Translating “Disinterested Friendship”

If you search for the phrase “disinterested friendship” online, many of the articles you will find are attempts to explain paragraph 2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which lists “disinterested friendship” as one of the sources of support for homosexual persons seeking to live chaste lives.

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The main difficulty is that, in English, the term “disinterested” can have two meanings. Most often, it means, “not interested, indifferent.” In a friendship that was “disinterested” (in this sense), friends wouldn’t care much for each other or for the friendship. But the older—and now rarer meaning—is “unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives.” A few scans of 19th Century texts turn up in the search results, using the phrase “disinterested friendship” in this older, more positive sense.

The Catechism uses this older meaning of “disinterested,” as I showed in an older post that examined other uses of the word  in the Catechism. I concluded, based on the way the word was used in other paragraphs, that:

There is no reason that disinterested friendship should not delight in praising a friend. Disinterested friendship can be reciprocal and generous. There is no reason it should not be tender, forgiving, respectful, faithful, like a parent’s love for her child, or a child’s care for a dying parent. It is disinterested friendship because it has no selfish agenda. In the context of 2359, this would particularly forbid any sexual agenda. But to interpret this as calling for friends who are distant, uninterested, not concerned, or indifferent would do violence to the meaning of the word found in other contexts in the Catechism, and make no sense in the context of paragraph 2359. How would friends who are uninterested or indifferent provide the kind of support 2359 envisions?

Since the English phrase “disinterested friendship” seemed so ill-suited for communicating its intended meaning, I decided to explore the connotation of the corresponding phrase, “amitié désintéressée” in French, the language in which the Catechism was originally drafted. I thought this would help to understand what the drafters of the Catechism had in mind, and add to the analysis in my previous post.

It’s always risky to try to make generalizations about the differences between Anglo-American and French Catholic experience. The final draft of this post reads very differently from earlier drafts. In dialogue with various French and French-speaking friends, I have modified or cut completely several points that appeared in earlier drafts. My friends also suggested ways of thinking about the discussion that I had not previously considered.

The most obvious observation is that, in searching for “amitié désintéressée,” I did not come across any posts addressing confusion about how to interpret the phrase in Catéchisme 2359. “Désintéressée” does not have the ambiguous meaning that “disinterested” has in English. It means simply, “unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives; selfless.”

Moreover, while “disinterested friendship” passed out of common use in English in the 19th Century, “amitié désintéressée” is still a living phrase in the French language. It is a little old-fashioned, and not very common, but still in circulation and generally seen as something attractive.

For example, consider an article titled “Is It Possible to Live a Disinterested Friendship?” from a site called Adore Dieu (Adore God). The article begins by holding up David and Jonathan as models of “amitié désintéressée.” To understand what this kind of friendship is, the author invites the reader to think about about his or her best friend. He also offers the following thoughts about what make a friendship “désintéressée,” taken from a secular wellness site,

  • You think of the good of the other before yours
  • You accept the other as he is
  • You will allow the other to be himself
  • You do not doubt each other
  • You make efforts to improve the life of the other
  • You do not expect anything from the other in return for your love
  • Your love does not depend on any prosaic advantage, for example: material goods, power, social status.

The article goes on to discuss how Christians can better practice this kind of “amitié désintéressée.”

The Five Keys to a True Friendship,” an article from Aleteia France, argues that “The key to the friendship proposed by Jesus is that it is a selfless [désintéressée], gratuitous friendship” (“La clef de l’amitié proposée par Jésus est celle d’une amitié désintéressée, gratuite”).

In Philosophie Magazine, after discussing Aristotle’s concept of friendship, Charles Pépin observes: “Such a definition may surprise the Judeo-Christian spirit, and seem to carry an instrumental or interested vision of friendship. Disinterestedness, indeed, was not a value in Greece.” Pépin prefers the Greek understanding of friendship, but he takes it for granted that Christianity favors “amitié désintéressée.”

In a rather different vein, another page tells the story of a man who rescued a baby owl from a fallen tree and named him Albertino. It is a cute story, and the author sums up the close friendship he formed with this owl in these words: “His selfless [désintéressée] friendship was for me a great joy” (“Son amitié désintéressée était alors pour moi un grand bonheur”).

These pages reflect different attitudes toward “amitié désintéressée,” but they all reflect a cultural milieu in which the phrase “amitié désintéressée” can be used without explanation, and in which it often has a warm, positive connotation. It is not just a religious concept—it can refer as easily to your pet owl as to friendship in Christ, and can be promoted on a site that “does not promote any philosophical, religious, spiritual or other organizations.”

It is easy to understand why the French drafters of the Catechism would speak of love that is “désintéressée” (in addition to 2359, see 1829, 2223, 2279, 2649), and why they would commend “amitié désintéressée” for homosexual persons who were seeking to live chaste lives.

So how should the phrase be translated into English? The German translation of the Catechism translates “amitié désintéressée” as “selbstlosen Freundschaft”—“selfless friendship.” This translation would probably cause less confusion in English than “disinterested friendship” does, and would also fit well in the other paragraphs in the Catechism where “disinterested” love appears.

