Heterosexual Acts, Loving Homoerotic Relationships

One of the nastier tricks of Vatican rhetoric, especially as displayed in “Homosexualitatis Problema”, is the uneven manner in which (approved) heterosexual relationships are described in terms of “conjugal love”, while (condemned) homosexual relationships are simply not mentioned, and the word “homosexual” is used only in terms of homosexual persons, “acts” (assumed to be genital), and “condition”.

The unfairness and lack of validity of this could be  quickly and easily demonstrated simply by reversing the procedure. How easy it it would be to lament the condition of the heterosexual male, intent only on self-indulgent sensual gratification, as demonstrated in the ubiquity of prostitution and pornography. Or, we could consider the one-sided nature of the institution of traditional marriage, marked by patriarchal domination, an expectation that male sexual needs should always be met, a disregard for the need (or sometimes even the possibility) of female sexual pleasure, and sometimes even domestic violence and marital rape.

Domestic Violence: Heterosexual Acts?

It would be easy, but I’m not going to go there. I am quite willing to accept that there must be many sound heterosexual relationships really are founded on genuine loving partnerships, based on equality of the partners. Logically, I am sure it is quite as possible for heterosexual marriages to be as emotionally healthy for both partners as homoerotic relationships.

Instead, I want to look at the other side of the comparison, at the quality of the love found in so many male couples, love which the Vatican resolutely fails to acknowledge.

Dugan McGinley (“Acts of Faith, Acts of Love“) discusses many of these relationships, as recounted in the autobiographical writings of a selection of gay male Catholics – and ex-Catholics. Reading these accounts, I was struck by how much these relationships are fully characterised by the intensity and quality of love and mutual giving to the other, and even to their partners’ families. These “acts of love” are quite as much “homosexual acts” as the merely genital acts with which the Vatican is obsessed.

Fenton Johnson, for instance, in “Geography of the Heart” describes how he made a fully conscious and deliberate decision to commit his life in love to his partner Larry, even in the full knowledge that Larry had AIDS, and would soon be dying a slow and difficult death, with all the implications that would bring in difficulties and burdens imposed  on himself. In accepting the responsibility, Johnson finds that the quality of his love draws him closer to God:

My deciding to take care of Larry as he goes through this is in part a religious decision – a decision to thank the power,  or powers,  that have granted me life. And it’s a humanistic decision, – a storing up, I can hope, of grace; if I stand at someone’s side during this hard portion of his journey, perhaps, I can hope, I will have someone to stand by me when my time arrives, be that one or five or fifty years away.

In caring for my lover I came to understand the tautological relationship between God and love.  My lover’s love for me and mine for him made me into something better, braver, more noble than I had imagined myself capable of being. I was touched by the literal hand of god, for this is what love is, in a way as real as I expected to encounter in this life.

Earlier in their relationship, with the first visit to Larry’s family, they took a decision out of respect for the sensitivities of the family, that Larry would sleep in the family home, and Fenton would go alone to an hotel.  After Larry’s eventual death, he continues to see and offer support to Larry’s parents, and especially to his mother after she finds herself alone and widowed.

John McNeill has often written of the importance of his own partner, Charles, and how important each has been to the other in the differing kinds of support they offer, and the sacrifices they have made for each other.

Despite, this, McNeill performs his act of love without question; he is committed to Charlie for better or for worse.

John also makes an important, often overlooked consequence of the church distinction between homosexual “acts” (of the genital kind) and homosexual persons. For by focussing on single acts as isolated sins, and denying the possibility of relationships, the Church is paradoxically encouraging the precisely the kind of promiscuous lifestyle that they decry, and assume to characterise the “gay lifestyle”.

According to the pastoral practice of the church, a man could have gay sex one night and then be absolved for his “sin” in confession the next day. If, on the other hand, he fell in love and moved in with a man, he would be denied absolution until he broke off the relationship. This is how he experienced his own coming to terms with his homosexuality as a Catholic: “Ironically the church fostered promiscuity and felt that the enemy was not gay sex but gay love”.

The point, which Vatican documents simply ignore, is that “homosexual acts” are not purely genital,  but include, are even primarily, acts of love.  As McGinley repeatedly notes in his book, it is impossible to separate the homosexual “person” from his “acts”, or from the “condition” that makes him who he is.

