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, March 20, 2015

A Mustard Seed

When I was five years old, my family went on a trip to Disneyland. I vaguely recall enjoying it, but five-year-olds are stupid so who knows whether it was any good.

One thing I did not enjoy, however, was the Pirates of the Carribean ride.* I took one look at the chaos and the shouting, and promptly screwed my eyes as tightly shut as they would go and hid my face in my hands. My mother kept telling me that it wasn't really scary and was just like Peter Pan, but I knew this was a devious ruse.

"You cheated!" "Pirate."

You sit on a throne of lies.

I wonder whether this is a good parallel to faith, especially to my extreme difficulty accepting the Church's teaching -- that is, according to my convictions, divine revelation -- about homosexuality. On the one hand, the similarities are fairly obvious: it was my mother's word, which I had no rational cause to doubt, against my kneejerk reaction and deliberately self-limited observation (I don't know that I've deliberately limited my observations about queer matters, but that isn't the chief point). On the other hand, the ride wasn't actually going to injure me in any way -- it might not even have scared me if I'd consented to open my eyes, but of course I have no way of knowing that -- whereas it is, in fact, terribly costly to lead a celibate life when you don't want to and aren't sure how; costly especially in loneliness, which is one of the hardest and most bitter crosses for a person to carry. Rewarding, perhaps, but that doesn't do away with the costliness. So maybe it's a good parallel and maybe it isn't.

I have been thinking more and more of late, though, that the opacity of the Church's teaching about homosexuality may be one of the conditions of faith for me. I don't get why God couldn't have, or at any rate didn't, design sex in such a way that that gay sex was as morally licit as straight sex; or, to put the same thing another way, why marriage is specifically for one man and one woman, as opposed to any two people irrespective of gender. I don't get that. I never have. But the Catholic Church, which I believe speaks with the authority of Christ, assures me that that is how invisible reality is shaped, so to speak, and so I'm presented with the choice of trusting the Catholic Church or withholding my trust from her.

And that's what faith is. St. Paul contrasts faith with sight, not because it's better not to see -- we look forward as Catholics to the Beatific Vision -- but because faith is precisely the decision to trust. It is an intellectual decision, but no less a decision for that; and that intellectual decision is the basis of love, because you cannot love what you refuse to know.

And honestly, with most of the Church's doctrine, I either see how it works clearly enough to be thoroughly satisfied of its truth, or at the least am content to shrug my shoulders and say, "Whatever, I believe you, Mama." This is one of the few, the very few, points where the faith is not merely opaque to me, but hard to believe, and even repellent. I think faith has to overcome that obstacle in us; save perhaps in a few happy souls whose growth into virtue is sufficiently natural and uninterrupted that the obstacle never arises. But such a dislike of divine things cannot simply be ignored, if it does arise.

Don't fight it, bro. Even God has a Mother.

For of course, as long as our -- my -- "faith" is merely assent to what seems either obvious or the most reasonable explanation of the obvious, it isn't faith, but rationality. Nobody is credited as having a strong faith in mathematics, or in mathematicians, because they firmly believe in the multiplication table. Faith comes in when it is a question of whom you trust, whom you choose to trust, and trust only becomes active and relevant when what's at stake is uncertain -- when trusting, or not trusting, has a concrete impact.

"If a man wishes to be sure of the road he travels on," said St. John of the Cross, "he must close his eyes and walk in the dark." And faith does become a kind of seeing, a way of knowing someone. When you trust somebody, you're finding out by experiment what kind of person they are. Now, that can be taken the wrong way: the experimental element here is not an experiment in the sense of a laboratory test in controlled conditions. Trust reposes its confidence in someone before they have unambiguously proven themselves worthy of it, though it may well start small and grow over time, in the style of the famous mustard seed. It's like the passage in The Silver Chair, maybe my favorite passage in the whole Chronicles of Narnia, where Jill meets Aslan for the first time:

   "Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
   "I'm dying of thirst," said Jill.
   "Then drink," said the Lion.
   "May I -- could I -- would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.
   The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
   The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
   "Will you promise not to -- do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.
   "I make no promise," said the Lion.
   Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
   "Do you eat girls?" she said.
   "I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
   "I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
   "Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
   "Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
   "There is no other stream," said the Lion.
   It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion -- no one who had seen his stern face could do that -- and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she ever had to do ...
Without faith, I think, we will be unable to see God as He wishes to be seen -- as we must see Him if seeing Him is to make us happy. Possibly for much the same reason that I couldn't enjoy the Pirates ride without trusting my mother, because my hands were over my eyes.** Of course, I'm not above making a virtue out of necessity, either: it's easier to commit yourself to walking in the dark if you haven't gotten where you're going before nightfall. I don't get it anyway, whether I bless God in faith or curse Him in stubbornness, so I might as well see if I can't do something useful with my not-getting-it.

