Single, lonely heterosexual Christians who want to marry are in a different situation to faithful same-sex attracted Christians who cannot even entertain the idea of marriage. The cross of homosexuality is heavier than many others. Same-sex attracted Christians who, amidst all the temptations of our culture, eschew the flesh and bear that cross faithfully, are among the true heroes in the Church today.
If you are a gay or lesbian Christian trying to live out a traditional sexual ethic, how often have you heard this, or something like it? It’s something—in various guises—that I’ve heard fairly often, even if not directed at me personally.
A spirituality of redemptive suffering is something that is close to my own heart, and I wouldn’t want to take it away from anyone (though I would point out that everyone suffers somehow, and intimacy with God through cross-bearing is not limited to one “special” group or their experiences). But statements like this also represent a subtle danger.
The danger for the Church is that we replace a heterosexual/homosexual divide that privileges straight Christians at the expense of gays, with a new binary that divides gay people among themselves, creating a more welcoming Church for “chaste” gays only at the expense of demonizing others who are cast out as “sinners.” Clearly, this is not an adequate pastoral response.
Safeguarding against this danger does not mean that those of us who are committed to celibacy should present that commitment as if it were a form of moral relativism, simply a matter of personal taste or preference. That would be craven. But it is possible to hold moral convictions and to think that those convictions are in some sense universally normative without thinking those convictions entitle you to privilege at the expense of others.
For example, I attend church services every Sunday, and I don’t do so merely as a matter of “taste” (anyone who has been subjected to contemporary Catholic liturgy won’t find that difficult to believe). I attend church because God has called me into a covenant relationship with Himself through Jesus. It’s a relationship in which God gives of Himself to me through grace, and I give of myself to Him by responding to certain claims He makes on how I behave—the most important of which is to worship Him. Jesus’s invitation to enter into a covenant relationship with the Father through Him is, of course, an invitation He extends to all humanity, and so the claims of that relationship are universal claims insofar as the relationship itself is one into which God wishes to draw all people (1 Tim 2:4).
But that doesn’t mean that, in a pluralistic society, I should look down my nose at people who don’t go to church. I’m not entitled to claim some form of moral, political, or legal capital that should be denied to those who don’t attend church, or to argue that they should be denied civil rights. It would be absurd to refuse to eat at the same table as people who don’t attend church, or to condemn a charity or business that employed non-churchgoers. It would be utterly bizarre if I attempted to construct a pseudo-scientific theory claiming that non-churchgoers are suffering from a psychological illness that needs to be cured by therapy aimed at restoring their “natural desires” to get out of bed earlier on Sunday morning, or if I constructed a pseudo-philosophy claiming that the desire to attend church is such a basic part of human nature that anyone who fails to see the value of churchgoing is irrational and stupid. Even diehard fundamentalists would think such things idiotic.
Those of us who are openly gay and also committed to historic Christian beliefs about sex often complain that we have it worst of all—many conservative Christians loathe us because we’re gay, and large segments of the LGBT community loathe us because we’re Christian, or claim that we’re somehow a setback to the recognition of the dignity and equality of sexual minorities simply because we’re not having sex.
It is certainly true that being gay, Christian, and having a traditional sexual ethic means being “hard pressed on every side” (2 Cor 4:8) today. But I think we also need to be sensitive to the ways in which, by living in accordance with the teachings of our churches, we are subject to a certain amount of privilege within those churches.
Chastity itself is not the same thing as the social privilege that sometimes comes with it. While maintaining our chastity, we also need to think about ways in which—to create safer spaces within the Church for LGBT people—we may need to divest ourselves of some of our privilege in imitation of Jesus, who “emptied Himself” of His privilege for the sake of others (Phil 2:7). So I’d like to suggest three practices for celibate gay Christians who are members of churches that hold a traditional sexual ethic, practices that may require giving up a little privilege to make the Church a safer, more welcoming place for other LGBT people.
First, don’t allow yourself to be co-opted by those in the Church who just want to use your personal narrative for political purposes.
