Friendship and Catholic Teaching about Homosexuality

Popes Francis and Benedict

Friendship has been an important theme in the Catholic Church’s pastoral guidance regarding homosexuality. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), which provides a comprehensive overview of Catholic teaching,

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

The Catechism also draws a more general connection between chastity and friendship:

2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.

Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.

This theme dates back to one of the earliest Catholic responses to the emergence of a visible gay community in the modern era, Principles to Guide Confessors in Questions of Homosexuality, published by the US Catholic Bishops in 1973. The document advises that homosexual Catholics

should seek to form stable friendships among both homosexuals and heterosexuals … 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.

Another early indication of the importance of friendship can be found in the Five Goals of Courage. Although the goals are not part of the official teaching of the Church, they have been widely endorsed. The fourth goal is:

To be mindful of the truth that chaste friendships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste Christian life; and to encourage one another in forming and sustaining these friendships.

Always Our Children (1997), from the Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family, also emphasizes the importance of friendship:

Homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2358). They, as is true of every human being, need to be nourished at many different levels simultaneously. This includes friendship, which is a way of loving and is essential to healthy human development. It is one of the richest possible human experiences. Friendship can and does thrive outside of genital sexual involvement.

The same theme is taken up in the USCCB’s document on Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care (2006). In the section titled, “The Necessity of Friendship and Community,” the bishops write,

One way in which the Church can aid persons with a homosexual inclination is by nurturing the bonds of friendship among people. In their analysis of human nature, the ancient philosophers recognized that friendship is absolutely essential for the good life, for true happiness. Friendships of various kinds are necessary for a full human life, and they are likewise necessary for those attempting to live chastely in the world. There can be little hope of living a healthy, chaste life without nurturing human bonds. Living in isolation can ultimately exacerbate one’s disordered tendencies and undermine the practice of chastity.

They then cite the advice about friendship from Principles to Guide Confessors in Questions of Homosexuality (cited above), and point to the Catechism‘s teaching on chastity and friendship (also cited above). Finally, they connect friendship with the family and parish:

While the bonds of friendship should be carefully fostered at all levels, loving friendships among the members of a family are particularly important. Those ministering in the name of the Church should encourage healthy relationships between persons with a homosexual inclination and the other members of their families. The family can provide invaluable support to people who are striving to grow in the virtue of chastity.

The local Church community is also a place where the person with a homosexual inclination should experience friendship. This community can be a rich source of human relationships and friendships, so vital to living a healthy life. In fact, within the Church human friendship is raised to a new order of love, that of brothers and sisters in Christ.

In Pastoral Ministry to Young People with Same-Sex Attraction (pdf, 2011), the Episcopal Commission for Doctrine of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops also echoes the importance of friendship:

22. Friendship is a precious gift from God, a way of loving necessary for every person. “Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.” To equate friendship with genital expression, however, distorts its meaning. We recommend therefore that you nurture virtuous and chaste friendships, though not exclusively with others of the same sex. True friendship enhances your ability to live chastely, while living in isolation, fear or bitterness undermines a healthy and holy life.

These themes are worked out in more depth in the Preparatory Catechesis for the World Meeting of Families,  Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive (2014):

134. Premising marriage as mainly erotic or emotional satisfaction, which is a step made easier by the separation of sex and procreation, also enables arguments for same-sex unions. In some countries today there are movements to redefine marriage as if it could include any strong affective or sexual relationship between any consenting adults. Where divorce and contraception are established habits and this revised vision of marriage has taken root, redefining marriage to include same-sex marriage can seem a plausible next step.

135. With respect to the idea of same-sex marriage, as is well known , the Church declines to bless or sanction it. This does not imply any denigration or failure to appreciate the intensity of same-sex friendships and love. As should be clear at this point in this catechesis, the Catholic Church holds that everyone is called to give and receive love. Committed, sacrificial, chaste, same-sex friendships should be esteemed. Because Catholics are committed to love, hospitality, interdependence, and “bearing one another’s burdens,” the Church at all levels will want to nurture and support opportunities for chaste friendship, always seeking solidarity with those who, for whatever reason, are unable to marry.

136. True friendship is an ancient and honorable vocation. Saint Aelred of Rievaulx observed that the desire for a friend arises from deep within the soul. True friends produce a “fruit” and a “sweetness” as they help each other respond to God, encouraging one another in living the Gospel. “Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.”

137. But, as should also be clear by now, when Catholics speak of marriage, we are referring to something distinct from other relationships of particularly intense love, even if that love is deep and endures sacrificially and over long periods of time. Intense long-term affective intimacy is not sufficient for a marriage. Marriage, as indeed was universally recognized until very recently in the West, is premised on the duties arising from the possibilities and challenges posed by the procreative potential of a man and a woman.

