- Converting the Church: Richard Rodriguez and the Browning of Catholicism
Near the close of Brown, his 2002 extended autobiographical essay, Richard Rodriguez describes the tension between being gay and being Catholic. First, he notes that to be a gay Catholic is often viewed as paradoxical, or somehow inauthentic:
I am often enough asked how it is I call myself a gay Catholic. A paradox? Does the question betray a misunderstanding of both states? No, not really. What you are asking is how can I be an upstanding one and the other. When you slice an avocado, the pit has to go with one side or the other, doesn’t it? Weighting one side or the other. A question about the authenticity of the soul, I suppose. Or the wishbone—some little tug-of-war; some tension.(224)
Rodriguez then goes on to explain that he has come to depend on the tension that results from being gay and Catholic. This irreconcilability is itself a part of his daily experience, constitutive of what he thinks of as “brownness,” a capacious term that Rodriguez uses to connote everything from sodomy and impurity to religious syncretism and racial mixing. He writes that he was born Catholic, then asks, “Is homosexuality, then, a [End Page 77] conversion experience? No. I was born gay” (224). To be born both gay and Catholic means that Rodriguez must struggle with the contradiction of belonging to a church that rejects his sexual identity—his love for his partner is at odds with the institution that mediates his faith and love for his God.
Rodriguez makes it clear in this quotation that he is an essentialist when it comes to his sexual identity and his religion. In both instances he claims to have been born that way, and the implication is that change is impossible. His essentialism and the resulting irreconcilability (gay Catholic) are not remarkable: Rodriguez uses his “brown identity” (and I borrow from his own connotation of brown as impure, contradictory) as a way of pushing against the Catholic Church. This push from within the controlling institution is a tool that subaltern identities have always used to try to change the forces that oppress them. More than twenty years ago, Chicana lesbians Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa began to push from within their ethnic Catholicism to critique the church’s homophobia (in Loving in the War Years and Borderlands respectively), so Rodriguez’s impulse is hardly new. What is remarkable, however, is that his essentialism is at odds with Rodriguez’s claims, throughout his oeuvre, to be a champion of assimilation, conversion, and change in general. While he often celebrates the gains made by assimilation, conversion, and—by extension—brown-ness, he stops short at his own ability to change his religious belief. Thus, a contradiction exists between Rodriguez’s philosophy and his experience of religion. Why does Rodriguez insist on the essentialism of his own religion, yet celebrate the religious conversion of his Mexican ancestors and call on others to change—swallow—new cultures and religions? The purpose of this paper is to explore this contradiction, provide a partial answer, and suggest that as Rodriguez cannot himself convert away from his faith, he is converting—or “browning”—the Catholic Church.
After establishing a critical context, I explore this contradiction in Rodriguez’s work by charting his thoughts on assimilation and conversion and detailing his experience of Catholicism, following these topics as they develop through his three books and in interviews. What I view as a philosophical contradiction in Rodriguez’s work is partially resolved by his unusual understanding of what it means to assimilate or to convert. I notice a significant difference between the usual meaning of being absorbed by the dominant culture and Rodriguez’s conception of absorption of that culture. Finally, I demonstrate how Rodriguez uses his own position as gay Catholic to attempt to convert or “brown” the church. In other words, if Rodriguez is unwilling to convert from his essential Catholicism, he is [End Page 78] willing and able to exert pressure on the church to change, both through his “lived religion” (David Hall and Robert Orsi...