On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it. This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.
—Dignitatis Humanæ (Declaration on Religious Freedom), Second Vatican Council, §1
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A newly baptized Malachi Selmys being held by his godmother, with his fairy godfather on the right
(hence my trip to Canada). This has nothing to do with this post, but I'm still kinda bubbling.
My series up to this point has been primarily aimed at building up a positive case for why I am a Side B gay Christian. I hinted at why I’m Side B rather than Side Y1 here; I've written more than once about why I left the ex-gay movement, so here I'll just say briefly that I’ve found both from my own experience and the testimony of others that ex-gay theory is intellectually unsatisfying, its practice is almost entirely ineffective, and its history is stained with psychological abuse. One thing I’ve written about very little is why I’m not Side A—except in my post on the clobber passages, and even there I said in so many words that those aren’t the primary reason I’m a traditionalist.
The positive case is of course more important. No one has a vocation of ‘No,’ and no one can have a theology of ‘No,’ either. Trying to pursue celibate chastity on that basis won’t work, and it’s a great recipe for hurting yourself to boot.2 But the positive case is not enough, for a few reasons, one of which is that the positive case for Side A is an attractive one.
Others, notably Matthew Vines in the popular sphere and James Brownson in the academic, have made that case more extensively than I propose to (since their work is easy to find). Now, there is variety among Side A believers, naturally. However, the argument for Side A that I find most convincing and appealing runs roughly as follows.
Thomas Cole, The Garden of Eden, 1828
God made mankind, and declared that it is not good for man to be alone: man is made for communion. There are multiple ways in which that human need is fulfilled, and God does call some people to celibacy. But for most people, the kind of communion that we find most powerful and fulfilling is being united to another person whom we love in marriage—a permanent, self-giving bond by which two people agree to share their hearts and even their bodies with one another. For gay men and lesbians, that kind of love is experienced for members of the same sex, rather than the opposite sex; and, especially since involuntarily infertile heterosexual couples have long been blessed by the Church, there is no obvious reason why homosexual couples should be excluded from enjoying the same blessing, by the Church or by her God. It is understandable that this should have been an unfamiliar idea to the authors of Scripture, for several reasons: most people are straight; categories of sexual orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world; and the brute fact is, there were cultural institutions like slavery that we unhesitatingly reject, which the Scriptures simply accept3—it doesn’t seem hard to believe that here, as there, Christian understanding has made an advance under the influence of the Holy Ghost.
Like I said, it’s an appealing case, not only emotionally but intellectually. I don’t for one moment assert that Side A Christians are dishonest, ignorant, or overwhelmed by wishful thinking. I assert that they’re incorrect, but that’s as far as I need to go and as far as I care to go. But, I do assert that they’re incorrect, and I wouldn’t feel that I’d done justice to this subject if I avoided explaining why I think so.
The first point is that, in the Catholic view—which was the universal Christian view until quite recently—marriage involves something more and other than a lifelong commitment to mutually sharing life with another person: it involves being open to life, that is, to childbearing. If God does not see fit to bestow life, that’s okay. But this can’t be excluded or altered, and it abides in the character of the sexual act. We believe that God cares not only about why we do things, but also about what things we do. If a couple can’t be open to life, even their wishing that they could be can’t change the facts; and, on Catholic premises, this means that while that couple may have a profound and, perhaps, deeply holy love for one another, that doesn’t make it the same thing as a marriage.
The Church has been teaching this, in so many words, for a long time. Support for this view is rarely, if ever, made explicit in Scripture, probably because it was taken for granted from time immemorial down to the nineteenth century.4 If you had told them that marriage existed to make people happy, they’d have laughed in your faces. And while I’m an incurable romantic by temperament, I’ve also inherited enough of my dad’s dry and cynical wit to say that the observable facts of human marriages and human romances line up better with our ancestors’ laughter than with our cult of matrimony.
Meanwhile the negative argument from Side A—that the Christian track record on things like slavery is a pretty mixed one (to put it generously), and that therefore this could be another instance of positive change in doctrine—has never been satisfying to me. That the Church has made such-and-such a mistake is a very good argument for her to repent of that mistake; it is not a good argument for anything else. It’s a good reason to analyze a belief carefully, especially if the only argument that’s being advanced in favor of that belief is that it’s traditional, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a traditional Christian, B, X, or Y, whose only stated reason for their views is tradition. And, speaking for myself, I’ve re-analyzed and found the belief at least as strong as it was before.
