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Discussing homosexuality debate

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, November 6, 2003

Over the past year, a large number of columns and letters have been written on the subject of homosexuality. It is with some hesitation that I add to that number.

However, I think I can safely say that my contribution to the discussion will be different in at least one respect because I’m not going to tell you what I think.

Really, it’s better this way. Our views on homosexuality are based upon a whole range of deep assumptions about morality, human nature and the authority – or lack of it – of the Bible and the Church. An 800-word opinion piece is not going to change your mind. But the columns and the letters keep coming in, and I doubt I am the only person who has wondered what those who write them are hoping to achieve.

The arguments usually fall into one of two categories: those that aren’t really arguments at all, but rather cocktails of assertion and invective, and those that really are arguments, but not good ones.

Leaving aside the bald assertions that “homosexuality is wrong” the majority of arguments made for that position are appeals to scripture or the teaching of the Church. But letters to the editor are not a good medium for arguments establishing the authority of scripture or scriptural exegesis.

Similarly, at least since the emergence of widespread dissent on the issue of artificial contraception, many Catholics have ceased to believe that the Church has the authority to tell them what to do in their sexual lives. Whatever one thinks about the legitimacy of this dissent, the issue won’t be settled in this column, or on these pages.

The argument that homosexuals tend to be more promiscuous than heterosexuals is irrelevant to moral issue. We should – and usually do – judge individuals by their own behavior, not the statistics for the groups to which they belong. If a study came out showing that the English were, on average, more promiscuous than the French, I don’t see why I should be concerned – though I might be a little surprised.

Turning to the arguments on the other side, again we find little that will persuade those who do not already agree. Earlier in this semester, a student wrote in these pages that a God who gave people a homosexual orientation but who forbid them to act upon their sexual inclinations would be “objectively inconsistent.”

But surely we do believe that some people – pedophiles, to give the most obvious example – have sexual inclinations on which it would be wrong to act? Indeed, if we consistently held the view that God would not give us desires on which it was wrong to act, we would have trouble explaining why he would have given us the moral law at all. The Church has traditionally avoided this problem by saying that not all of our desires are in fact God given. The doctrine is called Original Sin.

No, I didn’t just compare homosexuality with pedophilia.

I won’t get into the issue of whether homosexuality is genetic or cultural or a combination of both in origin. That too is irrelevant to the moral issue. The mistake is to equate this question with the issue of whether or not a homosexual has any choice over his sexual orientation. But if orientation were determined by events in early childhood then it would not follow that a person had any more choice over his orientation than if it was genetic.

As to the recent exchange between correspondents trying to settle the issue on scientific grounds, I think the most recent position that was taken was this: The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals is biased and should be ignored because it produces statements saying that homosexuality is a disorder; instead we should trust the American Psychology Association when it says that homosexuality is not a disorder because the APA is unbiased. Also, NARTH is a small organization full of crackpots, but the APA has 161,000 members, and 161,000 psychologists can’t be wrong. Well, they were wrong until 1973 of course, but they can’t be wrong now.

Clearly we aren’t going to get very far this way.

At least for the foreseeable future, there is no chance that the debate over homosexuality will go away, but perhaps it could go better. The letters calling for understanding, tolerance and respect get the words right, but go wrong by suggesting that anyone who possessed those virtues would by necessity agree with the letter writer.

Typically, they also err in equating respect with approval. Sometimes we show respect to someone by disagreeing with them. But it is hard to see this in debates about sexuality, because we – heterosexuals and homosexuals alike – are taught to think of our sexuality as central to our very identity, the key to who we are. This (questionable) assumption is shared by many on both sides of the debate and accounts for the passion and pain that accompanies the arguments.

The debate can and must continue, but I for one doubt whether this page is the best forum for it do so.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in philosophy. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.