One of the frightening aspects of loving somebody is the way that love can seem to offer unique access not only to pleasure but to truth. Love of another person—not only romantic love, but familial love and deep friendship as well—promises or threatens to reshape us completely. It can become the lens through which we see the world.
When I came out as a lesbian, provoked in part by a puppyish crush, I felt as though I had found the key that unlocked the secrets of the world. The only experience that has ever given me a greater rush of self-understanding was my conversion to Catholicism. The two experiences felt weirdly similar: both were frightening and illuminating, separating me to a certain extent from friends and family, yet both were prompted by love.
Perhaps this similarity between love of another person and love of God is one reason that Scripture makes love between humans one of its central metaphors for the love story of God and humankind—while also asserting the primacy of the divine love story over, and sometimes against, the human ones. Scripture gives us “His banner over me was love” (Song of Songs 2:4), but also “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). We should seek to reconcile love of God and love of others whenever they appear to conflict. But we can’t simply assume that such a conflict never exists—or that, if a conflict seems to arise, God couldn’t possibly be asking us to sacrifice a human relationship.
Luke Timothy Johnson’s essay touches on some of the deepest questions for a Christian: How do I understand and express my love for others? How should I let love reshape me? How should I read Scripture, especially in light of this love? For the Catholic, Johnson addresses an additional question: How should I read Scripture by the light of the church? And for an American in 2007, he adds a question that has become unavoidable: How can a Christian understand homosexuality?
Johnson’s conclusions are quite different from my own (and don’t reflect my experience). But his questions are the right ones, and his approach is far more fruitful than the ways in which our culture most often handles homosexuality.
Homosexuality has become a cultural battleground for reasons that have very little to do with Catholic morality or scriptural prohibitions. So many people, including many Catholics, meet the idea that gay couples are doing something wrong with blank incomprehension for a lot of reasons. Some are obvious: changing views of sex (including the wishful-thinking belief that birth control has separated sex from reproduction—spend an evening at a crisis pregnancy center and you’ll quickly figure out how much the pill didn’t change); the growing tendency to think of the body more as an instrument, to be used by the mind, than as a sign with its own integrity.
But others are less obvious and perhaps more emotionally powerful. Several recent studies have found that Americans are having a harder time making and keeping close personal relationships. We move halfway across the country, we replace communal gathering places like churches with more solitary “third places” like coffee shops, we have an intense longing for familial connection but terrible difficulty keeping our families together. And so we’re ready to cheer on any kind of personal connection at all, any love that lasts, since we see it much more rarely than we used to.
Anxieties about homosexuality are often driven by anxieties about masculinity. A lot of men, whether consciously or subconsciously, view lesbians as women outside male control, and gay men as traitors and predators, denying their own masculinity and threatening the masculinity of other men. This attitude may be nonsense (how is your masculinity threatened because another guy thinks you’re attractive?), but it’s real. So any discussion of homosexuality taps into deep-seated fears about what it means to be a man, and whether differences between men and women are created by the culture to keep women subordinate. We’re willing to do all kinds of terrible things in order to attain or keep a valued social role, a narrative that makes us feel worthy. For many men, achieving manhood is a major part of their identity. Acceptance of homosexuality—a worldview in which men and women are interchangeable in their sexual and familial roles—can feel deeply threatening. And men whose social roles and sense of their own masculine identity are threatened do sometimes—this is shocking, I know—become irrational and violent.
The often vicious and violent anxiety about masculinity is one reason that the ways in which homosexuality is stigmatized in our culture look nothing like the ways we treat many other things Scripture calls vices. Kids on the playground taunt each other for being gay, even disparaging other kids’ backpacks or pencil cases as “so gay.” People get beaten up or harassed on the street for their real or perceived homosexuality. Parents reject their children for coming out—I suspect most gay people know at least a few friends who were rejected in the most hurtful and vicious ways. (If we care about family breakup, we need to care about families broken by the actions of homophobic parents, as well as those broken by divorce.) This isn’t how we treat the acts we really consider sinful. It’s how we treat scapegoats.
Catholics who find it difficult, even impossible, to believe the traditional Catholic story of sexual morality are often reacting to this cultural landscape. They see devoted couples on one side, violent insecurity and parental rejection on the other. And they see Catholic prohibitions against homosexual acts as providing an excuse for the violent and the cruel.
So it’s tempting to conclude that prohibitions against homosexuality are culture-bound, no more universally binding than the requirement that women cover their heads in church. It’s true that culture conditions how we read Scripture, and that as Christians we need to be open to the countercultural implications of the gospel. But this fact argues far more strongly against Johnson’s position than against the church’s. If we seek to overcome any aspects of our culture that conflict with the gospel, I’m not sure why we would expect the gay liberation movement-slightly over a hundred years old, and largely Western in character-to be less culture-bound, and therefore a better guide to the countercultural aspects of the gospel, than the Catholic Church. The church is bigger and older than you, me, or the very concept of the homosexual person. (The view that sexual orientation is intrinsic and constitutive of a person’s deepest identity comes from a school of psychology that owes very little to the gospel, and a great deal to anti-Christian forms of philosophical materialism.)
