Celibacy and Eros: Sublimation or Repression?

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.

But that is not my main problem with Sciambra’s narrative. The Holy Spirit will make sure the Gospel continues to be heard, regardless of the shenanigans of the Religious Right. No, my main problem with Sciambra’s work is the salacious and graphic sexual revelations. Writing to the Philippians, St. Paul tells us:

Brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil 4:8).

In contrast to the advice of St. Paul, many “former homosexuals” and those who promote their narratives spend incredible amounts of time talking about illicit sex. Not long ago, good Christians used to picket and protest outside impure movies and shows. Today, as gay journalist Wayne Besen points out, “there is no other group in America” who are “more likely to talk graphically about sex in general and anal sex in particular” than conservative anti-gay Christians. As long as caveats are added about how bad the activity they are describing is, “they give themselves a free pass to say virtually anything” about things St. Paul advises us to avoid mentioning whenever possible (Eph 5:3-4). The Religious Right, Besen argues, are “seemingly sex crazed and prurient to the point that they probably make pornographers blush.” Particularly amongst former homosexuals, the telling and re-telling of these narratives becomes a kind of sexual ritual which defiles true chastity, and is all the more poisonous precisely because it masquerades under the banner of good purposes such as the need to warn others about sin.

Ron Belgau recently wrote about why he stopped attending the support group his church offered for people with same-sex attractions:

One problem was that in the weekly meetings, the members would always go around the circle and talk about their struggles with lust in the past week. It seemed to me quite unhelpful to be in a group where I did not necessarily know the other members’ last names, their outside interests, their careers, etc., but did know how often they masturbated or looked at porn or hooked up with other men … Moreover, when these confessions were made, everyone was supportive and encouraging … this had a subtle effect, in my view, of normalizing this kind of sexual sin … It gave the sense that everyone was doing it.

This did not surprise me. “Filthy talk makes us feel comfortable with filthy action,” St. Clement of Alexandria said. Ron eventually left the group concluding that—because of the constant testimonial-style sex chat—his time there had done more to “undermine” his commitment to chastity than to “build it up.”

Ron’s experience also shows us the very real danger of ongoing sexual sin that accompanies ongoing repression of one’s sexual identity. In his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault debunks the “repressive hypothesis”—the popular claim that the sexual revolution of the 1960s radically transformed a puritanical and repressive sexual culture into a society that is now open and tolerant of sexual expression. Instead, as Foucault points out, it was in the “repressive” nineteenth-century that we first see the explosion of an endless discourse on sex in medical, psychological, and sociological literature. Although this discourse was couched in forbidding, condemnatory terms, in reality this was a thin veneer hiding the morbid Victorian fascination with sex which sowed the seeds for the later sexual revolution. This same phenomenon which has devastated the virtue of Western society plays out in miniature in the conservative Christian approach to gay issues, with its endless supply of titillating public “confessions” and “testimonies” sowing the seeds for an endless cycle of sexual debauchery.

But what other option do gay Christians have? If they wish to live lives of integrity in accordance with their belief that the only moral context for sex is marriage between a man and a woman, how can they avoid a cycle of repression and sexual acting out?

First, we must bear in mind that our sexuality—whether we are male or female, gay or straight—does not relate solely to genital acts. Sexuality, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul.” In particular, it concerns “affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others” (2332). The opportunity to express oneself as a sexual being is not, therefore, limited to engaging in physical sexual activity, and a commitment to celibacy is not the same as repressing one’s sexuality. John Paul II’s catechesis on human sexuality—the “Theology of the Body”—makes clear that marriage and celibacy are not opposed to one another as sexual expression is opposed to repression. They are rather two different modes of living one’s sexuality in a healthy and godly manner.

Gay Christians who have heard and responded to the call to celibacy need just as much as straight people to integrate their sexual identity with this calling, otherwise they will continually betray their vocation through sexual sin. The ways of doing this are, of course, as varied as are gay people.

