“Beyond Religious Life and Marriage”: My Epic Piece for “America” on Nonmarital Christian Kinship

in some of its many forms:

Tim Otto found the Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco almost by accident. When he was a lonely little kid, one of their members, an artist, tried to teach him to paint. (“I was an utter failure,” he remembers.) When he grew up, he began to see in Sojourners, a Christian intentional community, a form of discipleship and an “art of love” that he admired and needed.

more! I may as well say that I like the ending of this piece. Every time I do this stuff I try to draw out something new so I’m not just repeating myself at you.

“Christian Love and Kinship Outside Marriage: Thoughts from a Gay Catholic”

My talk at Calvin College is available at Livestream and YouTube (below):

I thought this one went well. Oh man though, I’m so glad I got new glasses about a week after this was filmed. Look at how far I have to push these down the bridge of my nose to read.

The Three False Gods of Marriage, Freedom, And Morality

So I spent a long weekend in Holland, MI, the heart of Dutch Reform USA and home to Hope College. I was there to talk about Gay Catholic Whatnot, in a variety of settings–a mix of public and private, etc–organized by the St Benedict Forum, the college’s small but growing papist posse. It was a fantastic experience. I’d esp like to note the way aesthetic concerns surfaced throughout the trip. Hope College people really care about sacred architecture and music; the chapel service I spoke at had two beautiful songs that melded contemporary and traditional elements, including one featuring both an organ and an electric guitar.

Anyway, I’ll be posting a lot of things giving you an idea of what I said at various points during my trip. Here’s a presentation about the Three False Gods of American Christianity. Each section ends with a question we’re not asking enough–a question we’ve neglected. I don’t think I have all or even most of the answers to these questions. My answers will conflict with equally-valid answers of other gay or same-sex attracted Christians. All I’m saying is that these are more fruitful questions than the ones we habitually ask about gay people in the Church.

So, the three false gods: marriage, freedom, and morality. The thing about false gods is that lots of them are good things in themselves, which have lost their place in the created order. Poetry and reason are good things (I mean, not all poetry, but you know what I mean) but worship of Apollo, the god of poetry and reason, is a sin against the One God. So too our contemporary false gods are goods for which American affections have become–to coin a phrase–disordered. I would like to put them back in their place.

Marriage. Terms like “intimacy,” “devotion,” “soulmate,” and even “love” itself have been all but colonized by romantic love and, for Christians, marital love. Here I gave my “Lava” example.

Marriage is obviously one of the richest Scriptural images of what love is–and, therefore, what our relationship with God must be. But we have other images also of intimate, devoted love that knits souls together. Filial love; the love of extended family, as with Ruth and Naomi; and friendship, displayed in the covenantal friendship of Jonathan and David and then raised to its summit in the relationships of Jesus and his disciples, with an especial tenderness in His relationship with the beloved disciple, John.

Yet we’re bizarrely incurious about Scriptural friendship. Jesus Himself uses it as an image of sacrificial love and of discipleship. Friendship shaped His life, and continued to shape Christian lives for centuries after His death. And yet we respond to the Scriptural language of friendship with silence; interpretation of these loves as inherently sexual (you see this especially with David and Jonathan); or bowdlerization, as when my friend Chris Damian ran across a Bible translation in which John doesn’t recline on the breast of Jesus, but instead, “John was reclining near Jesus.”

And so when gay people try to figure out what our future might look like in the Church, we have only marriage and maybe religious vocation as images of love. These are our only images of what a good, fruitful, adult life looks like; the only paths of self-gift we are shown. Good luck with that!

What if our images of love included a community of disciples, who became family to those who lost their families or gave up their chance at a socially-sanctioned family for the sake of the Gospel? What if we understood the desire for devoted, lifelong, intimate same-sex love as a good thing–a longing the Church has historically honored in the form of friendship? What if we offered all of our kids, gay straight and whatever Tumblr is doing these days, a future of communities of love–including the Catholic Worker and other intentional communities; godparenthood, which binds the godparents and the parents together as co-laborers; friendships as deep as that of St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Basil the Great, and as practical as the shared households and obligations depicted in Alan Bray‘s work?

There are so many paths open to us. Whether we perceive a specific calling to celibacy and create a celibate partnership through a shared prayer life, or whether we start out in your basic gay couple and end up as Dunstan Thompson and Philip Trower; whether the language of friendship speaks to us more or the equally-Scriptural language of brothers and sisters in Christ–there are so many more forms of love than the ones we’ve been trained to see.

