Some Thoughts on Same-Sex Love, Catholicism, and Catholic Education

Douglas McManaman
A talk given to prospective teachers
at Niagara University

March 16, 2022
Reproduced with Permission

"For a gay man to share his experiences with the Church is to offer an impoverished Church mercy" - Chris Damian

In the beginning of this course, when I asked all of you to formulate five questions that you anticipate you'd be asked by your students but which you think you'd have trouble answering, so many of you spoke of LGBTQ+ issues, i.e., same sex marriage, Catholicism and homosexuality, etc. This is such an important area, and I've written on this a number of times before, but this year I didn't feel that what I wrote in the past was adequate to the task. That is why I've decided to take up this issue once again. Even now, however, I feel that one session (or one article) is hardly enough to adequately treat this issue and all that it implies; nor do I believe that my current understanding is entirely adequate - I'm learning more about these issues every year.

There is so much going on in the Church with respect to LGBTQ+ issues; I find it intriguing, inspiring, and encouraging. What is particularly moving and eye opening to me is the number of gay Catholics who are committed to the Church's teaching on sex and marriage and who are thus committed to living lives of chastity/celibacy. What is also particularly encouraging is the amount of research that many of these Catholics have done on the nature of friendship in Scripture and in the history of the Church. Compared to the ancient and medieval understanding of friendship, I believe our current notion of friendship is rather impoverished, and much of the ancient wisdom on the nature of friendship that has been lost to the west has great relevance for same sex love, or same sex relationships that are not sexual. My favorite author in this area is Eve Tushnet, a brilliant Catholic woman who wrote a very good book entitled Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. Her recent book entitled Tenderness: A Gay Christian's Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God's Extravagant Love, is simply a masterpiece. She's profoundly insightful, wise, and she does not overstate her case; she's a spicy writer and has a wry sense of humor. Another great author is Wesley Hill, who wrote: Spiritual Friendship as well as Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Another book worth reading is David Morrison's Beyond Gay. Melinda Selmys' book Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism is highly recommended. The Friend, by historian Alan Bray is a very important work, as well as Thomas Hopko's Christian Faith and Same Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections. A tremendous book worth studying is Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: New Paths to Understanding, by Father Louis J. Cameli. Pavel Florensky, one of the greatest Russian theologians of the 20th century, wrote The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, which contains some very profound insights on the nature of friendship which have tremendous relevance for same sex relationships.

For me personally, I find those who have same sex attraction and who are faithful Catholics committed to chastity are the best people to listen to and learn from; for they are humble enough to assent to the faith of the Church, and they speak from a rich reservoir of lived experience; their writing is concrete and down to earth, and profoundly spiritual.

Here are just a few quotes from Eve Tushnet's Gay and Catholic:

...I wish I had thought of my spiritual life less as a game with rules, where the goal was avoidance of the kind of sin you definitely have to confess. I wish I'd thought of it more as an imitation of Christ, an attempt to build a civilization of love, or any more positive and Christ centered understanding. 1

She writes:

Christian faith requires us to pour ourselves out like oil over the feet of our beloveds-the feet of Christ himself and of those around us. More or less by instinct, by feel, I had begun to discern what I got from loving women and how I could get some of those things without sinning against chastity. Through my friendships and my work at a crisis pregnancy centre, I started to consider how and whom God was calling me to love. 2

The Greek thinkers understood that at the root of everything we do is a desire for happiness. Perhaps this is better described as a desire for the experience of ecstasy, which is derived from the Greek word ekstasis, which means 'exit of self' or 'standing outside of oneself'. Consider the drug ecstasy; one motive for the use of such a drug is that it makes a person feel euphoric - of course, this is a pseudo-euphoria. But the etymology of ecstasy suggests that the more we exit ourselves, the more joyful or euphoric we become. Consider what she says here about ekstasis:

... the longing for ekstasis, for astonishing contact with something beyond and much greater than the self, did drive some of my drinking as well as some of my search for God.... There's a reason scripture uses metaphors like the wine of astonishment, while in Acts 2:13 some people overhearing Christ's disciples speaking in tongues at Pentecost thought the disciples must be drunk. That rapture, which is briefly and damagingly fulfilled in drunkenness, is genuinely and lastingly fulfilled in Christ. The blood of Christ is even more truly intoxicating than mere wine. And for at least some alcoholics-I think there are many kinds of addiction, and many of them are best addressed first with therapeutic and mental treatment rather than solely spiritual guidance-it is God who finally slakes the thirst.3

Further, she writes:

...when I first converted, I basically thought that chastity for a gay Catholic was purely a negative rule or outer boundary: don't have sex with girls. Over time I learned that you need to structure your life in such a way that you are living out a positive vocation to love. You are called to something, not merely away from something.4

Over the years I have taught a number of students with same sex attraction. Some were committed to living in accordance with Catholic teaching on sexuality, others were not so sure. My last 20 years of teaching was at a school that eventually started a GSA club, which I believe did a tremendous amount of good, offering support to a number of students. It was moderated by two rather serious Catholics who were very passionate about LGBTQ+ issues and who were faithful to the Church's understanding of the nature of sex and its relationship to marriage. Unfortunately, not every moderator in the Catholic schools is equally committed nor cognizant of the beauty of the Church's moral teaching and Catholic spirituality. I know a number of them who are very compassionate and well-meaning, but we do our students a genuine work of service when we challenge them to something higher than what popular culture currently holds out to them. What I find particularly important about the Catholics mentioned above (who have same sex attraction) is that they have discovered that a sexually active same sex relationship was simply not conducive to human flourishing, that it did not achieve what it seemed to promise initially, nor did it enhance their relationship with their same sex partner. It was really a step in a longer life process, a learning process that was moving towards the kind of love that we were created for, namely: "O Lord, You created us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You" (St. Augustine).

