Homosexuality, Celibacy and Partnership: An Awkward Question

Guest Blogger: BEN CONROY

I don’t need to tell anyone that the Catholic Church’s relationship with gay people has been a fraught one.

But I don’t think it’s pollyannaish or foolishly optimistic to say that there are intimations, signs, and beginnings of a better approach to the whole question, one that is consistent with both orthodox teaching and the lived experience of gay people.

It’s been led by a group of gay Catholics – like Eve Tushnet, Aaron Taylor, Gabriel Blanchard, and Melinda Selmys –, and Christians of other denominations – such as Wesley Hill, Kyle Keating, and Julie Rodgers. Others have done very valuable thinking and wondering: not least my gracious host, who has been called the “Momma Bear” of the movement.

In the unlikely event that readers of this blog are unfamiliar with these people, I wrote a very brief introduction to some of their thinking at The Irish Catholic, and there was a recent and very interesting profile of them at Slate. The group still doesn’t really have a collective name – Austin Ruse once dubbed them the “New Homophiles”, but none of them refer to themselves as such, so I’ve taken to calling them the “Spiritual Friendship Crowd”, after the website where many write, and the ideal.  The common thread that binds them together is the idea that being gay is a complicated, multifaceted thing that touches and affects every part of their lives, and that this complex, multifaceted thing called “being gay” can be a gift as well as a cross. They believe it’s possible both to be an out and proud gay Christian, and to live out a celibate life (or in some cases a married one – Selmys and Keating are married to people of the opposite sex in what they call “mixed-orientation marriages”).

Much of their writing focuses on the vocations that gay Christians could pursue (and not just gay Christians – many have noted that the Church could do with recovering some of its past enthusiasm for vocations besides marriage, the priesthood and religious life): here’s Elizabeth Scalia on difference, art, and beauty and Wesley Hill on deep, spiritual friendship. Eve Tushnet is writing a book about a whole variety of paths a celibate gay Christian could take.

Here’s Eve Tushnet’s book. Go and pre-order it, and I will not have blogged in vain.

I want to get specific, to take up Elizabeth’s invitation to wonder out loud, to speak a word in good faith, to ask an awkward question:

If we accept some of the distinctions these writers 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?

Lindsay and Sarah, who blog at a A Queer Calling, describe themselves as “a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple reflecting on life together”. They don’t see their relationship as marriage or a marriage analogue, nor do they see it as vowed friendship. But they live together, describe each other as partners, as a team, and as a family, and have committed to one another for the rest of their lives.

Is there a place in orthodox Christianity generally, and in Catholicism specifically, for Lindsay and Sarah, or couples like them? (They haven’t yet revealed which tradition they belong to).

This is a question that brings many more in its wake: should there be some kind of structure or framework that the Church adopts for these kinds of relationships? If they’re not marriages, and not vowed friendships, what are they exactly? How would recognition of such relationships change the Catholic understanding of the family? What happens if a couple like this separates?

I’m talking about Lindsay and Sarah as a starting point for conversation, and responding to their invitation to “share… thoughts, perspectives, and questions”.  I’m not conscripting them into any moral or theological battles or assuming they’re necessarily interested in the same questions as I am, and I’m very grateful to them for writing about their lives in such an intimate and dignified manner. They’ve helped me think about these questions in new ways.

So I throw the floor open. Is this something the Church should be thinking about? Should the queer calling of celibate, committed partnership be part of the conversation about the pastoral care of our gay brothers and sisters? If you’ve got thoughts, comments, corrections or clarifications, I’d welcome them wholeheartedly – because I think this is a conversation worth having.

About Ben Conroy

Ben Conroy is a columnist with The Irish Catholic, an intern at The Iona Institute, a contributor to discussions and debates in the Irish media, and an aspiring fantasy author.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    I come back to the question of procreation.

    If procreation is the good that is suggested by having a sacrament *dedicated* to it, marriage, then how can imitating that sacrament without procreation EVER be a good thing?

    If you truly loved your partner, you wouldn’t want THEM to be homosexual. You would want them to be heterosexual, because that is the greatest good for the individual, to be part of heterosexual monogamy, the greatest anti-poverty program ever invented- and not just materially.

