Sexual Orientation: Is That Even a Thing?

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently established an online resource entitled Marriage: Unique for a Reason, to educate Catholics on why marriage “should be promoted and protected as the union of one man and one woman.”

Done properly, this is an important task. But it must be remembered that the debate about gay marriage is less about homosexuality than it is about the nature and purpose of marriage as an institution and as a sacrament. Precisely because we are in need of sound teaching on this topic, it is disappointing to see the USCCB’s website—whose posts are written by anonymous “staff” rather than by bishops—used not to teach about marriage, but as an opportunity for promoting half-baked theories about homosexuality.

In a recent post criticizing “the flawed anthropology of ‘sexual orientation’,” the staff opine:

The problem with treating “sexual orientation” as a description of a class of people is that it proposes a deeply flawed anthropology, or understanding of the human person. Christian anthropology teaches that each person is called to accept his or her sexual identity as a man or as a woman (Catechism, no. 2333). This is consistent with the understanding that man—male and female—is a unity of body and soul (Catechism, no. 362-368). Our identity as human persons is intimately connected with our identity as a man or as a woman. In short, the body matters.

What the language of “sexual orientation” does, anthropologically, is separate one’s identity from one’s bodily nature as a man or woman, placing a premium on one’s desires and inclinations. The body then becomes a “bottom layer”—essentially meaningless matter—over which one’s “real” identity—comprised of desires and inclinations—is super-imposed.

It’s not easy to see how the authors arrived at their conclusion. The admission that I am attracted to my own sex, that there are other people who are similarly attracted, and that because of that fact we can be called a “class” (a word denoting a category of things or persons with some property or attribute in common) is clearly not, per se, an attempt to negate my masculinity, to deny the unity of my body and soul, or to reduce my body to “meaningless matter.” The mere assertion that a homosexual orientation exists doesn’t even tell you whether I think it’s good or bad.

But aside from misguided logic, there are two very serious moral problems with the claim that people cannot identify themselves by their sexual orientation.

The first problem is that the Church does it all the time. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to “homosexual persons” as those who “experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex.” In other words, homosexuals are treated as a class of people defined by a common sexual attraction or orientation. Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, by the very nature of its title, envisages homosexuals as a specific group with specific pastoral needs. More controversially, Vatican criteria for seminary admission clearly envisage those with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” as a specific category of persons who must be excluded from Holy Orders. Whether one agrees with the criteria or not, the point is that recent Catholic teaching and discipline has consistently treated sexual orientation as a fact of life and “as a description of a class of people.” If the staff writers at Marriage: Unique for a Reason are correct that “the language of ‘sexual orientation’” proposes “a deeply flawed anthropology,” then why has the Church repeatedly used this language?

Because Catholics ought to value the guidance of the Magisterium, we should be worried here. When people claiming to speak on behalf of the Church contradict one another, it can only lead to contempt for the Church’s legitimate authority. Most Catholics do not have the benefit of a theological training that allows them to parse the difference between the authority of papal statements, documents from bishops’ conferences, and blogs written by staff working for bishops’ conferences. What the ordinary person sees is simply “the Church” contradicting itself.

The second problem that needs to be highlighted is that denying gay people a language with which to discuss their experience of their sexuality easily becomes a form of repression which is counter-productive to the aim of giving appropriate moral guidance and pastoral care to those same people.

Michel Foucault (who was certainly no fan of Catholic sexual teaching), in his three-volume History of Sexuality, defined repression as “a sentence to disappear … an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence.” He notes:

If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression.

Similarly, if homosexuality is repressed and condemned to “nonexistence” and “silence,” then identifying oneself as having a homosexual orientation, or even speaking about the concept of a homosexual orientation as if it were a real thing, “has the appearance of a deliberate transgression.” A gay or lesbian Christian who may simply be trying to be honest about their experience and their difficulties takes on the appearance—when seen through the distorted lens of a repression-promoting ideology—of a transgressor who is promoting “a deeply flawed anthropology.”

Repression is dangerous because, like many particularly virulent evils, it does not negate the good. Rather, it imitates and counterfeits it, just as Scripture tells us the devil masquerades as an “angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). Repression looks very similar to simply resisting sinful temptation. But, in contrast to resistance or sublimation, repression does not help people deal with unhealthy desires. It simply embeds those desires deeper in the psyche, from where they emerge later in a more perverse form.

We should resist the notion that gay and lesbian Christians are transgressors or heretics simply because they are honest about who they are. When these kinds of ideas are allowed to gain currency in the Church, is it any wonder that so many gay people are writing to the Pope—as he told us in his recent interview—telling him that they have been “socially wounded” by the very Church which exists to “heal the broken in heart and bind up their wounds” (Ps 147:3)?

By allowing the voices of gay Christians who seek to obey Church teaching to come to the fore, instead of demanding repression and silence, the Church only stands to gain. These voices cannot but help the Church move beyond ideologies and pastoral responses that are inconsistent and contradictory, toward responses which both preserve the moral truth about human sexuality handed down to us by Christian tradition, and are able to speak to the gay community with an authentic voice that reflects the reality of their experience.

Aaron TaylorAaron Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at Boston College. He previously studied at the Universities of London and Oxford, and worked for a London-based research institute dedicated to raising the quality of thinking about public policy in civil society.

76 thoughts on “Sexual Orientation: Is That Even a Thing?

  1. How does one speak about one’s experience validly with those who see orientation as reinforcing the flawed anthropology? Obviously, people should be encouraged to listen to the stories of others without demanding certain language be used, but on the other side of the coin, how should we talk in ways that others can hear and understand?

    • My response, is that sometimes you cant. To attempt do so, is often a bridge too far. You risk being perceived as a big sinner – one who is deceived by sin and by negative spiritual forces. That’s the case if you use the language of gay activism, anyway. Some will not regard the opinions of “unbridled sinners” as valid, and if they regard homosexual experience as a choice, then they will regard it as unbridled sin.

      On the other hand, if you are perceived to be the guy next door, a faithful Catholic who merely experiences same-sex attraction, but does not act on it, then the communication can be more successful. Wearing this hat may mean not referring to yourself as “gay” or labelling yourself in any way as same-sex attracted, or using any gay jargon, but rather humbly talking purely about experiencing an attraction that you did not invite upon yourself.

  2. Aaron,

    It is possible that the staff writer is using the term ‘class’ not in the mere sense of ‘set’ but in a *legal* context, that is, with a legal framework in view, and thus in the sense of “legal class.” In that context, as the staff writer attempts to explain (but doesn’t do so very well), ‘class’ is understood (a) not only in terms of inclinations, but also in terms of behaviors, and (b) as having class-specific rights, including the right to engage in the behaviors characterizing the class. That seems to me quite different from merely acknowledging the existence of a set of persons who share some disposition, the expression of which, may not be essential for the flourishing of such persons. It seems to me that you and this staff writer are talking past each other, because what that person is criticizing is conceiving of same-sex attraction as delineating a fundamental, natural class of human persons with a unique teleology involving the acting out of this attraction, and thereby entailing that for the sake of justice and civil rights, this behavior must be legally sanctioned. If this staff writer is using ‘class’ in that sense, then both your objections are met, because then your tu quoque obviously fails, and a language in which to discuss sexual orientation remains available.

    – Bryan

    • When Aaron showed me an earlier draft of this post, I raised this as an objection. The staff writer clearly starts with the problematic ways that sexual orientation as a protected class is used in contemporary American jurisprudence. But there are several points in the post that resist the interpretation you offer, that the writer is only talking about sexual orientation as a protected legal class.

      First, the post’s title is not, “The flawed jurisprudence of ‘sexual orientation’”; the staff writer is trying to make an anthropological point, not, primarily, a legal one.

      Second, presuming that the author’s point was focused on the misuse of “sexual orientation” in the legal sphere, one would expect some distinctions.

      Consider an analogy: the concept of “privacy” is much misused in contemporary jurisprudence. But an intelligent critic of that misuse would recognize that “privacy” is an important concept, both in the law and in Catholic teaching. A Catholic writer who just rejected the concept of privacy as a whole, without distinctions, would not be contributing to our understanding of the problem.

      Or consider a different analogy. It is correct to say that a Catholic politician may vote for a bill that allows abortions. But stated that broadly, without drawing proper distinctions, the claim is obviously misleading at best.

      The principle abuse does not abolish use is important here, and the fact that the concept of “sexual orientation” is used badly in some legal contexts does not justify the sweeping condemnations found in the post.

      If the author’s intention was only to criticize the misuse of the concept in some legal contexts, then Aaron is not merely “talking past” the author: he is pointing out real confusion in staff writer’s translation from intention to execution, and offering important and necessary clarifications.

      But I think that the footnote at the end of the post casts additional doubt on the interpretation you suggest. In the footnote, the author recalls the distinction between person, inclination, and act employed in the Church’s moral teaching. So far, so good. But rather than employing the term “homosexual person” which is used in most Magisterial documents which address these distinctions, the staff writer shifts to talking about experiencing same-sex attraction. I have no great love for the “homosexual persons” language, nor any objection to talking about persons who experience same-sex attraction. But this suggests that even in the contexts where the Magisterium speaks of a category of persons, the staff writer deliberately shifts away from the Magisterium’s language in order to avoid doing so.

      For example, in that note, the author uses the phrase “persons who describe themselves as having a particular orientation” in a context where the CDF simply would have said, “homosexual persons.”

      At the end of that note, the author writes that his or her goal is “questioning the underlying presuppositions about who the human person is (the philosophical field of study called anthropology) embedded within the concept of ‘sexual orientation’ as it is generally used in law and culture.” Which is fine: there is much to question there.

      However, if the author wanted, as you suggest, to leave a language in which to discuss sexual orientation available, presumably it would have been reasonable to distinguish between legitimate uses of the concept and those which are problematic in the way it is “generally used in law and culture.” Since the author does not do this, it is reasonable to conclude, on the basis of the considerations above that either (a) the author has muddled his or her message so much that further clarification is needed; or (b) the author really did not intend to leave a language for discussing sexual orientation available.