138. The Church invites all men and women to see in their sexuality the possibility of a vocation. To reach maturity as a man or a woman means engaging certain questions to one’s self: how is God calling me to integrate my sex into his plan for my life? Created in the image of God, our destiny is always communion, sacrifice, service, and love. The question for each and every one of us is how we will donate the sexual aspects of our lives in marriage or in celibate community. In neither case is our erotic desire or romantic preference sovereign or autonomous; in both cases, we will inevitably be called upon to make sacrifices which we would not choose if we were writing our own scripts.

It would take much more than one blog post to draw out all of the implications of this teaching. However, I would like to make a few comments that will at least help to explain the significance of the Church’s focus on friendship in Her pastoral response to homosexuality.

Several years ago, I wrote about a relationship I experienced in my late teens. Though that relationship was far from perfect (and involved some sexual temptation), it was chaste, and played an important role in solidifying my commitment to chastity. It was also at least the beginnings of the sort of friendship encouraged by the Church.

There are at least two ways of thinking about a relationship like this. The first is to say, “The only context where sexual intimacy is appropriate is between a married man and woman. These sexual feelings are directed to the wrong object.” This zeroes in on the specifically sexual aspect of the relationship, and neglects the broader context of the friendship. If this were the only approach, then, given the teachings about friendship just cited, it would be based on an inadequate and un-Catholic anthropology.

The other is to say, “Same sex friendship is a union of souls, not of bodies. These specifically sexual desires cannot be fulfilled in this relationship; the true purpose of this relationship is spiritual friendship.” This approach focuses first on the love between the persons, and asks how that love can be purified. It is more in keeping with the priority of love in Christian ethics and anthropology, and also makes more sense in light of the teaching cited above. (I am not saying that the first approach is wrong; I am only saying that, taken alone, it is inadequate.)

In Freudian anthropology, it is assumed that the ultimate motive behind all human action is the desire for pleasure, especially sexual pleasure. This false picture of the human person has had a profound influence on modern culture, seducing even many Christians into equating attraction to another person with sexual attraction. The Church, however, makes clear that love is not the same as the desire for sexual pleasure, and that attraction to a person of the same-sex is not disordered in itself. As the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales state in Cherishing Life (§111), “In so far as the homosexual orientation can lead to sexual activity which excludes openness to the generation of new human life and the essential sexual complementarity of man and woman, it is, in this particular and precise sense only, objectively disordered.”

According to the Catechism, both marriage (see 2360) and friendship (see 2347 above) lead to spiritual communion, echoing on the human level the communio personarum of the Trinity. From its earliest responses to the modern push for accepting sexual relationships between persons of the same sex, the Church has emphasized the importance of recovering a true understanding of friendship, which means not only understanding friendship as God meant it to be, but also understanding how it can be corrupted by the fall.

A central premise of this blog is that we gain substantial insight into homosexuality by thinking of it not solely as a disorder of the sexual faculties, but also as a distorted form of friendship. Seeing it in this light not only helps us to understand the phenomena itself more clearly, it also allows us to offer pastoral care rooted in sound Catholic anthropology.

In the third book of his treatise on Spiritual Friendship, Aelred of Rievaulx discusses how imperfect youthful friendships can be perfected. After Aelred describes the ideal of spiritual friendship, Walter, a young monk, replies:

Such friendship is so sublime and perfect that I would not dare aspire to it. For me and Gratian here, the friendship Augustine describes is sufficient: to chat and laugh together, to treat each other kindly, to read or confer together, to be lighthearted or serious together, to disagree at times but without rancor as anyone might argue with himself, and through disagreement now and then to give sparkle to the countless times we agree, to share in turn our experience in teaching or learning, to long for each other anxiously when absent, and gladly to welcome one another’s return.

These and similar signs through lips, tongue, eyes, and a thousand delightful actions well up from the hearts of those giving and receiving love, kindling the spirit and making one out of many. In our friends this is what we believe should be loved, so that if we did not love one who returned our love or love in return one who loved us, we should have a guilty conscience.

Aelred’s response both challenges the immaturity of Walter’s idea of friendship, and points him to the way of growth:

This is a carnal friendship, especially belonging to adolescents, as were Augustine and the friend of whom we spoke. However, if you avoid childishness and dishonesty, and if nothing shameful spoils such friendship, then in hope of some richer grace this love can be tolerated as a kind of first step toward a holier friendship. As devotion grows with the support of spiritual interests, and as with age maturity increases and the spiritual senses are illumined, then, with affection purified, such friends may mount to higher realms, just as we said yesterday that because of a kind of likeness the ascent is easier from human friendship to friendship with God himself.

If Catholics are to articulate the Church’s teaching about love, sexuality, and friendship in a way that is both inviting to the world and true to our own understanding of the human person, we must recover a deeper understanding of the place of friendship in the Christian tradition, and its relevance to current debates about homosexuality.

