Homosexuality and Friendship: A Response to Austin Ruse

 They are the New Homophiles and they accept the Church’s teaching that sexual activity can only occur between married men and women. They oppose a redefinition of marriage… They are fine … with living celibate lives. They do not want to stop being gay; they don’t believe they can or even should. They believe God made them gay so they want to be known as gay and they want the Church to accept them on those terms. And they believe being gay is part of God’s plan and vocation for them.

Austin Ruse wrote that in a recent piece for Crisis. He includes me in a group of writers that he creates and names the “New Homophiles.” As Joshua Gonnerman pointed out, Ruse presupposes much more homogeneity than actually exists among this “group.” Although we accept the Church’s teachings, we have subtle nuances in how we approach these issues. Here I speak for myself.

Ruse claims that I don’t believe I can stop being gay. The truth is that I don’t know whether I could stop being gay. Perhaps I could. I’m open to this possibility. But for years I haven’t stopped, and I don’t foresee any changes.

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The question of whether I should want to stop being gay is a different question, largely depending upon the meaning of the word. Ruse writes: “defining and using terms [about sexuality] in this debate is fraught with difficulties.” Rather than using terms such as “homosexual” or “same-sex attracted”, he uses the word “gay,” “out of deference to the good people I am writing about.” He then replaces the word “gay” with the more difficult and less deferent term, “homophile.”

Because of these difficulties, I’ve begun to develop my own taxonomy for these terms, and I’ve started to use them accordingly:

  • Homosexuality: an inclination towards sexual activity with someone of the same sex. Homosexuality is a desire for acts that are intrinsically sinful and, thus, this inclination is intrinsically disordered.
  • Gay: the experience of predominant same-sex-attraction, as opposed to opposite-sex-attraction.
  • Same-sex-attraction: much broader than homosexuality or gay, I’ve used same-sex-attraction (SSA) to indicate a variety of forms of attraction to someone of the same sex, whether a desire for emotional intimacy or a particular appreciation of same-sex beauty. When this attraction is an inclination towards sexual activity or impurity with someone of the same sex, then this is a disordered inclination. SSA, as I have used it, is not itself intrinsically disordered, however. It can be ordered towards a variety of ends, good or bad.

One should note that I am only applying this taxonomy to my own writings and that I do not claim ownership over these terms, their common use, or their development.

Under this scheme, I would say that one should seek to stop being “homosexual” but not necessarily seek to stop being “gay.” This is largely a question of language, however. If “gay” only indicates a desire for impure sexual acts, then one should seek to stop being “gay.” However, neither the broader culture, nor the old homophiles, nor the “New Homophiles,” nor Pope Francis use the word “gay” so narrowly. As I use the word, being “gay” isn’t something that should be stopped; it is something that should be ordered.

Ruse’s piece, however, does not reflect this linguistic nuance when he writes: “Damian says flat out that [John Henry] Newman was gay and that the friendship with Father Ambrose St. John was the fruit of that.”

Perhaps Ruse was referring to a series of posts I wrote a year ago, in which I argued for a broadening of the way in which we discuss “same-sex-attraction.” I discussed Michelangelo’s art and Newman’s intimate friendship with Ambrose St. John. I did say that these men experienced “same-sex-attraction”, but I argued for a broader understanding of this term than the common understanding of the words “homosexual” or “gay.” I wrote, “In broadening the concept of same-sex-attraction, questions about whether the figure [of Newman or Michelangelo] was ‘gay’ become irrelevant, and this broadening may provide an opportunity for the Church to take back these figures (and their sexuality) from secular ‘gay rights’ culture.” Ruse interprets this to mean that I am “flat out” saying Newman was gay. I’m not.

As Joshua Gonnerman points out, Ruse plays the anthropologist in his piece on the “New Homophiles.” Unfortunately, he hasn’t spent enough time with his subjects to get to learn their language. I hope that this piece offers an aid for translation, at least for my own writings. Ruse also states:

[The New Homophiles’] ideal is that you can draw close to someone of the same-sex, love them intimately and intensely, yet never cross the line into sexual activity… But here they are playing with the hottest of fires. Perhaps this is possible for Christ and for saints like Newman but for others it could be a serious problem. This is why married men should avoid intimate friendships with women and why priests should also. This is why married men and priests who form intimate friendships with women often lose their way and ruin their vocations.

