PUBLIC LIVES IN PRIVATE PLACES: More thoughts on vowed friendship. My Inside Catholic piece was advocacy; this is the place where I complicate that advocacy.
This is where my head is at right now, when I think about renewing the Christian tradition of vowed same-sex friendship. I’m very open to criticism, especially critics who have alternative ideas for how to honor the loves I want to honor. But even if you’re basically like, “Don’t go that way!” rather than “Follow me!”, I want and need to hear from you. My email’s on the sidebar.
Maybe the first, necessary thing to say is that renewal is never rewind. There is simply no chance that vowed same-sex friendships in (say) 2055 will look the way they did in 1655. “With the inevitable forward march of progress/comes new ways of hiding things/and new things to hide.” One thing I loved about Alan Bray’s The Friend was its awareness of tensions, its ability to acknowledge conflicts without feeling the need to resolve them. This seems like a basic fact about any real, important tradition: It will serve both bad and good ends. You will not be able to harness it fully to any philosophy. It will always be messy and human and novelistic.
And so I am not suggesting that a renewal of vowed same-sex friendship would “solve our problems.” Instead I’m suggesting that it might shift our problems, so that we moved from less-Catholic problems to more-Catholic problems.
Or to put it yet another way, even if I get everything I want from this idea, there will still be deep ethical problems with same-sex vowed friendships (just as there are deep ethical problems with Catholic marriage today, and there always have been). My goal is not to solve problems but to suggest that we might change them. If you think there are better ways to change our problems, email me!!! I promise to post all emails critical of this position.
PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENT: The one thing I most want to emphasize is that the Eucharist seals these vows. The Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. These vows might have some kind of fifteenth-generation-xerox possibility in the absence of the Catholic faith, but they gain their depth and meaning and hope from Christ’s Body.
Having said that, I should note that my very last point is about generally Protestant communities and how they’ve maintained a sense of the family of baptism which most American Catholics have simply discarded. The Eucharist is at the heart of everything I care about with these friendships, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that suffering and solidarity can create a kind of Protestant love-feast as well.
GIRLS DON’T WANT BOYS, GIRLS WANT CARS AND MONEY: The tradition Alan Bray describes grew up in a culture where women were unequal, and where we were separated from men by a vast gulf of social status and poetic/theological imagery. The tradition he describes was purely same-sex, and drew its power from metaphors both of marriage and of siblinghood, suggesting chosen kinship without sex. The tradition he describes defined the friend against the “sodomite,” and had no place for what we now would call “gay identity”–a lady could contract a sexually-transmitted disease from her ladyfriend and perhaps never consider herself implicated in the usual Romans condemnation-passage.
We now live in a world where, as Bray himself describes, chosen kinship has been narrowed, filed down to marriage-and-nothing-else. Possibly this narrowing of kinship fuels the gay-marriage movement. (If you’re a “conservative Catholic” and you’ve warred against my “Romoeroticism” piece, maybe consider this?) We now live in a world of “sexual orientation,” of “homosexuality,” of women working outside the home, and of women’s theoretical equality.
(Have women ever been “equal” in any interesting sense? I suppose it depends on what you consider interesting. Women have never been equivalent to men in any poetic sense. Women have never–as far as I know–been equal to men in any societal-power sense. If I were a man, I would ask God why I was not a woman, for precisely these reasons.)
I think there are reasons to believe we can still renew this practice.
First, traditions adapt to fill new needs. We clearly have new needs. There are actual, existing same-sex couples in which one or both partner chooses to become chaste. Some of these couples are raising children. We need some way of honoring their love; otherwise we say, “Split up,” and that is wrong.
This is why I think vowed friendship, while I would recommend it to everyone!, will be most attractive to gay people. We are the ones who need it.
I realize that if gay people take this on as a way of understanding our loves, it will be culturally harder for straight people to do the same. This is one of the new tensions and new problems I noted above. I’m not sure how to address it. I want y’all ladies to be able to make sisterhood vows without your husbands getting wiggy; and yet I want, also, for a gay man to be able to introduce his “vowed friend” to his family, and for them to understand that this means more than a boyfriend, and different than a friend.
(Parenthetically, I’ll say that I think there are strong reasons to follow tradition in restricting vowed friendships to same-sex pairs, even today when supposedly we’re all equal. Men and women aren’t similarly situated; tradition is a strong guide; regardless of sexual orientation, there’s a point to distinguishing between relationships between two men, relationships between two women, and relationships between a man and a woman. I can expand on this if people want, since I know it’s another point of tension! Mostly though, I’m a “trad,” I believe in sex differences [that would be how I come to like ladies, yo], and so I like structures which preserve the sense of difference.)
Second, traditions exist to fill old needs, even when we’ve forgotten how to address those needs. Veterans still have comrades. Straight men who need other men have virtually no way to articulate that need in terms our culture can understand. Vowed friendship between comrades would a) not preclude marriage and b) even more importantly, let the community–not necessarily the law, I don’t care about that right now–acknowledge that these are men who have an unchosen but inescapable tie to one another.
(For another point of tension: I know that now that we have ladies in the military, the relevant veteran-to-veteran links may cross the sex line. I genuinely don’t know how to deal with that.)
Third, traditions reflect minority practice, not just majority. I’ve been struck, from the elementary-school playground to the pregnancy center, with how much more important godparenthood and godsiblinghood is to DC’s black communities than to the white communities in which I was raised. We hear a lot about how black people are supposedly more “homophobic” than white, but we hear nothing about how much more open many black communities are to an expansive notion of kinship. I know this is a generosity born of necessity; but if all our communities worked the way black communities do, we’d already have a better framework for understanding Alan Bray’s description of premodern English kinship. “Gossip” is short for “godsibling,” yet the intimacy and responsibility of godsiblinghood is something I’ve only found in DC’s black communities.
These ties are real and exist in America now. If you don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they’ve gone away. Maybe they can be harnessed to handle all our needs.