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Toward a Personalist Approach to Homosexual Attraction

Michael Healy, Jun 03, 2012

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” (http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_3_redefining_marriage.html): 

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.