The question we’ve been given is, “What are your beliefs about morally appropriate relationships between persons who experience same-sex attraction?” This is (a modified version of) the question being asked by American culture today, but there are a couple of respects in which I don’t think it’s the best question to address the needs of our churches and the longings of our hearts.
The best thing about this question is its focus on relationships: on love. So much Christian discussion about the role of gay and same-sex attracted people in our churches focuses instead on acts or on identities. There is a place for talking about both of these things, but the central question, I believe, is, “How are gay and same-sex attracted people called to give and receive love?” This is a question about relationships.
It’s not a question solely about relationships between same-sex attracted people, though. I’m sorry to spend so much time on “Why is this the question we’re being asked?”, but I think the choice of question illuminates a serious problem in American Christian cultures. When we think about love between adults, we think in terms of sexual relationships: not necessarily marital relationships, since Americans increasingly delay marriage or choose not to marry, but relationships which could become marriages. This is the form of love, kinship, and care that we acknowledge in law and culture. It is almost the only form of love between adults that we recognize.
Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the recent case making gay marriage the law of the land, expresses our current cultural situation poignantly in lines like:
Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations. …
Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. …
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. …
[Gay couples’] hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.
Justice Kennedy was responding to a deep cultural belief. That’s why so many supporters of his decision chose this passage to quote, and some are considering using it in their own wedding vows.
This is a vision of marriage as caregiving and intimate love—but a vision in which marriage is the only hope for caregiving and intimate love.
That isn’t the view of the Bible or the Christian faith as practiced through history. Churches today often act as though the only question facing them is, “Should we do gay marriage?” If we ask, “How are gay and same-sex attracted people called to give and receive love?”, we will get an answer which is much more challenging to our culture—and necessary for all our churches to hear.
Regardless of what our churches believe about gay marriage, they must rediscover the many forms of love, kinship, and care which exist outside of marriage. I’m Catholic—that’s my answer to the “gay marriage: yes or no?” question, I’m a daughter of the Church and I do my shaky best to avoid heresy—but it’s clear that my own church needs this rediscovery of nonmarital love too. Because the Catholic Church does not perform same-sex marriages, I’ve been more or less forced to explore these other forms of love, but I hope that this exploration can bear fruit for all the churches.
So here are some of the forms of love that I have seen gay people live fruitfully, within churches which reserve marriage for a man and a woman.
First, and most central to my own life, friendship.
Friendship is one of the forms of love that the Bible uses to teach us what it means to love and be loved by God. The Bible uses a splendid array of marital imagery—always between a man and a woman—but it also uses imagery of the parent-child relationship (both maternal and paternal). And, most directly in the New Testament, Scripture holds up friendship as a lens through which we can understand the love between God and the human soul. Friendship is one of the forms of human love that Jesus himself experienced, unlike marriage and parenthood, so it should come as no surprise that He turns easily to the language of friendship to express the sacrificial love He has for his disciples—and the sacrificial love He expects from them in return. Jesus tells us in John 15:13 – 5, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”
This could not be further from the use of the word “friend” to mean “person I annoy on Facebook.”
We can learn a few things from Jesus’ description and practice of friendship. First, we learn that both cross-sex and same-sex friendship can mirror the love between God and humans, since the followers and friends of Jesus included both men and women.
Second, we can see that Jesus, Love Himself, forged an intimate friendship with the “beloved disciple” John. Friendship for Jesus was not an abstract matter of obedience but a tender and personal relationship. Jesus weeps for His friend Lazarus; His friend John reclines on his breast at dinner. Friendship linked the disciples into a community which became the early Church.
Jesus’ friendship was demanding. He said that friends could choose to die for one another. A later author, the English medieval monk Aelred of Rievaulx, picked up on this language of sacrificial love in his beautiful dialogues Spiritual Friendship. Friendship was not a relationship of mere companionship but one of devotion, even to the end.
And Jesus’ friendship could also become kinship in the most direct and practical way. On the Cross He gave His mother Mary into John’s care, linking them together as kin through their love of Him.
The Christian understanding of friendship as a relationship of sacrificial love did not end there. Let me vastly oversimplify a complex history: In both Eastern and Western Christianity, same-sex friendship was a possible means of forming kinship bonds and pledging devoted love and care, from the ancient Church into the early modern era. Alan Bray’s sublime history The Friend uses England as a case study, examining how friendship-as-kinship became adorned with promises, rituals, and obligations; the problems it caused, and the problems it solved; and how it finally died out.
