Sometime in 2007 I discovered Eve Tushnet’s writing. I can’t recall exactly how I found her non-flashy, off-the-beaten-path blog, tagged with the teasing moniker “Conservatism reborn in twisted sisterhood,” but somehow I landed there, following a trail of hyperlinks. I used to read her posts in the morning, while sipping coffee, huddled over my laptop in my cell-like flat in England, when I was just starting graduate school.
Tushnet is a gay Catholic writer who embraces her church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. By the time I learned about her, I’d been admitting to myself for a few years that I was gay, though I hadn’t told many other people yet. I was still too frightened and unsure of what kind of welcome (or lack thereof) I’d receive. You know those novels and movies about the yearning, aching twentysomethings who are trying to disentangle and sort out their erotic and religious longings, while dreading loneliness and rejection above all else? That was me. Imagine Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited, all angsty and insecure, but with a small-town-USA upbringing, and you’ll get the picture. I needed a lifeline. I was hungry to know I wasn’t alone.
One of the first things by Tushnet that I read was the following paragraph from an article published in the magazine Commonweal. In this paragraph was the answer to a question I hadn’t been able to formulate for myself but which, once heard, seemed like the question I needed to ask:
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.
There it was—the question for me, buried in that last sentence: Might God be asking me not to deny and discard my yearning for same-sex closeness but rather to offer my desire to God—and, thereby, to find it elevated, altered, transformed in some way? That was the gamble: If God wanted me to live without gay sex, could I trust that God wasn’t also asking me to deny my desire to give and receive love? Could I trust that God had a “Yes” for me, and not just a “No”?
What Celibacy Means
In the years since reading Tushnet’s article, I’ve come to think this isn’t only my question. It’s the same question asked by a growing number of people who identify as gay and Christian. Up until recently, we’ve been an easy-to-miss group, to be sure, but lately we’re coming out of the closet in more and more churches, sitting in the pews listening to the same sermons and singing along to the same hymns.
And many of us are embracing the church’s traditional, Scripturally-rooted teaching that marriage is the union of male and female, estranged from one another in the Fall but reunited and reconciled through the death and resurrection of Christ. Same-sex sexual unions, for all their admirable qualities, can’t mirror la différence and thus, we believe, are ruled out for Christian believers. Consequently, many of us are embracing celibacy as our form of witness to the creational-and-redemptive divine mystery.
But they—we—are not sure what that celibacy means for our future. Does it amount to a despair-inducing sentence of isolation? Does it cut us off from the shelter of home, the consolations of making a family with those we love, and the bonds of kinship?
I left England still uncertain about the solutions to these problems, still frustrated and deeply lonely. But I’d subscribed to Eve Tushnet’s blog posts, and over the next several years, I read them in the same way my young married friends read parenting books or my athletic friends pore over healthcare guides: I read not merely for entertainment and delight—although there was plenty of that to be had—but for answers and for hope. I latched on to her sentences and paragraphs, like someone pinning frequently-consulted articles or maps on the refrigerator door or the dashboard in the car.
Eventually I wrote to Tushnet, telling her I hoped she’d write a book someday, collecting and distilling her posts into a format I could easily hand to my fellow gay Christians, not to my mention my family members, (straight) friends, pastors, and priests. She wrote back and said that, happily, it was already underway. And now, thank God, here it is.
Longings and Loves
At its heart this book, Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, is an extended effort to assure gay and lesbian people that entering the church will not mean the suppression of their longings and loves. It will, Tushnet promises, mean that those loves will be changed, reshaped, or reconfigured. But it won’t mean that they’ll simply be erased. Borrowing the historic language of vocations, she speaks of “figuring out how God is calling me to love and then pouring myself out into that love.” If gay people fear that becoming a Christian equals a one-way ticket to lifelong loneliness, Tushnet’s book is one long argument to the contrary.
The book has an uncluttered structure. Following several chapters that narrate her upbringing, including her coming out at age 13, her days as a student activist, and her eventual conversion to Catholicism while an undergraduate at Yale, Tushnet simply examines several possible ways that gay Catholics may give and receive love while remaining faithful to traditional Christian sexual ethics. There’s a chapter on friendship—not the anemic variety we now associate with Facebook verbs (“friending” and “unfriending”), but the vowed, lifelong kind associated with the church fathers and saints like Francis of Assisi and Clare, his spiritual sister. There are chapters on intentional community and parish life. There are explorations of service (Tushnet herself volunteers at a crisis pregnancy center, where she speaks of how her “connection to other women does have an adoring and erotic component, and [how she] wanted to find a way to express that connection through works of mercy”). And there are discussions of possible roadblocks gay Catholics may encounter in their search for loving community.
This book articulates, better than anything I’ve been able to find, the real yearnings, fears, and questions of gay Catholics (and other traditionalist Christians). But more than that, it also portrays, in vivid and personal terms, the hope of the church—the hope of the gospel that speaks to those desires and fears and beckons us on, to a brighter future in the household of God. I recommend it wholeheartedly, without reservation, as the best book of its kind.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a forthcoming book, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Brazos).