Another Theology of the Body, Part XI--The Elephant in the Room

If you want to talk about sexuality in 2015, you have to talk about homosexuality.  It is the issue of the day.  I also sense (and others have argued this) that it is a Rubicon of sorts, a line in the sand for many who want to hold back the spirit of the age, or progress, or whatever you want to call it.

I have made my bottom-line position clear--I do not believe either being homosexual or having homosexual relationships, or relations, is incompatible with being an authentic follower of Jesus.  But that's not a complete answer, because it doesn't explain why I believe that.  To be truthful, I wasn't completely sure of the why myself.  My moral and religious instincts were far ahead of the intellectual side.

I think I have come up with something of an answer, with a big assist from a theologian named Fr. James Alison (who I have been reading a lot of lately, and who I am sure I will mention again).  Here is my answer to the "why" question.

Let's go back to the book that started this series--Matthew Vines' God and the Gay Christian.  Vines is an Evangelical, and as such must locate the answer to the question of homosexuality in the command of Scripture.  If the Scriptures say that homosexuality is bad, then it is bad.  If the Scriptures say it is good, then it is good.  And if the Scriptures don't really say anything on the topic, then it is left to one's discretion.

That is an Evangelical approach to the problem.  But I am not an Evangelical--I am a former Dominican who, if nothing else, is at least a "small c" catholic.  My question is not "what does the Bible say about homosexuality?"--at least not primarily.  My question is "what is homosexuality?

It so happens that the Bible provides a pretty clear answer to this question---homosexuality is vice.
The Biblical model of homosexual conduct is that it is a product of an out-of-control sexuality.  Said another way, same sex encounters are a kind of promiscuity--people are so wanton and indiscriminate in who they have sex with that they are indifferent as to the gender of the individuals involved.  St. Paul's famous (or infamous) statement in Romans 1 about "unnatural lusts" is of this type.  In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, the passage that arguably condemns homosexuality sees it as a piece with greediness, idolatry, excessive drinking, and theft.

It is worthwhile to point out this view reflects certain features of Roman culture at the time of St. Paul.  Take for example the movie Caligula.  Obviously, this is not a documentary, but it is based on accounts of the behavior of the Roman emperor.  Caligula engages in same sex behavior, but he also engages in opposite sex behavior of every conceivable kind.  Caligula's same sex behavior is indeed part of a broader pattern of uncontrolled lust.  To the extent St. Paul has Caligula in mind, it's not hard to see where he is coming from.

We might also think of, for example, same-sex sexual abuse in prisons.  Here, rather than general wantonness, we can see this behavior as stemming from exploitation and dominance, which (in the Christian sense) is vice of a different kind.  Or, back to Caligula, main scene of same sex sexual contact (at least that I remember) is Caligula raping the groom on his wedding day (and then raping the bride, or maybe it was the other way around--been a while since I've seen Caligula).

Here's the thing, though--the idea that homosexuality is vice is essentially an empirical claim.  If homosexuality is a kind of vice, one would expect people who engage in it to have other indications of perverse, vice-ridden behavior.  That certainly describes Caligula, and it likely describes most examples of the abusive prison behavior.  We would expect homosexuals to be engaging in other vice-related behaviors far more often than the straight population.

Of course, there is no evidence that this is true.
While I am sure one could find some gay men and women who fit the description if you looked hard enough--there are bad people in every group--the vast majority of them do not remind one of Caligula.  For example, in general, gay men and women are not also having lots of sex with opposite gendered partners, as Romans 1 would predict.  Nor are they more likely to be thieves, or idolaters, or be violent.

We also know this is not true for another reason--the Roman Catholic Church has essentially abandoned this position, and instead offered a wholly new description of homosexuality.  The Catechism says nothing about a predilection to vice among gay folks; it says that same sex attraction is "intrinsically disordered." (CCC 2357).  Note the citation to that quote--it brings you to a document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued in 1975, showing clearly that this is a new idea.  If you go to that document from 1975, it says:

In Sacred Scripture [homosexual activity is] condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God.[18] This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of.

