The Pope and James Baldwin’s Joy of Love

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Two big things happened last Friday. There was the obvious one: Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitae, “the Joy of Love,” his exhortation on love, sex, marriage, and the family, and a follow-up to the two-year Synodal process he inaugurated in October of 2014. Maybe you missed the other one: Literary Hub announced that the near-unanimous winner of its “Tournament of Literary Sex Writing” was James Baldwin, for a passage from Giovanni’s Room.

Those might seem unrelated to you. But try reading the end of Baldwin’s passage next to the words of Pope Francis.

First, Baldwin:

I started to move and to make some kind of joke but Joey mumbled something and I put my head down to hear. Joey raised his head as I lowered mine and we kissed, as it were, by accident. Then, for the first time in my life, I was really aware of another person’s body, of another person’s smell. We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love.

Now Francis:

A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to the pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses. In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a ‘pure, unadulterated affirmation’ revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable.

What’s more, Francis writes that sex is “a kind of spontaneity” in which “the human person becomes a gift,” an “interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity,” leading to the kind of joy that is “an expansion of the heart.”

Is there a better illustration of Francis’ vision than Baldwin’s words? For Baldwin, sex is filled with spontaneity, wonder, joy; it’s both spiritual and frankly physical, an occasion for humor and vulnerability. It calls us to something better, even if we usually fall short of that call. In short, it’s an encounter of the most human kind. Exactly as Francis describes it.

Of course, Baldwin’s narrator, David, is remembering an experience with his (male) friend Joey, while Pope Francis dutifully recites the Synod Fathers’ insistence that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plans for marriage and the family.” But Baldwin’s writing echoes the examples of so many of our LGBT friends and neighbors, and, in Amoris Laetitae, Francis tells us that the examples of our friends and neighbors—more than general rules—are what precisely what we should be paying attention to.

It’s pretty easy to see why William Saletan writes that when Catholic teaching on homosexuality collapses, even if that’s centuries from now, “the church will quote passages from ‘Amoris Laetitae’ and documents like it.” Next to examples like Baldwin’s, the Synod Fathers’ words are weak as straw.


Quote for the Day


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From feminist writer Glosswitch, at The New Statesman:

“The casual blending together of what capitalism has destroyed with what feminism has achieved – some semblance of freedom for women, thereby rendering them as unreliable as one’s short-term contract or pension fund – is insidious. The right to control one’s family becomes just another thing added to the list of ‘male certainties now lost’, with scant attention paid to the fact that this is about other people’s needs and certainties, too.”

She was writing about a specific (and horrific) murder case in England, but those lines have come back to me over and over in the past two months, especially as I’ve read all the recent talk from religious writers about the “Benedict Option.” In one sense, I understand the feeling that culture is running (has run) awry, and I get the desire to turn away from parts of modernity–which, whatever it’s proponents say, is what the Benedict Option entails. I read Wendell Berry, too. But we can be smart about our cultural critique–we can make distinctions where they need to made.

Specifically, I’ve been infuriated (that’s the only word for it) to watch those same Benedict Option-ers link feminism and gay marriage to bad things like unbridled consumerism using vague rubrics like “autonomous eroticized individualism.” In fact, feminism is about respecting the autonomy of others, and marriage equality is about making a lifelong gift of self to someone else. Insofar as culture has embraced those things, it has moved away from solipsism and self-centeredness.

As Timothy Kincaid puts it, the corporate world has been giving the finger to anti-gay politicians and organizations recently. Unfortunately, folks like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher are using that as evidence of the wickedness of gay marriage. Corporatism and gay marriage are natural bedfellows, says Deneen, ominously. Which is kind of like suggesting that because Nike supports women’s soccer, women’s soccer must therefore be bad.

And this is not bad:

Ireland & Autonomous Eroticized Individualism

Michael Boyle (who has been killing it lately at his excellent blog) writes that in today’s cultural and religious debates “we are seeing the opening up of a broad and increasingly unbridgeable chasm between two identifiable ‘sides’” who can no longer comprehend each other.” It reminds me of Andrew Sullivan’s characterization of our current state as a “cold civil war.” The reactions to Ireland’s historic vote in favor of gay marriage illustrate his point perfectly. It’s like the right and the left are responding to two separate events.

In the days surrounding the vote, two things captivated me and lots of left-leaning commenters: 1) the demographic breadth (old and young, urban and rural) of the country’s support for the referendum and 2) the “Home to Vote” movement.  Regarding the first, Una Mullally put it most beautifully: “The decency of the Irish people was not limited to the liberal leafy suburbs of Dublin, nor the solidarity from the flats, but that decency came from the cliffs of Donegal, the lakes of Cavan, the farmyards of Kildare, the lanes of Kerry.”

