Journalism was a calling for gay Catholic man
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Mark Dowd has experienced two vocations. One was a calling to the priesthood, which didn't last, but the second was to journalism, which wound up becoming his life's work.
Dowd, a gay man, has just written his memoir, "Queer and Catholic: A Life of Contradictions" (Darton, Longman, and Todd).
Dowd, 58, is an award-winning broadcaster and journalist who has worked for the BBC, Channel 4, and the Guardian. He studied politics at Exeter University before entering the Dominican Order at Blackfriars, Oxford, in 1981, believing he had a calling to the priesthood. Unconsciously by opting for priesthood, he thought he could be gay without anyone asking questions.
Instead, he fell in love with someone identified only as Michael, an ex-Dominican friar. He studied international relations at St. Antony's Oxford before beginning his journalism career with the Times (London) newspaper. His cutting-edge television documentaries include "Queer and Catholic, Abused and Catholic," "Children of Abraham" (a three-part series looking at interreligious strife in the post 9/11 world), "Hallowed Be Thy Game" (football as the new religion), "Tsunami: Where was God?" (the theodicy issue), and "God is Green."
Dowd's memoir spans 50 years, reflecting the changing attitudes both inside the Catholic Church and society at large vis-à-vis LGBTQ people. Dowd recounts coming out to his parents in his sleep as a teenager, which led to an urgent trip to the doctor for antibiotics as a cure. Dowd charts his up-and-down relationship with his working-class devout Catholic parents, who, while loving him, also disapproved of his homosexuality.
In both the memoir and documentary of the same name, Dowd said that he explores "a fundamental conundrum: why is the church, on the surface, so anti-gay, yet full of gay priests and bishops?" Less semi-academic discussions of biblical texts and theological apologies for acceptance, the memoir seeks to address the more fundamental question: "what constitutes the good life?" for someone who is queer and Catholic.
Dowd spoke to the Bay Area Reporter in an email exchange about what prompted him to write the book.
"I had done TV, radio, and print journalism but never done the long form," he wrote in an email. "In 2016, I started doing Airbnb at my Manchester home and as I related some of the tales to visitors, people said: 'you should put all this in a book.' So I did. But I also realize as a Catholic man, that 'winning the argument' is better done by telling stories that share human tales and insights and this is more effective than trading biblical texts, arguing about the minutiae of Church doctrine."
Dowd said he has found that, at times, one has to take a stand.
"Justice requires standing up and being counted," he wrote. "Imagine if someone had said to Martin Luther King in the 1960s, 'you just keep going on and on about race.' But 'Catholic' means 'universal' and I place it first now, because in the grand scheme of things, because one's humanity and the call to pursue and spread social justice should be wider and more transcendent than the narrow question of orientation. That's why I loved the recent film 'Pride,' in which large numbers of LGBT people in London in the 1980s made visits down to South Wales to raise money for the miners in their industrial dispute with the Thatcher government. This was the first time many miners and families had face-to-face contact with lesbians and gay men. It was a total game changer."
Dowd talked about how his journalism work and religion coexist.
"If 'the truth shall set you free,' as we are told in the gospels, then truth-telling in journalism, uncovering hypocrisy and corruption, allowing humans to tell their tales, is a deeply ethical and important activity," he wrote in the email. "I am fully aware that some of my best journalistic encounters have involved being very sensitive and pastoral with vulnerable people (in a way that a good priest or pastor behaves too.) My current radio work with the BBC is looking at how families struggle to deal with suicide and then the one after that looks at the role of faith in dealing with the approach of death in cases of terminal illness. I think I have found in journalism a way to be fully human and open but also it allows me to escape being an apologist for what, at times, can be a repressive and oppressive institution."
Dowd also speaks frankly about a religious brother at his Catholic high school who sexually abused him at 14 by having Dowd hold his genitals as he masturbated in front of him. Worrying that disclosing the incident might somehow (and illogically) reveal his sexual tension over another student, he didn't report it to the head teacher, and felt pity for the student. He now sees it as sexual abuse.
"I was fortunate in that it did not develop into a long-standing, exploitative relationship in which power, guilt, and control became the hallmark," he wrote. "To be honest, it was such an unpleasant encounter and the man was physically so ugly and unattractive that I might have subconsciously thought, 'Ugh, if this is what being gay is all about, I'd better look elsewhere.' As I said in the book, his worse offence was to start to encourage me to put ads in the gay press and travel to London to meet other older men. I was 14 at the time. Had I acted on his advice, I may have ended up in some very unsavory child exploitation racket never to return home. I never felt angry with him. Just sorry for him. He was a desperately lonely and screwed up man, I think. God rest his soul."
Gift from God
Dowd believes his sexuality is a gift from God. "Sexuality is bigger and wider than 'genitality.' It's about how we relate to people," he wrote. "One of the great merits of the Christian faith is that God took on human flesh and became incarnate. So our 'bodiliness' is inherently good. If it's good enough for the second person in the Blessed Trinity it is good enough for us."
Dowd's documentaries helped to cement his gay identity, especially "Queer and Catholic," in which he outed himself on national TV, complicating his relationship with his parents as "no more could the issue be a quiet, private sort of thing between us, as they faced questions on the program from other people," he said.
He made numerous other religious documentaries, which, for him, were more about a "deepening of faith and a dawning of perspective. Your own travails and worries as a Catholic LGBT man pale into insignificance when faced with the wreckage of the tsunami and the people I met on that journey," Dowd wrote. "These films also allowed for an expression of a desire to communicate deep truths of a religious nature to a wide audience without all the hassle of donning vestments and buying the official Catholic party line."
