The main thing I want to try to communicate is this: We have to resist equating celibacy with loneliness. I wrote an essay once about being gay, Christian, and lonely, and a blogger picked it up and said, basically, “I was in the same boat once when I was a young man. And then love broke in….” Notice the dichotomy: single and lonely, or partnered and able to experience love.
But what if those aren’t our only choices? What if that’s a false dichotomy? What if, instead, celibacy could be seen as an occasion for love? What if choosing sexual abstinence doesn’t automatically equate to choosing isolation and repression? What if joining a parish community as a single person could be seen as a choice for close-knit familial bonds? Those are the questions I want us all to be thinking about.
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.
I’ve been asked multiple times in the past month why I am still side-B, why I am still pursuing celibacy as a gay 23 year-old in these United States of America. What is interesting to me is how, with each inquiring friend, it was implied that we weren’t discussing theology or the interpretation of certain notorious texts. The “why” was really more of a “how.”
It’s a refreshing change.
One of the more frustrating things about the current conversation is how it so easily gets sucked into the myopic quicksand of “what the Bible says.” Please don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the authority of scripture and the importance of right interpretation, and I probably wouldn’t be celibate if I didn’t think the Bible taught it, but there is a dangerous attitude of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” running rampant in many churches.
The idea that the conversation straight up ends with interpretation is, honestly, lethal to true religion, strangling the imagination out of faith and poisoning the endlessly complex “how then shall we live” of the Christian life. I think the rate at which gay Christians are abandoning celibacy is a pretty good indicator of that fact; though not always the case, the majority of people I know who have made the switch do so notbecause they’ve been convinced by “affirming” theology but because celibacy and an abundant life seem mutually exclusive, which, I need to add, is a kind of theological reason in its own right.
Recently, both Ron Belgau and Melinda Selmys have written here on Spiritual Friendship about Joseph Sciambra’s book Swallowed by Satan and the hubbub it has caused amongst conservative commentators. In the book, Sciambra recounts his slow descent from teenage Playboy consumer to gay Satanist and sado-masochistic porn star who dabbles in Neo-Nazi rituals. Before undergoing a Christian conversion experience at the end of the book, Sciambra enjoys an astonishing variety of sexual liasons that I will not discuss in detail here. Conservatives have seized gleefully on Sciambra’s narrative as an expose of the sordid reality behind the “gay agenda.” Sciambra has featured on LifeSiteNews and on Bryan Fischer’s show. The message from the Religious Right is that homosexuals are out to recruit your children into the gay lifestyle—a never-ending carnival of witchcraft, Nazism, and sex with goat-headed men (you don’t want to know more, trust me).
I am not sure Sciambra is doing the Church any favors. When someone claiming to be promoting biblical teaching about homosexuality gives the impression that anything other than the slimmest imaginable proportion of gay lives are a whirligig of devil-worship and sexual sadism, chances are that when someone finds out this picture of the gay community is not accurate (by, say, meeting normal gay people), they will also conclude that Christian moral teaching is false.
I spoke in a chapel service at Biola University last month on the themes of gay experience, Christian faith, and spiritual friendship. Here is the video:
I gave a very similar talk at Calvin College the week before, and I’m still working on trying to refine this and figure out exactly how I want to talk about these things. If you have any feedback for me, I’m all ears!
I’m just back from a studium with a brilliant group of (largely) gay Catholics (about which I’ll say more later—watch this space, as they say), and one of the papers featured a paragraph that might be considerably modified in its final published version. Not wanting to lose the original, I asked the author—Christopher Roberts, whose book you should read!—if I could post it here at Spiritual Friendship, and he agreed. Here’s what he wrote about singleness and celibacy:
If we follow the tradition’s logic, celibacy cannot be a synonym for singleness. Classic, orthodox celibacy is not a solitary priest rattling around in an oversized rectory, or an isolated yuppie in a high rise apartment building a profile on an internet dating site, or a gay person toughing it out solo at Christmastime. All these are modern day tragedies, the kind of things which deserve compassion but which cannot be normative. Classic, orthodox celibacy is rather a way of enabling us to be present to one another, free of concupiscence and free of the pressures arising when we audition for mates—one might even call it a gratuitous presence. Classic, orthodox celibacy is Augustine and his friends forming reading groups and monasteries after their joint conversion. Classic, orthodox celibacy is Augustine insisting that virgins cannot ground their vocation in any disdain for marriage, but rather base their vocation in longing for the heavenly social life. Classic, orthodox celibates are the adopted aunts and uncles of a generous, hospitable household, or the adults in a parish who collaborate in works of mercy and the catechesis of children who aren’t theirs. Classic, orthodox celibates are the monks, nuns, and consecrated laity whose continence and discipline sets them free for high adventure in contemplation or service.
This, it seems to me, is exactly what I need to hear, even if (at present) I haven’t discerned a call to join a religious order.
This past Christmas ended with my friend Zach and I watching Love Actually with a glass of wine. I love Zach, and we love wine and Love Actually, so it was a solid ending to a quality Christmas day. But I was keenly aware of the fact that as much as I love Zach and wine and Love Actually, I wanted a girl on the couch with us. I wanted a girl by my side, giggling with me and feeling a rush of warm fuzzies when all the gushy moments caused an explosion in my heart.
I find so much joy in the life I’ve been given, and I tend to write about the joy more than the challenges because the joy far outweighs the difficulties. But I’m human and humans are wired with natural desires for romance—innocent desires to shower affection on that one special person. People often say to me (even here on the blog): “Julie, maybe you just have a special gift for celibacy, and that’s what makes it sustainable for you, but not everyone has that gift”. When it’s fleshed out further, they seem to imply that “the gift” would mean I have a lower level of sexual desire or that I don’t experience romantic longings. The gift would be that thing that makes it easy and convenient to fly solo in a culture crawling with adorable couples.
Several comments on my recent post identified an important question worthy of greater reflection. I wrote, “It [marriage] should only be pursued when there is a strong spiritual, emotional, and physical attraction between two people.” The question: How is a man who is sexually attracted to men to qualify his physical attraction to a woman? Is it tied to spiritual and emotional attraction?
I initially offered the tripartite physical/emotional/spiritual grid for attraction in an attempt to demonstrate that any romantic relationship operates on more than just the physical or sexual level. It seems to me that the nature of attractions themselves are actually much more complicated than this, to the point where trying to make clean distinctions between these three categories may prove problematic. I personally feel this difficulty when I try and describe how my attraction to Christy moved from being primarily emotional to substantially physical, as well as the place that spiritual attraction fit into that process.
I have an essay that has been published over at Ethika Politika today, a combined response to four recent articles pushing the “don’t say gay” claim.
In it, I explore the meaning and value of gayness from a historical perspective in conversation with two queer intellectuals—Michel Foucault (a lapsed Catholic atheist) and Marc-Andre Raffalovich (a devout Catholic convert from Judaism). Here is a brief taste:
History always involves a certain amount of anachronism, of reading the past in light of the present, precisely because history is something constructed in the present. Despite professing to be an attempt to raise our level of moral virtue (and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of this profession), the “don’t say gay” claim, applied to history, robs gay people of almost all of the great examples of moral virtue they have. By ripping up our current cultural framework for the understanding of sexuality, we might legitimately claim that men like Hopkins and Raffalovich weren’t really gay at all, but at what cost? Once you’ve redefined faithful, orthodox gay Christians out of existence, and once you’ve erased them from history, the claim that you can’t be gay and a good Christian simply becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.