What of those who have attempted to live fully within church teaching? Some few, especially some of the priests, have successfully accepted the charism of celibacy. However, as we know from St Paul, not everyone is granted this charism.  For those who do not possess it, compulsory celibacy is simply oppressive:

The intention is to promote  lives of virtue for gay people, but the effect of trying to live according to  church teaching on homosexuality is usually the opposite. For example, the church insists on life-long celibacy for gay people, even though they may not possess  the charism necessary for such a commitment. Without the charism, the requirement is no longer life-enhancing, but rather death-dealing. It relies on an artificial separation of doing and being gay, and transforms into a bare bones order of abstinence – a suffering to be offered up, a cross to bear. As (Andrew) Sullivan says, “Abstinence forever; abstinence always; abstinence not just from sex, but from love and love’s hope and the touch of a lover’s embrace. Abstinence even from recognition, acknowledgement, family.”

(Bear in mind here, that notwithstanding the official insistence that the Church condemns only the “acts”, and that the “persons” must be treated with “dignity, compassion and respect”, the actual practice of the church frequently confuses the two the moment that a “person” openly identifies as gay. This was the case with the Canadian altar server, who remains unable to serve because he is living openly with a man, even though he insists that the relationship is celibate.)

This denial of love which Sullivan describes has lead many men into destructive marriages, or to suicide, or to both. These too are described in McGinley’s book, but I will not go into them here.   Instead, I simply want to remind you of the significance of McGinley’s subtitle: that gay Catholic autobiographies are sacred texts. Indeed they are, and telling and sharing our stories are sacramental acts.

Vatican doctrine on sexuality is dry, abstract, entirely theoretical – and not based on sound premises. Telling our stories, speaking the truth in love, as the Vatican itself urges us to do, is the one simple thing that every gay Catholic can do to contribute (over time) to the building of a new, sounder and reality- based sexual theology.

See also

Books:

Johnson, Fenton: Geography Of The Heart

McGinley, Dugan: “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts

McNeill, John: Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair

Sullivan, Andrew: Virtually Normal

Previous posts:

Excluded from God’s People?

Finding God in Gay Lovemaking

Coming Out as Spiritual Experience

Over 40 years since Stonewall, it has become commonplace to recognise the value of coming out as a growth experience, bringing benefits to mental health, self-esteem and personal integrity. Less widely recognised is the value of coming out as spiritual growth. This idea, which well deserves to be better known, gets extensive treatment in Daniel Helminiak’s book, Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth

(Helminiak is an openly gay Catholic priest with doctorates in both spirituality and psychology, who teaches spirituality in a faculty of psychology – so he is eminently well qualified to write on the subject. For more  on Daniel Helminiak, see his own website, “Visions of Daniel)

Sex and Sacred

In his preface, Helminiak notes that the arguments in the early days of the gay liberation movement were purely reactive & defensive, making the case that homosexuality is NOT a sin, NOT a sickness, and NOT a mental disorder.

Now, he says, we need to move on, and that is what he does. Throughout the book, he affirms that the state of homosexuality in itself inherently puts us on a quest for self-transcendence, which is what he defines as “spirituality”, whether  or not that includes a specifically religious or God-oriented element. If we move beyond the simple state of homosexuality to self-acceptance, coming out and authentically living in accordance with that identity, then, he says, we open ourselves to both emotional/human and spiritual development, to a degree that is greater than that of people who have not had to face such a journey. Although he begins his book by looking at “spirituality” from a nontheistic position independently of any religious consideration, he then moves on to elaborate the theme from within the Christian, and then specifically Catholic, traditions.

He does not pussyfoot around the matter of of the physical expression of sex. In Chapter 5 of the book, “Sexual Pathways to Spiritual Growth”, he describes the beneficial aspects of physical, sexual arousal and release on first the individual, then on the couple, on society as a whole, on the potential for “grasping the infinite”, and for the hope of union with God:

On the individual:

The experience of sexual arousal and orgasm has a physical healing effect.  It reduces stress and relaxes and calms the body. During sexual arousal, there occurs in the psyche the concomitant release of emotions, images and experiences…..a flood of powerful psychic material may flow out of psyche’s secret caverns…… It invites the healthy acceptance of your bodiliness.”

And (writing of Oriental practice):

“A natural human activity, sex, frees and opens the mind to experiences similar to those induced through other spiritual practices….. or induced chemically.  Sexual arousal becomes a doorway to profound psychic and spiritual experiences”

On the Couple:

“Such sharing, continued authentically with openness, honesty and love, is as much a spiritual discipline as any fasting, prayer, retreat, spiritual counselling, or vigil. “

“All the while thick bonds of sexual desire, physical and emotional, hold them entwined and force them to resolve their differences…..Thus organic and psychic sexual processes serve spiritual ends. Sexual togetherness serves interpersonal sharing and growth”

On society as a whole:

“Beyond the individual and the couple, sexual sharing involves the family and, indeed, the cosmos.  Inherent in the experience of sexual love is a movement beyond yourself….. Love opens our eys to a world of beauty beyond ourselves.  Loving another person opens you to identify with all people….Since authentic human love is an integrating experience, it leads you to identify with the whole human race.”

