The Personalist Project

I do think we have to address core issues of human experience, human psychology, and human intimacy when discussing the ethics of homosexual attraction and SSM.  It is not enough to leave it at the level of politics and the legitimate interests of the state in giving special status to heterosexual marriage and family, though this latter approach is certainly valuable and important. 

Now the difficulty with this approach based in human experience is that we will have to acknowledge homosexual experience from within (without accepting it as normative), not only judge it from without.  If we just say that “homosexual acts are not and cannot be acts of love and union—they are acts of use and abuse,” then the rejoinder might be “that is not my experience at all; so, whoever says that just does not understand.”  Then the person living the homosexual lifestyle will just tune us out completely as unworthy to be listened to, as not knowing what we are talking about, as condemning something (obviously)—but not what they are experiencing. 

Of course, in point of fact, the person may not be so fully aware of even their own experience in all its depth and nuances—as witnessed by the reference (in Scott Johnson’s comment #12 on Katie’s “To Speak or not to Speak” post) to the homosexual who finally quit the lifestyle when over time it began to dawn on him that the lack of any procreative dimension really mattered for the unitive dimension, that the inherent fruitlessness of the kind of act homosexual sex embodies rendered it empty.  However, presumably this person did not experience this defect in the unitive dimension in the early stages of his homosexual activity.  This impressed itself upon him only over time and required some real humility in him to admit it.  

But the vast majority of those living the homosexual lifestyle will still deny and reject the idea that it is just use and abuse.  On the immediate emotional or psychological level, they may experience it as a powerful “falling in love” with accompanying desires for physical intimacy and union. Then that intimacy and union may be experienced as a coming down of barriers, an overcoming of painful isolation, an affirmation of one’s worth and goodness (that the other wants intimacy with one), the discovery of a secret friend and lover who delights in one’s being, a sensual and emotional affirmation, etc.  This kind of subjective impression, of course, does not justify itself just because it is present.  Such subjective psychological and emotional reactions are often present in other cases of illicit sexual activity such as fornication or adultery. But, of course, the positive feelings don’t make it right.  Wojtyla is excellent on this topic in Love and Responsibility.  He says (p.154): 

The effect of emotion is that the consciousness is preoccupied above all with the subjective ‘authenticity’ of experience.  It is supposed true or ‘genuine’ to the extent that it is imbued with genuine (sincere) emotion.

This fact has two consequences: i) a certain dis-integration may take place, since the immediate emotion overshadows the totality of the other objective factors, and the principles which govern them—it detaches itself from the rest; ii) those objective principles by which the value of a given act is measured are replaced by the value of the emotion itself, and it becomes the main criterion by which an act is evaluated: an act is good because it is ‘authentic’ or in other words imbued with ‘true’ emotion.  But emotion in itself has only a subjective truth; genuine emotion may inform an act which is objectively not good.

Yet, we still have to acknowledge the positive subjective feelings (what Wojtyla calls, in a somewhat awkward phrase, the “subjective truth”—experienced as such emotionally though not really true) and then go on to explain why it is still wrong, that it is not the proper place for sexual activity or for that kind of love.  But to deny the subjective feelings is no way to reach the person involved in an illicit (or unnatural) sexual attraction.  We must start where the other person is if we are to reach him. 

Moreover, besides this positive subjective feeling element, such fundamentally illicit loves can nonetheless involve many elements of an intentio benevolentiae, of a genuine interest in the other’s good (combined with a value blindness to the full truth of the sexual sphere and the destructiveness of its misuse).  For example, essentially illicit loves can involve nonetheless the desire for a deep and faithful, life-long commitment (even if misplaced as in homosexual “marriage” or no longer appropriate as in divorce and re-“marriage”).  Illicit loves can also involve many elements of genuine sacrifice and service toward the other, e.g., when one partner faithfully nurses the other through slow and painful deterioration and death due to AIDS.  Now I know full well that the homosexual lifestyle is the greatest cause of AIDS, so it is hardly loving (but rather harmful) to live that lifestyle.  But nonetheless to stay faithfully with a partner as he slowly withers away and dies—rather than to ditch the other for a younger, more vibrant suitor—is certainly in itself an act of loving service, faithfulness, and sacrifice.  Thus there can be many laudable elements here of a self-giving, other-receiving attitude mixed in confusedly with misuse of both persons in their sexuality. 

