Inga Leonova, in her article of the same name for Public Orthodoxy, describes what she calls “the paradigm of compassionate denial.” She offers this quote as an example of the traditionalist position in the social media culture war: “My heart breaks for people in the Church who struggle with same-sex attraction, and we should counsel them and offer them support with love in their ascetic endeavor to carry the cross of chastity.” It soon becomes apparent, when reading this article, that Ms. Leonova does not believe this position to be compassionate at all. Unfortunately, while critiquing this position, she engages in a host of logical fallacies and faulty assumptions, resulting in an argument that does not hold up under an even mildly rigorous reading. My post here is a response to this argument.
Leonova first states this position is a “comfortable alternative” to what she calls the “toxic hatred” against gay people propagated by some people engaged in the culture wars. She says, “It allows the satisfaction of feeling loving and accepting while at the same time remaining within the comfortable confines of an officially prescribed position: we are fully accepting of our homosexual brothers and sisters as long as they satisfy the requirement to forsake their need for human companionship.” She does not tell us whether people hold this view because it makes them comfortable, or if that is just a side effect. I would note this position, in fact, makes a lot of people who hold it quite uncomfortable. A priest friend echoes what I am sure is the view of many faithful Orthodox when he said to me, “I wish the Church had a different position. I wish I thought it could have a different position.” He is not faithful to church teaching because it makes him feel good about himself. He holds to it, and teaches it, because he thinks it is true. He does this in the face of a culture that would reward him soundly for believing otherwise, and threatens him with ostracism for not doing so. Whatever emotional payoff exists for holding to the “compassionate denial” position is heavily outweighed by knowing you are likely to be thought of, and called, a bigot by the larger society, the exception perhaps being the sometimes cold comfort one feels when one has the integrity to follow what one considers to be true, regardless of consequences.
Leonova dismisses 2,000 years of consistent church teaching as “an officially prescribed position,” as if it is a line in a HR handbook banning some incidental practice from ages past, only persisting due to the lack of an observant and compassionate editor. More seriously, she then completely misrepresents the position of faithful Orthodox, accusing them of accepting gay people only if they “forsake their need for human companionship.” I am not sure what she means by “accept.” Acknowledge they exist? Love them as human beings of infinite dignity and worth? Welcome them into the Church along with the rest of us sinners struggling for salvation? That is what the Church tells us to do. Who is asking gay Orthodox to give up their need for human companionship? This line of reasoning only holds if you equate human companionship with sexual activity, which is an odd view indeed. She calls the position hypocritical when comparing it to heterosexual celibacy since “no one demands of heterosexual Christians to submit to lifelong solitude.” No one in the Church is asking anyone to submit to lifelong solitude. Human companionship and love are basic human needs. Intimacy is a basic need. None of those things equal genital sexual activity, or even the foreplay often leading up to such activity. The Church does indeed say that every person, unless they are married in a monogamous, heterosexual, union, is called to chastity and celibacy. This can be very difficult in our society where we are inundated with sexual imagery, and the expectation is that everyone has sex. If you do not, then you must be lonely, isolated, or weird. There is zero support for chastity and celibacy, which is why the Church must supply that support by intentional community, clear teaching, compassion when people fall, and encouragement. The cruel vagaries of life may lead to a person being isolated and lonely, but that is not the goal, or the necessary end result, of Church teaching on sexual purity. Such isolation would be considered harmful by the Church, which by its very nature draws human beings into intimate communion with one another and God. One wonders what role friendship has in Leonova’s vision of love.
