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Photograph provided by Xavier M. Montecel
Catholic Re-Visions

Queer Visions of Virtue Ethics

Queer Catholics live outside of the Church’s vision of the good life. Let us imagine what queer holiness looks like.

To be a queer Catholic is to experience a kind of moral isolation. The Church to which we belong does not address us as whole persons. We do not recognize ourselves in the sexual ethics of the magisterium or its teachings on gender. Nor does the institutional Church acknowledge the moral wisdom that resides in our experience. God is working in the lives of queer Catholics, kindling holiness among us and drawing us toward fullness of life of Christ. However, when it comes to the lives of its LGBTQ+ members, the Catholic Church still fails to imagine what queer holiness looks like.

This state of affairs is painful, to be sure, but queer people are resilient and creative. Lacking guidance from the Church on what love and justice require in joyful and unapologetically queer lives, we turn to our own sources of insight. We look to our relationships, our communities, our spiritual practices, and our own inspired readings of scripture and tradition. We look to our bodies, our desires, and other territories where we know the Spirit of God is moving but the teaching office of the Church will not look.

Out of this work there emerges a picture of what queer people aspire to as whole persons, called to holiness precisely as we are and helped by the grace of God. This is a picture of queer sanctity that I believe can be enunciated in the language of virtue.

What is a queer virtue ethics? It is an ethics of character that is rooted in the experience of those of us whose being in the world destabilizes social and cultural norms around gender, sex, and sexuality. It is an ethics of the queer moral subject striving toward holiness, stumbling as all human beings do toward a fullness of who we ought to be in Christ. It is an ethics that must emerge if the Church is willing to acknowledge queer people as bearers of divine presence and possibility. My purpose is to help us explore this terrain of queer virtue.

In starting this work, Catholics can look for guidance to some of our Protestant siblings. The Rev. Elizabeth Edman, an Episcopal priest and lesbian woman, has observed that “the facts of queer life unquestionably demand and ethical response,” for queer identity possesses a moral center and queer community makes moral demands (2). To be queer, Edman argues, is the basis for a virtuous aspiration that elides with and enriches the Christian vocation. There is something in the reality of being queer in this world that propels us forward as moral persons.

Edman goes on to assert that queer people are especially suited to living in the tensions that our Christian vocation requires. By virtue of their existence in a world of binaries that their own embodied lives call into question, queer people are skilled at opening up new moral and spiritual possibilities. The boundaries and categories that strangle human flourishing are, from the standpoint of queer experience, not so ultimate as they may seem. Our queerness makes us comfortable with tension, capable of holding contradiction. It relieves us of a tendency to idolize neatness and definition in favor of that ultimacy and transcendence that lives in messiness.

From the standpoint of virtue ethics, which has become a dominant idiom in Catholic moral theology today, Edman is quite right to point to this business of navigating tensions. The moral life, according to a virtue paradigm, is not about following rules but finding precisely the right tension between moral extremes. To grow in virtue is to strike the appropriate balance, to find the mean between too much and too little of a particular quality of character. It is to skillfully embody the good in a way that is appropriate to self and other, and to the circumstances in which one’s life unfolds. This requires deep attention to the particular and a willingness to play with binaries, to invert them, and even to explode them, all in an effort to achieve equilibrium. 

To this last point, I would add two words of caution. First, a queer virtue ethics as described will mean getting beyond the usual impulse in queer theology to simply erase binaries, a priority that is characteristic of the work of many queer scholars, including Patrick Cheng, Marcella Althaus-Reid, and Lisa Isherwood. What I am proposing now is not a programmatic disruption of the status quo simply for the sake of disruption. A political project labeled “queer” whose orthodoxy is deconstruction must not take priority over queer persons themselves, who in their own contexts are striving for growth and struggling for the liberation of themselves and their communities. What I am imagining instead is a process of moral formation, both individual and communal, in which categories are held in dynamic tension. Virtue ethics is about the management of extremes. We take cultural and ethical categories seriously for the wisdom they carry, yet we remain willing to stretch and sometimes to break such categories for the sake of justice.

Given this practice of managing extremes, virtue ethics can also help us to avoid the temptation to idealize queer experience. There is real danger, I think, in turning queerness into a sort of political panacea that substitutes itself for living, breathing queer people. The idea of virtue reminds us that what matters morally is not the ideal but the person who is always on the way. Queer people, like all people, are imperfect. We do not possess all the answers. We cannot be expected to embody love and justice flawlessly, or “queerness” for that matter. We are simply human beings, struggling against sin and striving for holiness, and along the way we have learned something unique that is worth sharing.

A second word of caution: queer virtue ethics must not make the mistake of homogenizing or idealizing queer experience. LGBTQ+ people do not all share the same experience of themselves, the world, the Church, or God. It would do violence especially to those among us who are most vulnerable and overlooked to suppose otherwise. “Queerness” can quickly come to stand in for the experience and ideals of white gay men and obscure the wisdom and endurance of others: people of color, people living in poverty, trans people, gender non-conforming people, bisexual people, intersex people, and so on. Moreover, it is these folks especially who should not bear the burden of an idealized queer identity which demands moral heroism or radical political action from precisely the people who are most at risk, who are simply trying to survive in a heteropatriarchal world.

