Youth and Same-Sex Attraction (Part 2)

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 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.

22 thoughts on “Youth and Same-Sex Attraction (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Youth and Same-Sex Attraction (Part 1) | Spiritual Friendship

  2. The only problem is I don’t think most 14 year olds can grasp, that “… the only legitimate Christian ways of expressing sexuality,is to submit their lives to the way of the gospel….” I don’t think they want to be talked to about adult gays who are celibate; especially when they are crushing on a girl and wondering if they should even go to the dance because it would mean having to suffer through waltzing with a boy. It seems like you are saying the gay teenager is the one who becomes “the super righteous kid” who should be thinking of celibacy and being set apart. But, they are just like every other teen. They want to socialize and be normal not different or odd. Maybe what we should be saying is “wait until you get married” just like we tell all the teens and let them roll their eyes at us just like all the other teens do- and don’t forget the birds and the bees- maybe we need to make their experiences as normal and inclusive and light hearted as we can. Aaron if I missed the point of your post I am sorry. It just doesn’t play out in practical terms for the teenager, in my opinion or experience.

    • Thanks for your comment. The original question I’m answering is about what to say to a 14 year old who is experiencing same-sex attraction. As I indicated in Part 1, based on my own experience, I have a lot of personal sympathy with the approach you are advocating of just trying to avoid the problem and let kids be kids. But the fact is that this is the approach we already have now, and it doesn’t work. If the Church is not offering gay teens a Christian way to think about their sexuality, they are inevitably going to fall for the non-Christian narratives offered by a non-Christian culture. Just telling a kid who is worrying he will *never* be able to get married because he’s gay to forget about his problems and “wait until you get married” seems like an obviously inadequate and rather odd response to me.

      Of course, if young people who are experiencing same-sex attraction want to avoid the issues, no-one is saying they should be forced to confront them before they feel ready. Just that the support should be there for the teens that need it.

      • Thanks Aaron for your reply. I thought the problem we were facing with gay youth was that the church wasn’t letting gay teenagers just be teens, but were weighing them down with worries and anxieties about changing their orientation. So I agree we shouldn’t avoid it but we shouldn’t make too much of it either.

    • Kathy, I teach junior high and high school, and in my experience most kids have known or suspected their orientation since early puberty. It’s not like when I was a kid and didn’t know what homosexuality was; heck, there’s a same-sex couple on a Disney show now. They have the framework to evaluate their orientations from a much earlier age.

      Besides, “wait until you get married” isn’t just insufficient to the gay teen (for the obvious reason that they likely won’t be able to), it’s insufficient to the straight teen like myself a couple decades ago. The narrative was always, “Wait, so you can have a better marriage eventually,” or, “Wait, to avoid getting hurt or pregnant,” rather than, “Live a godly life because joyous chastity is for all believers.” And that makes “wait for marriage” just not good enough, frankly.

      I wish someone had explained that to me when I was a teenager, told me about the beauty and power of the gospel for my whole life, that marriage is temporary and for this life only, and that romance and marriage aren’t the be-all and end-all of Christian experience, but that the goal of Christian living is Christlikeness. I wish there had been articles like this one pointing me to something beyond myself and my quest to be desirable. I was given cotton candy when I could have had a banquet. That’s not ok.

      • Thanks Grace yeah I can see how simplistic what I said seems in light of what you are saying…. certainly there should be a serious discussion at some point in a teenagers life. yes! absolutely ! So obviously the ” wait until you get married ” comment is a cliche meant to be an example of inclusion and normalizing the world around the gay teenager. What I am getting at is the expectation that the gay teenager must look forward to lifelong celibacy and you establish that when they are a developing teenager… they are singled out this way ….rather than treating them the same as other teenagers. So for me to say wait until you get married means – chastity before marriage. It is something I taught my daughter, we discussed it in light of her enjoying her teenage years and developing friends and not stressing out over serious relationships. I left it up to her to bring any further questions or concerns to me as they came up. And I let her know she would be making her own choices when she became an adult. What is being suggested here is discussing lifelong celibacy to a teenager who we don’t know what the future will hold for them or what they will decide as an adult and we don’t know how putting that pressure on them will affect them. And after all most teenagers aren’t that interested in spiritual things , there are some but it is rare don’t you think?

