There has been quite a controversy humming around lately about those that Catholic writer Austin Ruse calls the "new homophiles." Evidently some think that is a prejudicial term, so I'll make up a different term. Let's call them the "Christian homosexual identifiers" or CHIs. There is no subtle pun or joke here. I'm just trying to come up with something descriptive and different from Ruse's phrase, since for some reason Ruse's is regarded as invidious. (I'm pretty sure he just meant it to be descriptive as well, but sometimes you can't win with these things. Someone is always offended.)
As best I can understand it, the CHIs are Christians who identify themselves as "gay," who accept that they should not be engaging in sexual acts with members of the same sex, but who regard their "gay" identity as in some sense a positive thing. The controversy is over whether they are correct so to regard it. Here is a mainstream news piece about the Catholic CHIs.
A couple of the many pieces affirming a positive "gay" Christian identity are here (Eve Tushnet) and here (Matthew Lee Anderson), and here (Wesley Hill). On the con side, one of Austin Ruse's more recent pieces is here, Owen Strachan (a Protestant) writes very sensibly here, and Daniel Mattson has an excellent discussion (with links to other things he has written on the subject) here.
Since so much has already been said in this controversy, it's fair to ask whether I have anything to add other than to agree with the "con" side (as my title indicates). I think that I do have at least a bit to add that either I haven't seen said elsewhere in just this way or that I think deserves even more emphasis and proclamation.
I see an interesting duality in the CHI arguments. I'm not actually saying that the same people exhibit both sides of this. I suppose it's possible that I'm seeing different "schools" of thought among the CHIs and their fellow travelers and apologists. But the tension is worth noting. On the one hand, I see a kind of psychological blindness that tries to turn erotic attraction into appreciation or some other non-erotic feeling in order to ask what could possibly be wrong with it and why it couldn't be a good thing. On the other hand, I see an insistence that there is some peculiar phenomenological experience of erotic attraction which homosexuals experience, which we anti-CHI people apparently just don't "get," and which would we would see as a good candidate for approval as part of a positive identity if we just understood it.
The former tendency is visible in Matthew Lee Anderson's rather psychologically dense response to Owen Strachan. To begin with, though, a couple of quotations from Strachan on what's wrong with the CHI theory:
Being “gay” is nothing other than feeling a pattern of desires for homosexual activity. This is what it means to be a gay or a lesbian. You are attracted to the same sex. Being gay is not wanting friendship with the same sex; it is not having a powerful interest in companionship that is non-sexual in nature. Being “gay” is by definition attractional. It means that you experience same-sex attraction (SSA) and want to commit homosexual acts.
There are many other components to people who experience such attractions. They might like literature, they might love close friendship, they might yearn for spiritual intimacy, they might enjoy mountain-climbing, they might love great coffee, they might prefer classic rock, they might have a strong desire to travel the world. Like all people, believers with SSA have myriad interests. They are people. They are not a different species. Their “gayness,” however, has nothing to do with such interests. It has everything to do with experiencing same-sex attraction.
It is nonsensical to say, in other words, that a person is “gay” but doesn’t mean by such a designation anything about sexual desire or practice. If same-sex attraction is sinful, and the Bible says from numerous texts that it is, then this means in turn that being “gay” is not morally neutral. One is only gay if one experiences same-sex attraction. SSA is evil. Like heterosexual lust, drunkenness, jealousy, and 1,000 other sins, it is a result of the fall.
So here we see the distinction that must be drawn between heterosexual attraction or interest and homosexual attraction or interest. Heterosexual interest is God-glorifying. It is right in terms of God’s creational purposes for men, in general, to have an interest in women–to be drawn to them in some way. [snip] The same is not true for homosexual interest; there is nothing creationally right about it. The woman was made for the man, as Genesis 2:18 shows.
Strachan is asserting a fundamental asymmetry between homosexuality and heterosexuality and is saying that there is nothing good about distinctively homosexual attraction.
