The other day we got together with a friend of mine from high school named Andrew*, and his boyfriend, Tom. They moved out of state earlier this year, but a business trip brought him and Tom back through town recently, and we jumped at the chance to go out to dinner with them. This was one of the first times in a long while that we’d had a chance to sit down and talk with them, just the four of us. We caught up on life and work, Andrew and I clicking as well as we always have. I wore waterproof mascara because I knew I’d end up laughing to the point of tears, which, in fact, I did.
Then, when my husband and Tom went to pick up a round of drinks at the bar, Andrew had a question for me.
“So, ” he said, grabbing a tortilla chip from the basket in front of us. “What do you think of gay marriage?”
The last time we hung out, this unspoken topic was not as palpably present as it was now. Even though our gay friends knew that we’d converted to Catholicism, nobody cared enough to bring up potentially controversial issues. But now, the mood in the world around us had changed. Throughout our country the issue of same-sex unions was being debated furiously; it had become a defining issue of our generation, and thus the average person was no longer allowed not to have an opinion about it. It was too weird to sit at the table, two orthodox Catholics and two men in a gay relationship, and not bring it up. We could no longer ignore the storm that raged outside the cloister of our friendship; the doors had blown open, and the rain had come inside.
I shrugged, trying to keep it casual. “I don’t think that same-sex couples getting married is the same thing as traditional marriage, if that’s what you mean.”
Andrew didn’t look surprised, but he seemed annoyed. “I didn’t realize you were a homophobe, ” he said, only barely kidding.
“Oh, yeah, I’m terrified of you. I only hang out with you because you make the best dry martini in the world — but I’m trembling the whole time!”
“How can I hear your statement as anything but anti-gay?”
“I worry about what will happen to our society if everyone starts thinking that marriage is about any two people doing whatever they want. But that has nothing to do with being anti-gay.” I was afraid he was going to incur ocular damage from rolling his eyeballs back into his head so far, so I added, “Want me to explain?”
He folded his arms across his chest. “Sure.”
I immediately regretted my offer, wishing I’d promptly changed the subject to the weather, celebrity gossip, or any other subject inane enough that I could speak intelligently about it. I’m proud of being Catholic, and proud to stand by what the Church teaches. I converted to Catholicism in large part because I think that, through its moral code, it gives all humans a prescription for living a life of peace, in harmony with one another and with our Creator. I could not have converted to a religion that had doctrines that singled out one group of people in an unfair way, since it would seem illogical that an all-loving God would create such a system. But I knew I was going to have a hard time making my case; Andrew and I had such utterly different worldviews, it would be as if I were speaking through a distortion microphone that warps your voice and replaces every other word with random offensive phrases.
Before I could begin, the man and woman next to us caught our attention by gesticulating wildly in an animated conversation. They chatted happily over a shared plate of enchiladas, and each was wearing a wedding ring.
Andrew motioned to them. “You don’t think Tom and I are good enough to have what they have?”
“‘Good enough?’ It’s our insane culture that says that your entire life and personhood and soul are defined by your sexual attractions, not the Catholic Church. The Church articulates boundaries for behavior, not people.”
Andrew was still looking at them. They were in their late 20s, stylishly dressed, with golden summer tans. We could hear some of their conversation, and they seemed to be talking about a recent vacation. “I look at them, and I don’t see how what Tom and I have is all that different.”
“What do you see when you look at that couple? You see two people who really like each other, who decided to get married as a statement of lifelong commitment?”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“You’re imagining that they’re living life out of that Khalil Gibran poem, right?” I asked, referring to the famous verses that were read at a commitment ceremony we’d attended years ago. “The man and the woman each plan to do their own thing for the rest of their lives. There are no obligations on them outside of respecting one another and having fun. Is that about right?”
“Close enough. What is marriage if not a commitment? What else could it be about?” With that statement, Andrew had gotten to the core of the issue. This was the bulging pressure cooker where almost all of our culture’s misunderstanding roiled. I hoped I wouldn’t say anything that made it explode.
