Sometime in 2007 I discovered Eve Tushnet’s writing. I can’t recall exactly how I found her non-flashy, off-the-beaten-path blog, tagged with the teasing moniker “Conservatism reborn in twisted sisterhood,” but somehow I landed there, following a trail of hyperlinks. I used to read her posts in the morning, while sipping coffee, huddled over my laptop in my cell-like flat in England, when I was just starting graduate school.
Tushnet is a gay Catholic writer who embraces her church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. By the time I learned about her, I’d been admitting to myself for a few years that I was gay, though I hadn’t told many other people yet. I was still too frightened and unsure of what kind of welcome (or lack thereof) I’d receive. You know those novels and movies about the yearning, aching twentysomethings who are trying to disentangle and sort out their erotic and religious longings, while dreading loneliness and rejection above all else? That was me. Imagine Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited, all angsty and insecure, but with a small-town-USA upbringing, and you’ll get the picture. I needed a lifeline. I was hungry to know I wasn’t alone.
One of the first things by Tushnet that I read was the following paragraph from an article published in the magazine Commonweal. In this paragraph was the answer to a question I hadn’t been able to formulate for myself but which, once heard, seemed like the question I needed to ask:
Almost all the time, love of God will deepen and strengthen our love of others in obvious ways, rather than conflicting with that love or posing a dilemma. And so we are tempted to believe that our love of God and our love of others won’t ever conflict. But there will be times when it does seem like God is asking us to choose. At the very least, God may require us to radically reshape our understanding of what love of another person should look like. God may ask you not to stop loving your partner but to express that love without sex.
There it was—the question for me, buried in that last sentence: Might God be asking me not to deny and discard my yearning for same-sex closeness but rather to offer my desire to God—and, thereby, to find it elevated, altered, transformed in some way? That was the gamble: If God wanted me to live without gay sex, could I trust that God wasn’t also asking me to deny my desire to give and receive love? Could I trust that God had a “Yes” for me, and not just a “No”?
What Celibacy Means
In the years since reading Tushnet’s article, I’ve come to think this isn’t only my question. It’s the same question asked by a growing number of people who identify as gay and Christian. Up until recently, we’ve been an easy-to-miss group, to be sure, but lately we’re coming out of the closet in more and more churches, sitting in the pews listening to the same sermons and singing along to the same hymns.
Wesley Hill’s story here, reveals that ‘other side’ of the arguments about human sexuality – the reality of choice. This is not the choice of whether one chooses between being gay or heterosexual. Rather, it is about choosing whether or not to exercise one’s innate, God-given, sexual nature (orientation); whether it is revealed as the majority-hetero-sexuality or the situation of one of the other minorities – as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or trans-sexuals (LGBT).
Whereas at one time most Christians were disposed to go along with a limited (biblical) understanding of human sexuality – wherein human beings were either strictly male or female, in a binary arrangement to facilitate the possibility of sexual activity solely for the express purpose of procreation – today’s understanding of God-given human sexuality as infinitely variable along the scale of a continuum from absolute male to absolute female, reveals the probability that not all human beings are physically or emotionally attracted to the opposite sex. This is factor not confined, though, to human beings. Certain other created species are capable of a sexual nature which is different from the heterosexual ‘norm’.
That being noted, there is still the problem of how we human beings express our unique sexual nature in a way that is consistent with (a) the God-given orientation that is ours to love another person in an exclusive relationship; or (b) the classical call of the Gospel to remain celibate, in order to dedicate our sexual nature to the glory of God, while at the same time sublimating our sexuality into the service of God in our human relationships.
As a minority of men and women have, through Christian history, decided to sublimate their natural sexual nature in the service of God; it has become obvious, in modern times, that some of those who decide to live a celibate life in a Religious Community – or, in the Roman Catholic world, the priesthood – may be, or have been, intrinsically homosexual, rather than the majority heterosexual.
Before the modern understanding of human sexuality, it was predominantly presumed that monks, nuns and priests in the R.C. Church were red-blooded heterosexuals – simply because, if one were to be a self-confessed homosexual, for instance, one would be unlikely to have been accepted into the monastery, convent or seminary, for fear of a scandalous, negative effect on the lives of others in the Institution.
In the book written by Eve Tushnet, and which is being commented on by Catholic writer Wesley Hill ( in the current issue of ‘Christian Today’), we see that there are serious writers in the Roman Catholic Church who accept the fact that there are intrinsically ‘gay’ people in the Church, who, just like their heterosexual confreres, may openly choose – despite their homosexuality – to live the celibate life, whether in Community or outside in the world.
What the writer emphasises, is that the choice is no longer considered to be the sole prerogative of heterosexual people, but also open to others on the continuum of human sexuality. This implies that the Church, at last, may be considering celibacy on a broader scale – not only for heterosexuals, but for intrinsically ordered gay people as well.
This might help some people – at least, those who as Roman Catholics have felt ostracised by the Church for their same-sex attraction – to understand that Gays as well as Straights may have a call from God to sublimate their sexual longings into a vocation to be celibate. Also, it might encourage catholics who are gay, to come out of the closet, no longer having to fear discrimination because of their sexual difference.
However, it should be noted, that there is no suggestion that Gays have more of a call to sublimate their innate sexual longings in the celibate life than that of their heterosexual sisters and brothers. It is an alternative to the more usual expression of their sexuality.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand