Christians, Gay Celibacy, and Miscommunication

Last week, a reader sent me an email and wrote a blog post in response to my recent post, The Church Is a Whore, And I Am Her Gay Son. The person in question is named Andrew, and is connected with Courage – the official Roman Catholic ministry to gay people. You can read his full post here.

While I genuinely appreciate Andrew taking the time to reach out to me and respond to my post, I also thought that I would take some time unpacking his statements, because they bring up some ideas that I find particularly frustrating when it comes to the topic of gay people in the church.

The crux of his post has to do with what he believes to be a misunderstanding of celibacy:

What people don’t realize is that having celibacy as the primary objective, is tantamount to jumping on a life-long roller-coaster and merely “white-knuckling it” until you die. With “celibacy” as the primary goal, all you can do is hang on for the ride that you are “destined” for, for your entire life.  The problem with this is that it doesn’t give a person the opportunity to get off that ride; it doesn’t permit people to see beyond the ride itself.

The pursuit of celibacy in this way is aimed at behaviour suppression instead of what the Church is inviting us all into, which is the transformation of heart on account of our love of Christ (which of course will open us to growing deeper in virtue). Again, the “gay people should be celibate” way of thinking is focused on behaviour, while the Church is really calling us to focus on the state of our hearts, and our openness to growing in the fullness of virtue.

In other words, if you make it about celibacy, then you are doing it wrong. Instead, your life should be centered around pursuing a life of virtue, following God, etc. It then follows – it follows as the night the day – that I didn’t do this, because it all fell apart for me.

The assumption here is that, because my vocation to celibacy fell apart, I wasn’t focused enough on virtue and God, and that I simply need to retrace my steps and try again with a clearer focus.

This argument is misguided and, ultimately, profoundly hurtful. Andrew is concerned about the focus on celibacy chasing people away from the Church, and he can add this line of reasoning to the pile of things that does just that.

I’ve heard it too many times in conversation with conservative Christians: “if you simply prayed more, if you simply had a better community, if you simply focused on virtue instead of on celibacy, if you made service your focus instead of sexual ethics, if you focused on vocation rather than right and wrong…”

There is an endless array of variations and reframings, all of them underscoring two core messages: “you failed,” and “start over.” This is particularly invalidating for those who did set their life on such higher goals, and who therefore feel deeply unheard by the Church.

I eventually came to the conviction that celibacy was for me because I was pursuing virtue. It emerged organically from my ongoing journey with Christ, and not as a single-minded mandate. I also simultaneously kept an open view of my sexuality, knowing that God could always bring a woman into my life, but till then, I was called to chastity and celibacy.

I wanted to follow God with my whole heart, mind, body, and soul. I wanted to be holy as He was holy. I spent years – years – trying to discern how to live my life. I had lived in a space of suspension for all of my late teens and the first half of my twenties, submitting my life and sexuality to God on a daily basis.

I struggled, I prayed, I studied. I examined every option, and it was all in the name of virtue, and obedience to my God.

I remember the day I encountered the full conviction of God to live a celibate life. It was 2012, and I was house sitting for a week in July, taking the time for silent retreat and reflection. I was outside the house smoking a cigarette, when suddenly everything clicked into place.

I saw – I saw in a way I had never seen before – that affirming gay marriage was a profound deception, and that God was calling me to sacrifice, for him, a gay marital life. I knew that life with a woman, while possible, was unlikely, so I saw clearly and with conviction that a life of indefinite chaste celibacy was ahead of me.

It broke my heart, but I obeyed. And I trusted – I trusted that God would show me the way. I trusted that God would provide a path, and provide some joy.

To make a very long story short, it ended in a train wreck. It ended in falling in love with a man, and then both our hearts being horribly broken as our lives and convictions could not be reconciled. No amount of theology or doctrine or spiritual comfort could penetrate the veil of my grief.

It ended in a psychotic breakdown. It ended in acting out recklessly, sleeping with a myriad of men. I became uncontrollable, my depression and grief driving me nearly insane. It’s a long story, one that I hope to explore more fully at a later point.

It was, at the end of the day, a few miracles and my commitment to virtue that forced me to re-evaluate my life. I realized that allowing myself to be gay and partnered was a holier life than the life I was living, and that I needed – desperately needed, as Adam needed Eve – a partnership with another man.

Fortunately, I have found that partnership. Perhaps, some day, I will tell the story of the complex theological transformation that led me to this point, but it would take pages, and for now I can simply say: the transformation was a necessity for my survival.

I will not, for a single moment, tolerate the notion that I lived with a lack of trust, or that, in changing my views on gay marriage, I was acting out of cowardice. It took great trust to walk this journey and it took great courage to make so many hard decisions: the decision to commit myself to celibacy because I was convicted to do so, and then the choice to walk away and choose another life.

Every step of the way, I have had to set my eyes on a God who is higher, more merciful, and more understanding than myself. Our capacity to hear God is, at best, a broken mechanism, and it can often lead us astray – it can lead us into destruction, no matter how convincing the voice and how sound the reason behind it may seem – but I have done my best to walk the whole journey with integrity.

