Dermot - Chapter 11 - Theology
After his usual encounters with nurses and physicians on Wednesday
morning, Dermot settled down to study Admiral Morison's admirable history
of the American people. He was thus engaged when Dr. Rygalski stuck her
"Hello, again, Dermot."
"Hi. I didn't expect you back. Did you forget something?"
"No. I just wanted to check something with you. You told me last
Saturday that you were gay, right?"
"Yeah, right," Dermot said.
"Well, I overheard my little brother talking last night, and he used
the word 'queer.' I thought gay people resented that word, but Jerry -
that's my brother - said he was talking to a gay friend, and they were
joking around, so it was okay. I wanted your take on that."
"It's not all that simple. Judging from the guys I know, some get
real pissed off if they hear that word, and some don't. It kind of
depends. Some of the guys I've dealt with use it about themselves when
they're feeling sorry for themselves, or guilty, or something. But some
gays use it to joke around with, among ourselves, you know. What's really
objectionable is to have some redneck yell that word at you, when you know
he means it as an insult. Kind of like the word 'nigger.' I knew a couple
of black guys at school who would call each other that when they were
playing around, but I would never use it, 'cause I know they would think I
was being insulting, you know, dissing them," Dermot explained.
"Okay, that makes sense," Dr. Rygalski assented.
"Is your brother gay?"
"No way! Or, if he is, there's going to be a really ticked off little
girl he's been feeling up lately," she chuckled, "but he has a friend who
is. They've been friends since grammar school. That's who he was talking
to on the phone."
"Good. I'm glad they are still friends," Dermot said with a sigh.
"You think gays and straight guys can be friends, then?"
"I hope so. There are a lot more of them than of us. All I want is
for us all to get along without fighting over it," Dermot stated wistfully.
"Sounds reasonable to me," Dr. Rygalski said. "I guess my little
brother was right this time. I told you we came out about even."
"Go, little brother!" Dermot yelled, pumping his good arm.
"If you two ever got together, the world would never be the same
again," the doctor said, taking her leave.
Well, whatever the situation, he had obviously not ticked off
Dr. Rygalski. Maybe she really was too busy to take him on as a counselor,
and Dr. Lanier seemed to be working out now. As he thought about that, his
own words came back to settle in Dermot's consciousness. All I want is for
all of us to get along without fighting. Could he and the Lyles get along
without fighting over their religion? This was a lot more important than
the next chapter of American history. Think! How can we deal with this?
What is it that I dislike so much? Well, that priest at St. Pius X. But
is he all there is to the Catholic Church? Somehow I have the idea that
Catholics are anti-gay, and that priest sure fills the bill. ... but the
Lyles don't, and they're Catholic, too.
Dermot's thoughts wandered over his previous experiences of churches.
When his mother was alive, they were Catholic. His mother was very
religious, come to think of it. She always said prayers before meals and
at bedtime. Dermot could remember some of her prayers: "Now I lay me down
to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep ...." Something like that. And
while she was sick, Mom prayed a lot. But when she died, things changed.
Dad was real mad at God about Mom dying. Dermot could remember him roaming
the house, crying, and swearing at God. His dad drank too much after that,
too. Trying to forget? Maybe. And then, at the funeral, Dad argued with
the priest. Was it the same priest? Dermot could not remember, and did
not know what the argument was about. Did it matter any more? But from
that time on, neither his dad nor he went to church. Dermot had been with
some other boys, practicing to be an altar server, but that was all off.
And at the end of the school year, he was sent to another school, and that
was the end of his Catholic experience. For two years, he and his dad
lived in the same house, but they were strangers. It was like they were
waiting for something. For what? For Mom to return? For Dad to snap out
of it? Dad muttered and drank too much in the evenings, and said all kinds
of nasty things about the priest and the Church. Dermot could remember
some of those words, too. He had used them himself.
Then, when Dad went into the army, and he went to live with Uncle
Steve and Aunt Florie, they went to a really different church. Dermot
could not remember all the name, but it had apostolic and holiness and
something else in it. The males had to dress up in suits, and Aunt Florie
and Alice had to wear dresses, no jeans or any other kind of pants. And it
wasn't a proper church, but just what used to be a fish monger's place.