Virtue ethics is remarkably well-suited to guard against this second set of concerns. The idea of virtue, properly understood, resists homogenization because it resides within the particular. To name a specific a virtue – like courage, for instance – is certainly to make a universal, normative claim. We believe that courage is a trait of character that all human beings, in principle, should aspire toward. However, the meaning of a virtue is neither realized nor even understood except in the particular circumstances of the moral life. The idea of courage is precisely that – an idea or a heuristic – whose content is not filled in until courage is embodied in the character and story of the person who strives for it. To say that courage is the same for me – a phenotypically white, masculine-presenting, gay man with a doctoral degree, writing this essay – as it is for a trans woman of color in a conservative community naming herself truthfully, is almost absurd.

The full meaning of courage is not found in the idea. It is found in the person. It is found in the striving and searching for that virtue which lies at the mean – which through prudence balances the tension just right. As my mentor James Keenan once phrased it, there is a “tailor-made” quality to virtue. It must fit the person and the circumstances like a glove (88).

Perhaps I can offer a brief sketch of a few specific virtues that stand out to me in the light of my experience as a queer Catholic.

Let us begin with hospitality. Many years ago, Nancy Wilson and John Blevins began to explore the virtue of hospitality as emblematic of a distinctively queer way of being. Wilson situated this virtue within a queer sexual ethics and invited readers to imagine bodily hospitality as an affirmation of the essential goodness of sexuality – a reframing of “promiscuity” in light of the risks and possibilities of sharing one’s body. Meanwhile, Blevins sought an account of pastoral hospitality, informed by theoretical and biblical insights, which underscored queer openness to visitation even in light of the risk of potential violence.

My own thinking on queer hospitality emerges from my Catholic ecclesial context. I am what many Catholics and others would consider a walking contradiction: a gay Catholic theologian, and not only that but a moral theologian as well. What I am is a product of radical hospitality. I have welcomed into myself, into my own identity, a Church that often fails to welcome me in return. I have chosen to serve that Church and to accept the risk that comes along with that. In turn, other Catholics have welcomed me. Though not all ecclesial spaces are friendly, many of them are. The rich personal hospitality of my Catholic siblings gives me hope for a broader ecclesial hospitality in the making.

Another virtue to consider is humility. Lisa Fullam has spoken of humility as a “metavirtue” that is required for the development of moral character. In order to advance, one must regard oneself truthfully. One must honestly acknowledge where one has still to grow in order to let moral wisdom in. I would argue that, for queer people, this kind of humility is an expression of hospitality. The willingness of queer people to acknowledge that we need others and to welcome into our hearts a world that often seeks to do us harm is an extraordinary expression of humble hospitality. And it is the condition of possibility for our flourishing.

As we draw toward that horizon of flourishing, other virtues emerge. Let us take James Keenan’s new cardinal virtues – self-care, fidelity, and justice – which he proposes as the heart of the moral life in light of a contemporary relational anthropology. Keenan argues that if we conceive of the virtues less as the perfection of our powers to act and instead as a means of perfecting our ability to be in relationship, then a cluster of key virtues appears. For relating to ourselves, we have self-care. For relating to those who are near to us, we have fidelity. For relating to humanity and creation as a whole, we have justice.

Queer self-care is the virtue that empowers us, in tension and cooperation with hospitality, to avoid subjecting ourselves to needless violence – whether physical, emotional, or spiritual – and when necessary to break those bonds that harm us. For queer Catholics, and for those who have left the Church, it is the virtue that guards our human dignity as members of an institution that often fails to give life and instead deals death. Indeed, self-care is a virtue we cannot do without, given the depth and character of queer suffering, for which the Church shares responsibility. Homelessness, high rates of suicide, poor health outcomes: there are myriad forms of queer suffering which self-care, in cooperation with other virtues like justice, must reckon with.

Queer fidelity, of course, is the virtue that may keep us in the Church, though many of us for legitimate reasons must walk away. It is our habit of faithfulness, not so much to ecclesial institutions or spaces as to the community of faith that sustains us. It calls us to responsibility and to service in the Church, in our families, and in our intimate relationships. To the extent that queer expressions of fidelity challenge and disrupt conventional Catholic notions of this virtue – which usually equate fidelity with sexual exclusivity – the Church will be hesitant and even hostile toward this ethical witness. But if Catholics are serious about building bridges and listening to the stories of queer Catholics, myriad forms of queer fidelity cannot be ignored.

Queer justice is the virtue that strengthens us in the work of building the common good both in Church and society. It demands a vision of the common good that includes us without making us leave any part of ourselves behind. It helps us to hold our institutions, including the Church, accountable. Justice is also the virtue that empowers us to give what we owe to God, and in that regard, it is the animating virtue behind our worship. When queer people worship God, it is a radical act. When we join the eucharistic assembly in raising our gifts to God and in receiving them back as a sacrament of eternal life, it is a radical act. It is an expression of defiance against a religious system that would exclude us. Simply by doing this – by participating in liturgy as joyful, queer selves – we embody extraordinary justice.

I conclude by observing that queer Catholics possess a distinctive kind of faith, hope, and love. These are gifts of God whose value cannot be underestimated. It is surely no easy thing to hold on to one’s faith, to go on hoping in God, or to love the Church as a queer Catholic. For those who do, it is a powerful expression of virtue: a glimpse of holiness which has its origin in God and in Christ whose image we aspire to.

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