Strachan's position seems to me like the barest, most basic common sense from a morally traditional perspective, not to mention a Christian perspective. But Matthew Lee Anderson replies:
Strachan introduces new terms here, ‘attraction’ and ‘interest’, which he had not previously defined. Those terms allow him to create an asymmetry between “heterosexual attraction” and “homosexual attraction” in a way that I don’t think is justified. For Strachan, ‘attraction’ seems to be functioning in a proto-sexual kind of way: men are ‘attracted to’ women as a class of people, even if they might sexually desire individuals. Now, that may be true of men “in general”, or as a general class. But it’s hard to know what it means for any particular male to be ‘attracted to’ women as a general class of people, especially if that ‘attraction’ is not yet a sexual attraction or desire.
It is difficult for me to read this and not feel moved to facetious incredulity. Really, Anderson cannot for the life of him figure out what Strachan means by "attraction" which is "functioning in a proto-sexual way"? He doesn't know what it means for any particular male to be attracted to women as a general class of people even if that particular male is not right now sexually desiring some particular woman? Gosh, yes, that's so difficult. Okay, not really. Maybe only for aliens, angels, other asexual beings, or people who have never been young teens and just starting to "notice" members of the opposite sex. Most of us who are adults, at least, understand extremely well what it means to speak of an attraction to a class of others which is, to use Anderson's term, "proto-sexual" but which is not lust or sexual fantasy per se. In fact, such an attraction, when it is heterosexual, is part of the whole cultural background of the West. It has given rise to chivalry. In a really ideal circumstance, such proto-sexual attraction develops naturally into innocent heterosexual romance and courtship and thence into marriage and the fullness of sexual desire and fulfillment without ever becoming sordid.
Those of us who do not suffer from Anderson's curious blind spot about what Strachan is discussing are therefore in a position to affirm Strachan's point: There is nothing corresponding to this heterosexual attraction on the homosexual side which is a good thing. Homosexual and lesbian attraction, even if not involving actual lustful thoughts and fantasies, is from the perspective of natural law an ersatz. Unlike heterosexual attraction, it has no rightful telos. It is not a sign of innocent and beautiful maturing towards the sexual pairing that God has designed for man.
For an adult heterosexual, attraction, if focused on and meditated on with regard to some particular person, is fairly likely to turn into unequivocal sexual desire, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on whether or not you are married to that person! The same progress of feeling is likely with respect to same-sex attraction to a particular person, if focused on and dwelt upon. Heterosexual attraction, as Strachan is using the word, is not immoral in itself, but it is a sign of the sexual nature of men and women, and hence, if taken in the wrong direction, it can be a gateway to something wrong. If taken only in a good direction, it can be a positive force (e.g., if the nice old man opens the door and tips his hat to the pretty girl, while smiling at her with an appreciative eye, or if the young man courts a girl), but only because it is a sign of how things really are--of the natural complementarity of the sexes. Homosexual attraction cannot, in the nature of things, be a sign of how things really are sexually, which is why Strachan draws a contrast and urges homosexuals not to make an identity out of their attractions. Daniel Mattson, in his various pieces on this subject, also emphasizes the fact that identifying oneself as "gay" is a rejection of the reality of human sexual nature as designed by God. But if we pretend, like Anderson, that the concept of attraction is an opaque one, then we can't even discuss why this is so.
On the other side, there is Eve Tushnet, who, unlike Anderson, is quite clear that she does know what erotic attraction is. Her perspective is that, as long as it is not lustful, such attraction on the homosexual side should be seen as a motivation for good actions, neutral in itself, and hence as potentially positive. Here is a fairly clear passage by Tushnet about what she means by eros.
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.” [snip] 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.
Here is another, similar quotation from Tushnet:
I’d suggest that there’s also something uniquely lovely about homosexual love, insofar as through love, one’s sexual… compatriot? likeness? whatever is not “self” nor “Other” but “similar”… becomes an Other. Eros is the complete union of two beings who nonetheless remain distinct, remain Other to one another; this is why heterosexual union is such a frequent Jewish and Christian symbol for the union of God and Israel or humankind. My experience of lesbian love is that it tends to draw out and heighten the ways in which the beloved is Other, or even transform her into Other, so that she can be the target of love. This is perhaps a rebuttal to the criticism that homosexuality is narcissism. Nonetheless, it is clearly a different form of eros than the heterosexual form, in which metaphysical Otherness is iconically represented by physical, sexual difference.
