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 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.