Authentic Freedom and the Homosexual Person | Dr. Mark Lowery | IgnatiusInsight.comAuthentic Freedom and the Homosexual Person | Dr. Mark Lowery

The tragic impasse that exists in our culture on the issue of homosexuality stems from two errors.

On the one hand, many moderns have embraced an autonomous view of reality: "I can do what I want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else." According to such relativism, homosexual acts are perfectly legitimate so long as they are between two consenting adults. In stark reaction to such subjectivism, many others embrace a moralism that easily turns venomous when it vilifies and demonizes: "Homosexuality is wrong because God said so" (and nothing more). The distinction between the homosexual condition and homosexual acts, if added at all, is added as an afterthought. This view, opposite that of autonomy, could be termed heteronomy, because God's law is understood to be extrinsically and somewhat arbitrarily placed upon man with a seeming lack of concern for actual experience of the persons involved.

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (art. 41), distinguishes the Catholic moral outlook from these two erroneous positions. He labels the Catholic view a "participated theonomy." If for autonomy there is no law, and if for heteronomy the law is to be followed because God said so, for participated theonomy the moral law is something friendly to our being, something built for our genuine fulfillment and for our authentic freedom. The law is not true because God commanded it; rather, God commands it because it is true. When we use our free will to align our lives with this truth, we possess authentic freedom.

What does this mean for the debate on homosexuality? It means that the truth about human sexuality is something that ultimately offers genuine freedom to the homosexual person, helping him to escape the slavery to his passions that resulted from the misuse of his free will. This is a truth that, with true compassion, reaches out to the homosexual person in his desperation. Although that person may not be aware of it, he is crying out for the truth. When the response from our culture is heteronomous and mean-spirited, he recoils, and takes false comfort in a worldview that espouses autonomy. The Church and society must offer the truth, and offer it in the right way, the way of participatory theonomy.

A Pastoral Context: Participatory Theonomy

It won't do to start with a good logical argument, using the data of reason and revelation. Such arguments will occupy a central position in the overall Catholic approach, this article included, but only after a compassionate pastoral approach has laid the proper foundation. As Frank Sheed said somewhere, "Win an argument, lose a convert." We must start with the human person in his existential experience. [1] The first way to do that is to be very careful with our terminology. Let us never use the word "homosexual" as if it defines a person. Let us use either that phrase "person with a homosexual orientation," or "the homosexual person." [2] To always use the word "person" emphasizes that we are speaking about someone who possesses an inviolable dignity. Even more importantly, let us never use the word "gay" in reference to a homosexual person. No one is gay. "Gay" is the (unfortunate) word foisted upon us for those who have chosen a particular lifestyle. Such a choice entails a misuse of one's freedom, a misuse that puts the person in a desperate situation. There are ways out of this desperation--no one is constituted as "gay."

A pastoral approach recognizes that "desperation" is precisely at the heart of the homosexual person's experience. Often that desperation is hidden behind the cries of liberation of those who, misled by the gay rights movement, have "come out." Often it is hidden by the false claims of that movement that "gay is normal" and by political activism. [3] We could respond to that boldness in kind, but far better to take the high road and see it instead as a cry for help.

Gerard J.M. van den Aardweg has shown how homosexual attraction is not just a variant on heterosexual attraction. It is something of a different kind, accompanied by symptoms of depression, jealousy and restlessness. [4] There is no evidence whatsoever that homosexuality is caused genetically, though there could be a genetic predisposition toward homosexuality. As Christopher Wolfe has noted, ". . . if [homosexuality] really were genetic, it would have almost certainly died out, or at least be continually declining. Homosexuals reproduce at much lower levels than the general population . . . . So if homosexuality were a genetic trait . . . it would be found in a smaller and smaller percentage of the population." And, ". . . if homosexuality were genetic, then in all sets of identical twins where one was homosexual, the other would be, too." [5] On the other hand, one cannot prove that the orientation is caused environmentally, but all the evidence points in that direction. [6]

That evidence turns out to be good news, freeing news. For with the right help, many people can repair their orientation, fully or to some degree. A fine book from Ignatius Press--The Battle for Normality by van den Aardweg--offers a "self-help" method, and an organization called NARTH (National Association for Reparative Therapy for Homosexual Persons) is committed to helping individuals find competent professional help.