Experience is itself a kind of text, and texts need interpreters. How often have we thought that we understood our experiences, only to realize later that we had only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses? We all know how flexible memory can be, how easy it is to give an overly gentle account of our own motivations, how hard it is to step outside our lifelong cultural training and see with the eyes of another time or place. To my mind, Johnson’s approach places far too much trust in personal experience. He views our experience as both more transparent and less fallible than it is. To take personal experience as our best and sturdiest guide seems like a good way to replicate all of our personal preferences and cultural blind spots. Scripture is weird and tangly and anything but obvious—but at least it wasn’t written by someone who shared all our desires, preferences, and cultural background. At least it wasn’t written by us. And so it’s necessary to turn at least as much skepticism on “the voice of experience” as Johnson turns on the voice of Scripture. It’s necessary to look at least as hard for alternative understandings of our experience as for alternative understandings of Scripture.
And in fact there are theologians who, allowing themselves to be surprised and guided by Scripture and church teaching, have provided accounts of sexuality that resonate with my own experience in a lot of ways. The only theological “school” or approach that has helped me understand at least parts of the church teaching on homosexuality is the theology of the body. This approach, or my understanding of it, is imperfect; but it’s much more convincing to me than the often mechanistic natural-law approaches, which tend to assume cultural consensus on teleology.
As I understand it, the theology of the body takes Jesus’ words on Jewish divorce laws as its starting point: “From the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). In this approach, we look to Genesis, to the creation narratives, to discover who we truly are and how we could most perfectly relate to one another. Although marriage is the primary focus of the theology of the body, sexual difference is a recurring theme. And here we discover that la différence is at the heart of human nature. Before we relate to one another as parent and child, worker and boss, artist and audience, soldier and comrade, or any other relationship, we are man and woman. Before we have any other identity (excepting, of course, our most central identity as children of God), we have sexual identity.
I believe that. Through history and in almost all great art, he and she are distinct, and their difference is fundamental in a way that class differences, ethnic differences, maybe even differences of belief are not. And yet every attempt to codify sexual difference fails. People (mostly men) keep making these lists to explain what distinguishes men and women: Women are more practical, or more fickle, or more romantic or less; they’re more nurturing or more petty or more gentle, more selfless or more selfish. These lists aren’t just false, they’re also boring. They take the vivid reality of sexual difference and flatten it out, drain the color from it. What good is an understanding of womanhood that would leave out Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, or Molly Bloom?
The theology of the body, almost alone among theories of la différence, avoids the listmaking trap. Here, man is defined by his longing for woman, woman by her longing for man; this is the “nuptial meaning of the body.” The male becomes a man and the female a woman in their yearning for each other. Love of the other both creates and reconciles the sexes.
There are some obvious attractions of this theology. It’s very beautiful. It reconciles two seemingly irreconcilable facts (the enduring importance of sexual difference, and the impossibility of defining that difference through lists of qualities). It focuses on the creation of identity through love of another, whose otherness remains even as the two become “one flesh.” This supports the metaphorical use of human love in Scripture, and even deepens our understanding of that metaphor.
But there are equally obvious problems with applying this Genesis model to homosexuality. I’ve never found that lesbian women were less womanly, or gay men less manly. Either I’m misunderstanding the implications of the theology of the body, or I’m misunderstanding my own experience. (Or both, of course!) Moreover, showing that homosexual relationships are imperfect, that they do not echo our life in Eden as well as heterosexual relationships can, might not be the same as showing that gay sex is always and everywhere wrong. In his book Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, the gay-rights advocate Jonathan Rauch, an atheist, calls homosexuality “a (mild) disability,” but not an inclination to immorality. And the “theology of the body” approach doesn’t give any guidance on the questions currently most pressing to me: How can I express my love of women in ways consonant with church teaching; and how can I deepen my love of Christ through all the other loves in my life, including romantic love?
So I’m not completely satisfied, yet, with the explanations I’ve seen for church teaching. I do think I’m closer to understanding it now than I was when I was confirmed. I see more of the beauty in the teaching now, and I think I’m at the point of beginning actual theological investigation of the question, rather than just staring at the church in utter confusion. Both the theologians and I have a lot of work to do here. You might even say that Johnson and I agree that what the church has done so far on this issue isn’t enough—we just disagree on which approaches might bear fruit in the future.
The coming-out story is a quintessentially American story. It is self-discovery in opposition to societal regulation. It is personal liberation—as American as “lighting out for the territory.” There are ways to tell the Christian story so that it corresponds very well to this story of self-discovery and liberation: through Christ we are freed from sin and come to know ourselves; in Nietzsche’s phrase, we “become what we are.” But there are other ways of talking about Christian life-ways that focus on sacrifice, martyrdom, dying in Christ to live with him—which are perhaps less quintessentially American, and for that reason all the more necessary for us. There’s a reason all Catholic churches have a crucifix, an image of the tortured God.
