At the request of Jeremy Erickson, I’ve decided to rework a post that I wrote a while ago on my own blog. At the time I was responding to a minor internet skirmish that erupted when Josh Gonnerman posted his First Things article about being gay and Catholic. Critics claimed, not always in entirely charitable terms, that gayness was not compatible with the Catholic faith.
The foundation of their argument will probably be familiar to a lot of the readers here at Spiritual Friendship: being gay involves identifying with a form of lustful disorder, and every Christian should devote themselves heart and soul to stamping out every last trace of lust from their heart in order to be worthy of Christ.
I think that this kind of rhetoric is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be gay. Homosexuality as defined by the Catechism refers solely to same-sex lust. But gayness is not the same thing. Being gay is not reduceable to having, or desiring to have, homosexual sex. It is a way of relating to other people, a way of appreciating human beauty, and a way of relating to one’s own gender. Most people who identify as chaste, gay Christians, are referring to involuntary currents of homoeroticism and gender-queerness that run through the personality. Some Christians appear to believe that these currents are so fundamentally disordered that the only proper response to them is one of outright warfare, that the personality must have surgery performed on it in order to eliminate every vestige of queerness in order that it might be rendered fit for salvation.
I think that there are two serious problems with this approach. First, people who engage in this kind of argument seem to think that the question of to be, or not to be same-sex attracted is an open question in the lives of gay people. This point is obvious to those of us with SSA, but apparently not to everyone else: for a homosexual person, same-sex attraction is a given. We can have a heated debate about whether or not people ought to have these attractions, just as we can have a lively argument about whether or not men ought to have spontaneous erections (a subject that has produced considerable discursive excitement over the centuries, mostly amongst ivory tower academics), but the fact is that for all practical purposes the question is settled – no amount of theological speculation has ever proved capable of preventing “concupiscent movements of the flesh,” nor can any amount of moralistic diatribe prevent homosexual persons from having homoerotic desires.
Secondly, hard-line traditionalists tend to assume that same-sex attraction is fundamentally objectively disordered in all of its aspects. The Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, in their recent document on Youth with Same-Sex Attractions, were very careful to explicitly spell out the fact that homosexual inclinations are objectively disordered in so far as they concern the desire to have same-sex genital relations. That is, in so far as same-sex attractions are concupiscent, they are objectively disordered: a nice little tautology which only stands in need of clarification because it is counterintuitive to contemporary secular culture. What this means is that same-sex attractions, in so far as they are not concupiscent, are not disordered: another tautology, but one that is equally counterintuitive to many moral conservatives.
To understand the difference between concupiscent desire, and ordered desire, let’s follow John Paul II’s lead and return to the Beginning. I’d like to analyse, specifically, Genesis 3:6: “The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was enticing for the wisdom that it could give.” Surely this is a case of disordered desire, right? Eve wants what she’s not supposed to have, and as a result of that desire, she sins.
Sed contra, Eve at this moment is still in a state of Original Innocence. She does not have concupiscence clouding her judgement. What she sees at the moment is objectively true: the fruit really is good to eat, it really is pleasing to the eye, and it really is desirable for the wisdom that it could give. What is false is her conclusion, that because of these properties, it is justifiable for her to take and eat what has been denied to her by God.
I’d like to apply the same hermeneutic to same-sex attraction. When I look at a woman, and see that she is beautiful, that she is desirable, that she is enticing, I’m seeing something that is objectively true: she is objectively a manifestation of the imago dei, she is objectively attractive, and it is objectively legitimate for me to desire to be united with her in the vast communio personarum which is constituted by the Church and by the whole human race. My desire is not disordered in and of itself: it becomes disordered when I direct it, or allow it direct itself, towards something which is forbidden. If it leads me to fantasize about homosexual acts, or to think of the woman as a sex object, then it becomes disordered, that is ordered towards an end which is not in conformity with Truth and with the dignity of the person. But what if I make the act of will to redirect that desire, to use it as an opportunity to give glory to God for the beauty which He has made manifest in that particular woman? Or to meditate on my desire for the one-flesh union of the entire humanum in the Eucharist where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, slave nor free, woman nor man? Or as an opportunity to contemplate the relationship between the doctrines of the Communion of Saints and of the resurrection of the Body? What if, by an act of will, I take that desire and order it towards its proper end: towards the Good, the Beautiful and the True?
This is what I mean when I speak of sublimation, and it relates to what Joshua and other gay Christians mean when they speak of being both gay and chaste. It means that the word “gay” is being used to refer to the fact that some of us are more easily able to experience the goodness and beauty of the body in the bodies our own sex than we are in the bodies of the opposite sex. Obviously that leaves us open to homosexual temptation, just as the ability of most men and women to more easily appreciate bodily beauty in the opposite sex leaves them open to heterosexual temptations (to pre-marital sex, to adultery, to pornography, to sexual fantasy, etc.) Obviously in so far as it leads to homosexual temptation, it is disordered. But the word “gay” can refer to the orientation of that initial erotic impulse, regardless of whether it develops towards disordered lust, or towards an appreciation of Christ playing “lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not His.” Which is why, in my submission, gay chastity is a calling, not a myth.