Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality

Friends, I share with you this evening an excerpt from A Sense of Sexuality: Christian Love and Intimacy by Evelyn and James Whitehead.

Winner of the 1989 Human Development Book-of-the-Year Award for its “outstanding contribution to the literature on human sexuality,” A Sense of Sexuality has been described by the St. Anthony Messenger as “a wholesome, holistic, and holy attempt to show how God meets us in the flesh.”

In the excerpt below, the distinguished Evelyn and James Whitehead explore compassion and Christian community in relation to homosexuality.

(NOTE: The accompanying images of loving gay male couples are my own addition to the text.)


We might think that compassion and sexuality would be friends, since both are passionate responses that link us with other people. But, in fact, a fear of sexuality often limits our compassion.

Every community – religious and ethnic – develops rules about sexual conduct. The groups we belong to instruct us on the importance of marrying our own kind. We are taught the styles of sexual sharing that are acceptable among us. We learn that those who are sexually “different” must be avoided, even feared.

Fear and avoidance have been especially evident in many cultural and religious responses to homosexuality. Thankfully, however, that is beginning to change. In the Christian community today we hear the first recognitions of the kinship between homosexual and heterosexual believers. Traditionally, religious discussions of homosexuality often degenerated into conversations about “them,” alien folk whose lives were consumed (it was said) in perverse and promiscuous behavior. These shadowy “others” were most emphatically excluded from our kind. Defensiveness distracted us from a simple truth, profound in its implications: we are the body of Christ and part of our body is lesbian and gay.

Who are the homosexual members of the body of Christ? They are not “them”; they are us. They are our siblings and our children, our friends and our fellow parishioners. They are persons like us, striving to live generous lives of maturing faith. They are the ministers among us – priests, religious, lay – who, knowing themselves to be gay and lesbian, struggle to serve with integrity in a Church that interprets the movement of their hearts as disordered and shameful.

When we listen well to the lives of these members of the community, we learn what should not be such surprising news: the gay or lesbian person is stirred with the same kind of arousals and attractions that move the heterosexual person. These stirrings, quickened by a smile or a gesture, are more than “near occasions of sin.” Like the arousals that stimulate our own loving, they are often occasions of grace.

Arousal is the wellspring of sexuality for all of us – heterosexual and homosexual alike. And for all of us these inclinations are filled with both promise and peril. For both gay and straight persons, these arousals are subject to every conceivable perversion, as the human history of selfishness and sexual violence attests. For all of us – heterosexual, lesbian, gay – questions remain of how we will express our affection and respond to erotic arousal. We each face the challenge of finding a lifestyle and forging fidelities that are both adult and Christian.

The underlying experience of arousal is familiar to all of us – heterosexual and homosexual alike. We share a common passion. But gay and lesbian Catholics have been instructed again and again in official Church documents that – for them – erotic arousal is wrong. Quite apart from decisions about fruitful expression and responsible abstinence (decisions that confront every adult), the inclinations of their heart are judged to be perverse. Their feelings, we are told, do not and cannot resonate with the delight of God’s creation. Their emotions are not a part of that human surge of affection that rescues us from our solitary journeys. Some arousals, we are instructed, should have no place in the life of a Christian. The only responsible choice is sexual abstinence, as part of a deeper self-denial.

But a change of heart is taking place in the community of faith, even if this transformation is not yet evident in many official statements. We see its fruit in a new compassion among heterosexual and homosexual Christians.

Through compassion, we come to know that for a lesbian to feel erotic delight in the presence of another woman is not unnatural. For her this delight is the most naturally feeling imaginable. She may deny these feelings and this denial may grow into a habit of self-hatred. Then she embarks on a life that is truly disordered and unfaithful.

Compassion also helps us recognize that a gay man does not choose to set aside his “natural, normal attraction” for women so that he can experience another more perverse kind of sexual excitement. The attraction he feels is natural and normal for him.

Spontaneous impulses of arousal and affection are the energetic roots of human love. They can move us toward fidelity and support our efforts to be fruitful. This is so whether we are heterosexual, lesbian, or gay. If these stirrings of the heart are sordid, we are all in deep trouble.