The moral here is that just because something did not go according to plan does not mean someone did it the wrong way or with the wrong “focus”. The more the conservative Church sends this message, the more it will mortally wound gay people of good faith.

We have no right to reframe other people’s stories to fit our narrative. The sooner we stop and rest in the dissonance of one another’s stories, the sooner the Church will find reconciliation on this issue.

  1. I believe God created us and loves us the way we are. If anyone (gay or straight) feels a life of celibacy is right for them then follow in that way. If having a loving physical relationship is your choice follow it without guilt and condemnation from others. God created us with a need of love, fellowship and acceptance from others. To be forced into thinking there is only one correct way for that is just not right. I am not advocating having physical, romantic relationships with everyone who comes along but with that special someone who completes you and truly loves you. When you find that someone, showing love and affection is normal. How you decide to show it is up to you as a couple, not out of fear, judgment or condemnation but because that is how you choose and are happy together.

  2. i just got someone to tell me that your experience of being in a gay relationship isn’t real because it’s “immoral”

  3. Hi y’all – it’s Andrew again – thanks for all your comments. Dialogue is a good thing. Sorry if what I said hit a nerve. I do feel a bit misrepresented in the comments that speak towards ex-gay kind of things. I am not a proponent of any ex-gay this or that. That stuff drives me nuts.

    Anyway, I look forward to formulating a response.

    1. Why exactly does that stuff drive you nuts, Andrew? From my vantage point, the only difference between what you are promoting and what ex-gays are promoting is the type of sexual change. Your version of holiness requires us to asexuals, while theirs requires us to be heterosexuals. But at the end of the day, I still see it as asking the impossible of gay people. So other than the type of sexual change question, how does your theology differ from that of ex-gays?

  4. Christ said of celibacy, “Those who can, should.”

    Inherent in that statement is the recognition that not everyone can lead a life of celibacy. I think most people need that intimacy, not just with God, but with another human. Most of us simply “can’t” and it is destructive to pursue it.

    The Church should leave celibacy to those who are truly called and “can” and stop telling certain groups they are called. It’s not biblical and its destructive tendency is unchristian.

  5. For years now, I have been saying that the Gay Celibacy Movement (GCM) is poised to become The New Ex-Gay Movement. Here, I am afraid that Andrew has provided example #307 towards my prediction: doing the ol’ “it’s really about holiness” bait and switch. This is exactly the theory that was perpetuated by the ex-gay crowd. They said it just slightly differently…they said “the opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality, it’s holiness.” Why did they say this? Because they were trying to distract from the fact that they were asking the impossible of people, and from the reality that–though possible with God–God didn’t seem all that interested in changing peoples’ sexuality. But if we frame this in the realm of “holiness”, then it provides great motivation and inspiration for Christians to pursue the impossible task. You trick yourself into believing it’s true: that you’re not pursuing heterosexuality, but holiness. And who wouldn’t want to pursue holiness? But all the while, in the back of your mind, you’re pursuing heterosexuality.You collude with the ex-gay leaders in the open pursuit of holiness, but *everyone* (including those same leaders) is quietly really hoping for heterosexuality in the secret places of their hearts. The beauty of articulating the Holiness Narrative (as I like to call it) is that when you fail, it’s really *your* fault. You simply weren’t holy enough. It’s not that the impossible was asked of you…every Christian knows that holiness is not impossible…it’s that you couldn’t manage simple holiness. Bait and switch. Perfect plan. And also…wholly damnable.

    I want to make it so abundantly clear that I support all gay Christians who pursue celibacy b/c they believe God has called them to that. But I draw the line when that call becomes a mandate on ALL gay Christians to do the same, and when subtle manipulations (like The Holiness Narrative) are used to do so on the sly. I’ve lived through that, and it nearly cost me my life. There’s nothing new under the sun. The GCM is (unwittingly, I think…I hope…) using the same lame tactics of the XGM. These very people get angry at me when I compare them to ex-gays, because they don’t seem to see how the theological positions of both camps are about 98% identical. And, I fear, 20 years from now, they will see how much damage has been caused by that theology…just as folks like Alan Chambers and Randy Thomas are finally coming to see it now after years of adamantly proclaiming the innocence of ex-gaydom.

    1. Thanks DJ – such a powerful reply and such a concise statement of thoughts that have been brewing in my mind over the past couple of years. Esp this:

      “The beauty of articulating the Holiness Narrative (as I like to call it) is that when you fail, it’s really *your* fault. You simply weren’t holy enough. It’s not that the impossible was asked of you…every Christian knows that holiness is not impossible…it’s that you couldn’t manage simple holiness. Bait and switch.”

      Like you, I fully support those gay people who feel called to celibacy. But woe to those who try to impose celibacy on every gay person…

    2. Beautifully put, DJ. The constantly shifting narrative is crazy-making, and really does substantial harm. Its power is that it can accomodate just about any reframing to meet your life situation. “You are too focused on celibacy, you are too focused on the mandate, you didn’t have enough good friendships, you didn’t have a mentor, you didn’t engage in the Sacraments enough….” on and on and on. I don’t think GCM and XGM are fully aware they are doing it, but it causes incredible harm nonetheless. I’m at the point where I just put down my foot and say, “no. enough. I won’t take it anymore.”

