We were in love and a child seemed absolutely necessary. Not because it was expected or because we loved kids. It was more about how much we loved each other. She couldn’t let me sleep, and I’d follow her around everywhere when I was awake. That’s what the cool people who mock breeders don’t understand: that there can be a love bigger than two people. And it swells and spills when you’re together. We wanted a baby to share because not having a child seemed wasteful.
… I stared around the corridor to see her still in her white silk nightgown dancing in our living room. Swaying and spinning like a ballerina angel, the soft fabric of her gown flowing behind, following her motions. Quick and sudden. Erratic, if not so graceful. And though her body moved in long fluid glides, I was struck by her arms, which stayed folded at her chest. I expected exaggerated sweeps and points, but she held them tight.
And then I realized she was holding our baby. Our baby that was never born, but in the still of her arms, it could not have been more real, and she spun and spun and swayed and never let it go. And no matter how tightly she held her arms, the emptiness could not contain all the love that poured from her.
This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him.
—C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters XXXI
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Courtesy of Randall Munroe and his dislike of copyright law.
My last post addressed some major reasons that I’m Side B, as opposed to Side X or Side Y (terms explained in the first post); the post before that, on the clobber passages, dealt with part of the reason I’m Side B rather than Side A. But I said there that the clobber passages form only a small part of my reason for espousing a traditional view of sexual ethics. I’d like to get into that more deeply now.
It’s hard to do, partly because I’ve never really felt that I got it. The commonest Catholic argument relies on natural law theory; it makes sense to me, but it’s never seemed to make homosexuality an important enough difference to be worth forbidding. Especially considering the cost in heartache.1
A different tack is suggested by St John Paul II’s famous tome, Theology of the Body. Now, I have only read the book once and it is remarkably hard to understand—not just on account of its language, but because the ideas it discusses are difficult and subtle, and St John Paul definitely deals with them as a professional theologian and philosopher. But I will do my level best to explain what I’ve gleaned from it.2
Pro tip, Catholics: stuff that's clearly trying to say 'Church can be fun!' implies
an entirely different explanation for celibacy than the one you're trying to endorse.
A major theme of the work is that, for humanity, the body is the experience of the self as gift.3 The body is how we come into the world as independent beings: we’re conceived by bodies, carried by a body, given birth by a body, nursed by a body, all without any contribution from ourselves. And when we reach maturity, the desire to give life to new bodies is a standard part of our makeup.5 To the end, from the beginning, the body is both the gift of having a self, and the medium by which we experience every other gift—even the supernatural gifts of the sacraments.
The body is the self as gift. Angels, who don’t have bodies, presumably6 experience their selfhood differently. A naked intelligence, created directly instead of by the mediation of parenthood, would surely receive its existence as a gift, but I doubt that their experience of giving of themselves is at all analogous to ours; this may be one of the things that they desire to look into. And each angel constitutes an individual act of creation, whereas humanity is created as a web: the independence of angels from one another is complete, each individual is like a species unto itself, but the interdependence and, in the last resort, interrelatedness of all men is an unavoidable fact.
And what does all this have to do with sexuality? The contention is that, in sex, we experience one of the ways in which we’re made in the image of God. We display the power to beget: that is, to bring new life into the world, derived from our very bodies, and yet a thing distinct. The animal vehicle was prepared for this over æons of evolution, from microbe to primate, and when the divine image was imprinted on Homo to make him Sapiens, this too was taken up, given a new and unheard-of meaning. The unthinking animal that simply wants its mate was transfigured, into the ghost of a god that wants to breathe a new kind of life over the whole face of the earth.
Which means that engaging in sex in a way that excludes the possibility of giving the gift of life is a kind of refusal of creation. We aren’t obliged to have sex (which is itself a bit of a philosophical puzzle, but if I tried to examine that now this post would never end), but if we do, we can’t deliberately close ourselves to its essential meaning. Contraception, homosexuality, masturbation—even an excessive use of NFP—are ruled out, not because only bad people do them or something ridiculous like that, but because they fail to truly embrace the full significance of sex. When they are well-intentioned, they represent the same thing that Charles Williams (who was as subtle a lover as he was a theologian) described the adulterers Paolo and Francesca representing, in the opening cantos of Dante’s Comedy:
The formal sin here is the adultery of the two lovers; the poetic sin is their shrinking from the adult love demanded of them, and their refusal of the opportunity of glory. … The adultery here is only the outer mark; the sin is a sin possible to all lovers, married or unmarried, adulterous or marital. It is a sin especially dangerous to Romantics … At the Francescan moment the delay and the deceit have only begun; therefore their punishment—say, their choice—has in it all the good they chose as well as all the evil.7
The idea here is not that gay people are any less dignified or worthy of receiving and giving love4 than straight people. (There are Christians that think that; it’s shitty theology as well as a shitty attitude.) It is that sexuality has, at any rate for us humans, a specific character and purpose, and that, having received our bodies as a gift, we are obligated to use them in accord with the design of the One who gave them, whether we’re straight or gay or anything else. If we want a kind of sexual experience that doesn’t embody the full gift of self—even if it happens to be heterosexual—then yes, we have to refrain from fulfilling that want; and, if the only kind of sexual experience we want is one that doesn’t embody the full gift of self, then yeah, we’ll have to refrain entirely. And that sucks big time.4
Though we might find it comforting with regards to some people.
But is that the way it is? Ha, of course I’m not going to tell you this time.
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1We certainly aren’t all unhappy all the time, not even me. Some Side B gay Christians aren’t unhappy at all, and take to celibacy like ducks to water. But some of us are, and it’s over the sadness that the intellectual (and individual) difficulties arise. No amount of pointing to happy celibate people erases that.
2Helped in no small part by my spiritual director, as well as the writings of Christopher West. Some Catholics complain about West’s reading of the text, especially his accent on (and, to many, idealization of) marriage; and I don’t agree with him in every detail myself. All the same, he’s one of the most accessible commentators on TOB, and I think his contribution extremely valuable.
3The fact that this sentence can be read two ways4—gift as given to us, or gift for us to give—is deliberate.
5Sexually the desire is virtually though not quite universal, and emotionally it doesn’t seem far behind.
6Looots of speculative theology going on here. Fair warning.7The Figure of Beatrice, pp. 118-119.