In a Facebook dispute about the CHI theory, one of my interlocutors suggested to me that my opposition was a result of the fact that I hadn't bothered to understand what Tushnet (as an example) means by eros and that, being heterosexual, I just have no idea what it's like to have the feelings Tushnet describes and wishes to sanctify. But actually, I think I can read those passages as well as anyone else and understand pretty well what Tushnet is saying. I suppose I could wish that she wouldn't use what sounds vaguely like literary jargon ("the Other," and so forth), but she's not actually obscure. And what she is describing is quite clearly proto-sexual. (I should thank the otherwise dense Anderson for that useful term.) Presumably Tushnet agrees with me there, which is why she describes it as eros!
In fact, in this further passage, though it really is a little obscure, Tushnet seems to come close to acknowledging that homosexual eros as she experiences it is contrary to the real nature of things:
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.”
Yeah, something like that. Or as Mattson would tell us, identifying oneself with one's homosexual desires involves denying the reality of human sexual nature as God has created it.
So, again, why is Tushnet trying to "baptize" this eros and insist that it forms the core of a positive identity for Christians?
Presumably the reason arises from her rejection of the view that, as she puts it, "Everything you do which is influenced by your lesbianism is tainted." Tushnet regards that position as utterly absurd because she can remember (or imagine) nursing another woman through an illness "in part because [she] loved or was attracted to her." Now, this is an extremely odd implied argument. It seems to be implying that, if the attraction in question was a partial motivation for good and selfless acts, then that attraction cannot be regarded as "tainted." Why should we think that? That is not even true on the level of heterosexual romance. A man might nurse his mistress through an illness in part because he romantically loved and was attracted to her. But his romantic love for her would undeniably be tainted by the fact that they were having an affair. His feelings of attraction for her have developed into romantic love for her, which he should not be indulging even as an emotion.
If that is true of a heterosexual relationship, it is all the more true of proto-sexual feelings and romantic feelings when they are intrinsically unnatural.
It's strange that Tushnet should respond so strongly and derisively to so mild a word as "tainted." If she had suggested that those who "use the intrinsically disordered language" take the position that everything connected with her lesbianism is utterly and deeply evil, and then countered that one might do a good act motivated in part by feelings of lesbian attraction, one could accuse her of straw manning. But since she doesn't create that straw man, it is hard to see why the position as she characterizes it--that everything motivated even in part by her lesbian feelings is tainted--should be so "hilarious" and so obviously false. In fact, it seems to me that such a position hits just the right balance: There might be good things that are in some sense connected with unnatural affections, but that doesn't mean that those unnatural affections should be treated as an identity!
I find it interesting to note that, while Anderson implies that the allegedly good aspects of homosexual identity (friendship, appreciation of beauty, and the like) can be completely separated from anything erotic, Tushnet states just the opposite: She indicates quite clearly that sexual desire cannot be "easily tweezed away from nonsexual longing and love and adoration," and that is precisely why she wants to make a positive "gay Christian" identity! Anderson and Tushnet cannot both be right on this point, and I think it's pretty clear that Tushnet is right that the feelings in question are indeed related to sexual desire. After all, why in the world would anyone call this a "gay identity" if it really were just identical to something that any entirely heterosexual person might experience vis a vis a member of the same sex?
So the response to the CHIs needs to be, "Yes, we do understand what you are describing, and no, that isn't the kind of thing that can be the core of a positive identity. That's because, even without actual lust, it is clearly the wrong kind of attraction, an attraction that does not arise from sexual identity as God intended it to be."
Now I want to venture an argument that is sure to offend, but I think it is a point that the CHIs and their apologists should be mature enough to confront without getting angry. (This, by the way, is a point that Ruse has made. If we're supposed to be having a "conversation" about all of this, why are the CHIs supposed to be treated with kid gloves, with their defenders acting like anyone who argues with them is being mean? Aren't they sufficiently mature and intelligent people to engage in serious conversation and to handle calmly stated criticism? One hopes so, at any rate, and from what I've seen, I'm rather inclined to think so. Eve Tushnet, for example, does not strike me as the sort of person who is going to freak out, get hurt and offended, and start calling you a hater because you made an argument she disagreed with. Sometimes it seems that the CHIs' defenders are more immature and oversensitive than they are.)
If it really is possible to acknowledge that homosexual acts are absolutely wrong but to consider the feelings of attraction that are related to homosexual acts (as heterosexual attraction is related to heterosexual acts) to be the core of a good identity because they motivate good actions, why should this not be the case for pedophilia as well? I know, of course, that the first and angry response will be "Because consent." But remember, we are not talking about acts here nor even about fantasizing about acts. We are supposedly not even talking about lust. We are talking about that further experience of attraction, of what Tushnet calls eros, of thinking of the person as the Other and being drawn to that person as the Other, in a special kind of erotic adoration. Now, we don't generally think that anybody has to consent to having somebody else experience those sorts of generally erotic feelings! If a man appreciates the beauty of a woman, without actual lust, but in a distinctively heterosexual way, if a boy blushes over a girl, if a woman says to herself, "That is one good-looking man!" nobody says that the other person had to consent to that appreciation and attraction! It would be ridiculous. Moreover, if those sorts of feelings can motivate actually good actions, as Tushnet imagines, and if that possibility sanctifies the feelings, as it were, then why could that not be the case for pedophilia? I can easily translate all of the CHI arguments into a pedophilia version: "I'm not lusting over these children at all, but my special pedophile identity causes me to have a special sense of adoration for them and attraction to them as the Other, and that is part of what motivates me to help them when they are in trouble and to befriend them." Again, it is not necessary for children to consent to be helped, and anyone can attempt to start a friendship with a child that is intended entirely for the benefit of the child. One can even imagine that a person who experiences feelings of pedophilia might, as a Christian, genuinely desire to help children and genuinely be able to do so, without any sexual activities whatsoever. So, if such a person stated that he was motivated in doing these good things by his eros, in exact parallel to what Tushnet says, why should he not make a positive identity out of his pedophilia? Yelling "consent" does not really answer this argument.
It is even easier to make this argument in response to Anderson's rather psychologically clueless discussion, since Anderson apparently thinks the CHIs can have it both ways--they can completely tweeze the noble and innocent aspects of their feelings away from anything illicit (such as sexual desire for the same sex) while continuing to refer to the result as a "gay identity." Well, in that case, why should a Christian pedophile not do the same?!
This whole problem arises from the attempt to take something that is perverse and unnatural and turn it into a positive good. That's just not a good idea, and as far as I can tell the only motivation for doing so in the case of "gay Christians" is that some people--both the CHIs and their apologists--don't want to face the hard truth that to do so is to make an identity out of perversion. Let's face it: "Perversion" is just another way of saying "objectively disordered," yet I have actually seen some Christians attempt to come up with some squirrelly definition of "objectively disordered" that is compatible with making homosexuality a positive identity! That is a circle that cannot be squared. You cannot make a positive identity out of a perversion, and that's flat. But if you think that you can make a positive identity out of a perversion, there is no reason in principle not to play exactly the same kinds of psychological and semantic games with pedophilia, given the insistence that the resulting identity includes a rejection of both sexual acts and sexual lust.
A point that has been on my mind for a long time and which Mattson's critique of the CHIs implies: Christian opposition to the homosexual agenda is supposed to be based on the natural law and the natural light. It is not just a matter of "God said it's wrong, so I guess it's wrong." Opposition to homosexual acts is not like a Jew's telling another Jew that it is wrong to eat pork because it is against God's commandments to Jews in kosher law. But if we turn homosexual identity into a positive thing, we are getting very close to rejecting the natural law opposition to homosexual acts. If the acts are wrong because of the natural law, not just because of an arbitrary declaration by God, then it should go without saying that the same-sex erotic attraction itself, yes, even apart from actually lusting or fantasizing, is part of the entire unnatural package. Why in the world would anyone think otherwise? Conversely, if homosexual eros is not unnatural but homosexual acts are wrong, then it seems that the acts themselves are wrong not because the male-male or female-female sexual orientation is inherently unnatural but just because, for reasons somewhat obscure, God has forbidden them.
