Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Friday, November 29, 2013

An Appendix to Raw Tact: A Catholic Perspective on Homophobia

In going through the comments to the final installment of Raw Tact, I realized that I never really made clear what precisely I mean by homophobia. Considering that the series was, in one sense, sort of about homophobia ... er ...

My cover story is that I am actually a shaved polar bear, specially trained to type Catholic 
gay pacifist brony essays. Because ... my handlers are Japanese, that's why. Shut up.

I won't belabor the point of whether homophobia exists, something some people (generally Christians) are fond of disputing. I am defining homophobia as injustice against persons who are homosexually attracted, for no reason other than their being homosexually attracted. I propose to take the following for granted: that there are people who are, largely or exclusively, homosexually attracted; that there is such a thing as injustice; and that injustice can be directed towards them for that reason. If any readers want to dispute those premises, well, I'm a little afraid to have anything to do with them. If anyone wants to argue that homophobia shouldn't be the word used to cover such things, I will quietly tear out a few handfuls of hair over my keyboard and count to ten, and then say that they have a right to their opinion and I to ignore it. I decline to adopt the cumbersome circumlocution injustice-against-persons-who-happen-to-be-homosexually-attracted. As a very perspicuous woman once remarked, ain't nobody got time fo' dat.

The Catholic doctrine of the morality of the act of gay sex is well known, and need not be belabored either. What is a little less well known, on both sides of the discussion, is the paragraph which immediately follows in the Catechism. I therefore quote it in full.

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. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. -- The Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2358

Now, there is a great deal in this paragraph to raise the hackles of LGBT activists. I haven't much taste for it myself. However, I don't propose to go into that matter, legitimate though it is, in detail, save to say the following: that most of the phrases that are offensive to the modern American ear are technical terms of Catholic theology, which don't at all mean what they would in their vernacular use; that I've discussed the subtleties of their meaning elsewhere, here particularly, and cordially request that comments wrangling with those definitions be made on that post rather than this one, simply to keep this post on track; and that I am not, in posting this paragraph, demanding that anybody believe what it says. I am concerned here only to set forth exactly what the Catholic doctrine is, and why I think, on these very premises, that we can still have a meaningful dialogue about homophobia and its wrongness.

Let us begin with some basic human rights: the right to live, the right to liberty, the right to work, the right to privacy. Well, gay people are, first of all, people. Gayness doesn't alter that. Therefore, any proposal to interfere with these rights simply because someone is gay meets the definition of homophobia. Saying that gay people should be executed, beaten, locked up, expelled from their homes, fired from their jobs, or monitored because of being homosexually attracted -- still more, doing any of those things -- is wrong, on Catholic premises.

It is, alas, abundantly clear that all too many Catholics have not lived in accord with these precepts. Catholic parents have thrown their own children out of their houses for being gay, or sent them into the abusive nightmares of the ex-gay world. That is one of the things that makes our message unbelievable; or, to put it in scriptural language, the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of us.

Some people would argue that this doesn't forbid us from attempting to reintroduce, say, sodomy laws, because those are concerned specifically with the act, and not with the person just as such. I consider this argument specious. It might be consistent to try to legislate all sexual mores, I guess; but in that case, we ought to institute laws against masturbation and extramarital straight sex just as much as against gay sex. To pick one over the others, when all equally are treated as sinful by the Catechism, again takes us into the territory of injustice, and, if the one we pick is homosexuality, into the territory of homophobia in particular.

I shall be bold to presume that Christian social conservatives are not, in fact, going to propose the introduction of laws against straight fornication or masturbation. (The latter being a singularly challenging thing to legislate on, given how frequently the act is consensual.) I don't think this is solely a matter of hypocrisy. It involves two other things. First, there is the fact that such laws would most certainly have no effect whatsoever. The same argument could be made about sodomy laws, since putting men in prison is, I gather, of limited value in getting them to quit having gay sex.

And with a setting as romantically sensual as this, who can blame them?

The other problem with legislating such morals is that we live in a de facto post-Christian society. I'm not going to argue whether homosexuality is a specifically Christian issue, or whether it's good or bad or indifferent to live in this kind of society. But apart from a society which is genuinely suffused with Christian values, not by the exterior pressure of the law, but by the majority of the people being practicing Christians, I don't think that baptizing the legal system is going to do any good. You might just as well baptize a crib and expect it to keep the baby out of trouble.

