Novelist Gregory Maguire is a prominent figure in the world of children’s literature. Best known as a fantasy writer, Maguire, forty-nine, has written more than a dozen books for children. He also writes for adults. A musical adaptation of his adult novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West ran on Broadway in the early 2000s, with lyrics and music by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell), and Joel Grey as the Wizard.
A Catholic faith and vision suffuses Maguire’s work, and is explicit in novels and stories such as Missing Sisters and “Chatterbox.” He has taught and widely lectured on children’s literature, and his reviews in Horn Book, the magazine of children’s literature, are invaluable assessments of new works by religiously engaged writers. He helped found and co-directs Children’s Literature New England, a nonprofit that focuses attention on the significance of literature in children’s lives. A practicing Catholic, Maguire is also a gay father of three. He met with Commonweal associate editor Daria Donnelly to discuss, among other topics, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent document Consideration Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons. The interview was conducted both in person and by email.
Daria Donnelly: What has been the impact of the CDF document on you as a Catholic?
Gregory Maguire: Conditioned to expect little, I was nonetheless shocked, and I wept. I was distressed not only by phrases like the one that says same-sex parents are “doing violence” to their children, but by my partner Andy Newman’s reaction in the wake of such judgments: Was it time to leave the church, and hypocritical not to?
The differences between our first reactions are understandable. Our experiences of Catholicism vary. Andy, Oxford and Georgetown educated, a partner in a law firm before becoming a full-time painter, is a convert and learned his Catholicism as an adult. He brings a full capacity of reason and a cutting intelligence to bear on the nuances of legal structure, history, and tradition, and the ways each influences the other.
I, a “cradle Catholic,” learned my faith from the ground up: from family (and indeed neighborhood) practice of grace and evening prayers, from thirteen years of education by nuns, brothers, and Catholic laypeople, and from the good priests of the midtown parish St. Vincent de Paul’s in Albany, New York. I exercised my faith by founding a contemporary music group in my parish and cantoring at Masses and weddings all through college.
Andy and I differed on “What to do” in the light of the CDF report because of our separate experiences of faith and of the church. Andy is more inclined to think “The Vatican, The Curia, The Magisterium” when he thinks of the church. He was more irate than I. I am more inclined to think “Father Leo, Father Austin, Sister Joan, my ancestors, my family, my fellow parishioners.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church supports both our views. Our parish priest addressed the potential for distress, and in so doing helped dispel the first flood of it.
I worry that the document may contribute to a backlash, a restrictive redefinition of the notion of family that will affect my children. They already have enough “issues” to cope with as they grow up: they are brown, orphaned, and adopted—and also members of an alternative family.
Donnelly: How did your family come together?
Maguire: For a long time I had wanted to adopt. That desire arose from both needs and capacities born in my own childhood. My mother, a convert to Catholicism, died in 1954 while giving birth to me. My early years included time in the care of relatives and the St. Catherine Infant Home in Albany. My family was restored and reshaped when my Irish Catholic father married my mother’s best friend, the daughter of an Irish Catholic immigrant.
In my stepmother, I have a powerful model. She took on four motherless children and a husband in frail health and managed a family of nine with unstinting fairness and levelheaded Irish tenacity and moral conviction. She raised us as Catholics. In my mother, I also have a model of sacrifice and love. Her gift to me was life itself. Also, through her death, I experienced early losses and bewilderments that make me honor and seek community and family.
So when I first met Andy I raised the idea of adoption. He too had considered it. Ten months after we met, when his own mother was dying of cancer, he turned to me and said, “I’m ready.”
We adopted overseas, one child at a time: two boys from Southeast Asia and a girl from Central America. The children now are five, three, and two. Were I younger I’d happily adopt one or two more.
One at a time, we brought them to be baptized. Our family photograph appears in the parish directory. We take the Maguire-Newman kids to Mass when we think we might make it through the Epistle.
Donnelly: Underlying the CDF’s critical statement about gay partnerships is the idea of the complementarity of the sexes, and the idea that for same-sex couples to raise children violates God’s plan and law. Do you at all credit or wrestle with this idea? For example, do you feel the need, as your boys and girl grow, to supplement family life with mothers?
Maguire: Questions of sexual complementarity—of what would be ideal for a child—are well worth asking. Certainly, Andy and I are in the vanguard of this (we hope noble and not morally dubious) experiment of charity: a family headed by same-sex partners. As such, we feel a profound interest in making explicit the value of women, of mothers, aunts, neighbor ladies, grandmothers, nuns, and godmothers (each of our children has three godmothers). But since we haven’t the capacity to change our genders—nor would we if we could—the more significant question to us is: Given where Andy and I are, capable adults in need of loving children in a world where children are in need of capable loving adults, how much might be sacrificed if we placed the idea of sexual differentiation and complementarity above all other concerns?
Same-sex parents who adopt children aren’t in danger of significantly dwindling the stock of abandoned, destitute, or orphaned children. The supply well outpaces demand. No married heterosexual couple that wants to adopt will go home empty-handed because we have adopted. Ought children be left in the streets and minimally staffed orphanages because we worry about complementarity?
To me, the moral question is one about the just application of resources and one’s talents. We can provide a good home for otherwise “at risk” children. A good home implies presenting the nontraditional conditions of our family life openly to our children. They already know they have, or had, mothers abroad, and now they have no “mommies.” We’re obliged to inform our children of the heterosexual norm and to be direct—more direct in time, as they grow—about how and why our family developed as it did.
A final thought on complementarity and the possible moral dubiousness of raising children in same-sex led households: I benefited in a minor way from the benisons of a Catholic orphanage. What does the CDF statement suggest about all those foundlings taken in by monks and nuns over the centuries? What would the child caregivers in religious orders throughout history have to say about the supposed moral dangers of same-sex institutions?
