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A Public Confession

 

By John Mattras

Of the many confessions I have made in my life, one will always stand out in my mind.  It was Holy Thursday.  I was in my early 20s.  I was working as an associate at a large law firm on Wall Street, a job I had pursued relentlessly after finishing law school at a young age.  Everything in life was going the way I wanted, imagined, envisioned and expected, except for one thing.

I approached the confessional with trepidation.  Should I proceed to the traditional kneeler and maintain my anonymity?  Or should I take a chance and encounter the priest face-to-face?  I chose the latter.  I entered, sat down, dispensed with the formalities and faced the 60-something year old priest.  “Father,” I said, “I’m gay.”

I did not know what to expect.  Fortunately, the priest was understanding and reacted with compassion. Relieved, I found myself telling him what I thought he “wanted” to hear: that my desire was to stay celibate. He listened very respectfully. As our conversation wound down, I prepared myself for the usual penance of Hail Marys and Our Fathers but instead he told me to “pray for an Easter miracle” which I took to mean to pray for my orientation to change.

That confession initiated a dialog that has continued for almost 20 years with many priests, friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances from an assortment of backgrounds who hold varying perspectives. In that time, the message I’ve heard from priests is that the church’s issue is not homosexuality, per se; rather the church has a highly consistent and singular approach to sexuality that encompasses all sexual expression outside of marriage, contraception and even masturbation. Since that confession, my relationship with the church has sometimes been rocky but it has also been an enduring one.

Memories of my confession flashed through my mind Friday night as I was walking through the West Village amidst much joy and celebration.  New York’s Catholic governor had just signed a marriage equality bill, a bill that would not have passed the legislature without the support of several Catholic Democratic Senators and one, pivotal, Catholic Republican Senator.  I reflected, also, on the Father’s Day blog New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan posted on June 18.  In it, he asserted, “We would just as vigorously defend marriage from a demand by a heterosexual, or anybody else, to redefine the very nature of marriage to accommodate a relationship beyond that of one man and one woman.”  But in contemplating the presumed consistency of the words and actions of church leaders regarding gay rights, I realized this really isn’t true.

Though I left the practice of law years ago to do church related work, I often approach issues that affect me personally from a legal angle, as if preparing for a trial. But after reading the Archbishop Dolan’s message I found myself imagining what it would be like if I were entering that same confessional today as I did 20 years ago and the Archbishop—or any church leader for that matter—was my confessor. On that day almost two decades ago, my point of view was very similar to his.  I embraced the seeming consistency of the Church’s position. Today, as a more mature and, hopefully, wiser man, my own questions and insights regarding his and other church leaders’ stances would be much more pointed.

The confessional conversation I imagined went something like this.  “Archbishop, you said in your recent “60 Minutes” interview that marriage is “one man, one woman, forever.”  If marriage needs to be defended from modern adaptations, what is the church doing to outlaw civil divorce and remarriage?  Where is the political mobilization to prevent avowed adulterers like Hugh Hefner and Charlie Sheen, who flout notions of marital fidelity, from obtaining civil marriage licenses?  How vigorously is the church calling for constitutional amendments and voter referenda to confirm, or deny, these modern versions to an institution once considered irrevocable, eternal and exclusive?

As the conversation progressed, I imagined asking even harder questions.  “Is there any rational basis, either from the experience of states and countries where same sex marriages are legal or from peer-reviewed studies, that marriage equality has or will diminish marriages between heterosexuals? Isn’t the church taking special aim at society’s growing acceptance and recognition of same sex marriages and, more fundamentally, homosexuality?”

I imagine my confessor responding with concerns about children and child rearing, to which I would say, “You suggest there is not only a preference, but a right for children to be raised by a mother and a father.  If that’s true, why hasn’t the church fought state adoption laws that allow single parents to adopt?  What’s more, gay couples with children exist (and will continue to exist) irrespective of whether marriages are legal or not.  Denying the benefits of marriage to same-gender parents has been shown to detrimentally affect the children of these relationships but it doesn’t prohibit their existence.  Aren’t you really arguing that gay parenthood should be outlawed?”

