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Views of Homosexuality

Homosexuality: The Test Case for Christian Sexual Ethics

By James P. Hanigan

Publisher: Paulist

Pages: 193 pages

Price: $9.95

Review Author: John C. Cort

John C. Cort is Co-Editor of Religious Socialism, the author of over 200 arti­cles and reviews in publications such as The Nation and The Progressive, and the author of the recent book Christian Socialism.

These two books give a fair sample of the debate over homo­sexuality within the Catholic Church. Fr. Harvey defends the orthodox position. James Hani­gan, a lay theologian at Duquesne University, does not go as far out as Charles Curran, Philip Keane, John McNeill, or Gregory Baum, but he certainly cannot be de­scribed as a defender of ortho­doxy. He concludes that “bibli­cal judgments against homosexu­ality are not relevant to today’s debate.” He characterizes the Church’s treatment of the sub­ject as a kind of “absurdity.” He repeatedly refuses to call homo­sexual behavior or homosexual relationships “sinful.” By which I understand him to mean sinful both objectively and subjectively, both formally and materially. Nobody will argue with his oft-repeated reminder that ultimate­ly God alone can judge subjective sin. But we’re concerned here with the proposition that gay is “just as good” (period), and the more nuanced proposition that gay may not be just as good, but under certain circumstances is not really sinful either, whether objectively or subjectively.

Hanigan falls in the may-not-be-just-as-good-but category. In his words: “such acts and rela­tionships do not correspond to the normative ideal, but they may be, in the lives of particular homosexual couples, steps to­ward the ideal and toward a full­er understanding and acceptance of one’s sexuality as part of one’s Christian vocation.”

That “may be,” like Curran’s “compromise” and all the other “special circumstances” that jus­tify and absolve the objective sin­fulness of extra-marital sex in the views of the more fashionable theologians, reminds one of the comment made about the con­cept of love in Joseph Fletcher’s book, Situation Ethics. One crit­ic complained that it was like a greased pig running through the book, almost impossible to pin down, it had so many different meanings. Hanigan himself seems to be aware of the slipperiness of these pigs; in one of his foot­notes he remarks: “The decep­tive nature of sexual desire often shows itself once the desire has been satisfied. What appeared psychologically to be a desire for personal union reveals itself after the fact as a desire for sexual gratification…. This deception is not always a matter of con­scious or deliberate hypocrisy. Eros is unstable of its very na­ture….”

“Amen” to that. Hanigan also says, “Moral theologians…are reluctant to propose clear and simple answers to general questions of right and wrong be­havior. Their answers … are qualified by all kinds of condi­tions, distinctions and subtle nu­ances.”

Here we come to the nub of the difficulty. The Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic Church), faithful to the teachings of Moses, Jesus, and Paul, and to Church tradition, continues to propose clear and simple answers to the question: “Is any sexual activity — genital activity, that is — justified out­side of heterosexual marriage?” In fact, it does not propose an­swers. It proposes one answer on­ly, “No,” which is about as clear and simple as you can get. And the reason for this clearness and simplicity is that the Church, in its wisdom, like Jesus and Paul in their wisdom, is precisely aware of the instability of Eros, “the deceptive nature of sexual desire” and the fantastic facility with which men and women, boys and girls, can justify anything they want to do if you give them just one little loophole, one little “compromise,” one little “may­be,” one little greased pig of a “love.”

Theologians, on the other hand, and priests whom they must train to be confessors and pastors, do have a legitimate con­cern for distinctions and nuances. The confessor, like God, must be concerned with subjective as well as objective morality. The trouble starts when the theologian, or the priest-confessor, becomes so impressed with the distinctions and nuances that he makes a transfer from subjective to objec­tive morality and, carried away by this godlike function, decides that objective morality must be changed.

