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.


On What Our Ancestors Would Think

IMG_2627Anthony Esolen’s recent article at Crisis, “What Would Our Ancestors Think of Us?” is, well, classic Esolen. He starts by comparing modernity to an open sewer, then imagines a conversation between a modern time-traveller and his ancestors, who despair at the state of things in 2016. “How then shall we live?” Esolen imagines them asking.

In an off-key moment, Esolen notes that now “there are far more women in the workplace than ever before,” and that “we have cracked the back of public racism, so that there are no more segregated hotels or restaurants or schools or businesses.”

I assume Esolen includes these observations as concessions to things modernity has gotten right, though the part about women working might be intended as further indictment. There’s certainly no acknowledgment of the fact that these two (pretty important!) developments would shock and appall many of our ancestors.

If the time-traveler were to show his ancestors a photo of a black family in the White House, does Esolen imagine they would congratulate him? Or would their faces darken as one of them asks, again, “How then shall we live?”

And then there’s this:

There is a country road that straggles its way over a mountain nearby. Lovers go there and pull over at a lookout, where they listen to music and engage in what is called ‘necking.’ It never goes beyond that, because most of them are pretty good kids and understand that bearing children is for marriage, and so is the child-making thing. That understanding allows them to be there in the first place. Innocence – even such compromised and sometimes failing innocence as we possess in a healthy culture – makes for freedom. You will have to tell the audience that there is no necking anymore. You will tell them that, as a rule, it is either sex or nothing. For the worst or the weakest among us, then, there is danger and heartbreak and, eventually, the protective callus of nihilism, even the shedding of blood. For the purest among us, and the most responsible, there is loneliness.

Marvel at that, reader. Seriously, re-read it. Of all the Anthony Esolen paragraphs in the world, it may be the Anthony-Esolen-iest.

As with many of Esolen’s points, it’s mostly disconnected from the real world. In the real world, teenagers are less likely to have sex today than they have been at any point in the past twenty five years. And in the real world, plenty of teenagers were engaging in the ‘child-making thing’ at those lovers’ lanes in the 1950s, when teen pregnancy rates were much higher than they are today.

The problem isn’t just that Esolen is wrong–the problem is that Esolen writes like he doesn’t know a single real, live teenager. Teenagers today don’t ‘neck’? Being ‘pretty good’ means a life of loneliness? I’d love to walk Esolen around the school where I work–a school full of good kids–to see if he could maintain those assertions afterward. Just like I’d love for Patrick Deneen to meet my students and still try to say that they’re “perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions.

But the thing is, Esolen does know real, live teenagers. He teaches at a university; he has a family. He just doesn’t know real, live teenagers. You get what I mean? His hatred for modernity completely blinds him to the world around him. Which frequently makes his writing, well, kind of silly.

Which is a shame because his question, What would our ancestors think of us?, is a crucial one. I’ve been listening to an audio version of Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar literary advice columns, on my drive home lately. Last week, I got to the devastating letter written by a man grasping for reasons to go on after losing his 22-year-old son to a drunk driver. “How then shall I live” is a good approximation of the question at the heart of that man’s letter.

Strayed uses her own mother’s death to connect to the man’s grief. “The kindest and most meaningful thing anyone ever says to me,” she says, “is ‘Your mother would be proud of you. Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honored my mother.”

You all know that in the past few years I’ve lost my mother and both grandmothers. I think about them often. Like Strayed, I think about how to be the person they and the generations before them raised me to be.

I think about my great-grandfather, too, whom I never met. Recently on Instagram I shared some letters he wrote, with doodles on the back, to my mom while he was touring Europe. I marvel at his voice, his humor, his knowledge of my mom and her interests. And I try to emulate that. Is my love for my daughter as clear to her as he made his love for my mom?

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So that question, What would my ancestors think of me?, stays at the front of my mind. It guides how I think, how I parent, how I teach.

But remember, Strayed is writing to a man whose life was centered in his kid. For him, she says, the goal is to “be the man [his son] didn’t get to be,” because “to be anything else dishonors him.” In other words, the influence can–it should go both ways. We can’t just ask: What would our ancestors think of us? We also have to ask: What will our children think?