      • Ron,

        I think the title and the footnote only confirm what I was saying. A merely neutral or non-ontological sense of ‘set’ or ‘class’ would have no anthropological implications, and wouldn’t require any anthropological correction. What the staff writer is criticizing, in my opinion, is a conception of ‘class’ and “sexual orientation” purportedly grounded in nature, namely, a fundamental, natural class of human persons with a unique teleology fulfilled only in acting upon one’s same-sex attractions, hence the use of the phrase “define themselves.” I agree that one would expect some distinctions, but you also to have be careful with the argument from silence, especially one that makes the author out to contradict him or herself, since he or she acknowledges that there are persons with “same-sex attraction.” Obviously, given that statement, the staff writer isn’t saying that such a thing cannot be spoken of. Rather, what he or she is criticizing is a certain *conception* of ‘class’ and “sexual orientation” that attempts to root or ground this in the fundamental nature of those persons, and raises the concern that this language of ‘sexual orientation’ has this connotation, precisely because it is typically used and understood in this anthropologically-loaded way. And that’s why I think Aaron’s reply misses the point and criticizes a straw man. I don’t see anything “half-baked” there either, or any argument showing something there to be “half-baked.”

        – Bryan

      • But Bryan, that’s exactly what Ron points out is problematic: that the author condemns “the language of ‘sexual orientation'” generally, when at most the problem is with certain ways of viewing or conceiving sexual orientation.

        This is the distinction that lots of conservative Christians try to make; they insist on “SSA” instead of “Gay” because they insist that “Gay” implies a whole “Essentialist” philosophy. But that’s simply not true in practice and they can’t just declare that it is; many even liberal gay activists are social-constructionists rather than essentialists, and for most people in the world today “sexual orientation” is understood apart from any particular philosophy ABOUT sexual orientation. It’s just a description of having attractions to the same sex, and the idea that there is a minority united by that experience.

        In itself the language doesn’t have any particular philosophical commitment to how the ontology of “attraction” is parsed out (as if the use of something as a noun always indicates substantial reality or something like that). I think most people here would understand the problems with an “essentialist” construction of sexual orientation, and indeed such a confused understanding seems to be at the root of some of the legal muddle over the idea of same-sex marriage as a “right” to be free “to be who you are” or something like that (even though “gay marriage” is really same-sex marriage; that is to say, two straight men could take legal advantage of it just as easily, unless god forbid they start introducing a “sexual orientation” test to prevent that!)

        But it is a conservative bogeyman to insist that the very concession of the existence of “gay” or “sexual orientation” always denotes an essentialist construction of the phenomenon of attraction to members of the same sex, of homosexuality. It just doesn’t, in practice. Not even historically, really, as there has been an essentialist versus social constructionist debate WITHIN the gay intellectual community from the start even.

        No, the implication of statements like this, that seek to delegitimatize the very notion of sexual orientation as a stable pattern in peoples emotional life, or to invalidate “gay” as an honest identification based on recognizing such a stable pattern…basically are aimed at trying to reverse the raising-of-consciousness that gay people have experienced in the last century.

        The insistence on the use of “same-sex attracted” concedes, of course, that people with such attractions exist, accidentally speaking, but by negating identification of “gay” or talk of “sexual orientation” as a valid social descriptor, the real aim seems to be to deconstruct the idea that same-sex attracted people constitute any sort of united group, any sort of self-aware minority, and thus to repress any notion that they have common political interests or a common oppression that the self-aware class-consciousness allows us to imagine and formulate.

        Reducing “gay” to “same-sex attracted” is not, then, really about an abstract anthropological turn. It’s about a political turn desiring to say that this (shared) experience is as irrelevant for establishing social and political affinity as hair color or “being a pizza lover” or some idiosyncrasy like that.

        But that’s about as specious as trying to deconstruct Race into merely a question of physiognomy and geographical ancestral origin. Color matters because of the shared social reality it embeds one in with other people so-embedded. That social construct might be entirely historically contingent, but it’s simply the current social reality (social realities are “real” too in an important sense), and to try to deconstruct it by saying “there’s no such thing as race, there is just a spectrum of facial features and melanin concentrations and hair type” as if “black people don’t really exist, that’s not a valid class, there are merely people who happen to have darker or lighter skin” could only be interpreted as an attempt to sweep Race and its history and the common experiences and interests that go with it under the rug, as if the best solution would be to go back to not having racial awareness or consciousness.

        That might be great in a world where race truly was irrelevant, but in a world where there are still structural inequalities and privilege related to race, the attempt to deconstruct racial class-consciousness would only be, in practice, an attempt to eliminate the possibility of “seeing” those inequalities by eliminating the very category-of-thought that allows them to be seen, by eliminating the classification that allows a pattern to become evident from the social information. Likewise attempts to deconstruct “gay” and to act as if homosexuals are not united by anything other than being “same-sex attracted,” when really heterosexual privilege is a structural reality in a variety of ways, even if it is all social construction.

  3. It seems very strange to use the title of the 1986 Letter as justification for a classification of persons with a homosexual identity within the Church, when the message of the Letter concludes that this reductionistic view should be avoided and is something the Church refuses to do.

    • Who is being reductionistic? The idea that people have a sexual orientation is not the same as a “reductionist” approach that collapses their entire identity into their sexual orientation or even that necessarily privileges it among other aspects of identity.

      • I always tend to see these sorts of comments as straw men. Whenever anyone discusses the 1986 Letter, or when the Papal Theologian speaks of a gay identity being “elevated and . . . treated as the supreme [and] the most important bit of information that we have about the individual,” the rejoinder is always this: no one DOES this, and thus the appearance is given that the 1986 Letter, or the Papal Theologian are talking to phantoms that don’t exist.

        But “being gay” does become the supreme descriptor of persons when they come out. A good example here is Steve Gershom/Joey Prever and his recent disclosure on his website. It was clear by what he wrote that in his eyes, you can’t fully know or understand him until he revealed this most essential aspect of his person. The very nature of his “coming out” revealed that regardless of what he might say about it NOT being the most important definer of his person, the very content of the blog post where he came out reveals that it IS what he views to be the most intimate and personal portion of his life that he could ever share with someone. I’ve noticed the same thing with most blogs, such as by Brent Bailey and others–you can’t REALLY know them, until you know that they’re gay, and it’s always viewed as the most pertinent detail of the life of the person who comes out, if one wants to be truly authentic and honest with the rest of the world. This does seem to fall under the rubric of the 1986 Letter. But on this, naturally we will have to agree to disagree, as we have on several things.

      • Huh?? Saying that something is essential to fully or truly know me and understand my personality and empathize with my experiences is different than saying that this aspect is THE “one true” defining aspect of myself. It’s just that it is one pretty big piece of the puzzle without which your understanding will be incomplete (but there are several other big, even bigger, pieces with which that would likewise be true).

        Saying “without knowing this, you don’t really know me fully” is not saying that it is the one central hermeneutic lens to their whole self-identity. Just that it is one piece, not immediately self-evident, that revealing will add a lot of information necessary for accurately interpreting and understanding their life.

        Something being essential for knowledge is different than claiming that it is the Essence of the thing known in any metaphysical sense as, indeed, there might be MANY aspects that are necessary for such knowledge, sexual orientation being only one among them.

        Ironically, I think sexual orientation is considered “particularly intimate” exactly because it is something subjective and self-labeled and which thus needs to be “revealed” whereas “I’m black” or something like that may be a huge part of someone’s experience or have an important role in someone’s subjective personal narrative of identity…but is also evident upon first glance and so not as emotionally loaded as a disclosure as homosexuality is (especially when combined with the stigma that being gay still carries with it.)

  4. Mr. Mattson, you are the one setting up the straw man, not me. I didn’t claim that NO-ONE reduces their personhood to their sexual orientation. I merely pointed out that such a reduction isn’t intrinsic to the idea of having a sexual orientation, anymore than reductionism is intrinsic to the identification of any other personal characteristic. Do some gays reduce their personality to their sexuality? Yes, but that’s not the question I asked. Do Joey Prever and Brent Bailey? That’s not really my place to judge, and again, it’s not the question I asked. But does the very language of “sexual orientation” include within itself a reduction of the person to their sexuality? Well that IS the question I asked, and the answer is obviously “no.”

  5. I don’t agree that sexual orientation is “subjective” and isn’t as evident as “I’m black,” which is exactly one reason why I believe that “coming out” is exactly what the 1986 Letter is talking about.

    • Who said anything about it being subjective? A lot of this is just your general theories, not a response to anything in the article.

      • Sexual orientation is subjective in the sense that it is a description of “attraction” which is a subjective conscious phenomenon that becomes evident only through either behavior or disclosure. “Desire” is the very definition of a subjective category or phenomenon or reality! It’s not evident like being black is evident because the quality that makes one gay is an interior reality, not something external (although some gays “wear it on their sleeve” through various externalized signifiers).

        I have no idea what you mean by you don’t agree that it isn’t as evident as “I’m black.” Of course it’s not evident like that! You can look at people and (most of the time) say whether they are black or not, they don’t have to say anything because Race is a category constructed around mainly external visible features. On the other hand, you can’t know that a person is gay unless they tell you, (or unless you have somehow observed them constantly in a comprehensive manner and seen a pattern of only engaging members of the same sex sexually…and even then they might harbor un-acted-on attractions to or fantasies about the opposite sex that you don’t know about and so be bi, or might have some “circumstantial” explanation for their behavior in terms of how they would say it relates to their interior emotional life; maybe they’re straight and being blackmailed into it, for example.)

        I think what you must be getting at is some idea that a male or female body is externally evident (maybe) and that since the male body is made by God for sexual/reproductive complementarity with a female body, the “orientation” of a male or female is objective and self-evident (and is always hetero). That may be true in some abstract sense, but that’s simply NOT what “sexual orientation” describes in common linguistic usage. “Sexual orientation” is a term for describing what sex ones interior subjective emotional experience of attractions predominantly or exclusively tend towards.

        When “coming out,” no further philosophical claim beyond that experiential fact is being made other than an honest disclosure of having these experiences of attraction and, thus, of inevitably being constructed into an affinity with other people who have similar experiences. I don’t know what else you think “coming out” entails. I think by everyone’s standards here, you have “come out of the closet” in your disclosure of “SSA” publicly on the internet and the fact that you prefer “SSA” to “gay” doesn’t change that; if I’m telling people about Dan Mattson, I tell them “Oh, he’s a gay guy but who doesn’t identify with the term ‘Gay,'” and they all know what I mean, and the fact of this public knowledge means that, like the terminology of it or not, you’re “out.”

  6. I wish one could edit comments after the fact. What I meant to say in my reply to Ron is that the comments about orientation came from the “Bishops’ office.” I know that’s not an official document of the USCCB.

  7. A quick comment–I don’t think I’m being very clear in my writing tonight. To “A Sinner,” I do indeed think that sexual orientation is as obvious as “I’m black.” I didn’t quite word that very well. I have a sexual orientation towards women–even though I don’t experience that very often, and usually not at all.

