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Jeremy Bell and John McCaughan: when two men talk marriage

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Jeremy Bell and John McCaughan. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Jeremy Bell and John McCaughan. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Jeremy Bell was in a long term, same-sex relationship and had not yet met his now-friend and co-author John McCaughan when he began, six years ago, to think seriously about the meaning of marriage.

John, on the other hand, had been raised in a traditional Catholic family, but was going through a spiritually gruelling time, some years later, when he began thinking about the issue.

Becoming firm friends, the two Sydney men – Jeremy, a philosopher who converted to Catholicism in 2012, and John, a professional writer – decided to undertake that search together.

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Two Men talk about Marriage, published by Connor Court, is the result, and will be launched at Parramatta Cathedral Hall on 14 July.

Jeremy and John sat down with The Catholic Weekly last week for this exclusive interview.

What prompts two men to sit down and write a book like this together? Were you friends before you wrote it?

JOHN: If anything this book has made us even closer friends. In fact, I met Jeremy before we’d ‘met’. When I was in Year 11, I attended a play that he was directing.

I also saw him on TV, on the Guinness Book of Records, during a segment about the highest note ever sung by a male. Jeremy has got perfect pitch. So, they brought him in to verify the note.

When I met him it wasn’t instant recognition, but afterwards I was like “hang on …” (laughs). And sure enough, it was him.

We started to get to know each other when Jeremy joined my family for a holiday to Jindabyne in January 2014.

The marriage debate really kicked off in 2011/2012 and so each of us, in our own way, had been looking at the issue from our own, different perspectives.

When did you become Catholic, Jeremy?

JEREMY: I was received into the Church on 23 February, 2012. I had made up my mind roughly August of 2011. For about nine months before been fairly sure I would convert – a thoroughly miserable period in my life for all sorts of reasons, but the one bright light in it was my conversion.

When did you first start thinking about the issue of marriage?

JEREMY: I first thought about the issue of same-sex marriage before I converted and before I thought about regaining an interest in women. (Jeremy is engaged to be married).

I remember the weekend. It was July 2010, and I was in Mudgee.

My starting point was thinking about the meaning of sex, and what it was that made heterosexual sex different from homosexual sex, if anything; I mean, apart from the obvious things.

And, of course, the first thing that occurred to me was children. You can have children if you are a man and a woman and not otherwise; that really makes a difference to the act itself. It shows that this is a fundamentally different kind of act than homosexual sex.

Whether it was better, or the ‘right way’ or anything else, was question, at the time. But I thought, at any rate, that one could not say they were the same kind of act.

For me, that was the starting point. Once I’d become a Catholic I expanded on that for myself, and the result is chapter two of this book.

But most of the straight sex that’s happening in Australian at the moment is contracepted sex, so many would say, “What’s the difference”?

JEREMY: Well, the whole question of contraception didn’t come into my mind at that point. That’s a secondary question. What we do to change and obstruct the course of nature is very important to think and talk about, but the first question is “What are nature’s own arrangements?”

So what do you do in the book?

JOHN: We started with love. That is the opening line of the book (“‘I love you.’ We all want to say and hear these words.”)

We had realised that the culture around us is dying. The great things of Western civilisation and the appreciation of all the things we have developed over so many years, are disappearing, and people don’t understand them anymore.

The genesis of the book was the holiday.  But what really brought us to the point of writing was something we had tried to run, and named perhaps rather badly ‘Culture Club’ (laughs), where we’d have meetings and sit down and chat about (how we could generate) an appreciation of culture, and mount something of a revival.

But as the marriage debate heated up from 2011 to 2013, when it became a lot more aggressive – the Culture Club went into a bit of a hiatus as we considered same-sex marriage.

And then the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference put out its booklet, Don’t Mess With Marriage.

Straight away, I looked at the title and said “No, we can’t have that”. The document is quite benign – quite lovely – and makes some statements about respecting and ensuring the dignity of people with same-sex attraction. But as with a lot of documents, articles or posts today, most people will probably only read the title; a title which screams “offence” and “attack”.

So in June 2015, I said, “We need to write our own explanation of marriage” from the perspective of natural law and the meaning of love and the body.

We were waiting for someone to say it like this – and waiting, and waiting, and waiting – and no-one was saying it. So I phoned Jeremy and said, “Can we do it?”

JEREMY: The book is a popular and non-religious book, and we’ve striven to make it conversational and non-confrontational.

We don’t shy away from things that need to be said but we wanted it to be the kind of book a non-Christian, including a homosexual non-Christian, could read without wanting to burn it.

Most of the book is presenting an argument, but it’s interspersed with personal narratives at various points.

So what sets your book apart from previous arguments?

JEREMY: The fact that it is a traditional, natural-law argument, grounded in a teleological understanding of nature. The second chapter is all about how we understand nature and its connection to ethics and how we understand meaning and what we call ‘spirituality’. We defend the idea that the chief natural purpose and meaning of sex is procreation. There’s none of that in the (Ryan) Anderson, (Sherif Girgis and Robert George) approach, in fact they explicitly forswear it.

We are making that kind of argument.

