Mandating Celibacy for Gay People Reveals Deep Incoherence in Church's Teachings

Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 asked whether a Catholic understanding of mandatory celibacy for lesbian and gay people was becoming the new ‘reparative’ therapy option among conservative Christians. Today, we look at Catholic teaching on celibacy from a different angle – and ask what this magisterial requirement of mandatory celibacy for lesbian and gay Catholics reveals about the hierarchy’s teachings on homosexuality.

In July, America magazine posted an interview with Catholic lesbian writer Eve Tushnet in which she laid out the argument that gay Catholics can affirm their sexual orientation while abiding by the hierarchy’s teaching against same-sex relationships, including mandatory celibacy. You can read that interview in full here.

Katie Grimes, writer on the Women in Theology blog responded to Tushnet in two posts, available here and here, to reveal why “A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing.”  Grimes examines Tushnet’s argument using an ethical paradigm known as virtue theory. Grimes makes the claim that if one argues that homogenital acts are indeed unconditionally evil, then what would logically follow is that a sexual orientation towards such acts must also be considered evil as well. Grimes explains:

“Thomistic virtue theory describes the relationship between actions, habits, and character…But because virtue theory cares about not just what we do, but also who we are, it recognizes that our thoughts and desires possess more than merely instrumental importance. Rightly ordered thoughts and desires are good in and of themselves. A good person does not merely do the right thing; she both desires to do the right thing and she takes pleasure in acting rightly. Goodness involves more than just what we do.”

Flowing from this theory, Grimes says that we would then have to posit that a lesbian woman or gay man wills evil when they experience sexual feelings for a person of the same-sex, for to act on that desire would be evil. Though not reducing a gay orientation to sex alone, the desire for sex is a constitutive part of sexual attraction. Therefore, Grimes writes:

“If a woman finds herself deriving pleasure from the thought of sexual contact with the bodies and beings of other women, she ought to react to these thoughts just as you or I would if we suddenly started fantasizing about torturing a poor little bunny rabbit.

“We would be horrified and alarmed. We would seek to eradicate these thoughts from our minds as soon as possible. We would recognize them as an incitement to sin. We surely should not accept these thoughts as a constituent part of our personalities…

“So too with sexual orientation. Even if a person acquires the desire for gay sex through innocent happenstance, she retains and cultivates these malignant desires only if she chooses to. As gay and lesbian people know all too well, one comes out of the closet through a struggle born out of a resolute and long-deliberated choice…

“Tushnet rightly calls on the church to make room for its lesbian and gay members. But perhaps lesbian and gay Catholics struggle to find a home within ordinary Catholic parishes because there is no place for them in the pages of magisterial teaching.

“The magisterium tells lesbians and gays to be but do not do. But, if one should not do, then neither should one be.”

Thus, Grimes concludes that “A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing.” By drawing the virtue theory logic on homosexuality to its logical conclusion, even while she disagrees with it, Grimes reveals the deep incoherence in the hierarchy’s teaching. A desire for something which is sinful is itself sinful as well in a virtue ethics framework, and  disproves the idea that mandatory celibacy as the attempted middle ground by people like Eve Tushnet, is a workable solution.  The hierarchical position cannot logically claim, as it does, that a homosexual orientation is not sinful while at the same time claiming that homosexual activity is.

Yesterday’s post noted Catholicism’s mixed history on celibacy, highlighting both the beautiful gift it has been for so many in the Church’s history and the damage that forced celibacy does to our understanding of this gift.. If other Christians seek to learn from Catholics about celibacy, they should look to those of our saints who have lived single lives in service to the world. They should not look to illogical understandings of sexual orientation that condemn too many LGBT people to lives of hurt and loneliness.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

12 replies
  1. Christine
    Christine says:

    Voices such as Tushnet’s are continously marginalized and muzzled by gay rights activists. The problem with Grimes’ post is that it is incorrect. What is the point in twisting Church teaching and trying to make it sound like something that it’s not? It also seems anti-intellectual and uncharitable to dismiss Tushnet’s book without even taking the time to read it or grapple with its message. The book has not even been published yet.

    • newwaysministryblog
      newwaysministryblog says:

      Grimes does not criticize Tushnet’s book. She criticizes Tushnet’s ideas expressed in a published interview referenced in this blog post. Bondings 2.0 plans to do a review of Tushnet’s book after it appears in October. We do not dismiss all of Tushnet’s ideas, but we think it is important to point out any concepts which may be pastorally harmful to LGBT people.

    • David Kiester
      David Kiester says:

      It is disingenuous on your part to attempt to imply that a minority of people (i.e. gay rights activists) have the power to marginalize and muzzle contrarians. What we have is pride and acceptance that we are fully children of God and will no longer sit quietly while others attempt to deny our legitimate personhood

      • Christine
        Christine says:

        David: Being a numerical minority within the society as a whole has nothing to do with the ability to marginalize other members of your own numerical minority. Many people within the LGBT community imply that it is a homogenous group. It is not. Even though she is a lesbian, you do not seem to consider Tushnet to be part of the “we” that you refer to. This unwillingness to allow a diverse range of gay/lesbian voices to be heard is very sad, and that was one of the points that I was trying to make. In light of the fact that Tushnet is a lesbian, your comment that you won’t sit quietly does not make sense to me. You’re not going to sit quietly when a lesbian who happens to be an authentic Catholic wants to voice her thoughts and life experiences in a book??

        Her book has not even been published, yet the attempt to discredit her is already underway. I would think that it would make more sense to actually read the book and then grapple with the ideas put forth in the book — the America article was little more than promotion of the book as a whole.

        And no one who replied to my post responded to my primary point which was that Grimes has twisted the teachings of the Catholic Church and has presented them in an inaccurate manner.

        • David Kiester
          David Kiester says:

          Apparently I didn’t express myself clearly and or you and I read the same words but heard them in different contexts. When I questioned the alleged power that gay people have to marginalize others, I was thinking in terms of the total community or society. A minority just does not have the ability to do that. Your point that within the ranks of gay people a majority can marginalize a minority is true as a possibility. Re: your chastising me for criticizing a book that has not yet been published nor have I read it, it is misplaced. I offered no opinion about the book or the author. My only opinion was about the erroneous comment about gay people marginalizing people who disagree. There would not continue to be discrimination against LGBT people if we were capable of marginalizing those who oppose full civil rights of citizenry for them.

  2. Anton
    Anton says:

    If I remember correctly, dogs descended from wolves, but now they’re considered something separate from wolves. So the theory of celibacy for gays and lesbians sounds to me like “OK, you’re a DOG not a WOLF, but you are FORBIDDEN to BARK!!

  3. David Kiester
    David Kiester says:

    Grimes’ observation exactly relates my personal life experience. I struggled to find a place in the Catholic Church because I heard nothing but unrelenting condemnation from the hierarchy. I din’t feel it was an expression of love nor adherence to the Gospel message. I gave up. I now worship in a community that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic where I am not differentiated from any other baptized member because of my same sex attraction.

  4. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Those who advocate forced celibacy for anyone understand neither celibacy and it’s history in spirituality/religion, nor the universal call to holiness that advocates love and compassion, not rules about sex.


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