MORE What’s to be done then?
NORFOLK (With deep appeal) Give in.
MORE (Gently) I can’t give in, Howard— (A smile) You might as well advise a man to change the color of his eyes. I can’t. Our friendship’s more mutable than that.
NORFOLK Oh, that’s immutable, is it? The one fixed point in a world of changing friendships is that Thomas More will not give in!
MORE (Urgent to explain) To me it has to be, for that’s myself! Affection goes as deep in me as you think, but only God is love right through, Howard; and that’s my self.
—Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, pp. 121-122
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I’ve written a good deal about how hard it can be to be a gay Catholic—more specifically, one that accepts the Church’s teaching about homosexuality. Why I accept that teaching is a question I usually waive, not because it isn’t important, but because (1) it isn’t usually my direct topic, (2) many of my readers are traditionalists themselves and don’t require any explanation, and (3) it’s painful for me to think about.
However, I’ve found I do my best work when I’m willing to be vulnerable. And plenty of my readers aren’t traditionalists; often enough, because the reasons they were given for the traditional belief were badly reasoned, or their treatment at the hands of traditional believers was horrible, or both.
I don’t know whether to hope to persuade any of my readers of the Catholic view. Anyhow there’s a considerable list of beliefs I’d sooner persuade them of than this one: being Side B isn’t the heart of my faith, and it shouldn’t be the heart of anybody else’s. But I do want to analyze what these beliefs about sexuality are, and why I believe them, hoping that others will find the analysis helpful. If this series does no more than clarify my own convictions to people who still disagree, I’ll be glad of that.
To put things in context, a quick run-down of the Christian views of homosexuality.1 The terminology of sides, though inexact and a bit silly, is nevertheless useful enough to serve as a rough outline, so I’m using it. Sorry about any nuances that get lost. The perspectives taken in our culture can be classified in four groups, which I’ll call Sides A, B, X, and Y.2 What follows are some gross oversimplifications of these views that’ll do to get us going.
Look, it was hard coming up with a title, okay?
Side A is sometimes called the progressivist or pro-gay interpretation of Scripture. Its essential stance is that being gay is a morally neutral part of who we are, just like being a heterosexual is, and that Christians can entirely embrace a gay identity. On this view, sexually active gay relationships are as open to God’s blessing as opposite-sex ones—generally with the same limitations that opposite-sex relationships are supposed to be under, like abstention before marriage, monogamy, &c. The passages of Scripture which seem inconsistent with this view—nicknamed the ‘clobber passages’—are regarded by most Side A theologians as having been misinterpreted, and as referring to something other than the kind of divinely-sanctioned gay relationships they affirm.3 Matthew Vines, Julie Rodgers, Justin Lee, James Brownson, and Rachel Held Evans are contemporary examples of Side A thought.
Side B is a more traditional view. It tends to agree with Side A that simply being gay (as distinct from having gay sex) is morally neutral, and most Side B people think that identifying as gay is perfectly fine: coming out, calling oneself gay, going to see Wicked, you get the idea. However, it doesn’t say this because it considers gay sex and straight sex morally equivalent; it takes the long-standing Christian view that marriage is, of itself, between one man and one woman, and that sexual intimacy is only for marriage. Since two women or two men are, by definition, not the kind of pairing a marriage can happen between in this view, sexual intimacy between them is wrong. Being only or mostly attracted to the same sex, on Side B premises, is therefore a misfortune; but it isn’t a sin and shouldn’t be treated like one, nor should gay people be treated like second-class citizens. Having gay sex, on these premises, would be a sin, but not necessarily a very serious one: it might be very serious indeed if, say, you’re cheating on your wife—but that’s primarily because you’re cheating on your wife, not because you’re doing it with a dude. Several Side B authors (notably Melinda Selmys) are specially concerned with the maltreatment of LGBTs internationally, e.g. in Russia and Uganda, and with widespread prejudice against trans individuals here in the US. Wesley Hill, Eve Tushnet, Anna Magdalena, Joseph Prever, and Ron Belgau are instances of Side B writers.
A popular4 oversimplification of Sides A and B is that Side A believes in gay marriage, while Side B believes gay people should be celibate. It’s quite true that most Side A people hope to marry, and most Side B people expect to be celibate, but it isn’t cut and dry. Side B Christians don’t automatically rule out the possibility of heterosexual marriage; we just don’t expect it, since, you know, we’re not really into that genre of genitals. If God did something weird with us, and/or introduced us to a very exceptional person, we might enter into a heterosexual marriage, and a few of us have done; but we don’t anticipate it the way straight people mostly anticipate getting married one day (and we certainly don’t want ourselves or others like us to be pushed into such marriages, a chronic failure of the ex-gay movement).
And conversely, being Side A doesn’t necessarily mean you plan to get married any more than being straight does. God can call people to celibacy apart from any question of sexual orientation, and believing gay marriage is a good thing isn’t the same as believing it’s what God has planned for you. For that matter, being at peace with your sexuality is just as important—maybe even more so—if you’re going to attempt a celibate life, and if a gay marriage would be equally innocent and good, it is by definition healthier to enter a celibate vocation with that knowledge.