My point is that we must not think of those living the homosexual lifestyle as simply "disgusting" or as "corrupted" on all levels of their being or motivations.  If the main reactions they get from us (defenders of traditional marriage) is “Ugh! Yuck!” then we will have lost any chance of reaching them with genuine love and concern for their true good.  So we have to acknowledge all the good we can find in their persons and in their relationships, while steadfastly maintaining that that kind of love is still intrinsically disordered, intrinsically wrong, and even in itself leading toward further disintegration or corruption.  

Therefore, we have to be ready to acknowledge many psychological and emotional dimensions of genuine love that may be present, together with all the mutual good will and service dimensions that may be present, and then go on to try to patiently illuminate where the evil lies.  But to treat every aspect, every dimension, of the relationship as ugly, evil, destructive, insane, alienating, dis-integrating (some of the words used in recent discussions)—that approach will fall on deaf (and angry) ears, creating resentment and rejection.  It will also be the grounds for the charge of "ignorance" and the conclusion of "prejudice."

Now of course the modern Hollywood media approach to all this is to make sure that the homosexual character in any drama is always prejudicially assumed to be the evil-doer by narrow-minded persons in the story, but in the end is discovered to be a near-saint.  This story line by now is so predictable as to be boring—though nonetheless highly annoying as propaganda.  But there is a certain truth here: persons with homosexual attraction, and those living that lifestyle, are not to be identified with that one (disordered) dimension of their being—even when they ask or demand to be identified with it.  There is much more that is good in their persons and attitudes--and many elements of goodness, subjective and objective, even in the midst of their disordered attraction. 

Two qualifications here, however.  First, I do not deny that since sexuality goes so deep in the human personality, a disorder here tends toward a deep disorder in the whole person—more so than with other faults.  So, to quote from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues (pp. 159-61); 

In what way and why does unchastity destroy the structure of the human person? …[It] begets a blindness of spirit which practically excludes all understanding of the goods of the spirit; unchastity splits the power of decision;… This blindness is of the essence of unchastity itself, which is by its very nature destructive.  It is not its outward effect and consequence, but its immanent essential property.

Unchaste abandon and the self-surrender of the soul to the world of sensuality paralyzes the primordial powers of the moral person: the ability to perceive, in silence, the call of reality, and to make, in the retreat of this silence, the decision appropriate to the concrete situation of concrete action.

An unchaste man wants above all something for himself; he is distracted by an unobjective “interest;” his constantly strained will-to-pleasure prevents him from confronting reality with that selfless detachment which alone makes genuine knowledge possible.  St. Thomas here uses the comparison of a lion who, at the sight of a stag, is unable to perceive anything but the anticipated meal.  In an unchaste heart, attention is not merely fixed upon a certain track, but the “window” of the soul has lost its “transparency,” that is, its capacity for perceiving existence, as if a selfish interest had covered it, as it were, with a film of dust.

This kind of interestedness is altogether selfish.  The abandonment of the unchaste heart to the sensual world has nothing in common with the genuine dedication of the searcher for truth to the reality of being, of a lover for his beloved.  Unchastity does not dedicate itself, it offers itself.  It is selfishly intent upon the “prize,” upon the reward of illicit lust…. For anyone whose function it is to lead and counsel young people, it is extremely important to keep in mind and to make known that it is this selfishness which characterizes the inner nature of unchastity (as intemperance).

This is the danger in unchaste sexual relations (and certainly the danger in unchaste and unnatural sexual relations), but that doesn’t mean that every person involved has arrived at that radical endpoint.  And, along the way, there still may be many wonderful manifestations of true goodness in a person.  These have to be acknowledged and affirmed.

