Thursday, 23 October 2014

Welcoming gay orientation?

I was going to put aside any direct and general consideration of the Synod at least for the moment: as the Blessed Leonard Cohen said, 'It did some good/It did some harm.'

But the contrarian in me still wants to tackle one specific issue summed up in paragraph 50 of the relatio:

 Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing [...] them [...] a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

I'll also couple that with the question of welcoming people who identify themselves under the description of 'gay'. Indeed, let's go for broke: I'm going to argue that we can and should 'accept and value' a gay orientation.

Before I get stuck into that, some ground clearing. 99.9% of the time you hear someone arguing that the Catholic Church should 'accept and value a gay orientation' it means something along the lines of that pushed by Martin Pendergast: the Catholic Church should simply accept active homosexuality as another valid expression of sexuality alongside heterosexuality. One reason many orthodox Catholics are hostile to a claim worded in the way I have ('we can and should accept and value a gay orientation') is that activists like Pendergast send up a cloud of words and theology which covers up a fundamental change in morality under a lot of fluff about valuing and welcoming. (Reading his latest article, you wouldn't/needn't find anything that insisted he be free to have sex with another man, but that is simply what he really means.)

So let's rule that out immediately: I'm not arguing that. I straightforwardly accept that any sexual action between the same sex or indeed outside marriage is sinful. And, as a result, 99.9% of the time, when claims such as 'we can and should accept and value a gay orientation' are made, in terms of the substance of the argument, I disagree. But although it would certainly be simpler -and perhaps often less misleading to stick with this rough and ready rejection- I think it's worth pushing a little deeper, in part to do justice to the 0.1% of times when you hear people who are genuinely not trying to undermine Catholic teaching by making the claim, and, perhaps more importantly, to extract the nugget of truth that is expressed on those occasions.

The Catechism (para 2358) says:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.

(It's also worth noting (just to get the ducks up in a line) that para 2359 refers to 'homosexual persons'. That's worth stressing because it's sometimes argued that describing yourself as having a homosexual identity is, in itself, wrong, rather than (say) describing yourself as having (or even 'suffering from') same sex attraction.)

Two aspects then:

1) Is the substitution of the word 'gay' for 'homosexual' a change to be avoided?
2) Is it right to accept and value a gay/homosexual orientation?

On 1), I'm beginning to think that insisting on 'homosexual' rather than 'gay' in every context is beginning to be distracting. The Catechism -as noted- mandates the use of the phrase 'homosexual persons'. Now that perhaps is where the objections should be made: I'm not at all convinced that talking about 'homosexual persons' (or indeed heterosexual persons) doesn't essentialize an identity which is purely accidental. But, from the Catechism, that boat has already sailed. And if it's a toss up between 'homosexual persons' or 'gay people', I think that in many situations (not all), insisting on using 'homosexual persons' is beginning to make you sound flaky: rather like insisting on calling women 'the ladies' (or that use of 'homosexualists' that certain loons used to go in for about a decade ago). (Indeed, the ill motivated might well point out that, judging from my children's peer group, since the ordinary meaning of 'gay' is 'a bit rubbish', it's rather their look out if homosexuals insist on using the term...)

Anyway, putting that question aside, can a 'gay/homosexual orientation' be rightly accepted and valued? And there I think we have a truly difficult issue. IF (and let's stick with 'gay'), IF 'a gay disposition' just means a disposition to commit sinful acts with a member of the opposite sex, then it clearly can't be valued/welcomed in itself. (But even there, it might bring you into situations where, as an accidental consequence, good came of it: you might fall in love with a man who ran a Catholic charity for example, and thus end up getting involved in its good works.)

But does it just mean that? I rather dislike the use of 'heterosexual orientation', but, if one accepts it as a legitimate usage, it surely means more than just wanting to have sex with women. It involves finding women attractive,and that means valuing certain aspects of female physiology and psychology. Equally, finding the same sex attractive involves more than just an inclination to copulation. Moreover, if we do stick with 'gay', it has got aspects that are even wider than homosexual/heterosexual. What precisely these are is difficult to pin down (we shouldn't assume that there is a neat definition for every English word). But it certainly has connotations which go beyond 'wanting to have sex'. In fine, to gave a 'gay orientation' is more than just wanting to have sex with your own gender; and to that extent, it is possible to value and welcome that orientation. (And, a fortiori, it is of course clearly right to welcome gay people: that simply isn't in question. The only question is whether that welcome directly extends to their orientation.)