Nobody wants every friendship to be this kind of lifelong, promise-adorned, caregiving relationship. But both married and unmarried lay Christians would find their callings in life so much better supported if friendship-as-kinship were more recognized as a possibility. Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian is a terrific portrayal of the longing for friends who become brothers. Hill is alive to the complexities and challenges of forging that kind of friendship in a globalized, hyper-mobile and market-driven society, but he also shows how our churches can help us rediscover deep and more lasting friendship.
Second, service. We don’t often think of caring for—and, especially, living in community with—the neediest as a form of love. We don’t think of it as a way to find a home. Maybe we should transfer some of the passion with which we pursue romance to the pursuit of what St. Francis called Lady Poverty.
In service my own neediness meets the neediness of others. The other day I was talking with a young pregnant woman who had come to the crisis pregnancy center where I volunteer because she was scared and overwhelmed. After we’d talked for a bit, she said something about how wonderful it was that people work at places like the center. I replied, “This place has really been here for me in some hard times—not with pregnancy, but I needed other things. I think people do this work because they need something from it.”
“Like what?” she asked.
“Well, like a purpose in life, a way to know that your life has meaning,” I said—maybe a bit more self-revealingly than I’d intended.
But she, understanding exactly what I meant, touched her belly and said, “That’s what I have with my baby.”
Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest, celibate gay man, and beloved spiritual author, found his home at L’Arche, a network of community homes for people with intellectual disabilities. In living with those who had obvious physical needs, his own spiritual and emotional longings were answered. Nouwen found that L’Arche had many rituals and celebrations, marking the entrance and exit of new people in the community; these were the family holidays of the community.
Matthew Loftus (your token straight dude in this post) has written about his relationship with the Christian Community Development Association, in which members “often commit to living in an under-resourced neighborhood for a minimum of 10 years.” Instead of rich experts coming in to “fix” poor neighborhoods, or even charitable contributions being distributed in ways that suit the ideas of the givers, CCDA calls its members to live in cross-class community. People who could afford to live in “nice” suburbs instead move into neighborhoods with grinding poverty, high crime rates, and violent policing. This is how Christians love: We know that it is real love because it embraces the Cross.
Celibate partnership. I have friends who are living out this unusual vocation. They know that they have been called by God to “do life together.” They live together, care for one another as kin, share a common prayer life, and grow in holiness through partnership.
There are many other ways of love—I know LGBT or same-sex attracted people who have taken religious vows or entered “mixed-orientation marriages” (marriages in which one spouse is openly gay or same-sex attracted, but discerns a calling to marry an opposite-sex spouse—life is complicated, y’all). Teaching, art, godparenthood (which can be one way of honoring and deepening a friendship), adoption and fostering: All can be forms of love to which gay or same-sex attracted people are called. But I want to highlight the three forms I described above, and the challenges they pose to the view that marriage is the one adult form of love for Christians.
What do these callings have in common?
First, they are caregiving relationships. Most of them are relationships where there is some long-term commitment to stability and permanence. (Service is sometimes the exception to this, although usually the longer you serve one community in one place, the better you serve.) They are fruitful: They serve the next generation or the surrounding community. This openness or hospitality can take different forms. In my friendships, for example, it has taken the form of supporting my friends’ marriage and parenting. In a celibate partnership it may take the form of opening the home to those in need of a safe place to stay. These are relationships which help the participants grow in holiness. And they are relationships with many rewards—but also many crosses to bear, specific forms of loneliness and suffering.
These callings also have in common the fact that they are not imitations of marriage, “marriage lite” or “marriage minus [X],” or consolation prizes for people who can’t make a Christian marriage. My friends in a celibate partnership sometimes describe their relationship as having “elements of marriage and elements of monasticism.” The English friends depicted by Alan Bray sometimes were called “wedded brothers,” suggesting that their bond had something in common with marriage as well as something in common with sibling bonds. But these forms of love have their own histories and their own integrity.
And finally, these relationships have in common the fact that they are largely unrecognized and unsupported, not only in the broader culture but in our churches. How often do you hear a pastor giving guidance on forging a friendship? How often do well-off or aspiring parents suggest that their children might discern a call to love and live with the poorest, not for a “voluntourism” vacation or a part-time gig but for life? Law and policy are written as if caregiving relationships between adults are all either based on marriage or blood kinship. In Catholic churches we’ll often have blessings for moms on Mother’s Day, pets on St. Francis’s feast day, even throats on St. Blaise’s Day. But I have never seen a blessing for friends.