. . . Where do we learn compassion? How does this virtue begin to grow in our life? The answer to both questions is, of course, in Christian community. In prayer groups and ministry networks, in base communities and other small group settings believing people experience community in practical and profound ways. As our lives intersect in these gatherings of faith, we come to know each other more deeply. And we begin to learn about each other’s enduring hopes and lingering wounds. Sharing these experiences of grace and failure, we participate in one another’s passion. We touch lives so different from our own but, in their fragility and faith, so similar.

For many heterosexual Christians compassion takes root when we share the faith journey of a gay friend or lesbian colleague. In this sharing we learn that their attractions and delights are very much like our own: we know the same excitement at the possibility of love and the same terror that devotion might not endure. . . . All of us know that holiness does not lie in a denial of our sexuality, but in a discipline that is closer to befriending.

Compassion protects us from equating fruitfulness with biological fertility. A homosexual couple’s inability to bear children is sometimes taken as a sure sign that their love is selfish. Our daily experiences in the community of faith tell us something quite different. Here we meet single adults and childless couples whose lives are profoundly fruitful. And, sadly, we sometimes meet married persons with many children but little generosity, whose lives seem sterile and self-centered. In the Christian community, too, we can meet gay and lesbian couples who are deeply generous, whose shared love bears fruit for them and for the world.

. . . In the practical interplay of Christian community, we learn the shape of one another’s hopes and passions. As we speak the truth to one another we recognize that, in our sexuality as in so much else, we are more alike than we are different. Then a conviction grows among us that homosexual arousal is not unnatural or unholy; it is part of the gift of creation, a sign of God’s delight in our bodies. This emerging sense of the faithful does not ignore the responsibility we all share to fashion faithful and fruitful ways to express our love. But it does acknowledge that, in any credible discussion of the shape of Christian sexuality, we must honor the seasoned experience of mature homosexuals.

Through compassion we learn that we are more alike than different. . . . To our Christian identity what matters most is not sexual orientation or ethnic origin or gender. What marks us as followers of Jesus is our behavior. From the first century onward Christians provoked the response: “See how they love one another!” The fruitfulness of this love is recognized in its respect, generosity, and fidelity. Today the Churches struggle to have their stance toward Christian homosexuals shaped by such compassion.

For a review by theologian Joan Timmerman of Evelyn and James Whitehead’s 2003 book Wisdom of the Body, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
The Many Forms of Courage
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Hypocrisy, Ignorance, Promiscuity, & the Love that is the Center of Catholic Christianity
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
Celebrating and Embodying Divine Hospitality
Love is Love
And Love is Lord of All
A Catholic Bibliography on Gay Issues


Tc said...

What a thoughtful, inspired treatment of the subject. I especially like how they connect it with Christian responsibility.


Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Thom,

Thanks, as always, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

I'm glad you find the thoughts and words of the Whiteheads inspiring. That there are folks like them out there who are willing and gifted to share such wise and compassionate thoughts keeps me hopeful.



Anonymous said...

Sorry to interrupt the love fest, but it occurs to me to ask what undoubtedly will be a very unpopular question: Why do almost all the images of stylized same sex couples here in recent times look so like Ambercrombie & Fitch (plus 15 years) in their telegenicity?

Our culture is so oppressive in its emphasis on telegenicity, and it many times it seems even more so in some gay male subcommunities. (Oh, please spare the paeans to the cult of physical beauty if you are at all tempted to venture any - by now, they are banal.) These images do not portray reality but fantasy of what we'd prefer people on average to look like. It's a kind of violence to the truth - in cartoon form. And it contributes mightily to how many people feel attached to the fantasy movies in their heads rather than the reality God actually puts before them.

Think about this: could a movie like movie "Fame" (1980 original, please) be produced with the same look today? No way, no how. Those extras would all be screened to be telegenic (or at least nothing less than mildly attractive - mildly attractive is what passes for ugly in visual images today unless one is actually trying to portray something as ugly).

And that is very sad. It's a miracle that film got made with the cast it had.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Thom. It seems like only yesterday this kind of commonsense approach of integrating one's sexuality and spiritualism was found in Catholic literature. Alas, the "occasion of sin" and "intrinsically disordered" from Augustine's ascetism seems to have tainted the Roman perspective to embrace the Church's homophobia documented over 20 centuries in Louis Crompton's "Homosexuality & Civilization." Rather than being a "leaven" and a "light" of compassion, of gentle persuasion, of loving the person one sees as evidence of the love of god one does not see, the sheep need dividing from the goats, and I chose to go with the goats.