The above is really all quite theoretical and, to orthodox Catholics, probably looks like a silly attempt to wriggle into a less countercultural position, while, to non-Catholics, probably looks like a scholastic analysis of beating puppies to death. So let's get concrete. When I look at Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, it strikes me as clearly as anything can that a) their relationship made them both the artists they were; and b) Britten's homosexuality, in particular, deeply affected his work. Now I suppose one can imagine a *Pears-Britten couple which is identical to the real Pears-Britten couple, except that they make the changes to meet Catholic teaching. (So they could live together, but in a chaste friendship etc.) I think I can imagine that (indeed, one might actually wonder quite how important the sex act was in the partnership certainly as they grew older). But still one would want to say, would one not, that their love for each other and the orientation that made it possible were valuable precisely because they weren't and wouldn't be just about the desire to have sex with that other person?

[Having thought about this after drafting, I'd add that the one question the modern mind fails to ask -or rather just assumes the answer is going to be copulation- is what are friendships objectively for?  (Within the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, you have the general choices of bonum simpliciter, delectabile and  utile (Aquinas' Commentary on the Ethics -ad 1538): ie the good simpliciter, the pleasurable and the useful.) The Pears-Britten friendship is for the sake of art; the (Catholic) heterosexual marriage is for the sake of procreation. Both aims take the participants towards the transcendent good. God help either heterosexuals or homosexuals who answer 'sexual pleasure'. And that is to say, God help most of us trapped in the secular mindset.]

I think this sort of line of thought is what the Synod was (or at least should be) striving for. But it is dependent on a corresponding clarity: an orientation towards love for one's own sex isn't a bad thing, indeed can be a good thing, precisely so long as it contains elements that go beyond the sex act. An orientation towards love for the other sex isn't a bad thing, precisely so long as it contains elements that go beyond the sex act, although here, provided it is open to procreation, this too can be redeemed. It's that clarity which is lacking and, given past performance particularly from many Western churches, is unlikely to reappear even, indeed, especially, if a pastoral approach is developed which allows the above valuing of a gay orientation. The modern Western Church just doesn't do fine distinctions any more, certainly not in the parishes. From that point of view, it might just be better to stick with an unsubtle rejection of the orientation rather than offer an unsubtle welcome holus-bolus...?

In the end, this all goes back to the idea that 'finding someone sexually attractive' is self interpreting. Well, it hasn't been for me. (I can think of lots of occasions in my youth where I hadn't been sure what I felt about a woman: not (just) because of a lack of self-awareness, but also because the distinctions between different types of interest in another just really aren't clear (ontologically as well as phenomenologically one might say).) In particular, sexual attraction doesn't come in a neat compartment separate from attraction tout court. If someone has a tendency to find their own sex attractive, that isn't reducible to simply sexual attraction. And even sexual attraction isn't simply reducible to wanting sex. That bundle of confusions is at least a big a problem in our society as anything to do simply with homosexuality.

[And a final post drafting thought. When did bishops and priests become just pastors? The Church has always been a teacher -a Rabbi- as well as a prophet: both require clear effective speech in the public sphere. Protestant Churches -particularly the national ones- often have built into their DNA the Erastian idea that they're there merely to comfort citizens after the State has done all the really important cultural stuff like legislation, education etc. When did Catholics buy into that nonsense?]

Friday, 17 October 2014

Odd sins and synods

                              Flock of Cardinals. (Seems to contain a few wrong 'uns.)

Oh, I've really got little idea what to say about the Synod. Over the week, I've found myself going backwards and forwards: wanting to think it's all right (and so retweeting soothing tweets from soothing others); and then getting worked up a little (so retweeting apocalyptic announcements based on 6th century Irish sources); and then.... Well, you get the point.

As an individual Catholic, I've long come to the conclusion that's there's no point in getting worked up by the daily news cycle: the frenetic need for novelty and emotion is simply bad. Nothing worthwhile is achieved. Perhaps the greatest (and worst) change since my childhood is the abandonment of Sunday closing and the tendency to shut shops for a half day on Wednesdays. We need (regularly) to do nothing. Bring back the Sabbath.

But as a key Catholic commentator with a worldwide audience sometimes reaching into double figures, I realize that this is shirking my responsibilities. And so...

There are a couple of different aspects that struck me. First, there is the politicization of the process. Something that's striking me more and more is the absolute mystery of the individual's journey to God (or just truth). You can't (eg) institutionalize Socrates: the whole point of his prodding and maieutics was to get people to live out that journey themselves. Now this is of course the substance of (especially) the Eastern Orthodox attacks on Catholicism: that it tends to turn the mystery of faith into a bureaucratic process. (Think Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor.) Turning to the Synod, the process of lobbying, preparation of papers etc, just seems to be making a category mistake: whatever will bring people to God, it won't be this sort of committee meeting and position papers.

