Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
December 31st, 2009

A Queer Conversation

A traditional nun and her openly gay cousin discuss sexuality and the Catholic Church

by and Sr. Bernadette Reis and Paul Mages

PM: It was probably not the time or the place, right? The first meeting. [laughter]

SB: It’s Pharisaical.

PM: “He could just leave. I’d be happy if it was just you, Paul.” [laughter]

SB: “Yeah, I’ll have dinner with you on the condition that…” It’s extremely Pharisaical, I think, in the sense that the Pharisees would not associate with someone “outside of the law.” Well, in this case this would be considered someone — in Church terms — who can’t receive communion. You’re outside of the body that’s in union with Christ.

PM: But Jesus did all the time.

SB: That’s the whole thing. That is the whole thing. And what did he do. He sat down and he shared a meal with them. He entered into a relationship with them, got to know them first.

BH: So do you remember, when you sat down and shared your meal with Paul and his partner, what was going through your mind? You said when you first got there it was like, “This is different.” It sounds like you eventually came to a point of being comfortable.

SB: Yeah it just became normal. The way that I thought of it was, look, just be as if I was with my brothers. That’s it. When I walked in and saw Paul’s partner cooking, I mean it was like, the most normal thing in the world, you know? And I knew that their relationship per se, regardless of what I believe — they’re friends. They’re a couple. And I need to respect that. That is their choice, and a huge amount of respect is due here rather than, “Excuse me, but let me tell you — .” [laughs]

SB: “The Pharisees would not associate with someone “outside of the law.” Well, in this case this would be considered someone — in Church terms — who can’t receive communion. You’re outside of the body that’s in union with Christ.

PM: But Jesus did all the time.

SB: That’s the whole thing. That is the whole thing. And what did he do. He sat down and he shared a meal with them. He entered into a relationship with them, got to know them first.

PM: I think that helped me. I’m just thinking about what you were saying about a relationship. You know, I would kind of pray about it and talk to God, ask God: “Is this okay? I feel like I’m gay, and this is how I’m born and how I’m intended to be. Is this all right?” I kind of went through that. You know, once I was in a relationship with somebody and it was based on mutual respect and sharing and love, I thought now there’s no way God can be looking down and saying, “Nope, I don’t approve of that. That’s not healthy, that’s not good.” I thought if two people were loving each other with respect and sharing, I just couldn’t see how that could be any worse than a man and a woman doing the exact same thing. So I’m glad she noticed that it was just two people instead of two men instead of a man and a woman.

BH: Do you remember that first night when she was coming over, did you have any thoughts? Did you have to talk to your partner and prepare him that your cousin was a nun?

PM: Well, it was a little odd compared to somebody who is religious meeting my partner for the first time. But you know, I think when you’re gay you’re in a minority situation so often that you kind of just get over feeling uncomfortable because it happens every day of your life. Any time you’re a minority or anytime people are judging you, you have to deal with that. So I think after a while you become a little more numb and it’s not a major issue anymore.

BH: Sister Bernadette, as a woman religious, is in a minority, too. What was it like when you went out and walked around New York together?

PM: Well people always take a second look at her because she’s dressed differently. And you wonder what’s going through their head. Are they thinking, “Oh how nice, that’s a nun,” or, “What is she doing?” And I don’t know if they’re judging her negatively or they’re just curious.

BH: Were you worried you were going to be seen by friends who wouldn’t understand your faith background, or your family, or anything like that?

PM: Well I don’t really care. My relationship with her is more important than what somebody thinks about it. If they don’t like it, that’s too bad. I’m going to be seen with her. And again, it’s just easier for me to be who I am and not worry about what other people think because I’ve had to deal with it along the way.