      • I like your attitude, Kathy. Most teens are not terribly religious. For most, the thought of committing to either marriage OR celibacy is a long way off.

        The problem with a vocation to celibacy is that it also gets treated like the “default” when really it is something achieved just as much as marriage.

        Straight teens are given the luxury of “Don’t worry about a decision now, maybe you’ll get married, maybe you won’t, you don’t know who it will be with or how old you’ll be or how many kids you’ll have. It’s way too far off to even think about” and they go on having their boyfriends and girlfriends and some marry their high school sweetheart, but most don’t.

        Gay teens? The secular world gives them just as much flexibility. Horizons aren’t closed, they have a long life ahead of them and can explore their options and make a decision at a future point. Whereas the current Christian approach, even at its most pastoral, basically locks gay teens into their future almost just as a default or foregone conclusion (IF they want to adhere to all the correct abstract theoretical propositions consistently). But maybe that’s just the problem: carrying the “logic” that far forward in its extrapolations into actual future visions. Maybe the answer should be more of a vague “You’ll figure it out and make your decisions about lifelong commitments when the time comes” just like for straight teens.

        The current logic seems to be something like that a straight teen has lots of options that are compatible with a commitment to faith, whereas for a gay teen to be committed to faith is also to be committed to ONE option. But why? Why even have to answer the question yet? Straight teens have these options in the end: commit to marriage, commit to celibacy, leave the church in favor of some decadent lifestyle, or just sort of negotiate their own “separate peace” within the church (as many of the divorced-and-remarried do). But really it’s the same for gay teens (although a marriage is probably much less likely/appealing for them). There’s no reason to answer the question of “what are you going to commit to in 15 years?” in order to feel welcome or good in the present day.

      • Sure, Kathy, I guess my point is: the purpose of chastity isn’t marriage, it’s Christlikeness. And the constant message from some quarters that godly chastity is marriage-directed or has marriage as its telos is deceptive and dangerous. It has been the fairly direct cause of the failure of chastity in many, MANY of my long-term single friends, of all orientations, and the cause of huge discouragement in myself and many others.

      • Ok Grace. I get what you are saying now. You are right, even adults have faced this and failed because they have not kept their focus on Christ. What I struggle with here is the impracticality of assuming that teenagers have developed their spiritual beliefs and sexuality enough to view it in the bigger picture of ‘christlikeness’ as is being described here.

  3. Hey Aaron, that quote from Pope Pius XII is really resonating with me as a hetero 30-something Christian woman — the numbers are against me, too, given that women pretty dramatically outnumber men in the church. Can you point me to the source? My google-fu is failing me tonight. Thanks, and many blessings for this pair of articles.

    • Unfortunately, the full speech is only available in Italian so far as I know, and the quote here is a translation from that. I only found it by looking through lots of pages of PDF versions of the “Acta Apostolicae Sedis” on the Vatican website.

      However, a few excerpts from the speech and a few comments on it are quoted in this book:

      The book is a little old-fashioned in its approach to practical questions but there is lots of good stuff in there on the spirituality of singleness so I recommend it to any Catholic who can get a cheap copy!

      Hope that helps. God bless.

  4. Pingback: Four Feuilletons for Friday (almost)

  5. ****In Part 1, I argued that efforts to present Catholic teaching on sexual ethics as if human sexuality were ordered toward “heterosexuality” are misleading.****

    Um, no, they’re not “misleading”–unless you are saying the same JPII whom you cite in “Love and Responsibility” is being “misleading”–is he?