How would our personal lives change if we considered friendship, service, and celibate life in partnership or in community to be real forms of love, as real as marriage? How would our society need to change? How would our churches need to change?
And as long as we’re discussing elements of Christian faith and practice tragically neglected by the American churches, let’s consider celibacy more generally.
Historically, Christians have believed that dedicating oneself to God alone was a way of life worthy of the highest honor. This article has been my attempt to suggest ways that we can entangle our lives and hearts even if we never marry: ways we can make kin. But starting with St. Paul, Christians have believed that those who do not seek earthly entanglements have a unique freedom to love God.
And this single-minded devotion to God alone is even more neglected than nonmarital forms of kinship. Celibacy can make possible a radical availability for God. The idea that there is something positive in solitude, in virginity, in kinlessness, is perhaps the element of orthodox Christianity most shocking to contemporary Americans.
Of course, the virgins were cared for by their church community. (Or they were martyred, which is one way God cares for people.) Part of the reason we don’t understand the value of Christian celibacy is that we have virtually no structures for supporting it among our fellow Christians.
In this discussion I’m supposed to talk about what concerns I have about what could happen if my position is not adopted. All my concerns have already happened! We already neglect nonmarital vocations. In churches which don’t perform gay marriages, this means that gay or same-sex attracted people are shut out of the only forms of adult love our culture recognizes. That’s part of why there has been so much pressure to insist that being gay is a “choice” or that people can become straight through diligent prayer and therapy.
Moreover, because we have so few cultural images of chaste same-sex love, people in gay unions often receive brutal counsel when they seek to enter a church that doesn’t perform gay marriage. Families have been torn apart and children have seen their parents separate because a pastor didn’t believe that a woman could be called by God to love and care for another woman. The idea that these relationships could become a spiritual friendship or a celibate partnership is barely even on the radar.
Obviously I’m concerned that churches are turning away from Christian sexual ethics when they perform same-sex marriages. But I’m also concerned that these churches neglect and denigrate nonmarital forms of love, stigmatizing celibate gay people as “self-hating” or simply not imagining that we might be in the pews.
My concern for churches who are orthodox on this question is much greater because that’s my own side, and because so many gay people are harmed by these churches. But it’s worth saying that churches whose primary response to questions of vocation is, “We marry gay couples too!”, will waste the talents of members who are called to other forms of love.
I am running out of room and I still haven’t addressed why I believe that same-sex love shouldn’t be expressed sexually, which I think probably you were all expecting to hear. Fortunately the answer to this question is about yet another relationship neglected by contemporary American Christian culture.
My beliefs about sex and marriage don’t stem from my years of theological study (which don’t exist), my ability to parse New Testament Greek (ditto), or my personal observations. They are the result of my relationship to the Church, the Bride of Christ. To ask me what I believe is in a certain sense the wrong question. I believe what my Church believes and teaches to be true.
So often we act as if Christians should resolve ethical questions by reasoning their way to the answer they think Jesus would like best. Or we should all read our Bibles and draw the obvious conclusions. (Is there a less-obvious book than the Bible? Finnegans Wake is Pat the Bunny by comparison.) There is some element of truth here. There are things the Catholic Church could teach which would make it impossible, I think, for me to accept Her as a trustworthy guide to God’s will. And reasoning did help me clear away a lot of my misconceptions about the Church.
But I didn’t reason my way into the Church. I fell in love with Her. It’s been a fraught relationship, and I haven’t always been faithful. (Late have I loved thee, Cynara, in my fashion!) My relationship with the Church has required me to learn a lot about patience and penitence. My relationship with the Bride of Christ is personal, enduring, adorned with promises and obligations. It is enfleshed when I receive the Eucharist.
We are not all called to be theologians, thank God. We are not called to figure all this stuff out on our own as best we can. We have the Church for Mother and guide, for teacher and translator, the one who shows us Jesus in the Bible and feeds us Jesus at the Mass. (One perhaps overly-cute way of explaining why I accept the Catholic teaching is to say that Jesus is the Body and Blood that we eat and Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life that we follow. If you accept that the Church gives you Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Eucharistic sacrifice, maybe you can trust the Church to give you Jesus’ Way, the way of life of Christians.) There is no Christian without the Church.
I will listen when you tell me why you believe what you believe about Christian sexual discipline. But I won’t really understand it until you tell me about your relationship to church.