Our Cultural Difficulty in Assessing Same-Sex Attraction
The plain fact of the matter is that talking intelligibly about homosexuality and gay marriage is extremely difficult in contemporary Western culture. Two recent news reports bear this out. The former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, has strongly criticized the Church’s condemnation of homosexual acts, and a Catholic school in the American state of Washington is backing away from its previous firm stance against employees who enter gay marriages.
The attitudes expressed in both cases are understandable, but they are also wrong. They are understandable because most people now see homosexual behavior, including gay marriage, as a matter of equal rights. The argument runs like this: No one sexual orientation should be preferred, any more than a single height or eye color or race should be preferred. Right-handed people are not better than left-handed people just because lefties are in the minority, and there is nothing wrong with using your left hand instead of your right.
Thus Mary McAleese sped along the on-ramp to righteousness by stating: “I don’t like my Church’s attitude to gay people.” She even expressed the hope that Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who resigned because of homosexual sins with seminarians, would write the story of his life to provide encouragement to other homosexuals. Of course, when she added that she did not like the attitude expressed in the expression “love the sinner, hate the sin” (because nobody likes to be called a sinner), she muddied the waters considerably. Certainly she would approve that sentiment with, say, thieves and murderers. Unless she has lost even her culture's vestigial moral sense, she probably understands that those who commit serious sins and crimes need love, forgiveness and fresh hope. It is just that she does not believe homosexual activity is sinful.
The same is apparently true of the president and CEO of Eastside Catholic School near Seattle, Sr. Mary Tracy. This was the same school at which Mark Zmuda was fired after his same-sex wedding last Summer, apparently on the advice of Archbishop J. Peter Sartain. Four hundred students gathered to protest that decision. Now the part-time drama coach, Sephanie Merrow, has announced her impeding gay marriage, immediately seizing the highest possible moral ground: “I’m doing this to support the kids, and what the kids are trying to do is get to the Pope and change the Church.” Really? For the children? Ah well, Sister Tracy for her part has stated that the noble Ms. Merrow is welcome to stay on. She also said, “I look forward to the day where no individual loses their job because they married a person of the same sex.”
The point here is the same as with McAleese. One cannot imagine that Sister Tracy would say that she looks forward to the day when no active murderers or practicing thieves can lose their jobs as teachers in a Catholic school just because the Catholic Church regards homicide and stealing as immoral. Still less would she rush to welcome their continued employment when and if they came out of the closet that conceals breakers of the fifth and seventh commandments. No, the whole issue for Sister Tracy revolves around the fact that she does not think homosexual acts are morally wrong. As such, proponents of the homosexual lifestyle pose no moral threat to Catholic youth. (I should also note that there is a clear pattern of moral failure at this particular school, both in hiring and Catholic instruction, but that is a story for another day.)
A Complete Moral Analysis
Again, it is easy to see why so many people view the matter in this light. It is also interesting to note that everyone instinctively turns to the natural law to justify their decision that homosexual acts and gay marriage are morally acceptable. They actually get part of the natural law right. The natural law teaches that our biological traits and even our psychological or affective tendencies are morally neutral. It is not evil to be born with, or even to have experienced a previous conditioning toward, a particular tendency. Fairness demands equal treatment for people with different biological traits or natural inclinations.
And this is perfectly true. Fairness is an essential part of the natural law. It is also the most easily perceived part of it, and the part that children and young people most quickly recognize. The appeal to fairness is learned very early (and often selfishly, of course) as we grow up, because we all seek justifications for getting whatever it is we want that somebody else, at least in a similar situation, has. This runs riot, for example, among siblings. Under a properly mature guidance, this perception of the natural law develops into a well-formed moral sense.
But to stop here is to stop with what our own contemporary cultural fashions happen to incorporate as obvious. Where the McAleese-Tracy analysis breaks down is in assuming that all inclinations move us toward the good, so that it is always morally right to act in accordance with our inclinations. This difficulty ought to be clearer than it is because, despite the common acceptance of this assumption in sexual matters, everybody actually agrees that as a general proposition it is decidedly false. Very frequently, our inclinations are disordered in various ways, and the only moral response to them is resistance and the formation of counter-habits which can gradually minimize the harm they do. Our culture has simply lost its ability to recognize that same-sex attraction is a disordered inclination, much like greed or the tendency toward alcoholism or drug dependency or any sort of lust.
