I noted a while ago that there’s nothing about celibate partnerships in my book because when I wrote it I didn’t know anyone living that vocation. I’ve been trying to learn more, and one question I gnawed on for a while was the question of what made a celibate partnership different from a devoted and/or vowed friendship. On the one hand I did have the knee-jerk reaction of, “Isn’t this the same thing as friendship?”, but on the other hand, the celibate partnerships I’d seen did actually look different from my own friendships. I read A Queer Calling’s post on why the rite of brother-making isn’t for them, but wasn’t really sure I understood what they were saying.
Let me throw out some extremely preliminary thoughts on why vowed or devoted friendship, which is so resonant for me, something I long for and consider a part of my vocation, isn’t the same vocation as celibacy in partnership.
It really helped me when AQC started talking about drawing on monastic models. Friendship and monasticism have historically both drawn on the metaphor of sibling love: sisters and brothers. But I’ve never thought of my friendships as monastic.
Friendships and monastic communities add new people in different ways. Neither vocation is typically exclusive, but they’re open differently. Traditional vowed friendships often linked married people, e.g. two husbands would vow to care for one another and their families. I’ve really loved being friends with married people and parents, and in those relationships, new people are added to the relationship more or less the way they’re added in a family: One person decides to get married, or a couple has a baby. It’s not a communal decision.
My understanding, which could be wrong!, is that celibate partnerships would be open to other people via communal decisionmaking. Either the partnership becomes a tiny community of celibates, or the partners together decide how to live out hospitality.
To use a maybe weird metaphor, devoted friendship often works like a quilt, in which different patches are sewn together; celibate partnership, it seems to me, may work more like a whole piece of cloth, which stretches to cover more people.
That’s a huge generalization, since often devoted friendships are forged between two people who have independently taken religious vows–like Bl. Cardinal Newman and Ambrose St John. I think even there, you could say that the friends have a religious vocation and a vocation to love one another, two separate vocations, whereas in a celibate partnership the vocation to do life together is what creates the partnership and lends it its echoes of monasticism. But that may be an overly theoretical or even Procrustean attempt to make other people’s love fit into the same model as my love.Notice that the presence or absence of sexual attraction doesn’t make the difference here. I know a lot of people fear that celibate partnership is just “as much marriage as possible under the circumstances,” “marriage minus sex,” etc. And if that is how you think of your relationships (whether partnership or friendship) I suspect you’re setting yourself up for heartbreak–and possibly setting yourself up to hurt the other person. AQC had a good, forthright post on questions to ask yourself before entering a celibate partnership. It might be fruitful to ask yourself specifically whether you are called to something in the tradition of spiritual friendship, or vowed friendship (which tends to have more practical sharing-life-together, mutual-caretaking aspects), or celibacy in partnership. Those are separate options with their own histories and integrity.
They’ve got overlapping elements, and it’s not like you definitely have to pick only one. And in fact, you probably won’t know quite what you’re called to until you meet a particular person and begin to live out a relationship which turns out to look more like one path or another. We’re often wrong about our vocations; sometimes we’re trying to force other people to play the roles we’ve given them in our minds, when God has something different in mind for us. So trying to discern a call to a particular kind of relationship in the abstract is probably a fool’s errand. But the fact that these models of love–vowed friendship, spiritual friendship, and celibate partnership–are different should at least suggest that none of them is just a kludge, just marriage-minus.
Labeling issues aren’t the point here. The point is to suggest that there are several different lineages for devoted, chosen (to the extent that we choose our vocations), nonmarital relationships between adults, and the language you use will generally be a way of linking yourself to whichever lineage speaks to you most. Both monasticism and vowed friendship offer stories, a language of love, and therefore guidance; the paths they point out are somewhat different, so which story you enter into will affect the course of your life.
As you can probably tell, this post is pretty tentative, and I’d be interested in others’ thoughts.