No doubt, there are same sex attracted persons who do not agree and who have no problem with a sexually active same sex relationship. We do not condemn such people at all; rather, we hold out an alternative path, and our love and respect for them as persons created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Christ will not be diminished in the slightest. And that is only fitting, because there is nothing any of us can do that will diminish God's love for us in the slightest, for we have God's undivided attention at every moment of our existence, and He loves each one of us as if there is only one of us in all of creation to love.

But we believe it is so important to challenge all of our students today precisely in order that they may discover that love, a discovery that can be overshadowed by a decision to live in a way contrary to the precepts of the gospel. It is not easy to find a convincing way to communicate to them the importance and beauty of chastity - not to mention celibacy - and its place in a life that is centered on the love of God and neighbor. To do so implies an entire moral worldview, which we do have in Catholicism, if we devote ourselves to studying it, and most of all by knowing it through living it. We will probably have little success challenging our students in this regard if we ourselves are not living in accordance with the Christian understanding of sexual morality. Students know when our words coincide with how we live, or whether we are just "toeing the party line" without interior conviction.

The Splendor of Chastity

Chastity is as a virtue, a part of the virtue of temperance, which moderates the pleasures of touch in accordance with the demands of reason. Virtue beautifies the soul, and by virtue of the unity between matter and spirit, virtue beautifies the countenance. The virtues dispose each of the eleven basic human emotions to be readily guided by reason; for the emotions have an innate need to be guided by reason. What this implies is that emotional health is intimately linked to the cultivation of virtue. However, virtues are difficult to acquire; the reason is that we are creatures of habit, and bad habits are hard to break, while good habits are hard to acquire. And so, emotional stability and well-being are not something that can be achieved in a year or two - it's a lifetime's work.

What, however, is chastity specifically? In short, it is the virtue that orders sexual desire in accordance with the divine law. Easier said than achieved. Moreover, allow me to distinguish here between chastity and celibacy. Everyone is called to chastity, even married couples; but celibacy - which does not mean living alone - is "sexual renunciation", which has profound religious significance and is a tremendous gift. But in order to get a better handle on how the Church has always understood sexual ethics, allow me to say something about marriage and its relationship to sexuality-keeping in mind that it is impossible to do justice to this topic in one session.

Marriage is a unique phenomenon. In short, it is a joining of two into one flesh, one body. It is a complete (total) and mutual giving of the self to another, and since "you are your body", to give yourself is to give your body. Because it is a complete and total self-giving, it is irrevocable - I cannot revoke what I give if I no longer hang on to a part of what I am giving. If it is mutual, the two have given themselves over to one another such that her body belongs to him and his body belongs to her. They have become a one flesh union. The natural expression of this union is the act of sexual intercourse (the marital act). In this act, male and female become "reproductively one organism" (a male is reproductively incomplete, and so too a female. But in the marital act, the two become reproductively one body). In the sexual act, the two become a one flesh union, which is what marriage is. And so, the sexual act is an expression and celebration of conjugal love (married love).

There is a two-fold goodness and purpose to the sexual act. It is 1) an expression and celebration of married love (the love by which male and female give themselves entirely to one another until death separates them), and 2) it is ordered to the procreation of new human life. The sexual act is called the "marriage act" because it is expressive of the institution of marriage that has been brought into being in the lives of the couple (for marriage itself is precisely a joining of two into one body and is ordered to the begetting of new human life). That is why one of the impediments that renders a marriage invalid (non-existing) is impotency, which implies the inability to actually perform the sexual act (the inability to consummate the marriage). Note that infertility is not an impediment to marriage; it is not necessary to actually have children in order to be validly married, but the openness to children is a necessary condition for a valid marriage, and so the deliberate intention not to have children renders a marriage invalid (non-existing). Other impediments that render a marriage invalid are coercion, fraud (he's not the person you were led to believe he was), leaving an opening for divorce (the intention must be until death), and psychological immaturity (the moral and psychological conditions to actually be married are just not there in at least one of them - this is a serious problem among many people today, for the culture in which we live is not conducive to producing morally mature young adults).

Marriage as understood by the Judeo-Christian tradition is not a social construct, as the postmodernist claims it is. It is an institution created by God and is the paradigmatic image of the love that God has for Israel and that Christ has for his Church. In fact, a marital union can only be created by God, that is, brought into being by God, and not by the married couple. The couple intends to be a "one flesh union", an entity that is larger than themselves, and the couple takes vows to be so, but only God can actually bring into existence the marriage bond. We know this because Christ said it himself: "What God has joined together, let no man divide". It is God who joins. It is very much like a baptism: I have to make sure to follow the rite, use water, say the words which render it a valid sacrament, i.e., "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit", etc., but what takes place in the child's soul is completely God's doing (i.e., the washing of Original sin; the infusion of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; the infusion of the 7 personal gifts of the Holy Spirit; the grace of regeneration, etc.). We don't bring about any of that; God alone does. It is the same with marriage; couples intend to be a one flesh union, and there cannot be any impediments that would prevent the nuptial union from occurring, but it is God who joins the couple into a single conjugal entity that is a larger reality than each one considered as such.

