Homosexuality, Celibacy and Partnership: An Awkward Question

Homosexuality, Celibacy and Partnership: An Awkward Question July 16, 2014

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.

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