    If Lindsay and Sarah actually loved each other, they’d be helping each other find good men and form normal families.

    Homosexuality will always and forever be second best to that, no matter what the new homophiles say.

  • Ron Turner

    Let’s get real – there are issues far more pressing which involve far more people inside and outside of the church. For those who think these discussions are intellectually stimulating, they’re welcome to them.

  • Mike Blackadder

    My first thought is that there does exist a structure within the church for lesbians and gays who choose to cohabitate and practice celibacy. Certainly this must be exactly the situation in many convents, seminaries and rectories. That of course doesn’t answer the question posed by a lay-catholic, one who is choosing a sort of hybrid lifestyle somewhere between a traditional family and single life. There is some structure that exists in seminaries and convents that support a choice of celibacy and at the same time the objective of the lay-persons lifestyle and the benefits of family support are not exactly represented in the religious vocation.

    I find that church teaching will tend to be pragmatic about this sort of question: approval of cohabitation of gays in celibacy. Does this arrangement constantly put these couples in a position where they are tempted to sin? Does this arrangement of agreed-to celibacy actually strengthen a commitment to personal celibacy (kind of analogous to a work-out partner)? What would prevent us interpreting that this cohabitation is on the most basic level a manifestation of human society?

    I personally think that two people who are gay and supporting eachother in celibacy are probably doing much better than many heterosexuals who try to avoid sins of sexual impurity. At the same time, do we endorse the lifestyle of a heterosexual man and heterosexual woman who are attracted to eachother living together outside of marriage, practicing celibacy without the objective of marrying in the future? That’s a real hypothetical. More questions than answers from me I guess.

  • Mike Blackadder

    I think the question though is whether Lindsay and Sarah are actually called to a vocation of marriage. Maybe Lindsay and Sarah have no more desire to have sex with a man than I do. Suggesting that they ought to try to be a heterosexual wife in that circumstance is just advocating another form of disordered marriage.

  • Mike Blackadder

    I think that a question of what to do with your life and maintaining peace and good standing in the Church is a very pressing issue for those affected. We want our brothers and sisters to be able to go out as Christians and proclaim the good news and bear fruit through the grace given to them. I don’t see how that is unimportant by any standard.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    A key to me would be, do they have separate bedrooms? Separate beds?

    If so, despite what I said above, they’re nothing more than roommates. Which is a form of the single life *every* young person should experience- learning to live together without sex leads to a better marriage in the future.

  • Elijah John McKnight

    Theodore, maybe you should do some research on homosexuality, before you pretend to know everything there is about it. To suggest that these two women find men is very dangerous and insensitive of considering their sexual orientation. Unfortunately, Catholics believe that Thomas Aquinas was a saint. Unfortunately, this guy was probably a terrible pastor. He universalized the human experience and nature. Ministry, conversation, or pastoral encounters that are not person-centered are harmful. Labeling groups of people rather than knowing them personally or encountering them on a personal basis fails to truly be PERSON-able. I would encourage you to read Andrew Sullivan’s book, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality.

  • Kelley

    I stumbled across an interesting interview recently. I’m trying to remember who it was… I think it might have been Ron Belgau who’s involved with the Spiritual Friendship group. He was talking about how the current family unit has changed over time and in our culture… it used to be that a person who was single still played an important role in a larger family structure. But there has been a shift from the extended family, to the nuclear family. Things are more transitory. Now if you don’t marry and start a family of your own, you are pretty much on your own. If the first meaning of family in our minds is extended family, single people are still very much a part of a family. If the first meaning of family in our minds is nuclear family, then the only way to be a part of a family is to get married. You can be part of a family as a kid, but as an adult it requires you to get married. That effects our church culture as well… the ministries are even organized that way. The model breaks down into categories… children, youth/teens, young adult singles, and then married or religious. That is the model and path one is expected to take. So what is the role of queer people, or even just single straight people, in the Church today?

    I ran across an interesting article exploring this concept even further, from a Catholic perspective… http://www.intercollegiatereview.com/index.php/2013/12/12/defining-marriage-isnt-defending-marriage/

    I think these are important aspects to consider when exploring this subject.