[Am I the only one who hears in that a revision of the last paragraph of Joyce’s “The Dead,” a melting of the snow that was “general all over Ireland”?]

The “Home to Vote” (or #hometovote) phenomenon was no less stirring. The Guardian has a recap here; basically, Irish citizens abroad weren’t allowed to fill out absentee ballots, like we do here in the States—they had to appear in person at their designated polling places. So, in the build-up to the referendum, thousands of Irish ex-pats tracked their return trips home—from Abu Dhabi, from San Francisco, from Bangkok—using the twitter hashtag #hometovote. And they came home in droves. As one tweeter put it, “The #hometovote is like when you’re watching The Hobbit and an army of elves you’d forgotten from earlier in the film arrive over a hill.”

I’ve read reaction after reaction from the Catholic (and “orthodox”) Right to Ireland’s historic vote in favor of gay marriage, and I haven’t seen anyone reckon with either of those two elements of the story. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a single mention of them.

That disappoints me. Because in place of this reckoning, the religious-right-o-sphere has tried to fit Ireland into its preconceived narratives about “Autonomous Eroticized Individualism” or “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” That is, the right sees the Ireland vote as another sign that people are embracing a philosophy of “do what you feel,” that they are moving away from the hard sacrifices that lead to true human flourishing. For them, the vote represents just another example of what Rod Dreher called today the “atomization of human solidarity with the past, with tradition, with each other, and with anything outside of the willed, chosen Self.”

But how do you square that with the phenomenon of (mostly straight) expatriates traveling across continents, at great expense, to vote not for their own rights, but for the rights of others? How do you fit that into the actual message of the “Yes” campaign, which was all about family members, young and old, looking out for each other? How do you fit it with the demographics of the “Yes” vote, which wasn’t carried by young, secularist urbanites but by the whole country, young and old, city-dwellers and farmers, atheists and regular church-goers?

And how do we get people on the right wrestle with these questions?

Four Things on Eating and Drinking




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There’s no cool way to put this: Rachel Hope Cleves is what I want to be when I grow up.

I probably cite her book Charity & Sylvia here too much. I need to start writing about other gay couples in history, so my readers don’t think that Charity and Sylvia represent the onlyevidence out there that gay marriage is not, as Justice Alito put it, “newer than cell phones or the Internet.” But Cleves is already on that: as this Washington Post interview points out, she has a new study out on the history of (not legally recognized) gay marriages in the United States.

Did you know that Cleves also blogs? Not very often, unfortunately. Her “Not So Innocents Abroad” blog is sort of about history, more about food, but also about her family, her travels, and her scholarly life. Cleves writes really, really well; her posts are inviting and honest, sometimes sexy, informed and confiding. She occasionally mentions twentieth-century American food writer M.F.K. Fisher, and that’s probably the best comparison I can make to Cleves’ writing. If you like Fisher, you’ll want to visit.

Here are three representative posts:

Salons of Paris: Then and Now

Love’s Oven is Warm: Baking with Emily Dickinson

Le Rosbif


More good reading: Emily Stimpson has a new blog, called“The Catholic Table.” I’ve enthused over Stimpson’s writing before, and I’ve also disagreed with her culture war positions (and here and here).

But “The Catholic Table” seems like her gracious attempt to step away from those battles and just give her readers pretty words and pictures. Seriously, check it out: the prettiest pictures of food you’ll see on the Internet. Some time ago, Stimpson wrote:

On this Thursday night like all others, I pour my love for my friends into the little feast I prepare for them, in a pale imitation of Christ, who pours his great love for us into the sacred feast of bread and wine, flesh and blood, that he prepares for us.

I give my friends a place to gather and give thanks. I give them a meal. And I hope and pray that as I do, I also give them what God intended them to have at every meal—a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb.

“The Catholic Table” reflects that generosity. It’s also part of her project of bringing John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” out of the bedroom (and into the kitchen). In doing so, Stimpson illustrates why those of us who think that the Theology of the Body needs to be revised to reflect a fuller understanding of the human person can’t just scrap the whole thing. Stimpson says that the Theology of the Body literally saved her life: as a former anorexic, she credits ToTB with helping her come to what she calls a “sacramental” worldview. “The anorexic,” she writes, “looks at the body and doesn’t see a precious, beautiful gift.” But Catholic teachings made that distorted vision impossible to maintain. And that, in turn, changed her relationship with food. “I stopped seeing it as the enemy,” she says, “and started seeing it as a perpetual sign of God’s love for me.”


That “sacramental worldview” is interesting. Jamie Manson suspects it’s what makes Catholics more likely to support marriage equality than the overall population. I agree.

