What Are We Fighting About?, Part I--Catholics, Grace, and Reality

I had a conversation the other day that really made me think.  A friend of mine and I were talking about politics in general, and we some how got onto the topic of LGBT rights.  In a very casual way, she asked me "so, why exactly do religious conservatives have a problem with gay rights?"  After probing around a little bit, it dawned on me that many folks who engage with religious issues on the internet assume that everyone understands (at least on some level) the theological stakes, but that assumption is often very wrong.  Many people have no idea what the arguments for and against LGBT rights are, other than that lots of religious people are again' em, as they say.

In that light, I figured it was worth while to try to set out some of the big questions that I see on this issue.  In doing so, I make no claims to breaking any new ground or advancing innovative ideas or solutions.  Instead, I am going to try to present the questions as honestly as possible, through the lens of four different Christian denominations--Catholicism, Anglicanism, Evangelical Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.  While these four groups share many issues, each of them highlights a particular problem in a particular way.

To understand what is at stake in Catholic discussions of LGBT issues, we have to start by setting up a bit of the Evangelical Protestant approach to the question first.  I should say that in talking about an "Evangelical Protestant approach," in this particular context I mean "a hardcore, five-point Calvinist approach," at least as it relates to Christian anthropology and the "mechanics" of salvation.  In doing so, I am papering over real differences between different schools of thought in Protestantism for the purposes of simplification and making my point.  I understand that, so take it as a disclaimer that #NotAllProtestants would agree with this characterization of the question.  Still, it reflects the majority of Protestants and Protestant thought (especially conservative Protestants).

Anyway, let's begin at the beginning, with the Fall of Man.  In the traditional Christian reading of Genesis 1-3, God created human beings in a state of Grace--in the form that God originally intended humans to be, in conformity to God's will and desires.  Then, Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and as a result, human beings fell out of this state of Grace.  In the Calvinist reading, post-Fall humankind existed (and exists) in a state of "total depravity."  Said another way, nothing of the goodness of mankind has pre-Fall remains as a result of the Fall in an intrinsic way.  As a result, humans retain no inherent sense of God, or God's will, or what is good for human beings to do or how to live.

To bring us back to our original state, Calvinists say, God comes to reveal God's self to us, with the ultimate revelation coming in the form of Jesus.  Through Jesus's saving action, we move from the state of total depravity back into the original state of grace.  The key thing to understand here is that we have a binary system--either one is in a state of total depravity or in a state of grace, and there is no middle ground between the two.

Moreover, and important for our purposes, these two states are mutually incomprehensible to each other.  If I am in the state of total depravity, I have no way of grasping or understanding what is going on in the state of grace.  And, because total depravity is total, this means that any and all of my faculties, including my intellectual faculties, are so thoroughly warped that I cannot understand or grasp the rationale of God's action or God's rules.  Morality, in the Calvinist system, ultimately becomes Divine Command Ethics--God says X is wrong, and I just have to accept it, since I have no independent way of grasping the rationale of that rule.

Under this view, any sort of LGBT issue reduces to a simple question--"what does God say about it?"
 If God says it is bad, then it is bad, and no counter-arguments we might come up with (justice concerns, the experiences of LGBT people, analysis of the roots of same-sex attraction, etc.) really matter.  All of those counter-arguments are grounded in our natural faculties and reason, and since our natural faculties and reason are total depraved, we can't trust anything they might purport to tell us.  The only potentially valid counter-argument in this world-view, and this is seen in books like Matthew Vines's God and the Gay Christian, is to say "well, God doesn't actually say that being gay is bad."  In other words, all you have is a Biblical interpretation argument, and that is the only possible grounds to argue the issue.  More on that when we get to the Evangelical Protestants in a later post.

Anyway, that's the shape of the debate in the Protestant world.  In the Catholic space, the discussion is (or, at least, should be) different, because Catholic theology rejects a key starting point for this world view--the idea of total depravity.  Sure, human beings are flawed as a result of the Fall, but post-Fall humans are on a continuum with our pre-Fall state.  As James Alison says:

The first element is well known. The Church teaches that at the Fall, and therefore in the real living out of all of us, our human nature was very seriously damaged, but that this damage did not destroy our human nature. The distinction is important. If our nature had been destroyed, that is, if we are radically depraved, as is taught by some of the churches which are heirs to the Protestant Reformation, then salvation would come to us as something without any continuity with our nature, with our past, and there would be no organic continuity between “who I was” before accepting salvation and “who I will turn out to be” when all is revealed. However, since our nature was seriously damaged, but continues to be human nature, salvation does reach us in the form of a process of the perfecting of our nature. As a result of this, “who I will turn out to be” has, according to the most traditional Catholic teaching, reaffirmed at the Council of Trent, an organic continuity with “who I was”.


This has two enormous implications.  First, it means that God's action in the world, and God's moral instruction, must be comprehensible to our intellectual faculties.  It will never be perfectly comprehensible to us as limited creatures, but it will be comprehensible nonetheless.  Thus, we can deduce truths about the world, and about ourselves, and ultimately in a circumscribed way about God, from our own powers.  This is the idea that undergirds the classical Catholic notion of natural law--under the Protestant model, natural law exists but we can't ever grasp it due to our depravity, so it might as well not exist from our perspective.  But in the Catholic world view, we can learn "real facts" about the world as it is, and those facts shed light on the God who created the world.

The second key point is that what is "natural" to us is, at bottom, good.  We are not totally depraved--we have a core of natural goodness that is covered up by layers of dirt and muck resulting from our fallen state.  The goal of the Christian life is not to flip a switch to transform into a new ontological state, but to shed the layers of muck to get to the core goodness underneath.  As a result, there can be no ultimate conflict between what is "good" for us and what is "natural" for us, as being good is natural and living consistent with our natural state is good.  What becomes very important, then, is defining what is "natural" for us as human beings, which then will do much to show what is "good" for us.

So, now to the question of LGBT folks.  As I have stated before, the traditional understanding of same sex activity was that it was a vice.   Which is to say, it is behavior that does not reflect the true goodness within us, but instead is a product of our fallen, sinful nature.  The solution to such behavior, like any other vice, is just to stop, and to become more in tuned with our true nature as created by God.  If we put aside any analysis of the relative severity of various sins, having same-sex sexual activity is no different from telling lies or gossiping--problems that can be solved with more discipline and self-denial.

Then comes the later half of the 20th Century, and an argument is made that same-sex attraction is not voluntary (or at least not voluntary for some segment of folks), but is instead part of their "natural" state.  This creates a big problem for Catholic theology, because if same-sex attraction is truly "natural," then it cannot be seen as always and everywhere morally unacceptable, because that would set what is "good" in opposition to what is "natural" in a way that Catholic theologians at least since Thomas Aquinas have said is impossible.

Faced with this problem, there are only three options (parallel to the three options I discussed here).  Option one is to deny there is any such thing as a natural or fundamental same-sex attraction.  In other words, to wind the clock back to the time when we could say with confidence that there was no conflict between the moral law and the natural law with regard to LGBT sexuality.  Along those lines, we see certain members of the hard-right side of the Catholic equation arguing that we should never use words like "gay," or talk in terms of a sexual orientation.  Instead, they argue, same-sex behavior is like any other undesirable behavior, and like any other undesirable behavior you can just stop doing it.  If sexual orientation doesn't actually exist, the problem between nature and morality goes away.

The problem here is that the question of whether there is such a thing as "being gay" is subject to empirical scrutiny--after all, we can figure out what is "natural" via our intellectual powers.  And the evidence is pretty clearly on the side of the conclusion that some people have deep-seated attractions toward people of the same gender.  These desires appear to persist even in the face of highly motivated attempts by committed people to reorient their desires toward people of the opposite sex.  It is pretty clear that a large segment of people are unable to simply "stop doing it," as a result of some inclination or orientation that is deep seated within them.

Recognizing this reality, we move to option two, which is the current official position of the Catholic Church.  This position recognizes that there is such a thing as being gay, and recognizes that it cannot say that such a condition is per se evil (because no natural condition can be per se evil per Catholic theology).  Instead, it asserts that being gay is "objectively disordered"--a deep seated orientation toward a behavior that is self-destructive, or at least one that retards human flourishing.

Now, many people have said that the use of the phrase "objectively disordered" is a kind of slur, and that it should be abandoned.  That impulse is wrong-headed, because "objectively disordered" has a clear and specific meaning in Catholic thought, and one that (as I will discuss below), is subject to factual analysis.  In other words, there are clear criteria that we can use to investigate and study whether or not being gay qualifies as objectively disordered, and the idea that being gay is objectively disordered is, at least in principle, falsifiable.

Consider people who engage in repeated self-harm for the purpose of regulating feelings, usually called "cutting."  People who cut are not somehow intrinsically evil--that's not what "objectively disordered" means.  But they have a deep-seated pattern of engaging in that behavior--it is not enough to simply tell them to "stop."  For cutting to be objectively disordered, though, it must be negatively correlated with the person who cuts' overall human flourishing.  For example, if cutting is objectively disordered, then increased cutting would strongly tend to result in other negative psychological and physical affects; on the flip side, greater psychological and physical health would tend to result in less cutting.  And, as far as I understand, this accurately reflects the experience of people who cut.

