There has been a lot of talk lately about all things “gay.”

Andrew Haines’s post for National Coming Out Day—“Coming Out X-Ray”—was widely misinterpreted, resulting in a further post on “Understanding Gay.” Ethika Politika’s Michael Hannon has written a piece for First Things arguing that the concept of sexual orientation is a “nineteenth-century invention,” and that its deconstruction should be part of a larger project of overthrowing our culture’s “obsession with all things sexual.” Meanwhile, Fr. Hugh Barbour has a provocative article in Chronicles Magazine asking whether homosexuals even exist, and proposing—as a response to what he calls the “problem of homosexual identity”—a “promotion of committed friendship as an essential aspect of Christian moral life” and a “broadening of the aesthetic of the human body.” All authors seem united in their belief that “gayness” is a culturally dangerous idea that is ultimately irreconcilable with Catholicism.

It is no secret where I stand in this debate (and given the Holy Father’s recent deployment of gay terminology, it is becoming less and less credible to claim it as an issue of orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy). For most young people, “gay” is simply a word that designates attraction to the same sex. It is not per se morally evaluative of that experience. To a young Christian who finds himself in this situation, scared and confused, “don’t say gay”—whether or not it is intended this way—is heard at best as “don’t talk about this experience,” and at worst as “don’t exist.” Nevertheless, I’m writing less to convince people of a particular view of gayness as to ask that, if we are going to talk about it at all, we talk about it as accurately as possible.

In his recent article for First Things, Hannon disputes the wisdom of the adoption of gay language by Pope Francis, questioning whether the concept of sexual identity can be justified within Catholic discourse when one really examines its history:

In his Histoire de la Sexualité, Michel Foucault argues that homosexuality is a social construct, and one constructed terribly recently at that. “As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes,” he writes, “sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them.” The late-nineteenth century saw this classical view displaced, however, when the sodomite was set up as the bearer of a distinct and pervasive psychological persuasion. “Homosexuality appears as one of the forms of sexuality,” Foucault writes, “when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul.”

To his credit, Hannon admits that the mere fact that “homosexuality is a social construct does not automatically render it evil or necessitate our rejection of it,“ but goes on to offer several reasons why this particular construct is wanting and in need of rejection.

I question, however, whether Hannon has really got his history correct. For Foucault, the psychological discourse of the nineteenth-century marks a decisive moment in the development of the concept of sexual identity, but it is a decisive moment in a broader process. The concept of sexual orientation may only have emerged in its present form during the nineteenth-century, but that form is not a radical mutation. It is in organic continuity with elements of its parent forms.

Though the concept of sexual identity emerged fully at a later date, Foucault argues it had its origin in the explosion of the practice of auricular confession in the early medieval period, a practice that necessitated discourse about sexuality. The development of the moral manuals after the Council of Trent marks another crucial moment in that history, arguably just as decisive as the full emergence of “homosexuality” in the nineteenth-century. Prior to the Council of Trent, confession of sin had focused on detailed explanation of physical acts, whereas the moral manualists focused on the interior act of the will in its choice of a forbidden moral object.

As Foucault points out, an early medieval confession of sexual sin would have focused on intimate details of the external act that would scandalize a modern confessor—“postures assumed, gestures, places touched,” and so on. After Trent, discussion of external action was gradually replaced by greater specificity in discussing internal acts of the will—“thoughts, desires, voluptuous imaginings, delectations,” and so on. This inward turn toward the acting subject as constituted by desire and inclination laid down the conditions without which the development of “sexual identity” would have been impossible. Given the presence of these conditions, however, that development is arguably a natural evolution from—rather than a “displacement” of—previous ideas embedded in the discourse of Christian moral theology. Foucault in fact wrote an entire additional volume to his Histoire de la Sexualité (the manuscript was sadly never published)—“The Confessions of the Flesh”—detailing the origin of the modern concept of the subject in the practice of confession. There was no single “classical view”—as Hannon claims—out of which the nineteenth century view emerged. There was rather a classical tradition that was itself evolving.

The journey from early modern confessional and psychological discourses on sexuality to the discourse of the incipient gay liberation movement in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is an even less dramatic development in the narrative. Early gay liberationists simply co-opted the existing discourse and used it for emancipatory purposes. The fact that the concept of “sexual identity” may have been misused at times, however, is not a proof of its incongruity with Catholicism.