(I wanted to make sure to get Thompson in there because I just revisited Dana Gioia’s terrific essay on his life and work. I am only a semi-fan of Thompson’s poetry but the essay, I super love. One of the events at Hope was going to be boycotted by a student group, but they decided to organize a slam poetry reading instead. I don’t slam poetry (I slam souls) but I wish I could’ve attended and read this lovely tribute from Thompson to Trower.)

So marriage becomes a false god when it crowds out all the other forms of Christian love–including devoted same-sex love. Marriage also becomes a false god when it crowds out celibacy, but that is going to be a separate post. Onward!

Freedom. This is the false god invoked when you hear, “Sure, celibacy is fine if you have a call to that. But most people don’t. And you definitely shouldn’t have to be celibate just because you’re gay.”

I’ve written specifically about the “just because you’re gay” aspect here, but right now, I want to focus on shifting our questions.

I don’t actually perceive a call to celibacy and I’m not good at it, so I have a vested interest, I guess! But this position really seems to misunderstand how God calls us. We have important elements of freedom in our vocations–you can choose your spouse, you can choose your friends. But we also live in conditions of constraint. Many of our vocations are the result of circumstances rather than a perceived call from God–and often these are not circumstances we would choose. If you’re in recovery, for example, and you serve others struggling with addiction, you probably wouldn’t have chosen that path for yourself but you may find it’s a real path of love. Caring for an ailing relative can be harrowing, but it can also be a path of sanctification (as marriage is). The example I always use is one taken from my work with women in crisis pregnancies: That second line comes up on the little plastic test and suddenly you’re staring down the barrel of your call from God.

But this analogy suggests a serious failure on the part of Christian communities. Crisis pregnancy centers exist in part because Christians asked one question, which in fact we counselors were trained to ask abortion-minded women: “What would make it possible for you to imagine having this baby?”

Why aren’t we asking gay people that?

We are asking all these obnoxious questions, like, “How can we proclaim our beliefs without you guys thinking we’re bigots?”, but we never ask, “What would make it possible for you to imagine living this teaching in a way that’s hopeful and loving, not despairing and pointless?”

Morality. Ah, my least favorite of the false gods!

We have created a Christianity that is about doing the right thing–and, even more so, about avoiding sin. About not messing up. We have taught our children a faith that is a catechism, not a liturgy.

Morality, and especially sexual morality, has become the yardstick by which we measure gay Christian lives. (See my “sexualization of gay Christians” post for more.) In too many churches, gay people’s lives, vocations, friendships, self-presentation i.e. are you too butch for church?, are all treated with suspicion and fear. We ask only, “How can this become sinful?”

And we never ask, “What are our kids’ images of God? How do we help people know Jesus as a Friend, and God as the Father of Mercies?”

So many gay people in our churches, maybe especially the ones who “follow the rules,” don’t feel that God cherishes them. They don’t see beauty in their own lives and in their longings, including those beautiful, honorable longings for intimacy and self-gift. They do see beauty in gay marriages, a beauty their churches deny. They hear gay people used as proof of a deranged culture, with maybe a few people who *~*struggle with same-sex attraction*~* held up as plastic saints.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote, “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated.” And if we look to the saints and to Christian art we find that God cherishes those who lead tumultuous lives. People who never do “get it together.” People who have unusual vocations–the weird saints–or stigmatized ones. The dappled things.

There are ways to integrate morality into a full understanding of God’s love for us. “Lord, I love your commands,” as the Psalmist sings. This post from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “Morality as Worship,” shows the beauty and authority of the moral law, and its place in a life that follows not a rulebook but a Man.

But if we want morality to take its proper place in our faith, we must ask: “Where and when do you know God cherishes you? And where do you see God working in your sexuality?”

A Retraction, Re: Marriage. Too Bad, This Bit Had a Good Line in It.

So in an earlier post I wrote this: It’s important that marriage–its norms and expectations, more than its explicit legal benefits–is one powerful cultural response to the fruitful/destructive volcanic force of eros, and especially heterosexual eros. It’s important that out of the many cultural institutions that try to channel the lava, marriage is typically one of the gentlest. (That’s often true even when a marriage culture is oppressive and misogynist–in those cases the alternatives are often, though certainly not always, even worse for women and children. Marriage is the worst form of heterosexual government, except for all the others.)

