Gay & Catholic Lands at Life Teen: A “Yes” or a Mess?

“These days I go back and forth on how well I think I grasp the theology behind the Church’s sexual ethic.” —Eve Tushnet

Eve Tushnet, author of Gay & Catholic, gives this candid self-appraisal early in her recent post at the Life Teen youth-ministry apostolate blog. I’d like to hope that the following commentary, sincerely, will assist Tushnet by making clear that there are indeed some deep deficiencies in her understanding of Church teaching.

In fact, it seems pretty astonishing that Tushnet’s “God Delights in Me: What I’ve Learned as a Gay Catholic” was deemed appropriate for Catholic youth. In one short post, Tushnet echoed many of the most concerning elements found in her book Gay & Catholic, published by Ave Maria Press, apparently without imprimatur or nihil obstat. It seems safe to say that, had Tushnet or her publisher acted upon her uncertainty about Catholic theology and sought an imprimatur, her book might have been both very different and much more laudable, as would her recent post.

Others elsewhere have posted very credible and important general reviews critiquing Tushnet’s book, including Catholic World Report. But I’d like to focus on Tushnet’s message as presented in the context of Catholic youth ministry. Let’s assess her assertions and then ask some questions about what a more authentic Catholic view regarding homosexuality and youth would be like.

 

Tushnet’s primary general assertions are quite right: Chastity is more than abstinence; we all have a vocation to love; we’re all called to friendship and service; we have to care for one another. This is at least a little “yes” in the midst of a larger “mess.” What makes things messy is that Tushnet places some questionable content under these assertions.

I thought that my basic tasks as a gay Christian were: 1) Work hard to understand Catholic theology of homosexuality, and 2) Don’t have sex with girls. It turns out that you can’t build a spiritual life on those two things.

Actually, I think the more correct expression would be that you can only build a spiritual life on those two things if you are a woman experiencing same-sex attraction. You certainly couldn’t build a Christian spiritual life without sexual continence (as one unmarried) and without understanding “Catholic theology of homosexuality.” In making the correct point that the Christian spiritual life is more than these two things, the importance of these two things seems underplayed.

The Bible uses both the love between two men or two women, and the love between a man and a woman love (sic) to model the love between God and human beings, but those loves are structured differently: The opposite-sex love is typically expressed in marriage, whereas the love between two men or two women is simply expressed as friendship … or extended-family relationships….

Given that the post has to do with same-sex attraction, this description of Biblical “love” seems overly conflated, such that the clearly dominant “nuptial” relationship between God and us expressed in the Bible seems equivalent in importance to the merely “different” model of God’s love as same-sex “friendship.” For young persons who might have same-sex attractions, this is precisely the point at which it should be made clear that same-sex attraction is not a form of “love” or “friendship,” but is an inclination that’s not properly ordered toward the conjugal love of a man and woman.

[C]hastity is not the only virtue…. Understanding gay Christian life as only about chastity is a serious mistake, and one made often.

But chastity is at the center of one’s response to same-sex attraction, according to the Church. Tushnet seems to portray “gay Christian life” as something much “bigger” than same-sex attraction—young Catholics reading this will likely catch the implicit inference—being “gay” is (for Tushnet) not reducible to having same-sex attractions or to a chastity issue but is rather a guidepost of sorts to one’s “vocation”—not merely as a Christian but as a “gay” Christian. Yet this is not what the Church really teaches.

Friendship is one of the most theologically rich relationships in the Bible…. We might expect someone to say that the greatest love is to lay down your life for your child, or for your spouse, but Jesus—who was neither a husband nor a father, but was a son and a friend—instead uses friendship as a model of selfless devotion.

It seems straightforwardly wrong to woodenly claim that Jesus “was neither a husband nor a father,” particularly in order to amplify the Scriptural importance of “friendship.” Jesus was most assuredly the Bridegroom of His Bride, the Church, and was also father to the Twelve Apostles, the perfect image of God the Father, and father to the offspring of the Church, born in Baptism. This is Jesus as the perfect husband and father. Was he son and friend? Certainly. But the nuptial imagery once again trumps (in terms of theological richness) the image of friendship. With young Catholics facing a culture that has completely eroded the meaning of marriage and family, can we afford to downplay the dominance of nuptial imagery regarding Jesus in Scripture? But Tushnet is clearly opting to frame things this way as the foundation of a larger point.

In many Christian countries friendship could be a form of kinship: Friends would take vows to care for one another and one another’s children; they would share a household and finances. Sometimes friends would make these vows on the church steps, then go inside to Mass to exchange the Kiss of Peace and receive the Eucharist together.

Nobody wants every friendship to be this deep—and to carry this many obligations—but most of us, including married people, need at least one friendship which we can truly rely on.

I have friends in intentional communities of laypeople, and friends in celibate partnerships.