The Archbishop’s response might then drift from “protecting marriage” to defending religious liberties against the state dictating that institutions must support behavior contrary to their religious beliefs. To which I would reply, “but it is widely understood that no priest, minister, rabbi, imam or other religious leader can be compelled to perform any marriage among any two people under any circumstance. There is zero case law under such a scenario as there is no legal basis to demand that a religious leader perform a marriage.”  The archbishop responds with “if gay marriages are legal and a Catholic adoption agency that receives state funding does not want to place children in the homes of married gay couples, the agency is precluded from discriminating, thus trampling on the religious liberties of the church.”

“But, Archbishop, would the church support the right of an adoption agency receiving state funding to refuse to place children with Catholic families on the grounds that it violated their consciences to do so?  Would it be ok for such an agency to impose a blanket policy that it is always morally inappropriate to place a child with any Catholic family, presuming that all Catholic families are incapable of imparting the values such an agency might hold essential for the good moral development of children?  Would Catholic taxpayers passively acquiesce to the use of their tax dollars by service agencies that blatantly discriminate against them?”

“My understanding is that there were at least three confirmed cases of the Archdiocese of Boston having placed children with gay parents prior to pulling out of the adoption business altogether and the agency was compelled to articulate an actual policy which, by fiat of the local Archbishop, could not be promulgated in such a way to condone adoptions by gays and lesbians under any circumstances?”

The last line of defense would likely be the “slippery slope” argument.  If we have same sex marriage, what comes next?  People marrying their pets, as Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio has suggested?  Bigamy?  Polygamy?  Putting aside, for a moment, the inability of animals to form consent, a principal component of any valid contract, I would respond by distinguishing between behaviorial and status-based identity. One cannot be bigamous or polygamous without being in a bigamous or polygamous relationship. One can be gay irrespective of whether or not he or she engages in sexual behavior—as many religious and non-religious can attest—and even if he or she is in a heterosexual relationship.  Accordingly, prohibitions against bigamy and polygamy may be applied equally, irrespective of status-based orientation, while prohibitions against marriage discriminate on the basis of an immutable status.”

All of this would lead our confessional conversation back to my original question.  “Why is the church throwing scarce financial resources at fighting same sex marriage and not at other challenges to more traditional notions of marriage if, in fact, all are of equal concern to the church?  Do you expect that by prohibiting gay marriages there will be fewer gay people?  Will perpetuating disapproval of gay relationships stop people from being gay?  Is homosexuality a contagion that needs to be circumscribed with societal disapproval?  And if we accept, as science, medicine, psychiatry and even church leaders have concluded, that homosexuality is something that is neither chosen nor changeable, how will the denial of marriage benefits to gay couples serve to advance heterosexuality?”

Needless to say, my imaginary confession would probably not end as satisfyingly as my real encounter 20 years ago. In the intervening years I’ve come to understand that the Easter miracle my original confessor asked me to pray for was not for God to change my orientation but for my ability to embrace who God created me to be. If I were given the same penance in my imagined encounter today, I can only conclude that would not be what the Archbishop intended. Fortunately, it’s too late.  That miracle has already occurred.

 

John Mattras is a micro-credit financier and advocate who also organizes service projects and religious pilgrimages.   He may be reached by email at john@franciscanspirittours.com.

 
 
 
 

12 Comments

  1. A round of applause for your post.Much thanks again. Fantastic.

  2. [...] that gathers stories from other news sources, we recently published our first original piece, A Public Confession by John Mattras. John’s essay  reflected on his experience as a gay, Catholic man in New [...]

  3. Charles Bolser says:

    as a priest – i would ask simply – where is the sin? You are a part of the wonderful and diverse creation of God – you are Gods beloved son/daughter – Find the gift that you are called to be and celebrate and thank God every day for life – that is dynamic and changing.