Donnelly: The CDF document draws heavily on natural law. Your thoughts on that?
Maguire: I’ve read convincing arguments that homosexuality, like altruism, may have evolved to insure the survival of species. In a perilous world, humans have always traveled in families, tribes, or packs; and those who did not reproduce could serve as extra parents.
I’m not a legal or scientific scholar, nor have I ever been a gay spokesperson. I can only speak from my experience on this: I didn’t choose to be gay. I intended to enter into the heterosexual community as I was raised to do. What helped me to survive the hardship of exclusion from that circle was believing that I was made in the image and likeness of God. And I hold that each of us must understand our own nature, as best we can, in order to find God in it and to be of service.
I know so many gay people, men and women, who had to leave the church because of its crushing obstinacy, its parochialism (but what a parish!), its hegemony and authoritarianism. I managed through nothing but grace to grow up in a progressive time, in a progressive church, and I observed a church trying to teach health and renewal, not only sin and shame.
Friends wonder why I remain in the church. In my childhood there were four institutions: family, parish, Catholic school, and the public library. When, as a desperate young gay man, I considered suicide, I found in the library a book called Ethical Suicide. I thought it might help me solve my dilemma morally. In my world there was no condemnation of homosexuality: there was a total absence of reference to homosexuality. I felt completely alone. How could I live with the sexual identity I was discovering in myself?
It was the moral teaching of the church, of my parents, that saved me. As we left the house with our sharpened number 2 pencils, ready for and fearful of the standardized tests, my stepmother would admonish us: “Remember you are vessels of the Holy Spirit!” We would pray for a moment before turning over the test booklet.
I stood, metaphorically, on the edge of the cliff and wanted to drop off. But I was a vessel of the Holy Spirit. I backed off an inch or two and decided I had to learn how to live my life as if from scratch. Returning to the Gospels for inspiration (as I did, poetry, music, and friendship), I found that most of what I had been raised to believe was worth keeping. It kept me alive, and I should keep it alive.
Donnelly: What do you most wish for your children?
Maguire: Above all, I want them to be good. If they can be healthy and happy, I also hope for that.
The English novelist Jill Paton Walsh (author of Knowledge of Angels and Lapsing) once concluded an essay by saying that children “stand differently in the flow of time, and nothing is more certain than that they will survive us. They will inherit the earth; and nothing that we value will endure in the world unless they can be freely persuaded to value it too.”
I must share with my children my faith, its dramatic promise and possibilities, its murky history and contradictions, the guidance it can lend, and the challenges it must pose. Andy and I will tell them—when they’re old enough—about the courage it took to adopt them in this climate, about the heartache the church from above can sometimes provoke, and the help that the church from below sometimes can provide. We will choose not to whitewash the complications, and will hope the children see us as brave and devout, not craven and hypocritical.
That is what I wish for my children: not to be indoctrinated, but to question, and perhaps to be persuaded to value the gospel message as I do.
Donnelly: Where do you stand on civil unions? How do you respond to people, gay and straight, with other views?
Maguire: I see how my children and Andy would be affected by punishing inheritance taxes should I die when the children are young. I can think of no good reason why this should continue; I can think of no one whose rights would be trespassed upon were our rights extended.
I don’t see that to promote a broader definition of marriage need necessarily to lead to a weakening of the traditional marriage between a man and a woman. Heterosexual marriage may always be the ideal condition for the raising of children. But what is preferable and what is tolerable may both, in fact, be honorable, and, for society at large as well as for real individual kids, desirable.
Donnelly: Do you think the church should confer sacramental marriage on same-sex couples?
Maguire: I am comforted to be part of the church; to be, by baptism and in the Eucharist, part of Jesus and the gospel of love and all who have tried to live that. I see it as an attachment beyond the bounds of my life. I have these sacramental blessings. They are an eternal wellspring. If the church in its wisdom is not ready to bless my union with Andy, that doesn’t bother me. I understand the church moves very slowly. Still, a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace, and I experience my relationship with Andy as graced.
Donnelly: You mentioned the pain and anger you felt at the CDF statement. How do you manage those feelings?
Maguire: I manage them by believing that, in enduring “in house” instead of outside the church, I’m living out the gospel of love for others to see. A friend of mine, a nun nearing retirement, phoned me in the wake of the CDF release and said, “I’m so glad you and Andy are in my life. It helps me make sense of my own vocation, my life of forty years of service to the church, to see you strong enough to stand up for what you believe.”
Now here’s the church as I understand it: my friend’s life of service inspired me to be brave in my own life; my life is now giving her courage and comfort. Isn’t that what a community of believers is for? Isn’t that one of the valid definitions of the church?
When Andy did agree to adopt children with me, the first words out of my mouth were, “Of course they will have to be raised Catholic.” Andy said, “Of course.” He didn’t say, “Of course, unless the CDF or another governmental body issues a proclamation so difficult to live with that we must leave the church and take our children with us.”
I sometimes feel the Vatican says of the fringe members of the church: “The Church: Love It or Leave It.” I stay in the church because I must, because it is the mystical body of Christ; it is the most palpable metaphor or nexus in which my frail human spirit and frailer body can know itself to be at home. In the church, when I take Communion, I am joined by my dead father, by my dead mother, by the unremembered relatives who passed their faith along through the centuries. I am joined by the children of my children, by everyone who cherishes the gospel of love, and who strives, however inconsistently, to put others before one’s self.
And I deal with the pain, in part, by continuing to be a Catholic as an act of defiance as well as an act of faith (and are they different things, even?).
[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]