13 thoughts on “Friendship and Catholic Teaching about Homosexuality

    • Yes, because a romantic relationship is a great substitute for a spiritual friendship. It appears you have never been in a spiritual friendship, or you would understand what Ron is talking about.

      The old canard about the awful sadness of a life without sexual romance. Poor Jesus, and St. Francis of Assisi and St. Therea of Avila etc etc, who didn’t understand a romantic relationship and were never in one.

    • I’ve had a few romantic relationships – and OK to great sex with 100+ men – but the one ‘spiritual’ friendship I now have is in many ways more important to me than all of that. Not one relationship or connection with another person is the same thing – so talk of substitutes is pointless. Close friendships can be very good things and for the person who does believe in the traditional Christian sexual ethic, what sense does it make to view them as substitutes for romantic longings?

  1. While I can appreciate the beauty of the image that Belgau is painting here, I wonder if he’s prepared to acknowledge that these ideals may not very well be accessible to people outside the rarified atmosphere of academia and on the ground in places like Des Moines, Topeka, or Mobile. Starved for even the carnal friendships at their local orthodox churches, many will turn to gay-affirming churches, support groups, and other organizations. They will receive from these places what the Church is either unable or unwilling to provide for them. Increasingly, I find myself losing patience with posts like these since they seem to represent the affective equivalent of encountering a man starved for bread and bidding him to eat cake.

    • I think you’re absolutely right about the situation on the ground. If I thought people were likely to get this kind of support, I wouldn’t bother writing about it. I write because I’m trying to correct very widespread ignorance and misunderstanding.

      The only place I would disagree with you is that I see what I’m doing here (and behind the scenes, as well) is offering recipes for bread. I also try to be a friend to those I can, though my blog posts obviously reach far more people than I can take the time to get to know directly. And I try to help Churches that are willing to listen to provide better support. If I had the power to tranform the culture in every church in the world to reflect these ideas, I would do so. Since I don’t, I’m trying to explain them in order to make things better.

      As it happens, I wrote this post because I spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon talking to a friend who is having trouble with the pastors of his Church who don’t understand his ideas about friendship. Although I think the ideas are of general interest, I was trying to help a particular person, who is a good friend of mine, deal with exactly the sort of misunderstanding you’re describing in his local church.

      (Also, a minor quibble: few people in the rarified atmosphere of academia look kindly on time spent writing blog posts. They think blogs are for people on the ground in places like Des Moines, Topeka, or Mobile. I realize Spiritual Friendship is probably more academic than most blogs, but what we’re trying to do here is a lot more concerned with where the rubber hits the road than is typical in most academic writing.)

      • Ron, I can appreciate your how big a task it is to disseminate knowledge to every church but I can see Irksome’s point as well. It is certainly not a failure on the part of you or the writers here at Spiritual Friendship because I am sure the writings you referenced in the post must be available to priests. It’s great to have reams and reams of writings but if they are not reaching people on the ground and impacting lives, it is ineffectual . As well there is no sense of urgency from those in position to do something and take on the concerns of LGBT christians because perhaps they are content that LGBT people are not visible in the churches. After all LGBT persons remain a very small portion of the church population,as an invisible minority. So I suppose that is where the impatience comes from. But this is not only an issue of discipleship for the LGBT christian, in my mind, it is also a missions issue.

        So in the same vein of thought, I recently attended the gay pride parade in my city and the parade route was redirected down a street where it passed by a Catholic Basilica which holds five masses on Sunday. What I witnessed was a parish unprepared to address the opportunity with an appropriate response to spreading the gospel. Instead there was a protest and some conflict in which the Rector had to step in and ask the people to disperse or go inside the church for prayer. Some of the catholics gathered there perceived the gay pride parade as a hostile event. But there was a disagreement about how to address LGBT people in their community. Some of the catholics were either offended by or unfamiliar with the terminology gay christian. They see gay christians as those who are affirming because they are the ones marching in the parade. But there is no visible gay members in their church. I heard later that the parish council is opening up a dialogue to meet the challenge of hospitality and outreach to the LGBT in their community with a forward looking approach to the gay pride parade next year. I thought that was a pretty exciting development.

        So I think churches need information, teaching and lectures about spiritual friendship and LGBT christians but they need more than that. Church congregations need to come into contact with the secular LGBT community in their neighbourhoods. It’s not good enough to absorb LGBT people into the church and send them off to support groups and confession and then have an arms length approach to the world outside. Those barriers need to be removed- somehow- in order to see the mission field which is just a few steps away from the church doors.

  2. I thank you Ron because I’m catholic and I did not know all of this. I think people like me get the doctrine of the Church from people like you, because most of us don’t have the time to read all the documents or even the CCC, so this type of blog entries and discussions are important. And not only in LGBT issues but in a wide range of other issues. Thank you again.

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