Never before has a devout, vocal, and coherent group of educated, thoughtful, and orthodox gay† Christians sought to articulate what the Church’s teaching might mean for someone who is not attracted to the opposite sex.
Chris Damian wrote that in the blog—Ideas of a University—he ran at Notre Dame University where he took an undergraduate degree in Philosophy last year. Damian also studied at the Angelicum in Rome and is now working on a law degree at the University of St. Thomas. Damian is gay and a faithful Catholic. He’s describing a new school of which he is a prominent member—out and proud men and at least one woman and their straight friends calling for the Church to “develop” Her teaching on homosexuality.
They are the New Homophiles†† and they accept the Church’s teaching that sexual activity can only occur between married men and women. They oppose a redefinition of marriage to include anyone else. They are fine, if that is the right word, with living celibate lives. They do not want to stop being gay; they don’t believe they can or even should. They believe God made them gay so they want to be known as gay and they want the Church to accept them on those terms. And they believe being gay is part of God’s plan and vocation for them.
They believe the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and certainly the way it is often talked about by Christians is highly limiting, often insulting, hardly ever welcoming, and in desperate need of development. They are out to change that with their lives and with their writing.
Eve Tushnet may be the progenitor of the New Homophiles. The eccentric and often brilliant daughter of a non-observant Jewish Georgetown law professor and a Unitarian legal activist, Tushnet grew up in Washington DC and knew herself to be gay from a young age. At Yale she came into contact with what’s called the Party of the Right, a part of the Yale Political Union, and the birthing place of many noted conservatives.
She told New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer that the Catholics she met at the Party of the Right taught that the presence of sin does not “mean you are bad” but that “It means you have a chance to come back and repent and be saved.”
Tushnet is out, proud, celibate, and a Catholic faithful to the Magisterium. Tushnet says she is in love with the Church, its “beauty and sensual glamour.” She loves the Church’s “insistence that seemingly irreconcilable needs could both be met in God’s overwhelming love: justice and mercy, reason and mystery, a savior who is fully God and also fully human.” Tushnet is a true believer but she also speaks fondly in remembrance of her own lesbian experiences. All this is enough to give faithful Catholics vertigo.
Elizabeth Scalia, who is not gay, came to prominence under the nom de blog The Anchoress and is now the editor of the Catholic portal at Patheos. Her brother was gay and died from AIDs and she is perhaps the Momma Bear of the New Homophiles.
Scalia usually treads lightly but surely on the question of homosexuality. She likely understands how difficult this new message is for the kind of Catholics who read her.
She began one provocative column at First Things quoting gay playwright Larry Kramer who told a television audience at the Tony Awards in 2011 that gays “are a very special people, an exceptional people, and that our day will come.” Scalia answered, “… perhaps Kramer is right. Perhaps homosexuals are in fact ‘special and exceptional others,’ whose distinctions are meant to be noted. Perhaps they are a ‘necessary other’ created and called to play a specific role in our shared humanity.” Note the careful triple “perhaps,” a columnist’s way of taking something off the fastball but throwing a strike nonetheless.
Gay exceptionalism and charism are a regular theme for the New Homophiles. Gabriel Blanchard who calls himself “a gay, anarchist Christian” used to believe that celibacy was a kind of second prize, behind marriage and the priesthood. He is now fiddling with the idea that he is gay because he is celibate, that his “homosexuality was incorporated, or permitted by God, so as to help me discern my vocation to lay celibacy?” He claims gay exceptionalism allows gays to have “lower tension in dealing with the opposite sex” and “a more intuitive understanding of certain forms of mysticism.” Perhaps.
One of the most prolific of the new school is Joshua Gonnerman who is studying for a PhD at Catholic University in Washington DC. He, too, believes in gay-exceptionalism; there are many things he finds valuable about his experience of being gay, and considers that same-sex desire can be a gift to the Church, a sign of contradiction.
The New Homophiles believe because of their gayness they have a unique ability to build close friendships, something that is lacking in our modern age. Chris Damian points to the intense friendship John Henry Newman had with another priest, going so far as insist he and the priest be buried together. Damian says flat out that Newman was gay and that the friendship with Father Ambrose St. John was the fruit of that. Perhaps.
They are inspired by the work of St. Aelred of Rievault, a twelfth century Abbot and writer considered one of the Cistercian Fathers, who wrote a seminal work still read closely in Trappist monasteries, “On Spiritual Friendship.” Aelred has been adopted by many gays, some of whom celebrate his feast day. Some claim he was gay though gays have a penchant for claiming historical figures as gay, often with little real evidence.
Their ideal is that you can draw close to someone of the same-sex, love them intimately and intensely, yet never cross the line into sexual activity. They point to the relationship between Jesus and young John as a model. Recall John was the “one whom Jesus loved” and who laid his head on Jesus’ chest, something if done today would clearly be considered gay.
But here they are playing with the hottest of fires. Perhaps this is possible for Christ and for saints like Newman but for others it could be a serious problem. This is why married men should avoid intimate friendships with women and why priests should also. This is why married men and priests who form intimate friendships with women often lose their way and ruin their vocations.
Experts at lay celibacy include the Numeraries of Opus Dei. These men and women commit themselves to apostolic celibacy, live in community and dedicate their lives to Christ and spreading the good news through close friendships. But you will never find male or female Numeraries becoming close friends with the opposite sex. It is quite literally playing with fire.
Other experts at lay celibacy include every faithful Catholic who has never been married or who has been widowed. They, too, are called at least for a time, perhaps their whole lives, to celibacy.
There is also something at least a little bit narcissistic about this claim of gay-exceptionalism, that they are experiencing things no others have ever experienced, or that they have unique gifts given to them by dint of their sexual orientation. One of the writers even speaks of the contributions of gay culture though most people would only know the caricature of camp, show tunes and dressing up.
What they want more than anything is a development of doctrine. The Church teaches that homosexuality is “objectively disordered” and that homosexual sex is an “act of grave depravity.” The Church sees homosexuality as a psychological issue the genesis of which “remains largely unexplained.” There is clearly a long way to go from this to Church seeing homosexuality as a gift not just to the gay person but to the Body of Christ.
The gauntlet they are throwing down is for themselves and for us. For them it is to live chastely, to have intimate nonsexual friendships that will never cross the line.
For us it is to accept them as they are and not believe they must be changed. We may hold that their homosexuality is an Augustinian thorn as many of them do. Similarly we may even hold that it can be a kind of sickle cell anemia, a malady that also comes with benefits, as one of them wrote. But we may not hold that there is anything really wrong with their orientation.
The conversation is fascinating and I must admit I started out annoyed. After all, there are good men and women trying to be faithful but who reject the gay identity, and others who are trying to deal with the underlying psychological genesis of unwanted same-sex attraction, a process the New Homophiles largely dismiss. It will be hard for many of us to believe the Church ever could develop to the extent wanted by this school of writers and thinkers. From a disorder to a gift is a long long way to go.
The New Homophiles are not without their gay critics. In two weeks I will write about them.
† Defining and using terms in this debate is fraught with difficulties. Gay can be a political term of the sexual left. Many consider homosexual to be pejorative. Then there is “same-sex attracted.” I am using “gay” out of deference to the good people I am writing about.
†† Homophile was the term used for gay groups in the 1950s and 60s, prior to the birth of the modern gay rights movement.