it had more to do with all the protest movements, in our country and elsewhere, than anything the council did," Bryce suggested.
"You sound kind of depressed," the receptionist ventured.
"Yeah. I've been feeling that way a lot lately," Bryce admitted.
"Maybe it's the weather."
About that time, Father Miller emerged from his office. "Pat, why didn't you tell me Bryce was here? You know my earlier appointment cancelled."
"Sorry, Father. I guess he's just too good a conversationalist."
Father Miller smiled. "Come on in, Bryce."
After getting settled, Father Miller asked, "Did I hear you tell Pat you were feeling depressed?"
"Afraid so. I don't seem to be getting anywhere. I mean, as far as answering my basic questions is concerned," Bryce declared.
"What about your academic life?"
"No problems. I'm getting A's in everything except karate, and I'm up to a B there," Bryce replied.
"And your personal life? Damon?"
"Damon is as wonderful as ever. I was telling Patricia, he's getting over the attack on him, and seems to be in good spirits. And the two of us are closer than ever. Over the past two weeks, we've had some really intense discussions. I think our love is stronger than before," he declared.
"Good. So it's us. You and me and the Church, which is the problem?" Father Miller asked.
"Largely. My mom and Nan are still very supportive, although I still have no idea, really, how my father or my brother will react to Damon when we go home for Thanksgiving, and especially if I come out to them. But Mom already has the plane tickets reserved." That thought caused Bryce to smile.
Father Miller decided to take the initiative. "We kind of got side-tracked with the attack on Damon, and the matter of your personal relationship with Jesus. I'm not criticizing any of that, but I think you need a solid understanding of basics before we attempt to apply them to your particular case. It has been my experience that relatively few high school graduates, even those from Catholic high schools, have that understanding. Am I right?"
"I thought I knew what it means to be Catholic, but I keep running into unanswered questions. I admit, I'm impatient to get to my personal situation, though," Bryce said.
"I can tell you the answers, Bryce, but unless you understand where they're coming from, and make them your own, they won't help you if you have a serious problem, what Bishop Bossuet called un crise de conscience. Are you familiar with Bossuet?"
"As an historical figure. Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, court preacher to Louis XIV, enemy of the Huguenots and of ... what was his name? Fénélon?"
"Yes, François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénélon, Archbishop of Cambrai, a particular interest of mine. I'm glad to have finally run across someone who has at least heard of him. You know that he was involved in the movement called Quietism, which in some hands, like that of Madame Guyon, went too far, but not, I think, with Fénélon. I love Pope Innocent XII's comment on the quarrel between Bossuet and Fénélon: 'If Fénélon sins through too much love, Bossuet does through too little.' Sorry, I went off on a tangent when my special interest came up," the priest blushingly apologized, to Bryce's amusement.
"Okay, Padre, lets get back to that solid understanding you were talking about," Bryce teased him.
"One of your basic questions is you relationship with the Church. What is the Church?"
Bryce thought before answering. "This is another case of a word having several meanings, right?"
"Okay. There's the actual church building, but that's not what we need to talk about, at least not directly. I admit I don't like most modern church architecture, but that won't cause me to have what you, or Bossuet, call un crise de conscience. There is the institutional church. You know, the hierarchy - pope, bishops, priests," Bryce said, bowing towards the chaplain, "including all those Vatican bureaucrats in - what are they called - congregations and consistories?"
"Don't worry about the terminology at this point. We agree that the institutional church is one important aspect of the problem you're experiencing. Can you go on?" Father Miller asked.
"The Church is the continuing presence of Christ on earth. In that guise, it's what we profess to believe in the creeds. In the Apostles Creed it's just the Holy Catholic Church, but in the Nicene Creed it's the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church."
"And each of those 'marks' of the true Church are important, but go on," Bryce was urged.
Bryce thought. Father Miller wanted something more. How to say it without sounding superficial? Oh, hell, just say it. "The Church is us. Me and you and Mike and Father Payne and my family and every Catholic in the world. I think Mike told me there were one point one billion of us."
"Good. All these meanings are important in their own context, but if we leave out any of them, we have only an imperfect understanding of the Church. Now, shall we play our little game of dissecting words?"
"I'm following your lead today," Bryce said. "I've gotten lost too many times on these slippery slopes."