The characterization of sexual orientation as an “invention” that came out of nowhere in the middle of the nineteenth-century serves Hannon’s critique well, but is not, I think, an accurate characterization of the history of that concept as narrated by Foucault. Given the fact that much of the evolutionary history of this concept is arguably embedded in Catholic theological discourse, Hannon may find that he is trying to throw out some very valuable babies with his bathwater. Would we honestly be willing to junk the beautifully-complex theological anthropology of John Paul II to return to an impoverished concept of man’s relation to his acts as merely the relation of a “juridical subject” to its object?

Whereas Hannon understandably confines himself to outlining the problems he sees with the idea of sexual orientation, Fr. Hugh Barbour also attempts to offer ideas for what might fill the vacuum created by throwing away our cultural framework for the understanding of sexuality. Fr. Barbour recommends we look back to the nineteenth century for possible solutions to a problem both he and Hannon think arose in the same century:

The 19th century did see some attempts to see things differently. In his study Uranisme et unisexualité the Catholic convert thinker Marc-André Raffalovich finds 18 different types of behavior in relation to what he calls unisexuality … He severely disapproves of any unnatural acts, but describes some forms of same-sex affect that could be described as noble and virtuous. And he knew his subject, having held a literary and artistic salon frequented by Oscar Wilde, whose social and moral demise he trenchantly describes.  Such studies may be edgy, but they bear examination.


I agree that Raffalovich’s studies of sexuality are worthy of examination, but I am baffled as to why Fr. Barbour sees Raffalovich as buttressing the “don’t say gay” cause, since he seems to be saying something entirely different to Barbour, who is clearly extremely hostile to the language of “homosexual identity” and accuses those of who have accepted it of having a “reprobate sense.”

Raffalovich, on the other hand, thought that (in many cases) homosexuality was innate, and that homosexuals should accept and celebrate their own sexuality as something “natural, springing from nature.” Though he argued that this assertion was confirmed by the science of his day, he ultimately saw it as grounded in Greek philosophy and in the Catholic religion. And he was not afraid to say so, at a time when his opinion was revolutionary.

What Raffalovich meant by homosexuality, however, is not what contemporary Catholic discourse means by the same term. It has nothing to do with lust. Raffalovich sees “inversion” or “uranism” (his preferred terms) as teleologically ordered, not toward sodomy, but toward virginity. He compares the homosexual vocation to the sacrament of marriage. Just as marriage was instituted for “the perpetuation of the race,” the celibate homosexual can benefit the human race by pouring himself wholeheartedly into “an art, a science, a vocation, any kind of ideal.” “Bees and ants have workers who do not reproduce” and yet are vital to the overall health of their race and so, he argues, do humans. Yet the homosexual can only truly be of benefit to the race when he embraces the chaste vocation embedded within his sexuality wholeheartedly. “Great inverts,” he argues, “have never felt guilty about their inversion; it has never prevented them from being themselves, from accomplishing their work on this earth.“ He even audaciously argues that homosexuality is superior to heterosexuality because, whereas heterosexuality is ordered toward physical sex, homosexuality is inherently “spiritual,” ordered toward a love that rises above the flesh. Sodomy, for Raffalovich, far from being the end toward which gay sexuality tends, is a “deviation” from its true telos, a betrayal of a vocation.

Raffalovich is an interesting figure within the history of Catholic sexual thought (albeit an “edgy” one, as Fr. Barbour notes). Yet he is much more celebrated by gay intellectuals as an important figure within queer history. His Uranisme et unisexualité  is viewed as an important contribution to the gay intellectual tradition, and although we can safely assume no secular gay scholar is today likely to subscribe to Raffalovich’s platonic ideal of homosexuality, they can at least recognize in Raffalovich an experience of life similar to their own, an attempt to grapple with the same issues of sexuality, desire, identity, and human fulfillment; and they can applaud him—as queer writer Frederick Roden does—for creating an “out queer space.” Gay scholar Patrick Cardon even lauds Raffalovich as “the first French homosexual militant.”

It is easy to dismiss Raffalovich’s at times overly-romantic and eccentric ideas. I do not outline them here because I agree with all of them. But it is worth noting that while many same-sex attracted people today find it extremely difficult to reconcile their faith with their sexuality, Raffalovich’s philosophy helped him to sustain a sincere commitment to chastity over the course of an entire lifetime. He was not “struggling with same-sex attraction.” At least as far as we can tell, he seems to have been able to integrate his homosexuality, his commitment to chastity, and his religious beliefs in a way that was both spiritually and emotionally fulfilling. He was a deeply religious man—a Third Order Dominican who left most of his estate to the Church—who prayed the breviary daily and assisted at Mass every morning, always attending the Mass of Fr. John Gray, a convert priest who had also been a member of the literary set surrounding Oscar Wilde and is widely thought to have been the model for “Dorian Gray” in Wilde’s famous novel. “Chastity outside the Church,” Raffalovich once said, “is theoretical, negative. The chaste man who is not a Catholic feels impoverished, contracted, while the Catholic is enriched, is nourished by chastity. This is what I know from my own experience.”

