Monday, June 13, 2022

Responding to the Desiring God

In 2017, while sitting in the Jardim Munícipio in Panjim and discussing ecclesial and liturgical matters, a priest friend expressed a fairly popular idea. He asked me: “Have you noticed how it is often it is priests who are gay who are overly interested in liturgy?” My response at the time is the seed for the thoughts that I write here, which I believe allow for us to put desire within a Catholic frame.

My first response suggested that to speak about celibates – as priests are required to be – as gay was incorrect. One could possibly refer to these people as having homosexual inclinations, which is perhaps what most people suspect when they link a fascination for liturgy with aberration from a heterosexual norm. However, to confuse this predilection for liturgical beauty with being “gay” would be a categorical mistake. To be gay is to occupy a political position. A political position, which despite its widespread global occurrence, is located in a certain cultural milieu – one which could be described as predominantly white, in particular Anglo-American and Northern European, and segments of the national(ist) elites that articulate with this cultural group across the post-colonial world.

 This is not a novel argument, but has been made by a number of queer activists and academics, among which I could point to Jasbir Puar’s argument in Terrorist Assemblages. The problem that gay culture and politics poses is especially visible to me, a Catholic in an increasingly Hindu majoritarian India. In a recent essay, I have pointed to the subtle, and not-so-subtle ways in which gay politics aligns with Hindu nationalism. As such, I can quite literally see how gay agenda poses a threat to my own life, and the communities I belong to.

I continued to counter my priestly interlocutor by going on to point out that the association of an appreciation of beauty with homosexuality draws upon a recent and modern tradition which has reconstructed masculinity. A tradition that associated men with brute power, and the appreciation of beauty as effeminate. I wasn’t satisfied in simply denying an imposition of a gay identity ; however, I suggested that the sexual frame was one that we were imposing on them. Perhaps, in other times, when the sexual frame was not the primary frame of reference that it is today, similar men would have been understood differently, seen as having gifts, or graces, from God which were being put to good use.

My rationale was, and remains, that our selves are composed of desires that we are unable to interpret, and the hermeneutical framework arrives from outside of us, from society. It is the singular tragedy of our times that our primary frame of reference in contemporary times is, and has been since at least Freud, sexual. Thus, we tend to interpret things sexually, rather than being open to other, particularly transcendental, frames of reference.

I am not unique in feeling this distress with the primarily sexual way of understanding the world. In How Catholic Art Saved the Faith (2018), art historian Elizabeth Lev contests the largely sexual reading that Bernini’s famed sculpture of the ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila has received ever since the Enlightenment: Bernini was not representing an embodied spiritual experience, but sneaking a profane, erotic, work into a sacred space. Lev argues that Bernini was doing was nothing of the sort. Rather, he had offered a “compelling” and “powerful argument for the Catholic experience of divine love” (150).

Lev suggests that the secular world is unable to comprehend this interpretation, because we have lost sight of the spiritual and our relationship with God, in other words, the divine love that God has for us. She argues that, “Teresa’s Face, emulating that of Christ in Michelangelo’s Pietà, is the ultimate image of total self-offering to God, as well as the knowledge, through these moments of ecstasy, that the love is requitted” (150). I would like to work with this idea, that the total self-offering to God is a valid sexual response to the desire that God expresses for us.

Before developing ideas about the love of God, it would be useful to point out that contemporary sexual politics has problems with understanding celibacy as a valid sexuality. In Celibacies, Benjamin Kahan notes how “even champions of sex and advocates of sexual diversity like Alfred Kinsey feel free to denigrate” celibacy as part of a trio of “the great distortions of sex,” including it alongside delayed marriage and asceticism and suggesting celibacy to be a “cultural perversion” (1). Two of these practices, celibacy and ascetism, are not unique to Catholicism, but are typical to it. The hostility towards these practices is not coincidental, but part of a larger culture of anti-Catholicism (13-16) motivated by the threat perceived by Anglo-Protestant middle class national elites of the USA.

The Catholic tradition is redolent of God’s love for humanity. This love is often represented in particularly spousal terms. Indeed, as the first letter of John teaches us, love is not that we love God, but that God loved us first (4:10). In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (2005) Benedict XVI boldly links this love not only to agape, as is often done, but also to eros (9). Calling for an attitude that unites the body and the soul, Benedict XVI suggests that “eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns” (4). This approach provides the possibility of integrating a transcendental framework into our all too immanent frames.

This suggestion is not too different from that offered by St. John of the Cross. In his biography of St John, Peter Tyler, a psychologist concerned with holistic approaches that are not restricted merely to the immanent, points out that “rather than seeing sexuality as separated from spirituality” St. John acknowledges the intimate connection of the two whilst at the same time being able to distinguish their different properties”. Tyler quotes from St. John’s opus, The Dark Night of the Soul in support: “‘Both the spiritual and the sensory part of the soul receive gratification from that refreshment, each part experiences a delight according to its own nature and properties’ (DN 1.4:2)” (90). 