Because marriage is a joining of two into one body, it can only be achieved between a man and a woman. The reason is that it is not possible for two people of the same sex to actually become one body in the act of sexual union; in other words, it is not possible to sexually consummate a marriage if the two are of the same sex. Without a doubt, two people of the same sex can achieve a genuinely loving relationship that is more than a private friendship - and Scripture and the history of the idea of friendship (same-sex love) seem to corroborate that point -, and two people of the same sex can certainly give themselves to one another completely and unreservedly, but they cannot, strictly speaking, become a one flesh union.

But sexual ethics - for us, at least-always starts from an understanding of the marital context. Pre-marital or non-marital sexual intercourse is, we would argue, fundamentally an instance of lying with one's body - for the two are expressing and celebrating a marriage that isn't there. But the sexual act between a genuinely married couple is a holy act; it is a grace meriting act; for it is one that really expresses and celebrates a reality that is larger than the two individual persons considered as individuals, and that reality is the marital bond. Outside of that context, the sexual act is usually and for the most part a matter of procuring sexual pleasure. To have sex with another person not as an expression of a complete and total giving of the self in marriage, but merely as a means to sexual pleasure, is to use the other as a means to an end; and treating another as a means to an end is always a violation of a basic moral precept, namely, to treat others as ends in themselves, never as a means.

The love between an unmarried couple who are cohabitating - I am referring to heterosexual couples here - may very well be genuine, but it is not a complete and total love. The reason I say this is that love is always a matter of self-giving, but not every genuine love is a complete and total self-giving - it simply can't be. Two people who have not yet given themselves completely to one another in marriage (till death separates them) may have a love that is genuine, but it is a love that can still be enlarged and expanded to become exclusive and total (marriage). That's what sexual intercourse expresses and represents. Outside of that context, the sexual act says something that is not quite there in reality (a complete union), and when our bodies say something that does not correspond to our intention, our bodies are, essentially, lying. The problem here is that lying just does not promote the fullness and integrity of our nature, and as a result, it always leaves us empty in the end.

But more to the point, there is no necessary connection between 1) the sexual experience and 2) genuine but non-marital love. It is not easy to explain this convincingly, but we hold that sexual expression outside of the covenant of marriage might be accompanied by real love, but the non-marital sexual act itself is something entirely different; in short, it has been reduced to an exchange of sexual pleasure. Again, the two might have a genuine love for one another, but non-marital sexual acts that achieve orgasm have no essential relation to that love - and this is especially the case with acts of mutual masturbation, i.e., oral sex, etc. We would argue that those sexual acts actually demote the fullness of one's nature, leaving a person morally unfulfilled, which is why many Catholics with same sex attraction eventually gave up on them and have committed to a life of chastity.5 No doubt, a married couple might engage in sexual acts primarily for the purpose of sexual pleasure, thus using one another as a means to an end; but such acts are also morally problematic; for they are not necessarily marital acts in the true sense of the term, and as such, they have no essential connection to their marital relationship. But this is not what happens when a married couple engage in the act of sexual union as a genuine and selfless expression of their married love. Sexual pleasure, in this case, is a side effect of a genuinely marital act, not the primary motive. But chastity, for a person with same sex attraction, really amounts to celibacy (sexual renunciation). Although that may sound like bad news, it really isn't. In fact, there is tremendous blessing in this that opens up an avenue of spiritual freedom, intimacy with God, and the joy of a greater and deeper love, as I will attempt to show.

But allow me to point out that what I've said above about married love does not in any way imply that only those who are genuinely married, who have become a one flesh union, can give themselves completely. On the contrary, Christ gave himself completely, and he was not married, at least not in the conventional sense. He has a bride, namely the Church, and of course he gave himself up completely for her, for us, and he calls us to live in that love, and so to give ourselves completely and totally does not require marriage. In a personal correspondence to me, Eve Tushnet wrote: "It seems to me that we have often seen examples of deep, self-sacrificing love, e.g. during the AIDS crisis in gay communities, where there did not seem to be any love held back, if you see what I mean, among those who nursed their partners through their last days....Service is a way of loving someone with your body, I think." (Personal Communication, March 14, 2022). In her latest book Tenderness, she writes:

...being gay...needn't involve sin at all; when it does, the sin may be interwoven with the kind of selfless love that builds homes; welcomes strangers, cares for children, and teaches us about God's love for us. Many of us now know people in gay marriages, people who are in fact committing sexual sin and who believe heresy, yet whose relationships are suffused with self-giving, nurturing love.... Gay marriage and gay sex are the wrong responses to our longing, but those longings are often as complex and as intent on love as our response to the Gospel. 6

Our Students with Same Sex Attraction

But what about our students, then, who have same sex attraction? Can we think of anything more troubling to a young adolescent than the prospect of living alone, without any kind of intimacy? Are they to resign themselves to living alone for the rest of their lives? The answer to this latter question is 'no', not necessarily. This is where official Church teaching, in recent years, has been rather limited and unimaginative - although it has been very beautiful in many other respects. The truly creative work in this area is coming from those authors I mentioned above, and many others besides.

This life is about learning to love, and life in Christ is precisely about learning to love as we have been loved. The Christian is one who is in love with the love that appears to him from the cross and who lives his/her life within the shadow of the cross. Notice the paradox here: Christ says: "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest" (Mt 11, 28), but later on he says: "Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine, let him take up his cross and follow me" (Mt 16, 24). How do these two go together? It is really only by sharing in the life of Christ that we enter into his rest, but to share in the life of Christ is to share in his "way of the cross". That way of the cross, ironically enough, brings rest; it lifts our burdens. Popular culture knows nothing of this and will never know the secret to that supra-natural joy or rest. This, I believe, is what Catholics with same sex attraction committed to chastity have discovered.