And you all know that I think that a sacramental worldview is exactly what you’ll find in Walker Percy’s writings on bourbon, and in G.K. Chesterton’s writing on beer. Booze is grace for both of those writers.



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But if Percy and Chesterton’s sacramental vision is the same worldview that leads a solid majority of Catholics to support marriage equality, the guys at Whiskey Catholic (remember them?) won’t make that leap. Oh, they like booze, and they like Catholicism, but they’re not willing to extend the possibilities of grace that far.

Last week, blogger “T” wrote about Wesleyan University’s “Open House,” a dorm that advertises itself as a space for gender-queer students. By encouraging alternative sexualities, T argues, Wesleyan is rejecting natural law. Because “natural law” means directing one’s acts to man’s natural ends, and the “obvious fulfillment” of sexual expression, T says, is “the conception of new life.”

Let’s put aside for now the bad reasoning behind the conclusion that *the* human fulfillment of sex is procreation.

T gives us a new twist on St. Augustine’s food analogy, finding irony in the fact that the Open House website also contains a warning that older buildings on campus may contain lead.

“This probably offends a tiny group of fetishists out there who have replaced the post-coital cigarette with a handful of lead paint chips from the windowsill; and they’ll have protected minority status by next semester,” T writes. “I suppose we should be grateful that institutions like Wesleyan haven’t yet lost track of all our natural law inclinations.”

Get it? Having non-procreative sex is like eating paint chips. It’s like willfully ingesting something harmful into your body.

And why would anyone do that? Why would anyone ingest, for example, something that dehydrates you, kills your brain cells, can ruin your liver, and causes tens of thousands of lost lives, wrecked families, and millions of headaches and even more bad decisions every year?

Anyway, after you’ve read T’s post on natural law, scroll down to read Whiskey Catholic’s review of Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey!


[To irony!]

I Get Mail

Anonymous sent the following comments to my tumblr account in response to this post on what some have called “the new homophile” phenomenon. I’m going to leave them here without response because, well, dissertation. If you want to read more on the topic, in the past week or so Aaron Taylor published this piece (mentioned by Anonymous) at, Elizabeth Bruenig reviewed Eve Tushnet’s book Gay and Catholic at The American Conservative, and—on the other side of things—Deacon Jim Russell wrote about chaste gay couples at

NOTE: Anonymous wrote these comments in 7 parts, but part 6 is missing from my inbox.

Here’s what Anonymous wrote:

Good day. I’ve liked some of the things you’ve written, but I want to clarify something. I consider myself one of the Catholic New Homophiles (though not necessarily one who is particularly concerned with avoiding sex more than any other sin; I’m inclined to worry about my anger and laziness first…) and in your post about the “New Homophiles” (not our own term for ourselves, btw) you talked about how the NH crowd allegedly recognizes that relationships without sex are still “sexual”

(Part 2) and this that we’re also giving up a whole type of relationship, etc. But the fact is that while some expect this path of singleness, others of us are in fact in gay romantic partnerships that are either sexually abstinent or at least hold that as ideal. They’re certainly based on romance and attraction, but we’re unlikely to see this as meaning they’re essentially “sexual” in the problematic sense you imply. Rather, we’d be inclined to say that ALL human interactions are sexual in a

(Part 3) a broad sense, but that in the narrower sense what matters is specific acts of lust, which certainly aren’t limited just to physical consummation (it can be thoughts or desires etc) but which IS a narrower category than attraction or infatuation, etc. When affirming the gay identity, we are merely trying to be honest. In the given social constructions, we simply ARE gay, there is no denying it with word-games. However, that does NOT mean accepting society’s framework of “identity”

(Part 4) in general as if admitting we or a relationship is gay or built in some sense on Eros, on attraction to the other person specifically AS a man or woman, specifically IN the aspect of their sex…means that it is somehow inexorably tied to morally problematized acts (anymore than anger or a hot temperament is inexorably tied to murder, etc) See Aaron Taylor’s latest piece: htt p://s piritualfriendship. org/2015/02/ 06/gay-or-nay-a-question-of-identity/

(part 5) the point is, the NH crowd is generally critical of the notion of gay or straight as totalizing identities or “types of people” whose dispositions somehow link all our acts or loves, or even those under the aspect of the homoerotic, as tied up in some way with sex acts. If traditional morality was concerned with vague accusations of relationships being “sexual in nature even if lacking the sex accidentally” there’d be a problem, but we don’t think traditional morals mean that

(part 7) while such a modern construct makes an attempt at integration, we tend to view it with suspicion as artificial and the “totalistic” emotional model of marriage (and thus romance and Eros and “sexuality”) as a late and probably misguided development. That we admit we’re gay IN the current socially constructed framework doesn’t mean we buy the framework anymore than admitting I’m Black means I buy into the construct of Race

Any thoughts, readers?