When I make Esolen’s question personal, What would my ancestors think of me?, I don’t see a golden past uniting in a line of moral consensus that breaks down in my mom’s generation (or in mine). Instead, I see major disagreements between every generation. Not rancorous disagreements, but big ones, rifts that touch on the core values of race, religion, sex, gender roles, marriage. And I see that, in many of those disagreements, the elder generation was wrong. My mom’s outspoken opposition to racism upset some of her family’s very traditional southern understandings; my grandmother’s gender non-conformity (she was outdoorsy, tomboyish, independent, and raised my mom on her own) troubled my traditional and status-conscious great-grandmother.

To my ancestors’ credit, in many of those generational rifts, the elders recognized they needed to learn from their children. This happened not because they were weak but because they recognized themselves as fallible, and not because they didn’t care about their moral example but because they knew their moral example included the grace of admitting their errors. “He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,” said Whitman. “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”


Unsurprisingly, Esolen uses LGBT issues as the ultimate measure of how far we’ve fallen. Explain Caitlyn Jenner to your ancestors, he says. Explain gay marriage. The thing is, many of us have done just that. After my sister-in-law’s wedding, my grandmother saw pictures online. “I didn’t know [my sister-in-law] had met a man,” she said when she called. She didn’t, I told her. She married a woman. My grandmother paused, and then replied: “Well, I think that’s lovely.”


At Sojourners: Sex, Barrenness, and the Desert

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Sojourners, a great journal dedicated to “faith in action for social justice,” is running something I wrote a while back on the desert as a metaphor. Here’s how it starts:

Last fall, in the middle of my first attempt at the academic job market, I got invited to a wedding in far west Texas. By “far west Texas” I mean Marathon, in the part of the state known as Big Bend, about a seven-hour drive from my house. It’s a beautiful drive, moving from the Hill Country of central Texas into grasslands that, somewhere between Sonora and Ozona, give way into the desert that leads up into the low mountains of Big Bend. Or at least I find the drive beautiful — another wedding guest complained at the rehearsal dinner that there was nothing to look at on the drive.

To be honest, I didn’t look at much on the way up, either, except my laptop and my phone. I sat in the passenger seat typing job documents the whole way. I think I actually applied to three jobs between Ozona and Fort Stockton. But I had some time to go for a run on Saturday morning, so I laced up my shoes and headed down Avenue D, across 1st street and a pair of train tracks. A quarter-mile later (no suburbs or outskirts in Marathon), I was in the desert.

Joan Didion says we’re “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be” because “otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Well, 17-year-old me isn’t as mad as Didion’s younger self sounds, but he was out there in the desert nonetheless, asking, “Why haven’t you been back here?”

It hit me on that run that it had been almost seventeen years — half my life — since I had been in Big Bend country. Which is strange, because the area held an epic importance to me as a teenager. Which itself is strange because I only visited it twice. I guess those two visits made an impression.

The first came after my freshman year in high school, with my (Episcopal) church youth group. The second was the spring of my senior year, as a part of series of field studies for an ecology course at my (Catholic) high school. That second visit gave me words for what I had sensed but not understood on my first trip. Our teacher showed us that what from our bus windows looked empty and barren was actually teeming with life, and not just any life but the most extraordinary, the heartiest, the strangest and most beautiful plants and animals. We went out into the rocks and saw miracles of color. Bluebonnets twice the normal size. Mountain lions. Century plants. Cactus flowers. We learned that what looked “all the same” from the highway was actually an endless series of micro-climates, that, owing to tiny differences in sunlight, elevation, and temperature, creatures that couldn’t exist in one spot were thriving a hundred yards away. He made it impossible, in other words, for me to see a desert and say there’s nothing to look at.

Read the whole thing here, and definitely check out some of the other great recent posts at Sojourners, like this one on the “irregular” ordinations–forty years ago last week–of four female Episcopal priests.

Not so Fast, Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition!



Today I came across this piece, by the Gospel Coalition’s Joe Carter, arguing that there’s no real demand for gay marriage. Using back-of-the-envelope math, Carter figures that, if LGBT Americans were as interested in marriage as straight Americans, we would expect that before Obergefell there would already have been 2.2 million gay marriages in the US. Instead, he says, there were 170,000. Catholic conservative Patrick Deneen caught Carter’s post and tweeted it, saying, “One might conclude that SSM was really a shrewd effort to eliminate Christianity from American life.”

Now, I don’t know what your facebook feed has looked like over the past few years, but mine has been full of gay marriages. In just the past two weeks, I’ve watched three gay couples celebrate their wedding anniversaries; all of them got married in the months after gay marriage became legal in their home states. My timeline is also full of gay friends preparing for their upcoming weddings, gay couples who recently got married, and straight friends posting pictures of themselves at same-sex weddings. I did a quick tally of my out gay friends on facebook, and found that about half are either married or engaged.

