Is it possible to embrace a gay identity and be a faithful Christian? All parties in the recent debate here at First Things agree that lifelong marriage between one man and one woman is the only morally appropriate context for a sexual relationship. But while Joshua Gonnerman, Eve Tushnet, Melinda Selmys, and Wesley Hill all argue that the “gay” label can be appropriated by Christians, Daniel Mattson warns us that to accept a gay identity is to embrace a false concept of the human person, ultimately preventing those of us who experience same-sex attraction “from knowing ourselves as we are known by God.”
The inability to appreciate that “gay” has different levels of meaning within our culture, and that not all of these levels are in total opposition to Christian truth, is frustrating. Those of us who worship in liturgically oriented Christian churches are still celebrating the Easter season. We commemorate the resurrection of Jesus with the name of a pagan fertility goddess, Eostre, who was worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons. Christians did not convert the ancient world by insisting that pagans must agree to our definition of terms before a conversation could begin, and the New Evangelization will fail if we insist that people have a mastery of in-house Christian jargon before we are willing to tell them the good news.
My main concern is not with language, however, but with the concepts behind the language being used in this debate. If we are going to have a discussion about whether there can possibly be anything good about being gay from a Christian perspective, we have to first talk about what it means to be gay in non-reductive terms. To begin to do this, let us take a brief look at three aspects of the experience of same-sex attraction: homosexuality, same-sex desire, and same-sex friendship.
Homosexuality, as the Catholic Catechism reminds us, is an “objectively disordered inclination,” and acts that flow from it are “acts of grave depravity” strongly condemned by Scripture. The Catechism deliberately omits the use of terms such as “gay” or “same-sex attracted.” Meanwhile, the Church recognizes that sexuality “affects all aspects of the human person.” It concerns not merely the desire for sexual acts but also “affectivity, the capacity to love,” and “the aptitude for forming bonds of communion” with others.
The Church is not, therefore, claiming that the sexuality of gay people is disordered in toto. What is disordered is “homosexuality,” and this is defined very narrowly as a specific inclination toward sexual relations with same-sex partners. It is this and only this that merits an unequivocally negative moral judgment.
A homosexual inclination is a form of same-sex desire or eros, but to reduce eros solely to sexual desire is to forget its richer meaning. Eros is the form of love that desires intimacy not in a reductively sexual sense, but in the broader sense of exclusive and committed companionship. It is a longing for physical and emotional closeness. Eros is often experienced as sexual desire, but cannot be identified with it.
Scripture tells us that God is love, and it also makes clear that this means God personifies all forms of love, including eros. The Old Testament prophets, for example, depict God as a jealous lover who desires to possess Israel for his own. Some scholars refer to the “sexual metaphors” used to describe God’s relationship with his people, but this is inaccurate: Most of the metaphors are erotic, but not specifically sexual. The Divine eros is of course eros in a pure form, and for humans eros is almost always experienced as including sexual desire. It should therefore be treated with caution. But the distinction between sexual and erotic desire is vital to grasp if Christians wish to speak intelligibly to our culture about same-sex attractions and relationships.
Many who reject the Church’s teaching on homosexuality do so because they mistake it for a blanket statement that it is wrong for two people of the same sex to love and be committed to each other. Seeing the love and commitment of gay couples they know and correctly perceiving that these are genuine human goods (even if the sexual relationship through which they attempt to express them is not), some throw the baby of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality out with the bathwater of our culture’s neurotic fear of intense emotional connections between two people of the same sex.
Finally, what about same-sex friendship? Whereas eros denotes the love of desire, philia denotes the love of friendship. Our culture tends to disparage friendship as a lesser form of love than erotic love (hence the saying, “we’re just friends”). When the Church holds out the ideal of “disinterested friendship” (CCC, 2359) to gay people, many of them are offended, mistakenly thinking that they are being offered a mere consolation prize while heterosexuals get to enjoy real love (“real” love being thought of as any kind of love that includes sex).
But this low view of friendship is not the biblical one. While the Old Testament frequently depicts God’s love for his people in erotic terms, human friendship with God is depicted as extremely rare. Only two people between the Fall of Adam and the birth of Jesus are named as friends of God: Abraham (James 2:23) and Moses (Exod. 33:11). Yet Jesus makes it clear that he came to make it possible, through friendship with him, for us all to become friends of God (John 15:15). The Resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit give us access to a form of friendship-love with God that is superior to the mutual eros that had previously been the highest form of love most divine-human relationships could attain.