  • http://www.fordswords.net/ Ford1968

    I think if you’re going to consider the example of Lindsay and Sarah, you’re also going to have to consider the example of Gabriel Blanchard (Mudblood Catholic) and Stephen Long (Sacred Tension). Their attempt at “doing life” together came to a very difficult end. As Stephen beautifully writes:

    It all felt too good to be true – I had somehow found a person with whom I could do life, and we were striving to live a model of covenant, celibate friendship, like David and Jonathan. But there was a mounting tension and anguish as well. There was a deepening sorrow that he was the man I loved the most and yet I could not touch him. I could not kiss him. I couldn’t hold his hand, or embrace him too long. There was the horrible sorrow that, if we did live together, we would have to sleep in different rooms, and that I could never wake up next to him in the morning. He was the man I wanted to share my soul with, and yet our bodies could never meet – not even for a prolonged hug – because the combined force of our sexual drives was simply too strong. We never knew where to draw the line.

    The reality is that church teaching would require people who are gay to live contrary to God’s creative intention – we are meant to be in relationship. Physical intimacy is an important part of living into our humanity. As such, I believe that one either must shut down his sexuality (which I think is unnecessary, unjust, and just plain cruel), or be open to a physical relationship. It’s either “friendship” or “covenental relationship” (with all that entails). Trying to have it both ways may work for some, but is an option frought with the potential of emotional harm.

  • http://www.fordswords.net/ Ford1968

    I’m not sure if you allow links on this site. If so, this piece from which I quoted earlier is germane to the conversation.

    http://sacredtension.com/2013/10/07/falling-in-love/

  • http://jasonjdotbiz.wordpress.com/ JasonJ
  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    I have done a great research on homosexuality, including the testimony of former lesbians.

    I am for one objective right and wrong, not multiple.

    I consider Andrew Sullivan to be as mentally ill as I am.

  • http://thinkunity.com/ John Kuykendall

    I feel the people who wrote what can be interpreted as gay or the people interpreting the anti gay passages are only seeing the patterns and correlations in their minds. They are reacting to fear on the physical plane. The Bible and anything written with a spiritual message is in a code so people see their mind reflected in the code. It acts like a mirror. The spiritual experience is beyond fear and is about unity. It seems people see the world and the spiritual world through the filter of their mind and experiences. Christians for a long time have been taught the religion about Jesus as if the Bible was a history book or a law book that is throw at people to manipulate their minds. They were not taught the religion of Jesus, which would take them on a spiritual journey beyond the mind. Many of the passages might have been reacting to the culture at that
    time, or afraid to contradict it, or was trying to meet people where they were
    at and then take them to a higher level. No one knows. The Bible is not an
    infallible book. This book has been used to keep Christians from a genuine
    spiritual experience instead of leading them to discover and experience on
    their own the spiritual present moment. I feel many Christian authoritarians
    have very limited spiritual experience and see themselves as managers that are
    to lead the sheep. They use techniques similar to Adolph in that they give the
    congregation a superiority complex, and then whip them with fear so they are
    easy to manipulate.

    I feel people become priest and nuns because they want communion with the Divine Intelligence. Yes, we have gay, and heterosexual priest/nuns, but we have let them down so we see them drinking, abusing children and hurting themselves. First, we need to accept everyone where they are at and not build a wall around the church to exclude people. Second, we need to not just dictate, but teach and guide people into the Divinity Within so the path is shown from the inside to the outside. Priest and nuns entered because they are idealistic, but we don’t guide them to the light, we don’t trust the light instead we dictate for God. We need to let God be the director to guide each individual in His own way. I am happily married, but I love my gay friends. I don’t know their experience, but I know they are being guided from within, but without out support and guidance they have a hard time just like the heterosexuals who turn to drink and drugs. The Catholic tradition is to manipulate and control the teachings, but in Christian Mysticism one creates divine humans by looking inward to the individual path to God Consciousness.

  • fredx2

    This sounds like a scam. If a gay decides to be celibate, then they have no real reason to do so within the confines of a” one-person-only-exclusive-committed-friendship-for-life”

    Face it, they want to recreate a marriage. And in that case, perhaps they are feigning celibacy. Who would know? If they really were doing this, and felt the need for a household and other people, why not have several of them join in a household? No, there is something fishy here.

