Betwixt and Between

I continue to maintain that Melinda Selmys is the most interesting voice coming from the conservative Catholic end of the pool (notwithstanding that many on that side think that she is Not a True Conservative).  What I like about her is her willingness to push on some of the neuralgic points of Catholic philosophy and theology, moving beyond the "happy talk" style of many on that end.  In doing so, she often points out questions and problems that I had not seen before or thought about in any depth.  Often I do not agree with her conclusions, but her formulation of the problem is usually very helpful.

Over the holiday weekend here in the U.S., she produced a pair of articles that are examples of why she is an interesting voice.  Her first post, entitled "10 Reasons Why Homosexuality Is Not a Natural Law Issue," is actually mis-titled.  Her argument is not that traditional Catholic natural law has nothing to say about homosexuality, but that what it does have to say is all but assured to be unpersuasive to the everyone who is not already committed.  As such, Selmys argues that constantly banging the drum about how any rational person should be able to see that same-sex sexual behavior is immoral is pointless, and even counter-productive.  Selmys then follows this up with "Beyond Nature: 10 Alternatives to Natural Law," which contains alternative approaches that she argues will be more effective in communicating the Church's message on sexuality issues (and other issues as well).  At no point in either of the posts does she argue against the Church's positions on these topics, so we are squarely in the land of words.

As far as the first article goes, I think she is 100% correct in identifying the problems that many folks (both Catholics and non-Catholics) have with the current, natural law focused-approach of the Catholic Church.  In particular, this article pointed me to a problem that I hadn't really thought through, but is maybe the biggest problem with the current natural law approach.  Under Point #1, Selmys talks about the various definitions of "natural," and suggests that no one uses the technical, natural law definition of "natural," which she formulates as "in accord with the prelapsarian [i.e. before the Fall] nature of a thing."  It is certainly true that no one outside the Catholic bubble uses that definition, but the more I considered  that definition, the more I came to the conclusion that people don't use it because it really doesn't work.

The core problem with that definition is that we have no concrete way of knowing what the prelapsarian nature of anything is.  Everything we have ever experienced or encountered is postlapsarian, and so we have no empirical markers for determining, to use the example relevant to this discussion, what "prelapsarian sexuality" is like.  All we can do is say "well, it's like what we do now, except without the bad stuff."  But the "without the bad stuff" part is grounded in some a priori account of what is bad about postlapsarian sexuality, which is the thing you are trying to figure out with all of this natural law business.  The circle closes in on itself.

[As an aside, there is also the bigger problem of what we mean by "prelapsarian humans" in light of evolutionary biology.  The only group I have ever seen to tackle this question in a serious way theologically--Rene Girard and those he inspires--argue that the event theology has referred to as "the Fall" is also the event that our primate ancestors become recognizably human.  In other words, if you want to some sense of what humans were like in the "Garden of Eden," go to the zoo and observe our cousins in the primate exhibit.  If this is true, any talk of "prelapsarian humanity" and applying it to us today is going to be difficult or impossible.]

Anyway, to take a colorful example, St. Augustine argues that before the Fall men had total control over their erections, such that they could become erect purely through an act of will.
Now, why did he say this?  Because for Augustine the idea that men would become erect as a result of some sort of outside sexual stimulus (i.e., become "turned on") means that sexuality is inherently and inevitably contaminated with lust.  And, since lust is a sin, then it could not have been part of sexuality before the Fall.  But that's not a natural law argument--it's an argument that starts from a concrete moral judgment (derived from a particular reading of Jesus in the Gospels) and then projects that moral judgment back on the canvas of prelapsarian sexuality.  If you don't hold the Gospels to be authoritative, or you don't interpret that passage the way Augustine does, there is no reason to agree with Augustine's conclusion.

This is important, because natural law arguments should be intelligible and persuasive (at least in theory) regardless of whether you believe in God or Jesus or the Catholic Church.  But the "prelapsarian nature" of anything, including human sexuality, is a theological construct without any independent empirical grounding (Judaism, for example, rejects the idea that Genesis 3 describes a "Fall" in anything like the Christian construction of that idea).  If you want to create a platform that is accessible to believers and non-believers alike, you need to ground it in what physicists call the "observable universe."  There you can have an agreed upon set of relatively neutral, or at least explicitly non-theological, facts that can form the basis for moral reasoning and argument.  But to do that means that you have to reckon with the whole body of modern knowledge regarding the human person and human sexuality, much of which challenges the traditional conclusions about many of these contested topics.

Retreating into the space of defining "natural" in reference to "the way things were [we think] before the Fall" avoids having to wrestle with modern discoveries.  But it does so at the cost of creating a kind of crypto-Calvinism--the Fall makes the world as we experience it morally unintelligible, so we postulate a different, pre-Fall world as the basis for our moral reasoning.

In any event, in her second article, Selmys provides a list of other approaches or framings to moral questions.  I have concerns about the techno-phobic tone of some of what she (and, to be fair, Popes Benedict and Francis) says about "human ecology," but in general these are mostly unobjectionable stances to take.  What I don't see is how any of these positions, which seem good and salutary on their own terms, would lead anyone to ultimately agree with the controversial positions of the Church on sexuality questions.  Being supportive and open-minded and listening and accompanying are all good things, and will surely cause people to be more willing to listen to what you have to say.  But at the end of the day, people will eventually ask "why can't I use birth control?  Why can't LGBT people have committed sexual relationships?"  And at that point, you either have to fall back on natural law arguments (which Selmys already says are unpersuasive to everyone but the committed) or an argument from the authority of the Church.

This is what I mean when I talk about the land of words.  Selmys is completely correct that the particular words generally used by Catholics when talking about LGBT issues (and other issues, especially involving women) are causing people to be alienated and defensive from the jump.  But even if you were to completely fix that problem, even if you did everything Selmys suggests here, you still have the problem that the way the Church describes reality in this space does not reflect the reality that a large percentage of the population experiences.  One way or the other, to get to where Selmys and the Church want you to get, you have to ignore the "observable universe" in favor of the construct that the Church has postulated--whether framed in "natural law" terms or in terms of Church authority.  No amount of words can make that medicine go down any easier.

Selmys, I think, sees the problem.  She knows that she is between an overtly homophobic Catholic right and a dismissive broader culture, and she is trying to stake out a middle ground.  Maybe that middle ground is just a place where we can agree to disagree civilly--surely some more of that would be welcome.  But I just don't believe that there is any such middle ground any more.  I think the day is coming where everyone is just going to have to pick between what they see and what the words tell them.  And, at the end of the day, it looks like she is going to pick the words.  I applaud her on some level for trying to encourage people to use nicer versions of the words.  But I don't think that's good enough.


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