Can One Be Gay and Christian?

Is it possible to embrace a gay identity and be a faithful Christian? All parties in the recent debate here at First Things agree that David and Jonathanlifelong marriage between one man and one woman is the only morally appropriate context for a sexual relationship. But while Joshua Gonnerman, Eve Tushnet, Melinda Selmys, and Wesley Hill all argue that the “gay” label can be appropriated by Christians, Daniel Mattson warnsus that to accept a gay identity is to embrace a false concept of the human person, ultimately preventing those of us who experience same-sex attraction “from knowing ourselves as we are known by God.”

The inability to appreciate that “gay” has different levels of meaning within our culture, and that not all of these levels are in total opposition to Christian truth, is frustrating. Those of us who worship in liturgically oriented Christian churches are still celebrating the Easter season. We commemorate the resurrection of Jesus with the name of a pagan fertility goddess, Eostre, who was worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons. Christians did not convert the ancient world by insisting that pagans must agree to our definition of terms before a conversation could begin, and the New Evangelization will fail if we insist that people have a mastery of in-house Christian jargon before we are willing to tell them the good news.

My main concern is not with language, however, but with the concepts behind the language being used in this debate. If we are going to have a discussion about whether there can possibly be anything good about being gay from a Christian perspective, we have to first talk about what it means to be gay in non-reductive terms. To begin to do this, let us take a brief look at three aspects of the experience of same-sex attraction: homosexuality, same-sex desire, and same-sex friendship.

Homosexuality, as the Catholic Catechism reminds us, is an “objectively disordered inclination,” and acts that flow from it are “acts of grave depravity” strongly condemned by Scripture. The Catechism deliberately omits the use of terms such as “gay” or “same-sex attracted.” Meanwhile, the Church recognizes that sexuality “affects all aspects of the human person.” It concerns not merely the desire for sexual acts but also “affectivity, the capacity to love,” and “the aptitude for forming bonds of communion” with others.

The Church is not, therefore, claiming that the sexuality of gay people is disorderedin toto. What is disordered is “homosexuality,” and this is defined very narrowly as a specific inclination toward sexual relations with same-sex partners. It is this andonly this that merits an unequivocally negative moral judgment.

A homosexual inclination is a form of same-sex desire or eros, but to reduce erossolely to sexual desire is to forget its richer meaning. Eros is the form of love that desires intimacy not in a reductively sexual sense, but in the broader sense of exclusive and committed companionship. It is a longing for physical and emotional closeness. Eros is often experienced as sexual desire, but cannot be identified with it.

Scripture tells us that God is love, and it also makes clear that this means God personifies all forms of love, including eros. The Old Testament prophets, for example, depict God as a jealous lover who desires to possess Israel for his own. Some scholars refer to the “sexual metaphors” used to describe God’s relationship with his people, but this is inaccurate: Most of the metaphors are erotic, but not specifically sexual.


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