I’ve noticed curiosity recently about the idea of “chaste, gay couples”—couples who accept the Church’s historic teaching on sexuality, yet live together in an exclusive, committed partnership.
Celibate, LGBT, Christian couple Lindsey and Sarah have been blogging for just over a year now at A Queer Calling—an excellent resource that is popular with many people I know (including myself). Eve Tushnet devotes space to talking about “vowed friendships” in her new book Gay and Catholic (I think Tushnet is talking about something slightly different from couplehood—but this point has been lost on some of her critics). And, late last year, the Anchoress hosted a discussion at Patheos entitled, “Homosexuality, Celibacy and Partnership: An Awkward Question,” in which Ben Conroy asks:
If we accept some of the distinctions these writers [at Spiritual Friendship] have made—that to be gay is not reducible to what the catechism calls “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”, that being gay can be a call to particular, unique kinds of virtue, that the modern, Western notion of sexual and romantic partnership has appropriated kinds of love that historically were also found in non-sexual relationships—doesn’t that open up a space for the idea of a committed, lifelong, celibate partnership between two gay people as being a valid vocation, a holy thing, a place where virtue and love might flourish? [emphasis in original]
I can’t possibly hope to answer that question fully now, so what I offer here are two pointers for further conversation about this issue. One is positive, the other cautionary, since I’ve noticed two common reactions to the idea of chaste couplehood—firstly, censorious condemnations from right-wing Christians, but also, over-enthusiasm from some young gay Christians.
First, the idea of a chaste, gay couple isn’t—as some of its proponents claim—an exciting new idea (or—as its detractors claim—a disturbing new departure from orthodoxy). Chaste gay couples were tolerated for years at the conservative Courage Apostolate. They may not have called themselves “gay” or a “couple,” but that is what they were—two same-sex attracted people committed to doing life together in a manner that goes beyond ordinary friendship. Usually these were sexually active couples who jointly converted to Catholicism, gave up sex, and stayed together in chaste partnership (as in this testimony of a Courage member). This is different from two gay Christians who are already committed to chastity entering such a partnership—but the difference is in the origin of the relationship, not in the morality of such a relationship in and of itself.
Such relationships have been commended by the Church as a means to help people “live chastely in the world.” In the US Catholic bishops’ document, Principles to Guide Confessors in Questions of Homosexuality (1973), we read the following advice to a confessor confronted with the case of an adult penitent who claims that “the sole relationship in which he can find fulfillment is a homosexual one”:
A homosexual can have an abiding relationship with another homosexual without genital sexual expression. Indeed, the deeper need of any human is for friendship rather than genital sexual expression … If a homosexual person has progressed under the direction of a confessor, but in the effort to develop a stable relationship with a given person has occasionally fallen into a sin of impurity, he should be absolved and instructed to take measures to avoid the elements which lead to sin without breaking off a friendship which has helped him grow as a person. If the relationship, however, has reached a stage where the homosexual person is not able to avoid overt actions, he should be admonished to break off the relationship. (p. 10-11)
Both the context, and the specific advice concerning impurity, make it clear that the “stable relationship” Principles is talking about is more or less the same thing people are referring to when they use the phrase, “chaste, gay couple.” Principles argues, further, that the formation of such a chaste relationship is one of the “greatest difficulties” a gay Christian might face. Again, it is obvious that the kind of friendship being discussed is a highly particular one, since homosexuals do not as a rule have the “greatest difficulties” forming ordinary friendships or in refraining from sex with their friends.
The standard reaction of conservatives is to claim that, because same-sex attraction is itself disordered regardless of whether it finds expression in sexual activity, a relationship built on same-sex attraction is therefore disordered even when the partners are not sexually active.
This blithely assumes what cannot be assumed—that the relationships of chaste gay couples are all “built” on sexual attraction. No doubt many couples in this situation are attracted to each other, but I know couples who have told me that they are not—that if they were looking for a sexual partner, they wouldn’t necessarily choose the one they have. It makes a lot of sense—if the kind of relationship you’re looking to build is a non-sexual one, sexual attractiveness is likely to be much lower down your list of desired qualities in a significant other.
