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. Prologue
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Catholic and gay

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THOUGHTS ON THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF LOVE

By David Morrison

In the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, a young man runs up to Christ, kneels before him, and asks, “What must I do in order to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers by enumerating what I call the party line: “Honor your father and your mother, keep the commandments.” The young man replies, “Since my birth, I’ve done these things. What else do I need to do?” The evangelist records that Christ looked at him and loved him, and said, “Go, sell your possessions, give money to the poor, and come follow me.” And the young man went away sorrowing, for he had many possessions. Like that man, every one of us, no matter what degree of same-sex attraction we might live with, no matter our temptations or weaknesses, asks Christ the same question, and every one of us has to hear his answer in our own lives.

I’m a convert to Catholicism, but I came to the Church’s teaching on chastity before I became a Catholic, because it made so much sense to me in light of the questions I was asking myself about the essential nature of love. The Church doesn’t claim to know the origins of same-sex attraction, and—contrary to the thinking of a few bigoted Church members—she doesn’t declare that the attraction is a sin. But she does call it an objective disorder, and she expects men and women living with same-sex attraction to live chastely, just as she expects all unmarried Christians to live chastely, which means no sex outside of marriage or before marriage. For that matter, married people, too, are expected to live chastely, which in their case means no contraception, along with sexual fidelity and commitment.

While all this is well known, people forget one part of the Church’s teaching on chastity, which comes in the last paragraph on the topic in the catechism. There she says basically that, with the help of the sacraments and sacramental grace, and the help of friendship, men and women living with same-sex attraction can and should attain Christian perfection. The Catholic Church looks at me as an adult and says, “You might live with same-sex attraction, you might even define yourself as a homosexual, but we think that you can and will be a saint.” And that, I believe, is head and shoulders above what anyone else says on the topic.

Some folks on the right tell me that because I live with a degree of same-sex attraction, I’m condemned to hell. Some people on the left say, “Poor thing, we consider you oppressed. You must expect to act on your inclinations; it’s too much to ask you to live chastely.” In a funny way, both sides are expressing much the same idea. On the one hand, the radical right tells me that I’m predestined to go to hell. On the other hand, the left tells me I’m predestined also—to act on my sexual inclinations. Neither is true, and the Catholic Church recognizes that.

I came to chastity because I loved my partner so much. I’m a veteran of a 17-year-long committed relationship with another man. It’s a deep friendship, and it has been since almost the moment we met. It was sexually active for the first seven years, and then—after I became a Christian, after I began reflecting on what Scripture and tradition had taught for 2,000 years—I went to my partner and said, “I love you. Can we please stop having sex?”

That’s what I said. What he heard me say was, “I don’t love you anymore.” Thus started a year in which we disentangled the sexual aspects of our relationship from the rest of it. We came to understand that what we had together as friends—all the love, encouragement, honesty, affection, compassion, joy—we still had without the sex. That was 10 years ago, and we’ve lived chastely ever since. Or to be more exact, only once after that date did we have sex. It was the night of my birthday, we’d both had a bit too much to drink, and we wound up having sex again. Afterward he realized what that had meant to me, and he resolved then that because he loved me and because I wanted to be chaste, he would help me. And he did.

What is genuine love? The supposition on the left is that if I can’t have sex, my life must be loveless, lonely, and cold. And that’s just not true. What I’ve come to understand is that erotic love is only one aspect of the love human beings experience, that we don’t need to have sex to live a life that is joyful and committed and filled with friends and family. The question, then, is whether having sex is worth risking the kingdom of heaven.

This of course brings to mind the dialogue between Christ and the young man who asked what to do to attain eternal life. Jesus didn’t tell him, “Go away and sell all your possessions,” but simply, “Sell your possessions.” Christ put his finger on the one thing in his life, the one thing in all our lives, that to give up, to make Christ the Lord in our lives, would be extremely difficult. Something for which we might go away sorrowing, or might turn our back and say, “Sorry, Christ, you’re not for me.” Christ will honor our decision. He doesn’t force himself on anybody. But he’ll ask.

At bottom, the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is a matter of discipleship. I turned 40 this year, and all around me in my parish there are men and women about my age who don’t self-define as gay or lesbian yet are no closer to being married than I am. And the Church expects them to live chastely as part of making Christ Lord in their lives. The issue is not what tempts us, then. The issue is how we live. Living chastely is hard, just like forgiving and asking others to forgive us, just like being charitable to folks who make us angry.

But following Christ is not impossibly hard. I have found, for example, that the growth of love in a chaste relationship can be every bit as deep as the love I experienced while I was having sex. And in the end, I don’t believe that having homosexual sex is objectively loving, because genuine love seeks what’s best for the beloved—not merely what’s convenient, not merely what feels good or reassuring or serves emotional needs, but what is truly best for the person we love. And I don’t think homosexual sex is best for anybody. At the same time, there can be in friendship so much good and so much grace. God’s love is like water. It finds a way.

So, my reaction to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is that we all should ask ourselves how willing we are to follow Christ and take him up on his offer. For it is a leap of faith. But it’s been my experience, and the experience of a lot of people I know, that when we take the leap of faith, he’s there to catch us, and he does catch us, and he’ll catch you.

David Morrison is the author of Beyond Gay (1999). His essay is drawn from remarks delivered on April 28 as part of a discussion with journalist Andrew Sullivan on “Homosexuality in a Catholic Context,” sponsored by BC’s Church in the 21st Century initiative. Sullivan declined to allow his remarks to be published, but the full discussion may be viewed on-line—see link above.

 

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