David Blankenhorn and I have had a useful exchange. In his last posting he questioned my argument that judging homosexual acts wrong isn’t akin to the racist view that skin color makes someone inferior :

I’m sure that Rusty Reno knows as well as anyone that almost no gay people (certainly no openly gay people, or at least none that I can think of) would accept the premise that being black-skinned is fixed whereas being gay is not — i.e., that being gay can be properly understood, as Reno suggests, as simply the choice to commit certain acts.  Reno can defend this position, of course, if that’s his position (and of course it’s a position that many have argued), but in my view in 2012 he can’t simply (with legitimacy) assume it, as if it were an uncontested fact, rather than what the whole fuss is all about.

Blankenhorn is right. That’s what the fuss is all about. We tend to assume that sexual expression is a normal and perhaps necessary part of being a healthy person. Thus, if you have homosexual desires, then it’s altogether unreasonable, and indeed unjust, for me to say that you should not have homosexual sex. (Here I want to be very clear that I’m talking about moral judgments—me saying “that’s wrong”—not legal ones.)

I want to explain why this view of sexual identity cannot serve as a reason to think people like me are “anti-gay.”

There are many heterosexuals engaged in loveless marriages, or who are wed to people so injured that they can’t have sex. Why, then, shouldn’t they have a “right” to adultery? And what about someone who has difficulty convincing someone to marry him, perhaps because he is ugly, or because he’s reprobate? Doesn’t he have a “right” to fornication? Or for that matter a “right” to masturbation? What about a Catholic who is divorced, and thus can’t remarry? Doesn’t she have a “right” to sexual relations? Isn’t the Church oppressing her as well? (There are in fact quite a few Catholics who a very bitter about the Church’s equal opportunity judgmentalism when it comes to marriage, divorce, and cohabitation.)

And what about the guy who, well, likes making it with more than one girl? Or the girl who only too soon finds her partners sexually boring and unsatisfying. Aren’t they entitled to the sort of sexual expression that suits them?

In these and many other cases, the Catholic Church (and every other religion) stands in the way of progressive claims about sexual identity. In fact, regulating sexual expression—often with a great deal more ferocity that anything proposed or even imagined by people like me—has been one of the main functions of religion and morality, often with painful consequences for those whose life circumstances (circumstances often tied to their own genetic make-up or the social upbringing over which they had no control) make it hard for them to have a “healthy sex life,” to use our modern turn of phrase.

Thus, there’s nothing invidious or discriminatory about the way I treat homosexuality, and it won’t do for advocates of gay rights advocates to say so. They need to be more forthright about their commitment to sexual freedom, as many gay activists are. By their way of thinking, people should be free to express their sexual identities (short of coercion and abuse), full-stop. That’s why it’s the blurry LGBT spectrum that’s at issue, of which marriage is only a dimension.

The debate about gay marriage is about sex and human identity, not homosexuality. Or, more accurately, it’s about homosexuality because it’s about sex and human identity. The progressive claim that we have a right to sexual expression is why they regard contraceptives and abortion as essential rights. It’s also one reason why our society is deeply committed to no-fault divorce.

Social conservatives like me don’t have a single view about how to respond to these contemporary realities. We don’t have a single view about how to grapple with the social reality of open and affirmed homosexuality in our society. But I think it’s fair to say that we all reject the progressive presumption that to have sexual desires creates a prima facie moral right to express them.

That said, claims about discrimination do have currency if one limits oneself to the law and civil society rather than moral philosophy or the teachings of the Catholic Church (and other religious traditions). It is invidious and discriminatory to accord heterosexuals plenary rights of sexual expression, and then to turn around and deny them to homosexuals. To a great degree that’s what our society did in the first wave of the sexual revolution. And so now we’re well into the second wave (if that doesn’t mangle the metaphor). But my point stands: a moral conservative like me regrets both waves.

Articles by R. R. Reno

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