  4. Charles Bolser says:

    The Thomistic Natural Law (based on ancient philosophy that moves through Plato and Augustine – is very simple. Every conjugal act must be open to procreation! And secondly, women are inferior forms of men. Thirdly, sex is to be tolerated but not enjoyed – and then we have Jansenism where all sexual thought, word and act is at least potentially sinful and a source of guilt. Therefore, masturbation, birth control methods, sex after menopause, homosexuality is objectively sinful and evil. Women priests are to be avoided at all costs, virginity is to be seen as a gift from god – as celibacy is a shining jewel for the church. Now, there we have it! Sex is to be tolerated in order to continue producing children – but don’t enjoy it!!!!!!

  5. frjimt says:

    more of the same………..
    change the gospel, change the SS’s,
    change the rules, change the Church…..
    but we have little in our culture anymore of “change me.”

    Where has the question gone about being “made this way”?
    Where is the “gay gene”, we’ve found the ones for weight, for eye color, hair, etc…..
    and looking for this “gene”, we come up with 0.

    • AMS0330 says:

      There have been developments in finding a link to the biology of the sexual orientation. You realize how complicated genetics is, right? But my point is that God wants us to accept each other and love each other regardless of lifestyle, choices, preferences, etc. I really wish more people considered the whole “If your slate is clean, then go ahead and throw a stone” concept. We don’t live as wandering desert people anymore. We don’t follow most of the rules set in Leviticus, so why pick and choose with ones the Catholic Church DOES follow? According to Leviticus, men could divorce there wives for ANY REASON, and you can’t wear blended fabrics, and you can’t “waste your seed,” and you can’t look at a woman when she is menstruating, along with a number of other things Catholics chose to ignore at the Council of Nicea when they decided you don’t have to be Jewish to be Christian… So why pick this rule to obsess about? Virginity, sex, and the “sacredness of marriage?” We don’t need to populate God’s Kingdom and Church the way we did thousands of years ago. So why is procreation so important? I’m not saying people should stop having children, I’m merely saying that there are a number of people on this planet, and a good number of Christians and Catholics, so why are we obsessed with preserving sex? It is meant to be a beautiful thing, and yes, biologically it is meant to create children. But it’s not a sin to not have children.

  6. Al Liguori says:

    Well said John.

  7. John says:

    The basic flaw in this lawyers logic is the notion of “ideal” vs. “reality.” As humans, we are called to reach for the “ideal” state, where marriage is the outward reality of a biological fact that a man and a woman have come together for the sake of the children their relationship will generate. That those children have a fundimental right to be raised by a mother and father.

    It is out of circumstances, people find themselves in situation outside of the ideal.

    The lawyer is basically stating that we should chase “the gutter”
    and not uphold the ideal.

    • AMS0330 says:

      I think children have the right to be loved and nurtured, not necessarily by a mother and a father. I was raised by my mother. I am a happy, functioning, maturing individual with a great relationship with God.

      The truth is that marriage is the religious and legal bond formed to ensure that a child or children will have both parents present in their lives, in order to provide a good environment, etc. But who is to say a good household has 2 parents, one male and one female? There were times when my aunt came and lived with my mother and I, so at that time I was greatly influenced by two women, not a man and a woman, and not both being my parents. I believe a child can be provided with love, care, supoort, and anothing else they may need – as long as there are people who feel called to do so. I believe in equality and the right to love any other person.

      I really respect the author of this article. I have my own qualms with the Church, and I have had many conversations with others, and I love how respectful and educated you are. Bravo!

  8. Eileen Kovatch says:

    If the purpose of marriage is to procreate, what about a married couple who choose not to have children, or those who can’t have children? Is there a Church law to cover those contingencies?

  9. This is very thoughtful and I’m glad I read it. One comment: What is the church’s position on a child’s inalienable right to grow up in a loving and stable home? Where is there conclusive proof that such a home is always provided by heterosexual couples and never by gay ones? There IS no such proof. I know more than one stable gay couple who lovingly parent children, and as the product of a heterosexual home that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, I know that gender orientation has NOTHING to do with the ability to fulfill that inalienable right of a child to stable and loving parents.

  10. John Munroe in Westbrook, ME says:

    WOW!

 
 

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