What’s Up with “Disinterested Friendship” Anyway?

One of the biggest questions I ever get asked about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, especially from young people, is about the line “disinterested friendship” found in the Catechism.  It always seems to sound to people as being, well, so unfriendly.

Here’s the paragraph in question:

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

I’ve written about the topic before, but today, a bit I was reading from C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters gives helpful insights as to what “disinterested” means.  Most people believe that it’s a synonym for “uninterested,” but this section from Lewis shows us what “disinterested Love” actually is.  (For the uninitiated, Screwtape is a senior devil writing his nephew, Wormwood, a junior devil, about the ins and outs of temptation.  In the lexicon of Screwtape, things are turned topsy-turvy: the “Enemy” is God the Father, and “Our Father Below” is Lucifer himself. In the excerpt below, Screwtape is writing about God’s strange love for humans:

The truth is, [in my last letter] I slipped by mere carelessness into saying that the Enemy really loves the humans. That, of course, is an impossibility. He is one being, they are distinct from Him. Their good cannot be His. All His talk about Love must be a disguise for something else – He must have some real motive for creating them and taking so much trouble about them. The reason one comes to talk as if He really had this impossible Love is our utter failure to out that real motive. What does He stand to make out of them? That is the insoluble question. I do not see that it can do any harm to tell you that this very problem was a chief cause of Our Father’s quarrel with the Enemy. When the creation of man was first mooted and when, even at that stage, the Enemy freely confessed that he foresaw a certain episode about a cross, Our Father very naturally sought an interview and asked for an explanation. The Enemy gave no reply except to produce the cock-and-bull story about disinterested love which He has been circulating ever since. This Our Father naturally could not accept. He implored the Enemy to lay His cards on the table, and gave Him every opportunity. He admitted that he felt a real anxiety to know the secret; the Enemy replied “I wish with all my heart that you did”. It was, I imagine, at this stage in the interview that Our Father’s disgust at such an unprovoked lack of confidence caused him to remove himself an infinite distance from the Presence with a suddenness which has given rise to the ridiculous enemy story that he was forcibly thrown out of Heaven. Since then, we have begun to see why our Oppressor was so secretive. His throne depends on the secret. Members of His faction have frequently admitted that if ever we came to understand what He means by Love, the war would be over and we should re-enter Heaven. And there lies the great task. We know that He cannot really love: nobody can: it doesn’t make sense. If we could only find out what He is really up to! Hypothesis after hypothesis has been tried, and still we can’t find out. Yet we must never lose hope; more and more complicated theories, fuller and fuller collections of data, richer rewards for researchers who make progress, more and more terrible punishments for those who fail – all this, pursued and accelerated to the very end of time, cannot, surely, fail to succeed.

The sections in bold give a sense of what “disinterested” means.  Christ has, (and had, while he was incarnate), a disinterested love for all of humanity: loving for its own sake, with no sense of trying to get something out of it in return. Disinterested love is true love–but it doesn’t mean a passive, apathetic sort of love.  Quite the contrary, it’s the most interested of loves, because it loves the other as “other,” with no need for reciprocation.  A disinterested love is Christ-like charity: a selfless, self-giving, life-giving love.

This of course should be the aim of all of us, not merely those who live with same-sex attraction, but I think there is a special need for those of us who do to hear this, as a caution against placing too much of our hope in friendships.  I think in our pursuit of relationship and community, we can stretch the good of friendships to the breaking point quite easily.

8 thoughts on “What’s Up with “Disinterested Friendship” Anyway?

  1. I love your blog, thanks so much! I have been reading “The Abolition of Marriage: How We Destroy Lasting Love” by Maggie Gallagher. Here is bit that I have been pondering:

    “The link between eros and lust has been endlessly discussed in Western history. It has usually been the neediness of eros that caused saints and philosophers to warn us against it. But it is not need, or at least desire, that makes eros similar to lust. It is the focus on the self.

    Agape can be just as self-centered, because it aspires to self sufficiency—to give and not to need. This desire for self-contained virtue is the secret link between agape and lust.

    The priest has (or is supposed to have) agape for his fellow man. The consecrated celibate is freer to do good to mankind in general because he has not promised to love one person in particular. But in another, deeper sense, the married man and the monk are mirror images of one another. The priest is revered because his agape—his disinterested love for mankind—frees his erotic love for God. It is not the absense of desire but the object of his desire that does him honor. He chooses as his beloved the hightest Good.

    And God. Does he love us disintestedly, in the classical agape style, without desire?” p. 262-3

    • Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words!

      As to your question, it seems to me that even though God’s love for us is disinterested, He definitely desires us. Naturally I’m no expert on theology, but the Church has historically seen in the Song of Songs the desire of God, the Bridegroom, for the Groom, in terms of desire, that ideally should go both ways. God loves with no expectation for return–but it seems to me that he “desires” it, though his desire is different than mankind’s typical desire in that He desires us for Himself, out of love for us, because He knows we won’t be complete without Him in our lives. It’s always selfless and other-focused but there’s no doubt that God desires us for Himself. I’m thinking also of all of those passages where God is said to be pining for Israel who has gone astray.

      Besides desiring us, He genuinely enjoys our company too. 🙂

    • Kathleen, you simply must read Pope Emeritus Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est in which he discusses the eros, the desire, the longing for oneness, of God for us. It is breathtaking!

      Also, consider Mother Teresa’s core message of Jesus’ thirst for us as described in her reflection which offers Jesus words to us: “I Thirst for You”. (http://www.mcpriests.com/03_I_thirst_PrayerEN.htm)

      Dan’s thoughts makes sense of it all. Although it could seem that God has a self-interested desire for us, we can understand it as God longing to be one with us for our sakes, not His.

      • Thanks for the reading recommendations, Mary. I will check them out. I am in the process of converting from Protestantism to Catholicism so the readings are timely. Thanks again.

  2. Striving for perfect, selfless love is a good endeavor but it is not something any one of us will be able to master fully as human beings. If this is the type of love we should all aim for then why even bother with marriages or deep, intimate friendships, of which C.S. Lewis was apparently a big proponent?

    • This makes me think of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, or a concert violinist. (Or trombonist, as is the case with me). I’ll never fully master the trombone, Tiger Woods will never fully master golf, Michael Jordan, though arguably the best basketball player that ever lived, never fully mastered basketball, because he still missed shots. We strive for the good we desire to see in our lives, and “perfect, selfless love” is what true love is all about, and there was one who DID indeed master that, Christ himself. It’s an exciting endeavor to become like the Master Himself, and all the more exciting when we begin to realize the wisdom He shared when He said, “apart from me, you can do nothing.” We work for the goal of becoming like Christ, but it’s actually Christ within us that brings us there.

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