Identity salad

I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions that I’ve grown tired with the ongoing debate regarding whether its ok for orthodox Catholics to use sexual orientation lingo like gay, straight, etc. It seems like others are starting to get a little bit worn out too.

A little while ago, Dan Mattson published an article which had a certain exasperated tone to it (or perhaps I’m engaging in some self-projecion).  That provoked a kinda smart-alec response from Jeremy Erikson, which at least suggests that things are at a complete impasse by now.

Anyway, Mattson’s concern in his article is that sexual orientation lingo can have the effect of sexually ghettoizing people and preventing them from further growth in their spiritual life. That’s a valid pastoral concern.

The concern that you find amongst Spiritual Friendship types is that the whole, “I’m not gay, I have same-sex attraction,” language ultimately alienates the very people its trying to reach out to. That’s also a valid concern.

It’s a micro version of a more macro tension in evangelization, which requires a degree of inculturation. But inasmuch as form and content are related, there is only so much you can do to the form before you start (often unwittingly) altering the content.

That is the concern of Bill Maguire, who wrote in the Catholic World Report:

However, affirming the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual morality is not necessarily synonymous with affirming the Church’s understanding of the human person and human sexuality. And if we lack a proper understanding of the latter, we will inevitably undermine the very truths about the former that we wish to affirm and defend. And this in spite of abundant good will and sincere intentions to the contrary.

It is just here—at the level of what John Paul II calls an “adequate anthropology”—that Tushnet’s work falls short and undermines her otherwise laudable project. Tushnet’s attempts to depict an understanding of human sexuality that is essentially grounded in LGBT gender theory as being compatible with the Church’s teaching on sexuality—and the fact that these efforts are quickly gaining popularity and acceptance in Catholic circles—call for a substantial and unwavering critique.

And then he goes on to make his critique, drawing heavily upon John Paul II’s theology of the Body.

On that note, this academic year has been, among other things, something of a year of John Paul II for me; I’ve had the chance to study some of the recently canonized saint’s writings in more depth, including his famous theology of the body, which, like Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, is both one of those tomes that intellectual Catholics must Contend With, and is increasingly becoming the norm for talking about its respective subject matter.

I’ve previously expressed bafflement over the existence of this debate, and studying JPII has helped cast it into sharper relief for me, so that I at least think I have a better grasp of what’s going on here. A lot of people say that the only real sexual identities in Catholicism are male and female – and that’s true, but it’s often articulated in a fashion that leaves them open to the critique that they have a crudely biologistic understanding of sexuality that ignores the total person in favor of their plumbing. The theology of the body does do a good job of articulating that sexual anthropology in a much more personalist manner. So it allows me to see more clearly how, when you throw modern sexual orientation lingo into the mix, you risk making it more difficult to explain the rationale behind Catholic sexual morality.

But that also stoked the coals for another train of thought I’ve had developing for a while.

If you read a fair amount of Eve Tushnet, you’ll notice that obedience is a big virtue for her – and it is worth defending, given its modern disrepute. And I noticed that Bill Maguire, in his critique of her book, took issue with how it acknowledges that the Church has the authority to dictate what you can and can’t do when it comes to sexual matters, but otherwise doesn’t offer a substantial explication or apologia of its teachings.

And I understand where he’s coming from. The Church herself got a little complacent over the centuries in assuming that there would be a culture of obedience that would be willing to receive her teachings. In the 1960s she said no to birth control. But that culture of obedience had already been swept away, and the ability to articulate the rationale behind the prohibition had withered. So people just ignored the Church.

As a result, a lot of work in the ensuing decades has been put into making Church teaching intelligible to people, and theology of the body is one of the fruits of that. So in one sense, the work of Tushnet et al comes across as paradoxically regressive, throwing a spanner in the works of the Church’s meticulously articulated anthropology.

