In the March issue of First Things, Michael Hannon argued for abandoning the language and anthropological framework of what he calls “orientation essentialism”—the tendency to reify and treat as an immutable and discrete fact of one’s existence the subject-pattern of one’s sexual attractions. A few weeks ago, Hannon published a follow-up essay, “Against Obsessive Sexuality,” that clarifies and expands his own pastoral prescriptions in light of the inadequacies—and harms—of sexual-orientation talk.
I largely agree with the arguments advanced in Hannon’s first piece, “Against Heterosexuality,” and have enjoyed his writings on the subject. But his more recent essay misinterprets subtle yet important aspects of the relationships among marriage, friendship, consecrated religious life, and man’s broader relational orientation.
Distinguishing Relational Goods
Hannon’s central argument is twofold: first, that celibate friendship is superior simpliciter to conjugal union, and second, that consecrated religious life provides an ideal context within which celibate Christian friendships thrive. The first prong of this argument is at-odds with Catholic teaching and sound philosophy.
Early in his essay, in response to a critic’s anecdote concerning a youthful experience of attraction to another male, Hannon writes of that critic:
First, he could be recognizing the beauty of the boy and desiring to delight in it. Second, he could be recognizing the goodness of the boy and desiring to move towards it. Both of these are totally appropriate reactions, because it’s true that the boy is both beautiful and good. The moral question we’re left with is how he ought to delight in the boy’s beauty and move towards his good. The end having been determined, what are the proper means for attaining it?
Here Hannon takes up the Platonic doctrine of erotic attraction: recognizing the beauty and goodness of the beloved, the lover is drawn toward union with him. Yet Hannon dresses “union” as a single, univocal end that can be achieved by various means or actions; on this view, unity—the good that informs and guides the decision to seek union—can be realized by various types of joint undertaking.
This is a misleading way of putting things. It obscures the point that unity (or community) is not a unitary end realizable by different means. It comes, rather, in different basic types, each of them specified by the joint good with respect to which its parties pursue common activities that are promoted and protected by shared norms of action. And just as a moral agent’s reason for action—the good intended in so acting—constitutes the nature of the act undertaken, a community is defined as the kind that it is by the good with respect to which persons enter into it. That good will be realized in certain cooperative activities and not others, and call for certain norms not characteristic of other communities.
The good of conjugal union, as Hannon points out, is not a union that two males can realize for themselves as a couple (though they may participate in the good of conjugal union in various other ways: assisting at marriage preparation retreats, praying for married couples worldwide, and so forth). Thus, the more perspicuous moral question for the boy who finds himself drawn to his neighbor is not, “by what means can I realize union with this boy,” but “what kind of union is possible and appropriate for us to enter into?”
Marriage and Friendship: Opposing Relational Goods?
Later in his essay, Hannon cites St. Gregory of Nazianzen’s description of his relationship with St. Basil as a paradigmatic expression of the authenticity and intimacy of “true Christian friendship”:
“We became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper … We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit.”
The shared domestic life of Sts. Basil and Gregory represents here the closeness of their union, and in this respect their friendship "overlaps" with one dimension of conjugal union, namely, shared domestic life. But the sharing of domestic life is intrinsic to conjugal union, as spouses jointly commit their home, finances, and personal resources to the project of rearing and educating the children who crown or complete their union, which is naturally especially apt for family life.
Furthermore, if “true Christian friendship” is summarized well by the phrase, “two bodies with a single spirit”; and if unity in a “single spirit” is understood to be expressed in (a) the sharing of domestic life, and (b) a lifelong transformation and deepening of agapic love, as the cited example suggests; then “true Christian marriage” certainly qualifies as “true Christian friendship,” thus undercutting the first prong of Hannon’s argument.
Commensurating the Incommensurable
“Friendship is a far better thing than marriage anyway,” Hannon tells us. This argument misfires in several ways. Within the natural good of marriage—let alone Christian marriages—spouses very often truly realize, and correspondingly perceive and experience, a deep and agapic union across their spiritual, mental, and emotional dimensions, to say nothing of the bodily union that, when consistent with these other dimensions of union, makes that spousal communion “total,” as John Paul II put it, or comprehensive.
