For the March issue of First Things, I wrote an essay called “Against Heterosexuality.” In brief, my argument was that the concept of sexual orientation is not historically inevitable, not empirically accurate, and not morally useful. The heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy is counterproductive to encouraging the virtue of chastity, so we Christians should do our best to eliminate “gay” and “straight”especially “straight,” actuallyfrom the way we think and talk about sex, always with prudence directing us as to the particulars. There is an apologetics benefit to this general approach, since a generation from now, our culture will almost certainly have abandoned the bizarre psychosexual determinism of this outdated framework anyway.
There are also pastoral benefits to exorcising orientation, which is one thing I’d like to focus on here. I wasn’t able to spend too much of my original essay applying these principles to the way we ought to form our Christian children. But the desire to improve the care we offer our confused and suffering young ones was my main motivation for diving into this issue in the first place, so the pastoral aspect of this thing seems worth returning to.
I also have a more immediate reason for zeroing in on this side of the question. Every single critic of my essay from the sexually libertine camp is hung up on pastoral concerns. From Slate to Think Progress to Commonweal, my progressivist reviewers worry that, if ever achieved, my hope of obliterating sexual orientation from our popular Christian anthropology would condemn some people to a tragically unhappy fatespecifically those who today would tend to identify as homosexuals.
But first, I should address one other complaint that almost all of my critics have raised. I’m told that I have misunderstood queer theory, because even if Foucault is right that sexual orientation is a cultural construct that was invented in the late nineteenth century, that doesn’t entail that sodomy is therefore evil. To this I can only answer: well, obviously. Somehow my respondents mistook “Against Heterosexuality” for an attempt to prove that same-sex sexual activity is immoral. But the sinfulness of sodomy was there not as a conclusion but as a premise. I was drawing on the anti-essentialist insights of queer theory not to demonstrate the soundness of the Christian sexual ethic, but to persuade those already convinced of this ethic to ditch the unnecessary and unhelpful sexual-orientation framework.
What Foucault and his postmodern progeny can teach us is that sexual orientation is just one attempt out of many to understand human sexuality, and that it’s hardly obvious or uncontroversial that it gets sexuality right anyway. I added that, therefore, the moral conclusions that seem to harmonize best with this gay-straight story are not our only viable options. If the notion of an all-important exclusive inclination towards sex with men is as sociologically unprecedented and bizarre as the notion of an all-important exclusive inclination towards sex with redheads, then this thing begins to look a lot less straightforward and serious.
For the Christian, that is a crucial realization, since our moral precepts don’t seem to jive too well with a system that takes sexual orientation as its highest organizing principle. If what I fundamentally am is a sexual being ordered to fulfillment by romantic coupling with either opposite-sex or same-sex individuals exclusively, then Christian moral teaching does look like it arbitrarily frustrates the flourishing of every person who happens to fall in the latter group. But that is not what I fundamentally am, so that conditional ends up not mattering at all. Debunking orientation doesn’t demonstrate that we Christians have it all right, but it at least gives us an opportunity to make our case without being shut down as prejudiced and unprincipled from the get-go.
So I don’t expect my libertine detractors to walk away convinced that I’m right about the sinfulness of sodomy. For now, our disagreement on that subject seems to be pretty much intractable. But their criticisms do give me the opportunity to elaborate the positive program that I would have replace sexual orientation, which I think is worthwhile both so that traditional Christians can appreciate what we have to offer here, and so that our interlocutors can better understand the rival tradition they’re competing against. If we can’t overcome all of our disagreements, the hope is that we can at least make them more constructive.
With that goal in mind, let’s look at the pastoral advantages of discarding sexual orientation. One of my critics sets up the question rather nicely by offering this autobiographical reflection:
When I was eight or nine, I used to get a funny, animated feeling watching the boy next door mow the lawn. Did I sexually desire him? Not really, no. I certainly didn’t desire to have sex with him, or even to kiss him: I just felt a kind of amorphous excitement in his presence. It wasn’t until much later that I could retroactively characterize that excitement as a “gay feeling” and the person experiencing it (me) as a “gay person.” Now when I’m in the presence of a handsome guy, my desires are much more specific. What the “etiological” social constructionists [like Hannon] are saying is that the experiences I had in the interim helped to form those desires. They did not merely give me the terminology for themalthough that fact is important, too. They shaped their contours.