"Okay. Our English word 'church' goes back, through Anglo-Saxon and Gothic, to a Late Greek term, kyriakon doma, 'the Lord's house,' so we are talking about the church building, but symbolically also all the other meanings involving those gathered in that house. And that brings us to another Greek word, the word actually used in the New Testament which we translate as 'church.' That is ekklesia. From that we get the Latin ecclesia, the Spanish iglesia, and the French ...?" Father Miller turned to Bryce.
"Église," he supplied.
"Also such terms as 'ecclesiastical' and related words. Now the original meaning of this word, and the meaning in St. Paul's letters, for example, is 'assembly' or 'gathering.' It is the word used in classical Greek for the meeting of all the citizens of Athens in the agora, or town square, to elect officials and vote on laws. So, this bring us directly to that last use of the word 'church' which you mentioned. All of us. The Church is all of us Catholics. Since Vatican II, we often find the phrase 'the people of God' used in this context," Father Miller explained.
"What about those who are not Catholic?" Bryce asked.
"You said you had looked into other churches. Do you really want to explore that issue? It is a side line which could divert us for a very long time," the priest warned.
"No, I guess not. The question simply popped into my head. I want to understand my Church," Bryce decided.
"None of the ways we use the word 'church' is wrong, Bryce. But when you're concerned about how you fit into the Catholic Church, you need to keep in mind which of these usages you mean."
"Okay. Well, I told you I had read the statements coming from some Vatican office, and that of the bishops, concerning homosexuality. As far as I can tell, I don't fit into that 'church' very well at all. Can I just ignore them?"
"I do not advise ignoring them, but I think you need to consider in what context you read and accept them," Father Miller said.
"I can't accept them at all," Bryce insisted. "The most recent statement by the American bishops seems pretty definite. If I'm gay, either I remain celibate, or I marry a woman. I told you before, I cannot remain celibate. It's just not in me. I tried that during my senior year and earlier this year. I begin to obsess about sex. I jerk off over and over, and I think about guys when I do. I'm distracted from everything else and this dominates my conscious mind. As to the alternative, I really think only a group of old celibate males could have made that statement. For one thing, it's just about equivalent of saying I should just use a woman for my own gratification. That's demeaning to females. In fact, I would go so far as to say it's a violation of the human dignity of females. Actually, that's what I was doing during my junior year in high school, and I'm now convinced that was just wrong. A mortal sin. I know, I know, St. Paul writes that it's better to marry than to burn. But St. Paul makes a lot of statements about women which even the hierarchy don't accept today, like it's wrong for a female to speak in church. He was a real sexist pig, in contemporary terms."
Bryce paused in his consideration of marrying. "Am I in real trouble saying that about St. Paul? Is what he writes the inspired word of God?"
Father Miller smiled. "Do you think the inspired word of God requires you to believe that the world was created in six days?"
"No. Definitely not. But I'm not sure where to draw the line."
"Often that's a difficult decision," the chaplain agreed. "As a general guide, it is the position of the Church that scripture is inspired when it comes to telling us about who God is, and how he relates to us humans. In other words, what is necessary for salvation. As a rule of thumb, accept what is written unless there is good reason not to. To directly answer your question, I think we can agree that St. Paul reflected the social customs of his times in much of what he wrote. In fact, not only customs, but the general intellectual atmosphere of the day as well. We'll get to that later. But you can put your mind to rest as far as what he says about the status of women, or that of slaves, for example."
"And that of gays?"
"Later. Let's stick to today's topic, the nature of the Church. You were talking about whether you had to accept the statements of the American bishops on the necessity of either celibacy or heterosexual marriage."
"Yeah, okay," Bryce conceded. "Well, I guess I've made the point about thinking it's wrong to encourage gays to marry women from the point of view of women, but what about from the point of view of the gays. Like me! I mean, the bishops like to talk about what's natural and what's not. They concede, reluctantly, that some people are naturally homosexual. Then does it make any sense to encourage those people to engage in heterosexual activity? It seems to me that if it's unnatural for a straight person to engage in gay sex, then it is also unnatural for a gay person to engage in straight sex. There are just so many flaws of logic and of fact in the bishops' position that I can't believe they really expect anyone to take it seriously. So, why can't I just ignore it?"
"Bryce, you have not just ignored it. You have studied it, and thought about it, perhaps even more thoroughly than someone who automatically agrees with the position the bishops have taken. I said you can't just ignore the pronouncements of the magisterium, but I did not say you have to accept everything that comes out, either. If you take what is said, and seriously consider it, and even pray over it, and still decide that it does not apply to you, then this is where your individual conscience comes in. I remember you said a friend told you the individual conscience is the final authority in cases like this, and here is an example of where that is true."
Bryce thought about that. "I suppose I should be glad, but do you remember what I said about the Episcopalians?"
"Not precisely, no? I recall that you were dissatisfied."
"I was dissatisfied because it seemed that no matter what the issue was, there were some Episcopalians on one side, and some on the other, and there was nothing definite. I can still remember the comments of my grandfather Bryce about a bishop named Spong. If Grandpa has it right, you don't even have to believe in the divinity of Christ, or in the Holy Trinity, to be an Episcopalian," Bryce elaborated.
"That is not the case with the Catholic Church," Father Miller assured him. "When it comes to matters of authority in the Church, there are levels of how firmly a teaching is binding. There are some things which one has to accept to be considered a practicing Catholic, and there are some things which are entirely a matter of personal choice, but there are several degrees of authority in between."
"Give me some examples," Bryce requested.
"Okay. Let's start with the examples you used a moment ago. Anyone who denies the divinity of Christ or the existence of the Trinity is not really a Catholic, no matter where he goes to church on Sunday morning. At the other end of the spectrum, no one would maintain that you have to believe in the liquefying blood of St. Januarius in order to be a good Catholic. The Council of Trent, in the mid sixteenth century, proclaimed that authority in the Church rests on scripture and tradition. If something is clearly laid out in Holy Scripture, it must be accepted, under the guidelines I mentioned before. If something has been consistently taught from the earliest times, and especially if it has been adopted as doctrine by an ecumenical council, then it is equally binding."
"Yeah. Mike said something about the creeds, and the councils, and infallible decrees of the popes," Bryce remembered.
"Those are all aspects of what the Council of Trent meant by 'tradition.' I would add the unanimous agreement of the Church fathers."
"Mike said there was nothing in those things he mentioned which definitely condemned gay sex. What about the Church fathers?" Bryce asked.
"If we're fair, we have to admit that the general opinion of the Church fathers was against all sex. The ideal of most of the fathers was celibacy, a position few, if any, modern theologians would be comfortable with. Many of the Church fathers condemned homosexual relationships, but not all did. There is at least a respectable minority who seem to have accepted such relationships as moral, as long as they did not become obsessive. I might mention Ausonius, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Paulinus of Nola. I think a fair judge would have to say that the opinion, while favoring the anti-homosexual cause, was divided, and for most Church fathers, it was not a major issue."
"So, the door is open for people like me," Bryce enquired.
"Yes. Among those things which one absolutely must accept to be a practicing Catholic, the condemnation of homosexual acts does not figure. And, I hasten to add, there are several examples where what was once the majority opinion has now been abandoned."
"Let us begin with obvious examples from the New Testament itself," Father Miller said. "The writers of the New Testament, not only St. Paul, accepted as ordinary the existence of human slavery. There are many admonitions to treat slaves who are of the faith as brothers, but not a single one condemning slavery itself. As we covered earlier, it was also assumed that men were in some way superior to women. Not necessarily morally superior, but had a general right to command, and women an obligation to obey. Beginning in the Epistles of St. Paul, but considerably expanded in the writings of the fathers, is that notion that celibacy is a superior state to marriage. That is certainly not found in either pagan or Jewish traditions, but is a Christian innovation, and one which few Christians today would share. After all, we do teach that marriage is a sacrament, a source of grace, but there is no parallel sacrament for the celibate life. And, I hasten to add, there is no necessary connection between celibacy and the sacrament of Holy Orders. Then, there was the teaching of many theologians that lending money at interest is usury and a mortal sin. That is still being repeated in penitentiaries, that is guides to priests in the confessional, as late as the sixteenth century. We need not even mention the decision of the Roman Inquisition in the trial of Galileo that the teaching that the earth goes around the sun is contrary to scripture and to reason. There were popes in the Middle Ages who insisted that it was a necessary part of the faith that political rulers be subject to papal authority, even in purely secular matters. Up through the seventeenth century, at least, very few questioned the idea that the devil had many agents on this earth in the form of witches and warlocks. Oh, there are more than enough examples. The thing is, in every case there was always a dissenting voice, and the voice of the majority was never formally declared to be essential to salvation."
