Saturday, April 18, 2009

Readers Write: Seeing Gay Persons with New Eyes, Beyond Theological Distortions

There was some interesting dialogue (here) earlier this week re: my post-Easter comments about Obama and Catholic voters. This dialogue focused on how official church rhetoric about gay and lesbian persons often leads to demeaning stereotypes of those who are gay and lesbian.

Because the insights that emerged in that discussion are valuable, I want to lift them out of the comments section in which they appear and highlight them in a posting proper. This dialogue is important for a number of reasons.

First, it reminds us that ideas (and words) count. Brian’s reflections about how the rhetoric of intrinsic disorder that the Catholic church applies to gay human beings leads to a view of gays as the Other in a negative, stigmatized, demeaned sense is a reminder that words lead to actions.

You cannot speak of a whole group of human beings as disordered without feeding negative social attitudes towards that group of human beings—and violence.

Second, as Brian notes, the real-life experience of gay family members and friends can cause those bombarded by stigmatizing religious rhetoric to change their minds. When people encounter (and love) real-life gay persons, beyond the stereotypes imposed by social and church rhetoric on those persons, an ah-ha moment (cognitive dissonance, to use Brian's splendid term) often takes place. People find that the presuppositions fed to them by prejudiced social institutions are incorrect, inadequate to describe the humanity of the Other they are encountering.

Finally, as Jim notes, much of what’s wrong with Catholic sexual ethics in general is its tendency to base everything on acts and not on persons. Most Catholics in the Western nations now know this, and ignore Catholic sexual teaching, because that teaching inadequately describes what most Catholics know and understand through their own experience of the sexual life: namely, that sexuality is about far more than acts.

It’s about relationships. And it’s about persons. And moral systems that ignore those central aspects of sexual life while focusing more or less exclusively on acts are not convincing, because they impose on our everyday experience as believers a grid of interpretation that has nothing to do with what we experience—or what we know about morality in our everyday sexual lives.

Here’s the exchange:

Brian: I've never been anti-gay, but I had been struggling for a while with ambivalent thoughts, mostly thanks to the teachings of the Church, which I held in high esteem (and still do to a degree, but have learned the hard way about the primacy of conscience).

On the one hand, the Church, including the new archbishop of NY, say we should love our gay and lesbian friends, as I do, but on the other hand, they claim that their disposition is 'intrinsically disordered', as if they're sick or brainwashed.

So I struggled with a kind of cognitive dissonance, or doublethink, for a while. I have wonderful gay and lesbian friends, but the 'disordered' part of the Church's teaching always prevented me from seeing them as full persons, that is, if I'm honest, I would think of them as asexual persons. The Church's doublethink prevented me from honestly considering homosexual desire as an important part of my friends' lives; and considering that the issue is homosexuality, in fact, the definitive part.

From my position today (and thanks to your blog), looking back on my refusal to reflect on this resulted in a kind of unconscious or at least unquestioning paternalism, like when men once (and still often do today) failed to consider the sexual feelings of women. It was considered scandalous to do so, mostly in literature, because, in my opinion, it leveled the field. We were no longer in a comfortably sexual hierarchy where roles are understood and enforced, but now had to encounter each other as unique persons.

Jim: the idea that gayness is defined by an act rather than an orientation is extremely controversial, but entirely in keeping with a tradition of sexual ethics that can focus on nothing but acts.

Some opponents raise the possibility that homosexuality is natural, but natural like a disease (alcoholism). First, if it is natural, then it is more than an act. Second, the debate requires an ability to differentiate between good natural and bad natural. Diseases like alcoholism, Huntington's disease, cancer, etc can be called bad because they threaten the integrity of the body, and they reduce the liberty of the person. In the case of alcoholism they also threaten others. Diseases isolate people in many ways.

Does being gay or lesbian also isolate the person in similar ways, threaten their bodily integrity, or reduce their liberty? (By the way, these are not secular values, they are part of a theological personalism rooted in notions of the common good, and includes an embodied personalism).

The answer to this question will depend on one's understanding of the body. Some argue that the meaning of the human body includes the claim that its sexual character is essentially fulfilled only within a marriage between a man and a woman that always remains open to new life. On this definition, homosexuality is bad natural because it leads to actions that impede and are contrary to the natural fulfillment of the body.

Those who wish to oppose such a position need an alternative theological understanding of the body. I am inclined to think that a principle such as "maximize unity in diversity" will suffice. A simpler version of the position is "avoid isolating human beings from each other and from the wider society whenever possible."

Something like the latter principle can be defended both on biblical and metaphysical grounds, and can be observed throughout nature and human society. The prior theological position that understands the human sexuality exclusively within the context of marriage open to procreation seems to me much harder to defend, at least as a position that describes all aspects of human sexuality. Unfortunately, those who defend the position do little to defend the position itself. Rather, it becomes the starting point of the discussion.

(Viewpoint of Joe Petit in blog , March 23, 2007)

And, interestingly enough, yesterday as I was gathering material from some of my past journals, I happened on the following passage in a journal from June 1993. The passage notes that I had been reading Douglas Coupland’s book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), and as I did so I came to the following conclusion:

Both conservatives and liberals often assume that the casualness with which many young people today view homosexuality stems from moral decline and confusion.

But this assumption rests on an acts-centered view of morality. If we take a view that has more to do with how sexuality finds its meaning in cultural contexts, and less to do with the meaning of acts isolated from culture (which is essentially what a natural-law approach to sexual ethics tries to do), we’ll discover that the shift in perceptions re: homosexuality today has more to do with culture shifts of which young people are more aware than many of their elders.

In my view, this observation from one of my old journals dovetails nicely with the discussion between Brian and Jim about the need for people of faith to find new ways of understanding the reality of gay people and gay lives. Many commentators and many demographic studies show a pronounced shift in how younger folks are responding to real-life gay human beings unfiltered by demeaning church rhetoric.

Though their elders sometimes appear to be intent on interpreting that shift as a sign of moral decline, it’s possible that it’s a sign of growth in the moral awareness of many people about how gay and lesbian persons should be treated. The more people grow up knowing real-life gay and lesbian persons—beyond stereotypes—the less likely they will be to swallow demeaning language about those persons, even when that language is forced on them by religious institutions.

They will be less likely to swallow such demeaning language because they will see, from their own experience, that it does not fit what they know of their gay family members, friends, and colleagues. They will see that the language is inherently evil (this is not too strong a word to use, when we’re talking about language that lies and elicits violence), and they will reject it as immoral. And simply by living differently, beyond the confines of demeaning language imposed even by faith communities on what they known about gay human beings, the next generation will craft a new, more humane, relation-centered and person-centered, ethic for homosexual persons in church and society.