Thus we arrive at what Tushnet refers to as her “hobby horse”—advocating for “vowed friendships” solemnized in church and culminating in Eucharist. Despite the contentious claim that Church history featured such “celibate partnerships” in the past, the truth is that such vowed, cohabiting couplehood shared by two people with same-sex attraction is what the Church still usually refers to as a “same-sex union.” Regardless of whether it involves homogenital activity, if it’s based on same-sex attraction, this does not count as a healthy “friendship” between two people of the same sex. Indeed, nor is friendship equivalent to “kinship” in the mind of the Church, which anchors its teaching on the family (which is what Tushnet appears to mean by “kinship”) in natural law, with family arising exclusively from marital union.

And this is also where Tushnet reveals a deep misunderstanding of the nature of celibacy—at least celibacy for the sake of the kingdom. Celibacy is not merely sexual continence—not-having-sex. Celibacy is about forgoing any exclusive lifelong “partnership” with another person—marriage—so that the celibate person can enter into the exclusive lifelong “partnership” that marriage points to—intimate and eternal “nuptial” union with God.

Tushnet seems to perceive that there really is “room” in celibacy for exclusive and permanent vowed partnerships between two people with same-sex attraction. And this flawed perception certainly explains why she also recently went on record in the March issue of Christianity Today as recommending that people attend the so-called “marriages” of friends in same-sex unions:

This decision about attendance is easier for me, because I believe God calls some people to devoted, sacrificial love of another person of the same sex. Let me be clear: I don’t think that that love should be expressed sexually. But some people who marry a same-sex partner are doing so out of a call to love, even though they misinterpret the nature of that love. We should support as much as we can…. Some people may have already demonstrated enough love that their friends would understand a decision not to attend a same-sex wedding. But in most cases, I think it’s best to show up.

Tushnet does not seem to understand that authentic celibacy for the sake of the kingdom requires the renunciation of exclusive and permanent love relationships with other persons. Thus Tushnet is giving young Catholics more messy thinking instead of a clear message regarding authentic friendship between persons of the same sex and regarding the nature of celibacy itself.

One last point about the Life Teen post—Tushnet references friends “who were forced or pressured into damaging ‘reparative therapy’.” It’s the only mention of therapy in the post, which is unfortunate because, in fact, the US Bishops say in their 2006 statement, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care”:

Pastoral and psychological care for adolescents who struggle with sexual attraction issues is of particular importance. Adolescents with homosexual attractions can be at serious risk for personal difficulties, including suicidal tendencies and attempts as well as enticements to promiscuity and exploitation by adults. Every effort should be made to ensure that adolescents have access to age-appropriate professional counseling services that respect Church teaching in matters of human sexuality.

The US Bishops make clear that for young people with same-sex attraction, some form of therapeutic counseling should be a must. This points to a fact hardly referenced anymore (and clearly omitted in Tushnet’s post)—that in the Church’s view, same-sex attraction remains a psychological phenomenon as well as a moral and spiritual phenomenon, particularly for adolescents, who may well be experiencing forms of transitory same-sex attractions rather than something deep-seated. In such cases, both spiritual direction and psychological counseling and therapy that is in keeping with Church teaching can make a positive difference in a young person’s life.

To conclude, contrasting with Tushnet’s perspective, what might be of greater benefit to young Catholics in addressing same-sex attraction? Here’s my brief list of some important clarifications (all of which can be backed by official documents of the Church):

  1. Should young Catholics avoid publicly acknowledging their same-sex attractions, publicly identifying as “gay,” or embracing a “gay” subculture? Yes.
  1. Should every effort be made to encourage young Catholics with SSA to seek age-appropriate spiritual direction and psychological counseling? Yes.
  1. Does the Church view homosexuality as a condition associated with affective immaturity, which may be transitory in adolescents? Yes.
  1. Should the Church address same-sex attraction first and foremost via the virtue of chastity, particularly for young people? Yes.
  1. Should young Catholics be offered a balanced view of the integral and unbreakable relationship between sexuality and married love, which reveals same-sex attraction to be out of harmony with authentic sexuality? Yes.
  1. Should young Catholics come to understand that same-sex attraction is not a form of “friendship” or love? Yes.
  1. Should a clear and definitive distinction be maintained between authentically healthy and “disinterested” friendships on one hand and less-than-healthy relationships formed at least in part on the basis of same-sex attraction on the other? Yes.
  1. Should young people avoid thinking that “friendship” can make a claim to the “kinship” inherent in the family bond arising from marital union? Yes.
  1. Should Catholic youth be taught that celibacy for the sake of the kingdom is a vocation that requires renunciation of a permanent and exclusive love relationship with another person in favor of a total, permanent, and exclusive self-gift to God himself? Yes.
  1. Should Catholic youth be taught that attending a same-sex “wedding” is decidedly not the same thing as attending a Baptism, and that it’s not appropriate to attend an event that is utterly contrary to God’s plan for married love? Yes.

And that, dear readers, is a litany that is a whole lot more “yes” and a whole lot less “mess.”

Editor’s note: Due to the reservations outlined by Deacon Russell in his essay above, Life Teen has removed Eve Tushnet’s column, “God Delights in Me,” from their website. 

Jim Russell

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Jim Russell lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He writes on a variety of topics related to the Catholic faith, including natural law, liturgy, theology of the body, and sexuality. He can be reached at: dearjimrussell@gmail.com

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