On the other hand, I worry that there can be a kind of misguided optimism that can emerge out of the (otherwise laudable) desire to make doctrine as explicable as possible.  It can become easy for us to forget that we are all operating under limitations that make it necessary for us to learn obedience. Most of us have a doctrine or two that we just can’t make heads or tails of. Reading all sorts of apologetics material doesn’t help, talking with people about it doesn’t help, and we feel like we’ve just hit a stumbling block. The way we get by it is to trust that the Church knows what she’s talking about, and to hope that it becomes clearer down the line.

It’s pretty obvious that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is one such doctrine for a lot of people. There needs to be some breathing room here, and a recognition that repeated definitions of theological terms like “objectively disordered”, or “spousal meaning of the body” will likely fall on deaf ears. Naturally, you want people to come to a fuller understanding of the issue, but it doesn’t seem like something that can be strong-armed (please note, I’m not trying to say that there’s something wrong with the theological terms themselves).

Failing to understand this means that you risk being the new teacher who, after drawing up the perfect lesson plan, finds that it collapses under the recalcitrant reality of her actual first class.

This isn’t to say that you can’t ever critique the class for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. It means, rather, that having a top-notch curriculum is only half of the equation. You can’t simply present it; you have to actually know how to teach it. And that’s where a lot of people drop the ball. I’ve read many Catholic articles on homosexuality that I agree with, but which I can’t imagine would have been helpful to me a few years ago.

Which brings me to a post  Tushnet recently had about some of the roadblocks to moving away from sexual orientation lingo:

And partly I’m so struck by the way Paris’s and Hannon’s analyses sideline any discussion of the mistreatment of gay people. The most painful parts of our shared experience are mostly invisible in their accounts. (If Hannon mentions anti-gay attitudes or actions at all I missed it. Paris does mention stigma, mistreatment at church, and discrimination, though quite briefly. She clearly thinks those things are wrong, which is refreshing…) If we can’t just bluntly say “because I’m gay,” a lot of those painful experiences become much harder to speak about. If you can’t call yourself “gay” it’s harder to describe or explain why you’re confused, scared, unwelcome, or stigmatized; even why you’ve been targeted for harassment, discrimination, violence, or rejection. And “Don’t call yourself gay”–which, frankly, is what 95% if not 100% of the practical recommendations of Paris and Hannon boil down to–helps to separate us from people with whom we might otherwise find solidarity. It encourages Christians who are same-sex attracted to view “gay people” as other, rather than as brothers to whom we have a special connection and responsibility. It encourages us to view our own positive experiences in gay communities, when we’ve had them, as something we need to completely reject rather than seeking ways to baptize what is good in those communities.

But also, as regards the specific subject of this post, we can note that the abuse suffered by gay people reinforces gay identity. If you share terrible experiences with someone, of course you will often feel deepened solidarity with them. If some aspect of your identity comes under intense, painful pressure, of course that aspect of your identity will be more important to you. And if gay people are a stigmatized class, everyone in the society ends up scrutinizing their desires to see if they might be a part of that class; any desire which deviates even slightly from what’s considered “enough” or “the right kind” of attraction to the same sex becomes a source of fear and shame. What we fear in our own psyches, what we’re ashamed of, and especially what we’re ashamed to offer to God, often grows bigger in the rich soil of our anxiety.

I think this gets close to the core of why this terminological debate has become so heated. Both sides more or less agree that the LGBTQ acronym will soon become so dense that it will collapse into a singularity and destroy us all. What Tushnet is highlighting is how getting away from all that can be an emotionally complicated thing.

If you’ve suffered with a particular group of people, then it is often the case that an attempt to disassociate yourself from the group will, instead of feeling like a moment of personal transformation, feel like a betrayal of the tacit solidarity you had. It’s difficult to feel like you’re being authentic to your true nature when you feel like a traitor.

That is at least part of the dynamic affecting this debate. Again, my point isn’t to say that these conflicted feelings represent the last word on the situation; merely that you need to take into account the baggage that people bring if you’re going to get through to them.

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About Josh W

A Catholic; an occasional writer.
This entry was posted in Catholicism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Identity salad

  1. Daniel says:

    Excellent analysis. When Courage and Spiritual Friendship battle, I would always tend to opt for Civility. Thanks for your very civil and productive post!

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