Same-sex attraction is both a heavy cross and a significant spiritual opportunity. This is something I made a special point of exploring sympathetically in Homosexuality: A Special Call to the Love of God and Man. But all disordered inclinations are crosses—and each of us has quite a few of them, both innate and conditioned, running the gamut from avarice to zenophobia. They are permitted by God in our fallen state because they provide an important opportunity to recognize our weakness and our need for God, and to grow in holiness by seeking our fulfillment not in ourselves but God, as He has created us to do. In fact, it is part and parcel of the human estate that we define ourselves in response to the inclinations we feel, chipping away at the bad ones and maximizing the good. In a nutshell, that is how we grow in perfection.
It is true that our given characteristics are morally neutral; but how we act in response to them is never morally neutral. The human person is inescapably a moral agent; this is the key to our dignity. So what McAleese and Tracy need to do is revisit the question of how we know that homosexual acts are immoral, which knowledge comes from a dispassionate analysis of our sexual design. Or, if we do not perceive that design, we can learn of it from Revelation. Either way, it follows that same-sex attraction must be morally resisted, from which it further follows that those who uphold the rightness of homosexual acts should be denied leadership positions in our churches and schools, from which it follows finally that it is absolutely essential to love the sinner and hate the sin.
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Posted by: seewig -
Jan. 16, 2014 1:20 PM ET USA
Very insightful thoughts offered here in the Comments. Pope Francis’ warning during his homily today (1/16/14) at Casa Santa Marta hits the nail on its head: Lack of "Gospel" in our lives. Corruption is pervading society because "we" all have become corrupt, and with us some of our priests and bishops. Reading Scripture and true prayer from our heart is the first step we ought to take. As well as penance for our own sins. We cannot effect change except through God and His mercy. Let's do it!
Posted by: oakes.spalding7384 -
Jan. 13, 2014 3:37 AM ET USA
The number of Americans that consciously take their moral code from either the Natural Law or Revelation is now quite small, embracing probably only a minority subset of even Church going Christians. That won't change anytime soon. The most important thing now is to safeguard the teachings of Christ and His Church from the modernist "insiders" who currently think they see a chance to erase those teachings once and for all.
Posted by: John J Plick -
Jan. 12, 2014 10:13 AM ET USA
The understanding of metaphysics is abysmal. It is NOT the Church that makes a thing "good" or "evil," rather it is the nature of a thing or act that makes it so. It is for the very reason that fallen men have such difficulty with discerning such things that Mother Church defines them explicitly. The fence around the tar pit is not what makes the tar pit "evil." It is the height of idiocy to think that if anyone just "takes down the fence" and pretends "no danger" that then it will be so.
Posted by: koinonia -
Jan. 11, 2014 10:21 AM ET USA
Reality demonstrates that fairness is often elusive. It is not fair that so many leaders and educators in the Church have been allowed to come to and to promulgate so many false notions without reprisal. It is not fair that so many members of the Body- "engrafted by baptism" as Pope Francis just described ( ie Catherine of Siena)- find themselves robbed of truth and summarily, grace. We are called to a much deeper love. The scandals have uncovered an evil that is "dug in" and charity wanes.
Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 -
Jan. 11, 2014 1:28 AM ET USA
Regarding homosexuality, and gay marriage and that kind of thing, I think I can understand the Pope's remarks about the danger of it becoming an obsession. It is the Gospel that must be proclaimed to the world, not those moral teachings. No one can be compelled to do good, wisdom cannot be taught to fools (see bk. of Proverbs). But I'm talking about the world. The Church, on the other hand, needs all the discipline she can get on this subject. She cannot afford to be divided against herself.
Posted by: FredC -
Jan. 10, 2014 8:21 PM ET USA
We should emphasize that it is good for two men to be close friends. Why do those choosing the homosexual life style think it is necessary for the two men to engage in sexual acts with each other? Giving each other pleasure is not justification any more than would be giving each other pleasure by over-eating together or getting drunk together.
Posted by: jg23753479 -
Jan. 10, 2014 7:58 PM ET USA
Everyone should realize that Mary McAleese is only one item of evidence concerning the decline of Catholicism in Ireland; there are many more, some even more disturbing. It is distressing to know that this heterodox woman is currently pursuing a Licentiate of Canon Law at the Gregorian. Soon she will be broadcasting her misguided religious views using that title as a way of making her thoroughly un-Catholic pass muster, at least in circles insouciant of truth.
Posted by: jplaunder1846 -
Jan. 10, 2014 6:39 PM ET USA
A very good and clear article. I am afraid too many Catholics in prominent positions try not to offend their 'cultural associates' for fear of being politically incorrect. It is a pity that they do not reflect more on Christ's remarks "Go your sins are forgive. Sin no more."