I started responding to one of the comments that I received on yesterday’s post, and the response kind of took on a life of its own. Jose Ma writes:
A gay person trying to live the Church’s teaching is a hero in a way that a chaste straight Christian just can’t be. They will always have a legitimate outlet for their needs for affection and sexuality. Gays can’t have that. We can’t get around that fact. Celibacy is a beautiful sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom when freely chosen. When you have to be celibate forever because of things outside your control it’s a lot less beautiful at first.
This concern is really common amongst LGBTQ Christians who find themselves in the position of having to live celibately when they have not chosen this state of life. From a purely academic point of view, it’s an interesting reversal: in the early church, celibacy was a radical and liberating option precisely because it gave people the ability to exercise choice with respect to their sexuality. In most cultures, throughout most of history, marriage has been the unchosen vocation: people were routinely forced into conjugal intimacy through circumstances beyond their control. Although the Mediaevals romanticized the Virgin Martyrs as icons of purity pitted against lascivious Roman governors, in fact the reason that consecrated virginity was a scandal to Roman society is that it undermined patria potestas, allowing young girls to refuse the marriages that their fathers had arranged for them.
Of course, the fact that historically straight people were in an analogous, though mirrored, position to that of gay Christians today is only minimally comforting. Generally, we’re more inclined to compare ourselves with our contemporaries than with the whole human race throughout all time. An adequate response to the problem that Jose Ma raises therefore must show how Christian sexual morality calls married people today to a similar type of heroism.
I was actually discussing these issues a couple of days ago with a friend of mine, a lay religious man who was visiting for a couple of weeks. He spoke about how celibacy calls a person into loneliness, and how in that loneliness the person learns to know and rely on God. Marriage calls people into intimacy. Instead of meeting God in solitude, the married person finds God primarily in the other. It’s a mistake, though, to think that this is an easier path. Although solitude itself can certainly be a source of suffering, the God that one meets there is always perfect. Celibacy is a quest towards a sublime ideal, and one suffers when the ideal seems absent or distant. The God that one finds in marriage is always housed inside of a deeply flawed, concupiscent human being.
Unfortunately, married people, especially good Christian married people, tend to present family life as a kind of perpetual shiny-happiness. Writers in Christian pro-family magazines will admit that “Sure, we have our bad moments” or “like every family, sometimes we fight,” but then they go on to talk about how after the fight was over Johnny caught a fish and Susie chased butterflies and the parents held each other and sighed and the birds sang and the whole world was made of cherry pie.
That’s not marriage. Those moments are about as common in married life as the moments in celibate life when you feel yourself held rapturously within the infinitely loving and beneficent gaze of your Creator and know that you need nothing else because Christ is your all in all. If you think of marriage as a venue in which you get to fulfil your needs for affection and sexuality, you’ve missed the point – and this is exactly the error which drives both divorce culture in the secular world, and annulment culture in the Church. Marriage in fact is the exacting and difficult calling to learn how to fulfil another person’s needs for affection and sexuality. Most couples do get a foretaste of this to start them off, the “honeymoon period,” but it doesn’t last very long. After that, it’s a lot of work. You don’t know what the other person needs, you make tremendous sacrifices trying to give them what you think they might need, you guess wrong, you hate them for being ungrateful, they hate you for hating them, and all the while they’re doing the same thing in reverse. The heroism of marriage involves learning how to see God in someone who you have just been fighting with for four hours, and who has now passed out drunk on the floor after telling you that they hate your guts and wish that you were dead.
The needs for affection and sexual bliss have to be crucified in marriage just as they have to be crucified in celibacy. In celibacy, this crucifixion takes the form of self-denial through abstinence and its fruit is that sexuality is resurrected as interior freedom and an orientation towards the sublime. In marriage, this crucifixion takes the form of self-denial through self-giving and its fruit is that sexuality is resurrected in the image of Trinitarian intimacy and the love of Christ for His Church. Both callings involve the crucifixion part, and the thing about crucifixion is that it’s kind of all-in total suffering. There is no such thing as an ergonomically designed cross.
In both cases, choice plays an important role. A gay Christian who is unable to pursue straight marriage has a choice: they can have a gay relationship and try to fulfil their needs that way, or they can choose to pursue celibacy because they earnestly believe that its fruits are worth pursuing. It’s the same deal with a person who is called to the married life: they can choose to sleep around or to have a tentative marriage in the hopes of fulfilling their needs, or they can choose to pursue Christian marriage and to accept the demands that it makes upon them. The only real difference is that the Christian who pursues celibacy generally has to make the decision to bear the Cross up front, whereas a lot of people seem to get married without really internalizing what it is that they’re agreeing to do. For those people too Gethsemane will come, and they will feel that “sorrow unto death” that one feels when accepting that it is the Father’s will for us to die to ourselves.
At this point I’m supposed to say “but but but…” and promise that when the crucifixion is over you’ll get to the part with Johnny and the fish, and Susie and the butterflies, the perpetual whipped cream, the eternal cherry pie. But it’s not like that. Better perhaps to think of the “staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount,” the strange and wonderful paradox of beatitude where mourning is comfort, and meek suffering is victory over the Earth.
Melinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.