And this brings me to the question in the title: When gayness is dismissed as a useless and immoral construct that contradicts the Faith, whose gayness are we talking about? When accepting the existence of homosexuality is viewed as part of a “reprobate sense,” which homosexuality is being referred to? The “don’t say gay” crowd can try to claim that Raffalovich wasn’t gay, but this is not an argument. It is a coup d'état. By what authority does someone who consciously situates himself outside the tradition of discourse by which the gay community is constituted claim the right to define the “essence” of gayness, and then make all sorts of arbitrary decisions about what fits his arbitrary definition? Hannon claims that homosexuality is “distinguished essentially by a set of genital sexual desires,” which would obviously exclude Raffalovich from gayness discourse. But while Hannon would be right if he is merely intending to say that modern gays think about their sexuality in much more libidinous terms than Raffalovich did, it is these same gays (at least the thinking ones) who claim Raffalovich as "one of us," as one whose self-identification is in an “essential” continuity with their own. The attempt to define gayness solely by genital attraction, without any regard for its romantic or affective dimensions—and then claim that gays are trapped inside an identity that has in fact been imposed upon them from without—is not simply an exegesis of the alleged universal meaning of "gayness." It is an attempt to shoehorn people into a pre-packaged category.

In an article for First Things some time ago, I distinguished between “homosexuality” as defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church—that is, an inclination to disordered sexual actions with same-sex partners—and “same-sex eros” or homoeroticism. Eros cannot be reduced to the desire for coitus, and neither can homoeroticism be reduced to the inclination to sodomy. The fact that the erotic impulse generally manifests itself in the desire for physical sex does not mean the sphere of the erotic can be reduced to, identified with, or collapsed into, the genitally sexual.

The erotic drive can be viewed on a much more basic level, as matter that can be channeled in various ways—some chaste, some not—in the same way that a basic drive like "aggression" can be channeled in ways that are moral and productive, or in ways that are immoral and destructive, but is not, per se, ordered toward any particular end. A man with an aggressive character might become a violent brawler and wife-beater, or he might become a great political campaigner against social injustice. It is not that the campaigner really  wants to just go out and beat people, and is repressing the desire or covering it up with aggressive political activism. Neither is it the case that the desire to beat people up is displaced onto political activism, as if the inclination to violence is somehow psychologically prior and needs to be redirected to a good end. “Aggression” in and of itself has no end prior to its construction. The activist impulse and the wife-beating impulse are two separate constructions of the basic matter of the aggressive drive. Similarly, homoeroticism can be “constructed” variously. Contemporary sex-saturated mainstream gay culture is certainly one construction of that, but so is the platonic homosexual ideal of Raffalovich, or the “homoerotic asceticism” of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The question is not whether homoeroticism is good or bad, but which social constructions of this desire ought to be encouraged, and which discouraged, for those in whom this drive presents itself strongly.

Social constructions only occur as a result of participation within particular societies and communities, however. I commend Michael Hannon for his concern for young people today who “find themselves agonizing over their sexual identity,” a concern which I share and with which I can resonate personally. But if the entire discourse of gayness is thrown away, then out of the window goes any attempt to point out men like Hopkins and Raffalovich as models that young same-sex attracted Christian men—who may find themselves being slowly dragged away from the faith by the seductions of mainstream gay culture—can relate to who show them not only that it is possible to be queer and Christian, but, more importantly, how to go about doing it.

History always involves a certain amount of anachronism, of reading the past in light of the present, precisely because history is something constructed in the present. Despite professing to be an attempt to raise our level of moral virtue (and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of this profession), the “don’t say gay” claim, applied to history, robs gay people of almost all of the great examples of moral virtue they have. By ripping up our current cultural framework for the understanding of sexuality, we might legitimately claim that men like Hopkins and Raffalovich weren’t really gay at all, but at what cost? Once you’ve redefined faithful, orthodox gay Christians out of existence, and once you’ve erased them from history, the claim that you can’t be gay and a good Christian simply becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The scared, confused Catholic boy, who discovers within himself an attraction to other boys, and whose long hours (even years) of prayer refuse to change that attraction, will look back upon gay history and find there no Hopkins, no Raffalovich, and no Fr. John Gray. He will find nothing but a vacuum, a tabula rasa. He will find no-one, in other words, who shows him that it is possible to be Catholic, same-sex attracted, chaste, and happy.