    • Well, again, that’s a novel and deliberately oppositional use of “orientation.”

      The term as used currently is not taken to mean a claim about the objective ordered-toward-ness (the teleology) of ones physical sex in God’s design. Your “sexual teleology” might feasibly be said to be towards women in a Catholic anthropology. But that’s not what “sexual orientation” means or intends to address or describe!

      Combined with some problematic subjectivist or solipsistic or radical individualist anthropologies that might be the implication, if a deep-seated pattern of desire is taken in itself to indicate a teleology, a condition for essential fulfillment of a separate type of being. But in itself the concept of sexual orientation doesn’t imply that, and if the logical implication of it when interpreted with such paradigms is that… it’s those paradigms which are the issue, not the recognition of the concept or category of sexual orientation in itself which, again, refers only to an interior reality of how subjective personal desire are interpreted as a stable pattern.

      • The whole focus of the USCCB blog in question reveals that the notion of “orientation” is a confused one, which ignores the ontological reality of what it means to be made male and female. What’s “novel” is the entire notion of “orientation,” not my use of the term. The concept of “orientation” which you are describing doesn’t jive at all with Catholic anthropology–“orientation” is a given, and revealed by our bodies, and is not something subjectively chosen.

        Regardless, I think I have a pretty clear idea who “A Sinner” is. Patterns of writing and thinking come through loud and clear, especially if one has encountered similar things in the past, and if “A Sinner” is who I think it is, well, this will be a fruitless conversation. There will be no meeting of the minds here.

      • Well, I don’t think before the term “sexual orientation” was introduced by the gay movement the Church used “sexual orientation” to describe sexual teleology. It had a notion of sexual teleology to be sure, but “sexual orientation” is a new coinage that only intends to describe the subjective psychological reality. In itself, doesn’t intend to make any philosophical claim or value-judgment about that psychological reality. One can recognize the concept of sexual orientation as self-evidently real, for example, while judging a homosexual orientation (at least as regards desire for genital behavior) to be in conflict with bodily teleology and holding that the latter is to take precedence in guiding moral decisions about behavior. But that doesn’t mean the former experiential reality “doesn’t exist” or that, for some reason, a particular label can’t be used to describe that phenomenon just because you apparently find the terminology confusing in a way no one else does (or, more likely, because you dislike the social and cultural and political context in which that phenomenon began to be discussed as more than just a private individual idiosyncrasy).

    • Last I checked “orientation” primarily described one’s subjective psychology, not one’s teleological biology.
      I like to use Catholic “ejaculations” throughout my day, but I know full well what people will think if say that word.

      • Aaron, it would seem to me that you’re not too concerned then with what the Catechism says that chastity is about: the unity of body and soul. Your body reveals as much truth to you as does your subjective psychology…and because your body isn’t malleable like the psyche, sometimes we need to realize that the body reveals more truth to us than our subjective feelings. Especially concerning sexual orientation.

      • But Dan, Aaron didn’t say anything here about whether subjective psychology or biological teleology should be given more importance or prioritized or about which reveals more truth about the self. It may well be that he and many of us here give the priority (morally and spiritually, certainly) to biological teleology. But that’s simply not what the term “sexual orientation” as used is intended to describe or cover. It’s intended to describe the subjective psychology aspect. That isn’t to downgrade or give it priority over objective biological teleology. It isn’t to make a value-judgment in that regard one way or the other. Why are you jumping to the conclusion that it does, or assuming that linguistic usages somehow contain all this “secret” philosophical baggage when really the meaning of words and terminology is quite straightforward and not so encumbered to everyone else, not laden with all these extra assumptions you’re adding.

  8. Ontology is more important than teleology in the question of “sexual orientation,” though teleology points to the ontological truth of our sexual orientation to our sexual complement.

    It is strange to me that you believe that the language of sexual identities, or of the LGBTQ lexicon DOESN’T have philosophical “baggage.” The philosophy behind “sexual orientation” is certainly not “secret.” The notion of gender being socially constructed, for example and indeed the change from “sex” to “gender” is philosophical, not an organic change of language. The change in language was one that was consciously engineered into our language with a desire to change the language to fit the philosophy of what C. S. Lewis would call “Innovators” who desire to make man in any way, shape or desire. Foucault being one of the worst Innovators of the past 50 years.

    • “though teleology points to the ontological truth of our sexual orientation to our sexual complement.”

      Well, again, this is a niche usage of the term “sexual orientation” and one that seems deliberately aimed at obfuscation given that it’s not like “sexual orientation” was a theological term before it developed as a term for describing a psychological phenomenon of internal subjective attractions.

      It may indeed be true to say that we, as male or female whole persons, are sexually “ordered towards” our sexual complement. But “sexual orientation” as used since the start of its coinage has never meant or intended to describe “sexual ordered-toward-ness”! It has intended to describe only the subjective psychological phenomenon of predominance of attractions towards opposite or same or both sexes.

      Maybe the word “orientation” bothers you because you think that sounds too much like it might mean a claim of “ordered-toward-ness” or confuse people into thinking that…except no one else has this confusion (and I don’t think you really do either). Some people, holding certain philosophies, may believe that sexual orientation itself implies a teleology or ordered-toward-ness. Others of us don’t think that necessarily follows. The use of the terminology in itself hasn’t forced anyone to think one way or the other about that question, and most people are not confused about the meaning and what the term intends to describe.

      “The philosophy behind ‘sexual orientation’ is certainly not ‘secret.'”

      Well, it’s a secret to me, as I am not aware of the mere concept or label of “sexual orientation” requiring any particular philosophical commitment. Some people feel attracted to the opposite sex, some feel attracted to the same sex, some feel attracted to both in some proportion. The term means only that! It’s not not complicated at all.

      It’s no secret that this concept began to be discussed as salient in circles whose philosophies are controversial and certainly incompatible with the traditional Christian morality. But so what? The concept itself is valid, the term is neutral, neither can be dismissed as “guilty by association” with unsavory notions. That’s just not how language or philosophy works. (That’s just identity-politics…)

      “The notion of gender being socially constructed, for example”

      This notion is not required to understand sexual orientation.

      “and indeed the change from ‘sex’ to ‘gender’ is philosophical, not an organic change of language.”

      Again, no particular opinion on this notion is required to understand sexual orientation.

      This is entirely a side-track, but I’m not even sure what you’re referring to by “a change from ‘sex’ to ‘gender.'” As far as I’m aware, the term “gender” is used to refer to the social scripts associated with sex. Some would go on to say that “sex” itself is a mere construct or performance, but there is actually great debate about this within the LGBT community because of what variant understandings of this idea imply for trans people, for example, and indeed for some constructions of orientation itself (an essentialist understanding of orientation would seem to require that sex itself be “essential” rather than constructed, etc).

      You speak as if there is some “gay orthodoxy” but there simply isn’t, and that’s a paranoid bogeyman.

      “Foucault being one of the worst Innovators of the past 50 years.”

      Understanding sexual orientation doesn’t require any particular opinion as regards Foucault. I’m laughing here at how absurd and paranoid this all is.

      But, as another aside, I’m not sure it would even be fair to portray Foucault as one of the “innovators,” given that he saw himself as simply describing and deconstructing processes that he saw taking place in history. I think many of the “born that way” gays would be made very uncomfortable by Foucault’s revelation of the utter contingency of such narratives, for example.

      • Man, it feels like old times, here “A Sinner,” back to the days when you hung around GCN a bit more. I’m not interested in going down that particular path with you again, since I’ve always found that your arguments always distill to “you simply don’t know what you’re talking about, whereas I do, because, well, I just happen to know the ways things are, and you’re a rube,” which reminds me of a line I read recently in an essay from Dietrich von Hildebrand on reverence:

        “Irreverence can be divided into two types, according to whether it is rooted in pride or in concupiscence. The first type is that of the man whose irreverence is a fruit of his pride, that of the impertinent person. He is the type of man who approaches everything with a presumptuous, sham superiority, and never makes any effort to understand a thing “from within.” He is the “know-all,” schoolmaster type who believes that he penetrates everything at first sight, and knows all things “ab ovo.” He is the man for whom nothing could be greater than himself, who never sees beyond his own horizon, from whom the world of being hides no secret. He is the man Shakespeare has in mind in his “Hamlet”:

        ‘There are more things in heaven and earth,
        Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'”

  9. Dan, I’m not sure I know what you mean by “teleology” and “ontology” anymore. All ontology contains teleology if you follow the scholastic (Aristotlean/Aquinas) undertanding. No one is talking about sexual orientation as being “essential” to us on the same level as our hylomorphic essence. Which by the way puts sex (and even personhood) as only a material differentiation. Sexual orientation, as I and it seems most of the world understand it, simply means “predominant sexual inclination”.

    If you will recall from the Prima Secundae St. Thomas Aquinas spends quite a bit of time talking about how “habit” is a “quality”. And how a quality can be one of the aspects of speciation, that is the creation of classes. As such warranting a label or identity. In that same section St. Thomas Aquinas talks about how even natural inclinations are habituated. It may happen however, that this habituation, through no fault of the individual, is misdirected to the wrong object. That however means they have the HABIT, in the scholastic sense of the word, of homosexuality. And since a habit, being a QUALITY, is sufficient for classification there is no damage done to the human person by accepting that classification. Please also keep in mind that St. Thomas Aquinas also gives a LOT of weight to the customs and language of any culture.

    It is in fact true that some individuals have used language to “engineer” a certain ideological outcome. That does not however mean, by accepting certain common parlance, that we are wholesale adopting their ideology. To say that would mean we couldn’t use the word “virtue” which originated in a very brutal and stoic context, that was in many ways antithetical to Christianity. Today, “gay” means “predominantly homosexually attracted”. The CONNOTATIONS, may be up for debate. Which is what I really think you’re objecting to. But the denotation has been settled.

    It seems to me the proper thing to do, especially as a Catholic, is to take the existing language, find what’s good in it, and use it. The fact that there are connotations in some ways gives us a counter-cultural advantage to get people to think.

    • Aaron, of course all ontology contains teleology, but ontology is the more vital component of this question in my mind, though teleology obviously contributes to the discussion. But that’s a side discussion, best for another time, I’d say.