Taken this way, I think that maybe when it comes to the Church's teaching about homosexuality, I can be okay with not knowing, not getting it. I guess the only thing to do is wait and see.

*For my younger readers, this was actually the ride that served as the basis of what is now bidding to be the most stupidly huge franchise since The Land Before Time, not a cheap attempt to capitalize on the films. (Cheap attempts to capitalize on the films are what the films are for.)

**The fact that I knew her to be perpetrating a malignant, manifestly ridiculous deception, as mothers who take their children to Disneyland are wont to do, is, for our purposes, neither here nor there.


  1. This is a powerful and challenging concept. And it's one that has ramifications for everyone about every battle of faith vs. rationality. Not just the sexuality question. It's easy to get publicly hung up on the big battles. But the little, hidden ones matter just as much, and we all have them.

  2. Sorry, Mr Blanchard, what you wrote does not sound too bad because it only affects your own life, but accepting morality simply on faith generally leads to disastrous results, from suicide bombing to refusing blood transfusion etc. Not buying it, neither should you. Catholic morality is rational, or it is not.

    1. Oh, I don't mean that Catholic morality is irrational. What I do mean is that, for me in particular and about this in particular, it requires an act of faith to assent to it as specifically *true* rather than as simply *plausible.*

      I'll try and parse that a little. I accept a number of beliefs on the authority of the Church. But no one would (or at least, no one *should*) accept a belief on the authority of someone else, unless they believed on sufficient grounds that that someone else was worthy of trust. Otherwise they're making a bald assertion, adopting a belief arbitrarily rather than rationally.

      I am convinced that I have good reason to accept the Catholic Church as the vehicle of divine revelation. (Never mind, for the moment, the important matter of whether that's true.) For this reason, even if I have little or no reason to believe certain things the Church teaches apart from the fact that she does teach them, that fact itself is, on *rational* grounds, adequate reason to accept it -- it's exactly like slipping a defined term into a syllogism. It's something like this:

      A says that X is the case.
      A is worthy of complete trust.
      Therefore, X is the case.

      There are a lot of complicating factors (e.g., the Church does not invoke her full authority to teach infallibly very often, so that even by strictly Catholic standards, the number of things one is required to believe as a Catholic is surprisingly smaller than one would think). But that is the gist of it; it does not rely on reason alone, for the Church does teach things that we couldn't get to with only our naked intellect, but it does require reason to work, and claims (in my view, truly) to be consistent with reason. In other words, the Church provides us with *data* that reason couldn't provide us with by itself, but that data works the same way as data derived from other sources.

      If a person were sincerely (though, in my view, mistakenly) persuaded that Catholicism was inconsistent with reason, I do not believe they would sin by rejecting it. I think St Thomas said the same thing.

      All of this is a necessary backdrop to what I've written in the above post. Without this backdrop, I realize that my words do lend themselves to an irrational, fideist outlook, which is one of the things in the world that I most detest. Nonetheless, the primary distinction I was making was not between rational and irrational belief, but between intellectual assent -- a precondition of faith -- and faith itself. Insofar as faith is a decision to trust a person, simply *agreeing* with that person is not quite the same thing, and I for one am very much tempted to substitute agreement for the personally risky decision of trust. Trusting someone *against* your better judgment would of course be a terrible idea; but the funny thing is, it can be just as necessary to make a decision of faith to put your trust in someone whose character you *do* rationally consider worthy of it. It's that oddity in our natures that I was chiefly writing about.

  3. It may be true that the number of things you are required to believe are few, yet, pragmatically, any public dissent from any of the 2000+ will earn you censure and, if an academic, can cost you your job.

    I still do not understand, beside reheated Aristotelian teleology, what reason you may have to eschew gay sex in particular.

  4. 2000+ articles of the catechism, that is

    1. Well, I wasn't thinking chiefly of the number of the defined articles of the Catholic faith, but of the quality of faith in itself. My point as regards the Church's view of gay sex was that I don't altogether understand it myself: that is, I follow the Aristotelian teleological argument, and actually think it's a good one as far as it goes, but I personally don't see why it is important enough to make gay sex -- how shall I put it -- wrong enough to bother with avoiding, I suppose. The Scriptural basis is (in my view) plain enough too, but these are dicta rather than explanations, since in an odd way the Bible is not a primarily theological book.