Of God:

“For the theist believer, sex is a gift of God……horniness, romance and caring… are inherent aspects of human life designed so by the creator. Therefore, they must be good and wholesome. Their authentic experience inserts us ever further into the ultimate Mystery of the unfolding universe.  God is the source and the sustenance – as well as the goal – of human sexual love.”

It may be wise to insert here a caution.  Helminiak clearly values and celebrates the authentic expression of human sexuality, including physical expression.  He does repeatedly warn though, of the parallel dangers of inauthentic and inappropriate expression. With the official teaching of the church on all matters so profoundly misguided, it is valuable to have the helpful guidance of a thoughtful and realistic commentary.  If I have ignored that part of the book here, it is only because it is quite a separatae theme, which will require quite a different post on another occasion.

Overall, this is a most useful book, worth returning to again and again.  I particularly recommended it to those of you who, like myself, have grown weary of endless defences against our critics.  Especially at this season of Pride, it is important to proclaim and affirm the positive value of who we are.

Recommended Books (Queer Spirituality):

Related Posts

Our Stories As “Sacred Texts”.

Our stories, in their simple unadulterated truth, offer the best defence we have against the lies that are the fragile foundation of formal Vatican teaching on same sex relationships. These plain lies are manifold, from the claim that our sinfulness is demonstrated in the story of Sodom (not so),  or the claim that it is “indisputable” that Scripture disapproves (immediately contradicted by the many theologians who have so disputed), or the bland assertion that homosexual “acts” are purely self-indulgent self-gratification. This last assertion, based on absolutely no evidence, is perhaps the most egregious of all.

Acts-of-faith

Even conservative Evangelical theologians, grounded in their own personal experience of how a personal, sexual relationship can lead both partners through mutual self-sacrifice closer to God, have recognised that precisely the same process can work in same sex couples. Vatican bureaucrats, starved in their own lives of this particular path to the divine, fail to recognize it in others.  Yet basic mathematics has a simple remedy: to disprove a proposed universal rule or law, all that is required is a single counter-example.

In my own life, I have already provided that counter example. My own experience was that the attempt to live strictly within Vatican rules on sexual ethics led me to drift away from the church. Living honestly as gay led me back  in.  Of  course, the counter argument could be that the proposition was never intended to be universal, just a general norm: then we need more than a single counter-example. We need a mass of them, all testifying and bearing witness to the error in the teaching.

The Vatican itself, in “Homosexualitatis Problema” urges us to remember the Biblical injunction to “Speak the Truth in Love“, and “The Truth Will Set You Free“. There are both theological and political reasons for telling our stories: there is a clear biblical instruction to do so, and doing so will go a long way to undermine the bland, entirely unjustified assumptions underlying Vatican hostility. Destroy the foundation, and we can pull down the entire edifice. This  Saturday, 12th June, I shall be going in to London for a meeting of the RCC of theLGCM (“Roman Catholic Caucus of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement”), where this precise idea, of telling our stories. is the major theme for the day.

The principle, as I have summarised it above. is one I have long promoted. Duigan McGinley,   in “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts“, goes one step further. He says that  telling our stories is not merely helpful, it is sacramental. The tales that we tell, he says, deserve to be taken seriously, as sacred texts.

“For too long, gay Catholic lives have been shrouded in the secrecy advanced by official Catholic teaching. For many gay Catholics, the “closet” remains a powerful metaphor for the secrecy and shame which keep many of us to keep our sexual identity hidden. At times, the decision to remain ”in the closet” is carefully calculated and deliberate. At other to,es, the closetis forced upon us from outside. Yet it is in this context that gay Catholic must reconcile their sexual and spiritual lives.  Gay Catholic autobiographical acts reveal the delicate interplay between  sexuality, spirituality, and the many other components of identity which make a person unique.These acts of self-disclosure – of confession – stand as revelations of God’s intervention and actions in hay Catholic lives.  I offer an interpretation of Matthew 10:27, on open and fearless confession:

What I say to you in the dark,  tell in the daylight. What you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops.

When a gay Catholic takes the risk of narrating his gay identity, transforming what was once secret and publishing it for public dissemination, his public act becomes a “whisper from the housetop”.

So, I say unto you…….

Obey the voice of Scripture, obey the clear command of the Church: tell it like it is, even if (especially if) in this respect, it is not what the ivory tower Vatican moralists want to hear.