Saturday 10 December 2011

A reader asks...

Midnight has come...

And thus the first stage of the campaign against same sex ‘marriage’ ends and a new phase begins. For Lazarus, like Eminem, there is now the opportunity for cleaning out my closet –and, in particular, for replying to a reader’s comment which I promised to deal with at greater length.

The following should be read against two background points:

a) What follows is an honest attempt to provide arguments in natural law to support the Magisterial teaching of the Church. It is not my intention to cast doubt on any of that teaching. To the extent that I have deviated from Church teaching, my errors are unintentional.
b) Homosexual activity is sinful. But anyone who suffers from same sex attraction is struggling with concupiscence just like all human beings. We all need God’s mercy and we all have his love.

Frederick Oakley asked:

Straight people don't have to advocate the type of sexual activity that is chosen, naturally and without pressure, by the vast majority of mankind. They select what Lazarus calls 'a particularly satisfying type of grope'. But what about that small number for whom such a grope is not only unsatisfying but, in all truthfulness, is impossible. Apart from that difference, these are people who may also honour fidelity against promiscuity. We cannot suggest that marriage as understood by the Church is open to them. However we can welcome a secular recognition of a permanent relationship. It doesn't help to belittle their genuine difference.

The first thing I’d say here is that I don’t think what is good about heterosexual activity is that it is a particularly satisfying type of grope: that was my characterization of Suzanne Moore’s view here. Indeed, it is because sexual activity carries meaning beyond the simple rubbing of surfaces that Moore envisages, that much modern thought about sex is simply wrong.

So what is good about heterosexuality? In specifically religious terms, I’d point to the theological idea, present (eg) in von Balthasar, that the complementarity of male and female in some way is a reproduction of the internal life of the Trinity: sex matters theologically. In the broader terms of natural law, I’d point to the way that the psychologies of men and women are different: a man who does not open himself to female influence in the way only a sexual relationship can achieve is missing something, and mutatis mutandis a woman. Moreover, without male/female relationships, childrearing will not occur (except in the technologically overloaded interventions of artificial methods or of a mother deliberately abandoning her children as a surrogate mother). Although these positions can only be sketched here, they provide the resources for developing a view that heterosexual activity is superior to homosexual activity.

This gives society a reason to promote heterosexual relationships –and moreover, heterosexual relationships of a certain lifelong and sexually exclusive kind which fits them for childrearing. It does not have the same reason to promote homosexual relationships (quite apart from any consideration of their sinfulness). Moreover, it has a reason to distinguish carefully lifelong exclusive relationships oriented towards childrearing –ie marriage- from all other human relationships.

So that it the outline of the reasoning which supports a) distinguishing marriage from other relationships and b) privileging that relationship. But this leaves open the question that Frederick asks:

But what about that small number for whom such a grope is not only unsatisfying but, in all truthfulness, is impossible. Apart from that difference, these are people who may also honour fidelity against promiscuity. We cannot suggest that marriage as understood by the Church is open to them. However we can welcome a secular recognition of a permanent relationship. It doesn't help to belittle their genuine difference.

Note first that society does have a reason for discouraging those groups (ie in the modern taxonomy, bisexuals) who might be tempted not to form heterosexual couples; as well as those heterosexuals (ie the promiscuous) who might be tempted not to form life long exclusive bonds. Accordingly, the effects of any institutions created for the benefit of (exclusive) homosexuals would have to be considered on these groups. (I should note here that I am not entirely sure that the concepts of homosexual and heterosexual as identities are something that the Church should simply endorse. This is not a line of argument I’ll run this time.)

Putting that issue aside, what of those who find heterosexual intercourse impossible? As matters stand, society gives two answers: 1) They can have sex and construct their lives in whatever way they choose, but can’t get married. 2) They can enter into civil partnerships. Now, quite apart from anything else, such a situation seems better (on the reasons previously adduced) to further blurring the distinction between marriage and other relationships. So given the nature of the present debate about same sex marriage, the clear conclusion is that same sex marriage should be opposed.

But the deeper point in Frederick’s question is, I take it, this: Why shouldn’t the Church welcome a) civil partnerships; and b) more generally, faithful homosexual activity? It might be added that, even if the Church believes that such activity is sinful, wouldn’t it be better to reduce the sinfulness in this way?

In terms of sinfulness, homosexual activity –in Catholic understandings- is simply wrong. Even if it is done in a faithful, exclusive partnership, it remains wrong. This is so deeply embedded in Catholic moral theology that I don’t see how it could be changed. But it might be argued that, just as stealing could never be right, there is a moral difference between someone who steals without hurting or frightening anyone, and someone who steals by hurting and frightening. Analogously, it might be thought, there is a moral difference between two homosexuals who live out their lives as a faithful couple, and homosexuals who act promiscuously. Both are wrong. But one is less wrong than the other.

