In March of this year over a million Frenchmen demonstrated on the streets of Paris against the legal institutionalization of gay marriage. As far as the media were concerned, this event was practically confidential. It is hard to imagine a similar scene taking place in the United States, but if it did, it would be met with the same willful rejection by the rulers of this world who simply treat as nonexistent anything that opposes the social program they impose on the willing masses, unless perhaps it might be useful as another source of potential terrorists.
The practically universal triumph of the juridical recognition of gay marriage in the countries of the world that used to be Christendom requires those of us who accept the morality of the Bible to reassess the matter of homosexuality. This reassessment must be radical and practical. Things have come to such a pass that unless we are content to concede, we must utterly reform our notions and our customs. There is no other way to move forward.
I propose a number of reforms, both of our ideas and our practice, which will enable us to confront the problem of homosexual identity. First, the overcoming of the unhelpful dichotomy of heterosexual and homosexual. Second, the promotion of committed friendship as an essential aspect of Christian moral life. Third, a revision and broadening of the aesthetic of the human body in the light of the classical tradition. For the most part I will be speaking in terms of male relationships, but everything I say can apply, mutatis mutandis, to women as well.
Do homosexuals exist? And if so, why? The answer to these questions is not self-evident. In order to understand this, let’s take a look at a question deeply connected with the first: Does God exist? And how do we know? Saint Paul put it this way in the first chapter of the epistle to the Romans:
Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.
Because that, when they knew God, they have not glorified him as God, or given thanks; but became vain in their thoughts, and their foolish heart was darkened. For professing themselves to be wise, they became fools. And they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of a corruptible man . . . Wherefore God gave them up to the desires of their heart, unto uncleanness, to dishonour their own bodies among themselves. Who changed the truth of God into a lie; and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
For this cause God delivered them up to shameful affections. For their women have changed the natural use into that use which is against nature. And, in like manner, the men also, leaving the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts one towards another, men with men working that which is filthy, and receiving in themselves the recompense which was due to their error. And as they liked not to have God in their knowledge, God delivered them up to a reprobate sense, to do those things which are not convenient.
Here is the logic of the Apostle’s ardent assertions: The denial of God is the denial of His creation whereby we know He exists. Human beings are the crown of His visible creation, as they are made in His image. “God made man in his image, . . . male and female created he them.” Thus the denial of God by man leads to “a reprobate sense”—namely, the denial of male and female. So the QED: If God is denied, then human nature as male and female is denied. And so, as the famous paraphrase of Dostoyevsky goes, “everything is permitted.”
For too long, for more than a century, Christians and others who accept the view of human nature found in the Bible have accepted characterizations of that nature that flow, not from the acceptance of man as male and female created in the image and likeness of God, but from that “reprobate sense” that treats as real, existing, and normative things that are vain, foolish lies flowing from the rejection of the truth of God.
How is it that Christian (and Jewish, for that matter, and not to mention Greek) moral reflection flourished for millennia until the latter 19th century without the categories heterosexual and homosexual? It is because these categories are foreign to a biblical and natural understanding of man. They offer very little to us and shed no light on human nature, its operations, inclinations, and acts. They merely describe an undeniable fact that there are persons who are physically attracted to members of their own or the other sex. They imply something very unwholesome—namely, that sexual identity is simply a result of an individual inclination. The origins of the one inclination or the other are then a matter of discussion, and they can be congenital, hereditary, acquired, chosen, imposed, changed, and so on. This is what underlies the current use of the word gender in place of sex. In any case, sexual identity as heterosexual or homosexual is not something given in nature: It is not simply sex, the fact of being male or female, but something to be determined in the individual. This dichotomy imprisons those who characterize themselves as one or the other in a personal identity not rooted in nature, but in affective preference. Thus, all the affective inclinations of persons who are heterosexual or homosexual can be treated as unstable, suspect, and subjective.
