Editor’s note: In a book-length interview published Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI tells journalist Peter Seewald that “Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation,” providing a clear-cut answer to the question of whether or not gay men may join the priesthood. In further reflection on homosexuality, the pope said that homosexuals’ “attitude toward man and woman is somehow distorted, off center, and, in any case, is not within the direction of creation.”
On Faith asked Eve Tushnet, a gay, celibate Catholic woman who writes about church issues, for a reflection on the pope’s comments about spirituality and homosexuality.
By Eve Tushnet
Pope Benedict makes the same mistake that secular liberalism makes when it comes to homosexuality: They simplify and trivialize it. For “gay-affirming” secularism, homosexuality is banal, about as interesting as a preference for redheads or a love of spicy food. (This perspective requires the obviously -false corollary that men and women are not merely equal but interchangeable, thus love of a woman is exactly like love of a man in every relevant aspect.)
And for most orthodox Catholic moralists, homosexuality is merely the desire for a set of prohibited sexual acts. It is “intrinsically disordered” because it is –and is defined by–the desire for forbidden actions. But the tangle of experiences we’ve decided to call “being gay” is much more complex than that, which is good news for all gay Catholics who wish to live out their vocations within the Church.
For me–and for a lot of gay people I’ve known, both celibate and sexually active–being gay is a recognition of a need for a certain kind of relationship with somebody of the same sex. That relationship need not involve sex. Even sexually-active gay people I’ve talked with have said that the sexual activity wasn’t central. I don’t mean that sex was irrelevant. Believe me, when I first fell for a girl, I was very interested in the possibility of getting her out of her bra! But there was something more. I would not have been satisfied if some stunning girl had taken me home and had her way with me, and never spoken to me again. I wanted to make a life with a woman, in sacrifice and service and everything else we mean by “love.”
My lesbianism has caused me, over the years, to make soup for women I loved when they were ill, to forgive them, to comfort them, to spend money I really needed for rent on presents to cheer them up. I chose my volunteer work, which focuses on women, in part because of my sexual orientation: I don’t mean that I’m attracted to the women I work with, but simply that I needed a loving connection with women. The authors and music I love are influenced by the fact that I’m gay.
Being gay is not–or not interestingly–about the desire for a particular prohibited act. It’s about longing for relationship. There are many ways this longing could be fulfilled in the Catholic Church: Saints and mystics have expressed shockingly sensual, adoring love of both Jesus and Mary, without any regard for sex roles. If a woman’s relationship to Mary is influenced by her lesbianism, does her love of the Theotokos thereby become tainted? And if not, can’t we accept that lesbianism is more than a desire for particular acts? And so homosexuality is one possible interpretation of a form of longing which can manifest as artistic vocation, as friendship, as service, as any number of ways of pouring out love. (I would also argue that it’s not at all incompatible with a vocation to the priesthood, since celibate gay men, being men, are as capable of spiritual fatherhood as celibate straight men. The basic distinction in human nature is between men and women, not between gay and straight.)
Pope Benedict, as a celibate himself, is in a unique position to discuss the ways in which our eros can express itself outside of sexual activity. He does not express his heterosexuality by uniting with a woman to make babies. His sexuality, and his identity as a man, must therefore be expressed in a sublimated form. This does not seem radically different from what the Catholic Church asks of gay people. It’s disappointing but unsurprising that he accepted the framing in which discussion of homosexuality is always about how we can’t express love, not how we should.