An article by Mgr Charles Pope on the website of the archdiocese of Washington last week has made me reflect on what it means to be a single person in the Church today. Some single people believe their state is a vocation in itself. Mgr Pope argues that it is not. His reasons are all sensible: if you are single you don’t make vows, as in marriage or the priesthood; you are not bound to a particular place or relationship; you are not under the authority of, e.g. a bishop. He adds that consecrated virgins are not the same as ordinary single people in the Church, as they are under such an authority.
But what about faithful Catholics who experience same-sex attraction and who know they are very unlikely to marry? Mgr Pope suggests they could undertake some work in the Church that is regulated, of extended duration and involves being of service to others – but emphasises that in such a case it is the work that is important, not the state of singleness. However, he also acknowledges that how to find ways to include today’s increasingly large group of single people in the Church is a matter “of pastoral concern”.
I read this article with particular interest as I have been recently been reading an honest, humble, humorous and courageous memoir: Gay and Catholic: Accepting my Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith by Eve Tushnet (published by Ave Maria Press). Hers is an unusual and inspiring story – particularly in a western world which no longer believes in God and which thinks that chastity for single people is unnatural and thus unhealthy.
Tushnet has gamely flown in the face of all these assumptions. From a happy and supportive secular Jewish family (she told her parents she was gay, aged 13) she converted to Catholicism in 1998 when she was 20, during her sophomore year at Yale. Recognising she had done wrong in her life, she wanted “justice” for her sins – but also mercy. Gradually she came to see that both could be united in Christ. She came to the conclusion, “If there were a god, it was probably the Catholic one.” On the subject of sex, Tushnet writes, “I found that I was willing to accept the Church’s teaching, even when I didn’t understand it.”
In her adult life she has faced some struggles, notable with alcoholism but also with the incomprehension of others, both outside and within the Church, as to how she has chosen to live out her faith. This brings me back to Mgr Pope’s article, referred to above. Tushnet, trying to make sense of her life, would say that we all have a vocation, the particular path “through which God is calling us to pour out our love for him”. She also believes that “a faithful, chaste gay life can be beautiful and fruitful” and that you don’t have to be condemned to “a life of barren loneliness.”
What I love about this book is Tushnet’s honesty, her admission of her frequent failings in charity, her recognition that living the Christian life isn’t easy and that there are no short-cuts to holiness. “Our job is to be the kind of saint God is calling us to be, not the kind of saint we want to be…” she remarks, and constantly raises the question: “How am I being called to love and to be loved?”
Realising that service to others is fundamental to a Christian life, she has worked in a crisis pregnancy centre and done other pro-life work over the years, wryly commenting that “I have stitched together a weird, patchwork vocation for myself.” Being a single layperson, she recognises the temptation to selfishness, countering it with her belief in “a duty to love” and to help build “a civilisation of love”.
Tushnet believes that “knitting single people more closely into families is one of the biggest things the Christian churches can do to change the culture” and that parishes have to become more welcoming places for people like her. She also reflects on the idea of Christian “intentional communities” where those who for one reason or another are unlikely to marry could live lives of loving service to each other and to society.
There is much worth reading and debating in this book – most especially in a society which has invented a new word, “homophobic” and where the Church has often failed to proclaim the truth about human sexuality with compassion. My own final response to this moving memoir is to resolve to go to Confession more often. Eve confesses, “It is humbling for me to realise how much needier and more annoying I am when I haven’t been to confession recently”. That’s true for all of us, I’d say.