It isn't inappropriate, at this juncture, to reference a passage of C. S. Lewis', written in an era far more homophobic than our own. I first read this before realizing I was gay, and once I had realized it, it was a comfort to me that a man I so admired had written in such terms, instead of in the ugly and angry terms I had so often heard from World Magazine or Focus On the Family:

"People commonly talk as if every other evil were more tolerable than this. But why? Because those of us who do not share the vice feel for it a certain nausea, as we do, say, for necrophily? I think that of very little relevance to moral judgment. ... Is it then on Christian grounds? But how many of those who fulminate on the matter are in fact Christians? And what Christian, in a society so worldly and cruel as that of [his boarding school], would pick out the carnal sins for special reprobation? Cruelty is surely more evil than lust and the World at least as dangerous as the Flesh. The real reason for all this pother is, in my opinion, neither Christian nor ethical. We attack this vice not because it is the worst but because it is, by adult standards, the most disreputable and unmentionable, and happens also to be a crime in English law. The World will lead you only to Hell; but sodomy may lead you to jail and create a scandal, and lose you your job. The World, to do it justice, seldom does that." -- Surprised by Joy, pp. 108-109.

Now, when we speak of rights, it is important too to recognize that the rights of every person and institution must be carefully prevented from legally trampling upon the rights of other persons and institutions. Further distinctions are therefore needed.

So, let us take a Catholic school as an example. Let's say that there's a teacher there called Bill, who, as it happens, is gay. (I know, I know, it would never happen, but work with me.)

And let's say that Bill comes out. Doesn't say anything about his sex life, or lack thereof. Just mentions that he's gay. Firing or disciplining him, just for admitting that he's gay, is homophobic.

Now, if he said that he had an active sex life with another man or men and saw nothing wrong with that, there might possibly be grounds for disciplining him -- not specifically because it's a gay sex life, but, if teaching at a Catholic school involves agreeing to trying to model Catholicism to his students and Bill openly refuses to do that, then he simply isn't doing what he agreed to do in the first place. In that case, we're dealing with something more like a breach of contract, and he isn't entitled to special treatment.

But let's add another twist. Bill admits to an active gay sex life, and the administration fires him. Another male teacher, Frank, who is straight, admits that he's having sex out of wedlock, and sees no problem with that; and nothing is done, or he's given a meaningless slap on the wrist. In that case, the administration has been shown to be homophobic, because they're making a double standard between gay and straight. If their concern were really for the integrity of the Catholic faith and its modeling to their students, Frank would have been fired too.*

And the bad facts are, this kind of thing happens all the time. Christians, and perhaps none more than Catholics, are so caught up in winning a culture war that we aren't applying our own principles consistently. That doesn't just look bad and embarrass us. It is a sin against God that we need to repent; it is a sin against our fellow man that we need to apologize for, and desist from.

Other important examples of homophobia -- negative opinions about homosexual people that do not follow from Catholic premises -- would include:

- The persistent idea that LGBT people are likely to be deranged sexual maniacs of one kind or another -- pedophiles, rapists, whores, &c. I have found very little statistical evidence (whether by research or my own experience) of any correlation between being gay and being anything else in particular,** let alone promiscuous or a predator; and I learned pretty quickly that, as the old saw goes, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. I have seen some studies on the subject, and I'm not sure I've seen any that didn't appear to have a bias. However, even if any such correlations could be shown, there are two grave objections to making anything out of them: first of all, the Results of Scientific Inquiry change every forty minutes or so; and second, even a correlation, if there were one, would prove exactly nothing about causation.

xkcd 925, by Randall Munroe. And he would know, he used to work for Science.

- The idea that homosexuality is somehow specifically diabolical. Reasons for this idea elude me, though unfortunately examples of it do not. The grossly irresponsible press around Joseph Sciambra's memoir of his experiences in the sadomasochist scene springs to mind (to which Melinda Selmys wrote an intelligent and measured reply). I assume that no one except Christians indulges in this particular kind of homophobia, since it relies upon belief in the Christian devil; I will therefore content myself with pointing out that, in the five Scriptures*** that directly address homosexuality at all, the devil and his angels come up exactly zero times; and the doctrine of the Catholic Church, set forth in the Catechism, does not bring him into it either. Individual theologians may do so, but they are voicing their own opinion, not the formal belief of the Church, and I shall therefore be so bold as to call their opinion silly.