SB: Actually, it’s interesting that you’ve picked up on the fact that the form of sexuality that I’ve chosen to live is also outside the norm. And it is. And many people don’t understand why someone young, intelligent and attractive would ever choose a life of celibacy. So I think for myself, coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t called to the norm, either, could have perhaps made me a bit more sensitive. As a heterosexual woman it’s hard to explain to some people that if I picture myself with a husband and children in a house, I would feel locked-in, I would feel limited, whereas people who see my life in the convent are probably thinking the same thing, you know what I mean? [laughs] And yet I feel very free. The way I choose to express my sexuality — in a celibate manner — is not the norm.

BH: I think we could make an argument that, in 2009, it’s probably a smaller minority than being homosexual. And in a sexualized culture it might be considered more marginal.

“the form of sexuality that I’ve chosen to live is also outside the norm… many people don’t understand why someone young, intelligent and attractive would ever choose a life of celibacy. So I think for myself, coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t called to the norm, either, could have perhaps made me a bit more sensitive.” — Sr. Bernadette

SB: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And the fact that it’s something that I, too, struggle with. And getting back to integration, I think that there are so many ways that we keep things from ourselves, even, and the whole thing about integration is that I allow myself to be as aware of my thinking processes, the, like [snaps fingers], automatic reactions that I have to things, and starting to look at them and judge them and be able to name them, even the things that I feel embarrassed about, the things that make me behave in ways that I normally wouldn’t choose. Because that’s probably a manifestation of something that’s even more true to myself that I’ve chosen to separate myself from, or is some unconscious pattern or thought process that I’ve never allowed to come to consciousness but is being acted out because it’s been repressed.

PM: Do you mean, like, prejudice, for example? Like that kind of a reaction your father had?

SB: Yes. Oh, definitely. Right. [laughs]

PM: Sure, it could have come in part from how you were brought up. And the way I was brought up, too.

SB: Yeah. So why would I have to be defensive to you, Paul? If I’m not comfortable with my own sexuality, then I would probably take on a more defensive role toward you because I would have to somehow convince myself of my own integration. That’s not a word that’s normally used, but — I think we’re living a mystery. You know, we really are a mystery.

And another thing we have to remember is that we’re living in a world that God created, but there’s a reality his world that he did not intend for us to live with, and that’s the whole area of sin and evil and concupiscence that we are born with and that leads us to choose actions that, according to the Church’s teaching, are not God’s will. And we’re not living in that ideal world that God created. We have to constantly remember that. And so how do we recover that lost innocence?

That’s what the Church is all about. And why She presents ideals, which would be the Commandments and rules like “sexuality should only be expressed within a marriage commitment between a man and a woman.” And why the Church is calling us to that is because that’s what She sees as being the way that God intended us to live. That’s true. On the other hand we have this whole other reality of concupiscence, and the culture. And even like Paul was saying, the way that he feels this is how he’s been created at some level, you know. His attractions lie differently than mine. I don’t know what that’s like.

BH: Does that mess with your sense of moral order?

SB: I do believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and really does truly seek to know what God’s will is for us. And then you have this whole other reality of human experience that makes the clarity just fall away. And I’m in a position now where I really believe that God is extremely active in the midst of each of our lives, no matter what choices we make, and that he will guide each of his children to communion with Him, even with this mess. With the mess that I bring him, even though I look like I’m living a life that the Church has blessed.

At the level of sexuality I struggle with my own urges, desires, fantasies, imagination. There’s no button that just turns everything off. And how do I integrate my vow of chastity with my sisters at home? In the way I speak with them, do I objectify them? Do I use my sisters to get what I want?

BH: That’s breaking the vow of chastity?

SB: Well it has to do with charity. Chastity is all about relationships.

BH: Not about sex?

SB: Not necessarily. Chastity in religious life is about not having an exclusive relationship with anyone. This includes not being in a relationship in which sexual activity takes place because the only licit type of sexual activity is that which is exercised within the exclusive relationship of marriage. No, chastity is all about how I enter into relationship with others — and see, that’s where it really challenges me. How do I interact with people? Am I genuine? Am I open? Am I loving? Am I being the person that God — Jesus would be, right now, with this person. Or am I using them for something that I want, even if it’s to somehow pat me on the back. But there are all kinds of things that enter in, not just if I’m having sex with someone or not. There’s this whole other layer.