There are a good number of theories about environmental causes, theories that have tested positively in clinical practice. These myriad theories all have a slightly different slant to them, but they also hold much in common and are in many ways compatible with one another. [7] At bottom, homosexuality seems to result from fragmentation within the child/father/mother relationship, and the deepest need of the homosexual person is to repair that fragmentation. As Joseph Nicolosi notes: "Realizing the true needs that lie behind our unwanted behaviors, we gain a new understanding . . . the reparative drive--the unconscious attempt to 'repair' masculine incompleteness--is the deepest transformative shift . . . [T]he client realizes: 'I do not really want to have sex with a man. Rather, what I really desire is to heal my masculine identity.'" [8] I want to participate more fully in the meaning-laden nature that has been given to me, and which has sadly been distorted. Participatory theonomy, in other words.

Reparative therapy, however, should in no way be presented as a requirement for the homosexual person. It is an option. What is required is a noble effort to live chastely. Fr. John Harvey founded Courage, a vast network of support groups, precisely to help people in this task. It is important to realize that everyone has difficult struggles in life, and that we need one another to help handle them. We can make a basic distinction between the raw material each of us brings to the moral life, and the moral life itself in which we make good or bad choices. All of us are disordered in some way and to some degree in our "raw material"--sometimes psychologically, sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually. [9] These constitute objective disorders, one of which is the homosexual inclination. [10]

We are welcome to make prudent decisions about repairing our damaged raw materials, whether through therapy or medical intervention. But we all are aware that we cannot, this side of the Eschaton, somehow psychotherapeutically and medically engineer perfect raw material. That is a utopian illusion. We do well to mediate on St. Paul's thankfulness to God for giving him a "thorn in his flesh" that made him constantly aware of his utter dependence on God. Then, we can take our damaged raw materials, make prudent decisions about which ones to repair, and live with the others.

In a certain sense, this perspective puts everyone on an even playing field. The homosexual person does not have a disorder that puts him in a separate category from other fragile and finite human beings. [11] We all have our respective crosses to bear--we all suffer from the primal disorder of concupiscence--and we all have the capacity to do as we ought, particularly with the grace of Christ. [12] "What is at all costs to be avoided is the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive and therefore inculpable." [13]

Put another way, we really are free. This is not a "pretend" freedom or a "toy" freedom but the genuine article. A "let's pretend" freedom would give us the nice feeling that we really do make some free choices, about what to eat and what to wear, for instance, but that when something really challenging is at stake we're not really free. We could not be truly responsible for our actions, since the complexity of life renders such responsibility impossible.

From the opposite angle, when a large-scale challenge comes our way, the great gift of freedom cries out to be used, and used properly. Our human dignity comes from the proper use of our freedom (authentic freedom), especially in the midst of the more staggering challenges of our lives. These challenges must be faced with the damaged raw materials of our lives--homosexuality being one such instance. But regardless of the challenge, we find our true dignity in the midst of meeting it, right in the midst of that noble effort in aligning our lives with the natural law and with God's revelation.

The next part of this article deals respectively with those two sources of truth. Both are eminently reasonable and sensible--friendly to our being--in the personalist perspective of participatory theonomy outlined here. Apart from that perspective, the arguments that follow will appear as extrinsic, heteronomous impositions that destroy the uniqueness of the individual person. Within that personalist perspective, these arguments can play an integral role in both reparative therapy and living chastely.

The Natural Law

In the contemporary debates on homosexuality, many are tempted to start with an appeal to divine revelation, whether understood from a Catholic or a Protestant perspective. But if you start there, you will rightly be criticized for "pushing your religion down someone's throat," which is disallowed in a political order like ours that prizes religious liberty. We are free to practice any religion or no religion, but we cannot violate the natural law, that moral law to which we are co-natured and which is accessible to reason. That is, we participate in this natural truth intuitively, and it makes eminent sense.

