In certain Catholic landscapes, an unsettling custom seems to be developing.
Many Catholic writers, pundits, and thinkers are opting to give a thumbs-up to the notion of the “chaste, gay couple,” describing self-identified “gay” couples who have opted to abide by Church teaching prohibiting “homogenital acts.” These observers of such couples are so rightly impressed by the pursuit of “chastity”* that they, unfortunately, wrongly overlook the other vitally important descriptor—“couple.”
By glossing past “couplehood,” the observers are missing the inherent contradiction of saying all at once that someone is gay, chaste, and a couple. The claim is that the only “homosexual inclination” that the Church teaches to be “disordered” is the inclination to homogenital acts; therefore, by agreeing with the Church that such acts ought never be willed, the couple is therefore free to live life happily ever after in blissful, chastely-gay couplehood. Additionally, observers assert that being a “couple” is not wrong because the two men or two women aren’t succumbing to the temptation to act out sexually. Such couples are being referred to as Catholics living life in utter fidelity to Christ and His Church.
Of the many inherent problems with this relative to an authentically Catholic understanding of human nature (which I won’t address here), one basic problem of “category” exists as well—the “chaste, gay couple” represents a specific form of same-sex union, and the Catholic Church makes clear, in its teaching regarding efforts to legalize or recognize same-sex unions, that Catholics are called to oppose them (See “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons”).
At which point the objection is immediately raised: the Church opposes recognition of same-sex unions only because of the immoral sexual behavior in those unions! But that objection cannot stand. Why? Because of the fact that, in the Church’s teaching on marriage, it is the marital union that comes first, then the marital sexual behavior. Similarly, the Church’s objection to same-sex unions runs more deep than the clear objection to the sexual acts. Just because a same-sex “couple” rejects sexual behavior does not automatically mean that their particular version of “same-sex union” can be affirmed. In fact, it can’t be, since it is based on same-sex attraction (it lacks the affective and physical complementarity essential to authentically expressed human sexuality) and it is an attempt to enter into the very kind of “stable union” that the Church understands marriage needs to be even before a couple consummates the marriage.
Catholics with SSA who identify as “couples”—regardless of whether they are engaging in homogenital behaviors—are encroaching on the reality of the “stable union” that forms the basis of marriage and the very meaning of sexuality (sexuality being ordered toward the conjugal love of man and woman). Such couples seek to claim for themselves some of the “heart” of marriage—namely, exclusive fidelity, intended (hopeful) permanence, uniquely mutual aid and support, and cohabitation—that places such a union under the problem-category of “same-sex union” rather than under the rubric of “disinterested friendship.”
Perhaps one way to wrap our heads around this a bit more is to consider the Church’s teaching against fornication as found in its “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1975). It states the necessity for a “stable union” within which physical sexual union needs to take place:
“However firm the intention of those who practice such premature sexual relations may be, the fact remains that these relations cannot ensure, in sincerity and fidelity, the interpersonal relationship between a man and a woman, nor especially can they protect this relationship from whims and caprices. Now it is a stable union that Jesus willed, and He restored its original requirement, beginning with the sexual difference.” [no. VII]
Here again, we are immediately confronted with the realization that this kind of “stable union” is also necessarily complementary, in accord with Jesus’ will. And it’s clear that fornication is itself lacking the “stable union” of marriage, which disqualifies it as a morally virtuous act.
This also raises the question of whether it is true that entering into a “stable union” without due regard for the meaning and possibility of sexual relations is permissible, or not. Is it “sufficient” for an engaged couple to desire mutual aid, exclusive fidelity, permanence, and cohabitation while excluding sexual relations? The Church makes clear that this is also not permitted—marriages must be the kind of “stable unions” that involve a couple’s capability to engage in marital relations and the couple’s willingness to let their marriage find its crowning expression of conjugal love through consummation. A man and woman cannot enter into the “stable union” of marriage if sexual relations are impossible for them.
Now, let’s return to the “chaste, gay couple.” They claim a relationship that is exclusive and hopefully permanent. It is founded at least in part upon non-complementary sexual attraction. Yet, the “couple” is both physically incapable of authentic sexual union and actually desirous of avoiding any temptation to sexually act out. Would it be virtuous to let them claim “couplehood” and affirm their relationship as “partners” in a stable union? Should we just treat this on its own terms and not consider this in relation to the reality of marriage?
I’d assert that we cannot isolate this form of “couplehood” apart from marriage, no more than we can isolate the form of “sexual union” we call fornication apart from marriage, and let the Church “bless” it. Each example, in its own way, lacks the crucial fullness of what the human person is called to in this kind of exclusively faithful and permanent union. Each example is decidedly not marriage. Same-sex unions are, by definition, incomplete unions because they lack the “finality” that is called for in conjugal love—they lack the capacity for authentic consummation in marital relations.
And the underlying truth is that, even when a same-sex couple willingly excludes sexual acting-out from the relationship, all in an effort to claim the “stable union,” it ultimately does not change the moral calculus of that claim to “couplehood.” The claim to couplehood remains incapable of being ordered toward the conjugal love of man and woman—particularly in its consummation—and thus is not in keeping with the good of the human person.
This means that we Catholics have to avoid crossing the line by blessing or affirming same-sex unions of all kinds, including the “chaste, gay couple.” The Church’s pastoral ministry in this arena is to the person, not the couple. It must remain so, for the sake of the common good and the good of the person with same-sex attraction.
And where does this leave the “chaste, gay couple”? It leaves them right where the Catechism left them before, in mentioning the support of disinterested friendships rather than couplehood (Cf. Paragraph 2359). Authentic chastity is going to require battling against every experience of same-sex attraction (not just those desires for homogenital sex), rather than building relationships upon some of those attractions. It’s going to necessitate multiple disinterested friendships rather than pursuit of just one exclusive “union” (which is in fact one way in which such friendships are “disinterested”). It will necessitate abandoning self-identification as a “couple,” too.
And, in doing so, those with same-sex attraction will come alongside every other person on the planet, called as we are in common to the ultimate “stable union”—eternity with God in Heaven.
*[Note: In public discourse the term “chaste”—and even “celibate”—is being used, in my view, a bit ambiguously. I’d assert the more clear term is “continent,” particularly when referring to deliberately choosing not to engage in sexual behavior.]