      Thanks for commenting.

  6. Sexual union at its best is the natural outward expression of inward erotic/romantic attraction and love. There are degrees in this, as there are degrees in everything. A life-long commitment between two lovers would be the perfect expression of inward love being expressed in bodily union. Love of this kind surely leads us into closer union with God, Who is Love. To demonise ”sex” is to demonise the body, and all outward beauty and passion, as somehow evil, or lesser than the spirit with its inward beauty and passion. This kind of demonisation is wrong in the christian viewpoint, for our God became Man, His Spirit joined itself to a material human body forever. We have a gateway to God through the Body of Christ. And gay people (who are not called to monastic life) can only truly express their erotic/romantic love for another within the context of a same-sex relationship. Therefore, this must be good, and will lead the two persons involved towards closer union with God, whether they realise it or not. It seems to me, that to frustrate this natural, even divine calling, is misguided at best, and evil at worst.

  7. I spent a year in a Catholic Seminary, after High School, ready to pledge my life to the church, and God. I had not come out of the closet yet. After that year, I was told that my desire to follow Christ was not genuine enough, or that I was unlike my other “read: Gay” bretheren, I was not one of them. They asked me to leave. Which sent me into the bottle too.

    Chastity, poverty and obedience are vows taken by those who choose to commit their lives to Christ, and Mother Mary. To insist that religious gays, take a vow of chastity to follow Christ, is, like Andrew said, “Getting on that roller coaster that never ends.” And God forbid you meet some one along the way and you fall off that “roller coaster?” Damnation indeed …

    I like many of the thoughts that Pope Francis thinks. I’ve read every book I can get my hands on over the past few years. I just don’t agree on the church’s stance on Gay Marriage. That isn’t going to change, because it would change the rubrick of the sanctity of one man and one woman. The binary is what is necessary for procreation. “we read: Gay” cannot procreate naturally, which contravenes the church teachings, so it is unnatural.

    I studied Religion and Theology for 10 years, seeking God, “outside the church” because I did not find God, “In the church, or by way of the church.” I was getting sober this last time, and I met my now husband, passing through the doors of the basement of “A” church. I knew then and there, I was in love, and we later married.

    There is no greater love, than to commit yourself body and soul to your significant other, be they man or woman. To put the needs of another human being before your own, is what I needed to see that I had, “become a man.” In that I was lacking. My relationship was affirmed in the University chapel I attended as a university student, albeit, by a minister of the United Church. I was also given acceptance by the Catholic Chaplain of the university. He could not officiate our marriage, because of the church, but he was there.

    I found God, in the basement of the churches we in recovery call “meetings.” And it is in the service of my fellow human beings that is next to Godliness. Pope Francis, simply asks us to be good stewards, to love deeply, forgive, and to understand. To be like Christ in all things. And the singleness of purpose …. to Love as God loves. Celibacy is a commitment not taken lightly, and is not a substitute for sexual orientation. It is its nemesis.

    You can’t reign in sexual orientation (read: human sexuality) with Chastity. God always finds a way. It is what you do with your body, the “temple of the Holy Spirit” that matters in the end.

    Love as God loves.

  8. Trust does not have to be blind to be confident. Trust trades the cowardice of control for the bravery to entrust ourselves to and collaborate with each other and with the care, love and reliability of Christ. It lets go of the delusion of pride, which must pretend always to be right already, to recognize that venturing to the truth will surely involve epiphanies, security and accomplishments as well as misunderstandings, doubts and mistakes.

    Hold on to that conviction of yours to settle for nothing less than respect and encouragement for your persistent trust. It is not a vain claim that you hold any monopoly on the truth. It is a humble and brave confidence that Christ will always accompany and will never abandon you, or any of us, on the arduous and joyous path to truth.

  9. Hmmm. I am afraid that the idea of celibacy as the only possible way forward for gay people is simply setting us up to fail. Like you, I ended up living a life of such inner conflict that it resulted in self destruction (in my case through escapism via the bottle). Throwing yourself into prayer, good works, whatever, is no substitute for love. At least, not for some of us.

    Your experience of liberation and actually being a better Christian having accepted the possibility of loving another person seems to be quite common. And to that the Andrews of this world have no answer.

  10. Embedded in Andrew’s argument is the idea that covenantal partnerships can never be virtuous – in fact, for him, they are decidedly unvirtuous. That’s simply an unreasonable argument.

    Marriage is a vow of lifelong mutual self-sacrifice, care-taking and fidelity in the service of community. Marriage is cruciform. It is objectively virtuous.

    In my life, my marriage has been a part of the sanctifying work of the Spirit. It is the relationship which Andrew holds in contempt that has drawn me into a deeper relationship with Christ.

    1. One of the responses that drives me the most insane is when people say that a gay relationship is the easy way out. Relationships are brutally hard, refining work. They are NOT the easy way out, but, for many people, they are a better way.

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