You could still smell the fishiness. There was a woman with an upright
piano, who led the singing in a high, scratchy voice. But the person
Dermot remembered most was the preacher. A big man, like a football
player, with a deep voice. He would begin preaching in a normal voice, but
when he got into it, he would start kind of chanting. You could hear his
voice going up and down, up and down. Once Dermot found himself swinging
his head in time with the chanting, and Zach saw him and told Uncle Steve,
and Dermot got a beating for making fun of the preacher when they got home.
When he really got into it, the preacher would start yelling, but still in
that sing-songy kind of rhythm. Then others in the small congregation
would start yelling back. 'Amens' would bounce off the walls. Once,
everyone seems to really get worked up, and everyone was yelling at once,
and a couple of the women and children started rolling on the floor. They
said it was the Holy Spirit, but that bothered Dermot. It bothered him
because he saw something kind of like it when he and Danny, the boy he
thought was his boyfriend, snuck into a different kind of meeting once. He
did not know what the group was called, or what the meeting was supposed to
be about, but they decided to sneak in because Uncle Steve was going, and
told them they were to stay away. Same thing. A guy got up and started
talking, then he got excited, and he started yelling, and soon everyone in
the room was yelling, too. Except that sure wasn't the Holy Spirit. There
was nothing holy about it. They were yelling about how the 'niggers' were
taking over, and were the cause of all the troubles. What troubles, Dermot
was not sure.
But that's when Dermot decided all the churches were a load of shit.
He had to go with Uncle Steve and Aunt Florie, but he just sat there, and
told himself how stupid these people were.
He could not see Mr. Lyle or Lando or Mark in any of those scenarios.
I guess, he told himself, I need to find out more about how they see things
before I can make up my mind.
About the time he reached this conclusion, he heard footsteps
approaching, and thought at first it was Mrs. Harper. However, the woman
who entered was a stranger. Nice looking. Probably in her forties.
Looked kind of expensive, somehow.
"Hello, Dermot. I'm Sandy Lyle. I believe my husband told you I'd be
stopping by. I'm happy to make your acquaintance. My boys have spoken
about you quite a bit lately."
"Oh, yes. Hello, Mrs. Lyle. Yes, Mr. Lyle did say you'd be stopping
by. Thank you. I appreciate all your family have done for me," Dermot
said, too quickly, nervously.
"How are you getting along? Are they taking good care of you here at
"Yes, ma'am. Dr. Shipley has been really great. I seem to be healing
the way they want me to. Everyone has been wonderful," he over-reacted.
"Hmmm. Seems to me I heard Lando speak of a nurse you were not all
that fond of," Mrs. Lyle commented.
Dermot colored. Caught. "Um, ah, yeah, I guess that's right."
"Dermot, don't feel you have to pretend with me. I do talk with my
husband and sons. I know everything has not been perfect."
"Sorry, Mrs. Lyle. I guess I over-reacted. I want things to go
right. I want that a lot."
"But you have some reservations."
That was not a question, but a statement.
"Yes," Dermot conceded. "It's the church thing. I know you guys are
Catholic, and I had some bad experiences with Catholics. I'm sorry."
"Well, I'm sorry you had some bad experiences. Is there anything I
can do to help?"
"I don't know. I guess I feel really rejected because I'm gay,"
"I can understand that. When Lando came to the realization he was gay
a few years ago, we had to work through this. I admit, I was very
uncomfortable with it at first, but it seems to be working out. So far,
anyway. Lando talked to Father Schiller about the religious side of his
"Oh, yeah. He mentioned that. Well, I pretty much blew it there.
I'm afraid I was not very nice to your priest when he came around," Dermot
"I'm sure Father Schiller would be willing to talk to you. I can't
guarantee that will solve all your difficulties, of course," Sandy Lyle
encouraged him. There was a slight pause, then she added, "I believe he
does hospital rounds on Wednesdays. Shall I see whether he's available?"
Dermot sighed. Might as well talk to the guy. I've got to figure out
this Catholic angle, or else blow it with Lando. "Yeah. I ain't going
"Thank you, Dermot. I'll see what I can do," Mrs. Lyle said, as she
rose to leave.
About twenty minutes later, Father Schiller poked his head in Dermot's
room. "Hello, Dermot. May I come in?"
