Religion teachers often dread teaching about the topic of sexual morality. It forces us to become the judgmental “enemy,” provided we have not already been dubbed the title. Major props to teachers who teach year-long Theology of the Body courses. God has a special place in heaven reserved for you.
A few weeks ago, I taught a lesson on how sexual complementarity in marriage is an expression of the human person’s thirst for alterity, or “otherness.” One of my students who experiences same sex attractions (and publicly identifies as gay) asked me in what sounded like a mix of frustration and desperation, “why won’t the Church let me fall in love like straight people can? Why can’t I have someone to comfort me when I come home and to fill my loneliness? Why can’t I have someone to call my own?”
Well, frankly, I thought, who are you to call anyone “your own.” No one has the “right” to possess or use another human being, even if it’s consensual. And no one exists for the sake of filling up your loneliness…other than Christ, that is. To use another person to gratify our need for comfort is to reduce their dignity to the status of a mere object. Not only that, but our infinite desire for perfect happiness would never find satisfaction in romantic love from a limited, sinful, and imperfect human being.
“What does it really mean to love someone?” I asked him. “What do you really desire when you look at someone you like? Who is he? What does he exist for?” It was clear that no one had ever asked him these questions before. As I mentioned in my previous post, “Why Romance Doesn’t Satisfy,” our contemporary culture presents love as an experience devoid of reason. It’s emotional, sentimental, and removed from the search for truth and the “ultimate answers”.
So how can I possibly blame my student for being scandalized by the Church’s teachings? He’s immersed in a culture where “real love” is presented as an advertisement-ready image of people using each other to gratify their emotional needs. The U.S. government itself perpetuates this reduction of love in the landmark Obergefell vs. Hodges case, stating that: “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.” If that’s the case, then why do so many married people complain about feeling lonely even after getting married? Perhaps because the purpose of human relationships transcends the unrealistic ideal of seeking the satisfaction of one’s desires in another human being.
When my student asked these questions, I was once again confronted with the juxtaposition of two different paradigms of love between which I flip-flop back and forth: love as consumption and mutual use, which seeks satisfaction from the other person versus love as service and offering which is lived “within the ambit of a Greater Love,” in which we seek our satisfaction.
Christianity works within the second paradigm, viewing the human person as a mystery in herself, beyond use or possession, and defined by her relationship with the ultimate Mystery from which her being proceeds. In this paradigm, marriage acts as a sign and sacrament of that Greater Love which transcends itself. Marriage, then, is complementary by nature because it involves the total gift of one’s body to the other. Part of the reason why homosexual relations are not regarded as a marriage is that the sameness of the partners’ bodies diminishes that gratuity and alterity of their gift to each other.
Nevertheless, many filter the Church’s teachings through the lens of love as mutual use and gratification. Through this lens, the Church’s invitation to a life-long, complementary, monogamous union and Its exclusion of same sex (sexual) partnerships can be perceived as a double standard. But once we shift to speaking about the Church’s teachings on its own terms (that is, within the paradigm of love as gift), it becomes much easier to talk about same sex love. It’s no longer about what people with SSA can and can’t have or do, but it’s about how they can find ways to serve and offer themselves to people of the same sex.
This paradigm-far from being repressive and confining-is liberating and creative. It opens us all up to an infinite number of opportunities to use one’s gifts in the service of other people’s good. It invites us not to repress and ignore our feelings and desires for intimacy with others, but to go to the depth of them…to discover the truth of them. It invites us to ask, “what is the root of your desire to love and be loved; Who is the origin and destiny of the person you love; where does his beauty come from?” This paradigm is ultimately an invitation to discover the Truth Himself.
While one would not be likely to find queer role models who express their desire for same sex intimacy through self-giving and sacrificial love on a Bravo series or on the pages of the Advocate, they do indeed exist. Gay Catholic blogger Eve Tushnet writes about how she expresses her desire for intimacy with other women by serving women at crisis pregnancy centers. Tushnet writes in her book Gay and Catholic,
“I knew that [my desire to serve women] was probably related in some complex way to my sexual orientation. The 70s lesbian feminists sometimes used the phrase ‘women’s energies’ to describe a certain distinctive rightness and belonging which is partly physical-the curve of a hip or a breast the bright or Husky tones a woman’s voice-and partly based on solidarity. I think that was a large part of what I wanted in service. This isn’t about sexual attraction at all…It’s a call that runs deeper, a longing that couldn’t be filled by sex even if sex were an option…My lesbianism often played out as a desire to serve and care for my girlfriends, and I did find that pregnancy counseling helped to fill a profound need I have to serve women.”
For Tushnet, as well as many others, the sublimation of homoerotic desire opens up numerous paths toward serving others of the same sex. Another beautiful example is the witness of Rilene Simpson in the documentary Desire of the Everlasting Hills. Rilene left her partner, with whom she had been in a committed romantic relationship for several years, after rediscovering her Catholic faith. Upon the news of her ex-partner’s cancer diagnosis years later, Rilene offered to nurse her until her death. Commenting on the experience of serving her former girlfriend at her deathbed, “if she was going to suffer, I wanted to help her suffer…if she was going to die, I wanted to be there for her. It was really full of grace…it was a peaceful going away and I wanted to make sure that she knew that even though I was turning away from the [gay] life, that I was not rejecting her and that I still loved her.”
Thinking back to my student’s question, I wondered if it could be possible for young people with SSA to be presented with a promising vision of love and fulfillment within the Church. It seems too often that Christians filter love through the same utilitarian lens that the secular culture uses, only then to slap Christian “moral values” on top as a formality. Love ends up being presented as “finding God’s perfect match for you…except if you’re gay,” rather than, “discovering the way God is calling you to use your gifts to serve Him and His creation.”
Instead of telling those with SSA what they can’t do with their desire, we need to present them with the variety of ways that their inclinations can be used for beautiful acts of charity and service toward others of the same sex. Above all, we should all be asking ourselves how our relationships with others can become an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the of the infinite, transcendent Love which God offered us on the Cross.