A common refrain I see from certain conservative Christian commentators is that homosexuality is “celebrated” in Western culture and that people are “pressured” into accepting “the homosexual lifestyle.” In some sense, I can see where this perception is coming from. I’m currently studying at a large public university, and I have previously done internships in very gay-friendly corporate settings. In these contexts, I do feel quite a bit of pressure to change my beliefs and to affirm all loving, monogamous relationships, including gay relationships with a sexual component.
There are many ways that this perception is problematic, however. The biggest problem I see is that the pressure is far from being one-sided. Ironically, the same people complaining about pressure to affirm gay relationships are themselves often creating immense pressure in a different direction. This pressure is often encouraging me to go beyond holding to traditional sexual ethics, but also to change the labels I use, to try to change my sexual orientation, or to focus my efforts and attention on opposing the gay-affirming segments of society. In some ways, I feel this sort of pressure more acutely than I do the pressure to affirm sexual gay relationships. Rachel Held Evans recently expressed this point well while discussing some related issues: “We aren’t ‘giving in’ to the culture; our culture is evangelical Christianity. We’re struggling with that culture, and doing so comes with a cost.” The fact of the matter is that the social connections that matter the most to me are those of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
In every culture, human beings must face and find answers to this question. However, there is no single, universally shared language and or set of categories for thinking about the question. Instead, each culture develops its own—more or less adequate—way of thinking and speaking about how we ought to act toward each other.
Recent discussions of the language of sexual identity have gotten me thinking about a more general question: how should thinking Christians engage with moral questions generally in a culture, like our own, that has confused and poorly constructed moral categories? (I apologize in advance for a very philosophical post.)
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued against the various conceptual frameworks for understanding morality that emerged from the enlightenment, arguing that they had to fail. The key problem he identifies with post-enlightenment approaches to morality is the rejection of teleology.
A priest I know—we’ll call him Thomas—had studied in Rome as a seminarian some years ago. While there, he had become good friends with an English seminarian, Joseph, and the two would regularly spend hours walking through the Eternal City and talking. One day, they were walking through a Roman garden, and Joseph slipped his arm into Thomas’, drawing close as they walked. Instantly, Thomas tensed up, caught off-guard and uneasy.
Joseph turned to him and laughed: “Tom, you’re such an American. Relax. I just want to be close to you.”
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We tend to think that touch and sight are things we simply do. We rarely contemplate how these senses are learned, how we not only touch and see, but also touch and see well or badly.
A lot of information (and misinformation) has been swirling around concerning a recent report by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child which criticizes the Catholic Church. Among the claims that keep being repeated is that the UN has called on the Church to “change its teaching” on homosexuality. It’s a claim repeated gloatingly by some in the media (“see, we told Catholics they were wrong, now the UN says so”), and with outrage by Catholic commentators (“how dare those liberal desk-drivers at the UN tell the Church what to do!”). But is it actually true? And, either way, what difference does it make to our efforts to reach out to the LGBT community?
In my last piece, I discussed my own experience as an early teenager finding myself attracted to the same sex. Now, I would like to offer a few reflections on what this means for today’s kids.
We must always start by thinking about how to actually love sexual minority kids. Loving people does not merely reduce to preaching about sexual ethics. Instead, we need to take into account the entirety of Christian teaching. We should start by examining our own hearts. As I wrote about previously, even though I’m not straight, I’ve had to deal with self-righteousness and other negative attitudes towards sexual minorities. I’m certainly not the only Christian to have heart issues responding to sexual minorities, and we need to keep our own motivations at the forefront. Even when sexual sin (which should not be confused with mere orientation) is involved, we must make sure that doctrine matters to us for the right reasons and that we are not only focusing on the sins of others.
Having framed the discussion this way, I will now turn to discussing some specific reflections from my own experience.
Aaron Taylor wrote a recent two-part piece (part 1 and part 2), discussing pastoral responses to same-sex attracted youth. Eve Tushnet has suggested that several of us continue that discussion by reflecting what it was like to be that teenager ourselves, and I would like to do that here by discussing my life early in my teen years. In this piece, I will discuss that part of my life, and in a follow-up piece, I will offer some reflections on what would have been helpful. Before I get to the teen years, though, I want to discuss more about my environment leading up to that time.
I grew up in a Christian home, in a stable family. Although it’s not like everything was perfect all the time, I had very good and healthy relationships with both of my parents. I first learned about sex and sexuality from having “the talk” with my dad. I was given the expectation that as I hit puberty, I’d really start to have a “hunger” for girls, and that the ultimate end for that was to be married to a woman and to have sex within that context. I was taught that my sexuality would ultimately be a good thing, but that I would face struggles with lust and sexual purity.