In the seventh chapter of the gospel of Mark, Jesus cures a man who is deaf and mute. Imagine what it would be like to be unable to verbally communicate with others and unable to receive their communication. It seems to me that the experience would be one of intense loneliness and isolation. But they brought the deaf man to Jesus and begged him to lay hands on him, so Jesus took him away from the crowd in order to be with him in private, and he sticks his fingers into the man's ears, and spits and touches his tongue and says "be opened". This miracle is profoundly significant; for although few of us are deaf and mute in the literal sense, a good number of us are spiritually deaf and mute, and this is the real sickness that this miracle points to, and the loneliness that results from it is far more unbearable. The number one cause of suicide, from as far back as I can remember, is and has been loneliness. Physical hearing and the ability to speak are not enough for us; a person can be surrounded by friends and family and still experience intense loneliness. Jesus asks his disciples: "Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?" His question implies a deeper hearing, one that dispels that more terrible loneliness, and that is the spiritual hearing that allows us to hear the Lord in the deepest regions of our interior selves. "God speaks in the silence of the heart", said Mother Theresa. We must be given the ears to hear and the ability to speak an interior word to Him in those depths, and all we have to do to get to this point is just what those who brought the deaf man to Jesus did: they begged him to lay his hand on him. We only have to beg him to lay his hand upon us, and he will take us aside, away from the crowd, and he will touch us intimately. It is precisely this interior awakening that allowed Father Roman Braga to spend eleven years in solitary confinement, after being arrested by the Romanian secret police in the 50s. It is not a human being who will alleviate our loneliness; God alone achieves that by opening our ears to hear Him and opening our tongue that we may speak to Him.

Allow me to quote once again from Eve Tushnet's Gay and Catholic.

For a Christian, all love ultimately has its source in God, and the love between God and man is the template for love between humans. And in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, divine love presents itself in erotic imagery because it has erotic characteristics. Reverse engineering this process may give some ideas of how to sublimate one's Eros into love of God. 7

'Vocation' is from the Latin vocare, which means 'to call'. A vocation is a calling by God to a unique path back to Him; each person has his or her own unique vocation, and only through prayer do we come to gradually discern that vocation. She writes:

As same sex attracted Christians, we can ask two questions: how am I being called to love and be loved? And what can I do with my sexual desires that would serve God? Sublimation only answers the second question-and it's only one possible answer. I tend to think in terms of how I can express my desire for women in ways that are beautiful and pleasing to God. Others will think in terms of how they can sacrifice their same sex erotic desire, nail it to the cross or pour it out like oil over the feet of the beloved, and that is perhaps an even more sublime and poignant way of serving God through our desires. It's probably a harder way, but if sacrifice rather than expression is the road you are called to walk, there's no point in avoiding it.8

She continues: writing about vocation, I hope to answer the first and most important question: to help celibate gay Christians find ways of loving and being loved. That will make your life immensely richer and more pleasing to God, even if you still feel like you don't know what to do with your same sex attractions or what the point of them even is. Even if you feel like all you can do with your erotic attractions is deny them what they want, you don't have to deny yourself love.9

In my first years as a teacher, I was required to teach grade 12 moral philosophy, and I developed my own course based on the analytical moral philosophy of Germain Grisez, John Finnis and Joseph Boyle, three analytical philosophers who have made the greatest contribution to natural law ethics in the 20th century. But after a few years, a student asked me at the end of the course: "Sir, what are we allowed to do?" That question bothered me, because I realized that my approach to ethics was far too one sided. When we focus exclusively on a natural law/problem solving/issue-oriented ethics, students eventually get the impression that morality is primarily about what not to do, that is, what actions are wrong. But morality is first and foremost about "what to do"; it is about goodness and the pursuit of the true, the good and the beautiful -ultimately, it is the pursuit of God, who is the One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. It is about cultivating morally beautiful character by making morally beautiful choices. But each human person is unique, and each person has a unique vocation, a specific path that God is calling him/her to that He is not calling anyone else to, a vocation to which he or she is called to respond creatively. You are all called to be teachers, but despite that, not one of you is called to the same specific path towards God. One of the greatest religious philosophers of the 20th century, Nicolas Berdyaev, writes a great deal on the ethics of creativeness. In 1937, he wrote:

Creativeness and creative attitude to life as a whole is not man's right, it is his duty. It is a moral imperative that applies in every department of life. Creative effort in artistic and cognitive activity has a moral value. Realization of truth and goodness is a moral good...The path of creativeness is also a path to moral and religious perfection. A way of realizing the fullness of life.10

Berdyaev also links positive creativity and sexual passion. He writes:

Christian teachers of spiritual life constantly speak of sinful passions and the struggle against them. They are right, of course, in saying that sinful passions torture man and distort his life. But at the same time passions are the material which may be transformed into a higher qualitative content of life. Without passions, without the unconscious element in life and without creativeness, human virtue is dry and deadly dull. The Fathers of the Church themselves say sometimes that passions may become virtues. This shows that in the struggle with passions it is wrong to adopt the exclusively negative point of view and practice solely the negative asceticism. It is necessary to attain positive qualitative states into which passions will enter in an enlightened, transfigured, sublimated form instead of being uprooted and destroyed. This applies in the first instance to the most fatal of all fallen man's passions-that of sex. It is impossible simply to destroy it, and it is useless and even dangerous to concentrate upon a negative struggle with it.11

Eve Tushnet says something similar in her treatment of vocation:

