Born the year the “gay-rights” movement was birthed at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, Daniel Mattson went on to live a life that he said has been pulled between two competing views of mankind and two visions of happiness and freedom.
In Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay, a new book from Ignatius Press, Mattson tells about the struggle that led him, as a same-sex-attracted man, to find life in the teachings of the Catholic Church. He talks here with Register correspondent Judy Roberts.
Many people have heard your story in the 2014 documentary film Desire of the Everlasting Hillsand through your articles and talks. You’ve also reflected on your experience through journal writing and poetry, excerpts of which are in your book. When did you begin to think about developing your story into a book?
The seeds of this were back in 2008. I was kind of just blogging for myself and wrestling with some of these things, and I really had a transformative moment when I started to view my life through the lens of redemptive suffering. So I thought, “I need to start writing my thoughts about this.” I ended up starting a blog, Letters to Christopher, and that kind of got spread around a bit. Then, after Desire of the Everlasting Hills came out, Father Paul Check [then executive director of Courage International] made an introduction to the folks at Ignatius Press, and we met in their offices and started talking about a book.
You’ve said that the book is your answer to a call for help expressed by a 19-year-old same-sex-attracted man who commented on your 2012 article in First Things, “Why I Don’t Call Myself a Gay Christian,” and your wish that you could have read something like this when you were 19. Why is that?
I think it was such a poignant cry for help from this man who loves Jesus but didn’t know how to live his life as a faithful believer and follower of Jesus with these attractions to men. He said, “I’m not going to marry, and I’m not going to do what the world says, but how do I live my life?” It really made me think of myself when I was wrestling with these questions as a teenager.
Your book is being released around the same time as Jesuit Father James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge, which proposes bringing the Church hierarchy and the “LGBT” community together in part by getting the cardinals, archbishops and bishops to listen to the stories of same-sex-attracted men and women. Do you think the hierarchy needs to get to know and hear from them?
The bishops need to listen to those with same-sex attraction who have crossed the bridge and find out what has helped them. For me, the bridge that I really need is out of the three paragraphs on homosexuality in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The bridge is the cross, and the path to the bridge is conversion and repentance. To cross the bridge requires of the “LGBT” community repentance and conversion. It’s just like the woman caught in adultery. Yes, Jesus was compassionate and sensitive to her, but he said, “Go and sin no more.” If you’re not willing to pay that toll — a costly toll — you’re not going to bridge the gap between the two communities. It’s also the path to joy and peace. The problem that I see with Father Martin is he doesn’t seem to believe that a bridge exists — and it has existed since Christ came.
Quoting the Catechism, Father Martin also stresses the need for treating those who experience same-sex attraction with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Is this enough? And have you experienced respect, compassion and sensitivity from the Church?
By not calling those folks in the “LGBT” community to conversion, Father Martin is not respecting them enough, nor is his version of respect, compassion and sensitivity compassionate enough. Does he really believe that the Church’s understanding of human sexuality honors and respects human dignity? It seems he questions that.
I came into the Church precisely because of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality in its fullness and completeness — because it was the only thing that made sense of who I am as a son of God. As far as respect, compassion and sensitivity, the times when I have received a lack of respect and true compassion were in the confessional, when a priest told me to go find a boyfriend. That’s where I have experienced lack of respect and lack of compassion, because it was rooted not in sensitivity, but in sentimentality.
What do you say to those who think the Church is keeping gay people from a fulfilled life with its “rules” about homosexual sexual acts?
The Church’s “No” to me is a “Yes” to my fundamental dignity as a son or daughter of God — and this is the true good news for those who call themselves “gay,” “lesbian” or whatever. No one honors the dignity of those in the “gay” community more than the Catholic Church does.
In the book, you say that central to your thesis is that it is a mistake for anyone to say he or she is “gay, lesbian, or any other sexual-identity label currently in vogue.” Why do you object to these labels, which some, including Father Martin, insist the Church should use?
Once again, out of respect for people in their true identity as beloved children of God, we should avoid those labels. They are very limiting labels.
I find that we’ve divided the world based on words that are rooted in feelings, not what is objectively true. The second point is: Father Martin in his book says that respect means using the names that the “LGBT community” has chosen for themselves, and he uses examples in the Bible where names are important, where Abram was changed to Abraham and Saul to Paul.
Here’s where he gets this wrong. When God has given a name to something, we don’t have the right or authority to do it the way we want to do it. God gave names to human sexuality, and we are male or female.
We don’t have the right to rename. When we do, we are like a modern Tower of Babel: “Come, let us make a name for ourselves.” To reject the name God gave us is idolatry and rebellion against God.
Some say the Church’s characterization of homosexuality as “objectively disordered” is hurtful to those with same-sex attraction and their families. One theologian has even suggested the Church might change the wording to “differently ordered.” You make the point in your book that words are important. How did you respond to these words before and after your return to the Church in 2009? Did you think they meant you were disordered?
