A friend recently told me that same-sex dating was bound to “end in either sin or heartbreak.” This view was unsurprising, and I held it for a while myself. But as I’ve explored this question, I’ve become increasingly concerned that it promotes harmful and theologically unsound views of human sexuality.
One View of Sin and Marriage
On the other side of this view, we might say that heterosexual relationships end in either marriage or heartbreak. The homosexual couple faces “sin or heartbreak,” while the heterosexual couple faces “marriage or heartbreak.” One might explain this by arguing that, when it comes to heterosexual couples, marriage provides for the situational alleviation of what is otherwise a sin.
Sin and marriage find a union in common interpretations of 1 Corinthians 7 (and Augustine) which states, “If they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire.” Under a frequent interpretation, the cultivation of sexuality in relationship always leads to sin, unless alleviated simply by the marital relationship. Sexuality always involves some level of sin (in handing oneself over to sexual desire), but marriage provides a space in which such sin can be condoned. Concupiscence can have an object, as long as that object is a spouse. What we experience as temptations to sexual sin outside of marriage become legitimate desire once they are directed towards a spouse within marriage.
Burke on “Remedium Concupiscientiae”
Pope John Paul II writes against this view in Love and Responsibility, but I believe that the canon lawyer and former Judge of the Roman Rota, Cormac Burke, does this more clearly. Burke identifies a widespread view, that the theological term used by Augustine and others, “remedium concupiscentiae,” implies married couples may yield to lust because marriage gives a lawful outlet to sexual concupiscence. Many argue that marriage acts as a “remedy to concupiscence” by providing a space in which yielding to concupiscence is acceptable.
Drawing on Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, and others, Burke argues that this is incorrect. Rather, he writes that love in marriage “stands in need of constant purification,” and we should not forget the importance of asceticism in purifying marital love. Concupiscience “remains a threat to the married as to the single.” After all, “concupiscience is not cured by being satisfied but is rather increased.”
Burke argues against those who use a decontextualized reading of 1 Corinthians 7 and subsequent readings which decontextualize Augustine’s argument that sex in marriage involves venial sin. This reading says that marriage is a “second-class” option for those who lack sexual self-control, and that thus such self-control is unnecessary in marriage. This reading suggests that marriage does not “remedy” lust by curbing it, but by legitimizing it, and Burke identifies this view as the “strongest obstacle to the development of a properly conjugal asceticism or spirituality.” Burke sees in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body a refreshing response to this reading, placing marital intercourse in the context of gift and reminding couples of their call to chastity in the married life.
Whether inside or outside of marriage, man must always work to overcome concupiscence. And lust towards one’s spouse requires remedying, just as lust towards those outside of the marital relationship requires it. Lust is not an essential property of sexual desire, but is the adversary to its proper flourishing. Wherever it may be found, it acts inimical to the Christian life.
Two Views of Sexual Desire, Applied to Dating
Of course, you may be wondering what this all has to do with gay Catholic dating. Here lies the connection: if sexual desire is inseparable from concupiscence, then it makes perfect sense that any engagement of sexual energies with a person not one’s spouse is inherently sinful. Under this view, men and women sexually attracted to each other while dating may try to justify their sinfulness by saying that their desires will eventually lose their sinfulness, once they are married. But those experiencing attractions to the same sex are not permitted such indulgence.
However, if sexual desire always needs healing from concupiscence and can actually find such healing, then it is unnecessarily harmful and simply untrue to condemn a same-sex romantic relationship to “either heartbreak or sin.” Of course, it may lead to either. But it may also lead to remedies similar to what marriage provides, by curbing concupiscent desire to consume and dominate and control another through the realization of another’s goodness and through mutual love, care, and support. If concupiscence acts contrary to love, then any honest pursuit of self-offering will act as a curb to concupiscence and a purification of desire.
Now, you may be asking yourself, “Isn’t he just making this argument to justify the decisions he’s making?” Yes, of course. Well… not just to justify these decisions. I also think this argument is right. But even assuming bad faith, something doesn’t become incorrect simply because it’s a justification. A well-argued argument is still well-argued, even if the intentions behind it are suspect.
True ecstasy moves one by beauty in eros so that one totally hands oneself over to the other in abandonment and happiness. In a shade of “ecstasy,” one hands oneself over to one’s own desires and consumes the other as a conduit for the maximum experience of those desires. In the former, one gives himself over to the other, and in the latter one gives the other over to himself. It is the difference between the mother so moved by love that she cannot but kiss the cheeks of her child over and over, and one so consumed by his own passion that he cannot but rape. But, of course, this is not only the story of sexual desire, but the story of all desire, and the two paths set before every human endeavor.
You can find this post and others like it in my collection of writings, “I Desired You: Volume 2.” Available here.