What Good Does a Good Need?

Catholics ask: can two gay men hold hands?

I was recently trying to work through the Church’s teaching on homosexuality with a few friends. A classic example (or test case) among my peers came up: two gay men holding hands. [1] They presented a common concern among many Catholics:

“When two people of the opposite sex in a romantic relationship hold hands, the handholding is directed towards marriage; the holding of hands has the conjugal relationship as its ultimate ‘end.’ But what’s the ‘end’ for two men holding hands?” [2]

Teleological concerns commonly arise in this post-Aeterni Patris age, where Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy swirl around the modern orthodox Catholic mind. Catholics today worry about “natural law” and the “ends” of things. But I worry whether an over-concern with “ends” might act more as an obscuring distraction, rather than a clarifying guide. The modern concern with teleology constantly brings us out of the current moment and leads us into an endless syllogism, where the ultimate point of something is always something else. And apologists insist upon a discrete line of conceptual events leading to a clear spiritualized union with God. But this isn’t how life works.

I’m mindful of a lecture I watch at least once a year, in which a college professor considers something naive about certain versions of Thomistic-Aristotelianism. He worries that we become so concerned with the “ends” of sex, for example, that we forget that the thing is good in itself. We shouldn’t need, he argues, some justification that we have formulated and articulate constantly in order to engage in it, as if we expect married couples to tell each other in the marital embrace: “I am affirming the procreative and unitive aspects of this act!” Or, if they don’t say it during, we’d expect them to at least be considering it before and after. And we’d expect them to experience some degree of guilt if they don’t.

“Teleological” obsession brings about a world where no thing has its own justification, a world where all are guilty until proven innocent by syllogism. And this world, I propose, is ultimately unbearable. In it we cannot act, because we are drawn into a circular esotericism, leading ultimately to a paralyzing nihilism and a self-conscious psychosis. Darkness waits for those who forbid goods because they cannot see goods.

So, absent a clear prohibition, I embrace a friend.

When I embrace a friend, what justification do I need, other than the act itself? The intimacy of the embrace is itself good, and I don’t need to convince myself or anyone else of some “ultimate end” before I can do a good. The thing would be good, regardless of any such thoughts. It is good to embrace a friend simply because it is good to embrace a friend, and regardless of whether I think it good to embrace a friend.

Yes, the thought may help. But it’s certainly not necessary. And it may hinder my love for my friend, when I creep him out by whispering into his ear as I hold him, “I am affirming your ultimate good of which I am mindful in this very moment and continue to be mindful until we let go of each other.”

Now, we may decide that it’s not good for two gay men to hold hands. But just because we haven’t concocted some other ultimate good for which they hold hands, it doesn’t follow that the act is bad. Sometimes I just hold your hand because I love you, and I love you because I hold your hand. It’s good to embrace you simply because it’s good to embrace you. And I don’t need any more than that.


[1] Some of my readers may struggle to understand why it matters whether two gay men can hold hands. I certainly don’t dismiss Catholics with whom I disagree. In general, I think it’s important for people to hold strong principled views, even views which may differ from mine. And as a Catholic, I think it’s important to recognize that there are diverse views on what same-sex desire is and how it should be treated. I believe it’s reasonable for Catholics to come to different answers to the question: does Catholic teaching permit two gay men to hold hands (even if I believe, ultimately, that one view is more in accord with Catholic theology and tradition than the other — I’d associate one with what I’ve called the pathological [Freudian, psychological] view of homosexuality, the other with the teleological [Thomistic, philosophical] view)?

[2] They mean “end” in the philosophical (teleological) sense, in the sense of ultimate purpose or reason for which something exists. So the “end” (telos) of a chair is to be sat upon, and it’s a misuse of the chair to use it contrary to its end, by beating someone with it, for example.

This post generated a discussion among some of my Catholic friends. You can read it here.

More on Catholicism and homosexuality here.

Additional thoughts…

Some gay Catholics feel that their friends will condone no part of their romantic lives until every part is, each and individually, proven “good” by theological discourse. But most gay people simply live ordinary lives and don’t have time to get a Ph.D. in theology (nor should they). And even when they do engage in theological study and try to explain how their thoughts and actions might cohere with historic Christianity, they are sometimes dismissed, accused of engaging in these pursuits simply to “justify” themselves. It’s a lose-lose situation: “Explain this to me, but if you explain it to me I’ll dismiss it as mere ‘justification.'” It’s an impossible situation, and one I’m no longer interested in.

But I’ll keep writing. I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to seriously study ancient philosophy, medieval theology, and the contemporary Church. As a gay Catholic, I’ve needed a broad arsenal of tools to defend myself against what can feel like abuses of neo-Thomism (in contrast to what I perceive to be a much broader, more complex, and more questioning form of discourse conducted by Thomas).

Not all gay Catholics have the opportunity to engage in extended study in order to protect themselves from the bad advice given by their earnest peers who have skimmed the Theology of the Body and perhaps taken a college course on Aquinas. This post is for those gay Catholics. I consider it a sort of apologetics that I hope will one day be irrelevant.

This writing cannot be my life, and it can’t be yours. If I made it my purpose to convince all Catholics that my way of life is acceptable, I wouldn’t have time to actually live my life. My advice to gay Catholics: find friends who both accept and challenge you (in that order). Leave the rest to their own devices.

4 comments on “What Good Does a Good Need?

  1. Sally McEachen

    You may be interested to learn that in Korean culture, both men and women often hold hands with their friends. It’s an act of friendship. I think in that society nobody would think it ‘gay’ to be holding hands. It’s just two men holding hands. It doesn’t mean they are necessarily more tolerant of homosexuality, but within the culture, holding hands is most definitely seen as good. I think in the West, it’s a cultural thing that men do not hold hands.

    When I was at university and dating, we tried to justify how far we could go. Too far, I think now. We spent too much time justifying what we were doing and insufficient (or no) time examining where it was leading us. We looked at it from the wrong angle. If we’d had a firmer foundation in theology of the body, it would have made a difference to our happiness, I think. We might still be where we are now (married with 4 kids) but the road might have been smoother. Still, God is working out our salvation.

    One last point (as that seems to be the order of the day) … is teleological obsession that thing where I comment my opinion in a Catholic forum and someone picks apart what I’ve said until I’m no longer a Catholic? It’s rather common, and I’ve probably done it myself in the past. Thanks for giving it a name!


  2. Pingback: Catholics Discuss: Can Gay Catholics Hold Hands? – A Blog by Chris Damian

  3. This is an amazing post – I’ve thought quite a bit about this as a gay Episcopalian. Very thoughtful and helpful. Thank you!


  4. Pingback: Why Christian apologists give such bad advice – Chris Damian

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