One hallmark of the Catholic tradition is that it prizes such arguments that take place on the level of reason alone. The important principle at work here, enunciated best by St. Thomas Aquinas, is that grace does not cancel out nature, but presupposes and perfects it. The data of revelation then both reaffirms the natural argument and adds additional data to it. That additional data, derived from the twin sources of revelation (Tradition and Scripture), is impressive and enriching, and fills in for Christians the full rationale for the teaching against homosexual acts. But even without that data, a good argument can be made based on the natural law.

Many people claim that "you can't legislate morality." A bumper sticker says, "Get your laws off my body." However, our nation's founding documents appeal to the natural law as the cornerstone of our political order ("nature and nature's God"; "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ."). We want lots of diversity in the U.S., but a fundamental unity on the principles of the natural law. "In God We Trust" is not foisting a religion on anyone, but rather reminding us that God has given us natures and the natural law for their flourishing. All good civil laws are based on the natural law. Bad laws are based on a different moral system, like relativism or utilitarianism. Either way, we legislate morality; the only question is which morality ought to be legislated. The new law allowing "civil unions" in Vermont is not neutral. It amounts to legislating a very specific moral code--sheer relativism.

What exactly is the natural law argument against homosexual behavior? A number of points must be kept in mind. First, we must emphasize that the natural law is, in a sense, within us. It is not an extrinsic imposition. Rather, it is a truth placed in our being by the Creator, allowing us to participate in the wise plan of the Creator--hence, "participatory theonomy." Second, we shouldn't think of the natural law as first and foremost identical to our biological laws. The "nature" in natural law is our human nature. The laws of our biological nature turn out to be very significant in grasping the natural law, but they are not the sum total of the natural law. If they were, we would be reduced to animals who must follow their biological instincts. Instead, the natural law makes use of biological laws, but it personalizes them, in that it sees the deep personal meaning that is hidden in our biology. The encyclical Veritatis Splendor speaks of anticipatory signs and rational indications inhering in our biology. [14] As persons, we are capable of "mining" this deep personal meaning that inheres in the body. Animals can't do this, which is one reason we can euthanize animals--they can't discover and freely align themselves with the deep personal meaning that lies within their "biological clock." Human persons can. We discover our dignity in so doing. That is why the slogan "death with dignity" is so inappropriate.

It is just as inappropriate for the homosexual person to "do what he wants with his body." The body speaks a language that we must listen to; we either live the truth or live a lie. The human generative faculties are not built for homosexual types of acts, and such acts cause serious disease. This gives us a big hint, [15] written on our biological nature, that there is a profound meaning to our biological heterosexuality. Personal meaning is bound up with biological facticity--an integralist view of the person as opposed to a separatist view. The integralist view sees the person as a unity of body and spirit, whereas the separatist view sees the person as standing over and against the body, the body representing raw material that can be manipulated according to the individual dictate. According to the separatist view, I can treat the body just as I see fit--no transcendent meaning inheres in it.

Our generative faculties carry twin personal and transcendent meanings within them. The language they speak to us is that, if we are to live in accord with our dignity, we must use these faculties to express permanent love (the unitive meaning) and to create children (the procreative meaning)--in short, bonding and babies. Homosexual acts sever this all-important link between the unitive and the procreative meanings. Precisely because of this connection, contraception, adultery and fornication, as well as new birth technologies like surrogate motherhood and artificial insemination, also violate the natural law.

Consider the unitive meaning. When we rule out permanence, we are treating the other as disposable rather than non-substitutable. Only a permanent (as well as exclusive) union befits or is commensurate with the dignity of each spouse. A permanent and exclusive union states boldly that the other is not an object that can be replaced or substituted, but a person of inviolable worth. When a couple makes the commitment of marriage, they say to one another, and their conjugal acts say to each other, "You are irreplaceable to me" and "Only to you will I give my whole self." Divorce or adultery or serial polygamy, then, stand as statements that the partner isn't irreplaceable after all. And in so saying, the inviolable dignity of the other is violated.

Why can't two committed homosexual persons have this permanence? Consider: why is it that in heterosexual marriage, violations of permanence are the exception rather than the rule, while in homosexual partnerships, violations are the rule rather than the exception? This is not to say that heterosexual relationships are immune from such fragmentation; numerous heterosexual persons lead lives just as promiscuous as many homosexual persons. But when heterosexual persons fragment the unitive aspect, they are simultaneously arbitrating against the procreative element, using contraception, or at least acting with a contraceptive mentality, or resorting to abortion. Better for them to say, "We shouldn't be having babies together, so we shouldn't be uniting sexually with each other." Permanence and procreativity go together, heterosexually.

Homosexual acts by their nature arbitrate against the procreative dimension. (Note the natural law argument presented here is just as critical of contraception as it is of homosexuality.) In both cases, the conjugal act is turned into a different kind of act; the generative faculties are used in a way contrary to their natural inextricably connected ends of unity/procreativity. In short, permanence is driven by procreativity. When children are ruled out, the unity of the two turns inward upon itself instead of opening outward. Homosexual relationships do not have the character of permanence because this particular reason or end for permanence is missing. It is true that permanence is a value in and of itself, but it is a value connected to procreativity.

Couples who struggle with infertility are poignantly aware of how intrinsic the procreative dimension is for their own commitment. They are profoundly honest in listening to and responding to the language of the body, and hence are courageous witnesses of that language. Listen to them: they tell us that profound permanent unity, valuable in itself, is connected to children. Some factor from the outside, beyond their control, prevents them from having children. But their permanent unity is a procreative kind of unity, their conjugal acts are procreative kinds of acts. (In this sense, their progeny is procreativity itself.) They could turn to the new birth technologies, but here too they listen to and affirm the language of the body. The conjugal act, profoundly unitive, is a procreative kind of act, and the gift of the child is to be profoundly linked to the spouses' incarnate gift of self in that conjugal, not merely copulatory, act. Infertile couples can shock us out of our complacency, our tendency to think of the child as a right. They know supremely what we tend to see dimly, that the child is a gift. That's how God works through human nature, and that nature itself is a gift of the Creator--hence, we say that bodily nature speaks a transcendent language to us. The infertile couple sees this giftedness all the more poignantly through the lens of their pain, and hence more boldly than others they proclaim the truth of participatory theonomy. The homosexual person likewise can profoundly proclaim participatory theonomy: marital friendship is itself a great gift, not a right. The fallen condition--which is the root of all disorders--is said to be somewhat of a felix culpa, a happy fault; the distortions that result from it make us more aware than ever of the giftedness of nature. Our fallenness alerts us to and orients us toward participatory theonomy, the voice of God speaking through nature, a voice deeply respective of our personal dignity.

Data from Divine Revelation

Thus far we have focused on the natural transcendent meanings that inhere in the body, particularly in the generative faculties. Revelation--Scripture and Tradition as interpreted by the Magisterium--takes us a step further by placing the male/female relationship in a liturgical context. A properly ordered heterosexual relationship is a liturgical event because it is a mirror image--a sacrament--of the covenant between God and mankind, between Christ and the Church. Many biblical texts point to this imaging (Hosea; Isaiah 62:4-5; Jeremiah 7:34, 31:31; Psalm 88:26; Mt 9:15; John 3; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 21:2) The unity of the spouses images God's permanent and exclusive unity with his people, and the procreativity of the spouses images God's generosity, particularly the outpouring of his own Trinitarian life into our being (grace). In short, the body speaks the language of the covenant. Since the covenant between God and man culminates in the redemptive work of Christ, sacramentally re-presented in the Eucharist, there is a close reciprocity between marriage and the Eucharist. The Eucharist is marital (God marries his people) and marriage is Eucharistic (a sacrament of the covenant). The language of the body is not only natural, it is also sacramental.