“I’m lonely”, I said a few weeks ago in a phone conversation with a friend. I wore my favorite grey hoodie with the hood pulled over my head as I leaned against a bookshelf in my empty apartment. A few of my closest friends recently moved away, and not only are they top-notch folks that I miss for who they are, they’re also glue-like folks who bring people together.
When they left, they left a hole significantly larger than the size of their lives because the relational dynamic they created dissolved along with their physical presence. ”I know I just feel lonely tonight, and that when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be bright-eyed and chipper, but I can’t keep from blowing this moment up into an entire future strung together by thousands of nights like tonight until I become an 81 year old sitting in a cold cabin with cats scurrying around while I listen to Lesbian Campfire Music and reflect on the tragedy of a long life shared with no one.”
I can be dramatic. But few things are as adorable as elderly intimacy. Whether it’s lifelong friends laughing together or an old couple holding hands, elderly intimacy wins the Most Adorable award in my mind. The laughter and hand-holding tell stories of years of intimacy created over witnessed embarrassment, shared silence, long rants, quotes read aloud, being let down, saying “I’m sorry”, choosing forgiveness, choosing vulnerability, choosing “Yes” day in and day out for a shared lifetime. It looks sacrificial and painful and comforting and boring and beautiful and—when it’s shared with the same person for tens of thousands of nights in a row—adorable.
In Part 1, I argued that efforts to present Catholic teaching on sexual ethics as if human sexuality were ordered toward “heterosexuality” are misleading. Human sexuality is ordered toward self-gift through celibacy or marriage.
I think that the Christian community can learn much about both marriage and celibacy as expressions of human sexuality from the experience of Christians living with homosexual attractions. First, let’s talk about celibacy.
Even in the Catholic Church, one of the few major denominations in which celibacy is a widespread practice, a spirituality of celibacy has, in recent years, been seriously lacking. Discussions of celibacy are often restricted to discussion of priestly celibacy, and spiritual and theological considerations are sometimes downplayed in favor of practical arguments about how celibacy puts people at liberty for mission.
“For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship stands at the core of human and Divine reality… If we get that wrong, we get it all wrong.” -Fr. James Schall
When I was a child, I used to have night terrors. When I had bad dreams, I would sit up in my bed and cry or yell while I was sleeping. My parents would have to come up to my room, gently wake me, and then help me fall back to sleep.
I don’t have night terrors anymore, but I do occasionally have bad dreams. Like the night terrors, I don’t always remember them. Once, when I was visiting a friend, he told me one morning that he had woken me up the night before. Apparently, he heard me having a bad dream, so he woke me up, made sure everything was fine, and told me to go back to bed. I don’t remember any of this.
This is one fear I have: suffering under a bad dream in the night and not having anyone around to wake me up, and to tell me to go back to sleep. It sounds silly. It makes me sound like a child. But this is not a childish fear. It’s a human fear. It’s a fear of falling into a brokenness that you don’t even realize and that can only be alleviated by those who have loved you so much that they know you better than you know yourself. It’s the realization that you can become careless or tired and unaware of your failings and that, from time to time, you need people to make up for your inadequacies. It’s the commonly admitted fear of dying alone that acts as a mask for the real, underlying fear: the fear of living alone.
For many Catholics of my parents’ generation, the dramatic shift in social attitudes about homosexuality and the new visibility of gay and lesbian people in the media and popular culture is troubling.
Despite their discomfort with a changing culture, however, most older Catholics have been through enough struggles in their own life to want to extend grace and to give space to those with different struggles. But when the struggle is same sex attraction, they are unsure how to welcome people while remaining true to their beliefs. This is especially difficult in a culture where merely expressing traditionally Christian beliefs about the sinfulness of gay sex can trigger accusations of bigotry and comparisons with the KKK.
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that many are unsure how to respond to younger Catholics who speak openly about their sexual orientation, but pledge fidelity to Church teaching. Eve’s article, however, may go a long way toward helping them to understand us a little better.
What gay Christians most yearn for, she writes, is a vision of what our futures might look like. After a touching reflection on the role of the cross in our lives, Tushnet concludes,
We’re often ashamed to admit that we suffer. It’s humiliating and it makes us feel like we’re not good enough Christians. This is bizarre since there are very few aspects of Jesus’ own internal life that we know as much about as His suffering. Jesus—unmarried, marginalized, misunderstood, a son and a friend but not a father or spouse—is the preeminent model for gay Christians. In this, as in so many things, we are just like everybody else.