Conjugal Friendship? Works for Me.

Maria Gwyn McDowell at WIT engages vigorously with Giacamo Sanfilippo’s post at Public Orthodoxy, and I agree with a great deal of what she says, particularly the non-remarkableness of a man who is a husband and father finding “ultimate satisfaction” with another man:

Same-sex theorizing rooted in Plato and Aristotle ought to recall that the beautiful satisfaction of male-male relationships (sexual or not) stood in direct contrast to the typically dissatisfying relationships with (supposedly) intellectually and ethically inferior females that were required for societal stability. Tying Aristotle and Plato to David and Jonathan does not help: David was married to multiple women whom he won as trophies and then spurned when they no longer served his purposes. Seriously, his relationship with Bathsheba was not his only problem.

I can see her point that “conjugal friendship” can be read as ambiguous, and will likely be constructed to mean “deeply intimate friendship without sexual congress” by those who are already persuaded that a sexual relationship between two persons of the same gender is and always will be inherently immoral. But given that “conjugal” almost invariably connotes “sexual” in colloquial English, I think it requires a willful refusal to avoid that meaning, similar to the willful insistence that “man” means “human” that plagues the official Vatican translators. And I’m done arguing with those people. (But it’s a good thing that not everyone is. Thank you, Maria!)

Instead, I want to dwell on Sanfelippo’s thesis itself, ignoring the both the language games and the weaknesses of his supporting arguments that Macdowell so ably points out.

To the question, “Can two persons of the same gender ‘have sex’ with each other?” we hear from Holy Tradition a resounding no. Yet if we ask, “Can two persons of the same gender form a bond in which ‘the two become one?’” the scales begin to fall from our eyes.

The reframed question breathes a life-giving word to this Catholic, attuned as I am to the uneasy union of the “relational” and “procreative” ends of marriage in Catholic magisterial teaching, and persuaded as I am that the relational must be constitutive of marriage as procreation obviously cannot be. “Conjugal friendship” beautifully describes the relational telos of marriage to my ears, embracing the possibility of procreation without insisting that it is essential. “Conjugal friendship” might, indeed, equally well describe a faithful same-gender relationship that partakes of the nuptial imagery between God and humanity. What lovely possibilities it opens up.

I realize that I’m plucking the opening of a conversation within Orthodoxy and adapting it to my Catholic context, and I make no claim that my comments apply to the Orthodox context. But I do like it in my own!

For readers who are scandalized by any departure from magisterial teaching on the essential nature of procreative (PIV) sex, I heartily recommend The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, which draws attention to some of the peculiarly narrow concerns of this teaching.

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