Apparently, the most popular way to argue against homosexuality these days is to compare it to alcoholism. Seriously. I have been hearing this a lot lately. A representative version of this argument goes something like this: “just as we wouldn’t encourage an alcoholic to act out her desires to drink alcohol excessively, neither should we encourage a young person to act out their desires to have gay sex. Gay people need love, but affirming their decision to engage in gay sex is not love.”
Now, at first glance, this argument may seem to have a lot going for it: it appears to employ traditional Catholic language about virtue and human flourishing and it appears to be motivated primarily by compassion for gay people. But, unfortunately, the comparison between homosexuality and alcoholism fails on almost every level: it fails as a comparison and it fails as an argument against homosexuality.
First of all, alcoholism, as we currently understand it, and homosexuality, as we (even the magisterium) understand it, really have nothing in common descriptively.
One, while genetic and environmental factors certainly predispose certain individuals to become alcoholics, no one, not even the most genetically and environmentally at-risk person, can become an alcoholic if they never take a drink of alcohol. This of course is not true for homosexuals. One does not become a homosexual only upon having homosexual sex. People typically experience themselves to be gay prior to and independently of engaging in homosexual sex. In fact, there are people who have never engaged in homosexual sex, either by choice (some priests and nuns, for example) or by circumstance, who still know themselves to be gay. But why would anyone who has never taken a sip of alcohol consider herself to be an alcoholic? If someone did do this, we would tell her that she was mistaken; quite simply, what she would say about herself would make no sense to us.
Two, while the mix of behavioral, genetic, and environmental/social factors that cause one to become an alcoholic is certainly complex and even somewhat mysterious (why was the frat boy who drank abusively all through college able to quit drinking and become a responsible adult while the woman from a healthy family who was for years only a social drinker eventually become an alcoholic later in life?), it is nonetheless true that one becomes an alcoholic only by drinking. Even in the case of the extremely at risk person who seeming became an alcoholic upon the first taste of his first drink, alcoholism occurs via a process of habituation: one becomes what one does. Moreover, the more immoderately one drinks, the more likely one is to become an alcoholic.
But, of course, this is not the case for homosexuality. One not only does not become gay by having gay sex but also those who have a large amount of gay sex are not more likely than those who have only a moderate amount of gay sex to become gay. A woman who is exclusively heterosexual as an adult will not be “at risk” for becoming a lesbian if she spends the next decade of her life having as much gay sex as possible. Spending a decade getting drunk several times a week, however, will put most anyone at high risk of becoming an alcoholic. (The case of sexual fluidity is no exception: sexual fluidity is just as un-chosen and unpredictable as sexual stability).
The high failure rate of programs designed to turn gays straight demonstrates that the opposite is also true: gay people cannot become straight by having sex with someone of the opposite sex. (If you are heterosexual and you doubt this, then I challenge you to commit yourself to a prolonged process of passionate love-making with as many people of the same-sex as you can. If, at the end of it, you find yourself to have become gay, then I will concede rhetorical victory to you; if you are still straight, then will you promise to stop supporting ex-gay “therapies?”). However, although in clinical terms a recovering alcoholic is still an alcoholic, it is true that it is possible to cease drinking through a process of re-habituation in a way that it is not in the case of sexual orientation.
Third, while the magisterium of course believes “homosexual acts” (whatever those are) to be immoral, it believes that homosexuality itself is morally neutral. In other words, merely experiencing oneself to be constitutively attracted to members of the same sex is not in itself a sin. However, this is not how we think of alcoholism, is it? The fact that alcoholism is a disease that eventually robs the alcoholic of control does not mean that we do not think the alcoholic bears some measure of moral responsibility for becoming an alcoholic. (Of course, it is probably true that the amount of moral blame which should be placed on individual alcoholics for their condition will vary significantly: we would probably consider the child who suffered vicious abuse and turned to alcohol to numb the pain of having to prostitute herself in order to survive less culpable than other alcoholics whose abusive drinking stemmed from character flaws like selfishness or vanity).
