A common critique of celibate gay Christians is the perception that we attempt to swap out romantic intimacy for friendship. Instead of having same-sex romantic partners we simply have spiritual friends and too often are seen as playing a semantics game. I believe though, as do many of my fellow side-B Christians, that friendship was never meant to take the place of the intimacy that comes about in romantic relationship. Much of what we do is an attempt to celebrate the beauty and benefits of friendship as a good in and of itself and not as a new outlet for romantic and sexual desire. Friendship and relationships in general are not some equal alternative to marriage where finding the right partner becomes finding the right best friend. Friendship inherently makes room for not only the “other” in relationship but for others. I have quite a number of friends who I am quite close to. Some I live in close proximity to and others live thousands of miles away. Each is different and as a unique experience and relationship is worthy of celebrating. Like all relationships there are certain people with whom the bonds of friendship are especially close which allows for deep intimacy. Within an exceptionally close friendship there can exist the full sense of being known, being understood, and being cared for. But at no point in that relationship does my friend’s identity merge with mine. There is no “one flesh” aspect of friendship. This I think is the beauty of friendship and its contrast to a romantic and sexual relationship.
Update (9/18/2015): In his reply to this post (see his comment below), Deacon Russell says, “we can meet any time, face to face, to charitably address and correct things. I’d be all for that.”
He goes on to say, “As it is, now and forever, here is my challenge to you, Ron. We are engaged in public discourse. In that framework, I will gladly defend all my assertions and positions of the last three years in a direct exchange with you. I will do so charitably and fairly in any number of formats, including live and in person, publicly or privately. This offer will not expire. God bless.”
On July 1, 2015, I invited Deacon Russell to meet face to face with Saint Louis Auxiliary Bishop Edward Rice mediating our conversation. He did not accept. My offer still stands.
Original Post: I rarely respond directly to Deacon Jim Russell; I generally find that there is so much “spin” in his posts that it is difficult to find a productive point of engagement. I usually have responded indirectly, trying to present Church teaching in a positive way that I hope clarifies some of the misunderstandings about Spiritual Friendship that I see in his writings. A couple of points he makes in a recent article, however, may deserve direct clarification (especially in light of the timing of his post and the amount of media attention focused on me because of the World Meeting of Families).
The gist of my response is simple: despite Deacon Russell’s efforts at spin, there is nothing contrary to the Catholic faith in ideas like, “obsessing over sexual temptation is unhelpful,” “service to others is helpful in overcoming temptation,” and “friendship is an important avenue of support and intimacy” for those seeking to live a chaste life. But since these straightforward claims have sparked Deacon Russell’s critique, I am taking the time to respond to his criticism at length.
In my previous post, I drew attention to the way the Catholic Church frequently references friendship in her pastoral advice related to homosexuality. In this post, I want to examine the nature of friendship itself more deeply, particularly as it relates to two other crucial Biblical concepts: love and covenant. The relationship between love and covenant will be obvious to most contemporary readers; the connection between covenant and friendship, however, is frequently neglected in contemporary Christian teaching.
If we examine the Bible, however, this neglect should surprise us. Each of the three most important covenants in salvation history is characterized by friendship between God and the human representatives—Abraham, Moses, the Twelve Apostles—to whom He entrusts the covenant. Abraham, the great father of all who share his faith (Romans 4:16) is also called a friend of God (2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). God “spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). And at the Last Supper, on the night when Christ instituted the new and eternal covenant, He said to the Twelve, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). He also frames His own sacrifice on the cross—the definitive act in salvation history—as an act of friendship: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). By calling His disciples friends, Jesus led Thomas Aquinas to conclude that charity (the Latin equivalent of agape love in New Testament Greek) was identical to friendship (Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae 23.1).
If we want to understand what God meant when He made covenants with His people, it’s important to understand what a “covenant” meant in the culture that God first spoke to. The most extensively described human covenant in the Bible is the covenant friendship between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:3). For this reason, a significant portion of this post will focus on their relationship, which not only helps us to understand the connection between covenant and friendship at the human level, but also should help us to understand the connection between friendship and covenant in our relationship with God. If we persevere in faith and love, we will ultimately see God face-to-face, as Moses did (1 Corinthians 13:12, compare with Exodus 33:11). True friendship can thus give us a glimpse in this life of the love that we will experience in its fullness in Heaven.