      What I was saying about faith was that, since I am already convicted that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, it is therefore consistent with reason to assent to what she teaches *whether I understand it or not*, and that, in such cases as this where I don't understand it, that assent takes on the quality of a deliberate act of faith.

      Now, for someone who, for whatever reason, doesn't already have that kind of confidence in the Church, they're naturally in a different position. A man can hardly be reasonably blamed for not trusting someone he doesn't believe is trustworthy (though, sadly, plenty of Christians seem prepared to do that kind of blaming anyway; I can't stop them, but I want nothing to do with such attitudes myself). Where the conversation goes then depends on why that person doesn't believe that the Church is the vehicle of divine revelation: whether it's merely not being specifically convinced of it, or believing that there is no God to reveal, or that God does exist but wouldn't reveal Himself in that way, or whatever else.

      But all of this is a preliminary to faith. Faith won't make sense until its premises are accepted -- not because faith is irrational, but because the conclusion of an argument doesn't make sense until you've gone through its premises. (One could, of course, follow the argument and nonetheless reject faith, but faith would still in that case make sense.) I don't think personally that gay sex is a good place to start as far as analyzing Catholicism, or any system of belief, because our convictions about gay sex are dependent on our convictions about sex in general, which are dependent on our convictions about human nature ... In other words, our beliefs about homosexuality are several steps removed from our basic beliefs, the premises of our convictions, and few conversations will be productive unless we recede to a point of agreement and then talk from there -- otherwise it'll be all disputes at cross-purposes.

  5. You write, "I don't get why God couldn't have, or at any rate didn't, design sex in such a way that that gay sex was as morally licit as straight sex; or, to put the same thing another way, why marriage is specifically for one man and one woman, as opposed to any two people irrespective of gender. I don't get that."

    I can't help taking a shot at this, at the risk of making points that you've already heard and found unhelpful.

    Birth control has been forbidden by the Church from the beginning. St. Augustine condemned the use of "appliances" or "poison" to prevent conception. Aquinas wrote that "It is evident ... that every emission of semen, in such a way that generation cannot follow, is contrary to the good for man. And if this be done deliberately, it must be a sin." And this is precisely why oral sex is not licit even within marriage, and also why masturbation is forbidden. This, in fact, is why all sex other than the procreative act within marriage is forbidden.

    If God made all sex licit, whether procreative (by nature, if not in individual cases) or not, you would have what we have in our society today: Record amounts of sex being had, with record low numbers of children being born. In other words, the majority of the time, sex is not being used for the purpose for which it was designed, either because of people having sex in ways that cannot result in procreation (oral, anal or masturbatory), or by utilizing artificial methods of thwarting the natural result of sex. This is what people do when sex is not restricted in the way the Church restricts it: they abuse it, that is, use it for the sake of pleasure and neglect its natural function. They take their seed and instead of planting it in fertile soil, scatter it indiscriminately to the four winds.

    One idea I have found helpful (when struggling with chastity) is to recall that the sexual act is the only bodily function in which *two* bodies participate. All other bodily functions are done within the body of a single person: Eating, digestion, sneezing, blood circulation. But the procreative act, by its design, calls for two persons to unite their bodies in order for the function to take place in its fullness: A part of one body inserted into a part of another, causing mutual stimulation, resulting in orgasm, resulting in ejaculation of semen from one body into the other, designed to receive it, and ultimately resulting in fertilization.

    In non-procreative sex, this function is not carried out to its fullness but is thwarted. One person's body goes through the motions of performing the function, but it's a sham. His body is more-or-less fooled into thinking that he is performing it, but he's not.

    There's no other bodily function that can compare with it, to use as a true analogy. But the next best analogy I can come up with, is that non-procreative sex is like stuffing a balloon down your throat, and then going through the motions of eating, and once you're done stuffing your face, pulling the ballooon and all of its contents back up out of your throat. Thus, you go through half the process of nourishing your body, and fool your body into thinking you are performing the nutritive function: You cause your mouth to salivate in order to chew up your food and swallow it, and your stomach gets satisfyingly full. But before the nutritive process comes to fruition, you thwart it by removing the chewed up food from your stomach.

    The amount of non-procreative sex that goes on may be likened to a national health epidemic in which the majority of people who consume food proceed to throw it back up, so that the nutritive function of the body is, in most cases, used merely for pleasure and not for its function of nourishing the body.

