Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Catholic Teaching on Gay Persons as Disordered: The Male-Female Complementarity Argument

Another theological reflection to supplement what I posted yesterday about Catholic teaching that those who are gay or lesbian are disordered: for those seeking to understand the current Catholic teaching about LGBT persons, it’s also important to engage another innovation on the Catholic tradition dating (like the teaching that gay and lesbian persons are objectively disordered) from the papacy of John Paul II. This is what is called the theology of the body.

The theology of the body revolves around the claim that sexual behavior is normed by a male-female complementarity built into nature by its Creator, and consistently upheld by biblical revelation. As Rev. David Burrell notes in an article entitled “Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality,” which summarizes the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching about those who are gay or lesbian:

Sexual relations between unmarried men and women offend against the dignity of the individuals involved, yet respect their basic “complementarity as masculine and feminine [whereby] man and woman were ‘made for each other’”([Catechism,] #372). It is this masculine/feminine complementarity which is normative for the Catholic tradition, and explains why homosexual acts imitative of the marriage act are said to be “gravely disordered.” It also explains why the phrase “objectively disordered” appears in the next article [of the Catechism], where the wording is slightly yet significantly different.

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains unexplained (#2357). 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. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided ([Catechism,] #2358).

This orientation of one's sexual attraction is judged “objectively disordered” because it inclines people in ways contrary to the masculine/feminine complementarity which the Catholic tradition takes to be normative, and which society normally presumes, so the Catechism suggests that it “constitutes for most of them a trial.”

Note two primary points of this summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1. Even when the sexual acts of heterosexual people (e.g., premarital sex) depart from what is considered normative in the Catholic tradition, those acts nonetheless respect the complementarity of male and female that the tradition wishes to uphold as normative, and heterosexual people are therefore not designated as “objectively disordered” because of their departure from the norm;

2. But gay and lesbian people are disordered because their sexual acts are objectively disordered, and those acts point as well to an inclination that moves against the norm of male-female complementarity.

(What this analysis completely overlooks, of course, is a point I made yesterday: many—if not most—of the sexual acts of heterosexuals conspicuously fail to fulfill the Catholic tradition’s analysis of what constitutes an “ordered” sexual act because they do not intend to be procreative. Procreation is not first and foremost the intent of most couples engaging in intercourse. In fact, for many couples, both married and unmarried, procreation is the last thing hoped for when a couple engages in intercourse.

Furthermore, many of the sexual acts of heterosexual couples are actively “disordered,” per the Catholic tradition, because they deliberately violate the “order” of sexuality by preventing procreation. And yet Catholic teaching does not conclude on this basis that heterosexuals are objectively disordered, even when such “disordered” sexual behavior is even more widespread than the “disordered” sexual behavior of homosexuals, because straight people are far and away in the majority. But it does wish to conclude on the basis of the very same argument—disordered acts point to disordered people—that all gay and lesbian persons are objectively disordered.

And this is not even to mention the prevalence of masturbation among both heterosexual and homosexual persons, male and female, another “objectively disordered” act, whose commission would point to the “disorder” of everyone committing the act—and again, a preponderance of those engaging in this “disordered” act are heterosexual, because heterosexuals are far more numerous than homosexualsif we applied the magisterium’s logic about homosexuality to all “disordered” sexual acts and those who commit such acts . . . .)

So, built into the argument that Catholic teaching has sought to use in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict to define gay and lesbian persons as disordered is a supplemental argument that the “order” of sexuality is not only about procreation. It is also about male-female complementarity. Gay folks are disordered not merely because they engage in “disordered” sexual acts. They are disordered as well because they violate—by their very inclinations and in their very nature—a male-female complementarity that is built into nature and reinforced by revelation.

What to make of this argument, which adds an innovative late-20th century twist to the biologistic natural-law Catholic tradition re: sexual ethics? In the first place, note that it purports to be based on an objective reading of nature: it wants us to believe that it is simply reading nature, and on the basis of what it reads, is discovering norms applicable to all of us. Norms built into nature and accessible to anyone who uses his or her reason. Natural norms reinforced by revelation. The biologistic natural-law tradition, with its innovative claim that male-female complementarity is built into nature in a normative way that points to the “disorder” of all gay persons and the “order” of all straight ones, is simply telling us what is in nature, and because of what nature shows us, natural law is simply telling what we have to do if we want to fulfill the dictates of nature—to be “ordered” persons.