  • cgosling

    In order for the church to change its mind about celibacy, God would have to change his mind first. But, what was is God’s truth yesterday, must be God’s truth today. Is not truth everlasting and unchanging, or is truth relative to changing times and the needs of the church? I wonder.

  • Episteme

    As a celibate single (straight) man in my thirties living alone, I agree with both you and the Intercollegiate Review article that you’ve linked to here, and likewise agree that it’s unfortunate that there’s somewhat of an autonomic reaction among many Catholics to many of homosexuals.

    While reading this piece, my thought also went immediately to those of us who are single yet straight without a simple path to marriage or a vocation to religious life, leaving us effectively alone even despite our ministry within our parishes (I often mention that, with families and couples forming the social core of the parish, it’s those of us who are singles or widows/widowers who are very often at the service core — hence why I’m up alone each morning to set up and lector 6:45am mass while families of the parish are getting themselves ready as a loving unit for their days).

    If you look around the web, you’ll see enough suspicious whispers of unmarried — even those of us unmarried against our will and desperate for a family — Catholics, assuming the worst of us. Is there any surprise that, regardless of my feelings on the sinful nature of the homosexual act itself, that I nevertheless have a number of gay friends who I feel are deserving of as much if not more pastoral support than I for their human value and talents? As a celibate and virgin, it takes me a lot of effort to stop and remember human sexuality at this point, anyway…

  • Victor

    ((( Homosexuality, Celibacy and Partnership: An Awkward Question )))

    So true Anchoress and who am I to be even trying to give my Canadian two cents worth when I believe that celibacy for GOD should not be compromised for whatever reason.
    If we’re discussing whether we should be changing The Bride of Christ in any way because we feel sorry for the spiritual reality pain that some good human Christian people have to deal with, well I’m sorry but long story short, “I” must also bow out just like many of your fast readers are doing. :)
    God Bless

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    The sex drive, in all cases, is an instinctual wish for procreation.

    Even when it is perverted into homosexuality, it’s still a wish for procreation.

    The only way to procreate, without massive prostitution and technological intervention, is heterosexuality. That is a fact you cannot get around.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    The first thing you have to do to gain communion with the Divine Intelligence, is admit that you are not the Divine Intelligence.

    And that you have flaws.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    Bull. The first commandment to married people is “Be Fruitful and multiply”.

  • irena mangone

    So what about those poor souls who are barren. And are not fruitful do we cast them aside and others who are fruitful abuse their children even kill them. One cannot win. Best is to love God and do the best we can without feeling we are condemned.

  • Ben Conroy

    I reckon it is very possible to have more than one discussion at once!

  • Ben Conroy

    Just want to thank the commenters here – you guys restoring my faith in the idea of comments sections.

  • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

    The answer to the question you are raising is clear and simple: No.

    The more it’s reflected upon? A thousand times no….

    1. Eros is not defined in the Church as something that can be directed man to man or woman to woman–that is not its purpose.
    2. Same-sex attraction is an impulse that seeks to open the vista of eros between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. And you can’t will such an attraction without willing disorder.

    To the extent that same-sex couplehood is based on eros/SSA, it’s not in keeping with the dignity of the human person and cannot be supported.

    Chastity, too, is not defined merely reductively for the person with SSA any more than it is defined reductively for the person without it–*every* person is called to a fullness of sexual identity integration that doesn’t stop merely at whether or not you’re engaging in physical sexual relations with someone else.

    Chastity is from the inside out. Also, Marriage is not reducible to sexual relations, but involves the fullness of a common life. Same-sex “couplehood”, whether acknowledged or not, treads into the marital territory by letting eros fuel the dynamics of a shared common life, just as what occurs in marriage.

    So, the answer is no.

  • Dan Ring

    As i see it the Catholic Church has NEVER condemned the state of homosexuality but rather sodomy. A I wrong?

  • Mrshopey

    It comes to, in my book, scandal because of the general understanding of partner. If I were living with a man, who wasn’t my husband, and introduced him as my partner, it would give scandal because of the outward appearance no matter if we are celibate, etc. I have read that it is a lie, that two people who are attracted to each other can live in near occasion of sin for the rest of their lives. I also wonder if it is an offense against reason, because you are giving the illusion of living like a married person, but then you would be defensive if someone questioned if you were living in sin?
    Those are my concerns about partnership and the use of the term. It just seems like a lie and confusing at best.