      Regarding discussions of “sexual orientation” and the way in which the Church should respond to this language:

      The Church always encounters society where it is, and as we know throughout history, is like a ship, slowly responding to changes of current–this has always been one of the great gifts of the Church: it watches, observes, and then responds. Now, there have been plenty of examples where the Church has adopted or adapted components of the cultures in which she finds Herself, but not always, and it certainly doesn’t always adopt the language or meanings of the culture in which they live–rather, they will only do so if they fit within the anthropology of the Church. The Church has always been salt and light in various cultures, and on the subject of “sexual orientation” we are beginning to see the light being shed on the subject, where exhibit A). is this blogpost which Aaron responded to.

      One of the problem with “sexual orientation” as I read theologians and philosophers, and converse with them on the subject, is that it reflects a rather utilitarian view of the body, and minimizes the importance of the “unity of body and spirit” of the human person. In this way of thinking, the body is a shell that reveals nothing essential to one’s “sexual orientation.” It is no matter if the roots of the phrase “sexual orientation” came from some ivory tower academe who decided to say that this is “sexual orientation” reflects predominantly psychological feelings. The Church has every right to challenge these assertions in the public square of ideas, and to say that sexual orientation is revealed more in the body than it is in the mind, which is what this latest blogpost is doing. It’s not that they are rubes who don’t understand how the term began–no, they are writing to challenge the whole underlying concept, and rightly so!

      JPII in Love and Responsibility speaks of the humility the body should have towards “the greatness of the person,” in which he obviously means the stamp of the mind of God in our mind, will and emotions. But there must also be a certain humility of the soul to the body as well, and the concept of “sexual orientation” as being “the predominant sexual inclination” of a person essentially ignores the message of the body, which points to our nature as sexually complementary human beings. “Sexual orientation,” in modern parlance ignores the body, and in that sense, it is a faulty compass, whereas our bodies point to true north in ways that our psyche can’t, unless we use reason to understand the truth about our sexual orientation, as revealed through our bodies. This is precisely why I call my attraction for men a “disorientation of my sexuality,” which lots of people in the Catholic world have told me resonates with their thinking, including plenty with a great pedigree in Aquinas and scholastic philosophy.

      One of the key reasons to reject the language of “LGBTQ” is that maxim: actio sequitur esse. It’s one thing to have people well-versed in philosophy and Aquinas discuss the nuances of identity and labels in blogs online, but for the adolescent whose only frame of reference for his experience is to say, “this must mean I’m gay,” this leads naturally towards looking towards other “gay people” to determine what it means to have an attraction for men. The Church, in my mind, is wise to do what the Canadian Bishops did when they wrote in the second paragraph of their documents about youth with same-sex attraction the following:

      “2. In this document the expression “person with same-sex attraction” refers to one who feels an erotic and emotional attraction, which is predominant and not merely episodic, towards persons of the same sex, whether with or without sexual relations. The terms “gay” and “lesbian” are not
      used to define people in the Church’s official teachings and documents. Although these words are common terms in current speech, and many people use them to describe themselves, they do not describe persons with the fullness and richness that the Church recognizes and respects in every man or woman. Instead, “gay” and “lesbian” are often cultural definitions for people and movements that have accepted homosexual acts and behaviours as morally good.”

      I suspect the answer to the bishops conference from those here would be, “Hey bishops…you don’t understand the language, and the way its used, and what it really means. But hey, if you really want to know what they mean, come talk to us over here, and we’ll educate you on why you’re wrong about language, and the way people talk about sexual orientation and everything related to homosexuality.”

      As to your final point, obviously many in the hierarchy disagree with you, (as evidenced by the Canadian bishops above), along with plenty of philosophers and moral theologians. I agree with them. I believe that the language of “sexual identities” or “sexual orientation” is an abuse of language, done with specific goals in mind, and those goals have largely been achieved now with the nearly worldwide acceptance of same-sex marriage. The Church is wise to caution against using the terms of the world regarding sexuality. It matters not if the rest of the world ignores what the Church has to say about “sexual orientation,” or the notion of “sexual identities.” What matters is for us in the Church to always adhere to the truth, because only when we adhere to the true dignity of man can we ever be faithful evangelizers. Men are drawn to the truth, and no doubt the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality are perplexing to the world, but so were the words of John the Baptist to Herod–and yet, as Mark said, Herod was intrigued by what he said–because what John said was true.

      But I’ve written enough on the subject here. Thanks for the discussion–intriguing as always, and good stimulation for the gray matter, which I always find to be the case when I discuss things with the Spiritual Friendship folks.

      • All well and good Dan, but as I pointed out below, “the Church” is not really challenging the language of sexual orientation. The Church even accepts and uses the concept of “homosexual orientation” in official teachings from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. A blogger working for a website set up by the USCCB may take issue with the language of sexual orientation, and no doubt there are bishops and theologians who would agree with the assessment he gives, but this can hardly be equated with the Church as a whole or with the Magisterium.

        Thanks again for your contributions! Peace.

      • “This is precisely why I call my attraction for men a ‘disorientation of my sexuality,'”

        That’s rather clever actually, but a disorientation is still an orientation. To be “misdirected” is still to be directed, albeit directed towards the wrong direction.

        “Sexual orientation” is understood in common parlance as simply a DESCRIPTION about what way the attractions point. It is not a value judgment about whether that direction is the right direction or the wrong direction or a good direction or a potentially problematic direction, etc etc.

        “for the adolescent whose only frame of reference for his experience is to say, ‘this must mean I’m gay,’ this leads naturally towards looking towards other ‘gay people’ to determine what it means to have an attraction for men.”

        This is the problem with all categories, but your “solution” is really “the easy way out,” a cop-out.

        I mean, imagine if someone told you that the solution to the problem of disproportionate criminality among young black males was to try to tell them “You’re not really young black male! You’re a ‘child of God who happens to have darker skin and be descended of African stock and has a penis and was born less than 25 years ago.'” As if it is possible to just “opt out” of the construct of Race (or sex or age) and thereby avoid grappling with the narrative surrounding it.

        Yes. A teenaged boy who finds himself attracted to other guys must (and I say “must” in the strongest possible sense: it is impossible for him not to) come to terms with the fact that his experience is like “those peoples'” and that the story of his sexuality personally is thus a part of the larger (and ever-evolving) social narrative about homosexuality. Note: this doesn’t mean he has to buy into any cookie-cutter model of “being gay” or that he is required to make any particular moral evaluation of any particular behavior. [Indeed, the people here at Spiritual Friendship are working to boldly write a write a new chapter in the gay narrative, one that has a credible (if not exclusive) claim to the tradition of various celibate figures in the history of homoeroticism.] It does mean that for the sake of integration and authenticity, he can’t just pretend as if he “isn’t part of” that experience or can simply decide to ignore the question of his being gay altogether. “What will my being gay mean for me?” can only start with an admission that one is, in fact, gay and that one, thus, has to at least enter into dialogue with the various meanings and narratives that are out there. Your model, on the other hand, basically seems to propose an embargo on any such dialogue.

  10. Dan, as I indicated in the post, there are some serious problems with Foucault’s work from an orthodox Christian perspective. But for the purposes of this discussion it seems to me that you, more than anyone else here, are supporting Foucault’s view that things like “sexual orientation” are entirely socially constructed realities. You only disagree on whether they are good or bad (in fact, it wouldn’t really be accurate to say even that, since Foucault was only interested in the genealogy of concepts, not their ethical value).

    Your claim that the language of sexual orientation implies a philosophical belief in a teleological ordering of the person toward same-sex partners and acts strikes me as odd given that, since Darwin, almost no-one who isn’t Catholic believes in any sort of natural teleology at all.

    It strikes me as even more odd given that the Vatican explicitly deploys the concept of “homosexual orientation” in the 1986 Letter on Pastoral Care and in the CDF’s 1992 Considerations on Non-Discrimination. The way it is mentioned clearly suggests that the Church simply accepts it as fact that some people do have a homosexual orientation, regardless of whether that is good or bad, how it arose, or whether it be can altered. Why on earth does the Church deploy this concept more than once if, as you claim, it “doesn’t jive at all with Catholic anthropology” and “orientation” is really just another word to denote our biological sex and its orderedness toward the opposite sex? The Church claims that the homosexual orientation is in some way disordered, granted, but not that the very concept of a homosexual orientation is a heresy that should never be mentioned by Catholics.

    • One minor and fairly tangential correction. Many Protestants also believe in a natural teleological ordering to some degree, although they usually won’t put the same emphasis on Aquinas, etc. and don’t subscribe to Catholic natural theology as such. For example, I would agree as an evangelical that we have teleological ordering, and that sexual expression is only correctly ordered in a heterosexual context. I would expect that many adherents of other monotheistic faiths would likely agree as well.

      However, the point stands that these are usually not the same people who would be allegedly arguing that a non-heterosexual orientation indicates teleological ordering towards same-sex partners.

      • If you are dismissing the modern concept of sexual orientation as untrue or non-real, yet admit the [in your mind, mistaken] concept exists, then you assumably think the narrative of “sexual orientation” in this “mistaken” sense is a historically contingent (and wrong) construct. Although Foucault would not make the value judgment one way or the other, he’d agree with you about the constructed and contingent nature of the construct. I suppose where you’d disagree is that you see your narrative about sexuality and gender as the absolute objective truth rather than also a construct.

  11. Just as an addendum here, directed towards Aaron Taylor: I do agree with you that this particular blog post about sexual orientation can’t be construed as being “the Magisterium,” or the “Church universal.” On this, I agree with you, just for the record, but I do think that what comes from the office of the Bishops’ office should be viewed with a bit more weight than, say, just a random blog post from a beer drinking trombone player who likes to think about things related to homosexuality and the Catholic Church, as well as Ph.D. students in philosophy who also like to think about all things related to homosexuality and the Catholic Church. I don’t think blogs from the USCCB are published in vacuums.

    There does seem to be an evolution in the language of the teachings of the English speaking Church, and I think the Canadian document is reflective of how the North American hierarchy is realizing they need to frame the discussion. The Canadian document, taken together with the 2006 document from the USCCB reveals a development of thought on the subject of homosexuality, which as I alluded to in my response to Aaron Harburg, I think is reflective of the Church’s slow response to changing currents. You’re British I know, but I’m not sure if the bishops of the UK have spoken on this or not, or where the Australian bishops have landed on the subject, but it would be interesting to know.

    Anyway, I do agree with you–a blog post at the USCCB can’t be viewed as being an official teaching of the Magisterium.

    Pax et bonum.

    • Would you also think that the Pope’s use of the word “gay” in talking about pastoral response on these issues represents an evolution of language? Papal interviews are not Magisterial documents, either. But I would tend to think they are more important than blog posts by random USCCB staff writers.