"Yeah. Look, I'm sorry I've been shitty ... um, I mean rude, to you."
"You told me when we talked two weeks ago that you had been treated
unkindly by another priest, so I kind of understand. But Mrs. Lyle said
you wanted to see me now. Is that so?"
"Well, not exactly," Dermot said, being ruthlessly honest. "I want to
clear up some questions I have about the Lyles, and they involve the
Catholic Church. Otherwise, I wouldn't want to see you."
"I see. Well then, let's get to those questions. What can I help you
"It's like this," Dermot began, then proceeded to explain to the
priest his own circumstances, the offer from Mr. Lyle to take him in as a
foster child, and the issue of whether he could be comfortable in a
Catholic home. He repeated, in considerably more detail, his earlier
account of his exchange with the pastor at St. Pius. "And that's why I
hate you guys. And from all I hear, that guy is pretty typical of
Catholics, but then Lando says he talked to you, and you said being gay was
okay, or something. Anyway, I'm confused."
"First of all, Dermot, let me say how sorry I am that you had that
very unpleasant experience. I can see how, after being rejected - thrown
out - by your uncle, your experience with Father Seligmann was just another
type of rejection. I know there's nothing I can say that will make that
any less painful. But, maybe I can explain a few things that will allow
you to understand how Father Seligmann and your friend Lando can be parts
of the same Church."
"As you may know, it was only fairly recently that there was
creditable evidence that homosexuality was a given condition rather than a
choice. That makes an immense amount of difference. There are several
threads which come together to explain the attitude of almost all Catholic
theologians until very recently. One was the belief that sex had as its
primary function the procreation of children. Another was the assumption
that all people were naturally heterosexual. If these two positions are
correct, then perhaps you can see where we would get the conclusion that
homosexual activity, and in fact any kind of sexual activity outside
marriage, was sinful."
"Yeah, well, I didn't exactly chose to be gay," Dermot objected.
"We realize that now. But our realization has only come very
recently. And many older priests, and not only priests, have not accepted
that new realization," Father Schiller said.
"Where does this 'unnatural and inherently disordered' bit some in?"
Dermot asked. "I remember those words because they seemed to be such a
weird way of saying anything."
"It was, I think, a very unfortunate choice of words used by the
American bishops in their statement a few years back about homosexuality,"
the priest admitted. "Let me try to explain. If the natural purpose of
sex is procreation, then the thinking is that any use of sex for any other
purpose is unnatural, and if everyone is assumed to be naturally
heterosexual, then being homosexual is contrary to the divine order of
things, or inherently disordered. I see you ready to object, but let me
continue. Note, I prefaced both my statements with 'if.' Those statements
were pretty generally assumed to be true until some new light was shone on
the issues during the past fifty years or so by science and psychology."
"Now, during the past half century, theologians have begun to
seriously question both those assumptions. They have been helped by church
historians, who have been digging around in the early history of the
development of our thinking on these issues, and by psychologists, who have
given us greater insight into the human psyche. Today, it is safe to say,
the mind of the Church is seriously divided on many issues involving
sexuality, not only homosexuality. Things are changing."
"So, you're telling me the Catholic Church is admitting it was wrong?
I thought you guys claimed you were never wrong, or something," Dermot
"Again, that's not a simple yes or no answer. Unlike some of the more
fundamentalist denominations, we recognize a difference between the basic
divine revelation of truth, which we believe is permanent, and the efforts
of us humans to apply that divine law to everyday circumstances. That part
can, and does, change."
"I don't understand. Don't you believe everything is written down in
the Bible?" Dermot wanted to know.
"No. Not according to Catholic belief. We have always held that what
Jesus left to his followers was not some writings, but the Church, the
living body of believers. Some of those believers later wrote down what
they believed, and that forms the New Testament, or the Christian
scriptures. But the Church came first, and the Church decided which
writings were inspired by God, and were to be included in the New
Testament, and the Church claims an authority independent of the written
scriptures," the priest stated.
"I don't like this 'authority' thing. What makes you think you can
tell me what to do?" Dermot demanded.