A vocation is the path or way of life in which God is calling us to pour out our love for him and for other particular human beings. Vocation is always a positive act of love, not a refraining from action. So, celibacy, in and of itself, isn't a vocation in this sense, although it can be a discipline that frees one up for one's vocations. Singleness is especially not a vocation in this sense, since singleness is defined by a lack of connection to others.... One theme of this book is that celibacy is not enough for gay people and that we must cultivate an outward looking spirituality, which seeks to love and serve others. It's OK to get bachelor weird if you live alone, but don't get stuck in your rut, turned in on yourself and isolated. That will not only keep you from supporting others and therefore make their lives more difficult, it'll make your own life more difficult too, since you will miss out on some of the joys that are offered to you in a celibate lay life.12

She also writes:

... lack of vocation, lack of an arena in which one can give and receive love, is itself the breeding ground for many sins of despair, resentment, addiction, lust (you don't need to be with another person in order to lust, and in fact being too much alone provokes it), and selfishness. Leading a life without vocation can even give scandal, if scandal is one of your concerns, as it may appear to provide evidence for the lie that a celibate life must be loveless and miserable.13

And so, at this point, let us pose the following question: Is it possible that a Catholic with same sex attraction would specifically be called by God to use his/her unique gifts in the schools, which might very well include offering support to students with same sex attraction, role modeling what it means to be a same sex attracted person who is faithful to the gospel and chaste? It seems to me that an affirmative answer to that question is rather obvious.

Spiritual Friendship (Same-Sex Love)

But what I find particularly interesting in exploring the literature coming out of the gay Catholic community committed to chastity/celibacy are the insights on the nature of spiritual friendship (same-sex love). Eve Tushnet writes:

There are few treasures of the church more beautiful and more forgotten than its theory and practice of friendship. It seems every generation of queer Catholics must rediscover this neglected legacy and be startled by it: the wedded brothers buried together in English cemeteries, the vows of kinship taken by friends in the eastern church, the intimacy and wry, practical wisdom of Saint Aelred's dialogues.14

What are these vows of "kinship" that she speaks of? She writes:

Kinship is a form of love that persists after the death of one of the parties. It is a love with obligations as well as joys. With these criteria we can see clearly how medieval sworn friendship differed from the relationship we now describe as being "just friends" with someone. The specific obligations incurred through vows of friendship varied, but they would often include features like caring for the friend's children after death (perhaps an especially important clause given that many of the sworn friends we know of were married Knights) and having masses said for the friend's soul.15

What is interesting here is that vows of friendship, specifically same sex friendship, existed in both Eastern and Western Christianity. In fact, Robin Darling Young describes this experience of "wedded friendship" in a 1994 issue of First Things. She writes:

This is a subject about which I have the good fortune to speak not merely as a scholar or an observer, but as a participant. Nine years ago I was joined in devout sisterhood to another woman, ...The ceremony took place during a journey to some of the Syrian Christian communities of Turkey and the Middle East, and the other member of this same sex union was my colleague Professor Susan Ashbrook Harvey of Brown University. During the course of our travels we paid a visit to St. Mark's Monastery in Jerusalem, the residence of the Syrian Orthodox archbishop. There our host, Archbishop Dionysius Behnam Jajaweh, remarked that since we had survived the rigors of Syria and Eastern Turkey in amicable good humor, we two women must be good friends indeed. Would we like to be joined as sisters the next morning after the bishop's Sunday liturgy in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher? Intrigued, we agreed, and on a Sunday in late June of 1985, we followed the bishop and a monk through the Old City to a side chapel in the Holy Sepulcher where, according to the Syrian Orthodox, lies the actual tomb of Jesus. After the liturgy, the bishop had us join our right hands together and he wrapped them in a portion of his garment. He pronounced a series of prayers over us, told us that we were united as sisters, and admonished us not to quarrel. Ours was a sisterhood stronger than blood, confirmed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he said, and since it was a spiritual union, it would last beyond the grave.

Our friendship has indeed endured and flourished beyond the accidental association of two scholars sharing an interest in the Syriac-speaking Christianity of late antiquity. The blessing of the Syrian Orthodox Church was a precious instance of our participation in the life of an ancient and noble Christian tradition. Although neither of us took the trouble to investigate the subject, each privately assumed that the ritual of that summer was some Christian descendant of an adoption ceremony used by the early church to solemnify a state-that of friendship-which comes highly recommended in the Christian tradition ("Henceforth I call you not servants . . . but I have called you friends." [John 15:15]).16

Rites that involve vows of kinship are certainly not an ancient instance of same sex marriage, but they do reveal that the Church at one time in its history understood friendship to be more than what the word means today, in the western world at least. And of course, certain rites within the Church uninfluenced by the west still have a rather profound understanding of same-sex love, worthy of further study. It seems to me that there is great room here for creativity on the part of the Roman Church, obviously in light of the fact that we have many dedicated and faithful gay Catholics committed to celibacy and who are involved in a chaste relationship that might be more than what is typically referred to by the word 'friendship'.