      • Two points: the Papal Theologian was speaking about the way the term is understood in English (he used the term “American,”) and I think the Canadian document is reflective of those insights the Papal Theologian was referring to.

        And the second point…is one that I hope to make in an essay which I’ve yet to finish, the thrust of which will be why the Pope’s use of the term “gay,” when looked at within the context in which he said the phrase in both interviews, isn’t one of mere “sexual attraction to the same sex.”

      • I will look forward to seeing your arguments, but offer two comments in advance:

        First, the Papal theologian’s training and expertise is in theology. He is not a linguist, and there is no reason to think that he knows more about American English usage than the linguists who put the dictionary together.

        Second, I am particularly interested to see how you will contextualize the Pope’s remarks. As part of his answer to a question about priests, he said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” I presume that this refers to merely sexual attraction to the same sex, because that interpretation makes his comment consistent with Catholic teaching.

        If we hypothesize that the Pope is using the word in the sense that you say it has—to describe someone who rejects Church teaching and embraces homosexual sex as an essential part of their well-being—then for him to characterize such a priest as searching for the Lord or having good will represents a shocking departure from a Catholic understanding of sexual ethics and the priesthood. Moreover, for the Pope to say “who am I to judge?” in the case of a priest who adopts such an attitude would involve a shocking lapse in his duty to govern the Church.

        But I will have to wait and see how you are thinking of contextualizing the Pope’s remarks. I don’t want to presume I know where you’re going with this before I see what you have to say.

  12. Just for the record, I’m not hypothesizing in the way you are thinking I may be in the penultimate paragraph above. I do think it’s an observation about the context of his comments which I haven’t seen anyone take notice of yet, but I’ll wait until I finish the essay and finish formulating my thoughts before I talk about it further.

    As to the Papal Theologian, wouldn’t you agree that in discussing the language used to discuss sexuality, he (and others in the hierarchy) view and observe the subject with a much wider lens than a linguist would? Nor is the Papal Theologian the only one in the hierarchy that would say that what the linguists have determined the definition of “gay” to be isn’t sufficient to give a definition to where the term came from, and what using the term means within the context of Church teaching on the dignity of man.

    All that to say, however, we see plenty in the hierarchy who have concern over the use of the term “gay,” including the document from the Canadian bishops. I think their definition of “gay” and “lesbian” are more accurate ways to view the term than the linguists from have viewed it. Based on my thinking and reflections on the Pope’s comments in his two most recent interviews, I think nothing has changed and the laity should continue to have concerns over using the term and should discourage men and women in the Church from “coming out” with public disclosures, which of course, is in keeping with the guidance that the US Bishops gave back in 2006.

    • 1. Regarding the pope’s remarks, I will wait to hear what you have to say.

      2. Regarding the papal theologian, there are two separate issues at work her. In the comment I responded to, you said, “the Papal Theologian was speaking about the way the term is understood in English.” You are not talking about which word is more philosophically or theologically helpful: you are making a point about English usage. There are, indeed, many ways that the papal theologian is better qualified and speaks on these questions with a wider perspective than that of the linguists who write the dictionary.

      But if part of your reason not to use the word “gay” relates to claims about what the word means, a linguist who studies actual usage is more helpful to you than a theologian. This is especially true in the case of Rev. Giertych, who is a Polish Dominican who studied in England and spent most of his professional life in Poland and Rome. This is not a background that gives confidence in his judgment about the nuances of how Americans use the English language.

      There are certainly broader questions about what language we ought to use. However, if theology starts with false empirical assumptions about how language works, it is not going to reach helpful conclusions about how to use language, even when the theologian in question is otherwise very intelligent and well-trained.

      If we agree on how the words are actually used, then we can go on to ask how we ought to speak to communicate the Church’s teaching most effectively in a culture that uses words that way. But if you base your arguments about how we ought to speak on empirical claims about how certain words are used in the surrounding culture, then if it turns out that your empirical claims are false, your conclusions lack support.

      This isn’t to say that there couldn’t be other arguments made on the question of how to use language. But your comment didn’t refer to other arguments. It referred to actual American usage, and my response to your comment addressed actual American usage.

      • My answer to this is that the best evidence that the Papal Theologian has a firmer grasp on the understanding of what “gay” means here in the English speaking world than the linguists at comes from the writers here at Spiritual Friendship use the word “gay.”

        The way you collectively use the term is such that the necessary modifier and qualifier in all writings at places like First Things where one of you has said, “I’m gay” is always some form of “but I’m committed to the traditional sexual morality of the Church.” Innately you realize the need to add that modifier, because culturally, the understanding of saying “I am gay” means more than a mere description of one’s sexual attractions for the same sex.

        Joshua Gonnerman’s essay “Why I Call Myself A Gay Christian?” over at First Things on the subject reveals how the audience understands the phrase “I am gay”:

        “But commenters were particularly confused because I am a gay man who accepts Christ’s teaching that sex is to be reserved for marriage, and that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

        They were confused–because of how “gay” is understood by them and in our culture, and what “coming out as gay” means, which is why collectively you need to continually say “I’m gay but chaste.” This is a SURPRISE to people, not because most everyone has a difficulty with chastity, but because of how they understand the word “gay,” which has the cultural and philosophical underpinning which the Papal Theologian describes so lucidly.

        He’s spot on in his understanding of how the term is understood here and so too the bishops from Canada, as well as Archbishop Cordileone when he says “gay and lesbian” aren’t in the vocabulary of the Church.

        The argument from linguistics or from dictionary definitions just isn’t very convincing.

        But I sure wish these discussions could take place over a beer. Which I’m off to partake of right now!

      • Of course they’re not “in the vocabulary” in the sense of formal theological terminology. They’re slang-ish terms and the Church has used “homosexual” more frequently as it is more formal and, yes, thus has fewer connotations.

        But that doesn’t mean they’re forbidden anymore than all sorts of informal terms or special coinages you’ll never find in church documents. They’re never going to talk about “nerds” either, but that doesn’t mean we can’t speak of them or identify as one.

        And on the less formal level the terms are already used. The pope did it. Chicago’s approved ministry has long been called the AGLO, and you know what G and L stand for, and Cardinal George (no liberal on these questions) hasn’t demanded that change, etc etc

  13. Dan, I can’t speak for anyone else who has written for First Things, but the reason that I would have used any kind of qualifier (if, in fact, I have ever done so) would simply be because we live in a sex-saturated culture where people assume that everyone is sexually active. It makes no difference whether you say “I’m gay,” or “I’m homosexual,” or “I’m same-sex attracted,” the fact is that unless you are speaking to an audience composed solely of orthodox Catholics, you will end up needing to add some kind of qualifier so that people know you are committed to chastity.

    Conversely, when I *am* in fact speaking to an audience composed solely of orthodox Catholics, I *don’t* add any qualifier to the identification of myself as gay or homosexual, because I don’t need to. The fact that I am known to be a committed Catholic speaks for itself. Perhaps it’s because I’m British, but I’ve generally found that among solid Catholics of my own generation my use of the term “gay” doesn’t cause confusion and doesn’t need qualifying.

    Secondly, and much more importantly, both you and I know that there are people who would identify themselves as “struggling with same-sex attraction” who are in fact habitual sinners that have enormous amounts of sex. They may go to confession afterward, but simply because someone says “I’m same-sex attracted” instead of “I’m gay” is not, as you seem to think, a guarantee that the person is leading a life in closer conformity to the law of God. I’m not going to claim that everyone who identifies as a chaste gay Christian is angelically pure, either, but your attempt to paint those who use your preferred language as de facto standing on moral high ground strikes me as at best disingenuous and at worst simply giving a license for people to go out and commit sexual debauchery as long as they use the right words to talk about it.

    • I don’t buy the argument that the only reason the qualifier “but chaste” is because everyone assumes that everyone is having sex. “Gay but chaste” is shocking, not because someone chooses chastity–if a friend of mine who’s an orthodox Catholic says she’s chaste because she’s not married, no one in Catholicism is shocked at this, even if they realize most of the rest of the world would do otherwise–it’s shocking, because inherent in the cultural understanding of the term “I’m gay” is a celebration of gay relationships. Or do the commenters in all of those essays at First Things just not understand how the English language works? It just seems an absurd argument to continue to say “well, this isn’t how people understand the term,” when so many in Catholicism scratch their heads when they hear about “gay but chaste” Catholics.

      The response to the essays in First Things, and plenty of other places in Christendom to the notion of “gay Christians” belies the idea that “gay” is viewed strictly culturally as a description of “is attracted to the same sex.” We won’t change each other’s minds, but it’s pretty clear that the hierarchy is more inclined to take the view of the Papal Theologian than they would agree with the line of argument that “It just means attracted to the same sex.”

      As to the latter part of your comments–there are plenty of people, say, in the Side B forum of GCN who also struggle with sexual sins, and yet they are striving for chastity. And of course, there are plenty of people who call themselves same-sex attracted who struggle with sexual sins–I’ve never said otherwise, anywhere, nor do I think that necessarily when a person calls himself gay, that he’s incapable of chastity, or that simply by saying of oneself that “I’m same-sex attracted” means that chastity will be a piece of cake. Good Lord knows that if I had my druthers, I’d love to have sex tonight if I could. I’m no saint, by any stretch of the imagination, and anytime I speak about all of this, I always say that I’m a private in the trenches, not some general who has chastity all figured out. By the grace of God it’s been a long time since I’ve had sex with a guy, but I realize that’s only by the grace of God. I know some guys who use the term same-sex attraction who are really having a hard time with sexual sin, and I know lots of guys too who don’t have as much trouble–and I’m sure the same is the case with men and women who call themselves “gay but chaste”: some really struggle, and some don’t as much any longer. But I’m not sure why that has a bearing on the discussion, since it hasn’t been something that I’ve posed before. Though I have great concern for youth in the Church whose only answer to the awareness that they’re attracted to the same sex is that “I’m gay,” because I think the belief in their own mind that they are indeed “gay” means that they will look to the example of the world as how a “gay person” acts, which is one reason I strongly oppose the terminology.

      • Anyway, we’ve all been down this road a bit before, and I suspect there won’t be much of a meeting of the minds on the identity issue, but it is always stimulating and helpful (at least for me) to revisit it from time to time.

