When many of my friends moved toward a theology that affirms gay sexual relationships, they did so because they grew weary of saying “no” to love. Several of them described an experience where they were fully committed to the church’s traditional teaching on sexual ethics when they grew to deeply love someone of the same sex. They remained chaste for a season and prayed for direction, then eventually sensed the Lord saying: You’re free to love.
While many Christians considered their shift an act of rebellion—a plunge into sin—they saw it as the only path to love and intimacy. They recognized that “It’s not good for man to be alone,” and they longed to serve the one they love, share their lives with the one they love, and mutually draw energy from that love to better serve those around them. Many felt like the traditional ethic required them to cut off fundamental aspects of being human in order to be chaste: they felt saying “no” to sexual relationships meant saying “no” to love, and that saying “no” to love meant saying “no” to any intimacy, and that saying “no” to intimacy meant saying “no” to feelings altogether, which eventually led to detachment and isolation. The burden felt unbearable.
O’Halloran points out something I’ve highlightedbefore, which is that when the Church speaks negatively about “homosexuality,” it is not talking about the same thing we generally mean by “being gay.” When the Catechism speaks about “homosexuality,” it doesn’t even mean the same thing we mean by “homosexuality” in everyday speech (as opposed to its meaning within the technical discourse of Catholic moral theology). The teaching of the Church against homosexuality, as O’Halloran notes, “extends only to same-sex genital acts and does not refer to the sexuality as a whole.” The Bishops of England and Wales make this very clear in their pastoral letter Cherishing Life:
In so far as the homosexual orientation can lead to sexual activity which excludes openness to the generation of new human life … it is, in this particular and precise sense only, objectively disordered. However, it must be quite clear that a homosexual orientation must never be considered sinful or evil in itself.
Catholic teaching often speaks of the experience of being gay as a “cross” or “trial”:
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination … constitutes for most of them a trial … These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358).
What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross. That Cross, for the believer, is a fruitful sacrifice since from that death come life and redemption.
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.”
* * *
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.
I wrote a post earlier this week that highlighted some of my fears for the future related to loneliness. As some of my closest friends have moved away, I’ve caught myself coming home to an empty apartment more often than I’m used to, more often than I would like. People responded with such thoughtful feedback: encouragement, challenges, pertinent questions and words of solidarity.
It seemed fitting to respond to some of the questions in a consolidated manner, and this one opens the door to exploring some related questions about how exactly we might all come alongside one another: “Julie, when you put on your hoodie and stare into space in your apartment, what are you really longing for?”
“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.
I’ve got an essay in the new issue of The Other Journal, which is now available online. It’s called “The Problem of Gay Friendship,” and it will give you some idea of how the book I’m writing is taking shape. Here’s an excerpt:
Going back to Aelred, it’s significant that most of the saint’s gay admirers admit that, although the eleventh century abbot likely experienced what we now call a “homosexual orientation,” he himself was celibate. The man who could describe a friend as one “to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul” and one whom you could embrace “in the kiss of unity, with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit flowing over you” apparently never had gay sex. What Aelred called “spiritual friendship” was a form of same-sex intimacy that sublimated or transmuted erotic passion, rather than sanctioning its genital expression. In light of this, I wonder what it might look like to part ways with Aelred’s largest circle of admirers today and attempt to recover the abbot’s original vision of an intimacy between friends that didn’t involve a physical, sexual union.
I’d love to hear from you in the com-box if you have a chance to read this. (That would help as I work on revising my manuscript.)
My main gripe about my own essay is that I think I should have engaged more deeply and carefully with the objection Gerald Bray raises—that speaking of “gay friendship” runs the risk of making sexual desire part of the definition of a friendship and therefore subverts friendship’s true character. Bray is not the only one to voice this worry, and it’s a question that deserves more of a response than I was able to give in this article.
Editor’s Note: Last fall, after Calvin College invited Justin Lee and Wesley Hill to speak on campus, an undergraduate at another Christian college contacted Spiritual Friendship to thank us for trying to foster this conversation about homosexuality, chastity, and spiritual friendship. Although we do not normally publish anonymous pieces on Spiritual Friendship, I felt that his perspective should be heard by the faculty and administrators at Christian Colleges. So we invited him to share a bit about what the issue looks like from the perspective of a student who wants to be faithful to traditional Christian teaching at a Christian liberal arts college.
— Ron Belgau
I lead the normal life of a liberal arts college student: I’m too over-committed to do any one thing completely effectively. I wake up 10 minutes before class (and make it on time!). I am involved with a social fraternity, work two on-campus jobs. I live a busy life filled with laughter, late nights up talking to friends, and unappetizing cafeteria food. Most days are normal.
Some days, though, it feels like my existence is synonymous with controversy. I say this because I’m a Christian who is predominately, but not exclusively, attracted to the same sex. I am a bisexual Christian who believes in the “traditional” (side B) Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality. I have seen at a distance and personally how controversial the existence of a person like me can become on a Christian college campus like my own.
Josh Gonnerman has already written a fine response to Austin Ruse’s Crisis Magazine article. There is one point that I wanted to address that I didn’t think he covered, which is the belief within a lot of conservative Catholic circles that any kind of intimate friendship between men and women is “playing with fire.”
I suppose that I should begin by pointing out that I am a convert—that’s true of most of the people here on Spiritual Friendship, but many of my friends and colleagues here are converts from Protestant churches that share this kind of suspicion when it comes to mixed-sex friendship. I’m a convert from liberal Anglicanism via atheism so I was never raised with any of these ideas. It was always just normal for me to have male friends, and it was normal for my male friends to have female friends.
Crisis Magazine recently covered several writers at Spiritual Friendship with some caution at the notion of chaste friendship. Austin Ruse’s skepticism shines through when he writes:
“Their ideal is that you can draw close to someone of the same-sex, love them intimately and intensely, yet never cross the line into sexual activity. They point to the relationship between Jesus and young John as a model. Recall John was the “one whom Jesus loved” and who laid his head on Jesus’ chest, something if done today would clearly be considered gay.”
This, if anything, should be a lesson to us from history. It’s a well-documented fact that previous generations were far more comfortable with people of the same gender sharing physical affection. The Art of Manliness had a terrific post on this earlier this summer, with the photographic evidence to prove it.