How should we be educating and forming this eight-year-old boy and his peers? That is our pastoral question.
As he goes on to elaborate, my respondent here thinks that the orientation narrative is the answer, since eventually it helps channel this adolescent “amorphous excitement” into sexual-romantic relationships with members of the same sex. He couldn’t be more wrong. Sexual-orientation language sows misunderstandings about what that “amorphous excitement” is, what the desire there is ultimately for, how it should be fulfilled, and what gets in its way. So what is the Christian alternative?
The libertines would say that, finally, what satisfies these young boys’ desires towards persons of the same sex is genital delight and romantic intimacy. I think that’s ridiculous, not only because such a sexual union would be immoral and thus could never bring about happiness, but also because it’s an insult to the boys’ true potential intimacy. The relationship perfective of these boys’ longing for union is not marriage but friendship, which, believe it or not, is a far better thing anyway.
Today we tend to mistake friendship for a lower-order good than marriage (or even than a nonmarital romantic union). We wrongly view platonic intimacy as just a watered-down version of erotic intimacy. Think of the perverse expression “just friends.” Think of J.K. Rowling’s stupid regret that she never made Harry Potter and Hermione Granger a couple, since apparently they would have had a truer connection if only they’d spent more time “snogging.”
The traditional Christian view corrects this misunderstanding. Chaste Christian friendship is an even nobler relationship than the sexual union that finds its proper place in marriage, for such friendships are united by our highest common good, namely God. Don’t misunderstand me: the familial good of husband and wife is a true natural good, and it is glorified in the Age of the Church especially by being raised to the status of a Sacrament and by imaging for us the perfect union of Christ and His Church. That said, this familial good falls lower in the hierarchy of human goods than the good of Christian friendship. The good proper to Christian friends, that which unites them as friends and that toward which their friendship by its nature inclines, is not just the family but God himself.
Why isn’t marriage immediately ordered to God by its nature, the way Christian friendship is? After all, St. Paul makes it very clear in 1 Corinthians 7 that marrying “is no sin.” He even recommends marriage as the best course of action for the sexually incontinent, since “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” The Apostle provides our answer just a few verses later: in contrast to the single-minded purpose of the unmarried, “the married man[’s] . . . interests are divided.” It is not that the married state is wickedit isn’tbut simply that it is less good than the celibate alternative. For marriage, which St. Paul identifies as a concession to human weakness, lacks the integration of a life consecrated totally to God. By its essential involvement with lower goods, married life diverts attention from the highest good. There is nothing evil in it, but its goodness is less pure than the celibate state, like an alloy compared with solid gold.
The marital act itself provides a particularly clear illustration of such dis-integration. Despite celebrity chastity speakers’ insistence to the contrary, sex isn’t the ultimate preview of the beatific vision but a distraction from it. Otherwise we would have a Mormon or Muslim heaven to look forward to, when instead Our Lord assures us that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” This is what St. Thomas Aquinas means when he compares sex to sleep. Neither of these activities is immoral, but both place real limitations on our beatitude in this life. By absorbing us in lower things, sex and slumber temporarily incapacitate our rational powers, which are our highest human powers and our most godlike powers. That is why chaste friendship is even better than sexual union: because it is totally ordered to the best things without diversions from below.
Even Plato recognized the superiority of celibate friendship to carnal unions, at least in the abstract. But while Plato appreciated that friendship joins persons in a higher way than marriage, he regretted that a life built exclusively around this noblest sort of relationship seemed impossible to achieve. In a pre-Christian age, it pretty much was. Centuries later, however, in De Vera Religione, St. Augustine was able to praise Plato for his insight and shed some supernatural light on it. The noble pagan had at least realized that, if it were feasible, belonging to a community of men or women living in chaste intimacy ordered to our final end would be the best sort of life we could live.