Advice to young people
Dowd offered advice to young people who are trying to reconcile their sexuality with their spirituality.
"My advice would be to reflect on the fact that the Bible's few passages on same-sex behavior are all in the context of rape, prostitution, temple cults, and exploitation of young men by married adults, that is, nothing that approximates to 21st century LGBT life," Dowd wrote. "The church and its advisers are playing catch-up with our experiences. The choice between faith and being truly gay is a false one. Jesus had NOTHING to say about condemning same-sex partnerships or behavior. I feel sure if he were around in 2018, he'd be an asset and a backer of our position in society. In many parts of the world people are imprisoned and killed for being who they are, which is something no Christian can tolerate."
The death of his parents and a teary mid-life crisis led him to a Dominican friar (an unnamed different man than previously mentioned), who suggested he go to Latin America and spend time with a community of the poor. Pope Francis also inspired him. Hearing about a Jesuit priest in northern El Salvador trying to resurrect a radio station that had ended during the civil war there, Dowd traveled to the remote town of Arcatao to help with the project and create Radio Farabundo Marti, as well as advance a renewable energy project, the Blessed Oscar Romero Solar Park. (Romero, an archbishop who spoke against the unjust crimes of the military government and was shot while celebrating mass, will be made a saint later this year.)
"The El Salvador experience gave me a goal and purpose in life in my mid-50s," Dowd wrote. "The people of Arcatao opened up their homes, fed, and housed me. It was amazingly humbling, and if I had not had those tearful experiences, I would not have ended up there. It had also redefined my sense of what matters, allowing me to feel things and trust more to emotions than to hard analysis. Using my journalism like that, my languages and changing my will, have given me a sense that my life has not been in vain and that, when I die, I will be able to pass something on. For a man who has no kids, that is not to be underestimated. Romero is like a beacon for me, such self-giving and an example. He is a lodestar, pulling you out of egoism and self-regard."
Dowd said that he has not come out to the people he befriended and worked with in El Salvador.
"That is the irony," he said. "I have told the director of the radio station in an email and he was very accepting. He told me that the civil war (1980-92) had seen large numbers of LGBT volunteers arriving to support the resistance movement. I suspect in future visits I will come out bit by bit. But as I am due to get married next month, I may have to talk about my husband. This could be challenging to very conservative types, to say the least."
His experiences in El Salvador have given him a greater sense of perspective about what is important.
"This gay man got some sense of contentment in 2014, not by finding the perfect man or Mr. Right, but by aligning a good part of my time, money, and resources to that community in El Salvador," Dowd wrote. "Maybe these issues of social justice, poverty trump and transcend narrower 'first world' issues of LGBT identity."
Dowd said he hopes that his book can serve as a bridge-builder between LGBTs and the Catholic Church.
"I hope this book allows for the often-polarized standoff between the Holy See in Rome and the LGBT community to come to an end," he wrote. "I am sure Jesus would not want it that way. The Church is top down ... it deals in a priori principles and doctrines and tries to shoehorn lives and people that don't fit into a model ... hetero-normative, nuclear family, etc. Building a bridge means opening eyes to other ways of being alive and fulfilled in the world. This 58-year-old man is about to marry his fiance, who lives with his ex and with whom he co-parents three adopted boys. Does the church condemn that outright? I am providing material and emotional support to vulnerable children in the context of a loving, committed bond. It may not be 'ideal,' but on the other hand, to the LGBT community I'd say, don't throw the 'baby,' the amazing message of unconditional acceptance of the gospel, out with the bathwater."
Dowd is encouraged by Francis' attitudes toward LGBTQ people.
"There has been a change in tone and mood music, but no change in doctrine," he wrote. "It looks superficially attractive, but this 'hate the sin, love the sinner' approach has its limits. Pope Francis has been very pastorally sensitive at a level of answering letters and being good at an individual level, but there's a huge way to go. Until our love is deemed equally valid in the eyes of God and the church blesses our commitment, it will always be saying that we are lesser and inferior. That is against the gospel message of inclusion and acceptance. I want LGBTQIA Catholics and Christians to deepen their love of the liberating message of the gospel and to realize that the Jesus story is an asset and not a hindrance in our quest for freedom."
He said that Catholicism is "more than hierarchy."
"If the amazing life of teacher embodied in Jesus, with its rich, nonjudgmental qualities, is to be simply jettisoned because of its link to a repressive institution, then that's a bad move," Dowd wrote. "We somehow have to uncouple and save the radicalism of Jesus and his ministry from the hierarchical surroundings. Catholicism is more than hierarchy and oppression, it is the organized grouping that teaches kids and feeds fragile people the world over, with so much great work done every day that gets lost in the fog about Rome, birth control, pedophile scandals, etc. 'Church' isn't bricks and mortar and the Vatican. It is the 'people of God on a pilgrimage.'
"Human history evolves through witness and story telling," Dowd added. "LGBT Catholics, if they walk away, cannot be part of that process. We need those women and men inside, offering examples and showing how it can all be done a different way. In other words, the force of the Holy Spirit can be seen in the way LGBT people live their lives, hopefully based on the love of social justice and not just a narrow 'cause' group advancing an agenda but as good and decent citizens. This is how we have won people over and how we will continue to win people over."