And then someone asked whether I really wanted to make that claim, given the huge range of practices that have been called “marriage” over the years, and all the violence and power-over which marriage sheltered and excused. I rethought and wrote this:

[* edited to add: This is only comparing marriage with other structures of heterosexual relations, e.g. sex work, cohabitation, hookups, various historical forms of structured extramarital relationships. If you compare marriage to just avoiding men entirely you get very different results! And anyway this is the point in this post with the most caveats and exceptions.]

But even that, I think, is just too strong. It’s like saying “religion is better than atheism”: You can see why a Christian would have an initial response of, “Yeah, definitely, I mean religion responds to our longing for contact and union with the Divine, it’s a culture’s way of expressing and channeling something sublime at the core of our human nature.” But what if the religion is Aztec human sacrifice and the atheism is some service-‘n’-humility modified Twelve-Stepper? At the very least the conversation then becomes complicated. And there’s no point in defending the Aztecs when what you were actually trying to talk about was comparing “small-o orthodox” Christianity (which is already too broad) to George Orwell-type atheist liberal humanism. Similarly I have no idea why I wanted to defend e.g. Roman marriage with, “At least it’s better than Roman heterosexual not-marriage!” Since Eden we’ve managed to turn even our forms of union and solace into arenas for domination and cruelty.

So uh, I apologize, I stand by the rest of what I said but this bit was not great. (Although you see how I found a way to rescue the “worst form of heterosexual government” line, which I like and which I think has a real point. You can be honest about the ways marriage goes wrong without thinking we’ve found a better norm to replace it with.)

Why do it this way, with a separate post? To make the earlier post, which was not actually about this question, easier to read. Thanks for playing, y’all, pardon our dust etc etc.

Marriage Unconstrained: In Which I Argue with Myself

So I don’t know if you noticed, but that Pixar/gay marriage post was really two posts awkwardly yoked together by a cartoon about singing volcanoes. And some of the latter half of the post, especially, made Christian marriage sound like a social-improvement project: Live in mutual self-gift, mirroring the love of Christ and His Bride the Church, because it will lead to a stable bourgeois society. I have these studies showing that surrender of self-will is good for child educational outcomes….

That approach is misleading in a lot of ways. On the other hand, I don’t want to completely ditch it: It’s important that marriage–its norms and expectations, more than its explicit legal benefits–is one powerful cultural response to the fruitful/destructive volcanic force of eros, and especially heterosexual eros. It’s important that out of the many [ETA: current!] cultural institutions that try to channel the lava, marriage is typically one of the gentlest.

[EDITED: I kept editing and rethinking the bit that used to be here and decided I was just wrong, so I have posted a retraction here. On with the rest of the post!]

But so, let me offer a series of counterthoughts, which I’ll pose against my earlier post without retracting it. These are I think the more important set of points, at least for Christians.

* A lot of different paths could lead a person to support gay marriage. I focused on Justice Kennedy’s rescue-from-loneliness passage because it did fit so well with the Pixar short; and it clearly speaks to something real in our culture. I’ve already seen one person say she’d like to use it in her own wedding vows.

But by moving so quickly to “marriage as constraint for eros” I made it sound like gay marriage would be an example of unconstraint, when of course sexual restraint for gay people has been one of the arguments in favor of gay marriage. The concept of gay marriage has many fathers; and many of those fathers died of AIDS. I think the biggest way that the AIDS epidemic fostered the gay-marriage movement was by teaching both straight society and gay people ourselves that we were capable of the most sacrificial and tender care for one another, in the face of total societal rejection. Care for the dying was its own argument. But there’s also of course an element of reaction against the ’70s gay-liberation culture of hedonistic sex.

Can I say that it’s especially weird that I kept saying “our” at the end when I meant “heterosexuals”? Carried away by rhetoric, at best; and because of that, I missed a chance to honor some of the elements of gay culture and the gay-marriage movement that deserve honoring.

And actual gay people’s actual gay marriages are generally the result of their longing for greater constraint. We long for the ties that bind. That unslakable human longing for sacrifice and constraint may not always be an accurate guide to moral action, but it is always sublime.

* Ross Douthat has written about the weird confluence of the Supreme Court’s exalted paean to marriage as the sole haven in a heartless world, and a culture which has retreated from marriage. But these two things go together. When fewer people marry, it makes sense that our view of marriage would become more idealistic.

After all, the more marriages you see, the more marital problems you see. If none of your peers are married, and none of your peers’ parents are (still) married, you might imagine marriage as a refuge from the rampant human jackassery you see all around you. You might, and this I think is the stronger analysis of Americans nowadays, think marriage is only for people who have already outgrown their jackassery (as if we ever do). And you will simply have no opportunity to learn just how lonely marriage can be.