Now this very thing has come to pass,” says St. Augustine. By the grace of Christ Jesus in the gift of religious life, the naturally impossible has been made supernaturally possible. Religious communities provide the ideal context on earth for chaste friendship: a celibate common life directly and exclusively ordered to union with God. In itself, the relationship between religious brothers or sisters is even more intimate than that between spouses. And although the life of the vowed religious is more comprehensively ordered to these ideal relationships than a secular life ever could be, married and single persons can also have some partial share in this greatest of unions, through their chaste friendships with other men and women besides their spouse.
Actually, counterintuitive as it may be, a Christian husband and wife can even participate in celibate friendship with one another. Unlike pre-Christian marriage, which is a mere ordinance of nature, sacramental marriage is meant to issue forth in genuine friendship. However, it achieves this only insofar as the spouses’ union comes to be ordered beyond mere earthly, familial things to heavenly ones. So then it is qua chaste friend, and not qua spouse, that the relationship between husband and wife is elevated to this noblest of ranks. Under the precise aspect by which spouses are friends, they are celibates. Of course, the Holy Family provides the most perfect example of this sublime truth.
Our tradition provides so many beautiful models of chaste friendship. Think of David in the Old Testament, whose love for Jonathan “was wonderful, passing the love of women.” Or recall the union of Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen: “When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.” St. Gregory goes so far as to say, “We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit.” And then there is St. Aelred of Rievaulx, whose little treatise On Spiritual Friendship is one of the most underappreciated treasures of our tradition: “In human life nothing holier can be desired, nothing more useful sought after, nothing is harder to find, nothing sweeter to experience, nothing more fruitful to possess than friendship.” None of these holy men were lovers in the sexual sense. They were true friends, which is a far more intimate and exalted thing.
So what should we say to my critics’ pastoral concern? Is my proposal for eliminating sexual orientation from our Christian discourse about sex going to damn so many of our adolescents to misery? Are our young boys who are captivated by other young boys going to live their entire lives in sorrow? Not at all.
By getting the lies of sexual orientation out of the way, we will be able to show our Christian children something betterwhatever sex their attractions happen to trend toward in aggregate. Corrupting temptations of various sorts may still enter the picture, some lust-related and some not, for Satan loves to try to pervert our greatest goods. But at least the beautiful ideal of chaste friendship will be recognized, and our children can order their lives to attaining it.
What we should avoid is reifying that tendency to temptation, the way that sexual orientation does. By treating lustful desires as an essential part of his personality, a man sets up a seemingly insurmountable barrier to chaste intimacy, and there is absolutely no reason for it. Some people may happen to be tempted more than others in some regard. So what? We’re all human and we’re all fallen. We all need to work around our temptations and overcome them where possible. But we should never identify them with who we are, or waste more anxiety on them than they deserve. That would be a crippling impediment to our freedom and happiness, and a totally unnecessary one. Friendship is God’s gift to all of his children, not just to self-proclaimed “heterosexuals.”
So the overly eroticized sexual-orientation story, which says that young boys who are drawn to other young boys should eventually grow up to rub genitals with them, cheats them out of the most perfect human relationship possible. Boys are drawn to each other and ought to be drawn to each other, not for carnal pleasure but for spiritual pleasure. They really were made for union with one another. It just isn’t a union in which their penises feature all too prominently. What unites them is an even higher good than the sexual good of family life. In the case of true Christian friendship, their good as friends is God himself.
If we Christians can offer our children an anthropology immune from the lies of sexual orientation, then we will be able to form our young ones in this the greatest of human relationships, which will make them so much happier than sex, even properly marital sex, ever could. As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.”
Michael W. Hannon enters postulancy with the Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey on St. Monica’s Day, August 27th. He requests your prayers for his perseverance in the vocation, and he promises to pray for the whole First Things community.