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.

Let me be quite clear. For a Catholic, there is a need to accept the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium. Homosexual activity is sinful. Moreover, there are authoritative pronouncements on the acceptability of civil partnerships and same sex marriage. All I have written, for a Catholic, has to be read against that background.

See in particular here at the US Bishops' website

But quite apart from the authority of the Church, the sort of natural law considerations sketched above do, I think, provide a justification, at least in outline, for the exercise of that authority which is (or at least should be) rationally persuasive.


  1. With much of the argument I agree which is why I took Lazarus to task when he suggested I sought to change the teaching of the Church. The problem seems to me to be a confusion about marriage. Since the Reformation, the State has taken marriage from the Church. In the 19th Century it legislated to alter the Biblical rules of whom a man could marry, set up a universal system of registration and, in effect, made clergymen of any denomination assistant registrars. Since then it has so changed the meaning of marriage that today it is merely a public statement of at least temporary cohabitation. So title is changed by such a marriage that it has become optional and increasing numbers of people don't bother with the formalities. The only serious downside for them relates to inheritance and death duties.

    The State marriage carries little of its Catholic origin. It can be finished at the behest of one party against the will of the other. Divorce is available to all merely on 'breakdown' and the State imposes no penalty on sequential couplings except some financial contribution towards the cost of any children. This is therefore not marriage as we understand it. It is in that context that we must consider sam sex unions. We talk as if allowing them is what will orders able change the nature of marriage. In the State's eyes it has already changed to something quite different from Christian marriage. We ought to accept that. Make the difference clear and recognise that all state marriage is now a civil partnership. It would be best if we called them all so but after 400 years of the State assuming control of the institution, we are not likely to win that battle.

    Christian marriage is something quite different and cannot admit of divorce or same-sex unions. Let's concentrate on upholding and strengthening that, not trying to pretend that what the state calls marriage has any real relation to what it means for Catholics.

  2. First, my apologies for attributing views to you which you don't hold! (Too easily done!)

    I think there's a wider question behind both our points here and that is how the Church sees its future in a secularized and even hostile West. On the one hand, there is the (what I shall call) the Monastic model which is about the Church preserving its own integrity in the middle of a pagan culture. On this model, we simply make clear our own position on marriage, and ensure that our own people are clear about it, while allowing the rest of society to do what it likes. On the other hand, there is the Christendom model which is about the Church struggling to exercise as much influence as it can over society and the State.

    I'm in favour of both! We need to be very clear to Catholics -much clearer than we have been- about the nature of marriage in the Catholic understanding and how this differs from both secular and Protestant understandings. (And as importantly, the reasoning for these differences.) But we also need to exert whatever influence for the good that we can on the wider culture.

    I think it's here we differ. Certainly, the current state understanding of marriage is, from the Catholic point of view, imperfect. But the introduction of same sex 'marriage' would make it even more imperfect. Moreover, the effects of the introduction of same sex 'marriage' would be wider than on the institution of marriage: it would reinforce the sense that homosexual activity is on an equal footing with heterosexual activity. Whilst both points are -certainly from a non-Catholic point of view- debatable, I take it that we agree on their truth...?

    If we do, then what divides us is the Church's responsibility for warning wider society about these dangers. The natural law understanding is that human beings are impairing their flourishing -damaging their lives- by failing to follow Church teaching in these respects. (So it's not just about disobeying Church rules: the case is more akin to that of seeing a stranger about to walk into the path of oncoming traffic.) Should we just throw up our hands and let them do this? The Catholic answer I take it is clearly no.

    Catechism para 2050: 'The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, as authentic teachers, preach to the People of God the faith which is to be believed and applied in moral life. It is also incumbent on them to pronounce on moral questions that fall within the natural law and reason.'

    One danger here is of Catholicism starting to see itself as a (Protestant) gathered congregation, concerned only with its own welfare. Instead, Catholicism claims to have an insight into what is objectively good and bad for all people. As such, it is the Church's duty to warn and encourage society whenever it sees a danger to human welfare, and however damaged that society may already be.

    So I think there are two point to be clarified between us:

    a) Do you agree that civil partnerships are harmful to the common good of society?

    b) If you do, do you agree that the Church, as guardian of the natural law, has a duty to speak out in this area, not just to Catholics, but to non-Catholics as well?