So, the "disorder" is rooted in the fact that Scripture condemns these acts.  But, as we have just seen, we have no evidence of the underlying vice, and certainly no evidence of the person "rejecting God."  In other words, homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered because the Bible condemns them, and the Bible condemns them because the are the product of vice, but gay folks don't demonstrate any particular vice.  Why again are they intrinsically disordered?  The circle is broken.

There is another problem implicit in this concept of "intrinsic disorder."  What exactly is the "disorder" here?  When we think of a "disorder," we generally think of something that impedes the ability to function in society.  Contra angry conspiracy theorists, the reason psychologists and psychiatrists removed homosexuality from the DSM was because there was no evidence that homosexuality had any negative cognitive or affective consequences.  Homosexuality is not a disorder, intrinsic or otherwise.  The Catechism is not wrong because of some theological dispute; the Catechism is wrong because it does not reflect the world we live in.  It flunks the natural law test.

So, if it is not a vice, and it is not a disorder, what is homosexuality?  Alison refers to it as "a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition," and the comparison he draws is to left-handedness (or, I suppose, ambidexterity).  Left handedness occurs in about 1 in 10 people--in the same ballpark with the estimates of gay and lesbian people.  In addition to the obvious difference, there is evidence that left-handed people have slightly different patterns of cognitive functioning and have the advantage in performing certain kinds of tasks.  Thus, like homosexuality, left-handedness is a more robust phenomenon than simply the crude physical manifestation.  At the end of the day though, it's just a variation.  Just as it was damaging and counter-productive to force left-handed kids to write with their right hands, even more is it dangerous to do a similar thing to gay people.

I'll end on a positive note.  Alison, who is gay, is relentlessly positive about the Catholic Church coming around on this issue in the near future.  In his view, the problem with the notion of "intrinsic disorder" is so evident that it is indefensible.  And, because it is indefensible, it creates a contradiction in Catholic theology which is unsustainable.  I hope he is right.

[Note:  Be sure to check out the series on "Letters to the Catholic Right" that Frank is doing on two books that try to make the argument that Fr. Alison thinks can't be made (spoiler: the books don't make them, either).  This post is particularly worth reading.]


Anonymous said…
What interesting commentary! You take an uncommon angle on the subject.

But Im not entirely convinced by your claim that “The Biblical model of homosexual conduct is that it is a product of an out-of-control sexuality.” I suppose in part Im wary that by making that statement, you may be uncritically repeating the words of others. Certainly I think there is some degree of truth to your claim, insofar as Genesis 19 in particular portrays it as out of control, and how still today when gay culture happens in concentrated contexts, we see a tendency for being less in control than comparable subcultures. But I don’t get a sense from reading Scripture, that if homosexuals were self-controlled, that it would no longer be a vice. IE when I look at the relevant passages (no pun intended) in Leviticus 18, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1, I get the sense that Scripture is saying that sex with a member of the same gender is sinful irrespective of the circumstances. In Leviticus 18 in particular, it seems to me to be saying that the problem is simply the gender mix.

I also take issue with the claim that “The Biblical model of homosexual conduct is that … same sex encounters are a kind of promiscuity--people are so wanton and indiscriminate in who they have sex with that they are indifferent as to the gender of the individuals involved.” Again I would question whether that really is the Biblical model of homosexual conduct. I suggest that Romans 1 implies the opposite, when it says in verse 27 “the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.” (the key point being the first half of that sentence)

I take your point that in several sections of Scripture, homosexuality is lumped in with various other vices, and that it’s not true that homosexuals are generally thieves and liars etc, any more than is true of non-homosexuals. But would Romans 1:29-32 be true of the associated characteristics of any given vice? Is something only a vice if it’s associated with the sins of verses 29-32? Is habitual lying not a vice if it has no correlation with other vices?

And do the Catholic church regard homosexual relations as sinful because it’s a vice, or because the Bible portrays it as sinful? And do they regard it as a disorder because while human beings seem to be designed to reproduce, homosexuality basically precludes natural reproduction? I note that homosexuality is also significantly associated with poor mental health.

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