As a way to getting acquainted with the people of Holy Cross-Immaculata Parish, for the past few weeks, I've been visiting parishioners' homes for small gatherings; we sorted all the parishioners by zip code, and everyone got invited to this or that home. Most of the meetings have happened, but a few are coming up in the next two weeks.
Last night, one of our parishioners asked: "What is wrong with two men, or two women, if they love each other, getting married?" And, as we discussed that, he followed up, "why is it wrong for two people of the same sex to have sex together?"
A great question. Lots of people need to ask us that question, because if we don't have a satisfactory answer, they're not going to accept what the Church teaches. And they won't see why the definition of marriage shouldn't be changed to include same-sex relationships.
So how did I answer?
Well, we covered a lot of topics, and lots of people were joining in, so I can't easily reconstruct my actual answers, versus what I was trying to say. But basically, I explained that as Catholics, we understand God's design to be that sex is inherently both about uniting two people in love, and about procreation; and separating these two parts of the design leads to all manner of trouble. In the course of that, I talked about Pope Paul VI's teaching in Humanae Vitae, contraception, and in vitro fertilization, in which human life is created in a laboratory, rather than in a human act of love.
And I cited something the Catholic writer Mark Shea often says: that there are two phases in how these things play out: first, the "what could it hurt?" phase, followed, sooner or later, by the "how were we supposed to know?" phase.
So, I talked about how God intends sex to be about procreation and family; and that when sex is deliberately rendered sterile--either by intervention or by acts that cannot be life-giving--then it starts down the wrong road.
Each of us, no matter who we are, is meant to be a life-giver. Whether we ever have sex or not, marry or not, conceive children or not, we are life-givers. Everything about is is oriented toward that; including our own psychology and emotional structure. As we go through life, a fundamental desire of every healthy person is to make a difference--to leave something behind--to share what's good with others...to give life. Nothing is more profoundly negative than to look at oneself and find little or nothing, in ones life, that counts as having been a life-giver in the broadest sense. And no matter how old we get, as long as each of us finds some way to give life to others--even very small ways--we will find life worthwhile. I can't prove it empirically, but I rather suspect that this is true, regardless of religion, language, economics or culture. It's something built into us as humans. Either by God--or evolution.
And, I added, that when God tells us not to do certain things, it's not because God finds them icky, but because he knows--even if we don't--that they will, one way or the other, distort our humanity. They are bad for us. And we don't have Ten Commandments telling us not to do things that we'd never dream of doing. There's no, "Thou shalt not stick a knife in your eye" commandment, because no one needs that to be explained. But "Thou shalt not commit adultery" and "Thou shalt not covet" are not always easy to accept; just as, "Thou shalt not steal/lie/do murder" etc. also can be hard to live by--and so it goes with everything God has told us about how to live.
This morning, in the shower, more occurred to me on the subject. And it comes in the form of a question: if we no longer talk about sexual morality in terms of an inherent purpose or design, then just what sort of morality should apply to sex?
In other words, I wish I'd thought to ask in reply, "And what if they don't love each other? What's wrong with sex then?" Who says it has to be about love?
Why, for example, should we expect people to be married before they have sex? Why, in fact, does it matter for people to have any particular commitment or love? Why isn't consent sufficient?
(And, if you say, because of children, then my reply is--and if there are no children? Never will be? Conception can happen by accident in a heterosexual union; but gay couples can pretty confidently say there won't be any oops babies.)
Of course I know that many people think exactly this. But this is a question I'm posing, very specifically, to those who say they are Christians, and yet say Christianity should have no objection to same-sex behavior.
If that's you, reading this, feel free to answer in the comments: if you think there's nothing immoral about two men or two women having sex, do you attach any conditions? I.e., do you think they should be married? In love? Even know each other? Be limited to two parties to the relationship? Not be too closely related? Is it immoral to sell sex for income? Is casual sex immoral?
I'm serious. If you are OK with gay sex inside marriage, or inside some sort of commitment--but you think it's wrong, say, on a casual basis, then my question is, WHY?
Secularists are more coherent on this: they will make it all about consent; sometimes they will also insist on safety--but then, is risky sex immoral if there is consent?
But I'll say it again: I'm asking people who say they're Christians for their answer.
If it's not the Bible, or the Church, or Natural Law, that determines the morality of any particular sexual act--what does?
The truth is, a lot of people have moral stances that are largely based on an "ick" factor. They think eating dogs or horses is "wrong," but not eating cows or pigs. Why?
Similarly, they will say they see nothing immoral about same-sex behavior, but they will refuse to address the question of whether sex among multiple partners is immoral, or casual sex, or incest, or pornography, or sex-for-pay, or bestiality, etc. If you can't articulate a coherent moral argument for allowing one, and not the other, then I say you're really applying a morality of "ick"--and, sorry, that won't work.
After all, that really is how the moral argument against same-sex behavior was sustained, socially, for some time--and why, I think, it collapsed so readily in recent years. A lot of people thought homosexual acts were wrong, not so much for any coherent moral reasoning, but because they found it icky. And now, a new generation of people doesn't find it icky; either they don't care, or they may find it intriguing.
