Fighting Heterosexuality: The Sin of Categorizing Persons
My title is not a slip of the pen; it is not supposed to be “fighting homosexuality”. But what could I possibly have against heterosexuality? The problems with this term were recently outlined by Michael Hannon in First Things. The argument is imperfect, I think, but it bears close examination. We can learn from it.
What Hannon suggests in “Against Heterosexuality” is that the terms heterosexual and homosexual are relatively recent inventions which inaccurately categorize persons while stripping sexuality of its moral dimension. Hannon makes very good sense on both counts, and while his case against the normative character of heterosexual attraction is weak and just a trifle wild, Hannon’s overall position aligns nicely with that of many CatholicCulture.org readers, who would prefer that we stop using the term “homosexuality” and instead discuss that issue in terms of “same-sex attraction”.
The difficulty posed by the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” is that whenever we apply them to persons rather than to behaviors, they carry tremendous unwanted baggage. The terms imply three things that are universally false: First, that the human person can be defined in terms of his sexual inclinations; second, that these inclinations divide persons into simple and obvious permanent classes; and third, that our moral analysis of sexual behavior must be rooted in these inclinations.
Breaking It Down
It is in fact an enormous error to view another person through the prism of his alleged personal inclinations or temptations. In the case of Christians seeking to respond to sinful behaviors, half the battle is lost as soon as we identify another person primarily in terms of whatever personal inclinations present problems for the Christian life. This is like categorizing someone who experiences cupidity as a “greeder”; it suggests that at the very root of his nature, this person’s relationship to the saving power of Jesus Christ is fundamentally different (and in fact negatively different) from those who are not “greeders”.
In addition, Hannon’s point is well-taken that sexual inclinations are not fixed in stone, that they can and do change based on cultural norms and on what people commit themselves to personally. In support of this, he cites: (a) Widely-known examples of changing inclinations and multiple inclinations, (b) The growing movement toward unbridled sexual experimentation in the more libertine corners of contemporary culture; and (c) Changing sexual theory. Queer theorists, he says, are in the process of abandoning their push to define “homosexuality” as a fixed classification, partly because this undermines future possibilities for fun which may no longer be considered out of bounds. Sexual inclinations, especially in the dissolute, can be a moving target.
Finally, Hannon is certainly correct in arguing that the emphasis on heterosexuality and homosexuality fails to provide an adequate moral framework for handling sexual desire. The presumption used to be that heterosexuality was morally normative, but by themselves heterosexual inclinations are incapable of serving as a moral standard. For this purpose, the traditional Catholic approach works much better, the approach which ties the proper use of our sexual faculties inextricably to procreation. All sexual behavior, whether heterosexual or homosexual, must be judged in the same way against this teleological standard. In broad strokes, sexual activity is moral when open to producing new life in the family—the stable marital context which children require. But heterosexual lust is no better (and no worse) than homosexual lust. Contraceptive heterosexual sex is no better (and no worse) than homosexual sex.
And Yet Heterosexuality Really Is Normative
While there is much truth in this, the weakness in Hannon’s argument, which I insist on correcting in my own exposition, is its refusal to grant any normative value at all to heterosexuality. Hannon is correct in rooting sexual morality at least partly in the procreative purpose of sex. But he fails to see that this teleology is not derived from Revelation alone, as if it is something not found in our natural experience. In fact, the normative character of heterosexuality is built into nature itself—which does not mean it cannot be abused.
We need to understand that, while any sort of lust is always disordered, sexual attraction between men and women has actually been designed into the human person by the Creator. As designed, this is a natural attraction properly ordered to its ends, even though it can become disordered by escaping the bounds of reason and love. To the contrary, same-sex attraction is fundamentally disordered in itself, because it lacks the primary and defining end of human sexuality. The term heterosexual should, scientifically, refer to the fact that the human species reproduces through an exchange between male and female, which is an accurate statement. The term homosexual should, scientifically, refer to the fact that the human species reproduces through the agency of only one of the sexes, which is false. All human persons, regardless of inclinations, are in fact heterosexual.
That is why heterosexuality is normative, and why its contemporary divorce from reproduction in our culture is not rooted in the fundamental nature of heterosexuality, but in its abuse. Reading Hannon, one would almost think that this distinction is irrelevant, and that only fools would insist that heterosexuality can be properly linked to the Christian understanding of sex. In fact, the very moral framework Hannon recommends that we recover (and he is absolutely correct in this recommendation) demands a heterosexual context. To put the matter simply, heterosexual sexual inclinations are not always properly ordered; but non-heterosexual sexual inclinations are always disordered.
For this reason, I do not see the main problem as a normative concept of heterosexuality. The main problem is that our culture, obsessed with sexual feelings and pleasures, presses us to identify our very nature with our sexual inclinations. Christians should try to avoid this when dealing with anyone, including themselves, who has wayward sexual desires. But in our time this is particularly difficult to avoid because, in order to justify homosexuality, modern culture identifies the “gay” or the “lesbian” as defined by sexual inclinations, thereby demanding approval and rights for what is not a nature or a person but a disordered attraction, or even a sin.
There is a reductionism about this process which makes everyone much smaller than they really are, and which makes it particularly important that Christians never treat anyone who faces temptation as if their nature or their personhood is defined by that temptation. This is challenging because so many people have been formed to believe their sexual inclinations do define them as persons, so that any criticism of these inclinations is taken as a personal attack. But in the end the challenge is worth meeting. Success here means treating each person not as something less—but as someone more.
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Posted by: jg23753479 -
Mar. 17, 2014 12:18 PM ET USA
Randal Mandock: Church documents once also used terms like "the Jewish problem" and "usury" in ways no one would think of using them today. Then Church language changed, sometimes abruptly as in that of the first example I cite. There is no reason that shouldn't or couldn't happen again concerning the specific question of sodomy. We've been wise enough to avoid the nonsense about "choice"; time to revisit "homosexual" and all its currently associated propagandistic nonsense.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Mar. 15, 2014 10:18 AM ET USA
During new catechist orientation every year I stress the importance of using the language of the Church in all catechetical contexts. Not only does this discipline allow greater precision in explanation of Catholic speculative and moral truths, it can save the catechist embarrassment and the potential ire of thoughtful parents. If the official documents of the Church are framed as describing the "same sex" inclination as homosexual, who are we to change the definition?
Posted by: John J Plick -
Mar. 15, 2014 7:25 AM ET USA
It is said that it is even by God that the sinner is allowed to derive the pleasure in “sinning…” But on the Day of Judgment even that will evaporate.
Posted by: jg23753479 -
Mar. 14, 2014 7:09 PM ET USA
Splendid essay. I hope it signals a determination at CathCult to avoid all those tendentious propaganda terms (many of them absurd neologisms) like "gay", "homosexual", "homophobic", "transgender", etc. To a large extent, what we call something influences how we think about it. It's the difference between "freedom fighter" and "terrorist"; between "labor leader" and "Communist agitator". To date we have let those who favor sodomy and associated practices have a linguistic field day.