Unfortunately, dispassionate observation of how nature behaves does not yield the kind of unambiguous ethical norm—sexual activity is naturally ordered to procreation; sexual activity is naturally about the union of male and female—that those using the male-female complementarity argument to illegitimate all gay and lesbian persons want to find in nature. “Natural” sexual behavior is anything but ordered in the sense that the biologistic reading of natural law wants us to think. Animals of most species are wildly (and seemingly happily so) diverse in their sexual behavior. They engage in same-sex sexual behavior, in sexual behavior with multiple partners, in polymorphous sexual behavior, in masturbation and copulation, with apparent abandon.

As Andre Gide noted as long ago as 1911 in Corydon, dispassionate and objective observation of how animals behave naturally shows abundant evidence of same-sex sexual activity—as natural activity. In fact, Gide noted, outside the female’s estrus cycle, in many species, same-sex activity is more prevalent than opposite-sex activity. In many species, in the large part of a year in which females are not in estrus, both females and males copulate with members of their own sex more frequently than with those of the opposite sex. Dispassionate observation of what sex appears to mean to most animals (humans included) does not yield the conclusion that sex is “naturally” all about procreation. Rather the opposite . . . .

We find male-female complementarity as a “natural” and obvious norm for sexual behavior, and we find procreation as the goal of all sexual activity in nature, only when we bring to our observation of nature what we already believe should be the case. The biologistic understanding of natural law reads into nature norms that it wishes to impose on a wild diversity that points in every direction except what biologistic understandings of natural law tell us all reasonable people ought to see in nature.

This is not to deny that many people sincerely believe that dispassionate observation of nature reinforces their presupposition that sexuality is all about male-female complementarity and procreation. This is actually Gide’s point in Corydon: most people believe that they’re seeing only male-female copulation when they look at the natural world, because they strongly assume that this is what they ought to see.

And this is to say that the biologistic natural law tradition, as well as the recent innovation of male-female complementarity in Catholic thinking, reinforces strong societal presuppositions—the word “prejudices” would not be misplaced here—about what people think they see in nature, when they talk about natural or unnatural sexuality. About ordered and disordered understandings of sexuality.

The power of the argument about male-female complementarity is that it echoes what most people think they see in nature, and then stamps with the force of natural observation (reinforced by religious prohibitions: reason propped by revelation) what people already believe, have chosen to believe, wish to believe.

What never comes to the surface when these biologistic natural law arguments and the claim about male-female complementarity are advanced is that this is not a new strategy of conservative groups that wish to halt necessary social change. Over the course of Western history, again and again groups purporting to read what nature tells us about how things are, and therefore how they should be, have used arguments about the self-evident clarity of nature to keep necessary social change at bay.

Working-class people, people of the “lower” orders, have been told over and over in many Western nations that God has designed both the natural and the social worlds in conformity to strict notions of order. As Arthur Lovejoy’s classic work The Great Chain of Being (1936) notes, according to this argument, which has cropped up again and again in Western history, to break the chain of order, to overturn the hierarchical arrangement of society into upper and lower orders, is to violate nature and what God intends for the world, with dire consequences.

And it’s not just the “lower” orders who have been kept in their “natural” places by such arguments. Similar arguments were advanced when women began to claim the right to autonomy, to self-direction, in many Western cultures. In response to the aspirations of women for full personhood, reactionary groups have argued (and still argue) that women’s subjugation to men is “natural,” because women are physically weaker than men, are “naturally” expected to remain at home and bear and nurture children, are home-makers rather than world-builders. Break but the chain and see what chaos follows . . . .

And this argument about nature has long been used to keep people of color in their place. People of color, we’re told by reactionary groups, are “naturally” inferior to Caucasians. They are less evolved, less intelligent, more prone to emotion and less prone to rationality. Nature has designed things such that those with darker skins ought to serve those with lighter skins. And God has given the divine stamp of approval to this natural arrangement. Challenge the arrangement and you challenge not just nature, but God.