Moving along, Side X. This is ex-gay thought, or SOCE (sexual orientation change efforts). The basic outlook is that same-sex attraction, far from being morally neutral, is a mental disease or even a sin, and that the Christian is responsible to try to change it. Any kind of gay identity, including using words like lesbian and gay and being public about one’s orientation (if it isn’t heterosexual), is typically rejected by Side X: regarding oneself in a different light is considered just as important as a change in attractions, if not more so. Ex-gay views are decidedly out of favor. They seemed fairly popular fifteen and twenty years ago, even in the press; but news of embarrassing lapses on the part of ministers, and of sickening, abusive disciplinary practices towards those who came (or were forcibly sent) to them for help, led to a justly soured image. Not many Side X figures remain in the public eye, although Anne Paulk, Joseph Nicolosi, Robert Gagnon, James Dobson, and Joe Dallas are associated with the movement.
Finally there is Side Y. This is a term I’ve coined, to denote those who consider homosexual attractions a bad thing, but at the same time don’t necessarily advocate orientation change. This may sound like a bizarre halfway house between Side X and Side B, and I’m a little wary of Side Y myself; the borders between X and Y can be porous. Some groups, like Courage,5 are formally Side Y while allowing space for Side X. Others, like Harvest USA, are Side Y and specifically disclaim orientation change. The essential character of Side Y, I think, is that it disclaims gay identity: insofar as one’s thoughts, feelings, or experiences deviate from the normal heterosexual pattern, they are to be simply opposed, and normally, shared with others only to gain the needed support for living with this—not disease, maybe, but certainly condition. Their accent tends to be on being a new person in Christ, without reference to sexual orientation as an element of identity. Daniel Mattson, Rosaria Butterfield, Fr Paul Check, Matt Moore, and Pope Benedict XVI probably all qualify as examples.6
And me? I’m Side B, and I hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I’d far rather be Side A, only I can’t be. Not because the Catholic Church forbids it: she does, but that isn’t the decider for me. It’s because I’m convinced that Side B is the truth. Catholicism does come into that, but my assent to Catholicism is a reasoned assent (even if other people don’t agree with my reasons), not an arbitrary one; and it is my allegiance to the truth that is, to me, inviolably holy. Could I be persuaded something else were true? Sure. But as long as I’m convinced of this, I must be honest with myself and others about the fact; and if I’m right about matter of fact here, then people who don’t believe it, however sincerely, are in that respect not fully equipped to deal with spiritual reality.
William Blake, Jacob's Ladder, 1806
If you told me I could make Side A true by chopping off one of my fingers, my only question would be, ‘Which one?’ But reality doesn’t work that way. It’s just there. Believing this theology that I so hate is an inner conflict that costs me wrenching pain; but lying to myself about what I do and don’t think is true would be a violation of my whole being. I can live with suffering, but not with deliberate, self-willed corruption of my integrity. It’d be cutting off, not a finger, but my head.
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1For a variety of reasons, there’s no good phrase for this. Many gay-identifying Christians (I among them) don’t much like being called homosexuals, not because it isn’t true—it is so true, girl—but because the word has a vaguely clinical sound (while phrases like same-sex attracted have not only a clinical sound but a clinical history, and an ugly one); on the other hand, many Christians, especially Catholics, object on philosophical and cultural grounds to the word gay, and alternatives like queer are no better or even worse. The word Christian is also inevitably ambiguous: I use it in the sense of those who profess the faith of the Nicene Creed, as a decently historically grounded point of reference, but many Jesus-centered faith traditions that consider themselves Christian are not Nicene: the Mormon, Unitarian, Jehovah’s Witness, and Christian Science traditions (among many others) are all non-Nicene, and, whatever one’s view of the pale of orthodoxy, they are certainly explicable only in terms of Christianity.
2Side A and Side B, terms popularized by the Gay Christian Network, originated at the now-defunct site Bridges Across the Divide; they equated roughly with their current use. Side X for ex-gay views was formed on analogy with these—I think this took place on the discussion boards at GCN, but the history of such an intuitive phrase (given preëxisting side terms) is surely untraceable. Side Y is my own coinage, meant to fit with the other terms.
3There are Side A Christians who simply dismiss the Bible here. I’m not concerning myself with this perspective, because it is in my opinion a very weak version of Side A. I for one, if I’m going to bother with being a Christian at all, will do so only with an authority I can rely on, and I rather think a lot of other people feel the same. The strong version of Side A is that which takes the authority of Scripture seriously, as Matthew Vines does for example. Therefore, it’s the only kind I want to spend time discussing. There’s something faintly distasteful about attacking the weakness of an opponent’s argument; if you can’t take down the strong point, not much else matters, does it?
4Well, popular among the sort of people who like to talk about this stuff on the internet. Which is admittedly a larger number than I’d have anticipated.
5To date, Courage Apostolate is the only Church-sanctioned Catholic ministry to same-sex attracted people (their terminology). I’ve had a long and uneasy non-relationship with Courage: they’re perfectly orthodox, and they stop short of directly endorsing SOCE, but their online statements have tended to be extremely off-putting to me, even when they aren’t flat-out false in their depiction of the LGBT movement. While I was in college I wanted to find a chapter and couldn’t—or rather, the closest chapter was a state away—and my enthusiasm to spend time with the apostolate in person has only declined. Make of all this what you will.
6Note that saying somebody espouses a position doesn’t mean they’re gay (or whatever) themselves. In describing Fr Check and Pope Benedict as Side Y, I’m not speculating on their own sexual orientations, of which I know nothing; I’m just trying to illustrate what I mean by Side Y.