Even in cases where strong sexual attraction exists between two people of the same sex, there is a world of difference between saying, “these two people, who have a relationship, are sexually attracted to one another,” and, “these two people have a relationship which itself is rooted in their sexual attraction to one another.” Leaving aside the question of whether there is such a thing as rightly-ordered eros toward a person of the same-sex, the fact is human relationships are not flat, one-dimensional things “built” on only one kind of love, and it is a mistake to simply conflate “same-sex attraction” with same-sex sexual attraction, as if the only reason two gay people could ever be interested in sharing their life together is in order to have sex.
Second, I’d like to offer a note of caution about the danger of seeing chaste gay relationships as the solution to the problem of gay loneliness.
I’ve been reluctant to write about this question before—even though it is frequently asked—because it seems to me that the classical idea of same-sex friendship, and not any kind of romantic couplehood, is the type of affection most severely devalued in our culture. Couplehood in general is perhaps already esteemed too much, and it is friendship which is most badly in need of being recovered and defended today. With some irony, it is chaste friendship that has become, in our day, “the love that dare not speak its name.”
Most young gay Christians have grown up bombarded with cultural messages telling them they can only be happy if they have romance in their lives. When they turn to the Church for guidance, instead of offering a healthy corrective, they tend only to hear the same messages amplified and theologized.
Conservatives—in their haste to defend the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage—often reify the marital state in a way that Jesus (an itinerant celibate) never did. Many of the Church’s deepest theological mysteries are mangled by being forced through the prism of “spousal” theology, and under the pounding of the conservatives’ ham-fists, teachings like the “theology of the body”—a series of addresses by John Paul II that contains many beautiful reflections on human sexuality—are squished into a gnostic, “God is Sex”-style theology that is seductively attractive to a generation growing up with a “Sex is God”-style cultural philosophy.
Some chaste, gay couples I’m aware of see their relationships through the prism of friendship (such as the “vowed friendships” Tushnet chronicles in Gay and Catholic), and not as a “marriage without sex.” Nevertheless, it is not surprising that some young gay Christians—constantly exposed by conservatives to the claim that matrimony is the Supreme Good and the royal road to flourishing and sanctity—end up strongly desiring a gay relationship that approximates the good of marriage as closely as possible. For conservatives to then condemn these young people for having a few naïve ideas about romance is like a fisherman condemning his catch for taking the bait.
Let me be clear—as I’ve said above—that I don’t think chaste gay couplehood is morally problematic. To answer Conroy’s question, yes, this state of life can be “a valid vocation, a holy thing, a place where virtue and love might flourish.” But it does become problematic when the idea of the “chaste couple” is seen as a universal solution—a magic bullet that will solve the problem of gay loneliness. The risk is that over-emphasising chaste couplehood as a solution to loneliness becomes a way of telling gay Christians, “go away and find a partner so we don’t have to deal with you, so we can pretend that the pain of your loneliness is not a burden we need to bear as a community.”
There are many people in this world—gay, straight, and otherwise—for whom being one half of a couple is not a possible solution to loneliness. What about the elderly widow? What about the severely handicapped young man who needs 24-hour-a-day care and who will never marry? The radical inclusivity that we are called to if we wish to follow Jesus not only extends to such people, but has a preferential option for them.
Ultimately we will be judged not by our success at shoehorning everyone into modern models of couplehood, but by our success at fostering forms of community that go out to the peripheries and bring in those who are most marginalized, including those who do not and cannot enjoy the security marriage or couplehood brings.
The image of the Kingdom Jesus gives us is not an image of couples respectably making their way toward heaven, like the animals neatly marching into Noah’s Ark two-by-two. Instead, the image of the Kingdom we get from reading the gospels is of a ragtag band of misfits, outcasts, and ragamuffins—the blind, the lame, the deaf, the poor, the drunkards, the whores, the sex addicts, the tax collectors, the queers, and the downright weird—leaning on one another as they zigzag their way toward the Promised Land. Likewise, when reading about the early Church, we see a sprawling network of friends bound together with a familial affection fostered through a shared focus on the joy of the gospel, and not the polite church of modern twenty-first century suburbia—a group of disconnected couples who happen to worship in the same place on Sunday morning.
Let’s say “yes” to the possibility of chaste, gay couplehood as a vocation for some people. But let’s also not forget that unless this “yes” is contextualized within openness to more radically inclusive forms of community, there is a danger that we are taking the easy and bourgeois path rather than the hard road to the Kingdom.
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.