Matthew Schmitz’s recent post on First Thoughts (“Evangelicals Oppose Gay Marriage, Now More than Ever”, Wednesday, July 10, 2013) noted that First Things has become the venue of choice for discussion of the pastoral issues concerning celibate gay Christians, one which has now (happily) come to include a first-person perspective. The exploration of the terminology used by the Church about the personal status of homosexuality has formed a major thread in this discussion, and has brought forth many articles. On the one hand, Daniel Mattson has written some pointed pieces arguing that the Church condemns describing a person as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ (e.g. “Why I Don’t Call Myself a Gay Christian,” “Homosexual Orientation, or Disorientation?” and “In Defense of the Church’s Challenging Language on Homosexuality“). On the other hand, Joshua Gonnerman has written an explanation of how the omission of a word from the original Latin has led to a misreading of the English text of Homosexualitatis Problema. This would form what one might call the “general argument about identity terms.”
This exchange, and the public comments that surround it, has served to exhibit that there is a great ambiguity of understanding in the public sphere concerning the stratification of the different “identifiers” people use to describe themselves. For example, Mattson seems to be advancing the position that even the use of the word “gay” to describe oneself is an act of disobedience to Church teaching about the person. He claims that to use the word is not to support those who have same-sex attractions in their life in Christ, but to endorse those things to which those inclinations point. On the other hand, many of the other authors (Ron Belgau, Joshua Gonnerman, Aaron Taylor, Melinda Selmys, Wesley Hill) have noted that the term ‘gay’ is itself a much more nuanced term, that does not necessarily imply homosexual action or even a determination of will towards that action, and as such deserves no moral censure in some prudent uses.
Much of the discussion has been with regard to the meaning of the word ‘gay’, but some should be given to the contextual meaning of all “identifiers.” Frequently, when speaking about the topic with those from groups like Courage, I have heard a sort of shorthand used to distinguish between different sorts of identifiers. Some are “primary,” and some are “secondary.” Without clarifying what these mean (and their meaning is not often clarified) one might think that some words (‘gay’, ‘Catholic’, ‘Protestant’) are essentially primary identifiers and some (‘musical’, ‘healthy’, ‘grammatical’) are secondary, being more distant from the core character or lifestyle of the person identified. In this case, primary and secondary are matters of degree: I am more primarily Catholic than I am Irish, because sometimes I am not recognizable as Irish, but everything I do is conditioned by my Catholicism. One can see elements of this in the discussion of how Catholicism affects the expression and reception of one’s sexuality. If this is the case, then it makes some sense to outlaw those “primary identifiers” which connote a subordination of the person to their inclinations. Thus, if one’s lifestyle is actually dedicated to the seeking-out of homosexual actions, such an identifier in its primacy would be parallel to defining oneself as an alcoholic. Yet the difficulty for this position is that this is not the meaning of primary or secondary, nor does this speak to the stratification of personal identity.
The Thomistic tradition on personhood can clarify the matter. The form of our descriptive language must match the form of the being described, or our language fails, since language is a likeness of our knowing and knowing a likeness of the known. Therefore, our language, insofar as some uses of it are “primary” and some are “secondary”, must match the way these things described are primary or secondary in the human person. This appears to be more complicated than the mere matter of degree described above. As Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange notes in his Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, personhood is a positive substantial mode of the union between essence and existence, meaning that it is prior to all finite attributes of the thing. Everything that “is”, “is” in some particular way by which we talk about it, and these particular ways we call “ontological determinations.” The attributes we describe with identifiers (“black”, “brown”, “athletic”) are physical identifiers, modes of ontological determination of a pre-existing person based on the intrinsically purposed (“teleological”) character (or “nature”) of that person, according to which those physical determinations can come to pass. But the personhood, that by which a person is a person, is prior to all natural developments of that person, which is why the Church can make a claim as profound as “human life begins at conception” alongside the more contested claim that “all human beings are persons.”
Robert Spaemann supports this in his Persons: The Difference Between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something’; the human subject is “self-differentiated” from, and primary with regard to, everything that might be true “about” him or her. If I were to say “I am a person”, that would be primary with respect to everything else. If I were then to say “I am an Irishman”, that would be secondary, because it depends, like everything else, upon my (primary) personhood. Thus if someone says “I am a Catholic who accepts the Church’s teaching, and I am gay,” they can be using the identifier ‘gay’ in a secondary, but still an important and arguably more descriptive manner. And in this situation, all it need connote (to speak technically) is an “objective disorder.”
This has the effect of changing the picture we have of “primary” and “secondary.” Suppose we adopted the idea that a “primary identifier” is a word set in stone, which can mean only one thing. In order to say this, we would have to make the claim, at the same time, that every person who refers to their own self as “gay” must mean this to have the same profundity, the same ontological depth, as they understood “human being” or “person” to have. This would indeed be overkill, since to be homosexual OR heterosexual, or indeed, to be sexual at all, is a property of the human person and thus logically secondary to the person. It would be to deny one’s own personhood. I do not think, based upon the discussion so far, that such a use is at all universal. I do not even think it is common, except to those who are profoundly psychosexually immature, on the level of those abused in their childhood, endlessly replaying the pain of abuse in their mind.
But adopting the second understanding, the understanding behind the use of “gay” as a secondary identifier that is nevertheless powerfully connected with personal identity, seems to be the most obvious way to understand the objections made by the “chaste gay Catholic” community, here at Spiritual Friendship especially. In the second scheme, one is a person first, and however-sexual second, but that sexuality, as John Paul II understood in his Theology of the Body, is intimately and powerfully connected (materially) to the growth of the human person into their personhood. This matches the stratification of the person and his or her inclinations much more precisely. Thus, for example, a Catholic is a “person” primarily, and “fallen” secondarily. Is it unimportant that we are subject to original sin? By no means; it is quite important. Is it our fault that we are subject to it? Again, by no means; yet we undergo it.
Now, no Catholic has ever been prohibited, even pastorally, from saying “I am a fallen human person.” ‘Human person’ is the primary identifier; ‘fallen’ the secondary circumstance and an objective disorder. If we cannot admit this by word or deed in public or even to ourselves, we cannot seek aid in our fallen state. We could not begin to rise. But our fallen state is conditioned by our knowledge of the Cross, which we express by our primary identifier “Christian”; by our baptism, we are changed radically and metaphysically. If all should be allowed to admit our fallenness without moral censure for being so, can it be logical or pastoral to prohibit admitting the ways in which people are “objectively”, but not “morally”, disordered, seemingly by no fault of their own, as part of the history of their relationship with Christ? We gain nothing morally from prohibiting this, except a mere political expediency, and at the cost of so many souls.
Tom Sundaram is a Master’s student at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, with a background in the study of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition.