Some background: while most conservative Christians have applauded the so-called “New Homophile” movement of celibate gay Christians, some of them take exception to the fact that some of them sometimes think that their “gay identity” can be a source of spiritual gifts and vocation.
One of the prominent in this camp is Austin Ruse, who wrote a (frankly) disastrous column on the issue, lambasted by Damon Linker among others. In the wake of this, Ruse wrote a much more measured and charitable column, something which I think he should be commended for.
I have been silent for a while, but here are a few propositions on the issue.
Can we please err on the side of charity? This is really the first and last. Yes, of course, caritas without veritate is no love at all, but when in doubt, we should probably err on the side of charity and generosity. Perhaps Ruse did not intend to come off as strikingly petty and mean-spirited by spending voluminous ink mocking Eve Tushnet’s socks, but can he be surprised, in retrospect, that he did? I think Ruse does agree that Tushnet and her confrères are walking a very difficult path and at least trying to be faithful to the Church in a context of great difficulty both personal and social. Ruse seems to be ticked off that the “New Homophiles” are garnering (a very tiny smattering of) mostly-positive mainstream media attention–but don’t all of us see the need of presenting a face of the Church to the world that is more than a series of angry “No!”‘s? If any circumstance calls for “giving the benefit of the doubt”, surely this is one of them.
This is entirely, or almost entirely, a semantic debate. This debate centers on the meaning of “gay identity.” Is it possible that both sides of the debate are using the same phrase to mean different things? One of the great benefits of the ecumenical movement started in the wake of Vatican II has been to show that while there are real differences between denominations, it is also the case that a longstanding cause of division within the Church has been precisely this phenomenon.
For example, Ruse, and many of those who agree with him, are fond of making the point that the only identity we can have is as “children of God.” Stated thus, who could disagree with this? But, of course, things are more complex than that. After all, the idea that the only identity we have is as “children of God” is used by Christian progressives to deny the idea that gender differences have value in the eyes of God. “In Christ, there is no male or female.” How that verse has been abused…
I hope that my fundamental identity is as a child of God. But I have other identities as well: Frenchman; male; husband; father; writer… What God asks of me is not to erase those identities or destroy them, but rather, negatively, to prevent them from conflicting with my (no one disputes this) more fundamental identity as a child of God, and positively, to order them towards God’s design for me. And, indeed, since grace perfects nature, my fundamental identity should enhance those “subsidiary” identities. Because I am a child of God first, I am a better Frenchman because my more fundamental identity as a child of God means I cannot fall from patriotism into the idolatry of nationalism; because Christian charity compels me to serve the common good of my homeland; and so on. I am a better male because I am a child of God, since it prevents me from succumbing to crude, toxic machismo, or from shirking my duties as husband and father. Etc.
This, it seems to me, is the correct Christian teaching: not that our “child of God identity” should erase our other identities, but on the contrary, by subsuming them into the right order, sanctify them. Again: grace perfects nature. Our secondary identities are indeed valued by God so long as we do not make them primary. This is how the Church can both affirm that “in Christ there is no male or female” and yet that sexual complementarity and gender differences have a place in the plan of God.
Now, of course, if someone said the same things about, say, “my identity as an abortionist”, we would have no patience for that, and quite rightly so. But that would just be semantics. “Abortionist” is not an identity; no one is born with an innate proclivity towards performing abortions; no one is born an abortionist the way one is born a Frenchman or an Argentine; God does not call anyone to be an abortionist the way he calls people to be doctors or public servants. Is “gay identity” something like that?
The Magisterium is silent on “gay identity.” Ruse writes “The Church teaches there is no ‘gay identity.’ We are children of God—first, last and always, and the Church frowns on anything else.” Well, I’ve read my Catechism pretty closely and (I say this sincerely) I don’t know where Ruse gets this. The CDF does say that same-sex attraction is a proclivity towards an intrinsic evil. But this is why this debate is so intensely frustrating: semantics. As I wrote above, I don’t think that historic Christian teaching holds that we are children of God “first, last” full stop. There is no clear definition of “identity.” And when we talk about “identity” we really mean a confusing bundle of things and are often talking past each other. The very concept of “gay identity”, like “heterosexual identity” (as Foucault wrote) is a very recent one and one that does not map onto Christian categories very well. The Church doesn’t teach anything on “gay identity”, one way or another, simply because the concept doesn’t enter into the categories that the Church uses to talk about the issue.