Leonova’s conflation of intimacy with sexual activity (sexual activity therefore being essential for human flourishing), leads to the equating of one’s sexual desires with one’s identity. She gets particularly vehement in this part of her article, asserting that to call gay people to celibacy is to attack their very identity, and doing so out of love (because one thinks Church teaching is true, and therefore good for the person), is actually worse than simply hating and rejecting them. To call gay Orthodox to fidelity is to love them only on our own terms, and rejection would be better. It is obviously a false argument to claim gay people can only be loved in/by the Church if the Church and her members/representatives sanction homosexual genital activity. It assumes what has to be proven, that same sex genital activity is morally permissible and compatible with Christian discipleship. Leonova assumes Church teaching, and those who uphold it, are hateful-even more hateful than hostility and rejection. A counselor (confessor?) advising a gay person to be chaste and celibate is relating to the gay person as defective, according to Leonova, and calling them to deny their own humanity and reject Christian love. The only truth in these statements is the Church recognizes our desires can be disordered. To insist on giving in to them without struggle, to have them affirmed, and to make them our identity is, in the mind of the Church, to deny our authentic humanity and reject authentic love. I am not my passions, those disordered desires and uses of my God-given appetites.
In the next couple of paragraphs, Leonova proceeds to make a couple of modest claims I think are pretty obviously true. It seems correct that sexual orientation probably arises out of a variety of biological, psychological, and environmental factors, and cannot be corrected by mere force of will or by aversion therapy. I doubt any of this is controversial in Orthodox counseling/confessional practices. A long conversation could be had on the nature of “sexual orientation,” given Leonova seems to think it is immutable and central to one’s identity. I would suggest the very idea of “sexual orientation” is open to more analysis than perhaps she wants to give, especially when one looks at the fluidity of desires and behaviors that can be manifested over the course of a lifetime. Anecdotally, I have known men who dated women and then switched to male partners. Later they went back to women, got married, had kids, and tell me they do not find men at all sexually attractive at this point in their lives. Are they gay? Were they gay? Were they bi-sexual if they cannot imagine being sexual with a man at this point in their lives, if they cannot even picture hypothetically finding another man sexually desirable? If you asked them how they define themselves sexually, they would say they are straight. If who you desire sexually is your identity, I’m not sure what label could be assigned. You can see this also in the current tendency among some to define themselves as pansexual. There may be a lot of truth to that. Many (most?) of us may be able to find all sorts of people sexually attractive, given certain circumstances. Perhaps sexual orientation is far too mutable in its manifestations to be an identity.
The next part of the article seems to show some confusion, in that I think it weakens Leonova’s argument in ways she may not realize. She notes, correctly, that science (empirical observation) does not provide theological conclusions. She appeals to St. Basil the Great, encouraging us to believe it doesn’t matter whether people’s relationships are biologically determined, but rather we interpret them in the context of our relationship to God. Science says, “Look.” When we look at the world, we can see humans and other animals engaged in a variety of sexual behaviors. Much of that behavior in the animal kingdom, though not all, is geared towards reproduction. Higher animals reproduce sexually by the union of male and female. Simply looking at the world will tell you these things, but science says nothing about what sexual behavior is moral. Orthodoxy also says, “Look.” Christianity speaks of a Creator, and His creation is a book we can read. “Look,” says St. Paul in Romans. Look and see what the world tells you about the One who created it. But, Christianity does not just say, “Look.” If creation is a book, like all books, it must be interpreted. Christianity interprets the book of nature through the revelation of God in the Old Testament, the New Testament, His people Israel, His people the Church. Orthodoxy also says nature as we experience it is fallen (but not completely corrupt), unnatural in fact, in that much of what we see is not what God intended. Humans do all sorts of things that are “natural” if you mean by that word, “they happen,” but profoundly unnatural if you are looking at God’s original intention and the glorious healing to which Christ’s resurrection has now pointed us. If one cannot determine whether homosexual behavior is moral by whether it is biologically determined (and Leonova admits as much), then on what grounds should the Church change its sexual teachings? How indeed do we interpret our relationships in the context of our relationship to God?