It also seems to me to fail to fully grasp the character of Christian tradition. It’s true that there have been slave-holding Christians since the beginning of the Church, and that the Church failed to oppose slavery firmly until the nineteenth century. But it’s also true that there has always been a kind of counterweight to this, in the form of Christians who have fought to improve the lives of slaves, limit the trade, and even abolish the institution: St Patrick, himself a former slave, was a major force against the trade in fifth-century Ireland, and similar criticisms can be found in the writings of Fathers like Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom. Or, to take a quite different example, the belief that babies who died without baptism would be sent to Limbo,5 rather than being taken into heaven, was a normal Catholic view for many centuries; but at the same time, since at least the fifth century, the Feast of the Holy Innocents presents the Church’s conviction that the pre-rational young can be not only innocents but martyrs. Or to take still another example, the Church’s dirtied hands in wars, especially religious wars: at the same time, there were always counterweights, like St Francis, who traveled personally to the Sultan in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, not only to preach the gospel but, reportedly, to apologize for the sins and violence of Christians against Muslims.
The point is, when there is an apparent shift in the Church’s teaching, or at the least in her emphases, we generally find that the shift is from one strand of Christian thought to another that already existed. I don’t find that to be true about gay sex. There’s a variety of views in Christian history, to be sure: some harsh and some gentle, some sternly diabolical and some placidly medical. But they’re united in one thing, which is that none of them approve of it. The only context that the Church has ever recognized for righteous sexual intimacy is that of the marriage of one man to one woman, for life and open to life. There’s no counterweight.
And that makes it impossible for me personally to take any other view; at least, impossible to do so and remain a Catholic. I can’t truly convince myself that the modern view of homosexuality has been implicitly or subtly present in the Church’s teaching since the beginning. Other people may be able to believe this honestly, and I don’t begrudge them their convictions, but I just can’t.
Which leaves us with only the strongest and most tragic argument for Side A: how could God do this to us?
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1As I’ve dubbed it. For readers who are familiar with the Courage Apostolate, Harvest USA, or Regeneration Ministries, these are more or less what I mean by the phrase Side Y: not ex-gay, but generally resistant to gay identities and cultures, unlike Side B, which is more comfortable with them (though not giving them carte blanche).
2Not that pursuing celibate chastity in a positively constructed form is guaranteed to work; only that (in my opinion) pursuing it on a negative basis is virtually guaranteed to fail. Nothing is guaranteed to work—a fact which apologists for the Catholic view seem to have great difficulty accepting, and say too rarely. My hunch is that they are (perhaps unconsciously) afraid that admitting that chastity is not merely difficult but, for some people, a bitterly lonely, excruciatingly painful road to walk, constitutes a philosophical weakness in Catholicism. I don’t know whether it’s a weakness, but I’m quite sure that trying to avoid this truth is a scandal: people like me, who heard such glowing ‘reviews’ of chastity and then found out that it can mean enduring literal years of heartbreak, are apt to feel we’ve been lied to. Stephen Long has written with scathing accuracy on the casualties of this kind of moral triumphalism.
3When I say accept here, I don’t necessarily mean that the Scriptures approve of slavery. Plenty of people would argue, especially in the context of the Old Testament, that they do just that. I don’t take that view, personally; I consider it analogous to divorce, of which Jesus said that Moses permitted it because of the hardness of your hearts—or, as Msgr Ronald Knox put it in an Oxford lecture, that the Torah allowed men to divorce their wives out of fear that otherwise they might strangle them. But this can be set aside. The point is, even those Christians with a high view of the authority of the Bible are not bound in all cases to apply its teaching the same way as its original audience. I mean, in reading Philemon or I Peter or Ephesians, I’ve never heard of a Christian who felt obliged to go and buy slaves, or sell himself into slavery, or both at the same time, in order to observe the prescriptions of the text as the ancients would have.
4In saying this, I’m oversimplifying slightly. Our most distant ancestors, in the pre-Christian world, tended to accept both polygamy and divorce on grounds of barrenness, and the Church had a difficult time for a while in getting people to accept that a marriage which did not produce children was just as permanent as one which did; something along these lines seems to have been in Henry VIII’s mind. But of course, this is leaning in the opposite direction from the Side A view and its intellectual relatives.
5For those unfamiliar, the Limbo of Infants is a realm where, without being actively punished, a soul continues in its natural immortality without the special, supernatural joy of union with God that those in heaven enjoy. This would be the fate of those who died without baptism (whose souls are therefore not infused with sanctifying grace), but who also died without reaching the age of reason, at which deliberate sin becomes possible. Contrary to popular belief, Limbo is still a licit belief among Catholics, but the general opinion now tends to favor the idea that God extends grace to unbaptized children who die before the age of reason, in a way known only to Himself, instead of through the normal instrument, baptism.