The plural of anecdote isn’t data, though, and it’s possible my friends are exceptional. It’s definitely true that they represent a demographic (educated, youngish) that’s more likely than average to get married (And more likely stay married. And more likely to support SSM. Make of that what you will). Still, it’s hard to believe the discrepancy between my experiences and Carter’s statistics could be that profound. Are my friends that rare?

I didn’t think so, so I checked Carter’s analysis. Surprise, surprise—I found some glaring flaws.

First, Carter uses data that ends in 2013, and presents it as if it came from later. The 170,000 number that Carter says represents the number of gay couples married before Obergefell actually comes from data collected between January and December of 2013. That matters—big time—because with marriage equality, dramatic legal changes happened in a very short time period. And that time period happens to be exactly the gap that Carter is ignoring.

Specifically, at the start of 2013, only nine states and the District of Columbia allowed gay marriage, and three of those (Washington, Maine, and Maryland) had had it for less than a month. And all of those states were clustered in the Northeast, with the exceptions of Iowa and Washington (where SSM started in December of 2012). Several more states gained gay marriage during 2013, but all of those were added in the second half of the year and therefore would not have been fully reflected in the data Carter cites.

So when Carter blithely bases his analysis on the assumption that “any lesbian or gay couple who wanted to get married could have either married in their own state or crossed state lines to get a marriage license”… um, well, no.

In fact, at the start of 2013, a gay couple in Austin would have had to travel 930 miles to get married in Des Moines; a couple in San Francisco would have had to go 800 miles to wed in Seattle; one in LA would have had to go at least 1100 miles. That’s not feasible for lots of couples.

Without that assumption, Carter’s argument falls apart: it turns out the number of gay marriages in 2013 wasn’t low because gays didn’t care about marriage; it was low because most gays in the US couldn’t get married then.

Carter misrepresents the timeline of SSM legalization elsewhere, too. “By that year,” Carter writes of 2014, “35 states allowed same sex marriage.” In fact, at the start of 2014, only 16 states performed legal gay marriages, and seven of those—including the largest, California, had only started in the last half of 2013.

These timeline mix-ups—clear cut, factual mistakes that an honest writer (and I assume Carter is honest) will admit and correct—allow Carter to suggest that, at a time when virtually all LGBT Americans could legally wed, only 340,000 (roughly 4%) had chosen to do so.


But even putting aside Carter’s chronology confusion, his suggestion is problematic because it takes an inappropriate point of comparison for LGBT marriage rates. He writes, “Based on those assumptions (all of which I think are more than plausible), we should expect to see 2.2 million same-sex marriages even before the Supreme Court ruling.”

Carter bases that number, 2.2 million, on the fact that nearly half of all American adults (49.8%) were married. Carter estimates that there are 8.5 million LGBT Americans, divides that by about half, and then pairs that 49.8% off.

But while it’s true that half of Americans are married, very few Americans get married in a given year. See the difference? 159 millions Americans were married in 2014, but all of those Americans didn’t wed in 2014. Some of them tied the knot in 2013, some in 2012, and some twenty, thirty, fifty years ago.

Furthermore, marriage isn’t a right that, when given, you can exercise like free speech. You can’t just walk outside and say, “I’m married!” You have to either a) be in a relationship with someone you want to marry (and not everyone is), or b) find someone you want to marry, build a relationship with them, and convince them to marry you. That takes time. And while we all loved watching couples rush down to the courthouse, the reality is that most people want a wedding, and that takes time to plan. I’ve written about my sister-in-law, for example: marriage became a real possibility for her when SSM was legalized in New York in July of 2011—that was the event that led her wife to propose—but she didn’t actually get married until December of 2012.

It’s absurd to suggest that, if gays were really interested in marriage, 2.2 million of them would have wed by 2013.

A more useful number to keep in mind is 6.8: that’s the number of weddings per 1000 Americans in 2012, the last year for which statistics are available. That means that only about 1.36% (.68% x 2) of Americans got married in 2012.

Let’s take a look, then, at Carter’s predicted SSM numbers keeping that number in mind. Let’s say that marriage became truly feasible for the vast majority of gay couples with its legalization in New York in July of 2011—which, again, is a BIG stretch. Over the next two years, if gay couples were as interested in marriage as straight couples, we would expect about 119,000 couples (238,000 individuals) to have married by July 2013. According to Carter’s estimate, 170,000 couples (340,000 individuals) had.

