Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 asked whether a Catholic understanding of mandatory celibacy for lesbian and gay people was becoming the new ‘reparative’ therapy option among conservative Christians. Today, we look at Catholic teaching on celibacy from a different angle – and ask what this magisterial requirement of mandatory celibacy for lesbian and gay Catholics reveals about the hierarchy’s teachings on homosexuality.
In July, America magazine posted an interview with Catholic lesbian writer Eve Tushnet in which she laid out the argument that gay Catholics can affirm their sexual orientation while abiding by the hierarchy’s teaching against same-sex relationships, including mandatory celibacy. You can read that interview in full here.
Katie Grimes, writer on the Women in Theology blog responded to Tushnet in two posts, available here and here, to reveal why “A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing.” Grimes examines Tushnet’s argument using an ethical paradigm known as virtue theory. Grimes makes the claim that if one argues that homogenital acts are indeed unconditionally evil, then what would logically follow is that a sexual orientation towards such acts must also be considered evil as well. Grimes explains:
“Thomistic virtue theory describes the relationship between actions, habits, and character…But because virtue theory cares about not just what we do, but also who we are, it recognizes that our thoughts and desires possess more than merely instrumental importance. Rightly ordered thoughts and desires are good in and of themselves. A good person does not merely do the right thing; she both desires to do the right thing and she takes pleasure in acting rightly. Goodness involves more than just what we do.”
Flowing from this theory, Grimes says that we would then have to posit that a lesbian woman or gay man wills evil when they experience sexual feelings for a person of the same-sex, for to act on that desire would be evil. Though not reducing a gay orientation to sex alone, the desire for sex is a constitutive part of sexual attraction. Therefore, Grimes writes:
“If a woman finds herself deriving pleasure from the thought of sexual contact with the bodies and beings of other women, she ought to react to these thoughts just as you or I would if we suddenly started fantasizing about torturing a poor little bunny rabbit.
“We would be horrified and alarmed. We would seek to eradicate these thoughts from our minds as soon as possible. We would recognize them as an incitement to sin. We surely should not accept these thoughts as a constituent part of our personalities…
“So too with sexual orientation. Even if a person acquires the desire for gay sex through innocent happenstance, she retains and cultivates these malignant desires only if she chooses to. As gay and lesbian people know all too well, one comes out of the closet through a struggle born out of a resolute and long-deliberated choice…
“Tushnet rightly calls on the church to make room for its lesbian and gay members. But perhaps lesbian and gay Catholics struggle to find a home within ordinary Catholic parishes because there is no place for them in the pages of magisterial teaching.
“The magisterium tells lesbians and gays to be but do not do. But, if one should not do, then neither should one be.”
Thus, Grimes concludes that “A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing.” By drawing the virtue theory logic on homosexuality to its logical conclusion, even while she disagrees with it, Grimes reveals the deep incoherence in the hierarchy’s teaching. A desire for something which is sinful is itself sinful as well in a virtue ethics framework, and disproves the idea that mandatory celibacy as the attempted middle ground by people like Eve Tushnet, is a workable solution. The hierarchical position cannot logically claim, as it does, that a homosexual orientation is not sinful while at the same time claiming that homosexual activity is.
Yesterday’s post noted Catholicism’s mixed history on celibacy, highlighting both the beautiful gift it has been for so many in the Church’s history and the damage that forced celibacy does to our understanding of this gift.. If other Christians seek to learn from Catholics about celibacy, they should look to those of our saints who have lived single lives in service to the world. They should not look to illogical understandings of sexual orientation that condemn too many LGBT people to lives of hurt and loneliness.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry