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.
Scripture, however, doesn’t present celibacy to us as something “practical.” Rather, it presents it as a “gift” that God gives in order to draw people close to Himself:
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do … I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit (1 Cor 7:7-8, 32-4).
“Gay celibacy” is not different from heterosexual celibacy. Celibacy isn’t a gift that is unique to gay Christians. But the particular way in which celibacy plays itself out in the life of a gay person can provide a particular form of witness both to the Church and to the world.
We live embedded within societies that over-emphasize the importance of autonomy and personal “choice.” In this context, the witness of gay celibates is a vitally important one. It is a witness that reminds us—in the words of a sympathetic commenter on one of my previous articles—that “life circumstances that we consider disastrous can be the building blocks of a vocation.”
In 1945, Pope Pius XII gave a speech to a group of Italian women. With so many men having died in the Second World War, many of these women knew they would never marry. The Pope had this to say to them:
When one thinks of the women who voluntarily renounce matrimony in order to consecrate themselves to a life of contemplation, sacrifice, and charity, immediately there comes to one’s lips a luminous word: vocation! … [But] this vocation, this call of love, makes itself felt in very diverse ways … The young Christian woman who remains unmarried in spite of her own desires may—if she firmly believes in the providence of the heavenly Father—recognize in life’s vicissitudes the voice of the master: Magister adest et vocat te, “the Master is at hand, and he calleth thee” … In the impossibility of matrimony, she discerns her vocation.
For Pius XII, the meaning of celibacy lies in God’s choice of us, not in our choice of a state of life that happens to be attractive, or that seems to be “practical.” The key to a right view of celibacy is not free choice, but free and obedient response to a divine call that comes from outside our limited selves.
The witness of gay celibacy reminds us of truths that are important for all of us—gay or straight—to keep in mind. It reminds us that God is the center of the moral universe, not man, and that man’s flourishing consists in his obedient response to God’s revealed will. It reminds us, whoever we are, that our bodies are not our own. And it reminds us that our God is a God who reveals Himself in and through the “vicissitudes” of history. Just as God revealed His will for mankind in the history of the people of Israel, and in the historical person of Jesus, so He can reveal His will for an individual through the concrete circumstances of their personal history. Erasing the witness of gay celibacy from the Church makes these truths that little bit harder to believe, in a world already struggling to believe them.
That said, not all gay Christians remain celibate. A significant minority get married to members of the opposite sex.
As Kyle Keating noted in an article here at Spiritual Friendship, such marriages are often unfairly straitjacketed into one of two narratives. One narrative, common in conservative churches, uses them to promote the idea that same-sex attraction can be cured through prayer and therapy. Heterosexual marriage is seen as a “sign-post” declaring arrival at this destination. Another narrative, common in wider culture, “is that these marriages are not real at all” and that those who enter them are “deceiving themselves.”
In contrast to these reductionist narratives, I think “mixed-orientation” marriages have a lot to teach the whole Christian community about the nature of marriage in general. In “A Story of Marriage,” Kyle tells us:
For me, my attraction to Christy began emotionally. She was someone that I enjoyed spending time with. I loved her personality, her interests, her passionate pursuit of God. I thought she was attractive, but more in the sense of “she’s cute” and less in the sense of “I want to lust after her.” As we started getting to know one another more and began dating, I saw my emotional attraction toward her develop into a very real physical and sexual longing for her. I had been attracted to a few girls before, but nothing as substantial as what I felt for Christy as our relationship blossomed.
The psychology of male attraction is overwhelmingly visual. Most men would likely not have been attracted first to “Christy,” but simply to a woman, and only later come to appreciate her uniqueness as a person—“her personality, her interests, her passionate pursuit of God.” The arc of attraction Kyle describes is unusual when compared to the experience of most men. But it highlights an important truth about human sexuality. In Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II) writes:
The sexual urge in man and woman is not fully defined as an orientation towards the psychological and physiological attributes of the other sex as such. These do not and cannot exist in the abstract, but only in a concrete human being, a concrete man or woman … If it is directed towards the sexual attributes as such this must be recognized as an impoverishment or even a perversion of the urge … The natural direction of the sexual urge is towards a human being of the other sex and not merely towards ‘the other sex’ as such. It is just because it is directed towards a particular human being that the sexual urge can provide the framework within which, and the basis on which, the possibility of love arises.
“Heterosexuality” is actually a highly ambiguous concept. It can indicate the natural orientation of the human person as such toward his opposite-sex complement. But it doesn’t usually indicate this. It usually indicates a subjective experience of a generalized attraction to the opposite-sex, an attraction John Paul II characterizes as an “impoverishment” of human sexuality.
The point here is not that some people’s marriages are better than others, or that “mixed-orientation” marriages are better because the addition of a same-sex attracted spouse reduces the opportunities for opposite-sex lust. As Kyle says, his marriage is “as full of love, joy, hardship, and struggle as any other marriage.”
What I am saying is that the vocation of marriage can be most fruitfully understood through the experiences of all of those who actually live out this vocation. Just as silencing the voices of celibate gay Christians impoverishes our understanding of what celibacy is, silencing the voices of those in mixed-orientation marriages impoverishes our understanding of Christian marriage as a whole. Same-sex attracted Christians may only be a small part of the Church, and by excluding them we may only be missing out on a fairly small number of pieces of the jigsaw, but a jigsaw is not complete without every piece in place.
In answer to Austin Ruse’s question about what to tell a same-sex attracted 14-year-old, we can counter-pose another question: “When taught within a framework that emphasizes the importance of marriage and celibacy as the only legitimate Christian ways of expressing sexuality, what harm can come from telling 14-year-olds something about the experiences of gay Christians who are trying to submit their lives to the way of the gospel?” If Ruse’s hypothetical 14-year-old turns out to be gay, he will have a Christian narrative with which to make sense of the relationship between his sexuality and his faith, a narrative which stands in opposition to the standard worldly narrative of “I realized I was gay so I abandoned my religion.” If he does not turn out to be gay, he will, in any case, have learned something important about marriage, celibacy, and human sexuality, and about the real lives of many of his gay brothers and sisters in Christ.
Aaron 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.