    [To be continued]

  6. [Continued from previous comment]

    They say that sex is not only procreative but also unitive. OK, but the nutritive process is also unitive, is it not? We don't eat merely to nourish our bodies, we also do it socially, to foster mutual pleasure and goodwill. But does that mean it would be a good idea to have Thankgiving dinner together, for the purpose of pleasure and mutual society, and at the end of the meal have everyone go outside and throw up? God intends eating for purposes other than nutrition, but that doesn't make it OK to divorce eating from nutrition.

    I submit that the unitive aspect of the procreative act arises precisely due to the fact noted above: It unites the man and woman in the performance of a bodily function requiring both of them to perform. They are literally united in the act, because they are literally performing one and the same act. It's as if, every time you wanted to sneeze, you had to ask your wife to come into the room and do it with you, otherwise no sneeze would be forthcoming. Or as if you needed your wife's bodily fluids in order to consume and digest the food that you eat. How unified would a couple be if all bodily functions were like the procreative one in that regard?

    God evidently didn’t want us to be *that* unified, *that* dependent on each other. We need a bit more independence from each other in order to go about our daily lives and perform our respective duties. But he did choose to make the procreative act one in which both man and woman are dependent on each other in order to perform it, together and simultaneously. Neither is allowed to perform it apart from the other, because it *can't* be performed apart from one another. Any attempt to do so is a sham, and an abuse (in its literal sense).

    I don't see how homosexual sex can be placed on an equal plane with procreative sex. That kind of sex can never serve the same function, unitive or procreative, that normal marital sex has.

    1. All of which I agree with. Even the, oh, superiority of procreative sex to gay sex, I can see intuitively; and, while I can't tell for certain, I even don't *think* I'd mind being in a sort of "second tier" category -- not in the sense of being less worthy as a man or as a lover, but in the sense of not participating in a particular mystery that is greater than my own, as the married layman is "second tier" beside the priest, who has the privilege of celebrating the sacraments. I'm not sure it's impossible to argue that homosexual sex isn't as cooperative as heterosexual sex, depending. But the difficulty, intellectual as well as practical, is about the same for me regardless. I don't know that there's anything to be done about that. Still, it might well require further meditation on my part. Thank you for your remarks.

  7. I appreciate you taking my comment in the spirit in which it was offered.

    If you understand and agree with everything I said, yet still don't see why homosexual sex should be immoral, wouldn't you also have the same problem understanding why masturbation is immoral? Or birth control?

    If you wonder why gay sex can't be morally acceptable though on a "second tier" below procreative sex within marriage, then wouldn't you also have to wonder why non-procreative sex within marriage can't also be acceptable though on a second tier?

    If gay sex were morally acceptable, then what kind of consensual sex between adults wouldn't be, and why?

    [By the way, I wish you would switch to Wordpress. Commenting in Blogger is a big pain!]

    1. I thought about switching to Wordpress, but I found the setup confusing, and then I forgot my password, and then &c. &c. So I stayed here. :)

      As to masturbation and birth control, I do find those a little more intuitive. Masturbation, since it is an *isolated* use of sexuality, clearly fails in both the unitive and procreative aspects of sex. Contraception does not (as far as I know; those with a greater knowledge of sexual theology are free to correct me) interfere with the unitive purpose, but it is, by definition, an artificial interference with the procreative aspect -- as opposed to the development of self-mastery involved in NFP, but that need not detain us -- and so I can understand why that is forbidden fairly intuitively as well.

      The reason homosexuality doesn't have the same intuitive quality for me is that I, personally, can't see much distinction between a gay couple and an infertile straight couple, morally, in terms of the assent of the will to procreation. There are probably infertile couples who are fine with or downright happy about their infertility from bad motives; conversely, we know well that there are plenty of homosexual couples willing and even eager to have children. (I believe it was Andrew Sullivan who said, "I'd love it if my husband got pregnant.") It may betray, on my part, a failure to fully appreciate the mystery of the sexes; nonetheless, my intuitive (as opposed to intellectual) reaction is that, provided our hearts be in the right place, I don't see why the *fact* of non-procreative sex between men, or between women, should be morally relevant. I mean, it wasn't our idea that only male-female pairings should be able to reproduce, and for many of us, the fact that gay sex is infertile is drawback that we're sad about -- not something that attracted us to gayness.