It is symptomatic of this difficulty in Hanigan’s book that you are rarely certain whether he is talking about subjective or ob­jective morality; inevitably the suspicion grows that Hanigan himself is not sure. What is even more puzzling is that ultimately he comes down with this ortho­dox statement: “To accept ho­mosexual relationships and beha­vior on an equal moral footing with the heterosexual relation­ship of marriage appears to be a revolutionary proposal in the sense that its acceptance requires a foundation other than the Christian truth…a different, and culturally dominant, under­standing of human life and desti­ny.”

It seems that Hanigan wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to be orthodox and un­orthodox at the same time, to bang the traditional arguments as “irrelevant” or “absurd” like any trendy theologian, and still come down finally as orthodox. He is a sophisticated theologian who has read all the relevant books. He makes good points, has good insights from time to time. He has compassion for the unhappy lot of homosexuals who want to live a Christian life.

Speaking of compassion for the homosexual, a virtue all of us can work on, Hanigan makes some points on this score that I find less than convincing. He compares the homosexual with other persons who find them­selves in situations that make sexual fulfillment impossible within Church strictures: the di­vorced person, the physically separated spouse, the spouse of a sick or handicapped person incapable of sexual relations. He con­cludes that all these are better off than the homosexual because there is always the possibility of an annulment or the death of the spouse. I would think that such people are worse off. They are faced with the temptation to wish for the death of someone. The homosexual can hope for a cure to his condition through prayer or psychiatric treatment or, conceivably, some new drug. He doesn’t have to wish for any­one’s death. And, incidentally, why not compare the homosexual with those who because of phys­ical handicap, or simply because nobody ever asked them to mar­ry, or is likely to, are similarly deprived of sexual fulfillment?

Hanigan falls into the same mindset he criticizes in the quo­tation printed above about “a foundation other than the Chris­tian truth…a different, and culturally dominant, understand­ing of human life and destiny.” And what is that dominant un­derstanding? It is surely the all-pervading notion that no real happiness is possible in this life without a regular diet of orgasms brought on by some sort of fric­tion with another person, male or female.

We find the appropriate comment on this misunderstanding in another of Hanigan’s foot­notes, to wit: “The pursuit of in­dividual self-fulfillment as a worthy and supreme life goal stands in fundamental contradic­tion to the biblical injunction: ‘Anyone who finds his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Mt. 10:39).” And Jesus is talking about eternal life.

If this is Christian truth for self-fulfillment, how much more so for sexual fulfillment, which is only one part of life, one part of the self?

If you have time and interest to read two books on homosex­uality, you might do well with Hanigan, if only to sharpen your wits. If you can read only one, read The Homosexual Person by John Harvey. Fr. Harvey has taught moral theology for 38 years. He has been giving pastoral counsel to homosexuals for over 30 years and, though not a ho­mosexual himself, eight years ago he helped found Courage, the or­ganization of, by, and for homo­sexuals who are concerned to help each other live lives of Christian fulfillment within the bounds of sexual morality set by Moses, Jesus, Paul, and the Cath­olic Church.

This immersion in the real life situations of homosexuals gives Fr. Harvey’s prose a down-to-earth quality that is absent from the more academic theoriz­ing of James Hanigan. It hits you in such comments as, “I seldom use the term gay to describe the homosexual person, and this with good reason. In 32 years of counseling homosexual persons I have yet to meet a practicing ho­mosexual who could be called ‘gay’ in the sense of joyful.” He adds the sobering statistic that the suicide rate for homosexual males is six times that for non-homosexuals.

When I wrote above that he defends the orthodox position, this does not mean he tries to justify every sentence contained in Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement of October 1, 1986. He does de­fend the one that has infuriated the homosexual community: “Even when the practice of ho­mosexuality may seriously threat­en the lives and well-being of a large number of people, its advo­cates remain undeterred and re­fuse to consider the magnitude of the risks involved.” Harvey notes that gay groups have op­posed the closing of bathhouses that are veritable hothouses of promiscuity and AIDS infection. Ratzinger, however, might well have inserted the words “many of” before “its advocates,” be­cause other gays have taken a more responsible position in face of the AIDS menace. Harvey does suggest that Ratzinger would have done better to omit entirely another sentence that raised hackles, the one that warned that “society at large should [not] be surprised when…irrational and violent reactions increase.” That was indeed an insensitive and un­necessary remark.