I tried for a silly analogy. “Have you ever looked backwards through binoculars?”
“That’s how I see our culture’s understanding of marriage: They’re looking backwards through the binoculars. They’re kind of getting it right, but because they have the thing flipped around, it’s going to entirely distort their view of things.”
Andrew sipped his drink. “How so?”
“Marriage is about new human life. All sexual morality is about new human life. From time immemorial, societies understood that people only respect human life to the extent that they respect the act that creates human life.” But when our culture embraced contraception, I continued, for the first time in human history, the sexual act was severed from its life-giving potential in the societal psyche. People began to feel like they had a right to the pleasure of the sexual act, without having to give a second thought to any new life that might be created. Not surprisingly, this tempted us to dehumanize those inconvenient lives that kept popping up out of the blue, and the destruction of newly conceived life became necessary in order for the “truths” of contraception to be upheld. As Pope Paul VI predicted back in 1968, the idea that we can and should exercise complete control over when new people come into the world could not be contained the realm of pregnancy alone, and an entire “culture of death” erupted as a result.
“Great soliloquy, ” Andrew deadpanned. “So, umm, why is it that you don’t want Tom and I to get married?”
“Because marriage is about new human life. That’s what the binoculars analogy was about: Yes, marriage is about sex. But it’s about sex because sex is how new life is created — and, ultimately, it is an institution ordered toward protection and respect for new people.”
“So if you have a straight friend who’s infertile, you’d tell her she can’t get married either?”
“I said ordered toward. When a man and woman have sex they’re engaging in that sacred act that creates human life, even if none will be created in that particular act. It’s still sacred.”
“Okay, but for fertile couples, that sounds barbaric to say that they have to be trying to have babies all the time. Not everyone is as crazy as you guys.”
“That’s not what Catholics believe. Child spacing is perfectly fine, if done with natural methods. And the reason that natural family planning doesn’t lead to the same kind of cultural insanity as artificial contraception is because it’s a sacrifice-based system.”
“I’m not following. I don’t see why there’s any more sacrifice than with contraception — or, frankly, why it matters.”
I offered a brief overview of how NFP works, trying to avoid scarring Andrew for life with too many details about the signs and symptoms of a woman’s fertile time, and bumbled around to convey why abstaining during fertile periods is fundamentally different than artificially sterilizing the sexual act. “You don’t get to do whatever you want, whenever you want, even as a married heterosexual. All sexual activity must be ordered toward new human life, so there’s no, umm…” If there had been an awkwardness meter on the table, it would have exploded as I tried to elucidate this point without naming specific sexual acts ending in specific ways that aren’t licit in the Catholic worldview. I skipped it and moved on.
“Anyway, ” I continued, “in this view you are constantly having to make sacrifices out of respect for what this act is all about: If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence. Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”
“So you’re saying that gay men should never have sex?”
I hesitated. The way the question was phrased, to answer would make it seem like I see myself as some kind of moral authority. “I’m saying that every human being is called to make sexual sacrifices in the name of respect for human life. So, yeah, that would mean that a gay man would not act on his attractions. And would that be harder for him than for a single Catholic who hasn’t found a spouse, or for a person whose spouse has left him, for a married couple with a medical condition that’s not compatible with pregnancy — even for the average, healthy married couple who abstains regularly to space their kids? Honestly, I think it depends on the people. You’d be surprised at how much everyone sacrifices — not just people with same-sex attraction.”
“Great belief system you have there, ” Andrew said. “Sounds like a barrel of laughs.”
“Andrew, you know me. You know how lazy I am, right?”
“And how weak I am? And how little fortitude I have in any area of life? Remember how I could never meet you guys for brunch because you met at eleven-thirty, and it was just too early to ask me to get up?”