- There are plenty of conspiracy theories abroad about gay people. The only one that's true is that we are working with the Greys to inculcate the protocols of the Elders of Zion and bring the Illuminati to -- oh, dammit, I forgot, we're not supposed to bring that up.

What is perhaps even more worrying and mysterious is what the Greys are doing with that magisterial coif.

Anyway, one of the conspiracy theories that I personally find most baffling, to the point that I'm almost too confused to be offended, is the belief among some people that the LGBT community is trying to turn people gay, children particularly. Um ... we're really not. Considering that a great many of us -- possibly most -- think that gayness is an inherited trait rather than an environmental one, we wouldn't, would we? There would be no point.

So what mean things can we Christians think about gay people?

Well, my own advice would be to stick to that thing about the Greys. That's got some promise.

But if something more is insisted upon, I'd reply that, taking the Catholic doctrine as our premise, the only thing we need to do is consider the view held by most gay activists to be incorrect. We do not need to think them stupid, evil, or crazy, because disagreement does not require any of those things in order to exist. Friendship and mutual respect can exist between people who disagree severely, and even between people whose aims are profoundly opposed to one another. For example, a close friend of mine is a conservative Lutheran, who is currently grieving over what is to me an occasion of rejoicing, the conversion of a mutual friend of ours to Catholicism; and my Lutheran friend and I have condoled together over his sadness, because we respect one another despite our grave theological difference.**** Each of us is quite frankly trying to convert the other, and respects the other's attempts to do so -- indeed, we'd both be disappointed if the other did not take our convictions seriously and value the other person enough to care what they thought; and because of that mutual respect, we explain ourselves carefully, try to listen to one another equally carefully, and try to conduct ourselves civilly. Similarly, I hold to the hope, not that the debate between traditional Christianity and the LGBT advocacy movement will cease or will cease to matter, but that it can be conducted with -- well, in a word: respect.

*I've simplified these examples, of course. Obviously there could be extenuating factors -- misunderstandings and so forth. But even there, if misunderstandings are shown to tend in one direction or another, we begin to wonder what exactly is being misunderstood -- whether maybe it isn't so much the circumstances or the facts of the case that are being misunderstood, as it is our duty to our fellow man.

**With the possible, and weirdly specific, exception of being disproportionately apt to be interested in philosophy and/or the arts. But that probably says more about the kind of people I tend to make friends with than it does about queer people in general.

***Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13, Romans 1.26-27, I Corinthians 6.9-10, and I Timothy 1.9-10. Other Scriptures are conjectured by some to be addressed to homosexual behavior, or have traditionally been applied to it, such as the Sodom and Gomorrah passage (Genesis 19.1-11). Considering that the passage involves attempted gang-rape, which would be wrong anyway, it logically can't be used to demonstrate anything one way or the other about homosexual acts as such. Only after we have a conclusion about the morality of gay sex can we return to that passage and apply it -- reasoning made all the stronger by the fact that the hideous parallel in Judges 19-20 concerns heterosexual assault.

****If the difference doesn't sound that grave, you probably don't know the Missouri Synod very well.


  1. Thanks for this. Very clear and careful definitions and explanations. It's really fascinating to explore all the situations that even careful Catholics might not realize are homophobic actions.

  2. Well thought through and well said.

    Phobias, however are mental pathologies, not actions. I'd say therefore that the unjust actions you call homophobia are not precisely homophobia, but injustices motivated by homophobia.

    BTW, I think the sentence in the Catechism which states, "They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity," is the part of the Church's teaching on homosexuality which is least known and therefore what need to be most widely presented.

  3. So you're arguing for some sort of special reform of your church's antigay theology and beliefs? So that it won't defame us the way it did the past... Oh, all of human history, practically?

    How gracious, Gabe.

    1. Well, I don't really see how you got that out of anything I said, honestly. I specifically said that I assent to the Church's theology and am lamenting what I regard as failure, on the part of her people (both lay and clerical), to practice that theology consistently. I'm therefore kind of lost by your comment.

      As to history, though, least us be a little clearer. The history of the Church is stained with sins of every kind, homophobia not excepted. But let's try to maintain a sense of proportion. I will never say that injustice is okay as long as it's small; nevertheless, from what you've written hitherto, it sounds almost as though your regard the oppression of gay people by straight people as the chief activity and concern of the Catholic Church. That isn't the case: her main concerns are so far from that as to make this issue a subsidiary aspect of a subsidiary aspect (and perhaps, partly, explain her very imperfect handling of the question).