Unlike a Freudian approach where sexuality comes first as the wellspring of many aspects of the personality, including spirituality, Tyler notes that “in [St.] John’s schema we can almost say that sexual desire derives from spiritual desire” (90). St. John highlights that “’it happens frequently so that in a person’s spiritual exercises themselves, without the person being able to avoid it, impure movements will be experienced in the sensory part of the soul, and even sometimes when the spirit is deep in prayer or when receiving the sacraments of Penance or the Eucharist’ (DN 1.4.1)” (91).

St. John suggests that we should not panic in such situations. Rather, he offers an appealing explanation: “As we are full of joy by spiritual delights so… it is inevitable that the bodily passions will be excited too. It is not bad as such, just taking its share according to its mode” (91). In making this argument, Tyler points out, he is quoting Aristotle: “Whatever is received, is received according to the mode the receiver” (91). These challenges, however, are to be subjected to purgation, in St. John’s words, or to the discipline that Benedict XVI refers. The primary principle of this discipline and purgation is that the desires and senses are not bad in themselves, but need to be ordered towards our first principle, God. It is when they are disordered, or directed away from God, that they become concupiscible desires which cause us to push away things for God (89).

It is through this broad context that I investigate the experience of same-sex desire. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that same-sex activity is disordered (CCC § 2357). This is because it teaches that sexual activity must be exercised within the bonds of the sacrament of matrimony, and directed towards confirmation of conjugal love and procreation. This teaching has understandably caused much hurt among those who experience same-sex desire, and have understood this desire within the framework offered by gay politics – a politics which is, as I have indicated above, racially, economically, and geographically marked. However, we need to appreciate that this teaching comes within a context – that of natural law, Thomism, and above all one that is actively transcendental in its imagination of the political – which – once we appreciate the nuances of this context – does offer space for dialogue.

Further, this teaching does not, as I will continue to argue, necessarily turn what manifests as same-sex desire as manifestation of a disordered nature. On the contrary, it could be argued that what is understood as same-sex desire is in fact the result of our inability to understand the movements of our hearts moved towards wholly returning the love of God by living a chaste life directed toward the service of His community. We are unable to understand this desire precisely because of the sexual frame that contemporary society places over us, and the lack of a transcendental framework to guide the stirrings of our hearts. I believe that it would be worth contemplating the idea that a numbers of persons confessing a same-sex attraction are the result of a larger social and personal inability to interpret the call of God to himself. As should be obvious, what I am trying to do here is affirm “queer” sensibilities, while pointing that understanding ourselves, or labeling others, as being gay is not the only option available.

With this argument in place, I would like to suggest that this requires us to broaden Benedict XVI’s understanding of the direction of eros, which he indicates is directed towards marriage (11). It would be more appropriate to indicate that eros directs us towards the sacraments at the service of communion, i.e. the sacraments of matrimony and holy orders. One could argue that the sensibility of homosocial company, even desire for homoaffective intimacy is, in fact, the result of graces granted to enable one to live in a religious community. Communities which have traditionally been, and still are, ordered by gender.

I recognize that there are many who argue that the priest must be heterosexual, i.e. able to feel physical desire for women to be fit for the priesthood (see for example the discussion Why celibacy? reclaiming the fatherhood of the priest 101 – 105). However, I wonder if this response to contemporary sexual politics is not as trapped within the frame of the immanent as sexual politics itself. For example, the arguments of Carter Griffin, the author of Why Celibacy? referred to above, make no reference to grace, but rather seem to smack of an immanentist psychology and cultural politics unmarked by the operation of grace. As Patrick Hannon points out in “Can Gay Men be Priests?”, such a response is not restricted to theological and religious conservatives. On the contrary, he offers examples of persons who position themselves as liberals, a notable example being James Martin SJ, who seem to exclude the possibility that what are experienced as homosexual tendencies may in fact be mistaken readings of our feelings.

What I suggest, however, is that they are not gay, nor are they in fact, homosexual. I am opposing any idea that the sexual desire they may be experiencing is, in fact, a permanent part of their nature at all. I argue that such persons are unable to discern the movements of their heart, and it is being determined for them by a hypersexualised society. I am suggesting that we simply do not know enough, and may be guilty of a mistaken analysis – when looking at this desire as homosexual in the first place.

In conclusion, I would hazard that the issue that was first broached between my friend and I in a public garden in Panjim, is not about merely homosexuals or gay men at all. Rather, the question is a larger one about sexuality itself, a question that impacts all of us. To this extent, we must recognize that what we see as homosexuality and the cause of disorder, is in fact a gift, which urge us to reconceive the world outside of the straightjacketed modern frameworks that have been dominant thus far. As such, I propose that we approach the issue of (sexual) desire with humility, acknowledging that despite our arrogant post-Enlightenment scientism we still simply do not know enough about workings of the human psyche. What we do know, however, because it has been revealed to us, is that God loves us (first) and that He calls us all to Himself. We are all fundamentally attempting to respond to his call. After all, St. Augustine astutely observed so many centuries ago: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

(A version of this text was first published in the blog of the Political Theology Network"

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