“I have had to make plenty of sacrifices for this concept.” I told him about the DVT, my blood clotting disorder, the never-ending medical bills. “I’m not Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta or anything. A lot of people have it a lot worse than I do — ”
Andrew was laughing at me having used “me” in the same sentence with “Mother Teresa, ” agreeing under his breath that, indeed, I am not Mother Teresa. I ignored him and continued. “Listen. Do you think that I would have gotten myself into a belief system that involves sacrifices if there weren’t a huge payoff?”
“What, does the Pope give you a pot of gold?” Andrew was on a roll.
“Ha, ha, ” I said dryly. “Look, I can’t tell you what it would be like for you or any other gay man to live a chaste life. I have no idea what your sacrifices would be, and would never for a moment dream to tell you that it would be easy. But based on my own small experience, I will say this: When you get your sexuality in line with respect for human life, you get your soul in line with God, who is the Source of human life. And there is more joy there than you could imagine.” I told him about all the priests and nuns and monks who are some of the most joyful people I’ve ever met, pointing out that for thousands of years there have been large segments of society that live awesome lives without sex. I described some of the chaste single people I know who do more good for the world in a day than I do in a year. “Our society has forgotten entirely that it is perfectly possible not to have sex. Not only possible, but can even be a great thing.”
“I need a drink, ” Andrew sighed, craning his neck to see if Tom and my husband were back from the bar.
“You’re not convinced?”
“You mean am I all anti-gay-marriage now after listening to your little speech?” Andrew look to the ceiling, as if appealing to the gods to help me with my ignorance. “Uhh, no.”
I didn’t expect that he would be; it certainly would have made for a weird dinner if Tom had returned from the bar to have Andrew say, “Tom! I just spent five minutes talking with Jennifer, and have decided that our love for one another would be most perfectly expressed in a chaste way! Let’s be celibate!”
“Do you at least believe that when I say that I don’t think gay marriage is a good thing, it’s not coming from a place of homophobia?” I hoped that my face expressed the depth of my concern for our friendship.
He didn’t respond right away. The silence that passed between us was palpable and heavy, as if the culture wars over human sexuality had become a physical thing that stood between us. Finally, a smile spread across his face. “You’re not homophobic. You’re just crazy, and have evidently joined an anti-sex cult!”
I laughed. “Okay. I’ll take that.” I started to make the case that Catholicism is actually quite pro-sex — so much so that it’s the only organization left in the world that demands that we respect it — but it seemed time to let the conversation drop.
The guys returned from the bar, and Andrew and I turned our attention to them. “What were you two talking about?” Tom asked.
Andrew didn’t miss a beat. “Jennifer was just agreeing with me that that shirt makes you look like you got drunk and raided Barbara Walters’ closet, ” he quipped. This prompted a long and loud debate about Tom’s sartorial preferences, which would eventually end in our server announcing over our shouts and howls of laughter that the manager had asked us to please keep it down.
At the end of the evening — way too late, as always — we all exchanged hugs and promised that we’d do this more often. I watched Andrew and Tom walk away, holding hands, and prayed that I hadn’t done a totally terrible job of articulating my beliefs. I hoped that, if nothing else, he understood that there is no contradiction between me being a faithful Catholic and a close friend of his. I have converted to the religion of the crucifix, a belief system that promises joy in exchange for losing it all. Most people don’t want to sign up for that. I get that. I hope they consider it, for their own sake, since their lives would be better if they did — but it doesn’t change how I feel about them if they don’t. As the guys disappeared down the street, I hoped Andrew knew how much I loved him and Tom, and I hoped they still loved me too.
* Andrew and Tom’s names have been changed. Also, to save you from having to read thousands of words of hemming and hawing and talking around the issue, I have condensed our conversation, made both of us sound more articulate than we actually were at the time, and included elements of discussions I’ve had with other gay friends. In other words: This is meant to convey the gist of my recent conversations with dear friends who are gay, and is not meant to be a piece of journalism with precise accuracy as to how every word was spoken.
Oh, and I’ve done my best to express Catholic thought on these issues, but keep in mind that I’m a random woman with an internet connection, not the Pope. If I accidentally wrote anything that disagrees with what he would say, go with him, not me.