Monday, February 17, 2014

"Good-faith learning and the fear of God"

A wonderful 2005 (!) article by James Alison, originally appearing in the book Opening Up: Speaking Out in the Church.

Absolutely worth reading in its entirety - note the amazing amount of care Alison takes here! - but here is the kernel of his argument, my bolding:
Currently the Church, including its gay and lesbian members, finds itself in a situation where there is a serious conflict between two elements of Catholic doctrine which hadn’t appeared to be in conflict before, but which for a few years now have been producing a very strong disturbance in the life of many of the faithful. The two elements are as follows: on the one hand the Church’s traditional teaching about Original Sin and Grace, and on the other, the traditional teaching about sexual acts between people of the same sex.

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”.

Thus, what is normal within the living of the Catholic faith, what is normal in the process of growth in grace, is always starting from where one is, knowing that no part of human desire or living out is intrinsically evil, that is to say, incapable of being ordered or healed, only capable of being wiped out. Nevertheless, all our desire is damaged in the way we receive it and live it out: it is seriously distorted. But we can trust that even what is most base within a person’s life is capable of being transformed into something which will be a reflection of the divine splendour. What is normal, then in Catholic anthropology, is to regard no human desire, heavily distorted or addicted to evils of various types though it may be, as a radically perverse entity but rather to see it as something which can in principle be returned to flowing towards what is good.

This, I should say, is an essential part of the Catholic Faith. Without this, the whole of Catholic teaching concerning grace, mercy, forgiveness and the sacraments would have to be altered radically. Furthermore, it seems to be part of that sensus fidei which Catholics have as an instinct that we understand that the mercy of the Church consists above all, and always, in starting from where one is, and not causing an obstacle to grace by insisting that one has to become something else before being able to receive grace.

The second element in this conflict is the teaching about sexual acts between people of the same sex. Until fairly recently it did not appear that there was a conflict between this teaching and the doctrine of Original Sin and grace, since the teaching about sexual acts was just that: a teaching about acts and nothing else. It was taught that what were forbidden were any sexual acts whatsoever between people of the same sex, with different reasons brought forth, in different periods, to justify the prohibition. However, what all the reasons took for granted was that such acts would be a perversion of a human nature which tended of itself, and always, towards what we would nowadays call some form of “heterosexuality”. In prohibiting the acts, nothing was being said about the condition or being of the person, and it was understood that the prohibition didn’t affect the being of the person, only the acts. That is to say, it used to be possible to say in good conscience to a person who had engaged in such acts that they should desist, and instead seek their flourishing, which they would only achieve if their desire were to return to its normal river bed. It was, for example, normal to suggest to young men who had confessed acts or thoughts of this nature that they should hurry up and get married so as to be cured. At a time when “gay” hadn’t yet been invented, and there were only “sodomitical acts”, there didn’t seem to be a conflict between the teachings about grace and about those acts.

The problem is that over the last several decades these two teachings do appear to have entered into conflict. And the reason is a change in society which has come upon us all, Catholics or not. The change consists in the ever increased recognition during the second half of the twentieth century that it is really not possible to make such a clear-cut distinction between acts and being as had been traditional. That is to say, it seems that there exist some people, a minority which occurs more or less regularly in all societies and cultures, as well as in the groupings of other animals, who just are “like that”. This doesn’t appear to be an individual aberration, but it just appears to be the case that there is a class of people with the common and recognisable characteristic of a lasting and stable emotional and erotic attraction towards the members of their own sex. At the same time, it seems to be the case that if you remove from the psychological profiles of a hundred people only the detail concerning each one’s sexual orientation, there is absolutely nothing in the profiles which would allow you to indicate in a regular and accurate way what the orientation corresponding to the profile in fact is. That is to say, the presence of an orientation towards a person of the same sex does not appear to bring along with it any emotional or psychological configuration, even less any deformation, which is not found equally among people of the majority orientation.