      Whether, as you've said elsewhere, her doctrine was formulated by straight people is a question that isn't answerable and doesn't greatly interest me, since the sexual orientation of a person who formulated a belief does not correlate to whether that belief is true. However, though it has in fact been linked to great injustices, the deliberate oppression of gays can't really be said to have been one of the Church's aims, because neither she nor anyone else thought of us as a distinct class of people. Sexual orientation, though an exceedingly useful concept in my opinion, is also a recent one, stemming from the nineteenth century; we can hardly accuse anyone of oppressing gays if they didn't have a concept of gay people first.

      I think we might also try to be a little more balanced in our concept of homophobia throughout history. The Church did not introduce homophobia into the world; it existed well before she did (pagan Rome being a tolerably good example). Nor was it a major concern of hers in the early centuries, as the New Testament suggests by its nearly (though not quite) total lack of attention to the issue. And homophobia has shown itself quite capable of thriving in contexts that are post-Christian and even militantly anti-Christian; the Third Reich is probably the most famously homophobic government in history, and also the most fiercely anti-Christian, as infallible Wikipedia's page on the Kirchenkampf does in fact outline pretty well.

      As I said, I am not saying, and never will say, that injustices do not matter. What I am saying is that an intelligent discussion of the subject -- which I believe to be essential to the wise correction of injustice, so as to avoid fresh injustices, in either different directions or the same one over again -- requires a balanced view of the underlying causes, both intellectual and historical.

  4. Anon2478 —
    Are you a troll? How else can you explain twisting, "The Catholic doctrine of the morality of the act of gay sex is well known, and need not be belabored …," and, "I am concerned here only to set forth exactly what the Catholic doctrine is, and why I think, on these very premises, that we can still have a meaningful dialogue about homophobia and its wrongness," into "arguing for some sort of special reform of your church's antigay theology and beliefs?"

    No, Gabriel is not arguing for a change in "theology and beliefs" but for a more consistent application of those things, which would exclude homophobia.

    And as for "all of human history, practically," the fact is that for almost all of it, nobody knew that "we" existed. Some people engaged in homosexual acts, but the concept of a homosexual orientation didn't exist (which is one of the grounds some people use to try to prove that St. Paul didn't mean what he said). So the Catholic Church is still sorting the whole thing out. IMO the passage from the Catechism that Gabriel quoted and the American Bishops' letter "Always Our Children" are very good.

    But anyway, you have no complaint with what Gabriel wrote, only with a straw man of your own devising.

  5. Two very different discourses. From a Catholic point of view there is no homophobia. From a gay point of view everything deemed anti-gay is homophobia. Therefore this discussion is totally futile as we won't agree on anything.

    @Anon2478 - don't count on it, honey.

  6. Hi Gabe -

    I need to briefly chew some old food...bear with's germane to this post.

    First, I appreciate that the natural law ethic is consistently applied in Catholic teaching - not just to matters of homosexuality. For that reason, I don't think it can be considered, in and of itself, homophobic.

    However, I wholly disagree with you that the language of the church teaching is clinical and somehow less severe than its common usage. The word "depravity" is just as freighted with moral judgment in the catechism as it is in the vernacular; "intrinsically disordered" is an attempt to pathologize people who are gay even in the most charitable reading. You are trying to blunt a razor blade; the difference to the people cut by it is immaterial.

    The church teaching, in essence, says that even people in covenant same-sex relationships are sick, sexually deviant, degenerates. The church teaches the parishioner that gay relationships are immoral and inferior (i.e., those who enter them are bad people). Couple that with the facts that it's hard to hide this "depravity" (unlike other sins like premarital sex), and that gay people are sexual minorities...and, ya, it's utterly unsurprising that church teaching engenders homophobia.

    On a related but different note, the church leadership models homophobia in high profile ways. This would suggest that it is morally acceptable to the church. The US Council of Catholic Bishops is fighting hard against the Employment Non Discrimination Act because it provides legal protection for people who engage in gay sex. They want to make it legal to fire someone for being in a gay relationship - not just those people employed by the Catholic church. I'm also reminded of the gym teacher at the Catholic high school who was fired because, even though she was closeted at work, her wife's name was listed with hers in a relative's funeral announcement (too bad the wife's name wasn't Pat). The idea that gay people are so immoral that they should be deprived of a paycheck is stomach-churning and seems to me to be completely contrary to the catechism.