It is due to this profoundly personal sacramental meaning of the body that we find a consistent teaching about homosexuality in the Bible (Gen 3; Gen 19:1-11; Lev 18:22 and 20:13; 1 Cor 6:9; Rm 1:18-32; 1 Tim 1:10) and throughout the Catholic tradition, wherein this teaching is infallibly taught by the ordinary universal episcopal magisterium. But again, homosexual acts are not wrong because of this consistent pattern of teaching; rather, this pattern is consistent precisely because homosexual acts are not friendly to our nature. Our very being partakes in God's loving plan, and his law, rather than being capricious and heteronomous, reflects that plan. The Judeo-Christian tradition must be articulated through the lens of participatory theonomy.

It is in this context that the arguments of John Boswell and others are best met. They argue that there is no ethical condemnation of homosexual acts in the Bible. Rather, the condemnations must be seen in the light of ritual impurity--homosexuality is condemned because of its use in cultic worship practices, as found in Canaanite religions and then imitated in ancient Israel. The best way to meet Boswell's argument is to grant for a moment that the Old Testament prohibitions refer to idolatrous worship practices, that homosexual acts are wrong because they are used liturgically in false worship of false gods and goddesses. That's just the point--homosexual acts are, in a sense, in and of themselves "liturgical" acts, inextricably reflective of idolatry. These acts are wrong precisely because they are "inverted sacraments." Just as the ethical conduct in an ordered marriage images the covenant, so too the unethical conduct of homosexuality is a false image for the covenant, or images a skewed understanding of man's relation to God. The reason why sexual practices are used culticly (sacramentally) is precisely because that ordered or disordered ethical activity itself is an image of the true or false relationship between man and God. In response to Boswell, then, we can say that the Old Testament does not condemn ritual usage of homosexuality, leaving other uses to the side. Sexuality speaks a "liturgical" language, and thus to condemn the ritual usage of homosexual acts is to condemn homosexual acts in themselves. Most importantly, the condemnation is not a heteronomous end in itself; it points us, along the route of participatory theonomy, to the full sacramental/liturgical outgrowth of respecting the natural language of the body.

The Societal/Legal Dimension

The homosexual rights movement asks, "Why can't you just let us do what we--consenting adults--want to do? How does that harm you?" Any criticism of homosexuality is presented as tantamount to unjust discrimination. You are suddenly committing a crime as heinous as racism or sexism. The answer to this objection must be made from within the framework of participatory theonomy.

Although it looks like we are speaking of freely chosen activity between consenting adults, that is only half the picture. Anyone who succumbs to activity contrary to the natural law does not, in a certain sense, really want to do so, and hence he does so "involuntarily," using that word in the deepest sense. Of course the person has free will, and his act will be voluntary in the sense that it stems from that will. But he is using his free will wrongly, not in accord with his nature. This wrong use is in the context of his disorder--hence, the sense of desperation. He feels he wants to act contrary to nature, but he doesn't need to; it is not in his best interest as a person; it can't make him authentically free. That is why we say to our friends, "You don't really want to do that" right at the moment they are "voluntarily" doing something contrary to their nature as persons. Participatory theonomy shatters the illusion by which we tell ourselves, "Consenting adults can do what they want, as long as its voluntary and as long as they don't hurt anyone else." It isn't authentically free, and it is profoundly harmful.

The rewards society offers to married couples must be seen in this light. As Michael Pakaluk notes: "Because the friendship of marriage results in children, and it is a burden of sorts to raise children, and because society benefits greatly if this is done well, it is usual for society to separate out the friendship of marriage from other friendships, to give it special recognition, and to award it distinctive benefits." [16] If society were to give similar benefits to homosexual persons, then it would have to give the same benefits to any sets of friends that so desired them! Instead, society tries to protect what is in everyone's real best interests.

To grant a special set of rights to homosexual persons would work against those real interests. Crimes violating the legitimate rights of homosexual persons are intolerable. "But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational eruptions increase." [17]

As the saying goes, no one has a right to do what is wrong. "What is wrong" is that which is unfriendly to our nature, that which short-circuits our full participation in the meaning-laden nature given to us as embodied human persons. The homosexual person may initially recoil at the perspective presented here, but that is because he easily confuses human nature with what "feels natural" or what "comes naturally"--in his case, the powerful desire to engage in sexual activity with someone of the same sex. He is only following the cue given by secular culture, which has bombarded him since adolescence with the view that human fulfillment is tied to whatever form of sexual "satisfaction" "comes naturally." By habitually following what "comes naturally" he has used his free will wrongly, and has become enslaved. The path out of this desperation, toward authentic freedom, comes in participating in the caring plan that God has built into his nature, and participation made possible by the shining grace of Christ who has "set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence." [18]

This article originally appeared in Catholic Dossier (March/April 2001).


