Saturday, 18 May 2013

On Choosing to be Gay

The other day on Twitter, someone said; People should not bury their heads in sand. Kids do not learn to be gay; and then asked me: Honest curiosity, how would a Catholic standpoint address a pupils issues coming to terms with being gay?

This seems to me to be full of assumptions. Further they are assumptions that are being promoted as truths, not just by the gay lobby, but by the government, with its legislation, and by opinion formers, such as the ever-wonderful BBC and the rest of the media, the entertainment industry, academia and so on.

So I think it important to pause and examine them, not least because I believe them to be wrong.

An old friend who self-identifies as gay sent me a link to a video. It poses the question, to various people who do not self-identify as gay: when did you choose to be straight?

My gay friend, and I think many others, seem to think this a killer argument, as the interviewees struggle to answer the question.  If all straight people answered this question honestly, they proclaim, homophobia would be wiped out tomorrow.

The thinking is that because people struggle to answer when they chose to be straight, they will realise that being straight or gay is not a choice.  Therefore it is inherent, and therefore morally irreprehensible.

I think the logic of that argument falls at every stage.

So where do we start? Perhaps here: 'Kids do not learn to be gay.'

That was asserted as a self-evident truth: and presumably for similar reasons to the reasoning behind:  'when did you choose to be straight?'

In fact, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly points out, when discussing homosexuality (§2357 ff) 'Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.'

As with so many other aspects of the development of the human, it seems to be a mixture of (in their broadest senses) both nature and nurture.

That is, some people may, for natural reasons, be more likely to be subject to same sex attraction than others; and the circumstances of their lives will incline some of those more than others to develop such characteristics further.

At that stage, of course, it is largely out of the awareness, let alone control, of the individual, and is therefore entirely blameless.  Nonetheless it is, objectively, a disorder; that is both self-evident from biology, and clear from the teaching of the Church (§2360: 'Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of a man and a woman' and §2357 'Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered'). People suffering from this disorder must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity (§2358).

Nonetheless, I think that there is a step, and a significant one, from being involuntarily subject to same-sex attraction (SSA), and declaring oneself to be gay (either to oneself or to others.)

I know many people who are subject to SSA; some of them recognise the truth and wisdom of the Church's teaching and live lives of heroic struggle.  Others declare themselves to be gay, and the Church to be wrong.

The latter declare that their 'sexual identity' is not a choice; but in fact it is: they could have chosen to respond as the former group have done.

When is that choice made? They declare, and I imagine sincerely, that they never made such a choice.  But that, along with the question  'when did you choose to be straight?' misunderstands how we develop as human beings.

Consider the case of a brave fireman, who risks his life to save someone from a burning building.  Afterwards someone asks him how he came to be so brave. Typically, he cannot answer the question. He may deny that he is brave, or say that he had no choice; and his colleagues may testify that he has always been that way. 

But the truth is, such a characteristic is built over years of small choices: choosing to act bravely rather than in a cowardly fashion, time after time, until it is a part of his character. So by the time of this incident he is not, perhaps, making a choice for bravery. But over time, he has done so, and consistently at that.

Bravery, like any moral quality can be learned; even though we may have different pre-dispositions for it.  

That is why the Catechism goes on to say that the correct response to homosexual inclinations lies in 'the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom.' (§2359)

Another leap of illogic is the assumption that if 'being gay' is not a choice, it is therefore a good thing. At one level this is understandable: if it is not a choice, then nobody can be culpable: no guilt attaches where there is no choice.  But the lack of guilt does not mean it is a good state. Consider the man born blind: Our Lord assures us that it was through no fault of his or his parents: yet it is still a disorder, a falling away from the perfection of God's design and plan.  

How do such disorders come about?  Gay Christians are fond of saying that they accept the way God has created them.  But that is to ignore this problem: that creation is not the way God created it. Something has happened in between: that primeval catastrophe known as the Fall.

So while one is not culpable of being subject to SSA, it is nonetheless a bad thing.  And where moral responsibility, and therefore the possibility of either virtue or sin, does arise is in how one responds to that condition.

So: 'how would a Catholic standpoint address a pupils issues coming to terms with being gay?'  