Before continuing further, let us get a few more facts on the record, one from Hanigan’s book, others from Harvey, who seems more interested in facts than Hanigan, and one from some minor research of my own:

(1) About four to five per­cent of our population is “pre­dominantly homosexual in orien­tation.” This is a significant num­ber, but modest by comparison with the number of those who are divorced or involuntarily unmarried or incapable of sexual rela­tions or for other reasons unable to enjoy these within the limits of heterosexual marriage set down by Jesus Christ.

(2) For roughly 100 years before 1974 the psychiatric pro­fession took the stand that ho­mosexuality is “a mental disor­der.” That year the membership of the American Psychiatric As­sociation upheld a recommenda­tion of its board of trustees, by a vote of roughly six to four, to change that position. Strangely enough, four years later Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality sent questionnaires to 10,000 mem­bers of the APA and noted, after 2,500 responses had been receiv­ed, that 69 percent believed that “homosexuality is usually a path­ological adaptation, as opposed to a normal variation.” Only 18 percent disagreed with this posi­tion, with 13 percent declaring themselves “uncertain.” In other words, only 18 percent agreed with the position taken by 60 percent of APA members four years before. How come? The in­sertion of the word “usually” might explain some vote changes. Also, Harvey notes that, “Psy­chiatrist Ruth Barnhouse observ­ed [in explaining the first vote] that many members felt caught between either upholding an ap­praisal based on scientific evi­dence [that homosexuality is a mental disorder] or contributing to discrimination — a dilemma, she says, born of muddy think­ing.”

The conclusion follows that most psychiatrists in 1978 repud­iated the position of 1974 and tended to agree with the third hackle-raising statement of Card­inal Ratzinger in his 1986 letter, the one to the effect that the ho­mosexual tendency is “an objec­tive disorder.” How else can we interpret the questionnaire figures and responses? And if there is no other reasonable interpretation, what was all the shouting and hackle-raising about? The gays and their friends should direct their shouts at the psychiatric community, not at Cardinal Rat­zinger.

(3) Supporting the 1978 po­sition is the fact that in the ani­mal kingdom exclusive homosex­uality is unknown.

(4) Psychiatric cures are not common as yet, but there is a record of success in the work of Dr. Elizabeth Moberly, who lo­cates the cause of homosexuality in an unsatisfactory relationship of the child with a parent of the same sex. Also, Dr. Gerald van den Aardweg concludes from his work with gays, in Harvey’s words: “if a homosexual person can free himself from infantile self-pity about his inferiority feelings, he would no longer feel physically attracted to his own sex.” Aardweg further states that those pastoral counselors who advise male homosexuals to stick to one “lover” are doomed to disappointment. He writes: “This is exactly what many homosexu­als cannot achieve and what others would never accept as an ideal because they are just inter­ested in short-term contacts; emotionally they could not tol­erate a homosexual ‘marriage.'” Unlike lesbians, whose relation­ships tend to be more stable, the typical male homosexual leans to promiscuity. And we know what promiscuity leans and leads to.

(5) Bible scholars who have refuted the absurd claim that the sin of Sodom was merely inhospitality have overlooked another biblical proof in 2 Peter 2:6-10. At least I have never seen it men­tioned.

(6) Dignity, an organization of Catholic homosexuals, was founded in 1969 and has about 100 chapters in the U.S. and Canada. With few exceptions these chapters and the priest chaplains who work with them either explicitly or tacitly en­courage members to ignore Church teaching, continue their active relationships, and still re­ceive the sacraments. Therefore Dignity would seem to fall with­in the strictures contained in Ratzinger’s letter, approved by John Paul II, which, after describ­ing the position of most Dignity chapters, concludes, “This con­tradictory action should not have the support of the bishops in any way.”