Friendship has been an important theme in the Catholic Church’s pastoral guidance regarding homosexuality. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), which provides a comprehensive overview of Catholic teaching,
2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
The Catechism also draws a more general connection between chastity and friendship:
2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.
Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.
Brent Bailey, a personal friend to many of us who blog here and author for the past several years of a blog about being gay and Christian called Odd Man Out, has just posted for the first time about his celibacy. He frames the post, in part, around a conversation he and I had the first time we met in Chicago:
By the time I met Wes during my second year of graduate school, I had begun to wonder whether my [sexual] orientation was only a temptation to be resisted or whether it might also hold some unexpected potential for grace. Wes and I happened to attend the same academic conference, and I jumped at his invitation to join a few others for lunch. I don’t recall the particular anecdote he told in that makeshift conference hall cafe, but I remember its punchline: “…and I realized that God is not calling me to not love men.” (He would later nuance the sentiment with more specificity: “God is radically pro-same-sex-love, and I know I am called to intimate friendships with other men.”) Of course, I thought to myself that day and in the months and years that followed, of course God isn’t calling me to not love men. What Wes offered as insight struck me, in that moment, as epiphany that illuminated my experiences in friendship. After coming out publicly, I found myself delighting in certain men in a way that was distinctly gay but also chaste, and my delight presented itself as the kind of supportive, unrestrained love that fosters affinity and trust. The same seems to hold today: When I allow myself to participate in the active work of loving men in the particular way I seem wired to love men, I can love them wholeheartedly. It’s sexual but entirely nonsexual; it’s platonic but electrically non-platonic; it’s confusing but profoundly satisfying.
In his own way, with his unique approach and style, Brent is putting his finger on a major theme that a lot of us who blog here at SF have united around: You have to think about your life of chastity as a gay Christian as a life of self-giving love. If you try to understand it only in negative terms—as if the goal were only abstention and refraining and fleeing and turning away—you will end up missing the main thing God is calling you to. You will end up with a white-knuckled version of Christian discipleship rather than one that revolves around Christlike generosity, hospitality, and loyalty to others. Around here at SF, we’re all agreed that gay sex misses the mark of God’s design for human flourishing, but we’re also persuaded that “not having gay sex” shouldn’t be the main goal of anyone’s life.
I’m reading Rachel Lu’s essay critiquing Spiritual Friendship in Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction. I have much to say about it—first that it’s much more articulate and well-argued than most of the criticism that I’ve read of our “movement” such as it is. But more importantly, because it is more articulate it’s actually possible to figure out what seems to be the bottom line. And it’s a massive misunderstanding.
Lu writes, “it’s also fairly clear that, in entertaining the possibility of a special, erotically tinged friendship, Spiritual Friendship writers are looking for a relationship that would be unique to same-sex attracted people, which has no natural counterpart among the married, or among single people who nevertheless are attracted to the opposite sex.”
Basically, she seems to be talking about celibate gay partnerships. There has been a certain amount of back-room discussion on how SF should deal with such relationships. The answer has basically been, with caution.
One of the biggest news stories this week is the Kim Davis saga in Kentucky. It is sad to see that Davis’s legal advisers have apparently encouraged her to continue defying court orders, with the foreseeable result that she is now in jail. Wiser legal minds—one thinks especially of St. Thomas More—might have counseled her to resign. That she has chosen defiance puts Christians who believe in the traditional Christian definition of marriage in a quandary. On the one hand, it is difficult to say anything critical of an apparently sincere Christian woman who is in jail for standing up for her beliefs. On the other hand, it is difficult to defend her without obscuring the New Testament’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
Over at First Things, Carl R. Trueman, a professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary weighs in on the controversy in a spirit that is sympathetic to Davis’s stance, while focusing on the timeless truths about marriage which the Church needs to do more to defend:
The controversy surrounding the refusal of a Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, to issue marriage licenses so that she can avoid sanctioning same sex unions raises a whole host of issue which will be debated for some years to come. While sympathizing with her position on marriage, I also find Ryan Anderson’s argument, that religious liberty is not in itself absolutely decisive in such a case, to be compelling.
Of course, the situation also highlights another aspect of the struggle over same-sex marriage. The woman concerned is apparently on her fourth husband and thus her critics ask the obvious, and legitimate, question: How high a view of marriage does that indicate? Her response is that she has only been a Christian for a few years and that her broken marriages are part of a life which she has left behind.
