Plagued by imprecision, Giacamo Sanfilippo’s “Conjugal Friendship” underscores much of what is missing in Christian conversations about same-sex relationships.
Arguing that “Holy Tradition possesses in germinal form everything necessary to articulate, thoughtfully and cautiously, an Orthodox theology and spirituality of what we now call same-sex love” Sanfilippo presents Pavel Florensky‘s friendship with Sergei Troitsky as such an example. Rooted in Aristotle and Plato, David and Jonathan, Christ and John, through monasticism to the rite of brother-making (echoing Boswell here), Sanfilippo argues that the “nuptial language and playfully homo-romantic emblem” with which Florensky describes his relations are “all the more remarkable if we consider that Florensky was a married priest and father of his first child.”
No, no it is not remarkable in the least.
The feminist in me finds this argument bizarrely ignorant of history. That a man might find ultimate satisfaction with another man while also married to a woman and the parent of a child is not remarkable. It is utterly, horribly, typical.
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. Elevating these figures may be popular among gay men, but women, and particularly lesbian women, are not amused.
Sanfillipo’s dismissal of the sexism deeply embedded in some of the relationships he idealizes (they are not merely androcentric as he claims) as “conjugal friendships” is heightened by his central argument: that we ought to replace “same-sex unions” with the theological term “conjugal friendship.” The latter term:
allays any ambiguity concerning the kind of friendship that Florensky [and presumably, we] envisions as an exclusive union between two men, differing from marriage in no way except for procreation. It harks back to the original meaning of the Latin *conjugalis* as co-yoked, of which the Greek equivalent, σύζυγος (syzygos), applies to a range of male partnerships.
No, no it does not allay such ambiguity. It encourages it.
First, from the perspective of 20th-century marriage, these men are not co-yoked, they are idealized intellectual discussion partners who conveniently have someone else to care for their needs. None of the relationships cited indicate a life shared together, one of day-to-day care-taking, decision-making, mutual interest (and boredom), and work that is central to marriage as we understand it (though perhaps monastics are an exception to my exception).
Second, and this directly follows from the first, how exactly do these relationships differ from marriage “in no way except for procreation”? What exactly does that even mean? Is “procreation” here a circumlocution for “having sex”? Is Sanfillipo arguing for same-sex friendships that do not involve sex? If so, how exactly is this a contribution to the conversation?
Technically speaking, two persons of the same sex living together but not having sex are not in any way a problem according to the Orthodox “Holy Tradition” which is Sanfillipo’s framework. However, in reality, celibate couples who also identify as non-heterosexual are run out of traditionalist churches which claim obedience to “Holy Tradition” all the time. Technically, this behavior is also a violation of “Holy Tradition.” But the fear that the faithful might see something good in same-sex relationships means that such relationships must not be seen at all, so “Holy Tradition” gets trumped. But that isn’t actually my point.
The “problem” with same-sex relationships is precisely around the question of sex (by which I mean sexual activity or intimacy, not our biology): Can sexual intimacy between two persons of the same sex and/or gender be a ‘good’?
Sanfillipo avoids the dilemma by suggesting that postmodernity can restore our sight with the more enlightened question: “Can two persons of the same gender form a bond in which ‘the two become one?’” In other words, focus on the “bond” not the sex.
I agree with Sanfillipo that two same-sexed/gendered persons can indeed form a close, intimate bond that shares all the typical characteristic of marriage except sexual intercourse. I also think that such relationships need acknowledgment in a society that bases so many social goods (tax breaks, health insurance) on married relationships.
But the problem that gets us all in a tizzy isn’t the possibility of the bond, but whether sex can enhance that bond even if it is not biologically generative of tiny humans (yes, I do like Grey’s Anatomy). David Dunn is fascinated by the question of whether “sexual desire and pleasure [can] be experienced as a kind of ecstasy in divine eros?” but offers the anemic conclusion that “for Gregory of Nyssa it is a necessary evil while for Augustine sex is a disordered good.” In both cases, sex is never an unmitigated good.