Right now most Americans want to get married. But our image of marriage is sort of like the reverse of that old saw, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” We think marriage is so important and exalted that we aren’t ready for it–and the horizon of “ready for it” can shift based on your class background, so it stays tantalizingly out of reach.

* If you get married “too early,” in lots of big swathes of America–not all, there’s definitely a ring-by-spring culture of relatively early and often unsuccessful wedlock as well–everybody will scold you. This is the other thing, that we’re not a hedonistic culture at all. We’re an intensely sexually moralistic culture. There are rules, the rules exist because people believe they will lead to economic and familial stability, and the fact that many of the rules have very limited contact with reality doesn’t keep us from enforcing them with shame and fearmongering. (“If you don’t live together before marriage you’re just stupid and setting yourself up for divorce.” <- say what you like about sociology, but at least sociological studies haven’t come up with this one.)

We are trying hard to constrain heterosexual eros. We have basically two ways to do that: the purity culture, with its used-chewing-gum sex ed; and the moralistic pressure for premarital sex, cohabitation, and marriage as reward rather than foundation. And both of these distorted sexual cultures are enforced through shame and judgment.

Catholic school kids should read Kristin Lavransdatter in sex ed, is what I’m saying.

* Some of the rules probably do lead to economic and personal stability, though. I’ve seen studies suggesting that having lots of children is correlated with various negative outcome measures for the kids. Ditto stuff like staying in your poor neighborhood even when you make enough money to move out. The more a globalized, capitalist society structures itself around the expectations of delayed marriage, long stretches of credentialing education, constant availability (whether that means just-in-time scheduling or willingness to move across the country), dual-income households, and small family sizes, the harder it is to maintain extended-family bonds and form lasting, exuberantly fertile marriages. Which leads me to my next point….

* It’s a little weird that intra-Christian discussions of marriage usually assume that Christian marriage will lead to middle-class stability. Does Christian practice usually stabilize secular cultural institutions? We need to avoid the left-wing sociologists’ trap of defining moral virtue as “the behaviors which lead to economic and social well-being.” Who do we think is doing more to stabilize society: the unemployed couple having their sixth child, or the diligently-contracepting neighbor who thinks maybe she’ll have a child once she finishes her nursing degree? The answer is, “That’s the wrong question.”

Marriages that burden society may still be the site of sanctification for the participants. Christian marriage is not for the competent. If your lava is just flowing all over the place like crazy, congratulations, you are the target audience of the Christian faith. Go to church lol.

It’s not that it’s “okay” if your marriage doesn’t actually constrain your sexual desire. Unconstrained eros is not healthy for children or other living things. But it’s okay if you’re not okay. Your marriage can be a channel of grace for you and your spouse even if you never stop jackassing it up.

Have I mentioned that Catholic school kids should read Kristin Lavransdatter in sex ed? Although you should feel free to blame me when we raise a generation of girls with fetishes for the serially-penitent.

* And finally, a point a(n engaged) friend of mine made: Marriage doesn’t cure loneliness. But there’s more to say than that. It’s good that marriage does not rescue the spouses from their loneliness, because this loneliness can break them out of the shell of self-satisfaction. I’ve seen this with non-religious people as much as with the faithful: Marital loneliness is so painful and bleak, but it can also be the seedbed of patience, mercy, and service to others.

And Christians find that marital loneliness can lead the spouse to God. In disappointment (with our spouse or with ourselves), failure, and confusion, we learn to rely on Him. The turmoil of the heart is itself a prayer. The arrow must eventually find its haven in the heart of the target.

A Few Gay Marriage Links I Like (And One Straight Link About Gay Marriage)

You can hear echoes of these posts in my Lava thing–several of us working similar veins. EDITED! MORE LINKS BELOW!

Melinda Selmys, “Five Ways We Can Save Marriage Now”:

Yesterday I said that we need to move forward with building up the infrastructure to make traditional marriage into a realistic and attractive possibility. Today, I’m going to talk about some very practical things that we can start doing to help make this a reality.

In First Things’ Symposium on the SCOTUS decision, Matthew Schmitz makes the excellent point that marriage, as an institution, is in decline – and that this decline is linked to economics. “Marriage has declined the most among those who are the worst off. Men with only a high school degree or less are more likely than those with a further degree to have never married (25 percent v. 14 percent). A similar disparity exists between blacks (36 percent) and whites (16 percent). Those who do marry now marry later than ever.”