Now, we would expect the number for gays to be higher (maybe much higher) than that of straights due to pent-up demand. As best we can tell, it was higher. And, of course, some gays have been able to marry since 2004, so that skews things a bit. But, again, it’s simply not the case that marriage was feasible for most gays by 2013. Gays (like my sister-in-law) who married before Windsor faced geographical, financial, and legal barriers that straight couples did not, and they wed without any guarantee that their home states or the federal government would recognize their relationships. Given those facts, the number of couples who went ahead and jumped the broom is, in my opinion, pretty impressive.

The percentage of married LGBT Americans will undoubtedly increase over the coming years. How dramatically? I don’t know. Will it ever equal the 49.8% average of all Americans? Again, I don’t know, but that doesn’t really matter. The fact that some gays might not be interested in marriage is no reason to deny the right to all of them.

What is absolutely clear is this: my friends are not unicorns. My sister-in-law is not a mirage. Nor are they elaborate covers for some sinister secular plot to eliminate Christianity from American life. You can rest easy, Deneen. You’re welcome.

It’s also clear that Carter’s analysis is flawed, as I’m sure he’ll admit when he re-considers the facts

The Church’s Job is NOT to Teach 2 + 2 = 4

When you’ve been arguing with the religious right over gay marriage for a while, you get used to having certain comparisons thrown your way: gay marriage is like calling a circle a square, it’s like calling a tail a leg, calling a cat a dog, yada yada yada.

Here’s another common one: gay marriage is like saying 2 + 2 = 5.

Here’s Anthony Esolen, saying that with Obergefell the Supreme Court “has recently decreed that two and two are five”; here’s Ben Carson making the same analogy a year earlier.

The idea is that the Church, and the wiser elements of society, are supposed to reject that sort of funny math and stand up for the good old square arithmetic that we all learned in grammar school. Rod Dreher lays it out here in an exchange last year with Andrew Sullivan:

We have been over and over and over this, and all the vehemence and foot-stomping in the world will not change basic Christianity on this point, and certainly will not change Roman Catholicism. Two plus two will always equal four in Catholicism.

Dreher, in Dreherian fashion, follows that with a dig at my church: “There is a church that takes Andrew’s line on sex; it’s called the Episcopal Church.” No surprise there.

Now, I’ve got really smart readers, so what follows may not be news to many of you, but I’m not a math guy, and this blew me away when I read it last year in Jordan Ellenberg’s “How Not to Be Wrong” column at Slate. Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, asks, “Is the repeating decimal 0.999… equal to 1?” And he answers yes, it is.

Here’s the reasoning:

Everyone knows that

0.333… = 1/3

Multiply both sides by 3 and you’ll see

0.999… = 3 / 3 = 1

If that doesn’t sway you, try multiplying 0.999… by 10, which is just a matter of moving the decimal point one spot to the right.

10 x (0.999…) = 9.999…

Now subtract the vexing decimal from both sides.

10 x (0.999…) – 1 x (0.999…) = 9.999… – 0.999…..

The left-hand side of the equation is just 9 times (0.999…), because 10 times something minus that something is 9 times the aforementioned thing. And over on the right-hand side, we have managed to cancel out the terrible infinite decimal, and are left with a simple 9. So we end up with

9 x (0.999…) = 9.

If 9 times something is 9, that something just has to be 1—doesn’t it?

Ellenberg ties his answer to a handful of fascinating paradoxes, including Grandi’s series, named after the 18th Century mathematician who argued that, despite appearances, the sum of the series 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 +… equals ½.

Like I said, I this blew my mind. And then, when I read a) that Guido Grandi was a Benedictine monk who tied his findings to the mysteries of creation and b) that divergent series like Grandi’s have been called “the invention of the devil,” my parabolic mind got to work.

Because there is a lesson in there, and I think the lesson is this: the Church’s job is not to teach 2 + 2 = 4. If that’s all she does, then what’s her point? You can learn that counting on the skeletal fingers of Christopher Hitchens’ inanimate corpse.

[Sorry for the image, but it’s the least church-y thing I could come up with.]

The Church’s more important job is to teach how .999…—which never can be 1—is, in fact, 1. The problem is that this is risky work: it opens the Church to a certain type of criticism. Ellenberg notes that this type of thinking might look like relativism; it seems to move away from objective truth. But running that risk is precisely the Church’s job; that’s what makes her indispensable.