    I think there is often much more charity and compassion at the parish level. My most devout Catholic friend is gay, married, and raising his son Catholic. His family is welcomed with open arms at mass each Saturday and they have never been denied eucharist.

    As always, Gabe, I thank you for inviting the frank examination of faith and sexuality. It's an important conversation.

    My best to you


    1. Glad to hear from you -- I've missed your input, I was hoping you'd pipe up again. :)

      Now. I most certainly agree that the actual attitude of much, if not most, of the Church (in this country -- I'm not familiar enough with the Church in most other countries to have an opinion) is homophobic; the opposition to ENDA is a good example. There may be legitimate religious liberty concerns attached to that as well, but I don't know, and if anything I would consider that grounds to protest for a redrafting, not grounds to oppose the act as such; and as far as I know, it is indeed the act as such that they are opposing, which fills me with bitter sadness. I agree, too, that such behavior is absolutely contrary to the Catechism.

      About the language of the Catechism, however, I am inclined to defend what I have written elsewhere. I won't of course claim that "depravity" is a pretty word, to put it mildly; part of the reason that I don't read homophobia in it is that the word is equally applied to a host of other things that the Church regards as sinful, and so gay sex isn't being singled out (even among sexual sins) by the use of the term.

      I hesitate over the claim that the phrase "intrinsically disordered" is an attempt to pathologize people. Certainly it is often used in that sense (particularly by organizations like the NOM). That being said, the Thomist underpinnings of the phrase link it specifically to desire, not to the person as such -- cold comfort, but important if we are discussing the intrinsic rights of the human person apart from what they may desire. I don't think it necessarily follows from this teaching that a same-sex relationship would be any worse than a straight one, at least not if the men or women involved were trying to live as brothers or as sisters, to adapt the Church's phrase for reconciling divorced couples to the Church.

      All of that being said -- it is the unvarnished truth that the actual preaching and conduct of many Catholics, priests included, is precisely one of suspicion of gay couples at best, and outright demeaning and rejection at worst. I can't and won't deny that the Church is guilty of a great deal of homophobic language and decision-making, and, what is perhaps worse, of all too often denying that there is a problem in the first place. I'm glad to hear of your friend who found an exception to that.

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    1. If, by saying he is no longer gay, he means simply that he does not primarily identify with being attracted to men, well, I can hardly criticize him for that. I consider that an element of my identity, and an important one, but not my primary defining characteristic. If that's the case, however, I honestly can't take a great deal of interest in what words he does or doesn't prefer to use to describe it. I use the word "gay" because it is common parlance, not because I'm specially attached to it.

      If, however, the contention is that he has become straight, I must admit to a certain amount of skepticism. It might well be true, and I am loath to call anybody a liar. But it is not unknown for fluctuations in sexual orientation to be temporary, shallow, or even instances of autosuggestion, and I'm therefore leery of putting weight on professed instances of them -- at any rate, without knowing the claimant on a personal basis. (I haven't expressed any assent to biological determinism, and for the record I don't believe in it, so I'm not sure I see the relevance here.)

      If and to the extent that he has changed, however, I don't believe that the law is why -- not even if he does. "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness came through the law, then Christ died in vain."

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    3. Oh, certainly there are plenty of other people groups who are treated unjustly. The reason I write so much about LGBT-identifying people is twofold. One is that I am one, and so I feel I can discuss the matter more intelligently than if I were to discuss a group whose experiences I cannot share -- as a Caucasian, for instance, I'd be very chary of talking overmuch about racism in any sense that would imply that I know what it's like to be the victim of racial discrimination. However, I know something of what it's like to be gay, so I'm a lot less shy about it.

      The other reason is that, whether our culture's focus on them is proportional or not, LGBT issues are some of the most hotly debated and discussed topics of our time and place. It is therefore, to my mind, exceptionally important that Christians be conversant with the issues that face us. And I have to say that most of the Christians I've known (those who aren't gay themselves) haven't got a lot of talent for handling those issues with understanding. There are certainly exceptions; and it's also worth saying that, though it was far from perfect, my own childhood and adolescence were for the most part unusually free of homophobia, both at home and in the evangelical church I was raised in. But the fact remains that I don't think Christians in general have learned to engage the matter well, and I want us to.

  9. I hope you'll consider compiling the "Raw Tact" series into a single document and making it available in some way. I would give it to a lot of people.