Let’s Talk About Monks, Baby
I loved a lot of things about Justin’s first contribution to this discussion. I’m going to give a kind of slantwise rather than head-on response. First I want to highlight the areas where he is modeling the way this conversation should go. Then I do want to suggest a way in which his approach is still too much shaped by contemporary American culture. And finally I will offer a different angle from which to approach the question.
Justin began by detailing his own mistakes and failures in approaching gay people in the past. I endorse his first and second points completely. Moreover, in general this is an area where both churches and individuals would do well to start with introspection and repentance.
I was extraordinarily lucky to come into the Church in a community where being gay was not treated as shameful or sinful. I was not sent to psychiatrists who claimed they could fix my sexuality; I was not told to fear friendship as a “near occasion of sin”; I was not ostracized, bullied, disowned, or even much gossiped about by people who claimed they were acting for my own good in the name of Jesus. Out of all the gay or same-sex attracted people I know who are seeking to lead lives faithful to the Catholic sexual ethic on homosexuality, I am the one with the least contact with “ex-gay” movements and ideologies by far.
And yet there came a point when I realized that I had been given only negative guidance in how to understand my sexuality and my future as a Christian. I had been told what I couldn’t do. Nobody had seemed interested in asking what I would do instead. And I myself had not even raised this as a question. I had asked a lot of questions about sex, and done my best to listen and obey. But I had asked very few questions about love and about my future.
This failure of imagination affected how I approached other gay people, in ways similar to the ones Justin noted in his own piece. I thought I was being blunt and even humble when I said that Christian life requires sacrifice and the important thing is to take up your cross willingly. In reality I was being naïve at best. What I was saying was true enough, but it ignored people’s need—including my own need—for guidance and support in what seemed like a trackless wilderness.
I had one of the least-harmful experiences as a gay Catholic of anybody I know. (That’s one of those sad little things in itself, isn’t it? Our churches should be the best places to be gay because they should be the best places to be anybody. Instead we wryly note, “It wasn’t so bad,” and do our best to be grateful.) And even so, I was harmed by the near-complete silence in my church on vocations—pathways of sacrificial love and devoted caregiving—for gay people. In turn I harmed others and myself by failing to raise this question, How can I give and receive love?
Justin has done so much good for people who have been harmed far more deeply by their churches than I was. This year I went to the Gay Christian Network conference for the first time. I was amazed and deeply grateful for the experience. I saw people recovering from years of shame and self-hatred, which had been reinforced by their families and churches. You hear a lot about “healing” in the context of same-sex attraction and Christianity. GCN is a different kind of healing ministry for gay people—where people are healed not of their same-sex attractions, but of despair, shame, resentment, corrosive anger, and self-loathing.
I hope that makes clear my deep gratitude toward Justin. He is doing so much good. But we are still not quite speaking the same language, I think—we have still not even “achieved disagreement” on what a Christian sexual ethic looks like.
I don’t plan to argue with Justin’s approach to Scripture. He raises good points; he wisely hints that if we want to know why he ended up where he is we should read his book rather than relying on one article; and I assume we both agree that there’s a difference between what Catholics would call “development of doctrine” (the working out of the implications of our faith over time, guided by the Holy Spirit) and culturally-influenced deviance from orthodoxy. We disagree on which things fall where, but we presumably also disagree on how doctrine develops in the first place, and I am not confident in my ability to re-adjudicate the Reformation.
And so this question, of whether gay marriage represents a development or a distortion of doctrine, is not one I will attempt to resolve. Instead I will try to use this article to suggest different vocabularies we might use and different images we might turn to in order to understand vocation generally.
For example, I wonder why Justin uses the word “romance” so often in place of “love,” “marriage,” or “self-gift.” There’s a hidden slippage in his writing, I think, among romance, intimacy, and sex. What is romance for him, as a theological category? What work is it doing that “love” or “self-gift” could not do?
These are tendencies of language and thought, not tightly-argued points in a syllogism, but let me express a reservation about the way Justin describes same-sex relationships. By focusing on “romance,” he seems to set up marriage as the gold standard and other relationships are judged by how closely they conform to the marital ideal. By this standard a same-sex relationship that’s “romantic” is closer, more intimate, quasi-marital, and therefore better, even if the couple doesn’t have sex for religious reasons.
