Views of Homosexuality
Homosexuality: The Test Case for Christian Sexual Ethics
By James P. Hanigan
Pages: 193 pages
Review Author: John C. Cort
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.
Enjoyed reading this?
READ MORE! GET A FREE 7 DAY TRIALSUBSCRIBE TODAY
You May Also Enjoy
A review of Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: New Paths to Understanding
Those raising the most vocal objections to new diocesan teacher contracts -- which stipulate that teachers conduct themselves according to basic Catholic principles in their public lives -- are those who do not agree with many of the Church's teachings.
Your 19-year-old son announces out of the blue that he's homosexual. St. Anthony Messenger to the rescue!