And, I ask again--not so much of agnostic libertines, but of professed Christians--why shouldn't they?
The agnostic-libertine morality of our society is that consent is the only real moral criteria. Thus we emphasize "consenting adults."
Now, someone will protest, oh Fox, you're dragging in red herrings. No one is advocating any of these other things, just an acceptance of gay people and their sexuality, and allowing them to marry. All this talk of polyamory and incest is just a scare tactic.
Well, first, it's simply not true no one is advocating for these things; but it is true that this advocacy is far from a significant political force. And I will readily concede that they may never have an impact on the civil law.
But that's all irrelevant. If that comes up in the comments, the red-herring-in-dragger is you, dear commenter!
This post is expressed by the headline: it's about sexual morality. If society never legalizes polygamy or incest, there are still moral questions at stake here. And the point I'm making is that when Christians set aside the existing rationale for Christian sexual morality, something has to take it's place.
The truth is, that the understanding Catholics (and all Christians, even if they don't realize it) have on these matters is both rooted in what is revealed -- via Scripture and Tradition -- as well as Natural Law.*
Now, whenever I bring up Natural Law on this site, some tedious person shows up to complain. Well, let's save you the trouble, if you're reading. You're perfectly free to say there is no Natural Law. There, I just saved you the trouble! And the other argument will be that Natural Law never had anything to do with civil law, and no one but Catholics ever believed in it.
I'm certain the second point is simply wrong, although it's true that the whole body of thought around the term "Natural Law" was developed in the context of Western--i.e., Christian--Civilization. It's not my place to say what non-Christian cultures have to say about it. But I will say that the insights of Natural Law are not constrained by their Christian matrix; I see no reason one has to be a Christian--or, as I said, even to believe in God--to find the approach useful, and even true.
One basic insight of Natural Law is that there is a design, and order, and structure, to each thing, and all things, and it behooves us, as creatures in this world, both to discern that order--that "Law"--and to live according to it. It's not law in the stricter sense of a law of gravity; but in an analogous sense, with analogous consequences for disregarding the law.
But in our time, humanity increasingly is thinking, and acting, in a very ahistorical, and morally autonomous way. What I mean is this: increasingly we are supposing that human history and experience (all bound up in Natural Law thinking), as well as any other "handed down" sources of truth, are advisory at best. Or to use C.S. Lewis's imagery, we are cutting off the limb on which we are perched, confident that nothing bad will happen when the limb is detached from the tree. And, of course, that's only perilous if there really is a tree; if not, then indeed, we can cut away the excess. In any case, once the final cut takes place, we'll find out, won't we?
So, of course, it may be that if there is a God, there really is no plan in his Creation that we are bound to respect. Or, indeed, there may not be a God to contribute a plan. And if there is no God, even if we can discern some sort of structure, or "law" in the order of things, who says we can't remake it?
A thought comes to mind unrelated to human sexuality, but about the natural environment. Isn't it interesting how frequently the argument about things like climate, and exploration for oil, and whether to modify or develop various natural resources, will involve stern warnings about not respecting the structure and order of the natural world? And I think there are people who believe in Natural Law in morality, but not in ecology; and vice versa. In any case, the argument that is often made in questions of climate, or exploiting natural resources, is that if we master the technology, we should not hold back from redesigning the natural design. So we have efforts to redesign food we grow and eat, proposals for "geo-engineering" aimed at addressing climate-change concerns, and we have people busily working to redesign humanity itself.
Similarly, much of the unexpressed mindset behind a new morality on sexuality is the notion that, whatever "law" we might have discerned in human nature about what sex is for, we should have no compunctions in setting these aside, and creating a new design.
So, for example, God, or evolution (take your pick) has given us a complementary sexuality: male and female. Regardless of what sexual attraction anyone feels, however deep-seated, toward anyone or anything, the fact remains, as of Noon on October 18, AD 2013, that male and female are both necessary for procreation.
Ah, but not for long! There are folks working on a new design. And that, my friends, is the context of this whole debate over sexual morality in general, and redefining marriage in particular.
Consider this. If some segment of humanity pulls off a new design--let's suppose we begin creating human life through cloning, or some other process, that may eventually completely leave sexual intercourse and the womb behind--who lives with that achievement? People who do not yet exist.
How much does this change the world? Will it be a greater change than, say, caused by fracking, or genetically modified wheat, or some of the geo-engineering schemes aimed at storing carbon, or otherwise cooling the planet? It's one thing to redesign a tomato, or a mountain; it's something else to redesign us.
In other words, we're seeing the truth of what a character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov asked: "Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?"
My answer? I've given it. Once we depart from God's Plan, we start down a wrong road. It's also a very long road. I think the next 50 years will give us a vivid tour of that wrong road.
* Natural Law, in a nutshell, is the term given to those "laws" that can be discerned, through the use of human reason, to the observation of the world around us, including ourselves, and how we are designed and operate. It generally presupposes a Creator, but it seems to me one could articulate a Natural Law without a Creator. Since I am not seeking to do that, I'll let others pursue that line.