Further, secondly, I also acknowledge that I am assuming in the above remarks a rather high, in fact idealized, interpretation of the homosexual lifestyle.  For instance, as Robbie George quotes in his article “Redefining Marriage Away” ( 

In their rigorous and acclaimed 1994 study on American sexual behavior, University of Chicago sociologist Edward Laumann and his associates found that 65 to 85 percent of American men and more that 85 percent of American women (in every age group) had no sex partners other than their spouses while married.  These figures are remarkable, especially if we recall the many ways in which popular culture has mocked or trivialized human sexuality and the demands of marriage in recent decades. 

But do most same-sex couples accept the norm of sexual exclusivity?  In a 1999 survey of such couples in Massachusetts, sociologist Gretchen Stiers found that only 10 percent of the men and 32 percent of the women thought that a “committed” intimate relationship entailed sexual exclusivity.  An essay called “Queer Liberalism?” in the June 2000 American Political Science Review reviewed six books that discussed same-sex marriage. None of the six authors affirmed sexual exclusivity as a precondition of same-sex marriage, and most rejected the idea that sexual fidelity should be expected of  “married” homosexual partners. For more than a decade, a wide array of authors who favor redefining marriage to include same-sex partners have advanced similar views.

Honest activists admit this widespread rejection of exclusivity.

So the “higher ideal” here is not really very prevalent, even in theory.  Nonetheless, if we are to win the argument, we must address the strongest case of our opponents—and we know that the modern world will always present that strongest case on behalf of the homosexual lifestyle, the case of life-long, faithful committed partners in “marriage.”  (Just like the modern world always wants to present the strongest, most extreme, and very rare, cases of abortion to try to justify all abortions.)  So it will not be enough to just point to the 90% who don’t even espouse such an ideal, much less strive for it.  We must be prepared to respond to the idealized view of homosexual relations and show carefully where and how the fundamental disorder, deficiency, and evil is still present even in the “best” case, while acknowledging all the positives manifested in the persons and in the relationship.  Then those "salvaged" positives have to be regrounded in a fuller vision of the truth about the human person, human sexuality, and the truly human good.

Comments (12)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jun 4, 2012 9:12am

It's probably good that you've opened up this line of discussion, Michael, though I fear it will lead to exactly the kind of explicitness I have been hesitating to engage in.

I am putting my thoughts together for a separate post.  Meanwhile, a couple of preliminary points.

1) I am wondering why you would speak of the ethics of "same sex attraction" rather than of same sex acts, given the basic distinction made in Christian moral teaching between the attraction, which is not sinful, and the acts, which are.

2) When I wrote that homosexual acts are acts of use and abuse and never can be acts of love, I was speaking of their objective structure, not the subjective intentions behind them.  From the point of view of ethics, what matters primarily is whether it's true that they are objectively acts of use and abuse, no?  Of course, from the point of view of rhetoric and persuasion, we need to do more than lay out the objective norms; we need to appeal to experience. But that's a different kind of argument.

Michael Healy

#2, Jun 4, 2012 3:51pm

"Attraction" has a wider range than "acts" and I was trying to cast a wide net.  I was also trying to bring out, in the midst of the objective disorder (and even sin when homosexual acts are involved), whatever we can acknowledge and affirm as positive (either subjectively or objectively).  Therefore, I wasn't analyzing directly where the sin lies but the context in which to discuss it.  

Devra Torres

#3, Jun 5, 2012 9:38am

Michael, very important points for avoiding both sides talking past each other.  Katie, I'm glad to hear you reiterating concerns about over-explicitness, concerns that are more and more often dismissed as unrealistic, the more blatant the propoganda gets.