"When you say 'formally declared' what do you mean?" Bryce asked.
"Two immediate forms of such come to mind. One is an infallible decree of a pope, the other a doctrinal decree of a general, or ecumenical, council. A papal decree does not concern us. There are many papal pronouncements, of varying degrees of binding force, but only two formally infallible decrees, other than confirmation of the decisions of general councils. One is that concerning the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, decreed by Pope Pius IX, the other is that concerning the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven, decreed by Pope Pius XII. The criteria laid down by the First Vatican Council, when it proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility, are so restrictive that it is difficult to meet them. A formal decree ex cathedra, that is, specifically in his capacity as the successor of St. Peter and Christ's vicar on earth, intending to bind all the faithful, on a matter of faith or morals, and in union with the entire Church.
"As to the doctrinal decrees of councils, that is a bit easier to deal with. There have been twenty-one councils which the Church recognizes as general or ecumenical, that is, representing the whole Church, beginning with Nicaea in 325, and extending through Vatican II in the 1960s. In each case, the council adopted disciplinary decrees, regulating the affairs of the Church as seemed best at the time. Disciplinary decrees are not infallible. To the extent that they bind us, they do so in obedience, not in conscience. For example, the First Council of Nicaea prohibited the transfer of a bishop from one diocese to another, whereas today that is quite common. The Council of Trent insisted that the Western Church use the Latin liturgy, but the Second Vatican Council authorized the vernacular liturgy. Most, but not all, the councils also adopted doctrinal decrees, which are considered infallible statements of faith binding on all Catholics. In each case, the council pronounces anathema those who do not accept this teaching, meaning those are cast out of the Body of Christ which is the Church. Those who do not accept the equality of God the Son with God the Father are pronounced anathema by the First Council of Nicaea; those who deny the existence of purgatory are pronounced anathema by the Council of Florence; those who do not accept the efficacy of good works in the process of salvation are proclaimed anathema by the Council of Trent; and those who deny the ability of human reason to arrive at truth are pronounced anathema by the First Vatican Council."
"Really? Those who deny reason are cast out of the Church?" Bryce asked.
"Yes. Only two doctrinal decrees were adopted by the First Vatican Council before it was disrupted by political events. One is the well known decree on papal infallibility, but in the second chapter of the decree Dei Filius the ability of human reason to arrive at truth about natural things is proclaimed, along with the necessity of divine revelation for a certain knowledge of supernatural things. It is interesting that the Second Vatican Council adopted no decrees with an anathema attached, so it may be said that nothing adopted by that council is necessarily binding in conscience on Catholics, despite the almost exclusive authority assigned to it by some in the later 1960s and the 1970s."
"So, Mike was correct. There is no binding teaching of the Church to the effect that gay sex is sinful," Bryce concluded.
"That is true. There are many lesser rules, laws, teachings if you wish, expressed in canon law, in papal encyclicals, in disciplinary decrees of councils, in decisions of national groups of bishops like the American document you cite, and the writings of theologians, but, while they must be seriously considered with reverence and care, they are not absolutely binding."
"Do these guys you have recommended, Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, count as theologians?" Bryce asked.
"Yes, they do. And they are not the only theologians here and abroad, who advocate a more inclusive understanding of love and marriage. This is important, Bryce. As long as there are recognized theologians in good standing with the Church who advocate a position such as this, it is considered a matter open to further development. In other words, the current position of the teaching authority, the magisterium, what you have called the bureaucracy, is considered doubtful, in the sense that it may be doubted without incurring sin. And the Church has adopted from Roman law the adage lex dubia non obligat."
"A doubtful law does not bind," Bryce translated.
"Right. In cases like this, as your friend told you, a well formed Christian conscience is the final authority. But we will have to delay until another time what a 'well formed Christian conscience' entails. Our hour has slipped away once again," Father Miller said.
"I feel a lot better, Father. This week, you have addressed matters which directly affect me, and whether or not I can remain in the Church as a sexually active gay man."
"No, Bryce. I did not address these matters, we did."