Earlier this month, the Jesuit magazine America published an interview with lesbian Catholic blogger Eve Tushnet.
More than just an uncommonly gifted writer, Tushnet also tells an unconventional conversion story. She is proudly gay and unafraid to call the church out on its homophobia, but resolutely committed to living within the limits of the church’s teaching on homosexuality.
While affirming magisterial teaching on homosexuality as the truth, Tushnet describes her choice to “accept her sexuality” as
“being honest about where you’re coming from, what you’re experiencing, where your sexual desires are being directed, and not feeling that this area of your life is somehow shut off from God or turned away from God in a way that the rest of your life isn’t. It means not separating out your sexuality and your sexual orientation by saying they need to be repressed or destroyed in some way.”
But, I argue, if the magisterium speaks the truth when it classifies sexual relationships between people of the same sex as unconditionally evil, then this is exactly what homosexual women and men ought to do, seek to eradicate their orientation towards what the magisterium classifies as the categorical evil of gay sex.
While Tushnet strives to prove the church’s teaching on homosexuality both true and liveable, she actually ends up demonstrating its deep incoherence.
To make this argument, I turn to Thomistic virtue theory, a moral framework used by Catholic theologians and bishops for centuries. It helps explain why, if gay sex is evil, then so is the desire for gay sex. And if the desire for gay sex is evil, then so is making the desire for gay sex a constitutive part of one’s personality.
Thomistic virtue theory describes the relationship between actions, habits, and character. We become what we do and we do what we are. Good people do good things just as people become good by doing good. The best way to do good deeds is to build good habits.
According to Thomas Aquinas, our thoughts and internal desires also qualify as morally consequential. While a person surely can do the right thing even when she does not want to, she is much more likely to act rightly when she derives pleasure from goodness.
But because virtue theory cares about not just what we do, but also who we are, it recognizes that our thoughts and desires possess more than merely instrumental importance. Rightly ordered thoughts and desires are good in and of themselves. A good person does not merely do the right thing; she both desires to do the right thing and she takes pleasure in acting rightly. Goodness involves more than just what we do.
This allows us to identify moral goodness as a hierarchy that encompasses the entire human person. A person who does the right thing but does not derive pleasure from it is just not as good as a person who does the right thing and enjoys doing so. Inversely, a person who refrains from committing evil but derives deep pleasure at thought of inflicting evil also falls short of virtue. Of course, the one who commits evil and loves it ranks dead last.
Here theory conforms to commonsense notions of goodness. For example, while we surely believe it better for a person to refrain from indulging their appetite for inflicting pain and suffering on animals, we would still consider it quite immoral and disturbing that a person would derive pleasure from thinking about the suffering of sentient beings. We certainly would not classify this condition as morally blameless like the magisterium does homosexuality. No, we would want a person who derives pleasure from the thought of torturing animals to purge herself of these desires. We certainly would not want that person to “accept” her affinity for torture. Even less would we think she should celebrate this desire as a constituent part of her personality. Nor would we allow her to categorize her orientation towards torture as a conduit to God as Tushnet does.
When thinkers like Tushnet contend that we ought to condemn sexual relationships between people of the same sex as unconditionally evil while accepting gayness as an identity, they act like one who calls the torture of animals categorically evil but proclaims the desire to torture animals morally good.
But as my brief overview of the uncontroversial tenets of virtue theory demonstrates, it is evil to find evil pleasurable or desirable. A lesbian, by definition, possesses a constitutive and predominant sexual attraction to other women and not men. And what else is sexual attraction except a desire to experience sexual closeness with another person? Even when experiencing merely the rush of arousal at the sight of a gorgeous stranger, the body preps for sex. Strip away everything related to the desire for sexual relationship with another woman and “lesbian” dissolves as a coherent identity.
If the magisterium speaks the truth about human sexuality, then even celibate lesbians form their identity around a desire and affinity for evil.
If gay sex always qualifies as evil, then so does the desire to engage in it. If a woman finds herself deriving pleasure from the thought of sexual contact with the bodies and beings of other women, she ought to react to these thoughts just as you or I would if we suddenly started fantasizing about torturing a poor little bunny rabbit.
We would be horrified and alarmed. We would seek to eradicate these thoughts from our minds as soon as possible. We would recognize them as an incitement to sin. We surely should not accept these thoughts as a constituent part of our personalities.
Even if a woman begins fantasizing about the torture of animals through no fault of her own, her orientation towards animal-torture undoubtedly becomes morally culpable the moment she ceases believing them evil.
So too with sexual orientation. Even if a person acquires the desire for gay sex through innocent happenstance, she retains and cultivates these malignant desires only if she chooses to. As gay and lesbian people know all too well, one comes out of the closet through a struggle born out of a resolute and long-deliberated choice.
So, can one be gay and Catholic? Well, surely. But gayness cannot be good as a sexual identity but bad as a sexual activity. Virtue just does not work that way.
Tushnet rightly calls on the church to make room for its lesbian and gay members. But perhaps lesbian and gay Catholics struggle to find a home within ordinary Catholic parishes because there is no place for them in the pages of magisterial teaching.
The magisterium tells lesbians and gays to be but do not do. But, if one should not do, then neither should one be.
A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing.
Pre-emptive Post Script: And no, homosexuality is not like alcoholism.