This is an extremely dangerous position. I would go so far as to say that it is rhetorically impossible, even if not strictly logically impossible, to affirm the CHI position while simultaneously holding that homosexuality is contrary to the natural law. But if we Christians and other social conservatives abandon the natural law argument against homosexuality, then we have just given away the store. We are essentially agreeing, then, that we really are just trying to "impose our religion" on other people, because the only reason for not treating homosexual pairings as fine and normal is a narrowly religious reason--a divine command.
In addition to this, I foresee some very bad consequences for Christians and churches, and hence for society at large, arising from acceptance of the CHI perspective. Here is a probably not exhaustive list:
--As churches, led by the CHI perspective, try to be more gay-friendly, the line will be blurred in the perception of ordinary Christians as to whether the churches are actually saying that homosexual acts are wrong at all. Being "gay friendly" will be highly ambiguous, causing false teaching and understanding to thrive even in the areas where CHIs themselves are expressly orthodox.
--As churches and Christians encourage homosexuals to be "out" and affirm that there is a positive homosexual identity, it will become harder and harder to maintain in the minds of Christians the strong conviction and understanding that homosexuality is contrary to nature. (This point and the previous one are made by Brian Patrick Mitchell in an article in the most recent issue of Touchstone.)
--It is likely that allegedly Christian homosexual couples will sometimes live together, leaving it ambiguous at best as to whether they are engaging in sexual intercourse. They and/or their supporters will blame as "dirty-minded" and "nosy" any Christians who imply that this is an unwise idea, a bad example, and a cause of scandal. This will be, in fact, a grave cause of scandal.
--More Christian young people, going through a time of transient sexual confusion, will identify as "gay," following the CHI example, when some proportion of those young people would otherwise have resolved their temporary sexual confusions in a heterosexual direction and gone on to live normal heterosexual lives. (Another point I owe to Mitchell. This is a tragedy when it happens, by the way.)
--The transsexual agenda will cause severe chaos in churches that try to be welcoming, because trying to be "gay friendly" under CHI influence will have caused Christians to adopt the alphabet soup approach, using phrases like "the GLBT community," and to say that they are also trying to accept the "Ts," without any clear thought as to what a mess that will cause. (Examples: Does being accepting of Ts mean accepting that they really are what they say they are? Will a church trying to be accepting welcome a biological male on a women's retreat? If a trans "male" is legally wed to a trans "female," will a church that claims to be biblical and orthodox regard them as actually married? If parents in the church are teaching their five-year-old boy that he is actually a girl, will they be subject to church discipline for doing so? These questions are almost endless once we say that we want to welcome and accept transgender people qua transgender people.)
--Under the CHI influence, those with same-sex attraction will actively seek out and foster emotionally intense friendships with those to whom they are erotically attracted. This will include others who also have same-sex attraction. To avoid such emotionally intense friendships with those to whom one is attracted as near occasions of sin, and to avoid scenarios such as being completely private or even living with a friend in such a relationship, would be regarded as rejecting one's positive "gay identity." Under the influence of CHIs, such counsel is unlikely to be given or heeded, with predictable consequences in a certain proportion of cases.
--CHIs themselves, however genuinely holy and spiritually mature they might be and might become in a variety of ways, will block the actions of grace in the sexual area of their lives just to the extent that they attempt to square the circle and see their unnatural orientation as a positive part of their identity. Since this view is false, and since it concerns one's very identity, it is inevitable that it will have negative spiritual consequences for those who hold it about themselves. (This is a point that Mattson emphasizes about himself, since he suffers from SSA. He wants to be open to God's healing him in this area even in this life, not hold on to what he rightly regards as a disability as if it were a necessary part of his identity.)
Ideas have consequences. This is why, even at the cost of being thought uncharitable or insufficiently appreciative, we must continue to disagree with the CHIs.