Why are friendships so important in this context? Eve Tushnet writes:

Part of many queer adolescences is the process of learning when you can turn those crushes into lifelong friendships and when you're being needy and projecting your own fantasies onto your crush. So as our sexuality develops, we learn to negotiate a perhaps more complex and nuanced relationship between friendship and Eros. Straight people obviously aren't barred from these experiences, and many of them may relate to what I've described here. But queer kids tend to have more of these experiences growing up, since boys and girls are still, rightly, separated in many contexts. The second reason intimate same sex friendships are important is that they can help us be more centred in our sexual identities as a woman or a man. I definitely don't believe that all queer people experience insecurity in their gender identity. I've always liked being a girl.... But for those who do experience this insecurity, close same sex friendships can be immensely healing. I've had friends tell me that they were profoundly moved and changed by the love they received from (straight, in most cases) same sex friends, which filled needs for intimacy they hadn't even acknowledged. For at least one friend, filling this need for same sex love sharply reduced the desire for same sex sex. I don't think that happens with everyone-my closest friendships are with women, and yet I am still pretty intensely gay-and curing homosexuality is not one of the purposes of friendship anyway. But I do think many gay people have a need for same sex love, which can be fulfilled even if their sexual desires go unfulfilled; friendship offers the love and beauty without the sin. And the third reason is a consideration of the alternatives. I feel very confident in stating that loneliness provokes more sin among queer people-even more sexual sin-than intimate same sex friendship (emphasis mine).17

Of course, not every person with same sex attraction will want to enter into a covenant friendship, albeit a celibate one (vowed friendship and celibacy are not incompatible). But everyone is called to learn to love with the love that appears to us from the cross. That's precisely the ultimate purpose of the sacrament of matrimony as well as celibacy; both are preparations for eternal life. She writes:

For in heaven, in the eternal life of union with God, there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. Heaven is the height of love, and heaven is without marriage; therefore, celibacy must be a possible arena of love. Celibate people, no matter what our reasons for unmarriage, offer a prefiguration of the kind of love we hope to know forever, when our journey here is done. ...We were created male and female; this creation was good, and marriage seems like a pretty obvious way of honoring its goodness. But Jesus promises that there are other ways of honoring the beautiful creation of our bodies. He calls us to imagine a life beyond marriage. In the kingdom of heaven - which is, above all, the kingdom of love - we will all love as celibates, in our resurrected bodies.... By sacrificing the form of love and family that our culture tells us to want (whether that's heterosexual marriage only or gay marriage also), we proclaim our trust that Jesus' promise of heave is true. The sacrifice is absurd, unless Jesus is faithful.18

Concluding Thoughts and a Word about the Church.

I've often said that Catholicism is not about us. This is what so many people who have left the Church fail to understand. They somehow believe that Catholicism is about Catholics, or worse, that Catholicism is about the Catholic clergy i.e., priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes. Catholicism is first and foremost about Christ, not us. Christ referred to us as the sick who are in need of a doctor, when he addressed the Pharisees, who inquired of Jesus why it is that he associates himself with tax collectors and sinners: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mk 2, 17). Sick people tend not to interpret things rightly; we tend to see things from the skewed angle of our illness. We also pray every day: "...forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us". We're sinful, and we suffer from the intellectual blindness that sin begets. That's why our history is full of scandal. A priest friend of mine asked me to give a one hour talk to his RCIA group on the history of the Church. I agreed to do so, prepared for it over the Christmas holidays, and when I was ready, I asked him: "Are you sure you want me to give this talk on the history of the Church? It may scandalize them, scare them off". The reason I said this is that our history is filled with sin and stupidity. He insisted I give the talk, which only succeeded in boring them to tears - thankfully, no one left the program. But it is a miracle that the Church has remained in existence for as long as it has, and I mean that literally; the clergy would have destroyed the Church centuries ago if She was not guided by the Holy Spirit and protected by the promise of Christ, who said: "I will be with you till the end of time".

This is an important point; for God is humble; He chooses to make himself present to us sacramentally through unworthy hands - for if God's presence among us depended upon our holiness, we'd all be living in darkness. Having said that, the Church that Christ established has a charism, and it is rooted in the promise of Christ. In the gospel of John, he said: "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you" (Jn 14, 16-17). Two chapters later, Jesus says: "But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you" (Jn 16, 13-14). Hence, the Church has always professed that She has been given the gift of infallibility, a charism that protects the deposit of faith from corruption - note that the charism does not protect individual members of the Church from corruption. And so, although members of the hierarchy may fall into sin, corruption, etc., the Church as a whole cannot err in matters of faith and morals, and it is the Magisterium (pope, cardinals, bishops) that is the organ of that teaching charism. That safeguard from doctrinal error is rooted in the Holy Spirit, not the academic proficiency of the hierarchy. And so, there is something to be said about trusting the Church, even when a particular teaching does not make much sense to us, that is, when the explanations of a particular teaching are not all that clear or convincing. Sometimes, with patience, trust, and persistence, understanding eventually comes to us.

The Church is made up of baptized but sinful members, and these members of Christ's body, namely us, have been given individual gifts and charisms, and so we are able to be Christ's hands and feet to the world around us, albeit imperfectly. And the true face of the Church is precisely the lives of the saints. But we struggle with sin, and so we are blinded by sin. Although we believe that the Holy Spirit protects the integrity of the deposit of faith so that the Church as a whole is protected from teaching doctrinal error, the bishops of the Church that make up the magisterium suffer from the same cognitive limits that constrain the rest of us. This we can see quite readily when studying the history of the Church - not to mention getting ordained, which allows a unique inside view of things. I just came back from giving communion to a Scottish woman in a nursing home, who is in her 90s. She tried to have her baby baptized in the Catholic Church in Scotland in the late 50s, but every Catholic Church refused her, because she had married a Protestant. Nothing like this is likely to happen today, but it did back then in Scotland, where there was tremendous bigotry on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide. What can I say? We're blind, we're limited, we do the best we can, but we hurt many people in the process because it takes a while to see that "the best" is very often quite deficient. I remember the principal of my Catholic elementary school in Montreal standing at the door of our grade 3 class. He calls up my buddy, whose name I still remember. When he got to the front of the class, the principal took out a thick black leather strap and proceeded to strap and strap and strap his hand, crying in plain sight of everyone. What could a grade 3 child possibly do that would be deserving of such humiliation? And our teacher was a wonderful woman, but she is the one who called the principal in the first place. If that happened today, the principal would be fired, sued, and jailed, and it would make the front page of the Montreal Gazette. But not then. Had someone called the police, they would have laughed. That was the world we were living in. Progress is slow. And although we've made great progress in some areas, in other areas we are as blind as those who justified the slavery of black people in the American South.