"You must remember that membership in the Church is voluntary. Either
someone joins the Church, or else one is born into her, and decides to
remain a member. Either implicitly or explicitly, the members agree to
accept the authority of the Church to decide on matters concerning our
faith. We believe, of course, that what we teach as divine law is indeed
the eternal word of God, and valid objectively for all humanity, but we do
not claim the right to impose that on anyone against his or her will. And,
as I said earlier, we do not say that all our regulations, what we call
canon law, is divinely inspired."
"You lost me again. What is and what is not divinely inspired?"
"Okay. There are certain basic things about the nature of God, the
nature of humanity, and the proper relations between them, which we believe
are revealed to us by God himself. These things we call divine law, or
divine revelation. These are the basics. Such things as the Trinity, you
know, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And God created all that is. And God
is good. And humans were created in the image and likeness of God, and
have an immortal soul, and therefore are different in kind from the beasts,
and worthy of respect. That's the so-called Golden Rule, 'Do unto others
as you would have them do unto you,' or, put another way, 'Love thy
neighbor as thyself.' These things we believe come from God, are basic,
and cannot be changed. But that leaves us a lot of leeway in applying
these basic beliefs to our everyday lives. To do that, God left us our
reason and the authority He vested in His Church. If He laid everything
out in total detail, there would be no room for free will, and that freedom
is one of the most precious gifts of God. The problem there is that we
humans are far from perfect. We sometimes make the wrong choices. Even
good people sometimes do not make the right decisions, maybe because they
did not have all the information they needed. That's what I think is the
case with the traditional teachings about homosexuality. We did not
correctly understand sexuality in general, and we did not understand that
some people are naturally homosexual."
"That's all very theoretical. How can anyone know what you think
comes from God, and what is just human attempts to apply that, as you put
it?" Dermot asked.
"If you take the New Testament, and take those things which are plain,
clear, and reasonable, and add to that the traditional statements of faith
called the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, and further add the
doctrinal decisions of general or ecumenical councils, I think that will
pretty much cover the divine revelation, as I understand it," Father
"Just the New Testament? What about the Old Testament? I remember
the preacher at my uncle's church quoting Leviticus, I think it was, or
Deuteronomy, or maybe both, when he said homosexuality was an abomination
before the Lord," Dermot insisted.
"Yes, the term 'abomination' is found in Leviticus in reference to one
male lying with another. This has been the subject of many learned
articles and discussions among theologians and linguists. For our
purposes, let's just say that is part of what is known as the 'holiness
code' for ancient Hebrews, which played a role in those times much like
canon law today. It was an attempt to apply the basic principles of divine
law to the Hebrew people in their historical circumstances. But we
Catholics are a New Testament people. We believe that all that was
permanent in the Mosaic law was repeated in the Gospels, where, for
example, Jesus says to keep the ten commandments. But, if you look at the
book called the Acts of the Apostles, or what some people just call Acts,
you will find an account of what we call the Council of Jerusalem in
chapter 15. There, the early Church decided that the Mosaic law did not
apply to Christians. They were talking about dietary matters, and being
circumcised, but the decision applies to the entire holiness code. And
St. Paul makes the same point over and over in his letters. The coming of
the Christ freed us from the limitations of the Mosaic law. So, no matter
how much or how little Leviticus applied to the Hebrews of ancient times,
it has no applicability to Catholics today."
"I never heard that way of looking at things before," Dermot admitted.
"Are you sure you're telling me what the Catholic Church says, or just what
"I told you, Dermot, there is much disagreement within the Church
today on most issues dealing with sexuality. What I'm telling you is what
I told Lando. It is completely within the bounds of acceptable Catholic
theology, but not all Catholic theologians, much less priests or lay
persons, would agree, especially not those more influenced by the older
thinking, the thinking based on those two 'ifs' I mentioned earlier."
"Okay, but what about these councils you talked about? Where do they
get the right to tell people what to do?"
"I wish you would not put it that way, Dermot. It's not so much a
matter of ordering people around as trying to interpret the divine
revelation in a way that makes sense to each stage of human development.