      It may be replied that there are LGBT people for whom the infertility, or even the merely transgressive quality, that inheres or is perceived to inhere in gay sex is a positive attraction. Be that as it may, that isn't what interests me -- or, I'd hazard, *most* of us -- about it. For example, I'm gay *because I like dudes,* not out of a dislike of women and still less of babies.

      And, just as importantly, a rebuttal a given philosophy must be designed to withstand the *strongest* articulation of that philosophy. It cannot content itself with picking off the inferior versions, or even restrict itself to the commonest versions. As I've said, I do accept the Catholic-Aristotelian-teleological view of sexuality, in part as an act of faith in holy Church; but, in launching a counterargument to the pro-gay position on sexuality (affirming, progressive, modernist, whatever we ought to call it), we must be willing to confront the most intellectually cohesive and spiritually well-meaning forms -- some of which are largely, even mostly, compatible with Catholic doctrine. A great deal of doctrinal finesse, not to mention tact and magnanimity, is called for (though I hope that doesn't sound like I'm accusing you of lacking these things!).

  8. If I understand you right, you're saying that a sexual act is sinful insofar as it fails in the "unitive or procreative aspects of sex"; and insofar as the "assent of the will to procreation" is absent. But even a sexual act which fails in the procreative aspect is not sinful "provided our hearts be in the right place", that is, provided that we would be open to procreation if only it were possible.

    First, I would like to clarify what is meant by the "unitive and procreative aspects of sex". I think the quoted phrase is a misnomer.
    The terms unitive and procreative are used in magisterial documents to describe not aspects of "sex", but rather aspects of "the conjugal act". I don't think there is any support in magisterial documents for the idea of unitive and procreative aspects of any other kind of sex.

    The point of the teachings on the U&P aspects of the conjugal act is to say that the conjugal act is not *exclusively* for the purpose of procreation, since it also serves a unitive purpose; but also that neither aspect must be hindered or thwarted lest the conjugal act become sinful even within marriage. But none of this has any bearing on sexual acts other than the conjugal act, since again the U&P aspects are not aspects of sexual acts in general, but of conjugal intercourse in particular. And again they are never used, in magisterial documents, as criteria by which to judge the morality or immorality of sexual acts generally, but only of the conjugal act in particular.

    Second, I think you rely too much on subjective intention in judging the morality of a sexual act. You look at an infertile married couple, and at a gay couple, and note that in both cases procreation is impossible. Thus, the only thing that could make their sexual activity right or wrong is their attitude towards procreation:
    If they welcome it in theory (knowing it won't be forthcoming regardless) then sex between them is licit, whereas if the conception of a child would be a disaster in their eyes, then sex between them is wrong, because performed with the wrong intention or attitude.

    I would contend that in the case of an infertile married couple -- say, one in which the woman is past menopause -- the procreative aspect is irrelevant, in both fact and intention. They wouldn't think of having sex for the purpose of procreating, nor would they think of taking steps to artificially thwart conception. The procreative aspect simply wouldn't cross their minds; there's no reason why it should.
    Nor, for the same reasons, should we expect it to cross the minds of a gay couple. Thus, the only relevant aspect is the unitive.

    Now if the unitive aspect arises from the fact that the procreative act is a bodily function requiring two bodies, male and female, to bring to completion (since both are performing one and the same bodily function together and simultaneously), the married couple would still be able to experience the unitive aspect notwithstanding their being infertile; whereas the gay couple could not. And by the same token, a married couple (fertile or not) would not experience the unitive aspect were they to engage in oral, anal or masturbatory sex.

    [To be continued…]

  9. [… continued]

    Third, (as I'm sure you know) the morality of an act, like the validity of a sacrament, depends not only on its form but also its matter. A Eucharist is invalid if the priest lacks the intention of transforming it into the Body and Blood of Christ; but it's also invalid if you use pretzels and beer. The essential difference between an infertile married couple and a gay couple is that the married couple, regardless of their infertility, can still perform the two-person bodily function of the procreative/conjugal act, whereas the gay couple cannot. If this specific bodily function is the "matter" of the conjugal act, then no other sexual act can be morally licit (whether within marriage or without), regardless of attitude or intention; just as no Eucharist can be valid, regardless of intention, except it be performed with bread and wine.

    If homosexual sex can be moral provided the participants are "open to procreation", notwithstanding that procreation is impossible, then wouldn't you have to say the same about oral, anal and manual sex between man and wife? Yet these have always been proscribed in the Church.

    It seems to me that my position, and the traditional position of the Church, is the only account of sexual morality that is coherent and consistent from start to finish, taking into account not only form but also matter; not only intention but also objective actions.