The conflict between the two elements of Christian teaching raises its head, then, because while the discussion was about acts and not being, it was thought possible to say to someone at the same time “Don’t do that!” and “Flourish, brother!” because it was thought that the acts didn’t flow from what the brother was. However, it has become ever more problematic to bring together in the same phrase “Don’t do that!” and “Flourish brother!”, since if it is understood that someone is just “like that” then in part, at least, his flourishing will be discovered starting from what he is.

Now this conflict is by no means a merely academic matter. It is lived, very intensely, by many young people for whom working out whether it is a matter of “I’m just like this, and so I must be this in the richest way possible” or whether it is rather a matter of “I’m not like this, but I suffer from very grave temptations which in some way I must overcome” is a gravely tortured experience. Evidence suggests that more and more young people are overcoming this conflict by working out that they just are “like that”, and it is starting from this that they are going to risk constructing a life.

Faced with these conflicts, the Vatican Congregations decided to respond. If they conceded that “being like that” is simply part of nature, which is to say, part of God’s creative project, then it is evident that the acts which flow from that way of being could not be intrinsically evil, but that they might be good or bad according to their use and circumstances, as is the case with heterosexual acts. So, they were faced with one of two possibilities: either we recognise that “being like that” is neutral, which means, in the case of everything created, positive, in which case the absolute prohibition of the acts falls; or we deny that “being like that” exists, except as a defect of a radically heterosexual being, and because of this the traditional absolute prohibition of the acts can be maintained.

Please notice that there are two logical barriers which the ecclesiastical argument cannot jump without falsifying it’s own doctrine. The first is this: The Church cannot say “Well, being that way is normal, something neutral or positive, the Church respects it and welcomes it. The Church only prohibits the acts which flow from it”. This position would lack logic in postulating intrinsically evil acts which flow from a neutral or positive being. And this would go against the principle of Catholic morals which states that acts flow from being – agere sequitur esse. The second barrier is this: the Church cannot say of the homosexual inclination that it is a desire which is in itself intrinsically evil, since to say this would be to fall into the heresy of claiming that there is some part of being human which is essentially depraved – that is, which cannot be transformed, only covered over.

Faced with these two barriers, ecclesiastical logic did a backward double-flip worthy of an Olympic gymnast so as to arrive at the following formulation: “The homosexual inclination, though not itself a sin, constitutes a tendency towards behaviour that is intrinsically evil, and must therefore be considered objectively disordered.” With this phrase, the Vatican Congregations sought to maintain the absolute prohibition of the acts without describing the desire as intrinsically evil. Nevertheless the price of this definition is very high. It obliges its defenders to insist that the homosexual inclination, independently of any acts flowing from it, is something objectively disordered. And the kind of objectivity they have in mind is deduced not from what can be known through experience, but is an a priori which depends on the Church’s teaching concerning marriage. That is to say, the a priori of the intrinsic heterosexuality of all human beings. In other words, from the presupposition of the intrinsic heterosexuality of all human beings, it is deduced that the person whose inclination is towards those of the same sex is a defective heterosexual.

Well, let us not delude ourselves here. This characterisation of the gay or lesbian person as a defective heterosexual is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of the prohibition, as the authors indicate with the “must be considered” of their phrase. The problem is that, for the characterisation to work properly within the doctrine of original sin and grace, it would have to be the case that the life of grace would lead the gay or lesbian person to become heterosexual in the degree of his or her growth in grace. That is to say, in the degree to which grace makes us more patient, faithful, generous, capable of being good Samaritans, less prisoners of anger, of rivalry and of resentment, just so would it have to change the gender of the persons towards whom we are principally attracted. The problem is that such changes do not seem to take place in a regular and trustworthy way, even amongst the United States groups which promote them with significant funds and publicity. As the senior representatives of such groups indicate: at most, and in some cases, a change in behaviour is produced, but the fundamental structures of desire continue to be towards persons of the same sex. [3]

This then is the conflict: for the prohibition of the acts to correspond to the true being of the person, the inclination has to be characterised as something objectively disordered. However, since the inclination doesn’t alter, unlike desires which are recognisably vicious, the gay or lesbian person would have a desire which is, in fact, intrinsically evil, an element of radical depravity in their desire. And we would have stepped outside Catholic anthropology. Or, on the other hand, the same-sex inclination is simply something that is, in which case grace will bring it to a flourishing starting from where it is, and with this we would have to work out which acts are appropriate or not, according to the circumstances, and we will have stepped outside the absolute prohibition passed on to us by tradition.

