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Catholic Re-Visions

What Queer Theory Taught Me About the Saints

A different type of project beckons the queer, brown Christian: Invention, coupled with mourning for what is irrecoverably absent, becomes a necessary spiritual practice for all those who cannot find their own ancestors in the canons of church history

There is an unofficial canon of queer Catholic saints. Those who know it, know it. These are historical, canonical, Vatican-approved Catholic saints—saints that our grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and ancestors in faith have prayed to for centuries—that in the past fifty years or so, have been unofficially but popularly labeled as “queer.”

We can think of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, Roman soldiers and Christian martyrs in the late third century, venerated by queer Catholics as models of same-sex love in Early Christianity. Or we can think of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, second century Egyptian women martyrs known for their deep love for one another. Saint Joan of Arc’s cross-dressing in male uniform, along with her martyrdom at the hands of the church, allowed many to venerate her as a trans or gender non-conforming saint. The third century martyr Saint Sebastian is known as a symbol of male beauty and homoerotic desire.

The list goes on. Biblical passages telling the stories of close intimacy between Ruth and Naomi or David and Jonathan are often proclaimed at queer Christian weddings. Subtly homoerotic iconography, such as icons of Perpetua and Felicity by Br. Robert Lentz, began appearing in queer circles and official Catholic stores alike since the 1990s, alluding to these and other saints’ queerness without openly ever claiming so. Iconography of queer ancestors such as Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, and Marsha P. Johnson, too began to emerge, complexifying who we understand to be a saint and a spiritual ancestor.

Queer Catholicism, for many people who identify with it, involves a spiritual practice of grasping at traces of queerness in church history, of capturing vignettes of queer presence, that is, moments of same-sex friendship and love now upheld as models of queerness. We search for reasons to believe that queer people have always been there in the church throughout history. Queer Catholicism demands a spiritual practice of bold imagination and history-searching despite the text. Queer Catholics and theologians would read and re-read a text and an archive—re-reading both their words and their silences— to search for traces of our presence. This movement to retrieve queerness in and from the sacred figures at the heart of Christianity points to a spiritual desire of queer Catholics to find themselves and their own otherness in the otherness of the Church’s saints.

In other words, queer Catholicism relies on some form of invention in its story-telling and lineage-tracing. Our spirituality rests upon a recognition that we may never truly know if the queer saints are actually queer or not. Nevertheless, we continue to imagine a past (and a future) in which vestiges of our queer selves are present in the spiritual lineage of the church.

For Catholic communities of color, a similar conundrum exists when it comes to searching for a “usable history” of Catholics—saints or otherwise—who share our racial identity. Where are my Catholic ancestors? I asked this prior to my Confirmation, after failing to find a Chinese woman confirmation saint who was not primarily known for her martyrial death or humble servitude. Official narratives surrounding the saints of the Global South seem to rarely escape the colonial imaginary: most Asian saints are martyrs at the hands of an anti-Christian state; many Indigenous saints are praised for their conversion, while the colonial violence surrounding indigenous conversions are elided. Sometimes, the traces of presence in history risk becoming an essentializing presence, when read merely at face value as a totalizing representation of marginalized identities. Global and Indigenous saints are often exoticized in their naming and their depiction, their stories uplifted as an exceptionalist narrative above the many other people of the Global South who did not choose Christianity.

Other times, traces of our presence in church history becomes a pawn in the ever-growing movement to construct a multicultural, liberal, or postracial narrative: in recent years, many progressive Churches have begun to adorn their walls with icons or stained-glass imageries of saints from each continent and of diverse genders, vocations, and life experiences. These well-intentioned and much-needed movements resists against the tendency of many American Catholic Churches to only feature iconographies of white or white-washed male saints on their walls. However, placing images of enslaved or colonized saints next to those of European saints who took part in colonial efforts appeases the narrative of Catholic multiculturalism without addressing the colonial history behind such diverse representation. Each attempt at diversifying the canon must also come with a refusal to be subsumed by a liberal multicultural triumphalism that erases messier histories of violence.

At the end of the day, for queer and marginalized Catholics, the historical project of recovering traces from what were inevitably colonial archives is not enough. Rather, a different type of project beckons the queer, brown Christian: Invention, coupled with mourning for what is irrecoverably absent, becomes a necessary spiritual practice for all those who cannot find their own ancestors in the canons of church history.

