A Queer Conversation
A traditional nun and her openly gay cousin discuss sexuality and the Catholic Church
Growing up just south of Los Angeles, Sr. Bernadette (Mary) Reis would see her cousin Paul Mages when her family took vacation trips to visit his family in the Milwaukee area. For the first 25 years after she entered the convent with the Daughters of St. Paul at the age of 14, Sr. Bernadette and Paul saw each other only at a couple of family gatherings.
Having reconnected over the past two years while living near each other in New York City, Sr. Bernadette and Paul have developed a deeper friendship. This has forced them to bridge the very different worlds they inhabit: Paul’s as an openly gay man and Sr. Bernadette’s as a member of a traditional Roman Catholic religious order.
During their wide-ranging discussion they confront issues ranging from how Sr. Bernadette reconciles the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding homosexuality with her relationship with her cousin and his longtime partner, to how being gay deepens Paul’s commitment to his Christian faith.
BustedHalo: I’d like to start by asking from both of you, what do your friends think about your relationship with each other?
Paul Mages: Well I know that the first time I invited my cousin Mary [Sister Bernadette] over to where I live there was a Fourth of July cookout, my landlady and her daughter, who’s about 32, both live in the building and the daughter pulled me aside and said, “You never told me your cousin was a nun.” [laughs] So I think people, I don’t know — they just don’t assume that you’re friends with religious, but she’s just another person in the world.
Sister Bernadette: I came pie in hand, and it was the best pie that they had there. [laughs] So yeah, and it was just very normal, it felt very comfortable.
PM: Right, they expect religious to be in their own cloistered community.
BH: What was it like for you, Sister Bernadette, when you found out Paul was gay?
SB: I figured it out before he told me. I knew that Paul was up in Canada, and suddenly all of the letters that he addressed to me had his partner’s name along with his, and I knew. I knew from the very beginning. I was not surprised. I did start to really hope that eventually in his own time he would be able to tell me and know that he would be accepted.
BH: So your first reaction wasn’t that you were upset?
SB: No, no. It was more like this profound longing — because I knew, just knowing our family, I knew why he would be keeping it under wraps. My family is very, very traditional. My parents were taught to judge actions based on a morality that is very black-and-white. They also feel obligated to remind family members of the Church’s teaching in the area of sexual morality, because of their concern for the salvation of family members. We are a bit more faithful church-goers than most people are so there was just this deep yearning that — even though I “wear my religion on my sleeve” that Paul would somehow know that I’m a human being first, and that our relationship hopefully would have been built on a foundation that he would know that sensitive side of me. So that’s where I was coming from.
BH: But you didn’t address that though when you next saw each other?
SB: We saw each other in May of 2000 when our grandmother died. No, I really felt it should come from him. And I didn’t make any hints that I knew. I didn’t want to embarrass him. I didn’t know where he was at. But I really did want to eventually, and that’s why I was so grateful when I found out two years ago that we were both going to be living in New York City and by that time he had already told me.
PM: Well, I didn’t come out to anybody in the family until I met somebody that I thought at that time that I’d be with forever. Because I thought that would add some validity to being gay, and then they wouldn’t think it’s some sexual thing that you just try out and it’s casual and not serious, not meaningful. So after I met my partner — I was only with him a few months — I thought that would be forever. So I told my parents. And surprisingly, they were very nonjudgmental. Because, you know, my parents aren’t maybe quite as extreme as far as their religious observance, as Mary’s family is; but they were still pretty traditional and there were things you did, things you didn’t do. You went to church every Sunday, no questions asked. So I was pleasantly surprised that they were kind and supportive and loving, you know, “We’ll always be here for you,” “We love you,” “Nothing’s changed.” And so I wanted to tell other people too. Slowly I let people in, you know, telling other people in the family. But it wasn’t difficult to tell Mary. Because first off, she’s family, so I expected her to be loving. Secondly, she’s a religious, so I was thinking she wouldn’t be judgmental, which she wasn’t, but I guess a lot of religious might be, even though they probably shouldn’t be. I just knew that she would let God do the judging and she wouldn’t make me feel at all like I wasn’t accepted. And then personally I just knew that she’d be compassionate and she’s a great listener, too. So it was an easy environment for me.
BH: And your connection to the Catholic Church maybe hadn’t been strong?
PM: Well, my connection was very strong. In college I started just questioning, and I would still go to church all the time and I was very much into it, but I wanted it to make sense. I wanted it to be real. I wanted it to be meaningful. And so I slowly got a little bit away from being Catholic, but more into being Christian. And so now I go to a Christian church that’s not Catholic. But to me all the essentials are there. The communion with God and the physical communion, the communion with others. The Old Testament, the New Testament. The singing, the worship. I find the environment more welcoming to me. I never felt that the Catholic Church was outwardly condemning me, but I just knew the hierarchy was feeding the message of “being gay is wrong.” So after a while I thought, ‘why am I in this environment where I’m not officially welcomed?’
SB: I do wish that when Church teaching is presented to the general public, for example, as in the Catechism of the Catholic Church or in sermons, that the language chosen could be adapted to the background of the audience. This way, what the Church teaches may have less of a chance of being perceived as insensitive.
BH: What do you mean by “the language chosen could be adapted?”
SB: For example, the Church uses the word that homosexuality is “disordered and unnatural” — that’s the typical language that’s used. These words are understood differently by those who have not studied philosophy or theology. And so for Catholics who do not have the background to understand this language it adds to the level of shame that Paul alludes to. The way that they understand the word “unnatural” for example is like they are in some way inhuman.
PM: Like a mistake, maybe.