That word “disordered” falls hard on the ears. But anyone who reads those three paragraphs in the Catechism and really wrestles with this can see the language is not talking about the person, but about the behavior or the inclination. I think a lot of people read that with the desire to discredit the Church’s teaching and don’t honestly reflect what the Church is saying.
For me, that language is vitally important for my moral safety. I need those hard words for a safety measure for me and my soul. Thanks be to God that the Catholic Church says to me that to behave in a sexual manner with another man is intrinsically disordered. They respect me enough and have enough compassion for me to tell me the truth — like the warning signs at the edge of the Grand Canyon that say if you step farther, you will die. To say “differently ordered” is a slippery slope to approving behavior that will lead us away from God.
You talk in the book about how certain events of your life became the seedbed of your attractions to men. Do you think that is the case for most people who experience attraction to the same sex, rather than that they are born that way?
We live in a cause-and-effect world, and the Church wisely says and teaches and understands that, as the Catechism says, this has a psychological genesis. This is within the realm of wounds within the psyche. There is no scientific proof that homosexuality is innate to biology. We don’t understand it fully or completely, but the Church is clear in its understanding of the human person that this is a departure from the norm.
Father Martin, who has said he thinks we were born this way, needs to go back and read Veritatis Splendor, which says the behavioral sciences can be helpful, but the more primal truth about the human person transcends the human sciences.
That is the great wisdom of the Church: We are male and female and made for the other with beautiful complementarity. Wherever [same-sex attraction] comes from, it’s a privation of a good, and we should not view it as normal or healthy for us.
What would you advise someone — especially a teenager — who is experiencing same-sex attractions to do when he or she is being urged by the culture not to go against his or her “nature”? You mention in the book, for instance, a Catholic high-school student who asked you if he was gay because he had attractions to the same sex. How did you answer him?
I was able to tell that man feelings are important, of course, but they’re not a reliable gauge of reality, nor do we have to act on all our feelings or desires or attractions. I would also say that we have a great need in the Church to minister to that fellow. We need to really have confidence in our Catholic high schools. We need teachers who believe the Church’s vision of human sexuality is true and beautiful and will support and talk about it with respect, compassion and sensitivity. We have to talk about this vision of humanity and human sexuality in our parishes, youth groups and Catholic high schools, but we also have to give a sense of hope to this young person, that if he is same-sex attracted, his life will not be marred by despair or loneliness.
How did the Catholic concept of redemptive suffering lead to your own liberation? Is that a message people immersed in the homosexual lifestyle today could hear?
If someone is living out a same-sex relationship right now, it probably wouldn’t make sense to them. I think redemptive suffering can make sense to people when their lives and living away from God kind of fall apart. And lives outside God’s plan will always fall apart.
For me, it happened when I just realized that the world’s vision of sexual freedom and liberation did not make me happy the way I wanted it to make me happy. I thought, “If there’s a loving God, why is he allowing me to go through this stuff?” I began trying to find answers for the suffering of living on this side of heaven, or, just in general, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” It really drew me to the beauty of being able to unite that suffering with the cross.
To me, that is the most beautiful part of the Catechism’s treatment of homosexuality: that same-sex-attracted people are invited to bring their suffering to the cross. It’s a truly hopeful message the Church has given me, and my life is far happier now than it was before.
You caution people against believing that those who are in same-sex sexual relationships don’t feel happy. How is it possible to reach such people with the truth about such relationships if they are indeed “happy” in them?
You reach them the way Christ did. He’s always sharing a meal with someone. When he meets the woman at the well, they’re both thirsty. You just stay in their lives and love them and engage with them — and this is where the Catechism’s treatment of people with respect, compassion and sensitivity comes in. Love them and get to know them and wait for the Holy Spirit to make an invitation.
I don’t make a point when hanging out with “gay” friends to talk about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. I wait for them to bring it up, and it happens. You stay in relationship; you love them. When it comes up, you can talk about the Church’s vision of human sexuality and particularly how it has helped you. Live out your lives. Then leave it up to the Holy Spirit. We feel this tremendous burden to reach the lost, and it’s a good burden, a good calling, but we have to be patient with the Holy Spirit and live in relationship with people and just love them.
How has Pope Francis contributed to the conversation about homosexuality in the Church today? Some have taken his now-famous “Who am I to judge?” comment, for example, as an indication that the Church already is changing its thinking about same-sex-attracted people.
What I would say is what has happened to Pope Francis is that he has been selectively quoted to pursue aims he would never be in support of. “Who am I to judge?” has been totally taken out of context because everybody ignores one of the preambles — “if someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has goodwill.” Then, in the same interview, he said, “I still haven’t found anyone with an identity card in the Vatican with ‘gay’ on it.” Nobody’s ever talked about that. He’s so clear about what our identity card is.
I think Pope Francis’ words in this area have been manipulated to say what people want him to say rather than what he has actually said.
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.