Of late, much attention has been given in both the secular media and Christian media to those who call themselves “gay celibate Christians.” As a man attracted to men yet committed to traditional Catholic teaching on human sexuality, I find the notion both of being “gay” or “celibate” strange. Indeed, in the context of what the virtue of chastity is all about, neither of them make sense.
The gift of the virtues can be summed up by Christ’s words: be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. “The Christian man,” Gaudium et Spes tells us, is “conformed to the likeness of that Son Who is the firstborn of many brothers.” Christ “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” and is “Himself the perfect man.” His life is man’s paradigm and the virtues are the template for how Christ, the perfect man, lived.
The commandments are not arbitrary “does and don’ts.” Rather, they are the way man would naturally live—if man knew who he truly was. Those who have virtue will spontaneously live in accord with the commandments. They are not perceived as impositions that deny us pleasure, but as safeguards against harming ourselves and others. Such was the case with Christ.
Despite what most people might think, the virtue of chastity, like all other virtues, isn’t so much concerned with what we do or don’t do. Rather, chastity is the virtue that helps us see things truly and objectively—things as they really are—within the realm of sexuality. This clarity of vision is necessary for true human freedom and human flourishing. It is chastity that gives us the freedom to order our sexual appetites and therefore make decisions that correspond with reality. Christ lived as a chaste man, not because he followed every dot and tittle of the law (which of course he did), but rather, because he lived in accordance with the truth of what it means to be a man, made in the image and likeness of God. Like Christ, a man who truly knows who he is will naturally lead a life of chastity.
When it comes to homosexuality, then, the reason I mustn’t have a relationship with a male isn’t based on an arbitrary whim of God. Rather, it is immoral because it is irrational for human beings to live in such a way, based on the sort of creature that human beings are.
Put more simply, the reason it is immoral for me to live out a life according to my subjective desires and inclinations is precisely because I am not, in fact, a gay man.
Nor is any man.
I have written often before of the reasons I eschew the word gay to describe myself, and why I think it is a mistake for anyone to claim that label. The core question is one of anthropology: who is man, and is man the sort of creature who can rightly be described as “being gay?” (I argue here, here and here why I think this is a mistake. Eve Tushnet and I talked about the topic on the Al Kresta Show.)
The core reason I reject the term “gay” however, is out of humility to my creator. In the second reading from last Sunday’s Mass, we heard St. Paul’s words, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
“You are not your own” is fundamental to this question. This calls to mind words of Pope Benedict XVI speaking to the German Bundestag in 2006, when he said:
Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.
Why would I call myself a gay man, then, simply because I find men sexually attractive? This is in opposition to the way God made me and the nature he gave me. Regardless of what my feelings might tell me, my body reveals to me the truth that I am not gay, but rather a male made for a female. The Catechism is clear about our sexual identity: “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.”
Accepting myself as I truly am requires that I reject a belief that I have a sexual identity other than being a man made for women. Recognizing this truth of who I am, as a sexual creature, is fundamental to the virtue of chastity. When it comes to homosexuality, however, many seem to believe that sexual continence is the earmark of chastity. But this is not so. Rather, continence, in any single person’s life, is a necessary sign of chastity, but it does not express the fullness or breadth of the beauty of the virtue. Chastity is far more than what we do or don’t do with our sexual organs. The Catechism tells us that “chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.”
We live in an age where the unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being is seen as outdated and obsolete. “Gender is between your ears, not between your legs,” Chastity Bono, daughter of Sonny and Cher, famously said on Good Morning America after beginning the process of sex-reassignment surgery.
The notion that gender and sexuality reside in the mind, or can be chosen at will, is opposed to human flourishing and the true nature of man. The Church wisely gives us the antidote to this view through the virtue of chastity. The Church speaks not of gender, but rather of the two sexes with two corresponding sexual identities. What points us to our true sexual identity is the beautiful differentiation of the body. It is for this reason that I am grateful for the wise words written by then Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986, when he said that “today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.”
This truth about my sexual identity is the reason I also refuse to call myself celibate. Though I am living a single life, I am no different than all of my other single friends who have yet to be married. They do not speak of themselves as celibate, nor should I. They and I are single. Nor am I a part of a “sexual minority,” as some would say of a man like me. I am a male, just as Adam was, just as Christ was, just like all of my other male friends. As the 1986 Letter On The Pastoral Care of the Homosexual Person wisely tells me, “every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well.” One of my challenges is that I suffer from the privation of the good of seeing women as sexually desirable—but that fact doesn’t make me a different sort of man than all of the other men in the world around me. The virtue of chastity teaches me this truth.
Thus, I find the phrase “gay celibate” a rejection of the very nature of who God made man in the Garden of Eden. I will never say of myself that I am a gay man, for I know that I must humbly “accept and acknowledge” the sexual nature that God gave me: I am a man, made for woman. I do not speak of myself as celibate since I have not taken a vow never to marry, which is what a celibate person does. While I find it very unlikely that I will ever marry, both my nature as a male and my humility to God’s direction in my life must leave me open to the possibility that God may direct my steps towards union with a woman in marriage. For me to call myself a “gay celibate” seems an act of rebellion against how God made me to be. By calling myself gay, I reject my true sexual identity, and the sort of emotional, physical and psychological creature God made me; To call myself “celibate” when I haven’t taken vows of celibacy seems a willful rejection of the potential will of God in my life that he may desire to bring to me a woman with whom I might realize my sexual complementarity. It would be hubris to close the door to the possibility that God is calling me to marriage, because of choosing to identify as “a gay man,” which therefore requires me to live a life of celibacy. This makes no sense.
The notion of “gay celibacy” is an idea stemming from an impoverished and confused view of what chastity is all about. Chastity isn’t the same thing as sexual continence, nor is it marked by celibacy. It is about living in accordance with the truth of things, and how God made us as sexual creatures. It is about lives lived with the right relationship with reality, where we view our sexuality through the “inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” My body is a more reliable compass than my feelings are, and it always points to my true sexual identity. As my dad wisely told me when I was a child, “feelings are important, but they don’t always tell us the truth.”
Above all else, chastity is about the real nature of things. I don’t get to choose a sexual identity. Sexual identities aren’t the sorts of things that can be chosen, for we are not our own. We have sexual identities, given to us by God. We can accept the truth, and live our lives based on reality. We may reject the truth, but if we do, how can we ever live fully chaste lives?
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Adam and Eve” painted by Jan Mabuse Gossaert in 1520.