  • http://www.jonathanfsullivan.com/ Jonathan F. Sullivan

    Yes, but God created Eve in the first place because it was not good that man be alone. It’s a “both-and.”

  • http://www.fordswords.net/ Ford1968

    Hi cgosling –

    Great question. One might conclude that what we understand as God’s commands is a relfection of His eternal truth. But I’m not sure that’s right.

    The daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27: 1-11) challenged God-given inheritance law that disregarded families with no male heir. In the story, Moses takes their challenge to the Lord who instructs him to change the law so as to include the daughters. God rewrote His own law so that it was more just.

    I think those who view biblical law as fixed and unyielding ignore the precedents laid out in the bible itself. According to the holy text, God’s law evolves in the direction of justice and inclusion.

    God’s commands change over time and in different contexts. He is faithful and has sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and guide us. If His commands were fixed and wholly revealed through scripture, there would be no need for the Holy Spirit.

    So the question on the table is this: what is God’s will regarding queer people in our current time and in our unique context. For me, as a Christian who is gay, the answer is to fully live into the life He has given me. Sexual repression separated me from God; in my life it was sinful. My marriage is an abundant, God-given blessing.

  • Lauren

    Any question that affects one of us affects all of us. Let’s be generous and acknowledge the Body of Christ.

  • http://jasonjdotbiz.wordpress.com/ JasonJ

    Really, Theodore. Many cannot/will not procreate, are all of these people out of Gods will http://jasonjdotbiz.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/marriage-1-woman-1-man-from-the-beginning-of-timecreation-2/? Some examples of such people include infertile heterosexual couples, gay couples, senior citizens, those choosing not to have children etc, are they all out of Gods will and condemned?

  • Victor

    ((( are they all out of Gods will and condemned? )))

    God condemns not “ONE” of His Eternal Cells at any time during Eternity, not even on “Groundhog Day”! :)

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107048/

    God Bless

  • niknac

    There are some people within the Catholic faith tradition, of all different gender attraction and sexual orientation, who choose to be chaste. For some, it is for a period of time. For others, it is lifelong. It is always necessarily going to be a small subset of people within the faith. For most of those celibate, it is a personal decision, not publicly proclaimed, unlike clerical celibacy, which while much vaunted is largely ceremonial in nature and not an actual practice.

    To say that Gays alone, of the whole, must remain celibate to be in communion with the Catholic Church, while heterosexuals may marry and engage their partners in active sexuality, is a position of intolerance and bigotry.

  • captcrisis

    I agree.

    It’s good that a group of Catholics is formulating a more realistic approach to gay people, but they represent a smaller and smaller part of the Church. Majorities now support same sex marriage, and those majorities will soon become overwhelming (although, of course, they have NO representation among the Catholic bloggers here at Patheos).

  • captcrisis

    How can you be so sure that God always follows the Church’s orders?

  • http://acatholicviewoftheworld.wordpress.com/ Roki

    If by “state” you mean “homosexual attractions and temptations”, you are correct that the Catholic Church does not condemn these. They are the same as any other attraction or temptation anyone else might have.

    The Church does condemn sodomy, as well as masturbation and pretty much all genital activity that does not lead to at least the possibility of procreation, as well as all intimate activity outside of marriage. This covers anything anyone would call “homosexual sex”, but does not cover ordinary gestures of affection that are not genital. So hugs and kisses and holding hands and so on – all of which vary in meaning from one culture to another – are not inherently sinful. However, such gestures may be a near occasion of sin (i.e., avoidable temptations) or they may give scandal (i.e., lead others into temptation). Therefore, since the Church generally advises people to avoid any activity that would feed the desire for sinful activity, the advice to homosexual people usually is to “practice celibate chastity.”

    The Church is not trying to say, “Sex is bad!” but rather is trying to say, “Sex is beautiful and powerful, but if its beauty and power is not respected by practicing it within marriage, it becomes dangerous and destructive.”


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