Nonetheless, almost every alcoholic will have made choices that contributed to their becoming an alcoholic that we would consider to be morally blameworthy. And, at a minimum, every alcoholic will have made choices that were essential to their becoming an alcoholic, even if these choices were not morally blameworthy. But we can’t (and don’t) say either of these things about lesbians and gays. Even the magisterium doesn’t: it believes that homosexuality is of “mysterious origin” that seemingly comes down out of the sky and afflicts the homosexual at random.
Fourth, in contrast to gay sex, people can drink alcohol without sinning. (Hey, even Jesus drank wine!). What makes drinking sinful is its immoderation, its excess. And how do we know when drinking is excessive? When it causes harm to the drinker or to those in the drinker’s life and when it impairs the drinker’s ability to be her or his best self. But, according to the magisterium, even one act of gay sex is grievously immoral: it is impossible to have a moderate, and therefore virtuous, amount of gay sex. If the magisterium thought of alcohol like it thought of gay sex, it would be calling on Catholics to be teetotalers.
Fifth, an alcoholic drinks alcohol compulsively while a homosexual does not necessarily (that is, by definition) engage in gay sex compulsively. Yes, it is true that sexual desire is a very strong drive that can lead people to do all sorts of crazy things, but the sex drive does not rob us of free will and good judgment the way addiction does. An alcoholic will choose alcohol over everything, even when they don’t necessarily want to. They will pledge to have only one drink but somehow end up having ten. Very few people are literally incapable of “keeping it in their pants,” however. Very few people miss birthdays of loved ones to have spontaneous sex or lose their jobs or families because they were too busy having sex.
These second set of reasons, however, are the biggest reasons why this comparison fails as an argument against gay and lesbian sexuality: quite simply, while sexually active gays and lesbians can flourish (in fact, their sexuality contributes to their flourishing), alcoholism makes flourishing impossible. At worst, alcoholism destroys lives. At best, we can say that anything that is worth doing can be done better when one is not an alcoholic.
Even the romanticized case of the drug and alcohol-using artist proves the point: while it seems anecdotally true that some great pieces of music and art have been created while the author was under the influence of a given substance, history has also demonstrated that these artists would have reached even higher levels of artistic greatness had they been able simply to use the substances in questions without becoming addicted to them. But, it is overwhelmingly obvious to anyone willing to really look at and listen to lesbians and gays and to those who love them that lesbians and gays who are allowed to express their sexuality are not only subjectively happier, but also objectively better at the things that it is good for human beings to excel at than those who are compelled to a life of celibacy even though they lack the vocation for it.
Similarly, while there is currently great debate in the academic world about whether there really is a unity of the virtues (meaning, if one is habitually immoral in one area, say, one is selfish, will this have a type of cascade effect, resulting in the person being vicious in many or all areas), alcoholism is one area in which the vices, at least, do seem to be tied together. Drinking alcohol immoderately and habitually (which is the definition of a vice) causes the alcoholic to acquire all sorts of other vices, either as a result of the vice of abusive drinking or in order to support this vice. If the virtues are an intricately knitted sweater, alcoholism is like pulling a snagged thread until the entire thing comes undone. Alcoholism leads to lying, violence, laziness, social irresponsibility, promiscuity, injustice, inability to love and be in relationship to others and it also often causes the alcoholic to neglect her bodily health. But, again, even the magisterium, which, in insisting that homosexuals are often “generous and giving of themselves”, does not think that a person who engages in gay sex will thereby become vicious in other areas of his life.
So, as you can see, alcoholism and homosexuality really have nothing in common. While encouraging an alcoholic person to seek treatment (not to mention supporting her through it), is certainly an act of compassion and often of courage, trying to pressure a lesbian or gay person into a life of sexual alienation is not.