Austin Ruse has published a piece on us in Crisis Magazine. While he has critiques, the main point of the piece is to just say, “Here, look at this strange phenomenon! Check out the eccentric and often brilliant Eve Tushnet, progenitor of the whole crew! [Eve, the Mother of All…?] Check out the Momma Bear, Elizabeth Scalia! Here’s a kinda weird, kinda wonderful bunch of people to look at!”
I must admit, I’m a bit amused by the piece. It almost makes us seem like some exotic tribe, with Ruse as the diligent anthropologist setting out to record and explain our practices. Of course, it is old school anthropology, the kind where you didn’t ask the people you were studying what they were on about, but just developed your own explanations, which you relayed to people who were more distant than you, and coined names for them yourself (though “New Homophiles” does roll off the tongue nicely!). As a result, he misses some things, like Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill, the editors of this blog, whose contributions to the First Thoughts blog at First Things are significantly more prolific than my contributions to On the Square over there. He also tends to portray us as much more homogeneous than we are. Still, I appreciate his basic interest in our project, and look forward with interest to his promised forthcoming piece on our gay critics.
In the mean time, when the anthropologist relays the practices of the indigenous populations, something is invariably lost. Let me speak as one of the natives (and only one of them, not a definitive spokesman for the whole tribe) and try to articulate some of the nuance which, it seems to me, is missing.
He writes of us:
They believe the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and certainly the way it is often talked about by Christians is highly limiting, often insulting, hardly ever welcoming, and in desperate need of development.
I would want to really say “the way it is talked about,” and also, perhaps, “the way it is received.” The teaching of the Church, if we are frank, is limiting, for the Church defines the proper use of the sexual faculty, and to define is necessarily to limit. But the teaching of the Church, in and of itself, is not insulting, or unwelcoming. It may, perhaps (to employ “a columnist’s way of taking something off the fastball but throwing a strike nonetheless”), be true that the language of disorder tends to do more damage than good, but this is because of the way it is discussed and received, not because of what it means, for what it means is essentially the same as the basic sexual ethical teaching.
Again, he writes:
The New Homophiles believe because of their gayness they have a unique ability to build close friendships, something that is lacking in our modern age.
I do not think that I would say “unique,” strictly speaking. For to be “uniquely thus” is to be thus like nothing else can be. Anselm’s quo nil maius cogitari possit is unique. I don’t think the gay genius for friendship is. It does seem to me that there tends to be, on average, a greater depth to the friendships a gay person cultivates, especially the same-sex friendships. It also seems to me that the value of friendship tends, on average, to resonate more deeply with gay people than with straight people. But this is not to say that it is unique. Certainly, some straight people have greater strength of friendship than some gay people. Indeed, for I know, it may very well be that the person who is friendliest in the world is straight, or for that matter, lives in one of the many cultural spheres where gay/straight is not a part of people’s self-understanding. But the general pattern, which I have observed anecdotally, and which sociologists have observed more scientifically, is a broad tendency for friendship to be more affectively significant to gay people.
Their ideal is that you can draw close to someone of the same-sex, love them intimately and intensely, yet never cross the line into sexual activity. They point to the relationship between Jesus and young John as a model. Recall John was the “one whom Jesus loved” and who laid his head on Jesus’ chest, something if done today would clearly be considered gay.
But here they are playing with the hottest of fires. Perhaps this is possible for Christ and for saints like Newman but for others it could be a serious problem. This is why married men should avoid intimate friendships with women and why priests should also. This is why married men and priests who form intimate friendships with women often lose their way and ruin their vocations.
There are two points I want to make here.
First, this native must confess that he does not keep up with everything which is written by a member of his tribe; it may be that one or two of them have appealed to the example of Jesus and John; it may even be that, in a given moment, I too made such an appeal somewhere, though I don’t remember doing so. When my head is sitting soundly on my shoulders, however, I would tend to avoid such an appeal, for two reasons. The first reason, and the one I would tend to emphasize, is that this appeal is fraught with misunderstanding. It has been suggested too often by more stridently liberationist types that Jesus and John were a couple, an example for a gay relationship. Such a narrative is, obviously, very much to be avoided. The adjacent narrative, presenting them as a model for celibate gay folk, is too close to this liberationist narrative for me to be comfortable with it. The second reason is that, quite simply, we don’t know as much about their relationship as we would need to. The snippets we have are just not enough to present a helpful model, even barring my first and deeper concern.
The second point that I want to make, is regarding the analogue between same-sex friendship and opposite-sex friendship. In the first place, it must be noted that the great majority of people with whom we might be friends are not gay. My closest friends are straight men. In that situation, there is not even the possibility for temptation on the level that he is making analogous to it. In the second place, there is a decidedly different dynamic at play. Most people, to a greater or lesser degree, are accustomed to being socialized with those of the same sex, and separately from those of the opposite sex from an early age. Though the phrasing “Familiarity breeds contempt” is not what I want, it is true that familiarity with the same sex which all of us grow up with, and which is in fact innate, even from the basic fact that we are the same sex, creates a dynamic where we are often better trained in behaving ourselves around members of the same sex than heterosexuals are trained in behaving themselves around members of the opposite sex. When these factors, 1) the bare fact that some 97% of members of our sex simply are not going to be interested in us, 2) the a sort of instinctive assumption that “He couldn’t be interested in me” which arises from it, and 3) greater familiarity inclining away from allure are combined, it seems to me that the notion of intimate same-sex friendship is playing less with fire than, perhaps, with embers.