    ****“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.****

    Well, no, there’s nothing “ambiguous” about “heterosexuality.” I don’t quite think you’re getting what JPII is saying in the passage–especially since you seem to have deliberately left *out* the parts in which JPII actually says something about homosexuality (see full quote below).

    The thought of JPII in L&R is quite clear:
    1. Human sexuality *is* naturally ordered toward heterosexuality “by membership of one of the sexes”.
    2. The sexual “drive” (or urge) is more than mere orientation toward generic “sexual attributes”–but the sexual drive (urge) *includes* the element of “orientation”.
    3. If the “orientation” is *merely* directed toward generic “sexual attributes” and not toward a specific concrete *person*, the “orientation” is in itself either an “impoverishment” of the sexual urge (in the case of heterosexual orientation) *or* a “perversion” of the sexual urge (in the case of homosexual deviation).

    Let’s look how JPII treats “orientation” elsewhere, e.g., pp. 47-48: “The orientation given to a person’s existence by membership of one of the sexes [notice here that he says orientation is *given* by virtue of *being* male or female] does not only make itself felt internally, but at the same time turns outwards, and in the normal course of things (once again, we are not speaking of sicknesses or perversions) manifests itself in a certain natural predilection for, a tendency to seek, the other sex.”

    This is the thought of Karol Wojtyla in “Love and Responsibility.”

    JPII’s “Love and Responsibility,” p. 49 (Ignatius edition):
    “Moreover, 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. Inevitably, then, the sexual urge in a human being is always in the natural course of things directed toward another human being–this is the normal form which it takes. If it is directed toward the sexual attributes as such this must be recognized as an impoverishment or even a perversion of the urge. If it is directed toward the sexual attributes of a person of the same sex we speak of a homosexual deviation. Still more emphatically do we speak of sexual deviation if the urge is directed toward not toward the sexual attributes of a human being but towards those of an animal. 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. The sexual urge in man has a natural tendency to develop into love simply because the two objects affected, with their different sexual attributes, physical and psychological, are both people. “

    • I’m not sure how you disagree with Aaron, Jim. Aaron never said that the norm of human biology was not a sexual attraction to *persons* of the opposite sex. As such, I don’t see why not to assume that Aaron believes that a sexual attraction to persons of the same sex is perverse.

      But I think the point Aaron was making is that *genital* attraction is an impoverishment, whether among people possessing or lacking other perversions. This impoverishment is at least as central a concern in JPII’s thinking as the perversion of homosexuality.

      As for the language of “perversion”, I think that this language is unhelpful, evangelistically, because the word “perversion” carries a connotation of condemnation, at least in English. (I can’t speak to Latin). Properly understood, though, it is not a slight to say that someone has a perversion; we are all perverse, in some way or another, because none of us is fully oriented toward the love of God and the life that God has for us.

      So I think people at SF might bristle at the word perversion, but I don’t think we have any real theological objection to it. According to, say, an Augustinian understanding of perversion, I think that perversion is essentially just a particular manifestation of concupiscence.

    • Regardless of whatever technical definition Wojtyla may or may not give to the term heterosexuality, the fact is that in common usage it does describe that sexual urge which he himself calls an impoverishment and perversion of sexual desire, and the second fact is that this what most people, including most Catholics, mean when they use the term in common discourse. Hence, my point about the ambiguity of the concept of heterosexuality holds.

  6. Kathy, I agree with your most recent comment. That’s why I dedicated equal parts here to talking about celibacy and about marriage. I’m not trying to tell gay teens they have no options so just buckle up and prepare for lifelong celibacy.

      • Thanks Kathy, you’re welcome. I also think you’re absolutely right that teenagers haven’t developed their spiritual beliefs enough to view things in the wider picture of “Christlikeness.” But I also think it’s worth considering whether this speaks to a larger problem with how we pass on (or don’t) the faith to younger people. But you’re definitely right that a spiritual discussion of chastity is useless without the wider spiritual context.