The term “invention” when used side by side with “history,” often holds negative connotations. Queer and other marginalized Catholics often face questions from those outside the church who sees leaving the church—as opposed to grasping and inventing queer presence—as the logical option. The same queer practices of invention is also chastised by Catholics who hold onto a heterosexist colonial imagination, which rules out every possibility of holy queer presence in church history. In their eyes, queer Catholics are just “making things up,” or worse, merely creating scandal by suggesting the queerness of the saints.

Yet invention as queer praxis is not new, but central, I argue, to the methodology of queer theorization. Queer theory, especially Black queer and trans theory, offers a wealth of resources to rethink invention as a liberative spiritual practice for queer and marginalized communities. In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde coins the term “biomythography” as a genre of writing and a “praxis of invention.” Lorde writes her dreams and myths into history via re-arranging fragments of the past and filling in between the fragments with radical imaginations. As a result, her autobiography interweaves historical fact with imagined myths, the two often indistinguishable in the text. For those whose lives are often left outside of the text, biomythography reveals the archive of history itself as inauthentic and incomplete.

Recovering queer history, as Black trans theorist C. Riley Snorton writes, requires “nothing short of invention.” Black and trans lives, he argues, appear in the archive often only by “an act of chance or disaster.” The invention of a Black and trans history through the silhouettes and fragments of the archives becomes a resource for Black and trans survival today when simply additive modes of reading history are not enough. The ultimate goal of invention and imagination of the past, Lorde and Snorton remind, is to craft a usable history to fuel “livable lives” for queer, Black, Brown, and colonized peoples in the present.

Looking to Catholic history as a whole, we can see that many stories of the saints are also stories of invention of the past. These hagiographies are invented not for the sake of falsity, but out of a longing for a spiritual ancestor for people who struggle in their survival. All hagiography in church history relies upon this spirituality of parsing through the archives for a usable history to draw upon during times of upheaval, persecution, and struggle for identity. To speak of saints as “invented” is not to say that these saints and their stories were not real, or that the queer saints we honor are not actually queer, but rather, that retrieving their stories as spiritual resource requires a method that is fundamentally different from a mere recovery of history from archival resources.

Invention from the underside of the modern colonial-gender system (to quote Maria Lugones, who considers heterosexualism a byproduct of colonial modernity) is different from crafting yet another all-encompassing myth or constructing a falsely rosy vision of history in which queerness, rather than heteronormativity, has always been the norm. It is easy—and it feels liberatory— to stake claims that queerness has always been part of Christian orthodoxy, or to claim that Jesus or other holy figures are “obviously queer.” It may feel triumphant for theologians to claim that gender fluidity, not gender essentialism, has always been the true Christian vision of gender since the early church. Yet this reconstruction of a Christian origin in which queerness rather than heterosexism is orthodoxy, as Linn Tonstad and others have critiqued, risks reinforcing supercessionist theologies and colonial epistemologies through their reliance on an originalist hegemony. While the “of course these saints were gay” narratives are attractive counterparts to official church history’s narratives of “of course queer saints have never existed,” queer Catholics today ought to go beyond clinging onto narratives of queer certitude and move toward an openness to fragmented narratives that do not tidy up voices of mourning and unfulfilled hopes for a queer and decolonized church.

Invention as a queer methodology is not about completing the narrative of the past or rounding out the silhouettes. Instead, it is about unsettling and upending archives’ authority over history. It is in this spirit that many queer theorists emphasize the role that opacity and failure must necessarily play in a queer re(construction) of history. Every act of inventing the story of a queer saint, queer theories remind Catholics, comes with a sense of mourning for what is categorically absent or erased from canonical Catholic hagiography: mourning for ancestors that may not have ever been there, ancestors whose names we shall never know. Through this dual act of mourning what is absent and inventing a new possibility of presence, the incomplete fragments of Church history and its myriad of possibilities come to haunt and disrupt those who are subsumed by complacent narratives that uphold both hetero- and homonormativity. Mining the Christian tradition and its scriptures for models of our vision of queerness also demands that we remain open to new grammars of queerness and radicality within Catholicism’s messy hagiographies.

I return, at the end of my workday, to my home altar of queer saints, whose blank spaces in between all the queer-coded iconography bear witness to the many Catholic and non-Catholic ancestors I will never know. I light a small candle under the altar, not only in remembrance of Perpetua and Felicity, Sergius and Bacchus… but also of all the generations of queer faithful who have instilled subtle yet subversive queer meanings onto the stories of these saints. I light a candle in remembrance of each queer seeker in history who prayed to the Litany of Saints, imagining and finding echoes of themselves in the silences between each invocation and each name.

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