BH: So has that had any consequences with you beyond your family and in your community?

SB: You know, I have really been amazed because when I told my community that I was going over to Paul’s house they asked “Oh, how is he?” Well there’s got to be a way at some point that his partner is going to come in the picture. And so I just told them. And some of them I could tell would never have been able to do what I did. However, after almost a year on Memorial Day we had a picnic at our convent and I asked my community if I could invite Paul’s partner because Paul was going to be away, and from what I had understood, his partner didn’t have a place to go. And so I asked if they would mind if he could come over. The community had absolutely no problem — we would have done this with any member of our family. He came over, he said he felt at home. Some of our brother priests were there. One of them also spoke French so they got along right away. And he really did, I think, feel very, very welcomed; the issue did not come up at all. Every member of my community understood who he was.

PM: Well how relevant would that have been at a Memorial Day picnic? “So [claps hands], you’re having sex with a guy these days?” [laughter] I mean, doesn’t that sound ridiculous? Like, why would that be an issue for them, if you think about it.

SB: And I told them that he’s a member of my family. That’s how I presented it. “This is my cousin Paul’s partner. For me, he’s a member of my family. He’s going to be alone. Can I please invite him over?” Nobody batted an eye.

I really have been amazed at the level of normalcy. No one in my community brought it up with me afterward, although one of the sisters said something to me at one point about not understanding why I go over to Paul’s house.

If you put a face or a relationship with the issue, then it’s harder to outwardly speak against, I think. They know that I’m important to Mary, so… this isn’t just some Church teaching.” — Paul Mages

PM: Well you know if you put a face or a relationship with the issue, then it’s harder to outwardly speak against, I think. They know that I’m important to Mary, so for them to say, “Oh, homosexuality is terrible,” you know, it’s harder for them to do that because now they see that this is important to her. This isn’t just some Church teaching —

SB: And maybe it was my lead that helped them do that.

PM: So maybe it did help them a little bit to feel differently —

SB: I never thought about that.

BH: I’ve got to imagine, though, that there’s a disconnect for some of them between what they know, or they’ve been taught to be true and what they’re seeing in front of them. That can’t be easy…

PM: No, but I’m sure it challenged them to question what they had been taught. I think questioning is good. Anytime you challenge yourself you’re forced to decide, “Am I okay with what I think? Do I need to adapt my thinking?” I think that’s healthy, just questioning.

SB: And I think at the level of conscience, I mean, conscience is a huge area where even the Church recognizes that a person’s conscience must be followed regarding moral choices. And yes, the Church does say that we do need to inform our conscience and form it according to divine law — so if I’m Catholic I’m going to find out what the Catholic Church teaches. Again, I don’t know what it’s like to have been drawn to a homosexual lifestyle and to have that reality to deal with in my conscience along with the teaching of the Church.

BH: You believe people are born this way.

SB: See, I would not even be able to make a judgment.

PM: Well, who would choose to be gay? You know? So, yeah, of course we’re born that way. But like you say, Mary, you don’t know how it feels so it’s hard for you to say —

SB: — Right. Although I know what it feels like for me to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I’m called to celibate life — this is more in the area of sexual identity. However, for me, my sexual identity and therefore, my conscience, coincided with the Church’s teaching on sexuality.

PM: Right. People don’t understand the calling.

SB: Exactly. And it doesn’t matter what people think. For me to live in this way is the only way and to violate that would be, for me, a huge — like, turning against myself — or a betrayal of myself. And if that’s true for me, I can only imagine that must be true for Paul. And so this is where the dilemma arises. I, too, am concerned about Paul’s salvation, just as I am my own and everyone else’s. However, I understand that the choices I make and those that others make differ based on background, level of instruction in the area of the Church’s moral teachings, sexual orientation, where someone is at in their spiritual life — things like that. We all deal with the “disorder” that the Church talks about — that is, the drive that is in us due to original sin toward actions that are not in accord with natural law or God’s law. The call is to live out our sexuality, like all other areas of life, in a way that is consistent with the following of Christ. It is a process that everyone needs to go through — celibates, heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals — everyone.