[1] The strategy is analogous to that of the pro-life organization CareNet. Their research found that the excellent arguments offered by the pro-life cause for the personhood of the human fetus did not meet the existential situation of many women considering abortion, who perceived the unborn child, despite his personhood, to be a threat to their lives.

[2] This is the suggestion of Fr. John Harvey, a genuine modern-day hero when it comes to genuine care for homosexual persons. His most recent book is The Truth About Homosexuality: The Cry of the Faithful (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996).

[3] In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association reversed its designation of homosexuality as a disorder, under pressure from the National Gay Task Force. See Elizabeth Moberly, "Homosexuality and Hope," First Things 71 (March 1997), 30-33, at 30.

[4] William Main, "Gay But Unhappy," Crisis (March 1990), 32-37, at 36. This is an excellent summary of van den Aardweg's insights. His most accessible book for the laymen is Homosexuality and Hope (Ann Arbor: Servant Books).

[5] World, May 20, 2000, 51-54. See the work of Jeffrey Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), especially chapter 5 on twins.

[6] Jeffrey Satinover, "The Biology of Homosexuality: Science or Politics?" in Christopher Wolfe, ed., Homosexuality and American Public Life (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 3-61.

[7] See Fr. John Harvey, The Truth About Homosexuality, chapter 4, for an excellent overview of the many practitioners.

[8] "The Cause and Treatment of Homosexuality," Catholic World Report (July, 1997), 51-52.

[9] See the excellent chapter in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity called "Morality and Psychoanalysis."

[10] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, no. 11. Hereafter PC.

[11] This realization might play an important role in reparative therapy itself, as a central antidote to the sense of "self-pity-become-neurotically habitual" that some theorize is one of the central causes of the disorder. See Main, "Gay But Unhappy."

[12] PC, no. 11.

[13] PC, no. 11.

[14] See Veritatis Splendor, nos. 47-53, the pope's response to those theologians who claim that Catholic teaching regarding sexual morality succumbs to a brute biologism whereby moral laws are automatically spun out of mere biological laws. The heart of Catholic moral teaching does not fallaciously deduce a moral "ought" from only a biological "is."

[15] As Richard John Neuhaus notes ("Love, No Matter What," in Wolfe, Homosexuality, p. 245), most people are disgusted, in an intuitive and pre-articulate way, by "what active homosexuals do." So too are many among the 2 percent of the population that is homosexually oriented. (The 10 percent figure from the earlier Kinsey Report was fallacious.)

[16] "The Price of Same-Sex Union," Catholic World Report (July, 1997), 49. Also see Family, Marriage and "De Facto" Unions, Pontifical Council for the Family (2000).

[17] PC, no. 10.

[18] VS, no. 103.

Related Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:

Homosexual Orientation Is Not a "Gift" | James Hitchcock
Can I Quote You On That? Talking to the Media About Homosexuality and the Priesthood | Mark Brumley
The Truth About Conscience | John F. Kippley
Marriage and the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae | Rev. Michael Hull, S.T.D.
Viagra: It's Not Just for Old Guys Anymore | Mary Beth Bonacci
Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age | Bishop Joseph F. Martino
Kinsey: Dedicated Scientist or Sexual Deviant? | Benjamin Wiker

Dr. Mark Lowery teaches moral theology at the University of Dallas. His articles have appeared in scholarly journals such as Communio, Faith and Reason, the Catholic Social Science Review, and the Irish Theological Quarterly, and in such popular periodicals as the New Oxford Review, The Catholic Faith, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Envoy, and Social Justice Review. He is the author of Living The Good Life: What Every Catholic Needs to Know About Moral Issues (Charis, 2003).

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