This is something I'm trying to sort out in my own mind, not so much in the context of public dialogue, but more in conversation with one's own children.  I have always sensed that it was better for them just not to know certain things for as long as possible, but two possible  problems are, first, that the propogandists won't let them be, and second, that if a child or teenager is experienceing same-sex attraction and hears either nothing or only (legitimate) arguments against "gay" "marriage," and affirmation of the objective disorder, he may be subject to a lot of self-loathing and suffering in silence.  I don't think over-explicitness is the answer, but I'd like to hear others' thoughts about this. 

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jun 5, 2012 9:45am

It's a horribly thorny problem.  I remember from Dr. Healy's course on Love back in the mid-eighties, that when a child is exposed to impure sexual images before puberty, they will tend to shape his experience of his own awakening sexuality.

But, like you say, most are getting the explicitness now, in spite of parents' best efforts.  And getting it in the context of a doctrinaire relativism, wherein they are taught to interpret any disapproval or natural revulsion as bigotry and backwardness.  They are also encouraged to "explore" and "experiment."

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jun 8, 2012 12:59pm

I haven't forgotten my new post on this topic.  I'm just finding it hard to find the time and mental leisure to get to it with Jules over seas and a full house.  (Kudos to Devra, who seems to have found a way!)

Meanwhile, a friend linked this Catholic Exchange article on the rising epidemic of porn addiction among teens.  It speaks to the explicitness problem. [Emphasis in the original]

In today’s wired world, internet porn is everywhere, it’s easy to get, and it’s washing like a wave over every child who can hold an iPhone or log on to a laptop—according to one recent study, by the time they reach eighteen only three percent of boys and seventeen percent of girls will have never laid eyes on it. And these kids aren’t witnessing the kind of “soft-core” centerfold images that their parents may have stumbled across in a magazine or cable TV twenty years ago; no, they’re filling their heads with explicit, graphic depictions of sexual acts. In fact, according to the same study, which surveyed 563 teenage boys and girls, sixty-five percent had seen depictions of group sex, and twelve percent had seen rape or sexual violence.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jun 11, 2012 4:14pm

Speaking of personalism and homosexuality, LifeSiteNews has published a remarkable testimony from a Mormon gay man, who is married to a woman.  

I was struck by the essential personalism of this bit of advice he offers parents of gay children:

If you are a parent or guardian, teach them what you know to be true in appropriate moments, with the Spirit. But then let go and let them govern themselves. Trust that they can find their own path. Let them live their life and have the experiences they need to learn and grow. Trust that they are in charge of their own agency and destiny. I promise you they will thank you. I also promise that pressuring them to live the life you want them to lead will only hamper their ability to make a genuine and authentic choice for their own future, be it what you hope for them or not. You will never, ever give your gay loved one a better gift than to love and accept them for who they are, right now, no matter what, period. 

Daniel Romeyn Davis

#7, Jun 16, 2012 2:35pm

I would just like to present another opinion for consideration. I understand that from an orthodox Christian standpoint that it is easy to make the analysis that "homosexual acts are acts of use and abuse," however, I am failing to see how this is supported philosophically. As I understand personalism, it seems necessary to reevaluate everyday life in order to better understand what makes our individual personhood unique, what makes you - you, on a deeply personal level. (Throwback to Plato: The unexamined life is not worth living.) To a degree then, I believe that it is dangerous to attribute objective morality to the human experience and to individual personhood. I think that the assertion that any act, by itself, removed from the actors (those doing the act) and their intentionality, is of "use and abuse" is unsubstantiated. Such a statement, as I understand it, cannot be properly made. As to the article by Dr. Healy, my main criticism would lay with the, not so subtle, opening assertion that homosexuality is a distortion. Again, I understand how theologically this argument can be made, however, I am failing to see the argument philosophically.  

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jun 16, 2012 2:44pm

I am still working on my response to this post--mostly by mulling.  But Dan, let me make a start at answering your question by asking one in turn.  Take the act of abortion.  Would you agree that it has an objective wrongness--that it is an immoral act--regardless of the subjective intention?

Wouldn't you agree that in the case of abortion, while the subjective intention is needed to evaluate the degree of guilt and culpuability for those involved, the act itself, considered objectively, is evil?