One can’t maintain that “friendship is a far better thing than marriage” without simultaneously affirming either (a) that spouses cannot realize and enjoy authentic friendship, or (b) that a unifying good common to both marital and non-marital friendships (in Hannon’s argument, God) can be realized (more) perfectly, and with fewer distractions, by means of eschewing sexual relations than by extending one’s union along the bodily dimension as well as spiritual, mental, and emotional. The Christian tradition readily rejects (a), and so, I assume, does Hannon. But the Christian tradition properly understood also rejects (b), which Hannon affirms in a dozen separate articulations throughout his essay.
That said, this familial good falls lower in the hierarchy of human goods than the good of Christian friendship. The good proper to Christian friends, that which unites them as friends and that toward which their friendship by its nature inclines, is not just the family but God himself.
Again, one can only hold such a view if (a) one maintains that union with God, functioning here as a unifying good or community-forming-reason, is absent from the marital community, understood either naturally or according to Christian theology; or (b) maintaining that sexual relations necessarily “distract” from or otherwise preclude realization of this highest good. And again, while Christian teaching rejects both propositions, Hannon ardently defends the latter. (While the Church’s theology of marriage and its marriage rites clearly orient it in relation to God and the Kingdom, one could plausibly accept (a) when thinking of marriage understood naturally; but in that case one could just as well equally affirm (a) with respect to natural—i.e., non-Christian—friendship.)
The Divided Heart Thesis, And Why It Is False
About midway through the essay, Hannon introduces a new comparison: between marriage and consecrated life. The first point to observe is that friendship, and even “true Christian friendship,” cannot be conflated with consecrated life. This conflation appears throughout the essay, especially in Hannon’s juxtaposition of Paul’s reference of the “unmarried” with his own assertions concerning consecrated celibacy. Even so, his assertion that the good of Christian marriage is “less good” or “less pure” than that of consecrated celibacy requires a great deal of parsing and careful scrutiny.
Hannon repeats several times that the sexual relations proper to married community enmesh spouses in worldly affairs, secular concerns, and other duties and obligations that make union with God—the object of “true Christian friendship”—less (readily or immediately) attainable. Hannon goes so far as to say that the conjugal union of spouses places “real limitations on [their] beatitude in this life … absorbing [them] in lower things,” constituting “diversions from below.”
Let’s call this view, capable of being expressed in several related ways, the “divided heart” thesis. Despite widespread acceptance in Christian theological circles, the “divided heart” thesis is incompatible with a sound understanding of personal vocation, as Germain Grisez has most persuasively argued (in Chapter 2 of Volume 4 of The Way of the Lord Jesus).
One initial counterargument to the divided heart thesis observes that Christ calls all Christians “to love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Mt 22.37, Mk 12.30, Lk 10.27), to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22.39, Mk 12.31; cf. Lk 10.27). These commandments must be co-realizable. Because Christ never commands the undoable, loving one’s neighbor (including spouse) as oneself must be compatible with loving the Lord God with all one’s heart and with becoming perfect; no “division of heart” in this sense need exist for the married person, or for any other person. And since St. Paul enjoins husbands to love their wives as Christ loves his Church, one who holds that husbands cannot love their wives while still fully loving God—indeed while thereby loving God (furthering and deepening one’s holiness in response to one’s personal vocation)—and attaining perfection must also affirm that Christ as man, in loving the Church, rendered himself incapable of simultaneously loving the Father with his whole human mind, heart, soul, and strength.
The Importance of Personal Vocation
Furthermore, arguments like Hannon’s cannot easily make sense of the Church’s teaching on personal vocation, especially as found in Vatican II and many of John Paul II’s writings. Each Christian can commit himself or herself to a lifelong pursuit of perfect charity by humbly accepting and then faithfully striving to live out a unique, God-given role in building the Kingdom. The baptismal vocation to holiness is common to all Christians, and just as all Christians are called to perfect holiness and perfect charity—those whose personal vocations include marital commitments no less than those whose don’t—the Holy Spirit provides each person the grace needed to carry out the irreplaceable role entrusted to him or her within the providential design of God.