Notice, as I keep stressing, this analysis has very little to do with morality per se.  We should be able to observe the signs of cutting's objectively disordered status through empirical analysis.  If a large group of people come forward and say, "I am a better, happier, more successful, better adjusted person when I cut," or "when I am (as Oprah would say) Living My Best Life, I find that I cut far more than when I am in a bad spot," then that would be evidence that cutting is not in fact objectively disordered.  We can't rely on a single source--anecdote is not the plural of data, as they say--but we should be able to observe patterns and trends and do normal sorts of social science research to shed light on this question.  Because, at the end of the day, this is a truth question.  Either cutting is objectively disordered, or it is not.

Now turn to "being gay."  If being gay is objectively disordered, then it should be the case that as a person becomes more and more psychologically, physically, and spiritually healthy, they would be less attracted to people of the same gender and less inclined to engage in same-sex sexual activity; likewise, the more a person has prolonged same-sex sexual contact (such as, for example, in a long-term relationship), their overall well-being should decrease.  In other words, having same sex contact should work just like cutting in terms of a person's well-being (if, perhaps, not to the same degree).

Well, is that true?  Put it this way--I am not aware of anyone who actually claims that they are happier and more successful when they cut, but we all know people who testify that they are better adjusted and happier when they are in stable, long-term relationships with people of the same gender.  In other words, it certainly seems like being gay is not at all like cutting.  But we should not rely on anecdotes, and instead we should attempt to formulate testable claims.  As Alison suggests, if being gay is truly objectively disordered, two claims come to mind.  First, people who are straight (or, perhaps, "not gay" is more accurate), taken as a whole, should be more healthy according to any and all psychological and health metrics than people who are gay.  Second, and here is I think the really important one, people who are gay that accept their status and live in a manner consistent with that status (are "out," are in relationships, etc.) should be less healthy psychologically than people who know that they are gay but view it as a burden and something to be suppressed or overcome.  After all, returning to the cutting example, most would agree that a person who is working hard to stop cutting behavior  is in a better and healthier place than a person who "embraces" being a cutter and sees it as something that is a swell part of their overall lifestyle.

Alison, somewhat modestly, suggests that final answers to these questions remain in the future and we should be open to whatever results come from in-depth study.  Fair enough.  I will say that I, and I suspect Alison would concur, am deeply skeptical that claim #1, and especially claim #2, can be supported empirically.  In fact, claim #2 is 180 degrees from my experience--the open and out LGBT people I've met are just like the rest of us, while the folks in the closet (especially those who are members of the clergy) are consistently a mess.

So, what happens if we can demonstrate that being gay is not objectively disordered?  Well, despite what you hear from some Catholics, what we can't do is simply fall back on the idea "well, the Bible says that gay sex is sinful, so that's that."

From this we deduce the following: if the teaching of the Church were the position labelled “Reformed”, then there would be no possibility of our learning anything authentic concerning, for example, whether the homosexual inclination is a defect in an intrinsically heterosexual being, or whether it is something which just is like that. The only thing we could do would be to insist on the characterisation deduced from revelation. However, since the Church’s teaching is not this, but is subtly different, then in fact we cannot reject, on purely a priori grounds, the possibility that we human beings might reach, through a difficult path, one interwoven with many false leads, the understanding that what seemed to be a defect in something is not. Rather it is merely a normal occurrence within created matter, with its own tendency to flourishing.

In other words, if we find that being gay is not objectively disordered, the Church must either abandon its commitment to a n intelligible world and "grace perfecting nature," or it must rethink the morality of same-sex sexuality.  Framed that way, it's a "no brainer"--Catholicism cannot, and should not, abandon its commitment to its core theology for the sake of a narrow question of sexual morality.  Moral questions have been rethought in the past (usury, slavery, etc.) and can be rethought again; the other choice makes the Catholic Church not really Catholic any more.

Catholicism has been deeply unwilling to engage this factual question in a serious way.  I suspect this is because there are a number of thoughtful and intelligent folks in the Catholic hierarchy who know what the answer is going to be if they ask the question.  And those folks are also afraid that there is a significant segment of the Catholic Church that will be unwilling to accept the answer that they will find, plunging the Church into chaos and schism.  So, the operative game plan in the Catholic Church is to stall, waiting for some future time when the question and its answer will be less toxic.  It is, as Alison says, an exercise in navigating wrath.

Maybe that will work and maybe it will not.  I think there is a much greater chance of it working in Catholicism than in the Anglican Communion.  But that's a discussion for the next post.

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