Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Why Not Ex-Gay?, Part III: If It's Broke, Don't Fix It

I've discussed both theoretical and practical problems with the ex-gay version of Christian-LGBTQ dialogue, but I've also said that I don't regard either of those as the fundamental objection to it. Well, if "not bloody likely" and "doesn't bloody work" aren't fundamental objections, then what is?

How about "no bloody point"?

Think about it for a moment. Why were Christians trying to find a "cure" in the first place? Is heterosexuality listed among the virtues in Scripture? Is marriage one of the duties of a Christian? Are there passages in the Gospels and Acts recounting the miracles of reorientation performed by Christ and the Apostles? If you answered "Yes" to any of those questions, congratulations, you are somehow more homophobic than the Restored Hope Network.*

My own beliefs about homosexuality are those of the Catholic Church (see paras. 2357-2359 of the Catechism for a brief summary**), as I've stated before. Nowhere in those beliefs is it stated or even suggested that sexual reorientation is necessary, meritorious, likely, or desirable. Nor, on the whole, has the Catholic Church taken that view. It is true that some Catholics have, like Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, founder of NARTH. But they aren't representative of the general Catholic response to homosexuality, whether orthodox or dissident; the main focus of Catholicism lies elsewhere. There are three major reasons for this (that I'm familiar with enough to run my mouth about, anyway).

The first is that sexual attraction, of whatever kind, isn't a sin. In fact it can't be. Having an impulse to do something, which is what attraction means, can no more be a sin than sneezing; it is something that happens to you, not something you decide on. Granted, you can decide whether you generally approve of or like being attracted to a given object, or not; and you can decide whether you'll act on an attraction or not -- normally, with allowances for the force of passions, addictions, and the like, which to varying degrees interfere with our wills. But you can't decide to not feel the things you feel, and trying to do so generally leads either to serious dishonesty or powerful and dangerous repressions. Judging from biology, homosexuality, though not genetic per se, is nevertheless a naturally occurring variant in multitudes of species, so it isn't surprising that it should pop up in human beings too -- the difference, according to the Catholic Church, being that we have rational souls which are meant to be the lords of our bodies in a different and more specific way than animals' minds are of theirs. The supposition that the mere attraction is a sin smacks of the kneejerk condemnation expressed by the Apostles in John 9: "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?"***

The second is that human beings just don't need sex to be happy. True, the urge for it is an extraordinarily powerful one, and it shouldn't be surprising that a lot of people never totally master that urge -- one of many good reasons not to waste time being shocked at other people's unchastity, especially if they believe in different sexual ethics than you do, but I digress. Plenty of people live their whole lives without sex and are perfectly happy; sometimes, in the case of saints and mystics, they actually seem to possess something for which happiness is too weak a name, as St. Francis did. This isn't to say that everybody is capable of such self-mastery: St. Paul, in I Corinthians 7, seems to assume that a lot of people aren't. God does not dispense all graces equally, and it is a piece of unsubstantiated egalitarian silliness to think He does. But it is to say that, against the commonplace secular belief (also influential within American Christianity), human happiness does not spring from sexual love, and saying that a person can't have what they want sexually is not the same thing as barring them from earthly happiness.

The last reason is that Catholic Christianity specifically, unlike most incarnations of Protestantism that have graced American shores, is possessed of a spirituality of suffering -- one that has endured for literally thousands of years. The notion that a given individual might be required, for moral reasons, to forgo something beautiful and profound -- and sexual love, though not the source of all happiness, can yet be one of the most beautiful and profound things in the world -- is not that puzzling to a Catholic. (At least, not in principle; there is a tinge to American Catholicism, particularly since the sexual revolution, that is plenty puzzled by it, but that has to do with America rather than with Catholicism, and even here it is not universal.) The Church would certainly admit that this can be tragic, even heartbreaking; but she insists, or rather observes, that life is like that sometimes, and she maintains and those who do it are not losers but heroic. J. R. R. Tolkien depicted it with a bitter, lovely clarity in Frodo, whose farewell to his dearest friend is worth quoting:

"'But,' said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, 'I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.'
'So I though too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.'" -- The Lord of the Rings, p. 309

But Frodo's quest wasn't like that; he was defending people from a danger -- destroying it, rather -- and the quest ran him ragged until he had no chance for rest except going into the secret realm of the Elves and the angelic Valar. Am I saying that being gay is like being a servant of Sauron? Certainly not. I dare say that, in a far darker and more grievous case, like that of a man tempted to pedophilia who nevertheless maintained his conscience and resisted that temptation, he might feel as desperate and grim as Frodo and Sam trying to destroy the One Ring. Or, under the crushing weight, not so much of sexual desire, but of loneliness, I have often felt that I could understand the terrible thirst that afflicts travelers in Mordor.

The point is not that there are moral equivalencies in any of these examples; there aren't. The point is that doing difficult things we don't want to do is largely what moral courage means. We must decide on other grounds whether a task is worth doing; how great our prospect of success is doesn't enter into it. Gandalf was right: "Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not."