Daniel Romeyn Davis

#9, Jun 16, 2012 2:56pm


Even in such a ethical situation as abortion, I do not believe that one can properly divorce the act from the human actors. As I understand it, any ethical or moral determination is dependent upon three main factors, the act itself, the conscience of the actors (their intentionality), and the knowledge of the actors (therefore: act, intention, and knowledge). Hence, to make a moral judgement on a divorced act, without an actor, is not actually considering the the authentic ethical situation and necessitates that the ethical determination be undecided. Such arguments can at best say that: it can generally be said that the act of abortion is morally wrong, although, it necessitates the qualifier that: although, the actual morality of an individual abortion cannot be considered without a complete understanding of the human actors involved, their conscience and knowledge. Thus, this talk of abortion, removed from the person, seems practically useless as it is divorced from the distinct personal nature of human action. To talk about the morality of the universal abortion over specific instances of abortion seems to attack our very personhood, as it almost nullifies personal responsibility.

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Jun 16, 2012 3:30pm

Do you deny, then, there are such things as moral absolutes?  Do you agree with the "situation ethicists"?  

I don't.  I think there are such things as moral absolutes.  

I hold that there are things (like abortion and adultery and homosexual acts) that are objectively wrong.  Wrong-in-themselves.  Good intentions can't render them vaild.

Your "three factors" are needed for determining guilt on the subjective plane, not wrongness on the objective plane.

I hold further that the absoluteness of moral norms correlates to the dignity of human persons.  It belongs to our dignity as moral beings to be challenged by the demands of absolute moral norms and values, which address us in the depths of our freedom.

It's the same with Truth.  Intelligence consists not in making up ideas, but in conforming our minds to Reality.  

Of course, not all moral questions and dilemmas involve an absolute.  Most often, perhaps, we're weighing options and calculating probabilities, and doing the best we can.

Shall I open myself to new life, or abstain during fertility?  This is one kind of moral question.

Shall I contracept?  That's another.

Do you see the difference?

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Jun 17, 2012 5:09pm

Daniel Romeyn Davis, Jun. 16 at 1:35pm

I understand that from an orthodox Christian standpoint that it is easy to make the analysis that "homosexual acts are acts of use and abuse," however, I am failing to see how this is supported philosophically. 

I'm thinking, for instance, of a consideration of embodiedness—a philosophical companion to the Theology of the Body. That is, instead of beginning with Scripture and dogma, we look at the nature and structure of the acts, and we compare them with the nature and structure of the conjugal act.  When we do that, the radical difference between the two becomes apparent. 

As I understand personalism, it seems necessary to reevaluate everyday life in order to better understand what makes our individual personhood unique, what makes you - you, on a deeply personal level.

The uniqueness of the person is one dimension and focus of personalism, but it's not the only one.  Personalism also focuses on such things as the relation between subjectivity and objectivity, on moral agency and self-determination, on embodiedness, and on the meaning, dignity and vocation of personal existence.

I'll see if I can finish my post.

Daniel Romeyn Davis

#12, Jun 18, 2012 8:44pm

I would agree that comparing homosexual acts to those of heterosexual coition are very different. However, to look at the homosexual act from a purely philosophical approach, I fail to see how the act is inherently degrading and or of "use and abuse." I believe that the argument can be made that the assumption, from a non-theologically based approach, that homosexual acts are inherently deficient (for lack of a better word) is implicitly inferring one's religious moral beliefs into the philosophical argument. I can see how one can make the argument that homosexual acts are different than those between an heterosexual couple - however, difference of nature does not necessarily imply a qualitative difference - but rather, a difference of use (as in utility - the use of the sexual function of the human person). From a philosophical approach, I see that homosexual actions employ the sexual functions of the human person in a different way than those of coition - and yes, it is true that new life is not issued forth from homosexual relations. However, I am out of space for now. In the spirit of open dialogue, I look forward to your response. 

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