Friendship and Exclusivity

In December, I attended the conference “Man, Woman, and the Order of Creation” at the University of St. Thomas. At the conference Father Paul Check, former President of Courage International, gave some remarks on “reaching out in truth and love.” He provided advice based on his studies in moral theology and his work with “same-sex attracted” Catholics.

During the question-and-answer portion of his presentation, Father Check responded to a question on “celibate gay couples” or “celibate gay friendships” [1]. In response, he voiced concerns about such relationships. To summarize his remarks, he voiced concerns over the question of “exclusivity.” Any kind of vow, he said, involves an element of exclusivity. This is the case for marriage, the priesthood, or the religious life. In these, one gives one’s life in a way that precludes giving oneself to others. But, he asked, where would the element of exclusivity be for the same-sex couple? He was concerned, because non-marital relationships, he said, should be characterized by “openness.” In contrast to such openness, he stated that “non-marital vows” would imply a kind of exclusivity that would tend towards a self-enclosed relationship contrary to the Christian understanding of open interpersonal communion.

To begin, I should note that “openness” has been one issue raised in Catholicism about the nature of marriage in a contraceptive age. Christian marriage should be viewed as one which does not enclose itself upon the couple but is characterized by openness, particularly openness to new life in the conjugal union. Nonetheless, some element of exclusivity remains, particularly in conjugal fidelity. The married couple chooses to give to each other their sexual lives exclusively. So some element of exclusivity does exist.

But so too in friendship. One thing you will notice as you begin to take friendship seriously (in contrast to whatever it is the culture at large calls “friendship”) is that serious friendship demands an exclusivity of time and energy. In order to maintain and build up a friendship—or any other relationship—you need to devote time and effort to it regularly. Friendship is a skill and a talent that involves building up and maintaining a muscle, like playing the piano or a sport. It involves a virtue, which involves ongoing work to maintain and build upon a certain excellence.

Most people, I think, don’t take friendships seriously. Their relationships fall under Aristotle’s categories of “utility” or “pleasure.” These can certainly be very good relationships, but they do not fall under the category of “true friendship,” the kind of relationship where you cultivate “another self.” Perhaps the reason why men have so few fulfilling relationships is because the only relationship we see today requiring any virtue—understood primarily as a committed practiced “excellence”—is marriage.

But as soon as you begin to see friendship as an excellence, you begin to understand why Aristotle said true friendship may only be found once in a life, if even then. And you see why Aristotle argues that it’s extremely difficult to be a “true friend” to someone without sharing a home. Friendship requires commitment, and work, and we have limited time with which to work. We must choose how we devote our time. Otherwise, we will live our “friending” like the dilettante artist, jack of all trades and master of none. Under a robust understanding of friendship, you cannot practice it generally. It can only be practiced, and maintained, with specific persons. Friendship is not a thing of a general kind, but a specific activity with a specific person.

So, yes, the culture at large would agree with Father Check that friendship does not involve exclusivity. I’m just not interested in that vision of friendship.

“I do not want to be more narrow than the Church.” -Suzie Andres


More on love and friendship:

– Bl. John Henry Newman, “Love of Relations and Friends

St. Thomas Aquinas, “On Aristotle’s Love and Friendship

– Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics books 9-10

– Cicero, “De Amicitia

– St. Aelred of Rievaulx, “Spiritual Friendship

– Wesley Hill, “Spiritual Friendship


Some additional thoughts on the question of “vows,” by a friend:

Even setting aside the (obviously true) argument that friendship requires an element of exclusivity, Father Check’s fixation on vows as a framework under which to analyze this question strikes me as borderline incoherent.

What is a vow? The Baltimore Catechism defines it in relevant part as a “deliberate promise made to God.” Similarly cross-reference paragraph 1202 of the Catechism, which defines a vow as “a deliberate and free promise made to God… which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion.” If we want to extend the notion of “vow” to include promises made to persons other than God (and frequently in colloquial usage, we do) then that’s fine, but at that point the distinction between “vow” and “promise” becomes extremely thin. And I assume Father Check isn’t opposed to people making promises to one another?

Some religious do make vows properly speaking, but you’ll note that they also frequently take temporary vows, which may or may not be renewed later on. Because this possibility already stands in sharp contrast with marriage “vows” (that allow for absolutely no such flexibility), it should be obvious that we’re already dancing around an unspoken complication. Meanwhile non-religious (“diocesan”) priests do not take vows at all: they simply make promises to fulfill their obligations under canon law. And marriage “vows” are clearly promises made to another person… but not promises that are per se essential to establishing a valid marriage in the first place. Consent establishes marriage, and although it might be required (or even praiseworthy) to manifest that consent by means of verbal promises, it can certainly be done without them: as in fact Eastern Catholic and Orthodox weddings, which Catholics absolutely hold to be valid, establish the marriage covenant without any explicit form of promises or “vows” whatsoever.

All that simply to say: “vows” are emphatically not the right lens through which to analyze vocations in the Church, and trying to do so is foolish. [2]

What do you think?


[1] Personally, I’d more likely just use terms like “same-sex couples” or “committed friendships.” It’s not like we call Catholic spouses “non-contracepting wives” and “procreative husbands.”

[2] Of course, none of this proves that “celibate gay couples” or “celibate gay friendships” are a good idea. These remarks simply raise questions as to the validity of certain critiques of such relationships. I do worry that many Catholics are so committed to condemning same-sex romantic relationships that they’re willing (usually unconsciously) to mischaracterize, overlook, or dismiss large portions of Church teaching and tradition in order to do so. I’ve written before on how preoccupations with distinguishing the “Catholic community” from the “gay community” have led some Catholics (including Father Check) to reject even parts of the Catechism.

2 thoughts on “Friendship and Exclusivity

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