One might take note of the almost Gnostic separation between “saints” and “others.” Ruse argues that opposite-sex extramarital intimacy may be possible for saints, but that it is to be avoided by “others”—presumably ordinary people, like me. He almost establishes certain people as a pre-determined class, such that the realm of legitimate human possibilities and relationships for them is broader than ordinary “others”. Such a statement creates a gap between saints and ordinary people, a gap that many saints, such as St. Josemaría Escrivá, sought to diminish. These saints emphasized that all people are called to—and capable of—sanctity.

The gap Ruse risks creating not only de-emphasizes the fact that all people are capable of sanctity. It also dismisses the saints as models for others to follow. Ruse says that what is possible for Christ and the saints is to be avoided by others, and, in doing so, he risks suggesting that Christ and the saints are not models that can be followed, especially by gay Christians.

Many gay Christians don’t need to be convinced of this; they already believe it. They extend Ruse’s emphasis on the near total depravity of man’s sexual desires and believe that their desires make them incapable of either sanctity or human friendship. Ruse is right to point out dangers associated with extramarital intimate friendships. But perhaps he takes this too far.

If one were to follow strict logic (which I don’t often recommend, but will do so here), Ruse limits legitimate intimate friendships to: a husband and wife; two heterosexual men; and two heterosexual women. The idea is that the dangers of sexual attraction are so great that it’s better not to create risks by having intimate friendship with someone you could be attracted to. Combine this with the idea that it is scandalous for someone to have an intimate friendship with a non-spousal member of the opposite sex, and you have the general advice to non-married gay people that they not create intimate friendships in general. I won’t hold Ruse to such a view, but one should note that this is the message many gay Christians are getting, whether intended or not.

Many prominent Catholics push against such an over-preoccupation with the risks and dangers of attraction. Newman himself has placed affection as the foundation of Christian friendship. Consider also a recent article in Scientific American, “Can Men and Women be Friends?”:

With the data clearly indicating that male-female friendship is thriving, perhaps it is time to abandon the old trope that men and women can’t be “just friends.” Yet the idea has persisted for the simple reason that attraction can cause boundaries to blur. Consider, for example, one rare high-profile opposite-sex friendship from the late 1940s, when the young, religious and Southern Flannery O’Connor met the older, Waspy Robert Lowell at a retreat in upstate New York. Lowell brought O’Connor around to literary parties in Manhattan, with his fiancée also in tow. As O’Connor reportedly once wrote to a friend about Lowell, “I feel almost too much about him to be able to get to the heart of it…. He is one of the people I love.”

Flannery O’Connor was surely one of the “hottest of fires” in her day, if only for her flaming personality, but her commitments as a Catholic did not prevent her from loving her engaged friend.

Ruse’s suspicion towards opposite-sex friendship should not be surprising, however. Much of North American Christianity has developed a strong suspicion towards sexuality, drawing heavily on Calvinist and Freudian influences. A sense of total depravity towards man’s sexual nature, combined with an almost determinist view that fallen man’s eros is fundamentally ordered towards sexual impurity, has driven suspicion towards non-marital relationships in which the partners can or do experience attraction towards each other.

This perhaps explains Ruse’s extreme suspicion towards male-female friendship and towards friendship between two people who experience same-sex-attraction. This also seems to me the crux of the sharp contrast between Ruse’s approach to homosexuality and the approach to same-sex-attraction taken by many of the writers at Spiritual Friendship, including myself.

Many of the Spiritual Friendship writers have worked with groups that strongly emphasize the fallenness of man’s sexual desires. Ron Belgau recently pointed out, however, that a communal over-preoccupation with sinfulness can have the unintended effect of normalizing sinfulness.

Thus, the approach we have taken is a more vocation-centered approach. Rather than approaching relationships with man’s fallenness as the starting point, we begin with God’s call to a unique and good way of life, revealed in part by the circumstances in which God places us. In this way, I do accept Ruse’s so-called “gay exceptionalism.” The sexuality of gay people makes them exceptional, in the same way that each person’s individual traits make him or her exceptional—each person has a unique calling from God, and this calling is partly revealed by and lived through our unique circumstances.

Ruse calls this view “at least a little bit narcissistic.” I call it Catholic.

Editor’s note: The photo above depicts a statue of Plato at the Academy of Athens, Greece. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.


  • Christopher Damian

    Christopher Damian received his B.A. in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and is currently pursuing a J.D. and an M.A. in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. He writes as a contributing blogger for Spiritual Friendship and for his own blog at Ideas of a University.

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