What’s missing in many cases is not a will to marry – 50% of those who have never married want to do so – but lack the means.

more

Wesley Hill, “Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?”:

…Yet I’m also a Christian, and according to historic Christian orthodoxy, marriage isn’t the only, or even the primary, place to find love. In the New Testament, as J. Louis Martyn once wrote, “the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.” Marriage in Christian theology is, you might say, demythologized. With the coming of Christ, its necessity is taken away: gone is the notion that without it we are doomed to lovelessness.

more

and his contribution to the First Things symposium:

In his memoir Denial: My Twenty-Five Years Without a Soul, the gay journalist Jonathan Rauch says that there once existed a frightened young man tortured with the certainty that there was no place in the world for the love he experienced. That man was Rauch, and there was no home for him—none, that is, until he and his fellow Americans decided he had the right to marry. “They and he have found, at last, a name for his soul. It is not monster or eunuch. Nor indeed homosexual. It is: husband.”

When I read Rauch’s book, that last sentence left a lump in my throat.

more; Melinda’s piece is the most practical but this Hill one was the one that spoke to me the most. You’ll have to SCROLL though, whoo boy.

Ross Douthat, “Gay Conservatism and Straight Liberation”:

…But in one of the ironies in which the arc of history specializes, while the conservative case for same-sex marriage triumphed in politics, the liberationist case against marriage’s centrality to human flourishing was winning in the wider culture.

You would not know this from Kennedy’s opinion, which is relentlessly upbeat about how “new insights have strengthened, not weakened” marriage, bringing “new dimensions of freedom” to society.

But the central “new dimension of freedom” being claimed by straight America is a freedom from marriage — from the institution as traditionally understood, and from wedlock and family, period.

more, although this section is the strongest imo

And it might be worth revisiting a couple things I wrote: this super emo post about the most beautiful argument for gay marriage; and this article about pro-life, pro-gay-marriage millenials and “the Great Unweaving.”

EDITED: Catherine Addington wisely re-posted this terrific post:

So I took Mother Maria’s advice, and I’m looking around. And here’s what I’ve seen in London night buses, in New York alleys, in DC parks, in Buenos Aires’ emerging spring, in my friends’ midnight confessions, in café conversations, in Rolling Stone: homelessness among young people of gender and sexual minorities, often if not usually at the hands of Christians.

So I’m trying to take Mother Maria’s advice again and comprehend that religiously. And when I do, here’s what I understand: this is a need in our communities that we have not just ignored but facilitated; this is a sin to be repented from; this is a void to be filled; these are neighbors to be served in love, and as I recall that is what Christians sign up for.

I think a lot of Christians find themselves where I have, feeling uncomfortable with any response to LGBTQ+ issues and so not responding at all. By that I mean I didn’t want to fall in with overt homophobia and active hatred as detailed in this article, of course, but I also didn’t know how to support causes like marriage equality in a faith that does not consider marriage the business of the state but a sacrament. I didn’t know how to be personally affirming in a meaningful way without also signing on to political activism because that is the only language I knew how to use.

That is pernicious. …

I know we have the means to rectify it because I have seen Christian social services at work. It is historically one of the things we are generally good at. (Must be something that Jesus guy said.) But we are not always specifically good at it.

Here’s what I mean: in the United States at least, Christians are really bad at youth poverty. I’m thinking of all the “young professional” ministries I’ve seen, of all the “young adult” groups that are functionally bourgeois singles’ get-togethers, of all the honest-to-God Christian “networking.” And so naturally we’re also bad at LGBTQ+ youth poverty, because we don’t comprehend that phrase religiously. LGBTQ+ gets put in the sexual-ethics box, youth gets put in the bourgeois-recruitment box, poverty gets put in the weekly-outreach box. When in fact we are actually dealing with an intersectional phenomenon, and one with an often Christian genesis.

more!–I wrote a dumber, blander and preachier piece on the same subject here which I guess may be relevant. (And which does have the benefit of being pitched specifically to LGBT Christians ourselves.)

While I’m self-linking (forgive me, Father…), I’ll point you all to the third point here, about seeking ways to be servants to gay couples.

Philadelphia Brought You a Startlingly Good Articulation of Catholic Teaching on Marriage, Vocation, And Family, And Now…

they’re offering a web seminar on the same topics. Chris Roberts, author of the excellent Creation & Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage and one of the authors of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s surprisingly terrific Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive (which I reviewed here), is giving a seminar TODAY, this evening at 7 – 8 Eastern! Sorry for the late notice but you can register here and I suspect you will not regret it.

EDITED to correct Chris’s book title!!

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