Now, I'm completely unconvinced by the general attack on Catholicism from this direction. (You need the ability to be clear and even bureaucratic to exist effectively in the world.) On the other hand, in this case, I do wonder what on earth is expected from this Synod: is there some magic formula that will reverse the decline in religious practice when serious Catholics such as Louise Mensch in irregular relationships have already found a way through under the present system? This isn't a bureaucratic problem to be solved by committee but a problem of attitude. The problem is existing in societies which are no longer Christian and even positively anti-Christian: of course that makes living out Christian teachings more difficult, but no tinkering with admission/exclusion from Communion will alter that fundamental fact. (There was a similar sort of pretence about the possibilities of bureacratic process with the vox pop surveys that preceded the Synod (my previous post). We pretended they mattered but really they were the sort of dismal process that bureaucracies indulge in, and which require that everyone pretends to think them important whilst knowing they are useless. Think setting out transferable skills for academic courses.)

One other aspect that struck me is that I was totally unsurprised by some of the liberal posturings that came out of the Synod. It really can't be a surprise that we have a Church where (some? many?) Bishops sound like liberal Protestants. Anyone who's lived in the Catholic Church in the West knows this is the state we're in. It is, moreover, something that exists in all parts of the hierarchy. (The conclusion I draw from Father Lucie-Smith's reflection that the Synod only repeats what he was taught by theologians at the Gregorian is that the rot existed there as well. But again, really, are we surprised at that?)

What we have here is a crisis of one type of authority in the Church: that of the hierarchy. The Synod exists because lay Catholics won't listen to the teachings of the Church with docility if they clash with their secularized consciences. The Synod has got into trouble because an increasingly more theologically aware body of practising Catholics won't accept the sort of back of an envelope theology that Anglicans have specialized in since the sixties. At one level, that might suggest that the Catholic Church is caught in a terminal bind: since its main 'attraction' for such refugees from secularity as me is precisely its claims to supernatural authority, the loss of trust in the representatives of that authority surely means an end to its USP? Perhaps. But let's try a different view. Docility towards the hierarchy has always been one element in the Church's package of authority. It has operated, for example, in conjunction with the development and articulation of doctrine, and the examples and teachings of Doctors and Saints. We have never simply obeyed Bishops; we have always to some degree looked to the other elements of authority. To take Vatican II at its word (and to take St John Paul II's emphasis on that personal element in theology) modernity has seen a rebalancing of that complex interaction of authority away from the persons of the hierarchy towards a reliance on other sources (of which, perhaps, the Catechism is symbolic). If that is the case, Bishops etc need to recognize that they are becoming less important than they once were. (Which is not to say that they are unimportant.) Instead of trying to sort it out via a Synod, why not point away from themselves, towards an encouragement of the laity to engage with St Thomas Aquinas, St Francis, St John Paul etc etc? (Or even pray a little more??) )

So, in modernity, we have to do it for ourselves. But that doesn't give us carte blanche to find authority wherever we like. Every time a progressive Catholic stands up, Bishop or laity, ask them where they think more authority lies: in the Summa, or in feminism? In the whining of secularized Westerners, or in the lamentations of the psalmist? I'm not a great fan of ressourcement as a twentieth century concrete phenomenon. But the essential idea is fine. Whom do you trust for your authority? Saints or sinners? Yourself, or the holy men and women who have gone before you?

Monday, 13 October 2014

In memory of Richard Collins


Having once been at a funeral where the distraught wife had to spend much of her time comforting a complete stranger who'd managed to get swept up in the feelings of the occasion, I'm conscious of not wanting to pretend to anything other than a marginal connection with Richard. My main purpose here is simply to offer my prayers for the repose of his soul and for the comfort of those who were close to him.

However, I have always felt an odd link to Richard and his blog, Linen on the Hedgerow. His was one of the first Catholic blogs I read and I have gone on reading it regularly. He was one of my earliest followers and we have exchanged friendly comments over the years. It sounds like little -and indeed, in the wider scheme of things, it is. But a few friendly words and attention from a more established figure can mean a lot when you're starting to expose yourself to the public, and I've remained grateful for that support.

There were two aspects to his blog that always struck me. (Well, actually three: I always thought it was a terrific title for a blog!) First was that sense of anger (or perhaps sadness?) for those years after Vatican II when good, ordinary Catholics found the traditions of the faith ripped out of their hands. Perhaps I wouldn't put it exactly like that, but I think Richard would or near enough. And his perspective reminded me of all those people I have talked to over the years who have stories to tell of Church furnishings sitting in skips waiting to be taken away, or priests who have wrecked parishes by wilful eccentricity (a euphemism). It's easy for a convert like me to ignore those wounds, but they're there and they're real.

Secondly, we seemed to share a devotion to Blessed Miguel Pro (see here for some of his posts on this). Quite apart from the personal qualities of this martyr, the photographs of his death are, for me, some of the most moving images of sanctity I have ever come across. I'm extremely disorganised in my devotions as in  much else. But I could rely on Richard's annual posts to remind me of his feast day.

My prayers for and best wishes to his family and friends.

Beate Michael Pro, ora pro eo.
Requiescat in pace.

[The image of Richard Collins has been downloaded from the blog, Ora Pro Nobis.]

[Update: Mary O'Regan's appreciation of Richard is really lovely: here]