Nathan O’Halloran has an interesting article over at Vox Nova on the “richness of homosexual relationality.”
O’Halloran points out something I’ve highlighted before, 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.
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 will be joining Jennifer Roback Morse, founder and president of the Ruth Institute, and Sherif Girgis and Ryan T. Anderson, coauthors, with Robert P. George, of the book What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense for a panel discussion on the role of the Catholic Church in the cultural and political debate about marriage.
The discussion, “Marriage, the Church and the Common Good,” is sponsored by Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and several student groups and will take place at 7 p.m. Monday (March 17) in DeBartolo Hall, Room 101, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.
According to Michael Bradley, a Notre Dame senior student who organized the event, “no cultural, legal or philosophical issues are gripping the nation as firmly as are the questions that comprise the marriage debate. What is marriage? Why does it matter? How should public policy reflect sound answers to these questions? What role, if any, should the Catholic Church play in the development of this discussion? Having four of the most articulate Catholic voices in the marriage debate gathered here to discuss these and other questions should be an unparalleled occasion to explore them in harmony with the Catholic tradition.”
The discussion is free and open to the public.
Jesus brings the Sermon on the Mount to a close with this illustration:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27
Jesus lays out what’s of vital importance for His followers to understand: What you build your life upon matters, and what you do matters. The foundation upon which we’re built will shape our convictions and values, which determine what kinds of people we become. When I think about the foundation a person is built upon, I often think about identity. An identity is what internally sets someone apart from others—what defines a person—and it often says something about their values and convictions. It’s how we say to ourselves and others: “this is who I am,” and Jesus seems to be saying that if “who we are” is rooted in anything other than Him and His teaching, then (like the foolish man) we’re building our lives on sand.
Describing the new community of the baptized, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free”—and then you’d expect him to follow it up with “there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). But he doesn’t. He breaks the rhythm of the sentence and writes, “there is no longer male and female” (ouk eni arsen kai thelu). He trades in the “neither/nor” structure and substitutes instead the simple conjunction “and” (kai), which is puzzling.
Numerous readers have noticed that Paul is here alluding to the Greek version of Genesis 1:27, which reads: “God made man; according to the image of God, he made him; male and female he made them.” The implication, then, of Paul’s words would seem to be that there is something about the structure of creation itself that is now being altered or reconfigured by the work of Christ. As the great biblical scholar J. Louis Martyn has put it, there seems to be in view here a “new creation in which the building blocks of the old creation are said to be nonexistent.”
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).
Or, again, in Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons:
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.
Yoweri Museveni recently based his decision to sign the bill outlawing homosexual expression in Uganda on the fact that he understood homosexuality to be largely influenced by environmental factors. If homosexuality could be proven to be genetic, then he said he would consider not signing the bill. But if research pointed to the environment, then he believed they could make changes in the environment to suppress homosexuality. I personally don’t understand how proof that it’s caused by environmental factors would mean it can be eradicated, as it seems clear that people don’t choose their orientation either way, and that homosexual desires have been present among some people in most cultures throughout history, but aside from that: the research doesn’t seem nearly as clear as he concluded.
That got me thinking about how this idea—that homosexuality is the result of childhood wounds or societal influence—is predominate in many Christian circles as well, and it often leads to different problems. I’m not an expert here, but scientists who have devoted their lives to these questions say the research indicates that a gay orientation is likely caused by a number of factors. Both biology and the developmental process likely influence a person’s sexual orientation, and the extent to which one is more influential than the other probably differs from person to person, as sexuality is so layered and complex.
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.
Here’s something that may interest some of you.
On Saturday I spoke at a conference on singleness at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, and the videos are all online if you want to watch them. My session starts (I’ve been told, I think!) around the 40-minute mark in the video labeled “Morning Sessions,” and I was also on a panel with the other speakers in the afternoon.
It was a real joy to finally have the chance to visit Redeemer. I’ve been listening to Tim Keller’s preaching since I was in high school, so it was a huge honor to meet him and Kathy and Brent Bounds the other amazing conference organizers. If any of you are reading this, thank you again for the warm hospitality and the stimulating conversation!
In the process of doing some research on George Herbert, I stumbled across a passage from Stanley Cavell’s essay on King Lear that I think is relevant to the themes I’ve been pursuing at here at SF. Discussing the character of the Earl of Gloucester, Cavell writes that
if the failure to recognize others is a failure to let others recognize you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of his withholding of recognition [of his bastard son Edmund]…. For shame is the specific discomfort produced by the sense of being looked at, the avoidance of the sight of others is the reflex it produces. Guilt is different; there is the reflex to avoid discovery. As long as no one knows what you have done, you are safe; or your conscience will press you to confess it and accept punishment. Under shame, what must be covered up is not your deed, but yourself. It is a more primitive emotion than guilt, as inescapable as the possession of a body, the first object of shame.
There’s much to ponder here, not least in relation to Lear itself, but I’m especially interested in the generic insight that the result of shame is an inability truly to see others, to offer others recognition. As Cavell puts it later, “recognizing a person depends upon allowing oneself to be recognized.”
This is one of the main reasons that I encourage gay Christians, when they ask me for advice, to come out. It’s not just that the enormous effort it takes to hide your sexuality involves an unhealthy self-focus, a constant policing of speech and actions, which can be profoundly crippling to your spiritual life (if my experience is any indication). It’s also that staying in the closet can cause you to refuse to recognize your gay or lesbian neighbors, all in an effort to stay hidden yourself.