Christian moral teaching traditionally evaluated acts and the dispositions that lead to them: virtues and vices and their expression in deeds. In the case of homosexuality, however, there has been a change in style, and not for the better. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church all the sins against all the virtues of the moral life are dealt with in this traditional way, but when the sin of sexual relations with one’s own sex is treated, there is a change in tone:
2357. Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
2358. The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible.
What about men and women who perform these acts, but who do not experience “an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction to persons of the same sex”? They seem not to be included, and the number of those who have done these things is also “not negligible.” What about those who have this attraction, but do not act on it, and even marry a person of the opposite sex and raise families? Are these homosexuals? They, too, are a “not negligible” number—indeed, perhaps the majority of such persons in history. Traditional moral theology evaluated acts, and did not generalize so unsatisfyingly about the tendencies that lead to these acts. That was left to the casuistry of occasions of sin, and to spiritual direction. If the sin is theft, then is the standard of evaluation kleptomania? If drunkenness, alcoholism? If sloth, clinical depression? Even we, the orthodox, have given in to the custom of treating sexual inclinations as identities. Pastorally, we are meant to preach the freedom whereby Christ has made us free. In treating the sin of sodomy as a prima facie proof of an identity, are we not, in the guise of compassion and sensitivity, helping bind the sinner to his sinful inclination, and so laying on him a burden that is too great to bear without perhaps moving a finger to lift it?
The permanent label homosexual leads also to a dramatization of the temptation in those who undergo it, a dramatization that encourages self-pity or self-justification, victimhood, and a sense of helplessness and perpetual pathos, and worse, entitlement. It also allows the “heterosexual” to pretend that his own unruly urges are not contrary to nature, and so not so bad after all.
The 19th century did see some attempts to see things differently. In his study Uranisme et unisexualité the Catholic convert thinker Marc-André Raffalovich finds 18 different types of behavior in relation to what he calls unisexuality—hardly a stable identity. He severely disapproves of any unnatural acts, but describes some forms of same-sex affect that could be described as noble and virtuous. And he knew his subject, having held a literary and artistic salon frequented by Oscar Wilde, whose social and moral demise he trenchantly describes. Such studies may be edgy, but they bear examination. Let me add, following a lead from St. Thomas Aquinas in his analysis of lust, that it may well be that the phenomenon of “homosexuality” as it is said to exist may consist not so much in an attraction to one’s own sex as an insensibility or aversion to the other, the vice of lust by defect, not excess.
“I grieve for thee, my brother Jonathan: exceeding beautiful, and amiable to me above the love of women. As the mother loveth her only son, so did I love thee.”
David’s lament from the first chapter of 2 Samuel, here given in its expanded classical Vulgate form, is the biblical locus par excellence for the power and dignity of friendship. In our present culture these words rouse suspicion, on account of the sexualization of same-sex affect just described. Aelred of Rielvaux’s On Spiritual Friendship, with its passionate asceticism, is taken as an example of proto-“gay” spirituality. The contemporary student reading Tennyson’s In Memoriam is practically required to ask whether they were “gay.” C.S. Lewis, in his discussion of the love of friendship in The Four Loves, deals, and not entirely adequately, with this modern suspicion of friendship between men. He was more irritated than pensive, and so doesn’t take the question further than simply to dismiss it. Discussions surrounding the beatification of John Henry Newman were obsessed with his friendship with Ambrose St John, whom he described as his “life, after God.” The swine have really turned on those whose pearls were cast before them.
The great Russian Orthodox thinker and martyr of Stalinism Pavel Florensky, who was pointed out as a model of Christian thought and conversion by both John Paul II in his Fides et ratio and Benedict XVI in his last public audience before his abdication, expounded a theology of friendship that bears careful study and attention at the present juncture. In his The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, not an easy work by any means, Father Pavel extols friendship as the great and overarching ideal of Christian life in words that are as moving as they are cogent and meticulously researched. He dares to hearken back to the old Slavic Christian rites of adelphopoiesis, practiced in Byzantium, old Russia, and the Balkans among both Catholic Croats and Serbs. (For the reader who has learned of this from John Boswell’s silly 1994 book Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, it must be noted that Boswell’s interpretation of the practice as not involving chastity has been thoroughly debunked, and that by gay authors themselves.) David and Jonathan, and the military martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, were taken as the patrons of a rite, officiated by a priest, that joined two men in a permanent bond of brotherhood. This bond included family ties, so that the offspring of these men were not permitted to intermarry, nor could they marry each other’s sisters, as though they were related by blood, and their extended families could not engage in blood feuds against each other. These bonds could involve adoptions and arrangements of inheritance and property. Without the slightest doubt these unions were chaste, but they did involve an extension of the notion of family, built upon marriage between men and women, to include the committed love of two friends. Friendship and chastity are closely related, and precisely because they do not exclude a deep love and devotion that can reach beyond “the love of women,” without being at all sodomitical.