      • Dan, I think your comments here illustrate why we each find one another’s approaches to gay/SSA issues so mystifying. You think chastity has no “bearing on the discussion.” But for me chastity is THE ISSUE of discussion. I’m an ethicist, not a linguist or an anthropologist, so I’m really more concerned with the morality of human action than with dissecting and analyzing words people use to describe their identities. I also have a “great concern” for youth, but to be honest I would be more concerned about a young Catholic who is hooking-up than one who merely calls himself “gay,” whereas you seem to consider the label, not the lifestyle, to be the real moral issue.

      • Even if what you say is true, Dan, it is, as Aaron Harburg said, a question of connotation, not denotation.

        People might be shocked at hearing “gay but doesn’t believe gay sex is moral?!?” They might be surprised to learn such people exist. But it’s not like the concept is cognitively impossible for them. They understand what the person means still. Maybe shocking, but it’s not as if they see it as an intrinsic contradiction in terms.

        They may be surprised, but they see no logical contradiction; gay describes the attractions, orthodoxy describes a moral belief about behavior. They may be surprised to learn (yes, because of political/pop cultural propaganda) that anyone who has the attractions would hold variant moral beliefs, but they can still abstract the two and realize that it’s possible. But that very realization implies they understand that “gay” denotes only the attractions. The qualified description still makes sense to people. They understand what is meant. And that’s all that is needed to make language valid.

        Indeed, I think the “shock” re: connotations does probably give us an “apologetics” edge. People will remember when they hear of “gays who don’t believe in the morality of homosexual acts” (or whatever qualifier) that orientation and beliefs/behavior are in fact separable. They will realize they’ve unconsciously been making sloppy assumptions and reductions.

        Of course, the whole thing already points out a double-standard of heterosexual privilege: we’re not even discussing the truly equivalent situation, which would be someone saying “I’m straight, but don’t believe any heterosexual acts are moral.” Frankly, I think such a declaration would be MUCH more shocking to everyone than when a gay person says similar things about homosexual acts. So when you speak about an unmarried straight girl not believing in premarital sex not being surprising, you’re comparing apples and oranges in the way Justin Lee pointed out in this post:

        A straight girl rejecting premarital sex is less shocking, because she’s only rejecting a subset of heterosexual acts. In a world that does confuse act and orientation (however labelled), she still isn’t seemingly rejecting all heterosexuality, just the subset. A gay rejecting all gay acts is more surprising because it forces people to think of orientation apart from any sexual expression whatsoever, and of morality as orientation-independent.

        Because it’s true: when you construct morality as targeting orientation like the liberals do (ie, sloppy phrasings like “gay people aren’t allowed to have sex” when the truth is more like “nobody, gay or straight, is allowed to have gay sex”) you wind up portraying morality as an oppression against a minority group.

        What the usage at places like SF accomplishes is pointing out that morality is orientation-independent, that the traditional teaching was never meant to target “gay people” because that very category, the very idea of an inclination-defined minority, came conceptually later than the moral maxim which was simply conceived as universal. But it is still able to grapple with the nuance that gay people are specially burdened by the teaching (not just individually, but as a group, as a social reality) and thus might need special support.

        What trying to obfuscate the labels accomplishes is unclear except to confuse everyone and make people thing you’re a bigot or downright delusional by denying that gay people or sexual orientation even exist as commonly conceived when they self-evidently do.

        As I said earlier in the thread, at best the language of “SSA” attempts to return the “extra” moral burden that the same-sex attracted face from the traditional teaching to just being a private individual burden, like the teaching against wrath might be for naturally quick-tempered folk, which may be a valid theological argument for why the teaching is not actually discrimination (it’s true, our different temperaments all make certain virtues naturally easier and certain harder) but which seems like an attempt to ignore the collective social structural aspect of this “extra” burden which has had its consciousness raised in the past century or so.

        Someone who told you “I’m hot-tempered, but I’ve never killed anyone” (though, what was it Christ said about anger and murder…?) would face no stigma. At most he’s describing an aspect of his temperaments, his passions, his own spiritual struggle. (Even if we would expect to find a disproportionately high percent of the prison population hot-tempered).

        But homosexuality has been constructed as carrying a stigma. Even when they aren’t hurting anyone, homosexual acts have been put in a separate category than heterosexual sin socially. Sodomy was illegal a lot longer than premarital sex, and had a degree of odium and shame attached that (even if I agree it’s a sin) seems disproportionately high compared to sins of the heterosexual majority. Even if there is a theological justification for seeing homosexual acts as ranking worse than heterosexual that would justify a BIT of the difference, I think most people sense that the odium attached (and still attached in conservative circles) is disproportionately high, probably because it’s easier to target and demonize and moral-panic about a struggle faced only by a minority.

        It also has to do with gender politics. A lot of the gay struggle and oppression (an oppression that thus requires a collective identity) has less to do with the morality of sexual behaviors and more to do with a “heterosexualized” construct of masculinity. Sometimes that notion of manhood is given a “moral” cloak, but often it clearly has nothing to do with morality and is held most by very immoral heterosexuals.

        So there is “homophobia” that has nothing to do with the moral question in itself, but rather with gender scripts that have become problematically tied up with orientation. And that’s a structural reality that gay people face even apart from any real moral questions.

        When a word for what you are is an insult used against 8 year olds who don’t even know what sex is (in a way no other habit or vice is used) then there is an issue that you really can’t hide from just by tucking your head in like a turtle and saying “oh, but that doesn’t refer to me, because I’m not that.”

  14. I think this is the problem: chastity isn’t simply continence, Aaron. That’s just the beginning of chastity. The question, as Josef Pieper wisely notes in his book “The Christian Idea of Man” is that “people should not think so much about what they ought to do; they should they think about they ought to be.”

    The entire foundation of moral theology must be based on objective reality, including ethics, of course. Pieper says in the same text “the first teaching in the moral theology of the ‘Doctor Communis’: ethics is about the right conception of man.”

    That’s where all the virtues necessarily begin, and all of moral theology. A right relationship with reality is the real issue for me, and should be for all of us.

    Chastity isn’t strictly continence–it’s far more than that. To suggest that I don’t care about sexual morality doesn’t honestly reflect what I have written in all that I’ve written. But chastity, as a virtue, in its entirety will always be stymied if the sole view of chastity is “avoidance of immoral behavior.”

    What motivates me is the full dignity of man, as exemplified in Gaudium et Spes 22.

    I think that these words of Pieper directly address the entire topic of gay identity:

    “This word about the perfection of the Christian, which encompasses simply everything and for that very reason can never be interpreted once and for all, needs to be unfolded, ‘applied’: it does need interpretation. Without such an interpretation beginning with the empirical essence of man and with reality, it would be constantly exposed to the danger of abuse and misunderstanding through a ‘short-circuit’ which not compatible with human existence.”

    Sexual identities other than our God given male and female natures ignore the empirical essence of man and objective reality, and aren’t compatible with human existence and the fullness of what chastity is, according to the Catechism:

    2337 Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.

    This is what motivates me, and thinking that chastity is just about sexual morality misses the mark completely of the gifts of this virtue, which is what I think choosing the sexual identity language of the world does. Chastity is so much more than merely sexual continence, and it seems to me that this is one of the great problems with those who call themselves gay. Growing in chastity means responding to objective reality about the nature of man, and in that light, there is no room for “gayness,” and to embrace that concept blocks growth in this all important virtue because it is directly opposed to the “unity of body and soul,” precisely because it ignores the objective reality of the body, and relies primarily on the subjective experience of the mind, will and emotions in determining who and what we are. There is a dissonance between the body and spirit in anyone who calls himself gay.

    That is my position–of course I care about sexual morality, but as all the saints from St. Augustine on who have struggled with sexual sins have shown us, God brings us victory in His time, and allows us to struggle with chastity for the good of our soul and to realize our utter need for Him, something I’m sure you agree with. This is why it is doesn’t cause me to fret when some are in the midst of lots of sexual sin, though it does lead me to pray for them. I see in this that God has yet to free them from those bonds, and that He will do it in His time, in such a way that as Columba Marmion once said, they will realize that “Jesus is their holiness.”

    • Well for a start, those words of Pieper’s don’t “directly” address the topic of gay identity because he doesn’t even mention it. You might say that they are relevant to helping us reflect on the topic, but that’s a different thing from “directly addressing” it. Please use the English language correctly.

      As to your main point, I don’t think you (or Pieper) can separate man from his acts in that way. Our acts, in a certain way, become part of who we are. You’re right, chastity is much more than continence but it is AT LEAST continence (i.e. continence is a necessary but not sufficient condition of chastity). Your attempt to reduce chastity to just believing in a bunch of anthropological propositions is what I find disturbing here, since then I can call myself “chaste” just for believing the right stuff without actually having to DO anything. It’s all too convenient.

      • That’s a strange distillation of what I’ve ever argued chastity is–certainly, chastity in the sense of continence is fundamental, but it isn’t the sine qua non of chastity.

        Taking issue with me over saying that Pieper’s comments directly address the topic at hand is just quibbling. We could also say that Pieper’s language directly applies to all kinds of aspects of human existence, obviously based on inference. Any view of man which is opposed to “the empirical essence of man and with reality” is something his words directly apply towards, and I would argue that anyone saying he is gay is opposed to “the empirical essence of man and with reality.”

      • But many using the term “gay” would tell you they intend the exact same meaning as “same-sex attracted.” So what’s the difference? Are you accusing them of lying about their intentions? Are you accusing them of being universally misunderstood? I don’t think they are…

  15. Dan, continence certainly IS a sine qua non of chastity for the unmarried. If you’re not in agreement with that, then your disagreement is with the moral teaching of the Church, not with me as such.

    • Aaron, I’ve never said that continence isn’t an essential component to chastity–it’s clearly essential and fundamental!–but it’s not the sine qua non of chastity. It’s like learning the alphabet is fundamental to reading, but it’s not the sine qua non of reading.

      Do you believe that the Church teaches to be continent is all that matters in order to say that one has absorbed the virtue of chastity? That’s not what the Church teaches–but you seem to think that I have a rather murky view of the subject, and that I don’t think continence is important to the topic at all. Far from it–continence is the starting point towards acquiring the virtue of chastity, but to simply stay there, well, that’s not what chastity IS.

      Once again, Pieper’s writings on chastity, as well as JPII’s writings on the virtue in Love and Responsibility really speak to the deeper meaning of chastity than simply continence. Continence is necessary, but it doesn’t go far enough in acquiring the fruits of chastity in our lives.

