Saturday, 31 December 2011

A reader asks: on civil partnerships

A comment from Frederick on the previous post merits a more extensive treatment than I can give it in a combox. Frederick asks:

If you have no truthful way of sexual expression except with one of your own sex then continence is only possible if you accept some higher authority. The Church can therefore demand what the state can't. It is not reasonable for the state to make demands of people which can only be made in the light of revelation. The state must therefore seek rules which can be applied to those for whom revelation is not part f their experience. If those rules encourage fidelity and reduce promiscuity they must be better than rules which do not. In that sense they can be given some limited support

My reply:

Let’s adopt a distinction common in religious studies between an ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’ perspective. For a Catholic, the insider perspective isn’t just one perspective amongst many, but the correct perspective on the world. Since we’re both Catholics, let’s stick with that perspective. (So everything I write below assumes that I’m addressing someone who accepts the broad Catholic view of the world: I’d write differently if I were addressing a non-Catholic.)

1)      In order to achieve sanctification –ie the final vocation of the human being- we all need God’s grace (CCC 2021-2). In this, those with homosexual inclinations are no different from any other people. If people reject the idea of grace, they will, of course, fail to co-operate with it and therefore will (at least to some extent) remain in a state of disorder. That isn’t a peculiarity of homosexual disorder, but all human disorders, sexual and otherwise –ie the normal human condition. On that basis, should the state make no demands of anyone, simply because, on their own initiative, none of us can achieve anything?
2)      a) Revelation is a source of knowledge (about eg human nature) but not the only source of knowledge. Of course, if someone rejects revelation, she is going to be in a worse position regarding her understanding than someone who accepts revelation –but that doesn’t, in itself, absolve her of responsibility for those failures of knowledge or immunize her from the effects of those errors.

      b) Another source of knowledge about human nature is the natural law ‘written and engraved in the soul of each and every man’ (Leo XIII quoted in CCC 1954). Another way of putting this is that philosophical reasoning about human flourishing can discern much (and we can argue how much) of what it is to live well without revelation. You seem to assume that knowledge of the wrongness of homosexual activity is dependent on revelation; but (as I have indicated in previous postings) a number of philosophers –ancient and modern- have argued for its wrongness on grounds apart from revelation. (For example see previous postings on John Finnis and John Haldane. For a non-Catholic perspective off this blog, see Roger Scruton.)

3)      I simply reject your claim: ‘If those rules encourage fidelity and reduce promiscuity they must be better than rules which do not.’ My reasons for doing so are given previously in my post. Specifically:

Two answers. Firstly, let me concede the point. Someone who is in a faithful life long homosexual partnership possibly is a better person than someone who is promiscuous. But better still is the person who is celibate. And none of that shows that society would be right to promote civil partnerships: it is quite possible that the social harm in such a promotion –in the undermining of the difference between homosexual and heterosexual activity for example and the encouragement of homosexuality amongst the bisexual- would outweigh its benefits. (Just as it might well be the case that the balance of social harms in promoting condoms might outweigh the benefits to be achieved by (say) the prevention of AIDs in the case of individual sex workers.) So while it might be right for individual homosexuals to reduce their sinfulness by entering into a partnership, it would not be right for society or the Church to promote publicly such arrangements. (One could quite well imagine a priest privately counselling a Mafioso only to hurt and not to kill his victims, but not wishing to make such advice public for fear of encouraging others to hurt and not leave alone.)

Secondly, I’m not sure that it is clear that a homosexual who is in a lifetime faithful partnership is a better person than someone who, eg, indulges in bouts of promiscuity followed by periods of regret.  For a heterosexual couple, the point of sexual restraint is that it is one of the attributes of marriage that make it suitable for childrearing. Now, putting aside theological considerations, that restraint comes at a cost. Some possibilities are lost by such restraint: these might include the ability to move across the world for new job, or the simple loss of exploring a variety of people as sexual partners. For a heterosexual, they are the cost of the pearl of childrearing: these are the sacrifices to be made to achieve a stable environment for childrearing. But such a consideration doesn’t apply to homosexual couples. So I’m not at all sure that, in itself, fidelity in homosexual relationships makes them better than promiscuity. (Fidelity in a Mafioso may well make him a worse person.) I accept that, in individual cases, it may well be better for an individual to abstain from homosexual promiscuity just as, in an individual case, it may be better for someone to abstain from alcohol. But neither case suggests that, in general, promiscuity or drinking is a bad thing.

In short, I don't accept your claim that, even if civil partnerships encouraged fidelity, they would on that ground be advisable a) because they might still cause harm to the social, common good; and b) it isn't clear that fidelity in such a case is even a benefit to the persons concerned.


  1. I'm not sure we disagree as much as you think. Outsider and insider are useful distinctions and I will accept that my use of the word revelation could suggest a narrower meaning than I intended. Put simply, we Catholics cannot expect the secular world to act as we would act because it doesn't believe as we believe. We can talk about natural law till we are blue in the face but it is still a religious insight that sees it as a universal truth. Non-Christians and many Protestants don't get it at all. So, what is a state to do? In a democracy it can only do its best with what. That's why we have state marriage and divorce laws which so diverge from the Christian ideal. That is where we get to a disagreement. Homosexual activity may be a sin but it isn't illegal. Promiscuity is attended by all sorts of drawbacks whether heterosexual or gay. Fidelity and commitment remove many of those problems. I just have to say that long standing gay couples who love one another, care for one another, and grow to know one another more and more are far better for themselves and society than people who sleep around with any one whom they can locate on their Grindr app. What's more, those of us who are happily married and don't have the problem with minority sexuality have to be at least understanding of those who do and who try to make sense of it without any belief.

  2. I absolutely agree with your last sentence.

    As for the rest, I'm genuinely not sure how much we do disagree! I don't expect others to act or believe as I want them to as a Catholic, but I do think that philosophical reasoning on human nature is rather more supportive of the Catholic position(s) on (eg) sexuality than is normally supposed: I don't agree that natural law (at least in the sense of 'philosophical reasoning on human nature') is only a religious insight. Indeed, one of the signs that something is quite radically wrong with modern secular culture and its claimed reasoning in this area is its complete unanimity (at least as far as the Scottish media are concerned) on an issue which is nowhere near as clearcut as is being made out, even in completely non-religious terms.

    We do clearly disagree on the benefits of fidelity and commitment tout court. I'm not convinced either that these have a clear social benefit or a clear personal benefit: we must always ask fidelity to what, commitment to what. For example, there are well known cases of people thinking they were exclusively homosexual and then falling in love with people of the opposite sex. If there were a social encouragement to form and stay in faithful same sex relationships by way of same sex marriage etc, the possibility of such change would be reduced. (To forestall an obvious objection here, I do not suggest that such cases alone demonstrate that, overall, the balance of harm over benefit clearly rules out civil partnerships etc, merely that they do demonstrate that there are harms which cannot be disregarded by a simplistic assertion that fidelity and commitment are always goods.)