Firstly, by not accepting the assumptions of the question as framed. 'Being gay' is not something that simply happens to one.  One may be subject to SSA, and to temptations in that direction, but we would not collude with the Orwellian use of language that is designed to make this seem normative, morally good, and inevitable, as none of that is the case.

I know many of my gay friends would assert that my analysis is not true to their experience.  However, we cannot give primacy to experience in that way, as we know that it is unreliable.  

For example, another friend of mine has left his wife and children.  He argues that he has a better relationship with his children now that he has left than when he lived at home with them in an atmosphere of quarrelling and resentment.  His wife and children (and indeed I, as an outside observer) see a very different reality.  But he has convinced himself, sincerely, that this is the case: because that is something we human beings are very adept at doing.  We know that our intentions are, by and large, good, and so we justify our behaviour, above all to ourselves, by interpreting the evidence in ways that allow us to seem good.  Our old friend confirmation bias has a lot to contribute here.  

We are really not the best judges in our own cases, as we have too much of a vested interest in the outcome!

Other ways we can help the hypothetical child in the question above include sound formation before this issue even raises its head.  We need to teach children that their impulses are not always good (ie Original Sin) and that they can be controlled (personal responsibility).  We do that both by word and by example, and also by helping children make good decisions in small matters (such as not bullying, not reacting angrily to provocation and so on) so that as they confront more difficult challenges (the various temptations of the teenage years) they have some character to draw on, and a good grasp of what is at stake.

Further, we need to teach them the good news of the human vocation; and the truths of the Church's noble vision of chastity; and again we need to set an example: we should ourselves avoid watching inappropriate TV programmes or films, reading indecent books or magazines and so on.

We should teach and exemplify specific disciplines, such as custody of the eyes: a habitual response of avoiding looking at anything or anyone who may provoke lust in us.

Also, however, we do well not to dwell too much on these things. A growing child who is kept busy with education and healthy recreational activities will have less time to dwell on such matter - particularly if responsible adults steer him or her away from inappropriate TV etc.  Allowing teenagers to brood on sex is very bad for them: it takes on a disproportionate part of their thinking and identity.

Moreover, we must teach, and exemplify, heroic courage, so that should one of our children or pupils turn out (despite all we can do to minimise the risk) to be one of those of whom the Catechism speaks 'who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies' they may be able 'to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.' (§2358).

That is done: By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.' (§2359)

Above all, of course, we must love them, and give them the security of knowing that we will love them no matter what, just as God does; but that we love them too much to lie to them or to collude with the world in saying that homosexual acts are anything other than intrinsically disordered.


Tony Flavin said...

Excellent point on being same sex attracted and acting on it.

I told some lads this week "If your hands can't go there, keep the eyes off too" they laughed but got, and accepted, the point. Your custody of the eye comment is so right.

The last paragraph is paramount. Let them know we love them, ven if they don't feel loved or reject it.

Lazarus said...

Excellent post. The whole business of 'becoming heterosexual' isn't as straightforward as it's portrayed, in large part because the natural goal isn't simply the ability to be just physically intimate with a woman, but because full sexual maturity is about being able to sustain a lifelong, fulfilling marriage. (Which is why we should be just as reluctant to use 'heterosexual' as an identity as we should be to use 'homosexual'.) Frankly, it's not surprising that many don't develop this far, particularly in our society. But to celebrate one type of failure, homosexuality, as an identity rather than sympathizing with it, is bizarre.

Ben Trovato said...

Deacon Tony,

Glad you think I am no the right lines here: others don't!

Ben Trovato said...

Lazarus: good point.

Monogamy comes 'naturally' to very few - but that does not make 'adulterer' on the same moral plane as 'faithful spouse'.

We need an education in the virtues, and sacramental grace, in order to become what we are called to be.

Anonymous said...

A very good article, and I agree with my friend the deacon too.

Recusant said...

Thank you. I really find myself struggling to answer questions on this topic (not to myself so much, I know the Church is our wise mother and I have the advantage of having studied a course of logic which means I can recognise a fallacy at 50 paces) but swimming upstream is hard work. The example of your friend who has left his family is typical of today's culture and what it tells us about our freedom and how we exercise it.

Adam Sutton said...

