Contortions Of Catholic Philosophy: Eve Tushnet Argues Gay Sex Is Not OK But Sex Changes Are

Tushnet’s moral choice for herself and for other gays is celibacy or gender reassignment.

Of course for some people, specifically some of the transgendered, a sex change is entirely appropriate and preferable to gay sex because from a gender (rather than a sex) perspective, those who are pre-op transgendered and are attracted to members of their own physical sex are not homosexually attracted to them, but rather, in gender terms, have a heterosexual (or maybe “heterogender” would be a clearer term to use?) desire for them. Being gay, on the other hand, is clearly conceptually distinguishable from being transgendered. Non-transgendered gays embrace their gender as it is even as they have sexual desires for members of the same sex. In other words, a gay man still identifies as a man, even as he desires sex with men and should not have to become a woman, something foreign to his own gendered understanding of himself, in order to fulfill this sexual desire.

Only if someone’s self-understanding of his or her gender does not match his or her sexual organs should he or she be at all advised to have sex reassignment surgery so that body and mind, genitals and gender, feel compatible for that person. It even happens, of course, that there are those who are already attracted to the opposite sex, and yet still, as a matter of gender, simultaneously identify with the members of that opposite sex with whom they desire sex. This means, that there are transgendered homosexuals—e.g., women in terms of sex organs who might gain male sex organs while still desiring men, and men in terms of sex organs who might gain female sex organs while still desiring women. And in both of these cases, even without sexual reassignment, in gender terms they may carry on “homosexual” (or, to use my term, “homogender”) relationships. By this I mean that some women in terms of genitals, who are actually men in terms of gender, carry on what they identify as gay relationships with men since in gender terms they are the same sex, even if in genital terms they are still of opposite sexes. (Of course, in all of the above discussions, I am using genitals as an abbreviated way of referencing all the relevant sexual characteristics that sex-reassignment procedures might affect. Even this is, of course too simple, as some might change some sexual characteristics but not others—including the genitals.)

Instead of recognizing all of these sorts of real category distinctions which track people’s extremely strong psychological natures, which we have no reason not to medically, socially, and morally accommodate wherever there is no demonstrable harm to anyone to do so, Tushnet’s views of ethics (but thankfully not law, it seems) would give non-transgendered gays only two choices, both of which run fundamentally contrary to their allegedly “God-given” natures: celibacy or sex reassignment. This means that Tushnet thinks God created homosexual natures for people just to have them live either in perpetual frustration and sublimation of them on the one hand, or, on the other hand, to be morally forced into surgeries to change their sex to be opposite of the genders He also supposedly gave them, if they ever want to fulfill that sexual nature He gave them in a morally and religiously acceptable way. This is symptomatic of the kind of anti-natural way that traditional Roman Catholics approach what they ironically call “natural law philosophy”.

The case of Eve Tushnet’s particular bizarre and reality-refusing conclusions is illustrative of the problematic way in which Roman Catholic traditionalists approach philosophy. Putatively they are trying to make arguments which are not merely religious but which are grounded in the sorts of conceptual, scientific, and ethical evidence and logic that could persuade any open, rational human mind. They insist that they are not merely dogmatically referring to the Bible or Catholic tradition when developing a natural law argument but, rather, making a philosophical and universally valid argument, rooted in universally discoverable and defensible natural laws which even the most hardened atheist should be able to understand. But inevitably the traditionalists’ a priori allegiances to Catholic tradition, Catholic dogma, and Christian Scriptures in general, lead them to distorted concepts and contorted logic as they twist the natural law however necessary to conform to preexisting Catholic tradition.

The result is that Tushnet, just like Catholic philosophy in general, often winds up with conclusions that are no more than painfully transparent rationalizations of ancient religious prejudices, on the one hand, and acceptances of the most baffling, unjustifiable, willfully blind, and wholly unnecessary conceptual and moral distinctions on the other. And to the extent that these distinctions affect people’s moral judgment and, through that, their lives, these allegedly “philosophical” and “not merely religious” conclusions can be as irresponsible and damaging as any explicitly faith-based belief allowed to guide behavior in a reality-based universe.

Ethics, for the scope of its real life implications, is the last subject which should be investigated using distortions and logical contortions. It is the last subject that should be entrusted to change-resistant, traditionalistic, religiously dogmatic, faith-based institutions, scriptures, or authority figures, whether this takes the form of explicit religious authoritarianism, on the one hand, or rationalizations disguised as open-minded philosophical investigation, on the other.

This is not to say, of course, that all Catholic (or otherwise religious) philosophers are necessarily rationalizers or otherwise bad philosophers. Nor is it to say that no true or insightful ideas might come from even a compromised religious philosopher in spite of her biased methodology. Nor is it to say that traditions provide no helpful suggestions which are worth seriously testing before discarding. Some traditional conceptual resources and practices may certainly help us rationally devise solutions to certain contemporary problems. And I know many fine Catholic philosophers, both historically and personally, who were or are as perceptive as any other philosophers, and from whom I have learned a great deal.

But their Catholicism serves as a lag on their philosophy wherever and to whatever extent that it makes them into traditionalists willing to rationalize and defend palpably untenable and contradictory conclusions lest they be forced to either abandon or significantly revise either the faith itself or its traditional interpretations and implications. The best Catholic (or otherwise religious) philosophers are those willing to dissent in those cases in which defending their faith’s official positions would mean committing their faith to continued error. These are and always have been brave Catholic philosophers who refuse to bend their accounts of reality to match the Church’s when the Church is the one with the distorted picture. They are willing to push the tradition to correct itself. Their faithfulness to the tradition manifests itself as a loyal effort to improve it so that it is consistent with the best philosophy, science, morality, and politics possible and, therefore, can be as constructive and valuable a contributor to human society as possible.

I do not envy their uphill battle against the inertia of two thousand years of tradition and traditionalism. I do not respect in the slightest the Church hierarchy’s powers to silence or outright excommunicate these dissenters. This must surely intimidate many a weak conscience away from speaking (not to mention thinking honestly) and so is a violation of the intellectual conscience. But I immensely appreciate the freer thinking Catholics’ efforts and recognize their enormous contributions to philosophy and science down through history and even today. The full moderation and modernization of religious traditions into full consistency with (and necessary deference to) the best science, philosophy, morality, and politics is the only palatable alternative we have to the full abandonment of religions altogether as structurally irreparable.

For more of my thoughts on the positive contributions of moderates, read The Value Of Religious Moderates And The Danger Of Isolating Religious And Political Fundamentalists.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Jim J

    You would think that to oppose and change “the way god made you” would be more blasphemous to the church than being gay. Silly catholics.

  • Lawrence S. Lerner

    That is one reason why I often compare theologically centered arguments with trampolining. In the latter, the gymnast starts at rest, standing on the trampoline. Then, with great skill and artistry, she goes through amazing gyrations that can elicit admiration. But when she is finished, she is standing exactly where she began.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Nicely put, Lawrence.


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