What I want to underline here is that this is a conflict between elements of Catholic doctrine lived by many people. That is to say: when people say to gay and lesbian people “You should just be obedient to the teaching of the Church” it is no frivolity to reply “Sure, but which one? To the uninterrupted teaching about grace and original sin? Or to the recent characterization which the Vatican Congregations now consider necessary in order to maintain the traditional prohibition? Because both together, at the moment it’s not clear how that can be done.” And since all parties to the discussion are in agreement that the teaching on Grace is the most important, the conflict is reduced to one concerning the characterization. Either it is true to affirm that the homosexual inclination is objectively disordered, or it is not.

That is to say, one side has got it wrong, and one side has got it right. And the field of possible error is in the area of what really is. The whole argument turns on the veracity or otherwise of the characterization of what is. Either being gay is a defective form of being heterosexual, or it is simply a thing that just is that way.

And this brings us to the next step. If it were the case that the homosexual inclination truly were a disfiguration of a fundamentally heterosexual structure of desire, then there would be no conflict between the two teachings. There would only be a conflict between the truth and the grave disfiguration of desire in people who don’t want to recognise their perversity, a very deeply rooted conflict, of course. However, if it were the case that the homosexual inclination is simply a thing that just is “like that”, and is not a disfiguration of anything, in that case the official characterization, and along with it the absolute prohibition, is false. And the deeply rooted conflict would be one between the truth and the grave disfiguration of the intelligence and desire of the forces which do not want to recognise this emerging truth.
There are so many problems with the Church's current understanding that these defects in logic show up everywhere.   And not only in the teaching on homosexuality;  I've heard people claim that 90% of the Western Catholic population (and some similarly high percentage - I've read 78% - worldwide) is "living in mortal sin," because these people do not agree with their Church on the matter of birth control.  And it's obvious that the current teaching on homosexuality is inseparable from the Church's teaching on "generativity."

Clearly, those who want to maintain these teachings are willing to go to almost any length to do so, rather than to look at the teachings themselves to see where the Church might have gone wrong - or might need to adjust given present-day realities.  It seems utterly crystal clear to me that every single problem instantly goes away once you teach that "lifelong monogamy" is the actual core of the teaching.

And "lifelong monogamy" brings along with it some very key things:
  • It's a "type" of the faithfulness to God which is, as far as I can tell, the central teaching of Scripture; this is by far the most important factor, but there are others, too.
  • It teaches and inculcates this faithfulness and the value of stability
  • And "stability" is, we believe, the best possible foundation for the procreation and raising of children
  • It offers a path to emotional and psychological depth - AKA "flourishing."
This is not to disagree, either, with the obvious fact that in some cases divorce is the best solution; we aren't going to replace one form of absolutism with another. "Lifelong monogamy" is the ideal - just as "faithfulness to God" is the ideal.   It's Scriptural, too.

There are a couple of good (and feminist!) arguments for the Catholic teaching on birth control, I concede. 
  • First, it does remind people that sex is not a toy or a game - but a means to procreate, and to bind monogamous couples together.   It shouldn't be used lightly or carelessly - and especially not to the detriment of one member of the couple.  But don't faithfulness to God, and "lifelong monogamy," also cover all that?
  • Second, it could help make people more aware of their own acts and actions, which is usually a good thing for a wide variety of reasons.   Of course, women are almost always well aware of the possible ramifications of sex - so this is mainly a teaching for men.
  • Third, it nullifies any possible dangers from hormones and implants - all of which are dangers for women only and not for men; there are other highly reliable birth control methods, though.  And there are "non-generative" sexual acts also.
But again:  "lifelong monogamy" - and other Christian teachings, such as those found in 1 Corinthians 13 (for instance) - cover all those issues.   Birth control rode in on the shirttails of the marked decrease in infant mortality, and in the mortality of women in childbirth; the Church is, I'm sure, very much in favor of these latter facts.

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