SB: Yeah, maybe.
PM: Something to be corrected.
SB: Yeah. Right. And really, I think official Church teaching, could use other language and provide reasons that are comprehensible to the ordinary person. Even Pope John Paul II admits in Love and Responsibility that the Church has really not done Her job in providing the “why” behind the teaching on sexual morality in general; the call to sexuality and how the Church does view the use of that gift from God within marriage, as it teaches. But also I think that it would be helpful if the topic could be dealt with from a personal level as well as a moral level. For example, more contemporary autobiographical accounts of those who have grappled with the teachings of the Church and their own sexuality — like St. Augustine did. Traditionally, however, the language used is borrowed from Thomistic philosophy. There are certain laws that are innate to human nature and are accessible to human nature, that is comprehensible to us through the use of reason. The “natural” expression of sexuality, according to this natural law, is between a man and a woman, the end of which is procreation. This law is comprehensible based on the way that men and women are created and what happens naturally when sexuality is exercised without any outside interference.
The use of the words “unnatural, or disordered” then, means that homosexual activity is an aberration. Other actions in which this language is employed is; for example, murder. It’s not natural for us to murder. It’s something that happens but inside all of us is something that says that that’s wrong. The Church teaches that homosexuality is on that same level, and that’s why they use the word “unnatural or disordered” when explaining its position. Many people clearly see the unnaturalness of murder; it is harder for many to understand why homosexual acts, and other sexual acts, are unnatural.
In terms of sexual integration, I think, many people narrow morality to sexual morality. I really believe that two of the strongest drives in the human person are anger and the sexual drive. This is why there is so much violence and sex in movies. It’s because we are working out those drives that are in us, and because they’re the ones that we just can’t seem to control, they’re the ones that get worked out the most. And so if we can create a dialogue with people about what they’re feeling and how all of our unconscious, past and present experiences are often being acted out through violence and sex, then we may be able to get a really healthy dialogue going with people — a dialogue between experience and morality.
PM: Mary is in charge of a group called ‘Faith in Films.’ So she shows films that she thinks will, I think, draw in people’s experiences. And instead of choosing a film that has no reference to anything controversial, she chooses things with controversial themes and elements that help people deal with anger, sexuality, and other things. And I just think that makes sense, instead of not dealing with reality. If you have experience, then everybody can process it and get somewhere with it. But if you just say “no” to something without feeling it or investigating it or understanding it, it doesn’t have a lot of credibility.
BH: How about what Sr. Bernadette was saying in terms of “natural” and “unnatural” and integration, which is a little bit abstract, but I’d like to hear you react to some of what she was saying on that.
PM: Well, I’m not familiar with the theology behind the term “natural” or “unnatural,” but what she said sounds valid to me.
BH: I can’t tell if you’re trying to say, ‘I’d like to call Paul to greater integration’ — meaning greater integration with himself as a homosexual man? Or are you saying, ‘Okay, you’re homosexual, but the Church is calling you not to be sexually active.’ — which adds a whole slew of issues? Or, ‘integrate yourself in terms of reparation therapy’-type stuff? Can you talk a little bit about that?
SB: Actually, that’s a really good question because I’ve never actually gone there with Paul because it’s really none of my business to initiate that discussion. But I think that’s a good part of the equation because I think there is some pressure on Catholics to try to convince friends or family who are homosexual that they need to change. This is something I never told Paul, but one of the first times that I called my Dad to let him know that I was going to be seeing you, he asked me if I was going to have a talk with you. And I knew exactly what he meant by that. And I did question if I should do that or not, if I was somehow betraying the Church if I didn’t somehow let you know where I stood. But you know, I really felt that number one: Jesus never did that. He never went up to someone and said, “Hi, you have something wrong with your sexuality and I am here to fix you.” He never did that. It wasn’t even on my mind as something that I needed to do. It was something that all of a sudden came up because of my Dad.
But then I have found out since then that other people have that same dilemma: ‘Am I supposed to convince my homosexual friends that the way that they’re living is wrong?’ I think that I am here to be a friend to Paul. From the level of experience, to go over to Paul’s home and to see a home set up for him and his partner to live as a couple, it was the first time I had ever been in a situation like that, so of course it’s going to feel — what’s the word? — different, you know. But we do exactly the same things together as I do with other friends, we have the same conversations together, they invited me out with their friends — I mean, I really felt a level of acceptance. And I was glad, you know, that they could just freely bring me, when you know in the back of my mind, what I represent is something that Paul has been hurt by. But in terms of what I would hope for everyone, because I’m a part of this too, is that we can be in a dialogue with ourselves about why we behave the way we behave, and the choices that we make, and who we love, and what we like and what we don’t like, so that we each fulfill God’s Will for us. How I do that is going to be different than Paul because my background is different, my calling is different, the way I work things out between myself and God is different. And so I can understand the Church’s teaching. For me, I’ve worked that out. And I mean, I’ve grappled with things, I’m still grappling with some things, and I’m not perfect. And it’s the same for him. But I’m not God; I’m not his God. And if Paul invites me in to that process, that’s different.
I really had to reconcile the fact that I’m the one that has to make the decision about what I feel comfortable with in terms of talking about his lifestyle with Paul. I decided that my gut feeling would be the thing that would lead me. And I had to trust it.
PM: You probably prayed about it, too, I’d imagine.
SB: Yeah, I did. And I just felt, I’m gonna trust my gut on this one. I’d like a relationship with you, and what a way to slam the door on a relationship! I mean, “Hello. Before we sit down to dinner I’d like to talk to you about how wrong this all is. Bon appétit.” [laughs]