Genesis shows God making a man and a woman, who are made for one another. The history of God’s relationship to Israel is painted as a husband, chasing after his often whorish, but much loved, wife. Christ is the Bridegroom. The Church is His Bride. Reality interpreted through the lens of Christian revelation has a fundamentally binary structure. This does not mean that sexual intercourse, for Christians, is only for reproduction (I’ll address Leonova’s complaint about this momentarily), but the unbroken witness of the Church is that only sex within marriage between one man and one woman is compatible with Christian discipleship. This pattern is necessary to manifest God’s intentions for people in the expression of their sexuality. If we are interpreting our relationships in the context of our relationship with God, it would seem we must look to Scripture, the Church, the Apostolic witness, and the Saints. You will find no interpretive rubric in any of these to justify the blessing of homosexual activity. If science doesn’t tell us what is moral, and the Church is wrong, then where is the rubric to be found? In our subjective experience, it seems. She can appeal to nothing else other than “the witness of many Christian homosexual couples.” It would take a morally obtuse person to deny there is love or virtue to be found in monogamous, committed, Christian, gay couples. Any love, to the extent it is really love, speaks something of God. That does not mean the relationship doesn’t also show forth elements of our fallenness. The fact that some goodness can be found in a relationship does not mean everything about that relationship is redeemed or redeemable. Just because I want to be in a relationship, or take pleasure in it, doesn’t tell me it’s holy in all its parts, even if truly praiseworthy things can be found there. I suspect many saints of the church have had same sex attraction, and have loved people deeply and fervently, while also being obedient to the Church’s understanding of what constitutes the godly parameters of sexual expression. Sexual intercourse is a form of knowing, as Leonova rightly notes. This knowing is like eating, however. Without the blessing of God, and outside of obedience to Him, no matter how good the fruit looks, no matter how pleasant the experience, it does not lead to eternal life.
The final paragraphs in Leonova’s article seem equally confused to me. I do not know who she is quoting, but it is true that the need for intimacy is often the driving force behind much promiscuity. That doesn’t mean that all searches for intimacy outside of marriage lead to promiscuity. All (or much) promiscuity is a search for intimacy. That doesn’t mean all search for intimacy leads to promiscuity. Similarly, some searches for intimacy involve lust. That doesn’t mean all intimacy can be reduced to lust. Intimacy with one’s partner certainly does not have to cancel or diminish one’s intimate relationship with God, but if one’s sexual behavior is sinful, it certainly can do so. Erotic love can be sacred. It can point towards the holy. Erotic behavior can also be degrading, lustful, self-centered, and point one away from God. Christianity does not say erotic love is sinful or dirty. Christianity says the erotic, like everything else in human experience, is subject to the Fall, and in need of healing. Ms. Leonova slanders the Christian tradition in suggesting we have reduced erotic love to “a straitjacket of regimented execution.” The marriage bed is undefiled, but that does not mean just anything goes (even in marriage). It also does not mean we have to lie back and think of England, lest we find ourselves having fun. Orthodox Christianity does not insist sexual intercourse is only for the begetting of children, nor place the theological significance of coupling simply in that begetting. I am sure Leonova has read St. John Chrysostom on marriage. This celibate man praises godly marriage, even without the blessing of children, as a good, righteous, salvific thing, and he is not the only celibate/monastic to do so. Her swipe at monastics is little more than an ad hominem. The question is whether what someone says is true-not the marital status of the person who says it. By her standard, to be consistent, no straight person would be able to comment on homosexual relationships, even if sympathetic to them. She seems to imply monastics cannot know anything about sexuality/marriage, or they are hostile to it. Neither follows from being celibate. Neither is necessarily true. Finally, Orthodox teaching on sexuality is not based on some simple biological determinism. Biology, being a creation of God, can point us in certain directions when we read the world through the revelation of God and the eyes of faith.
Given her straw men, red herrings, and false assumptions (and unnecessary conclusions), one wonders what her “fundamental questions of the holistic nature of human coupling” would be. One of her most glaring errors is accusing Orthodox people of reducing a desire for intimacy to sex (as if straight people don’t believe gay people can actually love one another and think all gay folks only want sex for its own sake), while simultaneously arguing that if gay people are asked to be celibate, they will be condemned to a life of loneliness without hope for intimacy. Someone is equating intimacy with sex, and it isn’t the people striving to be faithful to church teaching. Everyone is called to intimacy. Not everyone can have sex blessed by the Church. The absence of sex doesn’t mean loneliness and isolation by definition, a life bereft of true humanity and happiness. Not everyone can have sex. Everyone is called to sanctity, with the possibility of having their fallen nature healed by communion with God and other people, within his Body, the Church.