There are two elements in the Church that are always found together, and they are always in some kind of tension.19 There is a conservative or conserving element, and a prophetic or progressive element. Yves Congar, one of the greatest Roman Catholic theologians in the 20th century and who had the greatest influence on the Second Vatican Council in 1962, speaks of these two elements in his classic work True and False Reform. He writes:

...the prophetic function aims to reveal the meaning of time and of the initiatives and movements that arise in history (principally from the point of view of God and God's plan). Churchmen have sometimes failed to fulfill this function. Because of this, a positive understanding of the dynamic nature of time and, above all, a fundamental openness to its development often have been found only among the avant-garde or among reformers working at the frontiers... (emphasis mine).20

A few pages later, he writes:

In the Church there is a complementarity between a principle of continuity or form coming from the hierarchy, on the one hand, and a principle of movement or unexpectedness, even, coming from those inspired to act on the frontiers. These latter seem to possess an impulsive energy which compensates for what they lack in tradition and security. They are the ones who bring the most to the life of the Church. They're the ones who, for the most part, re-establish the Church's relationship with the development of the world. Theirs is a "prophetic" function which the faithful, born and living in the milieu of sociological Catholicism, are not as well prepared to exercise (emphasis mine).21

The prophetic and conserving element cannot be separated from one another. The problem in the Church today is that it is very divided: liberal/progressive on the one side and conservative/traditionalist on the other are the two extremes of this disorder. The Church that Christ established is neither "liberal" nor "conservative"; She is both. Unfortunately, the word "progressive" has been hijacked and has come to be associated with dissent, but progress does not imply dissent. I've always said that if we were to go back in time with a crystal ball, let's say to the 12th or 13th century, or even the 16th century, and were to show them the Church of the 20th/21st century, there is no doubt that they would have declared us a heretical Church. Even Bartolome de las Casas, a 16th century Dominican friar who spoke out against the slave trade, specifically against the abuses committed by the colonists against the Native Americans, was at the time accused of heresy by a number of cardinals. Human beings are slow to learn. But the Church does grow and develop, and the principle of that growth is within her.

Consider the movements in the Church and in the world, such as Liberation theology in South America, or the LGBTQ+ movement, or Black Lives Matter, etc., there is always an element of truth in these movements, even though they might have incorporated elements inconsistent with the faith of the Church (Marxism, violent revolution, reverse racism, etc.). And it is this dialectic that forces the Church to re-examine the adequacy of our current but limited understanding, and the adequacy of our response to these current issues. For example, it isn't enough today to simply declare that sex is for procreation and marriage and outside of that context it is sinful. There is nothing false in the claim, it is true without a doubt, but it is not enough; for it is pastorally deficient, and the story is much richer and more interesting. And listening to those who have same sex attraction is utterly important, because they provide information that we don't have, a perspective that we do not have - and perspective always provides information that is unavailable from another angle. Hence, listening is very important - the current Synodal path of listening is certainly correct, as long as it involves real listening, and not merely its appearance. This is partly how Catholic self-understanding develops, through such a dialectic. And so, it can be said that Church teaching does and does not change. Official Church teaching on basic dogmas, i.e., Christology, the Trinity, sacraments, for example, or fundamental moral principles, etc., will not change, but Church teaching does develop, without a doubt, and development is a kind of change. There has and will arise new scriptural/historical/philosophical and/or other scientific information rooted in a perspective or angle that was unavailable earlier, and so in time we realize the inadequacy of our initial responses to certain issues or questions, even the inadequacy of our understanding of established Church teaching itself.

Conservatism preserves what is genuinely good, but it also has a tendency to resist developments that are in fact healthy. So, the Church is progressive in the true sense of the word; she is also conservative in the true sense of conserving against a certain kind of corruption of the deposit of faith. Corruption is a disintegration, like the rotting of an apple. Serving an apple for supper is not enough; one needs vegetables and proteins, etc.; the apple still needs to be conserved from corruption, however. But an exclusive focus on corruption prevention can blind us to the deficiencies of what we offer, what we understand, the deficiencies of our current responses to the world and the issues that concern it. And an exclusive focus on the progressive element blinds us to the riches of the past, the great philosophical, theological and literary treasures that make up the rich heritage that is ours in the Church.

With respect to the LGBTQ+ movement in the Church, we have seen that tension between the conserving element and the progressive/prophetic element. What's really wonderful about the authors I've mentioned in this talk is that they have been able to think in a way that calls the Church as a whole to move forward on these issues in a way that is faithful to her teaching, but with originality, creativity, and thoughtfulness.

