In the wake of Pope Francis’ virally circulated airplane interview, orthodox Catholic writers from every corner of the blogosphere have united in defense of our Holy Father, against the bizarre and ignorant statements of the popular media. Whether attacking the Times et al. for skewing the story to advance their own agenda, or complimenting the pope for using an unsuspecting press to help him broadcast Gospel truths, almost all such authors have agreed in insisting that there was nothing contrary to doctrine in the matter of our pontiff’s remarks. On this point, I certainly agree as well. “Judge not” is hardly foreign to Christianity.
Yet with all due respect and humility, I am not sure the form of our Holy Father’s remarks is as straightforwardly defensible as their material content. Certainly Pope Francis reached the best conclusions he could have from the premises he was handed. But perhaps it is worth asking whether the premises themselves, and the formal framework in which they operate, should not be rejected wholesale. I wonder in particular whether employing the concept “gay people” with such nonchalance may communicate a familiarity and friendliness with this concept that is unmerited by its pedigree.
In his Histoire de la Sexualité, Michel Foucault argues that homosexuality is a social construct, and one constructed terribly recently at that. “As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes,” he writes, “sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them.” The late-nineteenth century saw this classical view displaced, however, when the sodomite was set up as the bearer of a distinct and pervasive psychological persuasion. “Homosexuality appears as one of the forms of sexuality,” Foucault writes, “when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul.”
Of course, that homosexuality is a social construct does not automatically render it evil or necessitate our rejection of it. Creative beings that we are, a great deal of our human condition is designed by man rather than merely discovered by him. As such, it can often be terribly difficult to tease out what is constructed from what is essential. Ergo MacIntyre’s quip: “Perceivers without concepts, as Kant almost said, are blind.”
Still, while social constructs may be often benign, and may be sometimes even beneficial or necessary, there is good reason to doubt that sexual orientation is such a constructive construct. First of all, the heterosexuality-homosexuality distinction is a construct that is dishonest about its identity as a construct, masquerading as it does as a natural categorization, applicable to all people in all times and places according to the typical objects of their sexual desires (albeit with perhaps a few more menu items on offer for the more politically correct categorizers). Claiming to be not simply an accidental nineteenth-century invention but a timeless truth about human sexual nature, this framework puts on airs, deceiving those who adopt its distinctions into believing that they are worth far more than they really are.
A second reason to doubt whether this concept is one that we Christians should readily employ is that its introduction into our sexual discourse has not noticeably increased the virtues—intellectual or moral—of those who utilize it. On the contrary, it has bred both intellectual obscurity and moral disarray. Our young people, for instance, now regularly find themselves agonizing over their sexual identity, navel-gazing in an attempt to discern their place in this allegedly natural framework of orientations. Such obsessions invite far more heat than light, and focus our already sexually excited adolescents on discerning extraneous dimensions of their own sexual makeup. This becomes thornier yet for those who discern in themselves a “homosexual orientation,” as they adopt an identity distinguished essentially by a set of genital sexual desires that cannot morally be fulfilled.
Many will object, and to an extent rightly so, that even if these worries are well founded, nevertheless it is not up to us whether sexual orientation—and sexuality more broadly—will put down roots in the mind of modern man. This is true up to a point, but to state it this way conceals the other side of the same coin. For while it is correct to say that our inherited traditions shape us, so also do we shape our traditions, growing them organically but critically from within. And if moral education is first and foremost an immersion in a particular comprehensive social tradition, then we ought to pay a great deal of attention to what concepts and practices we admit into our traditions, and which ones we deliberately weed out to the best of our ability.
Another objection will come from those who insist that we meet people where they are, and that we allow everyone to craft their own explanations of their experiences. Again, there is a half-truth here. Certainly we do not want to insist that people mutilate their experiences in order to fit them into our tidy little readymade categories, like the wicked stepsisters maiming their feet to fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper. But that complaint cuts both ways, because ultimately, the empirical problem with the sexual-orientation framework we have been handed is that it is too neat, that it works by oversimplifying an incredibly messy web of attractions and drives and temptations, and that it inhibits the taming of those desires by improperly amplifying their significance.
Our rational categories must do justice to the experience of those we hope will employ them, of course. But no one reasons in a vacuum, and part of the goal of a moral tradition—certainly a goal of the Christian moral tradition—is to order and elucidate people’s experiences towards understanding and flourishing. Sometimes, this must be done with help from those outside the phenomena to be explained, bringing a vantage point to the subject that those caught up in the occurrence do not have, and offering an explanation that they may not be able to craft for themselves. All this is simply to say that, while it is true that we must meet people where they are, it does not follow that we must begin by agreeing with their account of the location.
Of course, denying the natural existence and the social utility of sexual orientation should not be our final end-goal in the arena of sexual ethics. My contention is simply that it may prove a helpful starting point, clearing away some of the brush that currently lies in our way. And while we’re at it, another of modern culture’s formal determinations that would probably be worth discarding is its all-consuming obsession with all things sexual. Maybe baptizing this inordinate fascination is not the healthiest answer to what ails us after all. Perhaps at this stage the best solution lies in learning to think well of things other than sex.