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.
When I was twenty-one, I talked with a pastor about my sexuality for the first time. It was the pastor of my parents’ Southern Baptist Church, and in the course of our conversation, he told me about a man in the church who had been gay, but now was married and had children. He presented this as what I could hope for if I, too, pursued marriage.
However, I happened to know his wife’s side of the story. They had been married eleven years. During that entire time, he had been addicted to gay porn, and was regularly unfaithful to her on business trips. All this was going on during the height of the AIDS epidemic, before any effective treatments had been discovered. After years of forgiving repeated—and potentially deadly—infidelities, she was seeking a divorce. The pastor knew of this, because he insisted that as a Christian wife, it was her duty to keep forgiving her husband, and “not to deprive him” of his “conjugal rights”—despite the potentially deadly consequences.
Eve is correct, it seems to me, that gay Christians who are unafraid to tell the world — and the Church — what their journey of faith looks like, and to seek to join the life of the Church fully, in accord with what the Church knows to be true about human sexuality, are not only pioneers, but a blessing to the entire Church.
By “Church,” I mean the church universal, not just the Catholic church. When I converted to Catholicism in the early 1990s, I knew that I had to accept the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality. This meant that I could not live as I had been living before. I had to be chaste until marriage — and if it was not my calling to marry, I had to be chaste for the rest of my life. This was non-negotiable. In fact, I had tried to negotiate it when I was in college, and wanted to be a Christian without giving my entire self to God. I wanted fiercely to protect my sexual freedom. But it just doesn’t work that way. You cannot give yourself partly to Christ. It’s all or nothing. Unsurprisingly, my attempt to negotiate the terms of my surrender to God created within me an ersatz religion that had no power to bind me, and no power to inspire me. It was just psychological comfort, with smells and bells.
Anyway, by the time I converted for real, I knew that the greatest test I would face early in my walk as a Christian was to be faithful to Christ in all things, not just the things that came easy for me. I found very little help in the official Church, and, understandably, no help from my non-Christian or liberal Christian friends, who loved me, but thought I was a weirdo. I especially cherished the companionship of two gay Catholic friends, men who were close to me, who were walking the same walk, though theirs was made more difficult by the fact that they could never hope to be married, unless something absolutely extraordinary happened. Their walk was also harder because while fellow straights looked at me as an eccentric, the gay community looked upon them as traitors.
Yet they staggered on, rejoicing. It was an inspiration to me. It turned out that our common struggle to be chaste in an eroticized, de-Christianized culture like ours was something that deepened our friendship. It made me feel less alone in the Church and in the world.
Simone Weil once scribbled down the following “method of investigation,” as she called it: “as soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.” Ever since I first read that sentence, I’ve wanted to get it tattooed on my forearm—or at least placarded prominently over my writing desk.
Weil’s “method” explains the appeal to me of my favorite kind of writing—the kind that takes a too-neat, too-tidy narrative and shows how I’ve settled for more simplicity than is warranted. I loved, for instance, this sentence from a book review I read a couple of days ago, LaVonne Neff’s take on Jeanne Murray Walker’s The Geography of Memory: “These are my roots, Walker is saying: … my family’s fundamentalist church, full of answers and rules but also full of love.” As soon as Neff evokes the image of a “fundamentalist church” that we were expecting, she immediately prevents us from holding onto it in any straightforward way: this was a church full of care and warmth, in spite of the narrowness.
I was recently reading my friend Sean Doherty’s testimony of his involvement, as a man who experiences same-sex attraction, in various evangelical parishes in the UK. Sean’s story is deeply encouraging, insofar as it includes sentences like this: “At university I said I was gay, and I never experienced homophobic treatment from other Christians…. [L]ove and acceptance was my consistent experience…. I found the church to be a deeply supportive and affirming place. I was nurtured, given responsibility in ministry, and encouraged towards ordination.” That is a wonderful story that needs to be told. And Sean’s main point—that “homophobia” and “traditional Christian belief about marriage and celibacy” aren’t equivalent—is one that needs spelling out, as Sean does: “[L]ove and unconditional acceptance of gay people does not require approval of same-sex sexual activity…. [M]y experience has convinced me that this prejudice and mistreatment does not come from believing what the Bible says about marriage and sex.”
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.
During the debate over Galileo, some theologians appealed to verses of Scripture to “prove” that Galileo’s sun-centered model of the solar system could not be correct. For example, Psalm 93:1 says, ”the world is established; it shall never be moved.” Along with 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 96:10, and Psalm 104:5, this was taken to show that Galileo’s claim that the earth moved around the sun was contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures. Ecclesiastes 1:5, which says, “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises,” was interpreted to show that the sun does move. Taken together, these were thought by some to provide a conclusive biblical refutation of Galileo’s heliocentric arguments.
The problem with this kind of interpretation is that these interpreters were mistaking phenomenological language, which describes appearances, with ontological language, which tells us about things as they really are. The sun does appear to rise and set, but this is caused by the earth’s rotation, and not by the motion of the sun. The earth appears fixed and immovable, but in fact, it rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun.
One of the most persistent mistakes made by critics of Spiritual Friendship is the assumption that when we use any language that they don’t like (most commonly, though not limited to, the word “gay”) to describe our experiences, we are using that language to make ontological claims.
I attended a lecture about disabilities recently. At the end of the lecture, a steady stream of students and professors walked up to a microphone in front of the audience and offered questions to the speakers. The questioners mostly came up one-by-one, asking abstract questions about abstract people. Silence fell when the final questioner stepped before the microphone. It was a woman, her left arm clinging to her friend beside her, and her right arm holding a long white stick extending out in front of her—she was blind. And when the conversation changed from an abstraction discussion about disabled people, to actually talking with a disabled person, there was a subtle but obvious shift in tone.
The moment reminded me of a conversation I had had a few months before. I was around a campfire with a group of Catholic friends, discussing the Church. At a certain point, gay marriage came up. One of the guys, with whom I was friends but didn’t know particularly well, said, “I know that a Catholic guy came out in order to defend traditional marriage when it was being debated, and I understand that. But, as a Catholic, I don’t know why same-sex-attracted people would want to be open about and discussing their sexuality. I mean, I don’t go around discussing my sexuality with other people.”
Your 14-year-old son feels different from the other guys at school … He confides this to a counselor who asks him about his sexual orientation. Your son says that maybe the difference he feels is that he is gay …
Now, do you want your son to talk to Chris Damian, one of the New Homophiles who has said he would tell that young man to “Seek to draw yourself more fully into the Church and to discern how this might be a gift in your life and in others’ lives.”
Or do you want him to meet Daniel Mattson and Father Paul Scalia who would tell the boy, “You are not your sexual inclinations. You are not ‘gay.’ What you are is a man and a Son of God.”
At first blush there seems to be very little difference between the two, but as you gaze more closely at all that is packed into the New Homophile Proposition, you realize the difference is immense and may be profoundly harmful.