Allow me to give Eve Tushnet the final word:

To the extent that "homosexuality" is a modern social construct, deconstructing it would require honoring same sex love and affection, rather than holding it in suspicion. This would require real changes in the culture and practices of most churches. What would a church look like in which "homosexuality" is genuinely deconstructed, and the important terms have reemerged as chaste love (good) and sexual sin (bad)? That would be a church where sharing your home and life with a same sex partner is unremarkable, where covenants or promises of friendship unite people as Ruth and Naomi were united, where men don't have to act like one another's bodies are made of lava, where butch women aren't objects of suspicion but just gals who don't spend a lot of time on their hair. In this church all holy expressions of same sex love would be honored and supported. Where same sex love was expressed in sinful ways, the lovers would be guided not to stop loving but to love each other better. I have never attended such a church."22


1 Eve Tushnet. Gay and Catholic. Notre Dame: Indiana, Ave Maria Press, 2014. Chapter 4, "Lather, Rinse, Repent" [Kobo version]. Retrieved from [Back]

2 Ibid. [Back]

3 Ibid. [Back]

4 Ibid. On the dangers of "psychologizing" with respect to same sex orientation, she writes: "I don't want to claim that sexual abuse never shifts someone's sexual orientation, since sexuality is complex and responds to our circumstances, culture, and experiences. But someone can be both an abuse survivor and a lesbian without thinking the former caused the latter. As with every painful family dynamic or element of personal history identified by the ex-gay theories, it is entirely possible to experience real healing of the wounds of your past without experiencing any change in your orientation. It's possible to experience real healing without desiring any change in your orientation. While some people do believe that their homosexuality is connected in some way to family problems or abuse, many others view their painful pasts as separate from their sexual orientation. People with both of these perspectives pursue chastity. There just doesn't seem to be anything gained from lecturing people about the correct way to interpret the most painful events of their lives. I have never once seen someone benefit spiritually from being told to accept an origin story for their homosexuality that didn't ring true to them. Quite the opposite; I have very, very often seen people spiritually harmed by this insistence." Ibid., Chapter 5, "Three Kinds of Diversity in Gay Christian Lives" [Kobo version] Retrieved from [Back]

5 See the story of Philip Trower and Dunstan Thompson in Chapter 2 of Tenderness: A Gay Christian's Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God's Extravagant Love. Notre Dame: Indiana, Ave Maria Press, 2021. [Back]

6 Ibid., Chapter 4, "Weaponized Christianity" [Kobo version] Retrieved from [Back]

7 Gay and Catholic, Chapter 5, "Three Kinds of Diversity in Gay Christian Lives". [Back]

8 Ibid. [Back]

9 Ibid. [Back]

10 Nicolas Berdyaev. The Destiny of Man. Trans. Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, California, Semantron Press, 2008. 132. [Back]

11 Ibid., p. 137. He also writes: " appears that there are many ways in which men can struggle with the sinful sexual passion. Every form of creative inspiration and deep spiritual feeling overcomes and transfigures it. ...The energy of sex transfigured and sublimated may become a source of creativeness and inspiration. Creativeness is unquestionably connected with the energy of sex, the first source of creative energy, which may assume other forms just as motion may pass into heat. Creativeness is bound up with the ultimate basis of life and indicates a certain spiritual direction assumed by the primary vital energy. The whole problem is to give that energy a spiritual direction instead of an unspiritual and thus save spiritual forces from being wasted upon sexual passion." Further on he writes: "Creativeness is generous and sacrificial, it means giving one's powers, while lust wants everything for itself, is greedy, insatiable and vampirish. True love gives strength to the loved one, while love-lust vampirically absorbs another person's strength. Hence there is opposition both between lust and freedom, and between lust and creativeness. Lust is a perverted and inwardly weakened passion." Ibid., p. 140. Finally, he says: "The greatest mystery of life is that satisfaction is felt not by those who take and make demands but by those who give and make sacrifices. In them alone the energy of life does not fail, and this is precisely what is meant by creativeness. Therefore, the positive mystery of life is to be found in love, in sacrificial, giving, creative love. And as has been said already, all creativeness is love and all love is creative. If you want to receive, give, if you want to obtain satisfaction, do not seek it, never think of it and forget the very word; if you want to acquire strength, manifest it, give it to others." Ibid., pp. 140-141. [Back]

12 Op.cit., Chapter 5. [Back]

13 Gay and Catholic, Chapter 6, "You are Called to Love". [Back]

14 Ibid. [Back]

15 Ibid. [Back]

16 Robin Darling Young. "Gay Marriage: Reimaging Church History". First Things, November, 1994. . Quoted in Gay and Catholic, Chapter 7. Kobo version. [Back]

17 Gay and Catholic, Chapter 8, "Spiritual Friendship Today and Tomorrow". [Back]

18 Tenderness, Chapter 3, "The Secret Garden". [Back]

19 Nicolas Berdyaev speaks of two elements that can be discovered throughout the course of history. In his work The Meaning of History, he writes: History unites two elements, the creative and the conservative. The historical process would not be possible without their union. By the conservative element I mean a tie with the spiritual past, an inner tradition, and an acceptance of the sacred heritage of the past. But history also demands a dynamic creative element, a creative sequence and purpose, an urge towards self-fulfillment. Thus, the free audacity of the creative principle coexists with an inner tie and a profound communion with the past. The absence of either of these elements invalidates the postulate of history. Trans. George Reavey. San Rafael, California, Semantron Press, 2009. P. 39. [Back]

20 True and False Reform in the Church. Trans. Paul Philibert. Collegeville, Minnesota. Liturgical Press, 2011. Chapter 3, "Prophets and Reformers" [Kobo version]. Retrieved from [Back]

21 Ibid. [Back]

22 Tenderness, Chapter 3. "The Secret Garden". [Back]