Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What's love got to do, got to do, with it?!? What's love, but a second-hand emotion?!?

Or so I imagined Pope Benedict XVI singing in the shower, after he made his most recent comments on homosexuality. Before becoming the pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the more polite title for what was once the Inquisition. He used this bully pulpit to attack both modern theologians like his former colleague Hans Kung, and liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff. He also consistently demonstrated that his vision of the Catholic Church would not be friendly to women or LGBTQ persons. His former Tubingen colleague Hans Kung writes this of him in the first volume of his memoirs, titled My Struggle for Freedom:

Time and again people puzzle over how so gifted, friendly, open a theologian as Joseph Ratzinger can undergo such a change: from progressive Tubingen theologian to Roman Grand Inquisitor. Ratzinger himself has always described this as a straight line which he has followed since Tubingen... Certainly even in Tubingen my colleague, who for all his friendliness always seems somewhat distanced and cool, had kept something like an unenlightened 'devotional corner' in his Bavarian heart and shown himself to be all too stamped by Augustine's pessimistic view of the world and Bonaventura's Platonizing neglect of the visible and empirical...


That legacy of Augustinian pessimism and especially the Platonistic "neglect of the visible and empirical" is clearly at work here. The crux of Pope Benedict XVI's argument against same-sex sexual relationships - to the extent that he feels any need to build an argument, standing, as he is, on "tradition" - is that such relationships are unnatural, outside of God's will for nature, and as such are of necessity destructive. He makes this last point overtly, saying here in his ill-conceived comparison of saving gays and lesbians from themselves to saving a rain forest:

(The Church) should also protect man from the destruction of himself.


Setting aside for a moment the legitimate concern that in consistently referring to humanity as male the pope only reinforces a long, sad legacy of Roman Catholic participation in patriarchy, Benedict XVI is building an argument here concerning three kinds of harm done by homosexual relationships:

1. Harm done to the persons involved, by their participation in unnatural sexual relationships, which one of his Vatican spokespersons has called "a deviation, an irregularity, a wound."

More importantly, and more dangerously, he posits another kind of harm:

2. Harm done to humanity itself - though in accordance with patriarchy, the pope uses "man."

That is to say, the pope's specific language is not here principally pastorally concerned with the well-being of those who, in his mind, lead inherently sinful lives. If it were, one could argue that while he is mistaken on the moral value of same-sex relationships, the pope is at least operating here with decent intentions, out of love and concern for those who - in his view - might harm themselves by living outside of God's will for their lives. Rather, he is apparently principally concerned with the damage that same-sex sexual relations do in his mind to all of humanity. Thus LGBTQ persons are seen as violating an ecology for humanity (which Pope Benedict XVI calls an "ecology of man") in the same way that those who might cut down a rain forest are violating a natural ecology.

LGBTQ persons are then, strangely, a threat to all of humanity. This kind of language thus comes eerily close to calling for a pogrom, though the pope does not overtly do this (and, charitably, I do not believe that he thinks that this is what he is doing). If, after all, a particular way of living constitutes a threat against humanity itself, then is it not permissible to use any necessary means to end this threat?


But, sadly, same-sex sexual relations not only threaten humanity, but even creation itself. This is the third harm:

3. Harm done to the very work of God. As the Reuters article notes:

[The pope] compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as "a destruction of God's work."


This view stems from what Kung described as his "Platonizing neglect of the visible and empirical." As I argued here, traditional Catholic arguments against the permissibility of same-sex sexual relationships stem from a particular understanding of what is "natural":

Aristotle defined “natural” in a way that would be foreign to modern naturalists. For Aristotle, that which is natural is that which is the best possible end of a thing. This is particularly true in the realm of ethics. In Book I of his Nichomachean Ethics, for instance, Aristotle states that because “every action and choice seem to aim at some good; the good, therefore, has been well defined as that at which all things aim.”

It is natural that actions lead to a natural good, and to the extent which an action aims for the end which is natural to it, that action is a good action. Augustine operated with this understanding of good, thus, for Augustine every action had to aim at a good. Humans demonstrate their inherent sinfulness when they engage in actions which do not aim at the proper good of those actions.

This is particularly apparent in Augustine’s position on sex, and it is that position which shapes the Catholic dogma as it pertains to sex. The natural end, and therefore the good and proper end, of sex is procreation. Sex is a procreative act. Therefore, any sexual act which does not aim to conceive a child is a sinful act. Sexual acts between members of the same sex, according to this view, must by nature always be sinful, because they cannot aim at conceiving a child.


This understanding of what is "natural" is at the heart of the Vatican's declaration that homosexuality is "a deviation, an irregularity, a wound." It is consistent with the Augustinian and Thomistic understanding of evil as a privation or perversion of created good, what Jacques Maritain called "a wound or mutilation of the being." But this understanding of the "natural" is what Kung rightly denounced as "a neglect of the visible and empirical," an intellectual defect this pope has had his entire career.

Homosexuality is denounced not because it has been observed to be harmful or destructive, but because - within a particular theological system - it might work out that way on paper. This comes not from the study of nature or the observation of the real consequences of ways of living, but because it does not immediately fit into a particular point of view. This may thus rightly be dismissed as pure, revolting prejudice, poorly disguised in theological language.

In truth, some same-sex sexual relationships are harmful to the persons in them. Some - by virtue of that harm - also are harmful to others, who see their loved ones apparently trapped in abusive and self-harmful patterns of behavior. But this sad truth is not limited to same-sex sexual relationships. It is a pattern that, at worst, all kinds of human relationships can fall into.

Would that the Roman Catholic Church (and all other expressions of Christianity) show more interest in rescuing persons from patterns of abuse, in whatever kinds of relationships such patterns emerge, and less time scapegoating LGBTQ persons for the problems that plague us all.

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Update:

Renee has a more scathing post on the pope's comments, at Womanist Musings.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well said.

Liam said...

It's strange, just yesterday my uncle and I were talking about B16's Augustinian pessimism. Sigh. Another missive from the bunker of reaction and denial.

Aspirant said...

You say it well here Chris. I will say in the Pope's favor, he may not have meant to use sexist language, but then again, his church refuses to ordain women. I wonder if any women teach in Catholic seminaries? I don't know.

Your evaluation of Augustine is of course good. To use his comments about sex and procreation, coming after his own life experiences, as normative for all humans is simply absurd. I am not even sure such a large group of celibate men (the Roman clergy) can think clearly about the nature of sexual love when so many have not known it or have forsaken it.

On the Gay issue: the question is exactly as you put it; Jesus would have us investigate it no other way (in my view). Let's not look for a passage here or there in the bible books to tell us how to dictate pastoral care of gay persons; let's look at how homosexuality actually exists in history and contemporary society. Here, I am no expert. I can only go with my experiences with a few gay colleagues; but far as I can tell, their experience is my experience except they are attracted to the same sex. And if this orientation is really a part of their personhood, to me, the arguments are over.

The Christian love must begin.

It is actually, in it way, a sensitive argument to say that gay relationships/orientation is harmful to the person and therefore must be discouraged. But is it really? It does not seem to be anymore hazardous than heterosexual love; or for that matter, celibacy.

Well brother, it is late and I am babbling. Look forward to talking this week. I'm back home and as always, call if you need to or I'll be sure and touch base.

Oh, had a Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale earlier...ah, what more does one need?