June 14, 2010

ORDER FROM CONFUSION SPRUNG: As promised, some thoughts on the problems with the “intrinsically disordered” jargon the Church currently uses to describe homosexuality.

I want to open by saying that the Catholic Church speaks a lot of languages. I have a really hard time with natural-law talk, for example, and also with Carmelite spirituality, even though both of those are really different! Whereas I respond really strongly to “theology of the body” and, to a certain extent, Christian neo-Platonism. But the great thing about the Church is that you do not have to buy in to any one particular vocabulary.

The fact that the Church currently uses a certain way of talking about gay people (and, for that matter, the fact that “gay identity” as such is just over a century old–that doesn’t make it fake, it just makes it one way among many of talking about same-sex desire) doesn’t mean that you need to buy the vocabulary in order to live out the teaching. If the way the Church talks gets in the way of your chastity, ignore it. (Or I guess I should say, try to find and develop other ways of talking about gay life; but reworking the Church’s language might not be part of your vocation, in which case I think ignoring the language while living by the teaching is the best way to operate.) Your chastity and your unstinting fidelity to Christ are so much bigger and more beautiful than any one theological framework. So yeah, don’t have gay sex; but you can think about that sacrifice and challenge in a whole lot of different ways, including ways which might shock your local priest.

Having said that, here’s my problem with the “intrinsically disordered” language: I think it relies on a mechanistic understanding of eros. If sexual desire can be easily tweezed away from nonsexual longing and love and adoration then yeah, sure, I guess I can see the point of calling homosexual desire “disordered.” But that’s not how eros actually works! My lesbianism is part of why I form the friendships I form. It’s part of why I volunteer at a pregnancy center. Not because I’m attracted to the women I counsel, but because my connection to other women does have an adoring and erotic component, and I wanted to find a way to express that connection through works of mercy. My lesbianism is part of why I love the authors I love. It’s inextricable from who I am and how I live in the world. Therefore I can’t help but think it’s inextricable from my vocation.

And what’s funny is that even the defenders of the “intrinsically disordered” language are defending so little. Basically all of them say one of two things: either “everything you do which is influenced by your lesbianism is tainted,” which is bleakly hilarious if you’ve ever nursed a sick woman through her illness in part because you loved and were attracted to her; or “it just means that your eros can never be acted on, whereas even wrongly-directed heterosexual eros might be in some hypothetical made-up world.” Which is like… do we really want to be encouraging unhappily-married heteros to think, “I could totally act on this desire and it would be ordered!… you know, if the old ball-and-chain died, or we got an annulment”? I mean, at that point literally nothing is added by the “explanatory” language of disorder which wasn’t already stated by the bare moral teaching: You don’t get to have sex with ladies, case closed. I knew that already! What extra work is this jargon doing? It doesn’t even make straight people feel superior, since none of them know or think about it unless their kids are gay.

I am a lot more tentative about proposing alternate ways of understanding Catholic moral teaching on sexuality, alternate vocabularies. I think this post, where I describe what lesbianism feels like to me, might be a starting point.

I genuinely believe that eros requires that the focus of our desire be Other in some important way. And so the process by which homosexual desire transforms members of one’s own sex into Other–the process by which pretty girls become iconic women, and therefore available for me as focus points of my eros–is fascinating to me, and I think it’s genuinely sublime. That said, I don’t think it’s too hard to do the math on “eros is directed toward the Other + sex difference, la difference, is the fundamental difference in human nature = homosexuality requires an alienation from self, from eros, or from the beloved, so that likeness can begin to seem Other when in fact it is not.”

I’m not sure yet if that’s how I want to talk about Catholic theology of sex. But I do think we can all try to work through what being gay feels like, and thereby come up with a vastly broader and better set of vocabularies than the ridiculously, painfully limited set the Church is working with right now.

One final note, which is maybe bitchy but I don’t know a better way to do this: Please don’t use the Church’s current failures and lacunae and flinching uncourtesy as an excuse to wallow in self-pity. Yes, the “intrinsically disordered” language sucks and is a mark of privilege, the kind of thing you only say if you don’t feel it yourself or don’t care about the other people who feel it. But if you focus on the failures of the Church’s language, not only do you lose the opportunity (which, again, may not be your vocation) to improve that language, but you also lose out on everything else the Church offers. Self-pity is I think the least Christian emotion in the history of ever, and it’s worth thinking hard about whether and to what extent and where your problems with the Church are really problems with the way the Church hierarchs express themselves right now. In which case, prayers to Joan of Arc would seem to be in order.

And in general, if you have to entertain negative emotions toward the Church (and God knows I do), I highly recommend bitchy and bitter over self-pitying comfort. That’s my considered aesthetic judgment and I’ll stick to it until you pry my rosary out of my cold, dead hands.

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