PM: Well, just continuing on that theme: you know, so many leaders of the Catholic Church are white men, but they’re making decisions — again, we hope, inspired by the Holy Spirit — but they make all these decisions that impact everybody. Black people, gay people, women. And again, do they know what it feels like to be a woman? Can they tell a woman to do this or to do that; do they know what it feels like to be married with children? Do they know what it feels like to be a racial minority? Do they know what it feels like to be lesbian? So I think — you know, you look at the very small part of the population that feels they were born male but they have a female body. Does it seem odd to me? Yes. Can I understand it? No. Do I judge them? Absolutely not. You know, I think if you feel that strongly that you’re willing to go through, like, a sex change for example, it must be pretty powerful. I think, yeah, we’re all born different — I don’t know why.

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The Author : Bill McGarvey
Bill McGarvey is co-author of Busted Halo’s Freshman Survival Guide. Bill was editor-in-chief of Busted Halo for six year. In addition to having written extensively on the topics of culture and faith for NPR, Commonweal, America, The Tablet (in London), Factual (Spain), Time Out New York, and Book magazine, McGarvey is a singer/songwriter whose music has been critically acclaimed by the New York Times, Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Billboard and Performing Songwriter. You can follow him at his website billmcgarvey.com or on Facebook.com/billmcgarvey
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  • Bernadette G.

    Ignoring for the moment the larger question of whether homosexual behavior should be classified as sinful, I really wish that Christian discourse would collectively do away with the “love the sinner, hate the sin” line. More often than not, it’s used in a way that implicitly suggests that there are “sinners” and then “non-sinners” (a group to which, conveniently, we seem to belong). Yet, the concept that we are all sinners is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Furthermore, our inclination towards sin seems to be something so ingrained in human nature that we never seem to be able to go long at all without committing it (why else would we perform the penitential act every mass?). I worry that an unhealthy investment in determining the relative sinfulness of our neighbors too often gets in the way of the exhortation to examine our own consciences.

  • Matthew

    Joe, people like Scott and Alfonso do not speak for the church. They are individuals who seem to think Christianity is a religion of judgment and hate. That is their problem.

    Scott, saying this, “As a Catholic you must believe all of the truths the Catholic Church professes, otherwise you‚Äôre a heretic” is so profoundly ignorant and sad, I assume you have never talked to a thoughtful priest about your view.

    Sr. Bernadette shows an attitude and approach Godly Catholic charity and love, as you would expect. Your response is an example of judgment and hate.

  • joe

    does alfonso, or anyone else out there, ever wonder about that scenario where we die and head to heaven and are confronted by St. Peter at the pearly gates and he asks us, “how could you be part of an institution that so openly and adamantly persecuted your brothers and sisters?” And what will we be able to say?

  • Alfonso

    This is unbelievalbe. Whatever happened to Rebuke the sins of thy Neighbor? Rebuking is Caring. Most will Think that I am “Judgemental” but Homosexuality is clearly condemened we cannot be cowards of the Faith!! Truth is a double Edged sword!! Charity is when Christ rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees. Charity is when Christ Purged the temple. Love thy Nieghbor by correcting thy nieghbor save them from hell. We cannot deny God’s words ‚ÄúNot everyone who says to me, ‚ÄòLord, Lord,‚Äô will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven”. I say this out of Love, love for my fellow homosexual catholics that you must embrase your cross for God gave it to you because you Can bare it!! Offer your sufferings up to our Lord!! You Religious women and men Stand of for Christ, be a witness to him!! Be a witness to truth!! Tolerance is placing Truth at the Same level of Lies. May God help us.