I have no reason to doubt her sincerity or the significance of her conversion. But the fact that she has only been a professing Christian for a few years scarcely defuses the power of the question. The politics of sex is the politics of aesthetic and rhetorical plausibility, and a multiple divorcee understandably lacks such plausibility on the matter of the sanctity of marriage. The only way in which her defense could be deemed plausible would be if the church in general had maintained in practice, not just theory, a high view of marriage. Then the move from outside the church to inside the church would perhaps have more rhetorical power. In fact, at least as far as Protestantism goes, the opposite is the case. The supine acceptance by many churches of no fault divorce makes the ‘I have become a Christian so it is all different now’ defense appear implausible, even if it is actually true in specific cases.
From First Things:
Eve Tushnet’s new self-published novel Amends (available as an e-book or a paperback) is peak Tushnet: there are more quirky one-liners than the best standup you’ve seen, more offbeat metaphors than even Michael Chabon can conjure; there are themes of friendship and sacrifice, themes of recovery and religion; there are gay characters, and there’s even a Christian one (the latter features in an extended scene near the end that moved me as much as anything I’ve read this year). The only favorite Tushnet theme missing from this hugely entertaining romp is figure skating, and she makes up for that absence by including a couple of hockey player characters for good measure.
There’s been some recent discussion on Catholic blogs about the relevance of personal experience in conversations about how the Church can provide community and pastoral care to gay and lesbian Catholics who are seeking to be faithful to Church teaching. In order to answer this specific question, it’s worth examining the relationship between revelation and experience more generally.
The Theology of the Body is a collection of addresses given by Pope John Paul II in the late 1970s and early 1980s and addressed to understanding the body and human sexuality in light of the Gospel. In a footnote to the General Audience of September 26, 1979, he wrote:
When we speak here about the relationship between “experience” and “revelation,” indeed about a surprising convergence between them, we only wish to observe that man, in his present state of existence in the body, experiences many limits, sufferings, passions, weaknesses, and finally death itself, which relates his existence at the same time to another and different state or dimension. When St. Paul speaks about the “redemption of the body,” he speaks with the language of revelation; experience is not, in fact, able to grasp this content or rather reality. At the same time, within this content as a whole, the author of Romans 8:23 takes up everything that is offered to him, to him as much as in some way to every man (independent of his relationship with revelation), through the experience of human existence, which is an existence in the body.
We therefore have the right to speak about the relationship between experience and revelation; in fact, we have the right to raise the issue of their relation to each other, even if many think that a line of total antithesis and radical antinomy passes between them. This line, in their opinion, must certainly be drawn between faith and science, between theology and philosophy. In formulating this point of view, they consider quite abstract concepts rather than the human person as a living subject.
Near the beginning of Lauren Winner’s newest book, there’s this passage:
What do I know about friendship from close to four decades of being, or trying to be, a friend?
I know that friendship both requires and breeds honesty—perhaps foremost honesty with myself. When I am lying to myself (as I have been known to do, usually about something important—otherwise why bother?), I am not available for friendship.
I know that friendship is rich and delightful. I know that I could live anywhere if I had two or three real friends.
I know that friendship is often supported by institutions and the structures they provide. A few years ago, the rector of the church where I served as a priest associate left for another job. The moment she announced she was leaving, I began to dread the ways our friendship would suffer—and it has. It hasn’t disappeared, but now it is entirely dependent on our free time and our admittedly plentiful affection for each other. We manage to meet for a cocktail about every four months, which is better than nothing but a lot more fragile than when we not only adored each other but also shared common work and common concern for a parish. Likewise, I do not look forward to the day I stop teaching at the women’s prison with my friend Sarah. I have buckets of affection for her, too, but it is a relief that we have something to talk about other than current events and our petty domestic squabbles; we also plan syllabi together, and think together about what our students need from us, and argue about which books to assign. Friendship benefits from the support of institutions: classes taught together, church bazaars planned together.
That third point especially stands out to me. You might think of it as an illustrative riff on C. S. Lewis’ opinion: “Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice…. [T]hose who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers” (italics added). Friendships are propped up, energized, and sustained by shared inquiries, tasks, projects, and investments. Friendships thrive on “institutions.”