Fr. Harvey, however, gives this report: “At this writing the archdioceses of New York, At­lanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phila­delphia, and Vancouver, B.C., as well as the dioceses of Buffalo, Brooklyn and LaCrosse, Wiscon­sin, have banned Dignity from the use of church facilities. In some archdioceses Courage and Dignity exist side by side — with Courage having the approbation of the ordinary (e.g., Boston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Toronto, Canada). In Chicago Courage has become dormant for lack of clerical sup­port.” In addition, Harvey notes, LaCrosse, Vancouver, and San Diego are organizing Courage chapters. On the basis of these facts it would seem that 13 dioceses and archdioceses, out of nearly 100 in the U.S. and Cana­da where Dignity chapters are operating, are doing something of an either positive or negative nature that would place them in conformity with the 1986 in­struction from the Vatican. Of course there may have been addi­tions since Harvey’s book went to press in late 1987. Also he concedes that “a few” Dignity chapters have taken an orthodox position. But altogether there seems to be something amiss.

(7) Courage was organized in 1980, 11 years after Dignity, at the instigation of Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York. Both psychiatrists and experts on pastoral counseling agree that if those with homosexual leanings want to live in conformity with the teachings of Christ and the Church, they need individual help and support, group help and support, all the help and support they can get. Therefore it would seem that the organization and support of Courage chapters is a necessity in every diocese or archdiocese where such individu­als exist, which I suppose would include most, if not all, of them.

(8) Protestants have done more than Catholics in provid­ing organizations devoted to the goal of overcoming homosexual tendencies and promoting lives in conformity with Christian moral­ity. Among these are Exodus In­ternational, Metanoia Ministries, Outpost, Regeneration, and Ho­mosexuals Anonymous. The last-named is the fastest growing and, like Courage, in Harvey’s words, “makes generous use of the wis­dom and insights of A.A. [Alcoholics Anonymous], the father of all other spiritual support groups.” H.A. and Courage are, of course, more explicitly Chris­tian than A.A.

Catholic homosexuals who don’t have a Courage chapter handy would do well to check out H.A. Fr. Harvey lists the addresses of the other Protestant organizations as well.

I have wrestled before in these pages with the mystery of undeserved suffering. Who can explain the agony that is so often visited upon little children who aren’t yet capable of willful sin, or the torment we can see, if we look for it, that characterizes the lives of young and old who have seemingly done nothing to justify it? The price of free will? That explains only one part of it.

Reflecting on this apparent injustice, we are tempted to punch holes in a code of moral­ity that doesn’t seem to make proper allowance for these ineq­uities. Cruel, philandering hus­bands beat their wives, spouses go insane or become sick or are jailed for life, so punch a hole in the code forbidding remarriage, maybe even a hole in the code forbidding adultery. Women get raped or can’t stand the strain of one more child, so punch a hole in the code forbidding abortion. Through no fault of their own, two kids can’t get married, so punch a hole in the code forbidding fornication. People grow up with no normal yen for the op­posite sex, so punch a hole in the code forbidding homosexuality.

But what do we know? Do we know the mind of God? Do we know what God has decided is necessary, on the basis of what he alone knows, to preserve the integrity and sanctity of marriage, to preserve the integrity and sanctity of the family, to enhance the inner peace and self-respect of all his children? Well, yes, in a sense we do know, and it makes sense that he should tell us about it in a field where greased pigs are running all over the place, be­cause, left to our own devices, we would never figure it out. He has told us through Moses and the prophets, through Jesus his son, through Paul the Apostle, and through the Fathers and Doctors of his Holy Roman Catholic Church, which Jesus promised would be protected from all er­ror in such essential questions.

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