If you look at that same passage in Acts, you will find that, when the
early Church leaders reached a decision at Jerusalem, they wrote to the
Christians at Antioch giving them the results of their deliberations, and
justified their decision by saying 'the Holy Spirit and we have decided'
that the Mosaic law did not apply. In the same way, we believe that,
whenever there is a council of the whole Church, it is guided by the Holy
Spirit, so that it will make the right decision as far as the basics are
concerned. That's what I referred to before as the doctrinal decisions of
the councils. About a hundred and fifty years ago, a very wise man named
John Henry Newman wrote a work called ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHRISTIAN
DOCTRINE. In it, he says that God arranges things so we come to understand
some aspect of the divine revelation only when humans are prepared to
accept and make use of it. Jesus did not sit down a write a book of
theology. He gave us as much as we could handle given the conditions and
the way people thought in the ancient Mediterranean world, but He also gave
us a mechanism to adapt the basics contained in that teaching and develop
it to suit changing circumstances. That mechanism is the Church. We don't
reject any part of divine revelation, but we develop it in new ways to fit
"So, what you're telling me is that in our day there is a new
understanding of homosexuality, and the Catholic Church is in the process
of adapting to that new circumstance," Dermot mused.
"Precisely. Some people may not want to change anything, and some may
think we are taking too long to make the adaptation, but we must be
careful. We have nearly two thousand years of tradition to accommodate, so
we cannot just decide we like a new idea and adopt it. We have to see how
it fits into our entire understanding of God and humanity. That takes
time, and it is sometimes painful. But, if - please note the word 'if'
again - if one's sexuality is set by factors beyond the individual's
control and choice, then there can be no sin involved in being homosexual.
Sin always lies in choice, in making the wrong choice. Then, if sex is not
primarily for the purpose of procreation in humans, that also opens up
whole new avenues for theologians."
"A little more on that, please. Frankly, Father, if I can't have sex
with the guy I love, then I don't really care whether you think it's
natural or not," Dermot declared.
"It is often overlooked that the only sexual sin explicitly condemned
in the Gospels is adultery," the priest commented. "And even then, Jesus
told the woman caught in adultery that her sins were forgiven, but to sin
no more. It is not clear that Our Lord thought sexual sins were all that
important compared with some others, like taking advantage of the poor, or
rejecting the grace of God. When you get to some of the epistles, there
are references to general sins, like immorality or licentiousness, but what
exactly St. Paul or anyone else had in mind with those general terms is
open to question. St. Paul does categorize sodomy as a sin, along with
whole lists of other things, some serious, some not so serious, so it's not
clear how serious he thought that was, either. Besides, some theologians
today say St. Paul made those statements in the belief that all men were
naturally heterosexual, and therefore a homosexual act was acting against
one's basic nature. There's that unnatural idea again. But the idea that
the only proper or natural purpose of sex was procreation came, not from
the Gospels or from St. Paul, but from Stoic philosophy. It was the
dominant kind of ethical thought in the Mediterranean world at the time the
early Church was working out its attempts to apply the basics to everyday
life, and it seemed to offer something that would appeal to a wide variety
of people, and so draw new converts into the Church, and be acceptable to
the intellectuals of the time. However, today many theologians think that
was a mistake. If we believe that humans are different in kind from mere
beasts because we have an immortal soul, then that conclusion, drawn by
ancient philosophers based, in part, on what seemed to apply to animals,
needs rethinking. Many theologians today say that, in humans, the primary
purpose of sex is the expression of love, with reproduction being
secondary. If that is so, then sex which cannot result in reproduction is
still completely justified, and even holy, as it may be a sign or partaking
in the love God has for humanity. We have never had any objection to sex
between two married people who were too old to have children, or who were
sterile. We have not been consistent, but we have only recently noticed
the inconsistencies. So, as I've said before, the thinking of the Church
is in a state of flux on these topics."
"Does all this help you at all, Dermot?" Father Schiller asked.
"Well, I'm not sure. There's a lot there. I found out since I've
been in the hospital that some things I thought were so, aren't. What I
thought about the Catholic Church seems to fall into that category, too.
I'm not sure I can go along with God and sin and all that, but at least I
think I understand where Lando and his family are coming from. I need to
think about these things more. There's more to it than I realized."
"All right. I'll leave you to think, then. If I can be of any
further help, please let me know. And remember, the Church is a lot bigger
than one priest, or even one theologian, or one bishop, or a whole passel
of bishops. It's all of us," the priest emphasized.
"That's part of what I need to think about. Thank you for taking the
time to explain it all for me," Dermot said.
"Good bye, Dermot."