Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Single Life

Over at Rod Dreher’s, commenter Turmarion asks social conservatives what the heck our endgame is with regard to the optimal societal status of same-sex attracted people:
I tried on another blog once to get some socons to come right out and say what they thought the ideal status would be
Here's my attempt as a "socon" to answer his question (with further quotes from his comment indented as blockquotes):

Turmarion, yours is really a question that same-sex attracted orthodox, traditionalist Christians need to lead the way on, I think. The Church has affirmed vocations like, e.g., monasticism, but the contours of monasticism were created and discovered by the pioneering monks of the Egyptian desert and their imitators elsewhere, not just invented by abstract a priori noodling about it. I imagine that whatever functional, flourishing lives same-sex attracted orthodox, traditionalist Christians are able to build will be models for sainthood that they have to discover, not that us straights will get to impose on them after reading some Thomist manual or something. (Not that I dislike Thomist manuals, which get a bad rap.)
Should gays go back in the closet?
Absolutely not. Same-sex attraction appears to be at least partly innate, and same-sex attracted people can’t build really deep supportive relationships with friends and family if they’re hiding something like that. OTOH, chaste gays might be prudent to be careful how they partipate in gay cultural events, just as the rest of us need to exercise prudence in similar situations. Here’s what I mean by that: there ought to be no shame or stigma attached to being same-sex attracted, any more than to being straight. But just as straights shouldn’t have an “Adultery Pride Parade,” orthodox traditionalists need to be sure that when we, say, march alongside the pride float at a St. Patrick’s Day parade, or attend a gay friend’s Unitarian wedding, or some such, that we are seen to be affirming the dignity of homosexual persons, or the depths of our friendship for the wedded gay friend, or what have you, rather than the acceptability of homosexual acts. I expect people like Eve Tushnet to be great examples in how to navigate this stuff going forward.
Should they have domestic partnerships?
IMHO it would take nigh-superhuman chastity not to have that turn into a near occasion of sin, so I think it would be extremely imprudent (just as I think Gandhi’s notorious habit, IIRC, of sleeping naked beside naked girls to hone his chastity was not only exploitive of the girls but evinced hubris regarding his own virtue). But such arrangements are an example of something that chaste trad gays are going to have to lead the way on; it’s not my place to pronounce on anything other than my own hunch of how it would go. That said, I think Tushnet’s desire to restore “vowed friendship” to cultural prominence is salutary in the extreme, and not just for gay people. Something like adelphopoiesis, on Tushnet’s rather than Boswell’s understanding, would be a tonic against the loss of homosocial friendship that not only marginalizes chaste gays, but also impoverishes so many straights (especially straight men) of the simple, vital pleasures of deep homosocial friendship once common to folks like, say, the Inklings. This is an important example, IMHO, of a gift that same-sex attracted people like Tushnet can provide for the whole Church, by leading the charge on issues like this.
What place do gays have in your view of how society ought to be?
Society ought to cherish each and every child of God.
There’s a big debate on this in celibate gay circles. Eve, Wesley Hill, and others argue for a positive view in which being gay is a part of one’s identity that can be a blessing, and in which sexuality is not denied. Rather, it is sublimated into the community and into friendship. She has also advocated for the revival of vowed friendships, as a way for gay people to have a lifelong but chaste bond with another. On the other hand, some like Daniel Mattson strongly oppose this, insisting on using “homosexual” instead of “gay”, opposing a view of their orientation as even minimally positive, and insisting that the grace comes through resisting the urges of their damaged nature.
Well, the Magisterium has called same-sex attraction “disordered,” and on a natural law understanding that’s inescapable. But one can celebrate the unique, vibrant contributions of, say, deaf people, autistic people, people with Downs, etc., as “blessings” (which in that sense they very much are) without also engaging in any Orwellian obfuscation of the plain fact that such conditions are departures from normative human nature. Likewise, I share Mattson’s wariness that affirmation of the ways in which the unique emotional, artistic, etc., gifts of same-sex attracted individuals are treasures for all of us, and thus rightly thought of as blessings, can shade into a celebration of same-sex attraction as somehow “just as valid,” just as rightly ordered toward human flourishing, as heterosexuality.

In sum: one side of this debate tends to accuse the other of being “homophiles,” while non-traditionalist observers will tut-tut that traditionalists are homophobically “heteronormative.” My take is that Christian charity requires us to affirm the blessings each person brings with them, and yet Christian charity also requires us to upbraid the sinner and to speak up for the proper ecology (as Benedict XVI so fruitfully put it) of the human family. Thus, we need to find a way to be “heteronormative homophiles,” if that makes any sense, to celebrate and cherish and affirm the unique gifts (if not, perhaps, “charisms,” as a technical terminological theological matter) our same-sex attracted peers bring without ceasing also to celebrate, cherish, and affirm a heteronormative theology of sacramental marriage and of rightly ordered human sexuality.