Obviously those now promoting the male-female complementarity argument and the theology of the body that has developed around this argument do not wish to discuss this persistent use of notions of nature stamped with divine approval by conservative groups resisting the emergence to full personhood of people subjugated by socially dominant groups. Those promoting the male-female complementarity argument and the theology of the body want us to think that affirmation of homosexuality represents an entirely new, exceptional, unprecedented case, an unprecedented attempt by a subjugated group to overturn the norms of nature, which will have dire consequences if we permit this departure from nature.

Just as the grandparents of those making these arguments once said with precisely the same apocalpytic predictions about workers’ rights and women’s rights and the rights of people of color . . . .

The theology of the body (which was developed for the Catholic tradition in documents authored by Pope John Paul II) seeks to place questions about gender and gender roles and sexual ethics into a sacred, mystical preserve that forbids critical questions about these matters. These critical questions include why the Catholic natural law tradition insists on telling us what we should see when we look at sexual behavior in nature, rather than allowing us to see what unbiased observation of nature actually shows us.

They also include critical questions about how the notion of nature stamped with religious authority has been persistently used in Western history to oppose the liberation of one subjugated minority group after another. And they include critical questions about why the Catholic tradition allows us to intervene in nature and contravene nature’s dictates in every area except sexuality—in medicine, in the building of social institutions, etc.

In other words, why is biology destiny only when it comes to sexuality for the Catholic tradition? We no longer oppose inoculation of people to prevent infection on the ground that inoculation interferes with natural law and Gods plan for creation. And on the whole, we’ve long since given up on the argument that nature (and God) want society arranged into upper and lower orders, and that everything turns upside down when the lower rail gets on top. Why is human sexuality the sacred, mystical preserve that John Paul II’s theology of the body wants to insist it is?

Why is biology destiny only when we start talking about gender roles and human sexuality? What appears to many of us to be driving the quasi-mystical theology of the body now surging through the reactionary wings of the Catholic church (and through evangelical groups eager to appropriate this defense of patriarchy, even when they do not share the Catholic natural law theology of sexuality) is the need of straight men to remain in control of a world that appears to be getting out of their control. There is a strong and unholy need—a specifically male needto control at the heart of the argument that gay and lesbian people are objectively disordered, and that nature and revelation point to male-female complementarity as the goal of sexual life. There is a strong and unholy need on the part of straight men to control women and gay men, in particular, at the heart of these arguments.

But the gospel is supposed to be good news. It is supposed to be about liberation rather than subjugation. When Paul speaks of the need of slaves to obey their masters, we conclude that he is uncritically reflecting the presuppositions of his culture and illicitly reading those cultural presuppositions into the scriptures as normative for all of Christian history.

But when he announces that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, because all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28), we conclude that we’re hearing the proclamation of the gospel—which is about liberation from enslavement, liberation from subjugation to cultural norms that divide us into Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female, in a way that subordinates one group to another. We conclude that Paul is proclaiming the gospel here because the gospel is good news: it is about liberation. It is not about subordination to biology as if biology is destiny—as if being male or female entraps us in gender roles in which everything is premised on the superiority of one gender to the other, on the domination of one sex by the other.

The misuse of the energies of communities of faith at this point in history to effect such subordination (of women and LGBT people to straight men, in particular) is tragic. It is blindly misguided. This misuse of energy siphons off energy much needed by these communities to proclaim the gospel in a really effective, really transformative, way at this point in history—in a way that creatively engages and does not merely reinforce the status quo.

The contemporary attempt of some religious groups to read the scriptures as all about male-female complementarity (and the subordination of females [and gay people] to males) takes a selfish preoccupation of one group of people at this point in history—of heterosexual males determined to resist critiques of patriarchy and to give up the unjustified power and privilege that patriarchy accords to heterosexual men—and apotheosizes that preoccupation in a way that contradicts the most fundamental proclamation of the gospel.

For those interested in what I've written previously on the subject of male-female complementarity, please click on the label "male-female complementarity."