The assumption remains here that it is a choice. The ignorance is towards the fact that for many, to live life openly as homosexual is suicidal. Think Uganda and Middle East for starters. Is it mere coincidence that in Africa where access to information is not so freely available that evangelical Christians from the USA see this as the continent they can export their abhorrent views unhindered, and try to bring in laws against homosexuality? Sadly no longer on iPlayer, but then hey, it's just more BBC propaganda isn't it? No one would chose to live a life that presents them on a daily basis with homophobic abuse and risk of death.

True we don't understand why when it comes to sexuality for sure, but religion certainly doesn't have the answer. The closest it can ever be to a choice is a realization, but this is very different to choice and often coupled with fear of rejection from family and society. So again to make the assertion that a conscious decision has been made is nothing short of preposterous.

I certainly was not nurtured to be gay nor was it nature or environment. Growing up my dad was actually one of the biggest homophobes going. He has changed, and recognizes the merit and standing there is in my monogamous 10 year relationship. Indeed previous to this, I feared coming out when another family members marriage broke down when it came to light the husband had been masking/hiding his sexuality, maybe to try and live this ideal of mother, father+2.4 children having grown up in even less tolerant times than I. At this point I found my dad was actually the only one who could think from all angles and see from the husbands perspective. Not to condone the actions of hiding by marrying etc. But to appreciate all sides. Regardless this brings up the only choice I have ever made with regards my sexuality, that being that even if I were not to be openly gay, I would not attempt to live a life that was not mine by marrying or attempting to suppress something I never chose in the first place.

Maybe one day religion will catch up. Until then continue believing there is dangerous agenda being spread by the BBC and stonewall *sigh* And that suppressing your natural sexuality is in gods plan. Evidence abounds from the priesthood that such ideology and living a life of chastity are not realistic. And no that is not an assertion towards all priests, but recognition of the facts presented time and again by the likes of O'Brien that it is unrealistic.

I end by saying, no one wants to be gay. But that those that are, and have walked that path want to make sure that those who find themselves walking in their footsteps, have the support available that many of us never had. Those of us that are lucky look back and see those less fortunate, see the suicide statistics and what to ensure this does not prevail. It is that simple.

John Henry Steelson said...

It's very important to understand the difference between being (is) and having (has).

A car is a vehicle, but has leather seats. In the same way, a person is loved by Christ, but has a sexual orientation. One's identify - who we are - is not determined by sexual orientation. Sexual orientation has no bearing on a person's value flowing from the love of Christ.

The reason for confusion lies in a lack of understanding of vocation. Consider, for example, a married couple who discover infertility. Their vocation is to marriage, but is it moral to demand children? Only in fully accepting one's vocation as gift - and for one's benefit - can this be properly understood. The same consideration applies to the physical expression of same-sex attraction - is it consistent with vocation and moral?

And where is this responsibility to vocation learnt and understood?

In the family.

John Henry.

Patricius said...

I don't suppose anyone chooses to be a drug addict. The fact that someone may become such is, nevertheless, a consequence of a series of choices which have just that cumulative effect.

Delia said...

Another helpful post. Is there a name for the heresy that
denies we have free will? Surely that is at the root of
much of the thinking about sexual morality in
contemporary culture.

Ben Trovato said...


Thanks for your comments. Given how strongly you disagree with me, I was struck by the civil and civilised way in which you made your points, and I do appreciate that.

Having said which, there is nothing you have said which seems to me to disprove anything I have asserted.

That is not surprising, of course; we are all good at interpreting evidence in the light of what we hold to be true.

As Cardinal Newman said: "we can believe whatever we want to believe; but we are responsible for what we choose to believe." So ultimately, these questions come down to philosophy: to our fundamental understandings of, and beliefs about, reality.

I think you may have missed some of the nuance of my argument, though. The choice I was referring to was primarily the choice of how we respond to the situations in which we find ourselves, the desires to which we are subject and so on.

Viktor Frankl, the psychologist who survived the concentration camps, put it eloquently: 'They could take everything from us, except the last of our freedoms: the freedom to choose our response...' (or words to that effect).

Likewise, I think you over-simplify the implications of the word nurture, which i used in the broadest sense to encompass all those experiences we have which affect our development.

But I realise that nothing i can say is likely to persuade you, any more than anything you can say will persuade me.

So all I can do is assure you that I wish you well, and reiterate my thanks for the courtesy with which you engaged.