The reason David was able to tell Jonathan that his love for him was “wonderful, passing the love of women” is not, pace revisionist biblical scholars, because they were engaged in a homosexual affair. With eight wives and at least ten concubines, there is little doubt about David’s heterosexuality. The superiority of his love for Jonathan is not a statement of his sexual preference for men over women. It is a statement of the superiority of friendship-love over erotic desire.
But as with all error, there is a truth to be gleaned from the revisionist reading of the story of David and Jonathan. The fact that many gay people intuitively grasp that something important is happening between David and Jonathan, and identify it with their own experience, speaks to the extent to which the concept of friendship has become debased in our culture. Any kind of intimacy or emotional connection between two people of the same sex (especially men) is discouraged and viewed with suspicion.
In theory, the love that David had for Jonathan is a love that any heterosexual man could have for another. In practice, though they sometimes misinterpret it, gay men are more likely to have an experiential grasp of what David is talking about. Friendship in the ancient world could be inclusive of an intense passion that moderns find disconcerting. Although this passion is not in itself “gay,” the contemporary devaluation of friendship means that the wider culture could re-learn something it has forgotten about same-sex love and friendship from gay people.
So when, as Christians, we claim that same-sex attraction is a result of fallen human nature, this does not mean that everything about being gay is evil. The capacity to experience the beauty and desirability of what is in fact beautiful and desirable—another person of the same sex—is not evil. What is evil is that same-sex friendship and the generalized same-sex desire I have been talking about are often interwoven with homo sexual desire, which can both corrupt a friendship and corrode the personality of an individual.
Gay people have wheat and tares growing in the field of their sexuality, and must take care lest the tares suffocate the wheat. Yet that should not blind them to the fact that wheat is wheat, not tares. The result of fallen human nature is not that everything about being gay is evil, but that what is good is difficult to separate from what is evil. But this does not stop gay Christians from naming as good what is good and embracing it as part of who they happen to be.
So can one be gay and Christian or not? Our culture presents us with two simple options. Either we lie down and allow ourselves to be bulldozed by the agenda of militant gay activists, or we completely reject and demonize every aspect of gay identity, culture, and experience. Christians ought to eschew both options. Instead, we should identify which aspects of being gay contribute to the flourishing of gay people as individuals and to the flourishing of their communities. We should also identify without fear those aspects of contemporary gay identity and culture that are incompatible with the Christian moral life.
Most importantly, we ought to show how those aspects of being gay that do contribute to human flourishing would be enhanced, rather than diminished, by embracing the Church’s message of chastity. In other words, chastity is not a demand that gay people give up happiness now in the hope of pie in the sky when they die. Quite the opposite: Gays and lesbians can most truly be the people that God created them to be precisely by following Jesus. The message they hear from the Church should never be “hate your own sexuality or burn in hell,” but “Jesus has a gift of abundant life to give which will make you happier in the next world and in this life if you follow the path he sets out.”
Our celebration of Christ, the light of the world, in a season named after an ancient pagan goddess should remind us that the Church evangelizes most successfully when it operates not by rejecting whatever it encounters, but as a healthy living organism whose body is able to absorb all the good nutrients from its environment, and expel all that is bad or harmful. It is with this in mind that we should approach the question of whether we can be gay and Christian.
Aaron Taylor, a Ph.D. student in ethics at Boston College, holds degrees from the University of Oxford and from Heythrop College, University of London.
Melinda Selmys, “ The Pastoral Response to Homosexuality ”
Leonard Klein, “ Hope and Homosexuality ”
Joshua Gonnerman, “ Why I Call Myself a Gay Christian ”
Daniel Mattson, “ Why I Don’t Call Myself a Gay Christian ”
Joshua Gonnerman, “ Born That Way? ”
Joshua Gonnerman, “ False Hope and Gay Conversion Therapy ”
Wesley Hill, “ Once More: On the Label ‘Gay Christian’ ”
Melinda Selmys, “ How to Speak About Homosexuality ”
Daniel Mattson, “ Homosexual Orientation, or Disorientation? ”