Nathan O’Halloran has an interesting article over at Vox Nova on the “richness of homosexual relationality.”
O’Halloran points out something I’ve highlighted before, which is that when the Church speaks negatively about “homosexuality,” it is not talking about the same thing we generally mean by “being gay.” When the Catechism speaks about “homosexuality,” it doesn’t even mean the same thing we mean by “homosexuality” in everyday speech (as opposed to its meaning within the technical discourse of Catholic moral theology). The teaching of the Church against homosexuality, as O’Halloran notes, “extends only to same-sex genital acts and does not refer to the sexuality as a whole.” The Bishops of England and Wales make this very clear in their pastoral letter Cherishing Life:
In so far as the homosexual orientation can lead to sexual activity which excludes openness to the generation of new human life … it is, in this particular and precise sense only, objectively disordered. However, it must be quite clear that a homosexual orientation must never be considered sinful or evil in itself.
Being gay is obviously about much more than a desire for “sexual activity which excludes openness to the generation of new human life.” It is possible, after all, to be gay without being particularly interested in homosexual sex, and it is also possible to engage in homosexual sex whilst not being gay, as indeed some straight people do. As Melinda Selmys pointed out yesterday:
Being gay is not reducible to having, or desiring to have, homosexual sex. It is a way of relating to other people, a way of appreciating human beauty, and a way of relating to one’s own gender.
If, as O’Halloran argues, “sexuality is primarily about relationship,” then there may be “many other aspects of homosexual sexuality” that are “very rich in their manifestations.” He speaks about the particular richness of “homosexual expressions of spirituality” and about the way in which “friendships with those who have same-sex attractions grow and develop richly as a result of those attractions and not despite them.”
Thinking along these lines, I’d like to speak a little about same-sex eros.
For some moral conservatives, the very idea that there could be any chaste manifestations of same-sex eroticism is scandalous. They argue that erotic love is, by definition, ordered toward genital expression, and therefore cannot occur “chastely” in any context besides marriage.
But is eros ordered solely toward genital expression? In his encyclical on Christian love, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI had the following to say:
God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape. We can thus see how the reception of the Song of Songs in the canon of sacred Scripture was soon explained by the idea that these love songs ultimately describe God’s relation to man and man’s relation to God. Thus the Song of Songs became, both in Christian and Jewish literature, a source of mystical knowledge and experience, an expression of the essence of biblical faith: that man can indeed enter into union with God—his primordial aspiration.
Because God is Love, and eros is love, eros must find its source and origin in God. It is true that conjugal love—the “gift of love between a man and a woman”—is a manifestation of eros. But eros cannot be reduced to conjugal love, since conjugal love is sexual, and God, whose Being defines what eros is, is not sexual. Even the voluptuous celebrations of sexual love in the Song of Songs, while they should not be prudishly ignored or explained away, “ultimately describe God’s relation to man and man’s relation to God” according to Christian Tradition.
John Paul II once said that, among its multiple meanings, eros “signifies the interior power that attracts man to the true, the good, and the beautiful.” This is clearly not compatible with the conservative reduction of eros to its conjugal manifestation unless one identifies conjugal intercourse as the totality of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty—a view which is obviously irreconcilable with Christianity and probably irreconcilable with all religions except a few ancient pagan fertility cults.
In her recent (and, I think, excellent) book, Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections, Melinda Selmys notes that the idea of eros outlined by Benedict “is heavily at odds with Socrates’ argument that there can be no Eros, no desire, in God because God is already perfect and therefore could want for nothing.”
Whereas Socrates understood erotic desire in terms of a lack or need, Christian love understands eros as desire for the other for the sake of the other, and not simply to complete what is lacking in oneself. This is why Christianity can present us with an image of a God who lacks nothing in Himself, and yet “whose perfection includes a desire for His people.”
We see here how the conservative objection to homoeroticism is more Socratic than Christian. Conservatives argue that women should desire men because masculinity is something that a woman “lacks,” and vice versa, men ought to desire women because femininity completes a lack in masculine nature. Homosexuality, therefore, is often described by conservative Christians as “narcissistic” because the homosexual desires something he or she already has.
This makes sense if, and only if, eros is seen in the Socratic sense as a desire to complete what is lacking in one’s own self. If a man desiring another man is making a statement about his own lack of masculinity, the desire would be wrong, even if not expressed sexually. It would be a kind of lie about human nature.
But if we’re talking about Christian eros—a love that desires the other simply for the other’s sake, the objection disappears. The masculinity of every man, and the femininity of every woman, is a lovable thing in itself, regardless of whether it completes any kind of “lack” in the desiring person.
Speaking about chaste homoeroticism is particularly difficult in our current cultural and ecclesial context. In such a sexually-charged society, it is difficult for people to imagine what chaste erotic love that is not genital-bound might look like, let alone imagine what such love might look like between people of the same sex.
Two cautions are in order, I think, regarding what we do not mean when we talk about homoeroticism as a potential value within a Christian view of human flourishing.
The first is that “homoerotic” should not be taken to denote a special and separate category of relationships—some kind of gay relationship distinct from ordinary same-sex friendship on the one hand and opposite-sex marriage on the other. As Michael Hannon noted in a recent article:
Because our post-Freudian world associates all physical attraction and interpersonal affection with genital erotic desire, intimate same-sex friendship and a chaste appreciation for the beauty of one’s own sex have become all but impossible to achieve….
For “heterosexuals” in particular, getting close to a friend of the same sex ends up seeming perverse, and being moved by his or her beauty feels queer. To avoid being mistaken for gay, these days many self-proclaimed straight people—men especially—settle for superficial associations with their comrades and reserve the sort of costly intimacy that once characterized such chaste same-sex relationships for their romantic partners alone. Their ostensibly normal sexual orientation cheats them out of an essential aspect of human flourishing: deep friendship.
The second, and therefore related, caution is that “homoerotic” should not be taken as referring only to an experience that pertains solely to gays and lesbians.
The example of David and Jonathan is instructive here. If any relationship depicted in Scripture was homoerotic, it was theirs. Their souls were “knit” together, and each one loved the other “as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:1). They loved one another with a “pleasant” love greater than the “love of women” (2 Sam 1:26) and “kissed one another, and wept one with another” (1 Sam 20:41).
Yet there is no evidence that either David or Jonathan were “homosexual” in the sense the Catechism speaks of (i.e., inclined to the act of homosexual sex). David in particular had a rapacious appetite for sex with women (2 Sam 11). So the point is not that David and Jonathan were “gay.” Nor is it that they enjoyed some kind of special gay type of homoerotic relationship. The point is that their ordinary same-sex friendship had a homoerotic dimension—it actualized erotic possibilities latent within same-sex friendship as such, possibilities which are ignored or suppressed by contemporary Western culture.
Of course, the fact that these erotic potentialities exist, and that they have been actualized at other times and in other cultures, doesn’t mean it is at all possible to actualize them now. It might be. But it might also be that the narrow heteronormativity of the modern West has destroyed beyond all hope of repair our ability to grasp the kind of homoeroticism that Socrates spoke about in the Symposium, or the impulse that inspired Michaelangelo to produce some of the most glorious painted and sculpted depictions of the male body in history—the same impulse that led him to write longingly to Tommasso dei Cavalieri about “a face where eyes see plain the heaven’s own light,” and which led Gerard Manley Hopkins to see Christ playing “lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”
If this is the case, however, then our relationships—along with our art, literature, music, culture, and religious experience—will be much the poorer for it.
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. He may be followed on Twitter: @AyTay86.