He also writes:
There is also something at least a little bit narcissistic about this claim of gay-exceptionalism, that they are experiencing things no others have ever experienced, or that they have unique gifts given to them by dint of their sexual orientation.
Perhaps; I can see where his concern comes from. But I wonder if Ruse sees where we are coming from. I may, perhaps, be prone to over-emphasizing gay as gift. But this is an example of what Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, calls bending the stick; when the basic assumption in a dialectic is too strongly in one direction, it is often necessary to push too far in the other direction to achieve equilibrium. Again, I am not talking about the teaching; but in the ways it has been talked about, and the ways in which it has been expressed, the tendency has been rather too much to emphasize disability and disorder. Allow me to offer two examples here. Michael Voris is certainly a character of the Catholic fringe right, but his video on the a homosexual spirituality is both far more humane than most of his material, and (consequently) far closer to standard perspectives in orthodox Catholicism.
I would also offer a passage from James Alison’s 2001 book, Faith Beyond Resentment. Alison is a dissident gay Catholic, whose narrative ability is crushingly powerful; this ability is used to undermine the Church’s teaching, and its power is often a danger for us. But in this passage, it seems to me that he has captured, not the teaching, but the reception of the teaching exceedingly well. Where often his rhetoric crushes us as an enemy, here, if we are crushed, it provides us with the ability to take shape in a new and more vital form, as well as an opportunity to respond to one who rejects the teaching of the Church. Here, he speaks in the person of the Church (at least, the Church he envisions) to a gay person, and thus powerfully illustrates the reception of the teaching:
As you are, you are not really part of creation. While it is true that for heterosexual people their longings, desiring, seeking after flourishing and sense of what is natural really do correspond to the order of creation, however much they may need pruning and refining on the path of salvation, this is not true for you. Your longings, desiring, seeking after flourishing and sense of what is natural, however they be pruned in a find through experiences of partnership and love, have absolutely no relationship with creation. There is no analogy between them and creation. For you creation is a word whose meaning you simply cannot and do not know from experience. Since everything most heartfelt that you take to be natural is intrinsically disordered, it is only by a complete rejection of your very hearts that you may come to know something of what is meant by creation. Until such a time as this happens, limp along, holding fast with your minds to the objective truth about a creation which can have no subjective resonance for you, and when you are dead, you will enter into the Creator’s glory.
While wrong, Alison’s framing is not as wrong as it should be, when it comes to the reception of the teaching. When we couple this with Voris, trying to offer comfort to homosexuals by telling them, “You are a sacrificial victim who through your victimhood brings grace to people,” we clearly have an over-emphasis on the trials of the gay person. It is quite clear that the stick has been pushed too far in the direction of “trial.” While we may hope that, eventually, a happy median will be attained, I and those like me may perhaps be forgiven, if we have sometimes pushed the stick too far in the other direction, toward “gift.” The correction of this balance away from trial, I think, is absolutely imperative to the re-habilitation of the image of the Catholic Church, so that she can be seen less as an oppressive enemy of gay people, and more as a place where they can find a spiritual home.
This, really, has been one of the underlying concerns driving all of my writing on this topic. As things stand, very few in the gay community imagine that they can find a home in the Church, for they and the Church have tended to adopt antagonistic stances toward each other. This is why I wrote my piece for First Things on Dan Savage; to attempt to bridge the gap between the Church and the gay community. The setting has too much tended to be of “Catholics against Gays.” They have been cast as enemies who scream at each other, rather than as interlocutors who can truly listen to each other. The first step in advancing the discussions on marriage, and on gay people, is to enable the parties to listen to each other, which they have long been unable to do. The situation is now a bit better than it is, as shown by the shocking decision of the Advocate to name Pope Francis “Person of the Year“; yet it is far from ideal, as shown by the vitriolic responses to that decision.
The conversation is fascinating and I must admit I started out annoyed. After all, there are good men and women trying to be faithful but who reject the gay identity, and others who are trying to deal with the underlying psychological genesis of unwanted same-sex attraction, a process the New Homophiles largely dismiss.
I have, in the past, been deeply critical of conversion therapy; but I have tried, and I think I have succeeded, at least to a limited degree, to avoid being dismissive of those who in some sense live with attractions to the same-sex, but do not identify as gay. One of the few pieces written against me to which I directly responded was that published by Michael Hannon at Ethika Politika, and as my comments show, one of the main reasons I responded to it was a concern to not dismiss this demographic (or, as they may prefer, non-demographic) of people. For myself, he is right that I am suspicious of the claims of reparative therapists; but this must be distinguished from the phenomenon of people who, while living with some manner of attraction to the same sex, do not identify as gay. While I reject the claim that no Catholic can identify as gay, I do not want to diminish the realities of those people who do not themselves wish to be identified as gay; if I have unintentionally diminished them, then for that, I whole-heartedly repent.
So, what are we left with in the end? It seems to me that we are left with an article which, I think, is basically sympathetic, albeit without a bit of suspicion, an article which sees the necessity for the Church to be a better home than, perhaps, it has been, but is not quite ready to agree with proposed I, and those like me, propose. I hope that the reflections I have offered here may, at least, begin to diminish the concern, even if not to eliminate it altogether.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, DC, where he is pursuing a doctorate in historical theology. His main focus is on Augustine, and he hopes to dissertate on Augustine’s doctrine of grace. He has also occasionally published in First Things, Spiritual Friendship, and PRISM Magazine, where he makes small attempts to help re-orient the way the Church relates to gay people. He can be followed on Twitter: @JoshuaGonnerman.