  • William Grogan

    Wow. After reading many of the posts here,(this is a followup to a post I made on july1,) I am so glad I no longer belong to the catholic church. So many of its members, judging from some of these posts, are nothing more than self righteous, sanctimonious hypocrites, pointing fingers at anyone who disagrees with them. If any of you say I’m going to hell for my decision, fine, I’ll see you there.

  • Alycia

    I am so sad to see that the Paulists are back-handedly promoting a perversion, a sin through this mans homosexual lifestyle and this religious sisters acceptance of it. This is why the Paulists AREN’T gaining vocations, only those who promote and teach the fullness of our Catholic faith prosper.
    I encourage anyone who has a same-sex attraction to not give into this unfulfilling way of life and sin, but to please seek help. Please visit couragerc.net and live out your life in the way God has planned for you.

  • Scott Parker

    I would also like to add that anyone who says Jesus “preached a Gospel of acceptance” is lying. Have you actually picked up the Gospel and read what he taught? He rebukes people; a lot. Why? Because they’re sinful. He doesn’t get into conversations like “do you think such and such is OK” about sins (which here would be basically like asking “how to you trick yourself into thinking that your perverted sexual acts are somehow remotely related to love”) because he already knows what they are doing is evil. Rather, he teaches what is right. That is charity, that is love, that is following Christ.

    Good sentiments and “niceness” do not in any way necessarily mean love. The devil would be nice to you in order to tempt you, would he not? Satan doesn’t need to make you rebel directly against the truth – because you would never succeed a – all he needs is for you to be complacent about serving God and lull you into thinking you’re a “loving” person. So it is with evil.

    These are hard teachings. The world offers you comfort, but you weren’t made for comfort, you were made for greatness. Be perfect as you Heavenly Father is perfect.

  • Scott Parker

    Anna Teresa,

    Actually, you can’t be a Catholic and not follow Church teaching. As a Catholic you must believe all of the truths the Catholic Church professes, otherwise you’re a heretic, and, assuming one refuses to repent, will go for Hell. QED

    I have noted that there are many “everyone deserves such and such” statements from those opposed to the Church’s teaching, and they always justify their statements with the idea of “love.” Love is many things, one of them is chastity. Furthermore, Love cannot exist apart from the Truth. Therefore, any attempt to portray Sodomy, which is evil, as part of love, which is good, is lying. I strongly encourage all false “Catholics” to consider whether they actually love God if they will not obey their Father in Heaven.

  • Anna Teresa

    Kudos to Sr. Bernadette for living out the Christian calling to, “love one another as I have loved you.” I feel a very special connection to the Church, as it provided me with my own religious and spiritual conversion; however, I think it would do every human being a lot of good to search for God’s presence in all things and in all people. Really assess your relationship with God and with the Church, don’t just regurgitate the doctrine to other people… We are all His children and deserve to be treated as such. I think we can all agree that we are all sinners. And, I do believe you can be Catholic and not follow every teaching of the Catholic Church: this is called being a human. I have yet to meet a Roman Catholic, clergy or not, who I feel embodies every teaching of the Church. Let’s remember our LGBT brothers and sisters in our prayers, as well as those who have chose a life of celibacy by taking vows in the Catholic Church. Peace and blessing to all!

  • tito

    How can a person claim he is a practicing catholic if he/she doesn’t agree or follow the teaching of the Catholic Church?

  • Matthew Rand

    I am a “gay” man in a domestic partnership, but I don’t have an issue with traditional Catholic teaching on the subject. Who am I to say that my sexuality isn’t “intrinsically disordered”? Being a Catholic is about being in a God-revealed religion, where Jesus Christ handed down his teachings to the apostles and established a church.

    The teaching on homosexuality is part of those teachings that were handed down. It comes from God. So who am I to say that God is wrong? Truthfully, I believe the homosexual condition is a neurosis, not an intrinsic human condition.

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