I know we’re all exploring difficult territory, and if a particular person finds that “romance” language can help them grow in holiness in their relationships—for example, by helping them recognize the sublimation of their erotic desire into prayer and service—it’s not my job to tell them they need to use different words. But I strongly suspect that striving for “marriage minus sex” will often lead to disappointment. Marriage will always be better at being marriage than non-marriage will. The job of friendship or celibate life in partnership is not to be “as much marriage as possible under the circumstances”; these relationships have their own structure and integrity. I’ve learned a lot about how to be a friend by watching my friends learn how to be married, but I don’t model my friendships after marriages and I think it would be a bad idea to do so.
What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Monks
What if we looked not at marriage but at monasticism? Flourishing Christian communities rely on vowed religious—sorry to go all Catholic on you, y’all, but I gotta do me. There’s a reason that great Christian literature like The Brothers Karamazov, Kristin Lavransdatter, and that great gray grandfather of the gay Catholic canon Brideshead Revisited all show their secular characters existing under the long shadow of the monastery.
How would our conversation around sexual ethics in general, and marriage vs. celibacy in particular, change if we took monasticism seriously? Again, I don’t plan to answer the question, “But why do gay people have to be celibate?”—my answer to that question depends on how I read Scripture and how I relate to the Church, as I’ve already described. Instead I’d like to explore the experience of monastic celibacy for the individual who accepts it.
Monastics know that they experience astonishingly—sometimes kind of awfully—intense intimacy not only with God but with one another. Their celibacy heightens this intimacy rather than diminishing it.
Monasticism helps us see that both marriage and celibacy are eschatological witnesses that point us toward Heaven. In both ways of life we serve others, but we also offer images of the life to come. Marriage is an image of the wedding feast of the Lamb; celibacy is an image of the communal life of Heaven, where there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. Both ways of life are purgatorial in the sense that they’re preparatory: They are the arenas, we trust and pray, of our sanctification.
This language should suggest that neither way of life will come easily to us. The more you talk to people who have actually vowed themselves to celibacy, the less you believe that celibacy is only meant for people who have a special “gift” for it or who perceive a special calling to it. The fact that someone really struggles with celibacy doesn’t mean she hasn’t been called to it, any more than the fact that someone really struggles with keeping his marriage vows or being a good parent means that he wasn’t called to those ways of life. Plenty of people in religious life felt no specific attraction to celibacy, but they knew they were called to the priesthood or a religious order, and celibacy came as a consequence of that call.
Which arena of sanctification we end up in is determined, in most people’s lives, by many factors outside of our control. (“Arena of Sanctification” should be a reality show, by the way. Like “American Gladiator,” but for your soul.)
The more honest we are about the difficulties of religious life, including difficulties with celibacy, the more we are reminded of God’s grace. Monastics are people in radical confrontation with their own failures and imperfections, their self-will and wishful thinking; this may be one reason that monasteries have so often been refuges for penitents. Lifelong Christian sexual discipline is pretty much impossible for nearly everybody. Failure is the normal condition. This universal failure should teach us not that the discipline is too hard, but that we must be merciful with one another. (It’s this mercy and solidarity which have been so signally lacking in the way most Christian communities have responded to their gay members—so while we’re repenting of stuff we can return to my first section and repent of that.)
My goal here is not to say that all vocations other than marriage are directly parallel to monasticism. But overlooking monasticism makes it much harder to understand how a life without marriage (or romance) can be a life filled with love and intimacy.
Anyone seeking to forge a life in friendship, community, or celibate partnership should look to monastic life as well as married life in order to learn how to make a radical gift of self to God and others. If we took monasticism seriously in this conversation, we would immediately take ourselves out of the contemporary American context in which marriage is the only gold standard for love—and for intimacy and commitment. We would reconnect with the richness of Christian practice throughout history, and enrich our imaginations and vocabularies: We would learn a new language of love.
I have no idea how much of this language Justin and I could share! But I think asking that question might be a fruitful step forward.