      • Dan, the meaning of the phrase “sine qua non” is not “this is the only thing that matters.” It simply refers to an indispensable condition of a thing existing, something that is part of the essence of a thing. Continence *is* a sine qua non of chastity because without continence you can’t have chastity. This is not the same as saying that chastity is only about continence. Of course, it’s about much more. As I mentioned before, if you expect me to take the time to respond to critical comments you wish to make about my *use of language* around gay issues, I think it’s fair that you should use language properly when communicating.

  16. Hi all,

    First, as a man attracted to other men, let me tell you all — Dan (D.C), Ron, Aaron, Jeremy — that I really appreciate you. (No, that is not a come on!) I’ve been following the word of each of you online, and you all bring really valuable perspectives to people in our situation.

    A bit about myself: I have spent time on Spiritual Friendship, questioning like a gadfly, trying to draw out a clear explanation of the value of using the term “gay”. But I have also spent much time elsewhere, drawing people’s attention to Spiritual Friendship, and trying to open their minds to the benefits of a radical openness about sexual attraction among Christians in this culture.

    So let me say what I see here. I see Dan criticizing, rightly, the whole notion of “coming out,” and Aaron and others defending the notion that there are such things as sexual orientations, and that they must not be swept under the rug.

    But I think we ought to look at things from points of agreement. The real importance of “coming out” in this culture is not about the word “gay”; it is about PRIDE. But I don’t see anyone here saying that their attraction to men is something to be proud of. And so, I think that any advocate of gay pride that engages with this website will find it frustrating, to say the least. Now, maybe Dan’s point is that the whole notion of coming out is infused with pride — but that hasn’t been my experience.

    Those I have come out to know that this is something I’m not proud of. But it’s also not something I am ASHAMED of. And this freedom from shame is the most important thing we receive from openness. Is this selfish of us? Yes. But not selfish in a bad way. Now, if our openness damages others, we should tone it down. But in this culture, openness generally doesn’t damage others.

    So my thought is that the word “gay” is far less important than the word “proud.” Can we all, perhaps, agree on that?

    • Pride isn’t really the focus of my thinking on any of this–other than that for all of us, as humans, the source of all sin and misery stems from pride, so I suppose all discussions of the pursuit of virtue begin with considerations of pride. But I think you are meaning in the sense of “gay pride.” Is that what you’re talking about, the “gay pride” movement?

      I’m more concerned about what Pieper and Benedict call “objective reality” about what it means to be made male and female, in the image and likeness of God, and within the anthropological view of the Church, a “gay man” or a “lesbian” or other sexual labels from the world’s imagination don’t fit or belong, and I believe are in fact detrimental to the person who chooses to label himself or herself that way. We see this no more starkly in the tragic situation of the person who chooses sex reassignment surgery. We also tend to forget that these are neologisms which haven’t been around very long in the history of language, and that the classification of “a gay man” would have been a strange one 200 years ago.

      However, I would disagree with you, and say that many of the folks here at SF DO in fact believe that their attractions to the same sex is something at least to celebrate, if not take pride in.

      The SF contributors universally seem to love what Elizabeth Scalia wrote in one of her essays that we’re “exceptional others,” called into being as “necessary others” to impart gifts to the world that only “gay” people can, like art. This is such silliness in my mind–Scalia implies that the Sistine Chapel is exquisite because Michaelangelo was reputedly attracted to men, but that’s the equivalent of saying that Bach’s B Minor Mass is so exquisite because he sired 20 children–obviously, with a woman. We like to say that “gay composers” were skilled in part because “so much good art has come from gay people,” but we never say that about people like Bach or Beethoven, or say that the reason Frank Lloyd Wright was a great architect was because he engaged in peccadilloes with lots of women. It’s such a strange inconsistency.

      This sort of thinking always puts the cart before the horse, and attributes to something that is the result of the fall of man, (homosexuality) and which should be viewed as a weakness rather than something to celebrated as “good,” as a great source of wonder and creativity–but we read in Exodus that God puts into the heart of all those who are skillful skill. It’s an absurd and false attribution to why people are born with creativity.

      So my motivation for writing about all of this isn’t so much about “gay pride,” per se, but rather about the objective truth about man as revealed to us through the natural law and through divine revelation and the tradition of the Church, as well as through the living Magisterium, and well, because I think the conclusions of people who are “Out” and Christians are so often wacky, such as Brent Bailey’s posts about “how people get things right,” which reveals in his life, that all of his friends are continually seeing him as a “gay man.”

      The biggest caution I have against anyone “coming out” is also motivated by the notion that language itself is instructive, and that especially in adolescence, when young people are working to find their own identity, by labeling themselves as “gay,” they will naturally seek to discover what it means to “be gay,” and in the cultural milieu in which we live this is problematic.

      It’s “agere sequitur esse,” that “action follows being.” It often wonder what the gay but chaste writers see as the role of language vis-a-vis ontology. This motivates me more than the notion of “pride” does.

      • The point of agreement where we meet, I’d say, is that the Church’s teaching on sexuality morality is the way to go–but I think where we differ is that I believe that moral teaching teaches us not merely behavior, “what we ought to do,” but also teaches us how to think about who we are, and it’s on this axis where the primary disagreement lies I’d say.

      • “However, I would disagree with you, and say that many of the folks here at SF DO in fact believe that their attractions to the same sex is something at least to celebrate, if not take pride in.”

        Well, perhaps it differs from person to person. Reading Wesley Hill’s book, I definitely didn’t get the sense that he was celebrating anything. And I’m guessing, if anything, that I’ve followed this SF blog more closely than you have. I don’t find much celebration here — except for celebration of friendship, celebration of holiness, celebration of glory, and celebration of freedom from shame. I really don’t see people saying what you’re describing from Scalia all that much.

        Which is not to say that Scalia is wrong. But I think that — if Scalia is right — some ontological category “gay” has very little to do with it. (And no one I know of at SF thinks gay is an ontological category). It seems clear to me that people who are artistically sensitive in certain ways *are* more likely to have same-sex attraction, but that could point in a number of directions. I don’t particularly want to get into etiological theories, but correlation obviously isn’t causation — and causation could go in the *opposite* direction to the way Scalia seems to be implying.

        But one thing Scalia’s notions might get at is that there is something *else* many SSA/gay/bi individuals have in common, besides an attraction to the same sex. If SF folks are celebrating anything “intrinsic” to their attractions, I think it would be this sort of commonality.

        At the same time, I’ve posted here before that I want to hear more about what this “something” might be that would be sufficient for one to describe oneself as a “gay man” or “gay woman”. Or else, I wonder if this description is just meant to be evangelistic, in some way — gay people are a lot more likely to come to Christ if a WORD doesn’t stand in their way. So I’m sympathetic to your objections, but I do think that you are misreading some of the rhetoric that people are using here at SF.

      • You raise some good points. You’re right—not all see their homosexuality through the same light, a point I made in one of my early essays on the subject:

        “Our disagreements over identity notwithstanding, there are many areas of agreement between their views and mine. We all promote the same essential moral view of sexuality: Sexual intercourse is moral only between a man and a woman within marriage and only when the spouses respect the procreative end of the marital act. And to be fair, on the issue of gay identity, Hill, Gonnerman, and Tushnet do not see all things the same.

        As I understand the differences between them, Gonnerman and Tushnet view homosexuality as a gift from God to mankind. Homosexuality, in their view, is something to be celebrated in their lives as a unique and positive gift to the world. Hill, on the other hand, views homosexuality as a “thorn in the flesh” which nonetheless has brought benefits to him: namely that God has been able to show his strength to Hill through the weakness of his homosexuality.

        In this respect, Hill’s view is more akin to my understanding of homosexuality as the Eucatastrophe of my life (borrowing J. R. R. Tolkien’s term). Both Hill and I also refuse to use “homosexual” as a noun. As he explains in his book, he avoids it because he argues that our core identity is as Christians. I refuse to do so because, ontologically speaking, my core identity is as a man, made in the image and likeness of God.”
        I think on this, Hill and I see things in similar ways, but others here do indeed seem to celebrate their “queerness” as a concrete and positive good in their lives, rather than something that is objectively bad, being transformed by the grace of God into something beautiful. Tushnet, Gonnerman and Selmys come to mind, and in their writings, it’s pretty easy to find this. I don’t know where Taylor or Belgau stand on this.

        Also, I do agree with you—no one here believes that “being gay” is an ontological category, but this leads to the question, of course, of how language is connected to ontology, something which I’d be curious to know more about. It seems the logical jump to reject the term.

        I find Michael Hannon contributed to the conversation by speaking about that “gay” isn’t a part of the nature of man in this excellent essay on the subject:
        “But the real problem with this identity language is not that it implies comprehensiveness, but rather that it implies naturalness. The point is not that “gayness” isn’t all-encompassing; no party to the debate thinks that it is. The point is that “gayness” is not in any way natural, i.e., that a sexual orientation is not an essential property of man in virtue of his humanity. It is merely a reductionistic cultural construct that mistakenly treats a complicated, dynamic, and chance set of tendencies, attractions, and temptations as a simple, static, and basic fact about man’s nature.”

        As to evangelization, I never believe that what holds people back from the Catholic Church is the language she uses. It’s the radical call to chastity that’s the stumbling block, and the best example I can find that language isn’t an issue, is well, once again here at SF—these fine folks have embraced the Church’s difficult teaching on chastity, despite the language they find so distasteful. It’s evidence that evangelization is more about the Holy Spirit’s movement in our hearts. Benedict wisely said that Jesus didn’t evangelize with sweet words—his work was on the Cross. Same thing with St. Paul, whose efficacy wasn’t his ability to speak well—Mar’s Hill reveals his failure at that—but rather his union with the suffering of Christ. This is very important, I think, to remember in the discussions of language.

        His reflections are quite good on the subject:

      • I think Hill avoids using “homosexual” as a noun for the same reason black people no longer use the word “negro”. Hill does say that he is a gay man – which is the same thing as saying he is a homosexual.

    • I think it depends what you mean by pride, Daniel.

      “Proud” as used about sexuality today seems to indicate not the opposite of humility, but rather the opposite of shame. You’ve said you’re not ashamed, so in that sense you’ve met at least the minimal threshold of what “pride” seeks to accomplish, I think.

      Again, I don’t really understand what you mean by “coming out” other than an honest and unashamed disclosure of sexual orientation, an “owning” of the reality of ones attractions and the collective affinity they place one into with the group of people of like experience.

      I think beyond a lack of shame, yes, pride would also seek to help people view their orientation as not merely not-shameful or “neutral” in that sense, but as something one can “take pride” in or positively value and integrate.