All of this opens up on a much deeper point that I think you’ll appreciate, Turmarion: One of the accusations flung at Thomists like Ed Feser (whom I admire) by the likes of DB Hart (whom I also admire) is adherence to a kind of “two tier” system of nature and supernature, of natural human flourishing and super-added grace. As a (poorly versed, autodidactic) Thomist myself, I think this accusation ultimately unjust. But, but:

Christ Crucified teaches us that the sort of normative human flourishing delineated by Aristotle—in which a wise man contemplates the divine while securely ensconced in a life charmed with natural goods like rank, wealth, and progeny—is not the truest, deepest model of human flourishing. The Crucified was not “flourishing” by Aristotle’s lights, and yet He incarnates for us what God’s telos for humanity really is.

I take Aquinas to have integrated this rather Augustinian thought into his Aristotelianism. YMMV, and I think does, IIRC. That’s fine. But Aquinas’ opinion being what it may have been (which question I leave to historians), it is my own humble opinion that any Catholic natural lawyer has to integrate these things, at grave risk of embodying the caricature of the arid neo-Thomist manualist if he does not.

On the one hand, those of us who make our living in the City of Man, especially those of us called to the vocation of marriage, rightly aim at human flourishing in something like Aristotle’s sense. OTOH, all Christians are called to sainthood. Part of sainthood is taking up your Cross, whatever that might be. Taking up one’s Cross ought not to mean, say, breaking your own leg, or imitating Gandhi’s chastity-testing sleeping arrangements, or refusing to take your antibiotics, just so you can rack up merit (like some Calvinist caricature of a Catholic) for how well you deal with the pain you cause yourself.

But while we should seek human flourishing, we must also shoulder any Cross that comes as an obstacle in the way of that flourishing, whether it be same-sex attraction, infertility, disability, poverty, or whatever. Relatedly, some of us do not have a vocation to marriage, or a calling to a career in the City of Man, but are instead called to abandon that “natural,” Aristotelian sort of flourishing for the “supernatural” flourishing of renunciation of natural goods like marriage and wealth in favor of full time consecration to the works of the City of God.

As Charles Taylor points out, our Protestant and secular heritage in the modern West makes it hard for us to accept a division between flourishing in a normative natural life and flourishing in a “supernatural” life of renunciation, as it seems to draw an invidious distinction between schlubbish laymen and spiritual athletes. Instead, the post-Hildebrandine reformist trend has been to insist on sanctifying ordinary life, and in the Protestant case, to denigrate renunciative vocations as hubristic counterfeits.

Now, I of course think we go wrong to condemn the ordained and consecrated vocations. But the reformist is right that valorization of renunciation can lead us to neglect the need to sanctify the ordinary life, and relatedly (but not identically) to a gnostic contempt for the real goods praised by the likes of Aristotle. The need for the theologian is to find a “Middle Way” between cynical scorn of sanctity and gnostic scorn of fleshly flourishing, just as Siddhartha is said to have found one between the hubristic “ascetic athleticism” of the mendicants and the enslavement to the satanic principalities and powers of Kama-Mara characteristic of the unawakened, or more relevantly, just as our paradigmatic God-man knew when He ought to fast in the desert, and when He ought to let Himself be taken for a wine-bibber. “Both/and” is as usual the Catholic answer. Taylor’s “Reform” tendency is right that we are all of us called to sainthood, but wrong to think that there cannot be different ways to incarnate that call.

All that said, the position of the same-sex attracted orthodox traditionalist Catholic, called, per the Magisterium, to a chaste “single life” is undefined and unexplored as yet (although the likes of Tushnet are bravely exploring that terra incognita for us, thanks be to God), and is liminal between the natural flourishing of heteronormative marriage (which rightly orders, by uniting, the unitive and procreative natural goods of human sexuality) and the Cross taken up by those with vocations to the ordained or consecrated life.

Called to celibacy, the exclusively same-sex attracted Catholic called to the single life is in that regard a renunciant. But not a consecrated renunciant. Here, a riff on Tushnet may help: “vowed friendship,” “spiritual friendship,” etc., is not a “vocation” or a state of life or a sacrament in the way that marriage or ordination are. But it is a natural good, just as are many of the other life events (launching a ship, e.g.) that the Church has been happy to provide blessings for. What distinguishes the friendship that might rightly be celebrated in a non-sacramental rite of adelphopoiesis from the sacrament of marriage is that while marriage unites the unitive and procreative natural goods of a couple, “friendship,” qua friendship is a strictly unitive good.

In the sense that the chaste same-sex attracted Catholic is called to attain sainthood in part through taking up the renunciatory Cross of celibacy, there is something akin to consecrated life there. In the sense that natural flourishing through the unitive good of friendship can be an enriching, central part of the single life, there is something akin to the vocation to marriage there. The discernment in our time of the vocation to the single life is a quite new development in doctrine. I look forward to the ways that both the Tushnet/Hill and the Mattson perspectives from within that sector of the Church will craft new ways to follow the whole of Christ’s teaching without abandoning either our orthodoxy, or our humanity.

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