Johnson, like many writers who oppose the church’s prohibition against all homosexual acts, points to the real virtues exhibited by so many gay couples: loyalty, caretaking, and compassion. Anyone who supports church teaching must still acknowledge that these virtues are real; that deep, often sacrificial love works through these couples like gold threads in cloth. The question is whether that is enough. How could it not be? How could Christ require more?
"And behold, one came up to him, saying, 'Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?' And he said to him, 'Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.' ...The young man said to him, 'All these I have observed; what do I still lack?' Jesus said to him, 'If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.' When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions." (Matthew 19:16-22)
The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the only sacrifices God wants.
And so the central problem emerges: Whom do we follow? How do we follow love? Can a human beloved have the same ability to overturn us completely—to read and interpret and reshape us—that Jesus himself has? Can love of another person do the same work as the love of God?
Almost all the time, love of God will deepen and strengthen our love of others in obvious ways, rather than conflicting with that love or posing a dilemma. And so we are tempted to believe that our love of God and our love of others won’t ever conflict. But there will be times when it does seem like God is asking us to choose. At the very least, God may require us to radically reshape our understanding of what love of another person should look like. God may ask you not to stop loving your partner but to express that love without sex.
The analogy between God’s love for us and our love for one another is real but partial, and needs to be understood in light of the entire teaching of the church. The church does not teach that whatever anyone does out of a deep conviction and a desire to express love is always intrinsically good. We can sincerely seek to do good and yet actually act wrongly; this happens all the time. Even the saints get stuff wrong, as do all kinds of loving, sincere people. It might even be said that the reason we have church teaching in the first place is that loving, sincere people do their best and still sometimes get things very wrong.
Johnson begins by saying that his position “stand[s] in tension with Scripture.” But he then seems to use human beloveds as a kind of walking Scripture in themselves, able to contradict and correct the merely paper canon. So he writes:
"I think it important [for the integrity of our position] to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us."
I’m not convinced this is how human love stories relate to the divine love story. Loving one another can be an echo of the love we receive from God; it can be the child of that love; it can be preparation for our own awestruck love of God. (I would argue that my erotic and romantic love of women has been all three of those things, at different times.) But our human experience, including our erotic experience, cannot be a replacement for the divine revelation preserved by the church. We must be careful not to let it become a counternarrative or a counter-Scripture.
So we’re left back where we started: with the seemingly irresolvable conflict between the church’s teaching on the one hand, and the difficulty of believing that teaching for many contemporary Catholics.
I am unimpressed with the attempts to resolve the conflict by negating the teaching. And so I have to seek ways to make that teaching more intelligible. I hope this essay has suggested some ways already. Strengthen your families (and your friendships). Accept your children, loving and welcoming them, even, and perhaps especially, when you can’t approve of all of their beliefs or choices. (Welcome your children’s friends, as well, especially those who have been rejected or hurt by their own parents.) Don’t set homosexuality apart, a specially and un-Scripturally stigmatized and identity-shaping category. Accept the sacrifices of Catholic life; don’t try to wriggle out of them when they hurt you, as they inevitably will. Don’t try to ignore them when they hurt someone you love; offer the real compassion of friendship, helping your loved one carry the cross, as Simon of Cyrene did for our Lord, not the false compassion of “whatever you think best, honey.”
I was incredibly lucky. I did not have to overcome familial rejection when I came out. I didn’t face violence or even much teasing. And, of course, this charmed life made it easier for me to believe that Catholic teaching was not based in hatred. I was equally lucky that the friends whose influence ultimately helped me accept the grace of conversion didn’t focus on my sexual orientation. They knew I was gay, and that I was pretty vocal about it. They tried, when I asked, to explain church teaching on homosexuality, but did it very poorly. I’m glad that they instead wanted to talk with me about the Crucifixion as the reconciliation of justice and mercy, or Creation as an explanation of the goodness and intrinsic, poetic meaning of the physical world. There are obviously things that could have been done or said better. I remember one very sweet, good-hearted priest who tried to help me out (again, because I asked him to) by comparing lesbian sex to trying to use a doorknob wrapped in barbed wire. I did my best to cover my bewilderment with politeness.
When I was baptized and confirmed, pledging, “I believe all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches,” I did it basically as a leap of faith. I knew why I needed to be Catholic; I knew that as a Catholic I’d have to follow this stuff, faith seeking understanding and all that; I trusted that eventually I would understand the reasons behind the teaching a little better. And I do. Even so, I waver on how much I think I understand the teaching from day to day.
But what has constantly surprised me about the Catholic Church is just how much there is for me here. There is a rich theology of friendship, helping me to express my love of women both sacrificially and chastely. There’s honor for both celibacy and married life, and resources for living fruitfully in either of these states. We have Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, we have saints who are possibly even crazier than I am, we have the Anima Christi and Thomas à Kempis’s rewriting of the Song of Songs as a hymn to the crucified Christ. I feel as if every week or so I discover yet another hidden treasure of the church that speaks to me in exactly the way I need in order to deal specifically with my struggles, resentments, longings, and strengths as a woman and a lesbian. We can make the church’s teaching believable by becoming more Catholic—which is, not coincidentally, what we should be doing anyway.