There is another interesting issue that I noticed when looking at the French (and German) translations of the Catechism. In English, the Catechism speaks of “the support of disinterested friendship.” However, the French text uses an indefinite article: “le soutien d’une amitié désintéressée.” The German, likewise uses an indefinite article: “Hilfe einer selbstlosen Freundschaft.” In both cases, the more natural translation would be, “the support of a selfless friendship.” (The Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish translations of the Catechism also use the indefinite article.)

I’m not sure how significant a point this is. One of my friends, a French academic, suggests that there are different kinds of friendship, and “une amitié désintéressée” refers to “a [kind of] friendship [that is] selfless.” Other friends thought “the support of a selfless friendship,” would be a more natural translation than “the support of selfless friendship.”

However we translate the phrase in Catechism 2359, friendship is, first and foremost, an experience of love for a particular person. “Selfless friendship” can only be a living concept for people who have experienced—or at least can point to models of—selfless friendship.

The French articles linked above talk about concrete experiences of friendship, not just “amitié désintéressée” in the abstract. This shows that the French drafters of the Catechism were using living language, which could connect with popular experience of and discourse about friendship in a way than “disinterested friendship” does not in English.

The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that moral concepts only make sense in the context of the kinds of communities in which they might flourish. Without communities where selfless friendship is experienced, to a certain degree moral discourse touching on such friendships is no longer possible.

In a similar vein, Rod Dreher argued in The Benedict Option that churches need to think about how to provide communities where singles—including gay Christians—could find belonging and support in living their calling in Christ.

When the Catechism says that “The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship” (2347), it does not mean that we acquire the virtue of chastity through endless discussions about the nature of friendship. It means that we learn chaste love through concrete experiences of friendship with others. And the Church will communicate Her teaching more clearly if her language connects with the ordinary language in which people talk about their experiences.

This is one of the reasons that I have tried to write both about concrete experiences of friendship and more abstract reflections on the nature of friendship is that the latter are meaningless without the former. A reflection about a friend may say far more about the nature of “disinterested friendship” (even if that phrase does not appear anywhere the essay) than a direct commentary on Catechism 2359.

It’s worth clarifying the translation and the connotations of phrases in the Catechism. The more fundamental need, however, is to foster the experience of and conversation about selfless friendship, so that English speaking readers have the formation they need to understand the Church’s teaching—and to put it into practice.

Image of Mont-Saint-Michel by Antoine Lamielle.

8 thoughts on “Translating “Disinterested Friendship”

  1. It’s curious, isn’t it, over how often language becomes a stumbling block on this issue, at least in English. A missing adverb here, an ambiguous phrase there, and wholly opaque distinctions by which we are supposed to make our discernments. All this even before we consider the pearl-clutching issue of nomenclature that comes up time and again in the American church. At some point, perhaps we should consider whether or not the Church is even interested in clarifying anything for English speakers.

    • I think this is a problem. At least in the United States, an enormous amount of the discussion revolves around arguments about which word to use and what various words and phrases mean.

      Given that this is where the debate happens, it’s hard for me to avoid it completely. But this obsession with language is foreign to the way the issue is discussed in most other countries.

  2. This was quite helpful. I’d only ever thought about this in terms of the typical usage of the term “indifferent.” This makes a big difference in terms of how we think about permissible friendship.

    That said, I doubt that it makes much difference in the context of the “biblical manhood” movement. I was raised in the PCA during the heyday of the panic about “biblical manhood.” I was taught that “real men” didn’t merely harbor indifference toward other men. Rather, “real men” necessarily view other men as competitors to be bested, belittled, and used for one’s own personal gain. It likely explains why men like Donald Trump is so popular among white evangelicals: He embodies many of the qualities that white evangelicals promote as “biblical manhood.”

  3. What a pleasure this was to read, Ron Belgau. Thank you for your time and thoughts and care in writing. I hope many others will be touched by what is written here. Whenever I visit SpiritualFriendship I often imagine that I am entering a quiet monastery. Even as I was reading tonight, it was like I was hearing the tall grasses outside rustling past each other as a soft wind was breezing by. This is very special. Although, outside in reality it is -20F. Haha

    One thing that especially stood out to me in this posting was when you mentioned about learning the virtues of chastity not only through discussion but upon doing. Often times I tend to reflect in the balance, and so I really appreciated that you were able to communicate importance of one aspect (doing) but also maintain appreciation for the other aspect (discussing) as they work in tandem with each other.

    “The more fundamental need, however, is to foster the experience of and conversation about selfless friendship, so that English speaking readers have the formation they need to understand the Church’s teaching—and to put it into practice.”

    In reference to the above text, I am discovering an overwhelming ignorance toward this kind of friendship being exercised. Out of these, we learn many virtues to living and learn how to share Jesus with others in deeper and more profound ways. I feel sad for the people who enter Christian communities and find that they are disappointed by the lack of love that should be overflowing. For gay persons, I am sure celibacy seems less attractive—like an old dusty and worn out suit stashed in the closet.


      • That’s a really good point to keep into consideration. Celibacy is an option for everyone. Although, I do think support varies and tends to be more favorable to persons who don’t experience ssa. That was a really good point

  4. Pingback: A Note on Courage and Language | Spiritual Friendship

  5. When we consider what kind of love is meant by the (classical/koine) Greek word “Agape” it seems prudent to render the phrase “agape friendship.”

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