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If there’s one theological commitment that unites both sides of the same-sex marriage debate, it’s semi-Pelagianism. Taking its name from the fourth-century monk Pelagius, semi-Pelagianism may be thought of as a theological mood or a set of impulses that’s opposed to a strong doctrine of original sin. Fearing that talk of our broken wills may hamper moral striving, the semi-Pelagian stresses perfectibility as a motive for action.

It’s easy, I fear, to encounter a watered-down version of this sentiment when you listen to the volleys fired from the left and the right in the same-sex marriage debates in Christian circles today. In a 2010 report commissioned by and for the Episcopal Church, the self-identified “liberal” camp described their theology of same-sex marriage like this: “Marriage is a signal means of taking part in the atonement through our very bodies. . . . [A] body’s true expression and fulfillment comes only in gift, and refusal of this gift risks the refusal of the Spirit.” Same-sex marriage, on this view, is utterly necessary for churches to affirm because it is a means for gay Christians to participate in Christ’s atoning self-gift. Or, as Eugene Rogers has put it, gay Christians’ renunciation (rather than consecration) of their desires “gives God nothing by which to redeem them, no hook in the flesh by which to capture them and pull them up.” What this means, as Douglas Farrow has pointed out, is that “Eros”—or the human pursuit and cultivation of it—“is the real mediator here, not Jesus Christ.”

But things aren’t always better in the traditionalist camp. Mirroring the rhetoric of some of their ideological opponents, conservatives, too, can fall into the moralizing, semi-Pelagian trap. We—I count myself among them—can speak of celibacy as a faithful path for gay Christians in such sunny, sanguine terms that one might think salvation comes by saying no to gay sex rather than by the mediation of Christ. Consider, for instance, how a case for the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and celibacy sounded to one young gay man: “[I was led to believe that] joy within celibacy is sustainable, maintainable, and achievable for anyone who reaches for it. . . . [I]f someone is faithful, tries hard enough, and does the right things, a life of sustainable celibacy will be theirs.” Like the negative image of a developing photograph, Pollyanna-ish optimism about the vocation of celibacy is simply the inverse of a theology that locates salvation for gay people in marriage. Arguably, both sides have failed to take seriously enough the depth of our collective human fall into sin.

I’ve been thinking about all this again recently because I’ve been reading a small book called What I Believe by the celebrated French Catholic novelist from the last century, François Mauriac. Written toward the end of his life, Mauriac’s book is a final testament of sorts, articulating in simple, straightforward affirmations of faith what he had earlier enfolded more obliquely into his fiction. In one of the book’s chapters, Mauriac treats the subject of sexual purity, and what he says is anything but what today’s cultured despisers of traditional Christian morality might expect.

In the first place, Mauriac is unblushingly honest about the inability of a lifetime of moral effort to guarantee one’s purity in old age. One might hope that sexual discipline is a cumulative thing, making chastity easier with time. On the contrary, Mauriac says, the latter years of a man’s life can be “a period of redoubled testing because the imagination in an old man is substituted in a horrible way for what nature refuses him.” No imagery here of wizened sainthood: Mauriac is forthright about how, the longer one lives, the more intense the struggles of the moral life can become.

Furthermore, Mauriac doesn’t see marriage as remedy for these lusts. Granted, Christians since the time of the New Testament have usually spoken of marriage as a way of banking desire’s embers. “It is better to marry than to burn,” wrote St. Paul to the Corinthians. But Mauriac notes that even after marrying, a person is likely to harbor obsessions that cannot be lawfully slaked within the marriage. Our fallen sexual desire, most likely, “goes far beyond the sexual act and cannot be appeased in marital life, because it involves the attraction of unknown creatures and the taste for adventure and chance meetings.” Which means that “a Christian marriage simplifies nothing in the problem of purity, and that within that problem it creates a world of difficulties which concern it alone.” So much for any naïve view of marriage as the answer to frustrated desire.

Ultimately, though, I think Mauriac’s sharpest challenge is aimed at those of us who affirm the traditional Christian view of marriage as the union of one man and one woman and who, consequently, urge Christians to abstain from gay sex. On the one hand, Mauriac wants to disabuse us of any notion that sexual purity might be easy to attain. There is “wretchedness” in us, he says—sounding the Augustinian note—and even for the strongest of us, there are “failures which are repeated throughout our poor lives.” But Mauriac also wants to recalibrate our reason for pursuing sexual purity and offer us a better means of pursuing it.

Sexual abstinence is not an end in itself, he says, undertaken to demonstrate one’s own moral heroism. Our purity of mind and body is rather, firstly, for the sake of love for Christ—“His love does not allow any sharing”—and, secondly, for the sake of those whom Christ loves, for the sake of honoring the sanctity of the bodies and souls to whom we are attracted. “We have to be pure,” Mauriac writes, “in order to give ourselves to others, for Christ’s love is love for others.”

And the only way such purity is achievable in Christian lives is not by white-knuckled effort but by receiving a love whose sweetness somehow exceeds what we naturally think we want. “Christ,” Mauriac concludes, “is ready to substitute Himself in a sovereign and absolute way for that hunger and thirst, to substitute another thirst and another hunger.” The Sermon on the Mount is more carrot than pitchfork: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” The allure of the beatific vision, not the threat of punishment, is what Jesus uses to motivate the ascetic regime.

I was with a saintly older Christian recently who, Mauriac-like, gently chastised me for speaking of sexual discipline in the imperative mood. “It’s not that we should or must be sexually pure,” he said. “It’s that we taste the goodness of Christ in the Eucharist, and we’re enticed into purity.” How different my articulations of traditional Christian teaching about marriage and chastity might sound if I were to follow his, and Mauriac’s, lead. There is a better way forward in the same-sex marriage debates than a reinforced moralism, and it has to do with a deepening knowledge of the love which is the Christian’s main theme.

Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

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