I think the basic difficulty for Anderson and the others is that once you foreswear nature as the basis for any moral authority, it’s virtually impossible to explain why there’s any important difference between having uncontracepted vaginal intercourse when you know that it can’t lead to procreation and having contracepted vaginal intercourse or engaging in sex acts that are naturally unapt for procreation, like homosexual sex. Because, in order to defend what heterosexual couples do, you have to say, “Look, they are acting in accordance with the natural meaning of their bodies.” And the idea of natural meaning is bound up with the idea of natural teleology.

JOHN: We are starting with the desire for love and the desire to love. And when you are in love and you want to commit to your significant other, one of the things you promise is a commitment to sexual fidelity, but why?

Jeremy and I, we would say we are really good friends, but we wouldn’t say that either one of us couldn’t be really good friends with someone else. But in marriage, we do want sexual exclusivity or fidelity. Why?

“It must be something about the nature of sex; so let’s take a look.” What makes sex special?

Jeremy coined the phrase that in marriage, it’s “love giving birth to love”: filial love, parental love and family love.

But again, the question of infertile couples comes up, doesn’t it?

JEREMY: That’s a secondary question, but we do say that it’s a tragedy when a couple are naturally infertile and, yes, the fullness of marital love and marital joy are not available to them. Someone might say “Well, they can adopt children.” But it still isn’t quite the same thing.

That’s quite different though from saying they had no moral right to enter into that relationship in the first place, because there is a fundamental difference between doing everything that you can to act in accordance with nature, even if your body obstructs an act from achieving its natural end, on the one hand, and wilfully obstructing nature’s ends (in this case, by engaging in contracepted or non-coital sex).

Humanae Vitae gives the two ends of sex as being unitivity and procreativity, though, doesn’t it?

JEREMY: Yes, and we are not denying the unitive end (or meaning) of sex. We agree with Humanae Vitae that the two meanings should not be separated. Separating them doesn’t just mean preventing sexual love from flowering naturally into family life and love. It also means treating sex as merely a means to procreation. This leads you straight away to a Brave New World scenario, where sex becomes just about pleasure and where children are never born; they are just produced in a factory.

The point about sex and its connection to procreation is that it is not a ‘mere’ means. There is a meaningful connection between this natural means and the end.

Same-sex marriage is largely about symbolism. And I think most same-sex marriage advocates would acknowledge this. The right to live as a couple already exists; the right to adopt children; to use in vitro fertilisation; the right to go through a ceremony and for someone to say, “Well, now you’re married”. All of those either already exist. The debate is not fundamentally about those practical things. It is about symbolism.

And we stress that for that very reason we need to ask the question, “What is the meaning of marriage?” We avoid getting into questions as to what’s best for children, about what studies show, and so on.

JOHN: It’s scary how few defences there are of marriage. There are a million books about how to live in marriages.

We actually want people to talk and think about the meaning of marriage.

In a world full of slogans and Twitter feeds, everything revolves around emotional responses and not one’s that are rational and well thought out. And we can’t talk rationally about marriage if I’m screaming at you and you are screaming at me. We’re not evening talking in the same language.

So we thought, “Right, we’re going to start talking in the same language and see where it goes”.

How much personal detail do you go into?

JEREMY: I don’t go into a lot of personal details, partly for my ex-partner’s sake, but some of the personal stuff on my side isn’t specifically about my homosexual past. I talk about my family and experiences that are relevant to what we are talking about.

JOHN: Stories are interposed to highlight what we are talking about. For example, I brought up the story of catching up with a friend at the pub whose other friend had an affair 10 years ago. And his wife was still giving him a hard time about it. And this guy was saying “It’s been 10 years. I said sorry. I haven’t done anything like it since. There’s a point where you have to let go”. And we’re saying there’s a reason why these things leave a deep mark.

I bring up my own parents (in contrast); my mum, for example. In 2005 when I wasn’t really practising my faith, when I was a kind of wishy-washy Catholic, I decided to ask her offhand, “Out of 10, how would you rate your marriage?” And a weird sort of look came over her and she said “11”. She just points to Dad, like I’m supposed to know what that means (laughs).

It must be difficult to mount an argument like yours when popular culture, at least when it comes to this issue, says “Who cares about what’s ‘natural’?”

JEREMY: Our approach is to say, well, let’s suppose the world really is a ‘disenchanted’ one – matter in motion and nothing else. That leads immediately to nihilism. Basically it’s all a meaningless cosmic dust storm.

And we try to bring that home in talking about Josef Fritzl, who raped his own daughter (and kept her captive in a bunker) for 24 years. So are you really prepared to say, “Well, Fritzl really had no will in this; it’s really just chemicals and laws of physics and what not”? And are you really going to say that it was all ultimately meaningless? Because that’s what you have to say on this view.

The alternative is a re-enchantment of nature: taking nature seriously as a moral authority.

On the positive side, we say that the idea of nature as a moral authority is actually quite widespread today.

I think people are split minded about it. With one half of their mind they have the scientistic view of the world, in which nature is meaningless, and on the other they have an almost superstitious reverence for nature. Even simple examples show this: the vogue in natural health foods, paleo diets, nudism, organic farming, and so on.