Okay, but what does this have to do with suffering in particular? Does the Catholic Church believe that there is some sort of mystical power in suffering that can help other people? Um, yes. That's kind of the point of the fasts and penances and hair shirts and all the accoutrements of asceticism: it is the point of the crucifix, suspended over every celebration of the holy Mass. Or rather, it's one of the points of all these things; there are others, which need not for the moment detain us. St. Paul, in a passage I have quoted more than once here on Mudblood Catholic, told the Christians of Colossae, "I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ"; in another place he says, to St. Timothy I believe, that he was being "poured out as a drink offering." And again, he says in Romans, "Offer your bodies as living sacrifices."

When I was an evangelical I talked almost casually of the priesthood of all believers. It was a little surprising to find out that Catholics believed in it too; Catholics, however, had a better reason, as I learned much later. For priesthood means sacrifice. Sacrifice of what? There is only one sacrifice, Christ; and we are the Body of Christ, mystically. He coinheres in us; we sacrifice ourselves. We must not hate or damage ourselves -- that is one of the reasons the Church keeps a careful eye upon ascetics, indeed more so than upon indulgent types -- but we are called to allow ourselves to be transfigured into Jesus, to coinhere in Him as He coinheres in us ("I in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you"), and to accept our sufferings of whatever kind as His own wounds, expressed in us. And those wounds, remember, still shine in glory; they are not something to be covered up or ashamed of -- just the opposite.

Ex-gay? No; that, as I have said before, would be declining the problem of life as God has set it to me, even if it worked. This, with apologies to identity paranoiacs, is the stuff we're made of -- the type of material from which we are being sculpted. There is a legend about Michelangelo's David, that, due to a flaw in the marble block, everyone said it couldn't be used for anything any good, and, well, now it is Michelangelo's David.**** Which took a long time, lots of work, and a master sculptor.

"Elrond raised his eyes and looked at him, and Frodo felt his heart pierced by the sudden keenness of the glance. 'If I understand aright all that I have heard,' he said, 'I think that this task is appointed for you. ... But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right ...'"

*The group was founded a few years ago by people who felt that Exodus was no longer sufficiently anti-gay, and includes several ex-gay luminaries, such as Anne Paulk, Andy Comiskey, Joe Dallas, and Dr. Robert Gagnon. No I will not link to them. If you want light psychological horror porn you can look it up without help from me.
**The language of the Catechism on this subject, relative to the English vernacular, is rather unfortunate. I say this not because I question Catholic theology, but because the technical jargon of theology -- like the technical jargon of any academic discipline (and, perhaps, none more so than theology) -- is widely different from and sometimes clean contrary to normal English usage. I'm planning another post on queer-related language, in which I mean to parse these paragraphs.
***I can't help noticing, too, that while Jesus did heal some blind men, He left most blind men that have ever lived unhealed. As a theist I assume that there is some reason for His not doling out miracles to everyone, and possibly even a subtler one than His not being a supernatural Comcast On-Demand.
****You could, if you wanted to, observe that Michelangelo himself was gay, as a neat historical coincidence. You could even speculate about how much fun he had carving a large male nude, if you were disposed to indulge such crass, tasteless humor.


  1. Wow, gorgeous post. I may have to respond.

  2. I can't tell you how profoundly touched and enlightened I am by your insights. Thank you. I hope your weekend is splendid. I hope you can float on spiritual air knowing you helped a fellow traveller gain insight. I am the parent of a gay child whom I love with all my heart, mind and soul. Again, God bless and thank you. Keep writing.

  3. This was very well said, Gabriel. Thanks for writing it.

  4. Really well written and argued - a privilege to read!

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    1. "Affections" isn't an accurate translation of the Greek (I don't know what translation you're using -- I like the ESV myself, though I generally use the RSV because it has a Catholic version). "Lusts" and "passions" are both better. The idea is one of ferocious desire, and, judging from the context, this is plainly a specifically sexual desire. Affection between members of the same sex -- though not necessarily that affection which we call romance, eros, or being in love -- is spoken of positively in many places throughout Scripture, from David and Jonathan's friendship to the special love of Our Lord for St John.

      I admit I don't really see how this relates to the sainthood of the Apostle Paul. I'm also pretty confused by your impression that the Catholic Church has somehow changed from the teaching of St Paul on this subject; St Paul taught that homosexual intercourse was wrong, as in the example from Romans that you cited, and the Catholic Church teaches the same. Now, there are many Catholics who dispute or disregard that teaching, but the teaching is there, all the same.

      Lastly, it's certainly true that everyone has to discipline their desires, but disciplining one's desires isn't at all the same thing as eliminating them. God created us with desires; desires that have, yes, been to some degree distorted and misdirected by sin, but desire just as such is a natural and a good thing. Absence of a desire isn't a sin any more than its presence is a virtue, but our desires need to be integrated into our whole person, not simply jettisoned. That's part of the reason I'm distrustful of ex-gay therapies; they seem too simple, if you will. (Of course, I went into more detail about lots of other reasons elsewhere here on the blog.)

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