Liam raises an excellent observation about "stylized" images, which, unfortunately, is far more pervasive throughout our commercialized and commodified society than ever. Gadgetry. Music Videos. Online Hook ups. Too many people, straight, gay, bi, and trans, have accepted the "humans are products" like toilet paper, computers, and Burger King's Whopper -- "make that a double, with mayo, mustard, hold the onions, to go," and then dispose of when done. But, in all fairness to Liam, the Church, by its myopia of "wedge" issues, like contraception, homophilia, liberalism, has made humans into commodities it tries to regulate like an automotive production line. Don't think. Don't breathe. Just obey.

You might find my ruminations under "tagged" of interest, particularly the L.A. Corral Club experience.

CDE said...

The Church, by its myopia of "wedge" issues, like contraception, homophilia, liberalism, has made humans into commodities it tries to regulate like an automotive production line. Don't think. Don't breathe. Just obey.

I understand that some interpret the Church's teaching this way.

But I think it is a misinterpretation and even the opposite of the actual case.

The Church's teaching on contraception, at its core, is about preserving the dignity of the woman and ensuring that her full dignity -- fertility and all -- is respected. Contraception allows the man to dehumanize the woman and to use her as a sexual commodity without consequence. "The opposite of love is not hate, but use," wrote John Paul II. The teaching on contraception is at the service of authentic freedom for women, and a full appreciation of her dignity as a person.

I'm not exactly sure what the Gay Species means by "homophilia", or how it is distinct from homogenital relationships. I can understand how the Church's stance against homogenital relations could be seen as a restriction of human freedom. But looked at from another point-of-view, it is actually an appeal to human freedom to make a different use of eros by putting it in the service of a generous and chaste love. The Church's positive appeal to human freedom and love desperately needs to be articulated in a way that is both faithful to the Gospel and an authentic response to situation of same-sex attracted men and women. "Everyone has been given an existence and a love," wrote the young Karol Wojtyla in one of his plays. "The only question is: how to build a sensible structure from it?"

Anonymous said...


Your observations about contraception serving to "humanize" love, rather than fetish it, is intellectually romantic, but emotionally bankrupt. Attitudes are framed in the mind, not by IUDs, prophylactics, and the Pill. Treating "partners" with disdain in the course of "love-making" occurs with or without contraception. Love-making and baby-making are not essentially connected, although it has been known to occur.

Besides, how is NFP not contraception? Messrs Boyle, Grizes, and Finnis insist NFP is birth control, and they are right, but approve the church's two-face, because the people require it. And how does NFP differ from condoms? Oh, the Pope permits one, and decries the other. Litmus paper is so much more natural than lambskin.

CDE said...

Gay Species,

It's true that the absence of artificial contraceptives does not guarantee the presence of conjugal love, but the use of such contraceptives excludes the possibility of a full, integral expression of conjugal love in which mind, heart and body are all expressing the same thing: total self-donation. Artificial contraceptives express a contradiction to the conjugal act -- a withholding, rather than a giving... conjugal bulimia, if you will.

Natural Family Planning (NFP) can prevent conception, but it does so by respecting the natural cycle of the woman's fertility (rather than violating/frustrating it). It's true that couples could use NFP in a selfish way (e.g. always avoiding conjugal union during fertile periods as a way to avoid having children altogether), but that's not the fault of NFP, but the couples themselves. Spouses practicing NFP report that the whole practice of measuring the woman's cycle actually stimulates discussion/improves communication and also gives them a greater appreciation for God's design. Respecting the natural cycles of fertility is also, for the both spouses, a school of sacrifice/self-denial... an important dimension of human love.

Many couples use NFP in order to conceive. No one uses condoms for this purpose. Condoms are always a way to avoid the procreative possibility, to exclude God's creative potential from the conjugal act.

With condoms, there's no need to consider cycles of fertility. It's pleasure on demand, with no sacrifices needed. It's a school of selfishness and represents a cheapening/falsification of the sexual act. Condoms allows us to tell lies with our bodies. NFP teaches us to tell the truth with our bodies; sometimes the truth is that we're not ready for the possibility of a child, so we express that truth by abstinence.

Love-making and baby-making are not essentially connected

Well, that view is the result of a contraceptive culture. It's a sentimental view of sex... which is essentially what is expressed by pornography: Sex with no hard edges/consequences. (see Flannery O'Connor for more discussion of the sentimentality of porn)