Various correspondents have proposed or at least asked about Christian justifications for homosexuality. Here’s a sort of canned response that seems to address most concerns:
I don’t view the issue as basically a question of authority. We need a definite way of life, and that requires authority, but legitimate authority is normally rational. It asks for what is best and promotes what is best, and those things can be discussed. For me, at bottom, it’s not even a specifically religious issue. It’s more a matter of natural law.*
The basic issue is what’s good and bad in sex. It may be true that some people are made differently. People have all sorts of impulses and abilities and those form all sorts of different patterns. Sometimes that means they should go their own way and sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on whether it’s a good idea to go that way. In this case the question is what makes sexual activity part of a good way of life and the extent to which people are made differently in a way that changes that.
Sex is a strong impulse and it goes off in all sorts of destructive directions. On the other hand it also has constructive aspects. It produces new life and joins lives and generations so it is basic to human life and society. It has a variety of aspects: physical, personal, family, social, spiritual. To my mind the basic issue is how much those aspects can be separated and made optional without breaking the connection between sex and the whole range of human concerns and turning it into something self-defining, self-seeking, and ultimately destructive.
It seems to me that to be relied on to connect us to other people and the world sex has to involve something more than the intentions and experiences of the participants. If it’s just intentions and experiences then it’s hard to know what to make of it. There’s no external check and the relationship can go anywhere. I don’t think that can be controlled just by deciding to control it. Sex is too basic to human life and involves impulses that are too strong.
It’s obvious that sex is not just the intentions and experiences of the parties in the case of a man and woman of a suitable age and condition of health engaging in sexual intercourse with no contraception and no contemplation of abortion. In doing what they’re doing they’re pledging themselves in an open-ended way to each other, their possible descendants, their ancestors, and the world at large. So in that clearly OK case sex can evidently mean objectively what the experience seems to express, and it can work as a component of a good life.
But how far can that situation be extended? Suppose it’s an infertile period? One of them happens to be sterile? They use contraception sometimes? They’re long in the tooth and conception is not a practical possibility?
It’s not immediately obvious where to draw the line. It seems clear that the obviously OK situation has to be extended somewhat, since otherwise sex would be a technique for making babies rather than something that constitutes a relationship that gains weight and definition from its connection to making babies (and thereby, among other things, gives babies a place to live).
The no-homosexuality view is that as a minimum the relationship overall, in its physical aspects, has to be oriented toward acts that by nature and natural function produce babies. If you don’t have at least that then things are too amorphous to have an objective natural meaning and they can wander off in any direction at all.
That standard doesn’t seem arbitrary to me. People normally think about themselves and their acts in terms of what they are—their identity—rather than parsing the likelihood of this and that consequence. So it doesn’t seem crazy to say that the identity of the people and acts that constitute the relationship has more effect than its actual consequences on what we make of the relationship.
Many people of course say that minimum is not enough. The Catholic Church, like all Christian denominations before 1930, would say that any intentional direct interference with the fertility of the relationship breaks the tie too much. Post-60s developments suggest that view might be correct, but even if it’s highly questionable the basic point remains that there has to be at least some minimal connection. In the case of homosexual relationships that’s simply not there.
All this is very abstract and theoretical and unpersuasive for most people. Maybe a way to make it slightly more concrete is to ask how things are likely to work out. Marriage provides a way to give sex a dignified place because—at a minimum—the identity of the parties as male and female means it has a natural function, since male bodies, female bodies, and sexual intercourse have a natural function. That situation enables us to see the relation as intrinsically social and carrying definite objective obligations simply because of what it is. I don’t see anything similar in homosexual relationships. Any weighty significance would be a bootstrap operation carried out by the individuals involved.
Another angle is that we’re social beings, and should be loyal to arrangements that support a tolerable functional overall way of life. We understand ourselves and our acts and what they are by reference to how they work as part of a larger scheme. What would that scheme be if homosexual relationships were put in the same class (the “OK sex” class) as marriage?
In particular, why wouldn’t putting them in the same class affect relations between men and women? Those relations depend on ideas about what a man is, what a woman is, what special obligations they have to each other as men and women, whether marriage has some special substantive content other people can recognize and the parties can appeal to in opposition to what one of them feels like doing. If there aren’t any settled ideas on such points—and there can’t be if sexual relations between two men are considered the same sort of thing as sexual relations between a man and woman—everything becomes self-defined: people are made differently and it’s oppressive to force other people’s definitions on the unique and changing relations of specific people.
On such a view, sex doesn’t have any preordained connection to any special function or relationship. Nor can there be standards based on its special qualities, since those qualities are different for different people. There are just the general standards that apply to all human connections: you shouldn’t deceive people, you should be kind, and you should be prudent, so you don’t have unwanted diseases or pregnancies, but otherwise you make of sex what you can. Whatever you do that seems to you to make sense by reference to your special situation, goals, characteristics, and so on, as long as you’re open about it and not deceptive, is your right and should be respected.
How can that consequence be avoided by someone who accepts—for example—gay marriage? If you reject the consequence wouldn’t you be judging people who find that their orientation is different from yours? But then marriage as something established and specific really does go away. That seems like a bad thing. In fact, it seems like catastrophe.
The basic thought behind doing away with traditional limitations seems to be that at least for some people the order of their lives is something they should work out themselves based on their own special characteristics independently of other people’s rules. They are what they are, and they should arrange their lives in the best and most thoughtful patterns they can, and we should respect and praise them for their attempts to do so. But if that applies to some people, why wouldn’t it apply to others? Who are we to judge someone because he doesn’t find our patterns fitting? Aren’t we all made differently, not just homosexuals? But where does that view take us?
Many people point out that some homosexual partnerships that include sex seem to work well for those involved, and anyway the people involved are good people in many ways and could do worse, so why not say the sex is OK and even a good thing because it supports and expresses the connection.
The relation might be good as a loyal friendship, but its sexual aspect doesn’t look like a plus because it can’t objectively point outside itself—it’s just the feelings, intentions, and experiences of the parties. But if it does not have something in it that by its nature points outside itself then it’s a bad foundation for a relationship intended to be durable and should be avoided. It’s an attempt to build something important on sand. To speak of “the sexual expression of love” in such a case strikes me as misleading. It makes it sound like sex is like a big hug, something subsidiary that makes a relation more concrete and complete but doesn’t determine its nature in a special way. That seems unrealistic. Sex is nontrivial, it’s structural to our lives, and it has implications that we can’t make other than they are.
On other issues people raise:
- The Gospel should certainly be available to all. That means it should be available to drunks, prostitutes, corrupt officials, Roman oppressors, crucified robbers, and Jeffrey Dahmer as well as to Mother Theresa and to people who seem like nice guys. The question of course is what it asks of us once it’s available.
- It’s true that people are often censorious, and that’s something to avoid as a trait of character. But sex is basic and structural, so people have very strong feelings about it. So the idea that it’s a vice to find fault with people has no bearing on what substantive view you should take—e.g., whether it’s homosexuality or homophobia that you should see as the thing to avoid. Whichever side you take people are going to reject you.
- I’d add that there are other ways than censoriousness to go wrong. It’s common to strike a sort of implicit deal—I won’t criticize you for doing what you do if you don’t criticize me for doing what I do. That’s not good either.
[* In another sense of course it’s a question of authority, since if you accept authority as legitimate you’ll normally go along with what it asks even if you don’t see the point. There are people who don’t know, can’t understand, or don’t see why they should spend time learning the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem who go along with what authority tells them on the point. That doesn’t make them irrational or Fermat’s Last Theorem basically a question of authority. We are all in the position of those people on many issues.]