      Your comment indicates a bit more ambivalence about this “beyond a lack of shame towards a ‘celebration'” aspect of pride, and yet I would also not think it is unfounded. People are “proud to be an American” or “proud black women” and we’re not talking about arrogance. We’re talking about how being part of a collective experience can give one fellow-feeling and a sense of special connectedness with the achievements of our “compatriots” which prove that human excellence or nobility are manifested even among “our kind,” that we’re part of a narrative or culture or experience that has its own special genius or wisdom (as well as its own special struggles , or course).

      I certainly would be inclined to view my homosexuality in this light .

      • Sinner,

        You said: ‘We’re talking about how being part of a collective experience can give one fellow-feeling and a sense of special connectedness with the achievements of our “compatriots” which prove that human excellence or nobility are manifested even among “our kind,” that we’re part of a narrative or culture or experience that has its own special genius or wisdom (as well as its own special struggles , or course).’

        I can understand what you’re saying here. But even the use of the phrase “our kind” begs the question here, because I’m not sure that there IS any unique and important characteristic that all and only same-sex attracted people have in common. “Being sexually attracted to people of the same sex” is not such a characteristic, and least not so long as it is a temptation to sin. Temptations to sin are not unique and important characteristics, except insofar as — as Dan says — they can be eucatastrophes in our lives.

        And as homosexuality becomes more acceptable and common, it will sound more and more bizarre to say that it is a unique category of human experience. It is impossible to imagine an ancient Athenian, for example, being proud (in our modern sense of gay pride) of being attracted to other males. You may as well be proud of enjoying ice cream sundaes.

        As for “proud to be an American” or “proud to be black”, I do not see any theologically respectable justifications for this sort of pride, either. I think one should not be ashamed to be American, or black, or a woman, or gay, or what-have-you, but that these characteristics in themselves are not praiseworthy. But being black, I think, would be a much better thing to be proud of, since the color of your skin is a purely good characteristic that God has created *for* you. I don’t see how being gay is at all parallel. Each gay person has unique and wonderful characteristics that the world ought to celebrate. But their temptations to sin are not among these characteristics.

      • Well by “our kind” I mean nothing other than other people who have shared an experience of ours.

        Blind and deaf kids can look up to Helen Keller and say “look, I can achieve things too!” A black kid can look at Barack Obama and say “In spite of white privilege and other adversity making it harder, I too could be president someday!”

        All groups of people like looking up to “national heroes” or shared experiences that tell them, in all the scandal of particularity, “Yes, I am not alone, I am part of something bigger, I belong to a history.” Yes, we all belong to human history, but that doesn’t make sub-narratives evil, nor does it mean we don’t all grapple with building our personal identity through how we appropriate multiple narratives (from multiple class axes we belong to) and reconcile them in our personality, our own self-narrative.

        I also think it’s not fair to reduce homosexuality just to a species of temptation, as if “sexual orientation” describes only lust for sexual activity. “Attraction,” even attraction interpreted specifically through the lens of sex/gender, is a much broader and more ambivalent concept than that. “Sexuality affects all aspects of our affective life.” Certainly I don’t think heterosexuality is conceived by heterosexuals as being an experience narrowly defined by what gets them aroused or who they fantasize about sex with. Justin Lee had two great blogposts on this double-standard conceptually:

        All interactions that heterosexual men have with women are colored by heterosexuality. It’s inevitable; even with no mutual attraction whatsoever, they can’t help but relate to each other AS male and female, and their scripts and schemas there will be based on heterosexuality. They’re not going to get naked in a locker room together, for example. Likewise, a gay man is going to notice homoerotic undercurrents, “symbolically,” even with his straight male friends for whom he has no lust whatsoever; a bunch of them slapping each other’s bums after a baseball game may not be eroticized by him in that particular case because of the context. But he won’t be able to help at least SEEING, if in a detached way, the potential connection in a way that straight guys don’t seem to always notice.

        It’s unclear to me what tradition you are from, Daniel. As a Catholic, my tradition primarily problematizes sex and lust, not love. As such, I can think of a million cases in which my homosexuality has nothing to do with a “temptation to sin.”

        A cute guy is collecting donations for a charity, my attraction draws me to pay a bit more attention to him, and I give a donation and he smiles at me and says “Thanks, man!” and I smile too and get a warm fuzzy slightly infatuated feeling. There’s no arousal or notion of us getting physical. That’s one path I suppose fantasy or even real life could take, but not the only, and either way I’ve not taken it that far, we don’t usually project such things forward so far in our minds to ultimate ends like that. It may just be a human/aesthetic attraction, you might say, but which is invariably given a certain “spark” by my homosexuality, by his maleness and the fact that I am in general attracted to attractive males and thus my brain alerts me with a little rush of endorphins when I’m dealing with “that” category even when, in the specific case, there is nothing more to it.

        If you’re from certain Protestant traditions, even this sort “attraction” or love may be problematized even apart from any thought of sex or lust. In that case I don’t really know what to tell you. I think that is a huge double-standard given that we wouldn’t tend to accuse a married man of adultery-in-his-heart just because he got a spring in his step from a similar smile from a pretty young lady collecting charity; our brain rewards us all generally for positive and value-affirming interactions with attractive people (just like it rewards us for similar acknowledgement by someone we think is cool, popular, brilliant, respectable in our field, or who is otherwise looked up to as important in our life or possessing some desirable quality). But even beyond the double-standard, I’d think a moral system that required trying to excise every such subtle “coloring” by homoeroticism, trying to repress every joy or inhibition that was in any way contributed to by homosexuality…would be nearly impossible, require an exhausting and paranoid level of hyper-vigilance, and would lead either to elaborate self-delusion or denial to explain-away every such effect as “really something else” and thus sacrifice self- knowledge, or else a rigidity and social-withdrawal and emotional closing-down that would make it hard to love anyone in any sense.

  17. Daniel, I’d like to say you bring up several very good points about the question of what distinguishes gay people as a group other than same-sex attractions, what “else” we have in common.

    I think the short answer is both incredibly simple and incredibly subtle: what distinguishes us as a minority group other than the group-distinguishing feature itself…is the very fact of being distinguished at all! As I think several people have said before, in some ways the fact that we are socially constructed as “different,” are a minority, are “Other” is really more important to the gay experience than the “defining” or causal feature of that construction itself.

    I mean, currently, having brown hair is of little “identity importance” to people socially. But imagine if some regime came to power which treated brown hair as politically and socially relevant, made brown haired people have different experiences than the rest (for good or ill). Maybe all brunettes would pay a special tax, or be predestined to be monks and nuns, or be the army while everyone else isn’t. Suddenly, the group would be united with a shared history and shared interests as a class, a shared narrative. And being a class united by these experiences would give them class-consciousness politically, with shared interests on the collective level even if not for each individual (at least in the sense of the question of the structural distribution or privilege and power).

    For sexual minorities, things are similar. Except for us it’s not even a question of “arbitrary” historically-contingent creation of classes, but in some sense is a natural inevitability (at least until Brave New World emerges, or everyone becomes pan-bisexual) given that humans reproduce heterosexually and that is the natural default, at least in cultures where exclusively homosexual subjectivity as such emerges (and the question of nature versus social origins for desire is a complex and debated one), we will always be “other” just because we won’t have the same easy assumptions and narrative that heterosexuals can take for granted. The gay boy will always feel alienated by his straights peers’ “locker- room talk” etc

    If part of gay culture is art and creativity and such, it is likely at least in part related to this. Alienation and otherness are fertile sources of creativity and aesthetic impulses and even spirituality given that these reach beyond this world towards otherness more generally. It’s also true that the opposite direction of causation is also likely involved: sensitive people by that very fact of their personality are alienated from mainstream normativity more often, and that might express itself as homosexuality. But this chicken/egg question is not either/or.

    And besides, causation versus correlation doesn’t really matter. In identity narratives, which are social constructs, correlation is enough, as all they are is scripts of associations that no one is claiming are airtight. Not all blacks like jazz, for example, and some white people are great jazz musicians. But jazz is definitely part of Black culture specifically, for reasons simply of historical association.

    Of course all gay people aren’t artists, and of course not all artists are gay, and even the disproportionate amount might be correlation (to something like “sensitivity”) but not causation. But so what? An aesthetically sensitive gay kid can still look around and on history, see the connection, see the disproportion, and say “ok, this is something that unites me with a disproportionately high portion of other gay guys and which is an association I can cull from the gay narrative to integrate in my identity.”

    It doesn’t mean a cookie-cutter or lockstep conformism. I don’t like sports, and connect that with my being gay? Is their really any causal connection? Who knows. There are certainly straight guys who don’t like sports and gay guys who do. Yet not liking them is a feature of the schema (even “stereotype”) of gay, and so it’s a point of affinity I can notice and integrate as part of my gay identity, that’s one part of that narrative I can feel affinity with. Gays who do like sports have to find other things and have to grapple with reconciling the narrative dissonance either just by saying they like sports “in spite of” being gay, or by finding some construction whereby they like it “because of” their appreciation of masculinity or whatever. But either way, individual integration of identity and forming our personal narratives is always a dialogue with the public social narratives about the various classes to which we belong, and how we choose to make peace with them.

  18. Pingback: Whose Gayness? Which Homosexuality? - Ethika Politika

  19. Great article! I’m starting to become a fan of your work. One question though, what causes you to believe that the label ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, etc gives an authentic voice to the gay/ssa person’s experience? Wouldn’t ssa be exactly what the person is experiencing- attraction? I would love to hear your thoughts.

    • Hi Nathan! Thank you. I don’t think “gay” necessarily provides a universal term which should be applied to everyone’s experience of homosexuality. Only that it describes the experience of some people. But different people experience their sexuality in different ways. As Joshua Gonnerman points out in a very good article he wrote for First Things (, while some Christians may experience their homosexuality as “entirely problematic,” to “identify as ‘gay’ usually means to experience one’s homosexuality, in some way, as valuable.” This doesn’t mean that those of us who identify as gay see our disordered sexual attractions as being valuable, of course. Rather, we experience other things in our life as valuable which are intimately bound up with our sexuality, and we value those good things of God which are made present in, through, and are connected with, our weakness.(2 Cor 12:9). This doesn’t mean, however, that I want to deny the experience of those who do view their homosexuality as wholly problematic, or suggest that every same-sex attracted person should or must identify as gay.

  20. Pingback: Homosexuality: An Attraction or a Temptation? - ✝ Fall And Die...

  21. Pingback: A Note on Courage and Language | Spiritual Friendship

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