What this means isn’t necessarily that we should never use the concept. Paul calls on us to “take every thought prisoner and make it obey the Messiah”, and the great genius of Christian thought, particularly Catholic, has precisely been its capacity to, Borg-like, grab concepts from secular culture and assimilate them, “take them prisoner and make it obey the Messiah.” In the pre-Vatican II Church, the academic Karol Wojtyla’s attempt to use phenomenology in formulating Christian ethics made him into something close to a radical, and yet we now see that Christian phenomenology has brought a lot to the Tradition. In other words, it seems to me, we should exercise prudence, neither thoughtlessly assimilating nor casting premature anathemas, and generosity, giving the benefit of the doubt to intelligent, faithful children of the Church who make use of such concepts. As Augustine said, in dubiis libertas.
In the end, I don’t think that Ruse would deny anything I’ve written above about how we do have “secondary” identities that we shouldn’t erase but rather put in the service of our primary identity as children of God. After all, he has secondary identities too, I’m sure, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought about them in roughly the way I’ve laid out. So why does he write “We are children of God—first, last and always, and the Church frowns on anything else.”? Because the word “identity” itself is confusing and we are largely talking past each other.
One of the most hallowed and fundamental Catholic teachings is the ability to turn evil into good. Both Augustine and Aquinas write that God permits (but does not will) evil as a way to turn it into a greater good. God’s design for Israel was for it to be a “priestly nation”, different from the other nations, and thereby shining his glory into the world; and yet, the Israelites demanded a king “to be like the other nations,” a big no-no. But God then used the Israelites’ desire for a king to bring about the glorious Davidic kingship and the Davidic Covenant, one of the fundamental stepping stones towards God’s self-revelation in Christ.
This is the meaning of the Paschal Triduum: God defeats sin by taking it in and turning it into a greater good. Felix culpa! Lucky fault that brought us such a Savior! This sentiment is one of the oldest and most hallowed in Christian history, a gift of the sensus fidelium. Is this an endorsement of sin? By no means! God does not will sin and evil, but he is so great that instead of simply abolishing it, he turns it into a greater good. It is an evil that we fell from grace in Adam, but the Heavenly Jerusalem will be better than the Garden of Eden.
There is a story that Teresa of Avila turned to Christ in despair at the enormous opposition she faced in her efforts to reform the Carmelite Order. Why does everybody hate me? Why does everything turn against me? And Christ responded to her in an apparition: “But Teresa, this is what I do to those whom I love.” And Teresa joked: “No wonder you have so few friends.” Of course, God is not a sadist who actively visits suffering on those whom he loves. But he was merely acknowledging the fact that, in a sinful world, following Christ means taking up the Cross.
In the life of every great saint we find this element of suffering, but we also find that they did not simply stoically accept the suffering, or combat it, but turned it into a greater good. Ignatius of Loyola was stymied in his plans to go from Rome to the Holy Land, but he used that as an opportunity to put himself and his companions at the service of the Pope, establishing a precedent that would be a key aspect of the fruitfulness of the charism of the Society of Jesus. Ignatius of Antioch did not simply accept his martyrdom with the square-jawed, grim-faced fortitude of the pagan heroes, he positively relished the opportunity for his wheat to be ground up into the bread of life, understanding that his sacrifice would build up the Church. And yet who doubts that murdering Christians for their faith is an objective evil?
Here’s a story. I used to teach catechism in my parish, and once we watched a very moving video about a husband and father who is a tetraplegic. There is a beautiful charism to handicap: the hardest thing for us as Christians is to recognize our fundamental helplessness without Christ, and those who are made practically helpless can have a “shortcut.” All Christians, and the entire world, got to witness the Spirit-filled glory of Pope St John Paul II’s later years, when he turned his disease and helplessness into a tremendous witness of the beauty and fruitfulness of Christian sacrifice. The father described the solace he experienced in Church and in prayer; how his disease brought him closer to his children and his wife. Few eyes in the room were dry. At some point he said that after raging against his accident and misfortune for many years, he had now come to see it as a gift from God.
Later, I reflected. Show a bunch of Christians a man talking about being paralyzed from the neck down as a spiritual gift, and they will all be edified. But don’t you dare say the same thing about same-sex attraction!
God does not make people tetraplegic, but he does give us spiritual resources not just to “handle” such misfortunes, but to turn them into greater goods, and even spiritual gifts. We have all had the experience of a misfortune befalling us, and then, looking back later, seeing how this misfortune turned into a greater good; and perhaps we even saw the fingerprints of the Spirit and Providence. This action of God of turning evil into greater goods is both a great dogmatic truth of the Christian faith and one of the building blocks of the spiritual life. It is not controversial, it is utterly commonplace and even banal.
Why is it that we can say this about tetraplegy, or John Paul II’s Parkinson’s disease, but we can’t say that about same-sex attraction? It makes no sense to me.
As a married heterosexual male, I, too, have a bundle of disordered, concupiscent desires and urges that I am called to discipline and direct in accordance with my vocation, a duty at which I frequently fail. But I am called not to repress my sexual desires, but rather reorder and sublimate them in their proper direction. A standard piece of lore in religious communities is that novices who repress their sexual faculties instead of sublimating them will be unhappy in the monastic life, and be a source of disturbance to the whole community, and part of the guidance provided during the novitiate is ordered precisely towards that goal of sublimating the sexual drive rather than repressing it.
The Gamaliel Rule. In the Acts of the Apostle, the wise rabbi Gamaliel is asked by zealous Jews to crack down on Christians. He cautions prudence, saying that if the new movement is from God, it will be impossible to stop it; if it is not from God, it will go away on its own. There is profound wisdom there. The Church, at its best, follows the Gamaliel Rule. In the Middle Ages, the new mendicant orders were very controversial, but the Church practiced the Gamaliel Rule, and how much richer are we all as a result! I can’t help but think that if the Church had followed the Gamaliel Rule with Luther, disaster might have been averted. The Church also follows the Gamaliel Rule when it comes to things like Marian apparitions–it can be quite frustrating, when one looks at e.g. the obviously fraudulent Medjugorge “apparitions”, but we must still recognize its wisdom.
Someone who has indelible same-sex attraction (as the Magisterium tells us is possible) is called to a life of sacrifice, which is holy, and to a celibate vocation, which the Church dogmatically teaches is a more blessed vocation than the state of marriage. If someone like that, who accepts the Church’s teaching, who is intelligent and of good faith and of good will, states that they have been able, through the Spirit, to see spiritual gifts through their attraction, my thoughts, then, are pretty much the following: (a) yep, sounds plausible, since the Spirit gives us resources to turn bad into greater good; (b) given that these people are intelligent and faithful and of good will, and given that I don’t know what it’s like to be indelibly same-sex attracted, I should probably give them the benefit of the doubt anyway.
I recently had dinner with a seminarian. This very impressive man had discerned his vocation after an “Augustinian” life of worldly tribulation, including romantic relationships. One thing he said, relating to the spiritual guidance he receives in the seminary about priestly celibacy, is that someone who has no sexual desire would not make a good priest. Part of the priestly vocation is sacrifice, as the Bible teaches, and it is through his sacrifice that the celibate priest receives the spiritual gifts that allow him to pursue his vocation. What is in the context of a priestly vocation a bad thing–sexual desire–is turned into a greater good.
Moving on to Ruse’s specific criticisms, he writes that “The New Homophiles reject the notion that same-sex desire can or should be treated with psychological counseling, though the Church clearly teaches that same-sex desire has a psychological origin.” Well, first of all, the Church teaches that the sources of same-sex attraction are “largely unexplained.” Second of all, I think we can all agree that the New Homophiles do not reject “psychological counseling” defined so broadly. But the devil, as they say, is in the details.
Recently, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, its public-policy arm and an important institution in the world of American conservative Evangelicalism, held a conference on the family and same-sex attraction. This was notable because Al Mohler, a prominent “anti-gay” Southern Baptist pastor, admitted for the first time that sexual orientation exists, and that celibate vocations exist. My reaction at the time was “Well, guys, if you’d just read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you wouldn’t have spent twenty years running into dead ends.” What a shame it would be if as the Evangelical Protestants are finally repenting of some of their errors, we should blindly follow go into the same alleys they just left! (As an aside, we should all ardently pray and wish that they also see the light about contraception.)