We also talk about non-Western cultures, where it’s taken for granted that nature has a meaning. We talk about Australian Aborigines, American Indians and others.

I imagine there are a lot of Catholics out there who quite like having quick-fire answers for the social media maelstrom.

JEREMY: I think that’s half the problem in today’s world. I’m going to sound like an octogenarian in saying it but, yes, things are moving fast – with Facebook, and images and noise everywhere – but people are not taught how to slow down, chew over things and breathe.

The book is designed to be read slowly and calmly, and read and re-read too.

The fact that you regarded yourself as homosexual and that you were in a relationship for a long time, what difference has that made to the text? I imagine that you would be sensitive to any of those arguments which suggest that there aren’t any goods in same-sex relationships. A lot of cardinals have come out and said, “We need to recognise the goods that are there.”

JOHN: We don’t go into this in the book. As John has mentioned, (the phrase) “Don’t Mess With Marriage” really encapsulates what we didn’t want to do. And likewise, when it comes to homosexuality, we bent over backwards not to be any harsher than we absolutely had to be. And partly for that reason, really, we don’t actually say very much about homosexuality until the end of the book.

I would say that the natural affection between homosexual partners is a good thing; in the same way that the affection between friends is.

The idea that there is some special good in homosexual relationships is, I think, a catastrophic mistake. It’s outrageous for cardinals or anyone in the Church to be saying such a thing.

Even cardinals and theologians who one wouldn’t expect to go down that route have found themselves going down that route, I guess because they are trying to be as pastoral as possible.

JEREMY: Really, being pastoral means saying the hard things when it’s called for. How you say them is obviously very important but it is a bad mistake to think that you shouldn’t say “homosexual acts are gravely sinful and there is nothing intrinsically good in homosexual relationships as such”. That has to be said. It should be said.

So I’m guessing then that you would not be a fan of writers, such as Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet, who – while striving to being chaste – argue that being gay is part of their identity, and that the desire itself is not disordered.

I’ve heard of Eve Tushnet but not Wesley Hill. In any case, I don’t agree with that. I mean, the desire itself is not sinful but it is disordered.

They effectively want to say, it seems to me, that they have a special …


Yes, almost.

There is a sense in which I could accept something along those lines – although I wouldn’t put it that way. I could accept that of course, we know that God only permits evils for the sake of the goods he knows will come out of them. And I can certainly accept that incidental to being homosexual are certain things that, in themselves, are good, and that if that person had them without being homosexual, that would be even better. That is still not at all the same thing as saying that homosexuality as such is a good thing.

I do not think that homosexuality is, as it were, a gift from God in order to bring certain goods into the world. No, most definitely not. Perhaps there happen to be certain goods accidental to it, but that’s all.

JOHN: Love is in the will (and not principally in the feelings). When you get married you have that initial ecstasy of the body, but then that dies. It’s by sticking together and living in the will that the ego is sacrificed and is borne and lifted higher so that you get the ecstasy of the spirit. So you see these couples who’ve been together for 40 or 50 years, that they have something that connects them and that it’s intangible. In love, you cannot be replaced.

But in moving love towards sex; well, sex with people is replaceable. (Romantic) love includes sex, but sex need not include love. We desperately want people to be respected for who they are. We desperately want love.

JEREMY: Coming back to the question of the Catholic readers, there are distinctions among readers.

There are people who were raised Catholic, still Catholic or sort of Catholic, maybe not convinced of the Catholic teaching on this issue, and therefore this book is directly for them.

Then there are people who are convinced of the Church’s teaching but think of it as a religious issue, and we very much want them to understand, yes it is, but it’s also a natural law issue.

Thirdly, there are people who accept the Church’s teaching and recognise that the issue is one of natural law as well as revealed doctrine, but who decide “I’m going to keep my mouth shut”, because they half believe that the Church’s teaching is unloving and horrible; to get people to realise that it is possible to be forthright about this without being a fascist.

And then, of course, we do hope that some non-Catholics will read it.

So to a gay person who might see an article about your book and might have an immediately negative reaction – “these people are full of fear and hate” – what would you say to such a person?

JEREMY: I once received a piece of hate email (in relation to an earlier piece of work) that had the subject heading, “The blood of dead gay kids is on your hands”. I thought about responding to it, but then I thought against it because their point seemed to be simply to provoke, and they probably weren’t going to listen. It’s a problem with the internet.

My own ex-partner, we’re still good friends. He’s going to read the book. I don’t know if my other homosexual friends will read it, but I know that they wouldn’t have the reaction you’ve described.

JOHN: I know quite a lot of gay people and it’s interesting how benign the reaction has been so far. Someone on Facebook accused me of wanting to go to Somalia and throw gay people off a roof. But then he messaged me and congratulated on writing the book.

JEREMY: The kind of reaction you are talking about, I suspect, is not that common. It’s the reaction of the public sphere. It belongs to newspapers, television and the internet. It doesn’t really belong to real human beings talking to other real human beings.

Two Men talk about Marriage is available from Mustard Seed Bookshop and Tickets for the launch are available here. 

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