Sarah Coakley has made a strong case that in Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs, sex is not simply a good, it is a good which can lead us to God. Rowan William, in a gracious review of a book whose conclusions are more conservative than his own, tantalizingly reminds us to consider carefully that “there is a case for saying that bodies can ‘generate’ in ways that are not simply about conception and birth. And — to revive a distinction I proposed many years ago — to see something (generative sexual congress) as an interpretative center for making sense of other relationships.”
This is the question that matters: is sexual congress generative of more than simply tiny humans?
Avoiding this question simply gets the conversation nowhere at all. Traditionalists are convinced that the only good of sex is its procreative possibility (a debate which is hardly limited to same-sex questions as the conversations around birth control in the Catholic Church indicate). Progressive orthodox Christians (The small ‘o’ is intentional here; Rod Dreher cannot simply define me out of orthodoxy based on our mutually exclusive views of Christian sexuality) can agree that sex is indeed generative, but that generativity is not simply a function of biological procreation. Generativity is the result of actions which love and nurture one another and all creation.
This possibility of generativity makes Sanfillipo’s brief allusion to Symeon the Theologian all too unfortunate, precisely because Symeon offers an image of same-sex nuptial relations as an image for our relationship with God, surely the most generative relationship we can have.
[These next three paragraphs are shamelessly stolen directly from a paper I gave at AAR in 2015]
Symeon, whose erotic nuptial imagery describing the union between God and humanity scandalized his contemporaries, tells the story of a rebel who after many years finally returns home to his emperor. The emperor is faithful to his many promises of mercy, and joyfully welcomes the rebel home, falling upon his neck with kisses, and orders that a crown, robe and sandals be brought out. At this point, Symeon’s allusion moves away from the Lukan parable:
And this is not the whole tale, but day and night he rejoices and is glad with him, embracing him and kissing his mouth with his own. So much does he love him exceedingly that he is not separated from him even in sleep, but lies together with him embracing him on his bed, and covers him all about with his own cloak, and places his face upon all his members.1
Symeon’s own exegesis of his parable invites his “beloved brothers,” the monastics to whom he is preaching, to “run naked and, approaching Christ the Master, let us fall down and weep before his goodness, so that He … may like the emperor in our story… make us worthy celebrants of the bridal chamber of heaven.”2 What started as a coronation celebration shifts to an extended celebration of joyful, nuptial intimacy.
Sex is precisely one of these actions in which couples engage that generates love, affection, tenderness, intimacy, and trust, all of which go to enriching a relationship which is likely not primarily about sexual intercourse (seriously, what marriage is?) but which includes it as an essential and joyous part of a whole.
I have no idea what Sanfillipo hopes to do with his essay, and comments on Facebook certainly question his motivations and what might be happening between the lines. Self-described traditionalists think this is a covert argument for same-sex unions. Progressive orthodox wonder why he can’t just talk about sex. I sympathize with these comments in large part because I find this a confusing and imprecise contribution that intentionally avoids the difficult reality facing those who prioritize “traditional family values,” which is this: same-sex couples evince in their relationships the very fruits of the Spirit which are the generation of loving relationships, and their sexual activity is as much a part of this generativity as it is for heterosexual couples. If Sanfillipo is trying to offer a way to think about same-sex unions, then I commend my own comment on Public Orthodoxy from a year ago:
… all relationships are loci for theosis, and provides criteria by which Christians can affirm the many relationships in which human persons engage: Does this relationship nourish, ripen, and harvest the fruits of the Spirit? Does it help its members become better lovers of God and neighbor? Is it life-bearing? Different relationships require different practices to encourage fruitfulness. Monastic relationships are shaped by commitments to a particular community, the sharing of all goods in common, and sexual abstinence. Married relations are shaped by fidelity to a single spouse, as well as by supportive commitments to a wide range of family members including but hardly exclusive to children. These two relationships hardly exhaust the relationships through which God works: we are all members of families, ecclesial communities, and societies, as well as residents of particular regions and countries. We are workers, caretakers, friends, and acquaintances. Each of these relationships can be a place in which love bears life.
1: Saint Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses, V 1: The Church and the Last Things: Ethical Discourses 1-3, 10, 14, Popular Patristics Series, vol. 1 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 150-151.
2: Ibid., p. 152.