Many gay Christians who have lived celibate lives have expressed their sexuality through art. For example, Michaelangelo was said by one of his Italian contemporaries to have lived a “monk-like chastity,” completely devoted to and absorbed by his art, yet his poetry shows that he was also comfortable with his love for men, and not afraid to allow it to express itself in a chaste and noble manner. So passionately homoerotic was the poetry he wrote to Tommaso dei Cavalieri that it was too strong even for some men of the Renaissance era—men who were not unfamiliar with the sort of Platonic expression of same-sex eros seen in Michaelangelo’s verse. When his grandnephew had his poetry published in the 1620s, all of the male pronouns were changed to the female gender, a tragedy that was not rectified until a correct English translation appeared in the 1890s. Yet Michaelangelo’s devotion—even in his contemplation of male beauty—was ultimately to God:

My love’s aflame only for this, whose worth
Is beyond your classic beauty that takes the eye

Many anti-gay Christians might wish Michaelangelo’s poetry had either never been correctly translated, or would be consigned the flames along with everything else that carries so much as a hint of homoeroticism, however chaste and sublimated. Yet, in contrast to many same-sex attracted Christians today who struggle endlessly with hardcore pornography and casual sex, there is no incontrovertible evidence that Michaelangelo ever sexually consummated any of his loves, in spite of the sexual conflicts apparent in some of his poems. The Platonic homoeroticism of the Renaissance and of the nineteenth-century was more intense precisely because it was spiritual, not physical in the base sense.

Not all gay people have talents in literature or the fine arts, of course (although artistic talent is certainly disproportionately represented within the queer community). I merely highlight this as one example. Not everyone has received the gift of being an artist, but everyone nevertheless has some gift from God. The point is that if sexuality is not integrated within the person and expressed in his or her way of living, then it becomes a secret sphere in which darkness and sin flourish. “Homosexual love,” the philosopher Roger Scruton argues, “sullies both subject and object” when it achieves physical, sexual release. Yet when it is “sublimated,” it becomes “one of the highest of human goods.” Sublimation is neither repression—the attempt to avoid desire by denying it exists—nor displacement—the attempt to avoid desire by transferring it from one object to another. It is rather the acknowledgment and transformation of the positive energies inherent in the desire. Thus, sexuality becomes art, craft, literature, or even religious fervor and engagement.

Unless the sexuality of the gay Christian who seeks to be celibate is sublimated, rather than repressed, it will in many cases continually lead him to betray his celibacy. At best, this betrayal will be manifested by the kind of surreptitious engagement with sexual vice through discourse seen in the practice of sharing saucy “testimonies” in Christian support groups. All too often, however, it will be betrayed in the continued search for sexual partners. Unless the celibate’s sexuality is successfully sublimated, rather than repressed, it will continue to be the thorn in the flesh through which the devil drags him down, rather than the weakness in which he glories (2 Cor 12:7-10).

Aaron TaylorAaron Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at Boston College. He previously studied at the Universities of London and Oxford, and worked for a London-based research institute dedicated to raising the quality of thinking about public policy in civil society.

12 thoughts on “Celibacy and Eros: Sublimation or Repression?

  1. while i adamantly disagree with the theology of celibacy for a certain class of god’s children… you make excellent points here on the effect of repression.

    (the need for) love distorts the pursuit of it into ugliness. there is an excellent complete discussion of this in jay michaelson’s book “god vs. gay” if you like.

    i will say this much of personal observation: the sheer number of seedy hookup spots known for illicit/distorted anonymous hookups between men has *drastically* dropped in the past 10 yrs or so. sure some has moved online, but for the most part ive noticed that the greater the acceptance of gays in the society the less furtive and desperate the pursuit of (an imitation of) love acts is.

  2. I swear that the likes of Bryan Fischer, instead of stopping a suppose persecution of Christians in the First World, are contributing to the backlash. With that said, I thank the writers at Spiritual Friendship once again (I’ve posted as simply Brian, but now I feel confident sharing my main screen-name and main web address).

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  4. Aaron you give much food for thought in your article, much is good too. However, I believe you are a bit off track when you say that ‘…homoeroticism of the Renaissance (was) spiritual, not physical in the base sense.’ I mean the word ‘erotic’ cancels out being strictly ….um ‘spiritual’ for starters. Acting out our fleshly impulses vis a vis our genitals isn’t the only kind of impurity. Jesus Himself told us that even ‘looking on’ or having in our minds unchaste thoughts about someone we ‘already have sinned.’ So…No. The need for all of us…..gay or straight etc.,..is to keep our focus off the fleshly either in our sight – videos, written material etc.,through prayer and the sacraments. And just because Michaelangelo or any other great and talented person may have had these proclivities doesn’t sanctify them doing I or writing it either.

    • I understand the entire point of the article to be saying that it is that the ultimate expression of the love for men from Michelangelo and others is that it was ultimately chaste and pure.
      Maybe it should not be called “homoeroticism” in that case though.

  5. I don’t understand what is quite being said in the article, but when I have close male friends, I am less inclined to break my chastity. It has always been my prayer that I get more male friends, but it seems so elusive. I don’t want to pretend to be something I am not; it’s hard and challenging.

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