I think we should all agree (as Ruse implicitly concedes) that the record of “treating same-sex desire with counseling” is, at the very least, ah, shall we say, mixed. And I think we should all agree that, while for a great many people, sexual orientation is indeed fluid, for many others (as the Church recognizes), it is decidedly not. And this stubborn fact remains a stubborn fact. What is the vocation of these people? What is God’s plan for them? What are God’s gifts towards them, since–and this is such commonplace and ancient Christian teaching that I should not have to defend it–He never gives sufferings or trials without the gifts to turn them into a greater good?
The New Homophiles are absolutely correct in saying that there is no vocation to “not do something.” A Christian does not have a vocation to “not kill, lie, cheat or steal”–he has a vocation to love his neighbor; he does not have a vocation to “not perform idolatry”–he has a vocation to love God. In Fr Barron’s helpful phrase, each of the Church’s “No’s” is a “No to a No” which helps to reveal a greater “Yes.” The “No’s” are there not to be blindly obeyed, but to reveal the greater “Yes” of our vocation. As a husband, I do not have a vocation to “not have sex with other women”–I have a vocation to be a husband to my wife. As a father, I don’t have a vocation to “not punch my daughter in the face”–I have a vocation to be a good father. A priest does not have a vocation to “not have sex”–he has a vocation to be a priest. A deeply same-sex attracted person does not have a vocation to “not have sex”–she has a vocation to . . .
. . .
Christian duty and charity compels the Church to complete that sentence. And the New Homophiles are trying to do that with, to reiterate, a good faith (in all senses of that term) and intelligence that compels us to at least apply the Gamaliel Rule.
The Church has always met heresy with development of doctrine. The ante-Nicene Church indeed taught the divinity of Christ and the existence of one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but in a sometimes confused way; it met Arianism with the much more developed teaching of the Trinity and consubstantiality and hypostatic union. For the same reason, you don’t find a fully developed teaching on the Eucharist in the first millennium of the Church because nobody questioned the doctrine of the Real Presence. It goes back to the very beginning: without Christian Judaizers, we wouldn’t have Paul’s Epistle to the Romans! Progressive Catholics sometimes say that historically the Church didn’t put such emphasis on the complementarity of the sexes within marriage, or the importance of the family to society, and they have a point–but the Church before the 20th century didn’t have to deal with the Sexual Revolution, and the “signs of the times” moved the Church to a deeper, fuller, more developed understanding of its own doctrine. We have to look at such “signs of the times” as opportunities to move to a more profound understanding of our own faith, and an opportunity for genuine doctrinal development. The gay rights phenomenon is such a “sign of the times”, and reflects a profound failure of reflection and action on the part of the Church when it comes to the vocation of deeply same-sex attracted people. It is a dogmatic truth of the Christian faith, taught in Sacred Scripture and at the Council of Trent, that the celibate vocation is the most blessed of vocations. The Bible teaches us that the Christian faith is the action by which God redeems his Good Creation fallen in thrall to sin, and that in order to carry this design, he calls each and every one of us to a specific vocation as part of this great cosmic struggle. If, as the Church teaches, deeply same-sex attracted people have celibate vocations, this means that they have the most blessed of vocations, and that they are a key element in God’s plan for His Church and the world. It is therefore the duty of the Church to have serious, profound, and useful things to say about these vocations, something that is not just “no” or saccharine banalities.
After all, the Church has plenty more to say about the marriage vocation than “don’t commit adultery” and “I love you”; plenty more to say about the priestly vocation than “don’t have sex” and “I love you.” Plenty more to say about the vocation to be a politician; a doctor; a lawyer; a mother; a father; a friend; a soldier. For someone who discerns any of these vocations, the Church offers profound spiritual reflection; great saints to act as examples and spiritual guides; a deep theological legacy; a recognized place within the Body of Christ; and more. I think we should be able to agree that what the Church has historically offered to deeply same-sex attracted people has been, in many cases, deeply insufficient, to the detriment of our brothers and sisters and the Church at large.
I take Ruse’s latest column as an olive branch and want to take it as face value. (Though, of course, I can’t speak for “the New Homophiles”, whatever that means.) Neither the New Homophiles nor Courage have a charism of infallibility, and they obviously agree on a lot more than they disagree. I don’t know anything about Courage other than it exists, and have nothing against it. And I suspect that almost all disagreements are a lot more superficial and semantic than it might appear at first, which is a big part of my argument here. I think Ruse recognizes, as do we all, that this is an area where the Church could do better, and where we all need to pull in the same direction, with the loving “fellowship” that Paul calls upon us. For this I pray.