Where’s Nature in Natural Law?

Desert Blossom

I don’t often have “aha” moments of insight, but I did the other day. It occurred to me that much of organized religion’s arguments against the rights of LGBT people to live full and complete lives as God created us — including lives that include sexual expressions of love — are often connected with a loose understanding of Natural Law theory.  I say “loose,” because I think that Natural Law theory — properly understood — has lots of room and possibility within it to come to different conclusions about homosexuality. In its crudest sense, Natural Law theory claims that what is natural is also universal, and that a proper understanding of “human nature” is what governs human life and activity, including moral activity.

My “insight” was simply this:  if there were more Nature in Natural Law, then perhaps the mistake wouldn’t be made of placing general and abstract principles above specific, concrete individuals.  The notion of “flower” exists precisely as that — as a notion, an idea.  It doesn’t really exist in the concrete such that it can be pointed to, described, or experienced in the here-and-now.  What does exist is this flower and that flower and those flowers over there.  Similarly, “the human person” only exists as a notion and an idea to help aid in understanding ourselves.  But any conclusion about “the human person” as an idea must always, always, always give way to the reality of you or me or any other individual human person.  Abstractions about “the human person” can indeed help us understand those things that are at the core of what it means to be  human, but if the the list of those things becomes such that fewer and fewer of us see ourselves as thus described, then the list needs to stop.

When the lived, concrete experience of living, breathing people becomes subordinate to an abstract notion of what it means to be a man or a woman or a person, then our thinking has taken a wrong turn and we need to return to the drawing board of Nature.

After all, isn’t it in Nature that we find what is Natural?!

Always Our Children — 15 Years Ago Today

Fifteen years ago today the Catholic Bishops of the United States had one of their brighter moments in recent history.  On September 10, 1997, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB) published Always Our Children, A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers (and available from the USCCB bookstore here).

As the title indicates, this document was addressed not to gays and lesbians directly, but rather to the parents of “homosexual children” and to pastoral ministers.  Nonetheless, it marked a significant milestone in presenting a more positive understanding of God’s gay children, standing squarely on the side of respect for the full human dignity of gay and lesbian people. It even addressed the issue of persons living with HIV/AIDS, stating unequivocally (as the times demanded), “…we reject the idea that HIV/AIDS is a direct punishment from God.”

Sadly, the intervening years since this publication have not seen the hoped-for progress that LGBT Catholics continue to pray for.  May the recognition of this important anniversary reinvigorate our prayers that one day soon, leaders of our Church may — like the man whose ears were opened in the Gospel story from yesterday’s liturgy — be able to hear the stories of their LGBT brothers and sisters and learn from the loving and faith-filled experiences of our lives how the Living God is alive and well, doing wondrous deeds even today.

“We are called by name, not by category”

That is the closing line in theologian James Alison’s response to a question about same-sex marriage. A gay man, priest and former Dominican who describes his current canonical status as “anomalous,” Alison responds to questions about his thoughts on a variety of issues about the hierarchy’s teaching about homosexuality. The Commonweal magazine interview is definitely worth a read, but requires some distraction-free time to take it in fully.

There’s a lot to take away; here are a few things that jumped out at me:

On forms of idolatry:

Spending time, as I do, with people on both sides of the Reformation divide, I find strict parallels between the temptations to which either side is prone. Protestantism is tempted to bibliolatry, and Catholicism is tempted to ecclesiolatry. Both are forms of idolatry that involve some sort of grasping of security where it is not to be found. This grasping ends up by evacuating the object grasped (whether the Bible or the church) of meaning, turning it instead into a projection of the one grasping. The nonidolatrous approach is when we allow ourselves to be reached and held by a living act of communication from One who is not on the same level as either Bible or church, but of whose self-disclosure those realities can most certainly become signs.

In response to the question: “Are there things that Catholics who support your view on homosexuality do that drive you crazy?

Such things [many kinds of protests and demonstrations] feed ecclesiastical delusions of holy victimhood. They effectively give church leaders an excuse to put off the slow, humble task of beginning to imagine forms of truthfulness of speech.

From my experience, I would add to this the casual, frequent, and not apparently thought-through attempts at re-defining core elements of Catholic faith and practice that occur in some circles. In particular, the areas of sacrament and liturgical practice — largely because it’s what most of us DO as Catholics — seems sadly subject to this.

On the distinction between the institutional Church’s condemnation of homosexual acts as “disordered,” but not the condemnation of homosexual persons as persons:

This does seem to me somewhat of a Ptolemaic discussion in a Copernican universe. Of course there is a notional distinction between talking about what someone is, and talking about what someone does. The question is not “Does the notional distinction exist?” but “What use is being made of the fact that such a distinction can be formulated?” When the distinction is made in the discussion of gay people to which you refer, it is subservient to a conviction brought in from elsewhere—that of the objectively disordered nature of the inclination….

…it seems to me quite patent that here we have an unwieldy bid to fit a reality into an acceptable framework, rather than learning from reality how to adjust a now unreliable framework…

And finally, as a closing thought to where things currently stand in the institutional Catholic Church and where we might be headed in the years again, given what we have:

Until all this is resolved, people like me find ourselves, I guess, muddling along in this messy transitional period in the life of the church, resting in Our Lord’s good cheer!