If Hannon is correct that engaging in the act of intercourse “places real limitations on our beatitude in this life,” then those many Christians called by Christ to constitute a “domestic church” are directed by Christ to a lifelong commitment that impedes their ability to realize Christ’s will in their lives: that they seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness first, love the Lord their God with their whole hearts, and become perfect. This is nonsensical. Faithful adherence to Christ’s will for oneself—which, for most Christians, includes marriage—is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for realizing man’s ultimate end, entrance into the eternal Kingdom of God. Further, the involved apostolates to which many religious orders commit themselves, as well as the daily lives of secular priests, similarly involve clergy and religious in activities that impinge on time for contemplative prayer, and so neither can religious life be treated monolithically in this respect.
Still, the consecrated evangelical life is indeed objectively superior to non-consecrated forms in certain respects. The Church has always taught as much. Grisez in The Way of the Lord Jesus identifies these respects as (1) a closer intimacy with the person of Christ, (2) more important benefits to those served by one's state-in-life, and (3) a more perspicuous Christian witness. As “brides of Christ,” consecrated celibates cling to him with their whole selves in a more intimate and lasting manner than do others, since Christ is the perfect spouse and friend, whereas all other spouses and friends are imperfect. The various apostolic services provided by those who forego marriage for the Kingdom’s sake are objectively superior to those services provided by other persons, since celibates through apostolic service build up the entire Body of Christ. Finally, the way of life constitutive of consecrated celibacy—modeled after the lifestyle of Christ himself—shows forth the Church’s holiness more visibly than other vocational states; it images and anticipates the Kingdom in a stark and superiorly signal fashion.
Although St. Paul does teach in 1 Corinthians that the married are beset by cares and worldly affairs, this division is intrinsic to the nature of marriage (indeed to many religious communities as well), and not an impediment to holiness that can (or needs to) be overcome through heroic acts of virtue and prayerfulness. But the “divided heart” thesis makes a stronger claim than this, and it obscures the Christian’s ability to perceive the threefold superiority of consecrated celibate life—and therefore discern a calling either to that state-in-life or to another—correctly.
There are specific respects in which the consecrated celibate life is superior to marriage. But there are other respects in which marriage is superior to apostolic celibacy, such as the procreation and rearing of children and the good of conjugal union itself. Marriage and the celibate life each are oriented toward the Kingdom—man’s ultimate end (Familiaris Consortio 15)—in distinct and complementary ways, as John Paul II often emphasized; each anticipates the Kingdom in its own way, contributing its function to the flourishing of the one Body of Christ as essential members of the whole.
Toward A Sounder Pastoral Outreach
The intrinsic goodness and existential fulfillment evinced in the biblical examples of deep and agapic friendship that Hannon mentions are important and ought to be emphasized. Our culture, I’d argue, is not over-eroticized but over-sexualized. Retrieving the full breadth and potential of erotic loves—understood broadly as existential desires for the various kinds of union that reveal the fundamental dimension of human nature, our relationality—is crucial. Bolstering public institutions that encourage and support non-sexual relationships is perhaps the most effective pastoral effort a Christian can make. But one needn’t denigrate marriage as an inferior calling in order to commence or accomplish this project.
One should not tell the little boy that since he cannot realize conjugal union with another boy, their relational potential for fulfillment is thwarted. But neither should one tell him that their celibate friendship is a “far more intimate and exalted thing” than marriage anyway. Doing so will warp discernment and cloud one’s efforts to discover which forms of distinctly good union the Lord is calling him to realize by presenting as less choiceworthy or less desirable a union to which one may very well be called (as most Christians are to conjugal union.)
Rather than treating distinct unions as being more or less conducive toward contemplative “union with God,” we should stress that holiness begins with accepting and living out the will of God for one’s life. This is the good that friends, spouses, siblings, and religious each and all seek in their Christian relationships: that through growing in holiness, we “grow closer” to God.
Sound Christian pastoral advice will rightly celebrate the worth and ultimate incommensurability of the basic goods of friendship and marriage, as well as a sound theology of personal vocation. By stressing that cultivation of the perfect charity to which the Father calls us consists in wholeheartedly fulfilling our role in building up his Kingdom, not in what that role is, Christians can offer a still more excellent martyria to the human person’s ultimate ends and vocational horizon.