  7. Aaron,

    As always, I appreciate hearing your thoughts.

    You say a lot of positive things about mixed orientation marriages, and I definitely think you’re right that we need to break out of the two narratives that you describe for such marriages. And I agree that the only way to do that is for people in these marriages to speak openly about their experiences.

    But there’s a problem lurking here, methinks. Although it is a no casual decision to be open about one’s experience of homosexuality or bisexuality when a person is single, it is an absolutely huge decision to be open when one is married. I’m married and I’ve got five kids. I’m attracted to both men and women. I would love to be someone who provides a witness to how chastity is possible for a man like me.

    But there are unique obstacles here. Is it fair to my children, to make them have to deal with people’s bad responses to my revelations? I think of the case of Josh Weed, who started talking about this online (using his real name), and was run through the media gauntlet like some sort of alien from outer space. However much I respect the man, I would not want to be one of his kids, growing up with culture war missiles falling all around.

    My personal struggle is this: I post here as “Daniel P”, which is a portion of my real name, because I’m sick of being anonymous. I want to use my full name. Heck, I’m an author. I want to publish on this topic, because I think voices like mine ought to be heard. But thinking about my children gives me pause. I would be interested in seeing folks at SF explore the unique ethical questions behind a married person being honest about his or her experience of same-sex attraction.

    “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.”

    What about when those in mixed-orientation marriages, in effect, silence ourselves?

    • Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for sharing that. The short answer is, I have no problem with people who choose to stay in the closet (not sure that’s the best way to describe it, but you get what I mean), only with people being forced to stay there. And that goes not just for married people but for celibate people, too.

      I thought about mentioning that in the article but the more clarifications you add, the longer it becomes, so thanks for giving me a chance to speak to that concern.

      God bless you and your family.

  8. Hi Aaron,

    I’m new to this site but find this article very interesting. I am gay and celibate curate in the Church of England (was ordained 6 months ago). But given that I am protestant, not catholic, I never even thought when first considering my vocation to a priestly ministry that I was being called to a life of permament singleness. However in the last couple of years I have come to a starker realisation that I am probably not likely to marry (due to my same-sex attractions, not my vocation). I have recently spoken to friends who have said to me that even though I am gay, my celibacy is still similar to single people who are not able to find a marriage partner or catholic priests who vow not to marry. Perhaps this is unfair, but I confess I struggle with this, because it feels to me like Catholic priests make more of a conscious choice to be celibate when they enter the priesthood, whereas it doesn’t feel to me like my singleness was an option. And whilst I sympathise to a degree with single “straight” people who wish to marry but haven’t found someone yet, again I struggle to compare myself to them because they have options to marry at some point in future. I have a good friend who is a lady aged 40 who went to college with me, and although neither of us were married, I still thought “there’s still a possibility she might marry”. This year she is getting married! Yet for me I don’t even have that faint hope that I might marry or have a partner one day, it seems a kind of lifelong enforced celibacy and singleness, even though I know that some people have mixed-orientation marriages.

    I’m also interested in your reflections on what to tell 14 year-olds about sexuality. Personally, I think the advice “wait till you’re older as you might develop feelings for girls” is not always that helpful. I know that sexuality can be changeable throughout teenage years, but aged 14, my parents told me that teenagers who considered themselves gay would probably grow out of it after puberty. The assumption was that they just hadn’t developed enough to fancy girls yet. (My dad is a vicar and both my parents are traditional evangelical Christians.) When I finally admitted to them I was gay (aged 25) they told me not to worry about it as I was still young and would probably change and get married in my 30s (which is what my mum still hopes for). But aged 28, the idea of “wait till you’re older and fall in love with a woman” doesn’t wash so much. Perhaps being more honest with young people about the different journeys gay Christians face, as you suggest, is more helpful.

    (p.s. – Sorry I’m not good at writing short responses to articles!)

  9. Pingback: My Early Teen Years Part 1: What I Went Through | Spiritual Friendship

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