Friday, August 28, 2009

A book review: Father John Waiss' "Born to Love"

Born to Love: A Review

I was very honored to be asked to read and review Father John Waiss’ new book, Born to Love. Fr. Waiss’ earlier book, Couples in Love, was written as a guide to young Catholics, parents, educators, and others interested in learning more about the Church’s teaching in regard to marriage, chastity, and relationships.

Born to Love tackles a trickier subject--homosexuality, the homosexual person, and Church teaching about this difficult and timely issue. Like Couples in Love, Born to Love is written in dialog format, as a series of conversations between a Catholic priest, known as “Father JP,” and characters including a heterosexual couple first introduced in Couples in Love, a man who is in a homosexual relationship, a woman who is in a lesbian relationship, and, eventually, the woman’s partner. Father JP and the various other “characters” discuss topics ranging from Church teaching about the dignity of the homosexual person to the Bible’s view of homosexuality, civil rights, identity, relationships, and the kind of conversion that doesn’t necessarily mean “re-orienting” a same-sex attracted person, but instead converting his heart to an understanding of God’s plan for human sexuality and an acceptance of our need to live according to this plan in our quest for happiness, both earthly and eternal.

There are many things to like about Father Waiss’ approach. He is not afraid to tackle such oft-raised objections to Church teaching as: the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexual activity, the Old Testament condemnations are no more meaningful than the similar condemnations against eating shrimp, viewing marriage as ordered toward procreation means that infertile or elderly people shouldn’t marry, and the like. Father Waiss does a good job of showing the weaknesses of these objections, and of turning the “conversations” back to a focus on healthy human relationships.

I found the seventh chapter, “Identity,” to be the most interesting. Father Waiss rightly points out that in the modern world we have a tendency to center our identities around fleeting, “performance-based” categories that don’t, ultimately, define who we are. The person who identifies as gay has placed his self-worth, in a manner of speaking, in his sexual experiences and attractions, even though these are only a small part of who we are as human beings; but Father Waiss further points out how this distorted view of identity affects all of us, whether we identify as career-people, writers, sports fans, fashionistas or the like. These things we do aren’t, according to Father Waiss, as important to our identities as our web of relationships: father, mother, children, parents, extended family, friends, community--the things which are more permanent and more meaningful than merely what we are currently able to do and good at doing. I found this highly intriguing, as I think it highlights a struggle many of us moms have: to identify ourselves as wives and mothers is a proper understanding of our key relationship role in regards to the people who are most important to us, but at the same time the world is constantly pulling us to define ourselves as “more” than that.

I did find some of the later chapters a little less engaging. The chapter immediately following the one above, which talked about parenting in regard to homosexual issues, seemed a little out of place, and some of the final chapters seemed a bit too “pat” in their treatment of the fictional characters while repeating a bit of the information that had already been covered. To be fair, this is the downside of the dialog format--it is very readable, and I’ve encountered other spiritual or practical Catholic books written that way for, I’m sure, that very reason; but unlike a novel or play the characters must be dealt with somewhat expeditiously when the topic of conversation is over, which can feel a little forced. Here and there, too, the dialog can strain the bounds of verisimilitude; Father JP’s answers can be a little too annotated for conversation, or other characters can jump in to the discussion in ways that would be unrealistic in actual fiction.

Still, such flaws are minor and will probably go unnoticed by the majority of Father Waiss’s audience. I see this book as being a good resource for several different types of people, including those, religious and lay, who work pastorally with Catholics who struggle with same-sex attraction, those who seek to educate young adults (though not too young, given the subject matter) about the Church’s teachings on homosexuality and homosexual activity, and, perhaps especially, those Catholic families devastated by the active homosexuality of one of their family members, who seek greater understanding as a way to foster communication with that family member. Some Catholics who are themselves struggling with same-sex attractions and seeking to remain in the Church may also find it helpful.

Given the great lack of availability of solid Catholic materials to be used in discussing issues surrounding homosexuality and homosexual activity and the Church’s view of these matters, Father Waiss’s book is sure to become a valued resource for many who are grappling with this often-explosive topic.

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