I once agreed to give a brief talk at a university chaplaincy about my personal experiences living as a single, celibate gay Catholic. I was told I would be part of a small panel of speakers on the topic of the Church’s teachings on homosexuality. When I arrived at the chaplaincy, I discovered that the evening wasn’t about the Church’s sexual ethic so much as about why the Catholic Church opposes gay marriage, with no real effort being made to distinguish between civil and sacramental marriages. Since I’d already turned up, I went ahead and spoke, but had I known what the evening was about beforehand I wouldn’t have agreed. There was something disturbing about the fact that I had not been told truthfully why I would be speaking (probably through carelessness rather than malice), and yet I was being asked to speak about the truth of the Church’s teachings.
I’m not saying all gay Christians should support civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. Not even all gay people in general do. Nor am I saying that gay Christians who oppose gay marriage should downplay their opposition or kowtow to the cultural zeitgeist for popularity’s sake. But we ought to be suspicious of conservatives who are only interested in giving gay Christians a “voice” when that voice fits their script—a script that is not only opposed to the redefinition of marriage, but also sometimes justifies denying LGBT people basic rights to privacy, protection from violence, and non-discrimination in employment, housing, and the marketplace.
Second, be careful about using the word “chaste” to refer solely to gay Christians who believe in a traditional sexual ethic.
There are plenty of gay Christians who believe in a traditional sexual ethic, who make sacrifices to stay faithful to their beliefs, and who are successful in doing so. There are also those who believe gay sex is wrong and end up having it anyway, either through anonymous hook-ups, clandestine relationships, use of pornography, allowing themselves to become preoccupied by sexual fantasies, and so on.
I don’t think that’s necessarily hypocritical. Humans are morally flawed creatures, and if you consistently meet the moral standards you’ve set for yourself, it’s probably a sign that your standards are pathetically low.
What is hypocritical is to pretend that people who believe in a traditional sexual ethic have a total monopoly on chastity. “Chastity” ultimately must refer to actual sexual behavior, and not merely to an ideology or to abstract beliefs about sexual behavior. There are LGBT people who might not share our beliefs about chastity but who in practice live purer lives than many traditionalist Christians, and who, even in their sexual relationships and practices, show a restraint, fidelity, and integrity that many heterosexuals lack. If we are genuinely concerned with the truth, we should be just as careful to avoid condemning what is good about gay relationships as we are to avoid approving what we do not believe is good.
Third, in matters of doctrine, be more concerned with being orthodox than with being thought of as orthodox.
A couple of weeks ago, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic Archbishop of New York, gave an interview to NBC during which he was asked his opinion on footballer Michael Sam’s coming out.
“Good for him,” Dolan responded, “I would have no sense of judgment on him. The same Bible that tells us, that teaches us about the virtues of chastity and the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people. So, I would say, ‘Bravo.’”
Cue conservative outrage. Dolan committed the cardinal sin of saying something nice about an individual gay person without immediately prefacing it with a diatribe on the evils of homosexual sex and copious caveats about how he didn’t condone their “lifestyle” or the dreaded “gay agenda.”
The fact is, there will always be some Christians who confuse their personal attitudes about LGBT issues with Christian doctrine, and will accuse you of “sowing confusion” if you don’t agree with their conservative opinions. Some even accused the Pope of undermining Christian moral teaching for daring to deviate from the standard conservative script by even three letters when he used the word “gay.”
In his little book The Way, St. Josemaria Escriva gives some wise advice:
As long as the opinion you expressed was orthodox there is no reason to be upset, even though the malice of whoever heard you caused him to be scandalized. For his scandal is pharisaical.
What would it look like if the Church took this advice to heart in its pastoral approach to LGBT people?
It might mean that, at least sometimes, we could have a conversation in the Church about LGBT people and their lives in which we didn’t feel compelled to mention words like “sin” and “evil” and “disorder” at every possible chance for no other purpose except to reassure others that we do in fact believe in the Scriptural teachings about marriage and sexuality that we already profess in word and seek to live out in deed.
Jesus was not only orthodox but was and is the standard for Christian orthodoxy for all time. Even the most cursory reading of the gospels suggests that avoiding the criticisms of religious conservatives at all costs did not appear on his list of priorities.
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 can be followed on Twitter: @AyTay86.