The need for this kind of friendship is acknowledged in a corny kind of way by the whole Wild at Heart movement (from the 2001 book by John Eldredge), but the problem underlying that movement is the unnecessary, but understandable, reluctance of Protestant culture to see celibacy as the Christian ideal. This alone frees the heart to find a higher basis for a relationship than physical attraction or even procreation. Married couples who live their relationship deeply discover this, although the natural difference, not to say the mutual inequality, of man and woman under different aspects makes this at times difficult to realize. Friends may not be celibate by vocation, but they partake of the gift of celibacy. As Saint Augustine put it in the fourth book of his Confessions, “This is what is loved in our friends, and so loved that a man’s conscience is guilty if he does not love the one who loves him back, or does not love back the one who loves him, seeking nothing from his body beyond the signs of a good will.”
For Augustine the indicia benevolentiae are words, earnest and holy conversation and mutual pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful. It’s fine to go fishing, to play at sports, but these are not the sources of intimacy that bind true friends together. That must be found in God, in Whose image a man is made. After all, Augustine asserts in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, if Adam had only needed a friend, God would have created another man. God was Adam’s friend, and the Man Who is the Son of God is the One Who said, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” The apostolic ideal was not coeducation, the consequences of which in the genesis of same sex-attraction as an identity are all around us, but that’s another article.
Is it time to offer that ancient alternative bond again, for the Church to offer the blessing of true committed friendships between members of the same sex, forming her sons and daughters in the austere but natural requirements of chastity for the sake of the kingdom? The Lord Himself said that His mother and brethren are those who hear the word of God and keep it. He is our friend, in His Body, His Blood, His Soul, and His Godhead; He is also our Spouse and our Father, and our Son and our Brother. Each of the relationships built upon natural procreation by man and woman is an aspect of a Love that transcends them all, and so is described by David in his threnody as brotherhood, espousal, and parenthood.
Although my account may be simply anecdotal in force, I think it is true to say that the aesthetic ideal of beauty in our European culture has been predominantly feminine for some time. Even the word beautiful is rarely used to describe a man. One of my aunts used to describe a very manly cousin of mine as “so pretty, he could be a girl.”
It was not always so. Perhaps the troubadours and the Romantics had something to do with a shift from the classical ideal of beauty, which was predominantly, although obviously not exclusively, masculine. Saint Augustine tells us that the fact that men have beards which they do not need, and nipples which serve no function, shows forth God’s intention in making a man’s body simply to be beautiful, with a form without function. He says this without blushing, because it would never occur to a man of late antiquity that recognizing another man’s beauty was a sign of inversion. It would be taken that way now, and so we are the poorer for it. Women are relatively free in our culture to notice and comment on one another’s beauty, and that is all for the good. It implies that their appreciative love has not been sexualized, but this state of affairs may change if the militant lesbians have their way. The fact is that the sight of a friend, handsome or not, the sound of his voice, his gait, his external appearance, his physical presence, and his touch has to be a consolation and a joy to his fellow. Of course this is not an occasion of unnatural lust, but a recognition of the unavoidably bodily nature of man. The inability to admire the appearance of another in a way that is chaste but appreciative only serves to push friendship between men into the shadows caused by the awful dichotomy deplored here, the suspicion that has nothing to do with being a man or woman at all. I do not know how we might overcome this cultural predisposition, but it is good to be aware of it. In this we can practice the freedom brought us by “the fairest of the sons of men.”