Writing about homosexuality has become a growth industry, one writer has quipped. Indeed, there has never been a time in our nation when we have been so publicly preoccupied with this subject. The love whose name dare not be spoken (once upon a time) is being shouted, if not from the rooftops, at least from the streets in demonstrations, from the platforms in political rallies, and from the pages of various popular and intellectual journals.
And now, also from the White House, where on Monday, President Barack Obama met with 250 “gay” leaders to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the birth of the modern “gay rights” movement, an event precipitated by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a homosexual bar, owned at that time by the mafia, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. It is hard to recall that it was in the not-too-distant past that many states and cities had laws against sodomy. One wonders how and why this change – from legal censure to public celebration in the East Room – happened.
Yet it would be wrong to assign the major share of blame for this to the homosexual apologists. Homosexuality is simply the latest in a series of causes celebres which are the logical consequences of the loss of objective reality — a loss that is transforming the right to life into death (abortion), liberty into license, and the pursuit of happiness into hedonism.
One reason is that the subject of homosexuality, much like that of abortion, has become inextricably enmeshed in the political rhetoric of rights. Rights, as the Declaration of Independence tells us, are founded firmly in and are fully dependent on the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Anyone whose claim can be asserted on the level of a right therefore gathers tremendous moral and political impetus for his cause. For this reason, activist homosexuals attempt to identify themselves as the new civil rights movement.
Former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s recent public endorsement of same-sex marriage is typical. He said: “I think that freedom means freedom for everyone… I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. Any kind of arrangement they wish.” Really? Any arrangement? What does this mean for our society?
This attempt to legitimize any arrangement demands especially close scrutiny, because it questions the meaning of concepts critical to our moral and political understanding of ourselves, including the very understanding of that “Nature” upon which our Founders thought our existence as a free people depends.
The case for homosexuality begins with seeming modesty. Its proponents contend that sexual choices are private, and therefore homosexuals should be left to their own sexual predilections. Stay out of my bedroom! Live and let live. At the same time, they insist they are the objects of discrimination and wish to enact remedial legislation. This very complaint, however, reveals that there is a public aspect to their private choice.
First of all, they must be identifiable to others as homosexuals, otherwise it would be impossible to discriminate against them. In many cases this public aspect takes the form of the homosexual telling others that he is a homosexual: “coming out of the closet”, as it is called if voluntary, or “being outed,” if it is not. Why should a homosexual feel impelled to do this, especially if he expects discrimination as a result? After all, the hidden homosexual who has not “come out of the closet” enjoys the privacy of concealment.
One reason homosexuals take this risk has been made fairly clear by militant homosexual organizations; by so doing, homosexuals wish not only to be tolerated in terms of their private sexual behavior, they wish to have that behavior publicly vindicated and recognized as normal.
This is hardly a strange desire. Man is a social being. Though parts of his life take place in private, in the normal course of things even those private aspects have public manifestations. Indeed, public social life is organized in such a way as to ensure privacy for certain things. We learn what should be private from the public way in which certain privacies are protected. So by private we do not mean things which are nobody else’s business. The private, in this sense, is everybody’s business.
For example, certainly the sexual intimacy between a husband and wife is held to be private and inviolate. But what are the public manifestations of this privacy? Obviously, wedding rings, children,private property, homes schools, communities — the whole structure of society, in fact, is built to protect and maintain the conditions for that intimacy and its results. The whole social and political order is supportive of this privacy. It is encouraged and protected by law because it is held to be of benefit to all.
This is the kind of support and acceptance which homosexuals are seeking. This is seen in their desire to have their relationships legally recognized as marriages, or to have the ability to adopt children, etc. This makes somewhat specious the claim that all that is at stake in the homosexual controversy is the right to privacy. The clandestine homosexual does not claim a “right” to do the things he wishes to conceal and so claims no public protection for his privacy. As a result, he implicitly acquiesces in society’s implied judgment of his actions as wrong. Many homosexuals no longer find this concession tolerable. And by advancing their cause at the level of moral principle (“gay rights“) they insist on not only a repeal, but a complete reversal of that public judgment. In the same way we once learned of the inherent goodness of married life, we must now be taught the “new morality” of homosexuality. Ironically, the logic behind this process of legitimization of homosexuality undercuts any objective standards by which we could judge the moral legitimacy of anything.
A Demotion of Marriage
Why this should be so requires some understanding of the moral foundation of law and its prescriptive nature. The legal protection of heterosexual relations between a husband and wife involves a public judgment on the nature and purpose of sex. That judgment teaches that the proper exercise of sex is within the marital bond because both the procreative and unitive purposes of sex are best fulfilled within it. The family alone is capable of providing the necessary stability for the profound relationship which sexual union both symbolizes and cements, and for the welfare of the children which issues from it.
The legitimization of homosexual relations changes that judgment and the teaching which emanates from it. What is disguised under the rubric of legal “neutrality” toward an individual’s choice of sexual behavior –”freedom for everyone” – is, in fact, a demotion of marriage from something seen as good in itself and for society, to just one of the available sexual alternatives. In other words, this “neutrality” is not at all neutral; it teaches and promotes an indifference, where once there was an endorsement. Since the endorsement purported to be based upon knowledge of the objective good of marriage, it taught not only that marriage is good, but that we can know what is good. The latter is, in a way, a far more critical lesson.
The implied indifference in a law which is “neutral” to one’s choice of sexual alternatives teaches that we are incapable of knowing in an objective way the goodness or evil of these sexual alternatives, and that therefore their worth can only be determined subjectively by the private individual. An example of a similar teaching is provided by the legalization of pornography, which preceded and prepared the ground for the homosexual cause. Go to almost any news stand and you will see side by side on the shelf Playboy and Good Housekeeping. What does any sensible person learn from seeing this odd juxtaposition? Certainly the way of life espoused by Playboy is inimical to good housekeeping. Yet, there they are together; take your pick.
In other words, the person learns, if only by osmosis, that it is a matter of public indifference as to whether one properly uses or abuses sex. More accurately, legal commerce in pornography teaches that no such distinction exists. Once this teaching has been learned, where does one draw the line? If heterosexual sex is only a form of play or recreation, what could be wrong with a little sodomy? Or even incest?
So far from not embodying any moral view, legal “neutrality” gives public status to and fosters a highly subjective view of life, which, of course, extends to things other than sexual behavior. As Germain Grisez wrote, “One can not long adopt certain specific moral precepts without adopting the entire view from which such precepts rise.” Evelyn Waugh said much the same thing in his satiric way when asked why there were no good professional proofreaders left in England. “Because,” he responded, “clergymen are no longer unfrocked for sodomy.” One cannot abandon one standard without affecting all others.
Order in the universe
In order to understand what is at stake, it might be well to review briefly what the natural law understanding of “Nature” is and the kinds of distinctions an objective view of reality enables us to make in regard to our existence in general and to sexuality in particular. At the same time, we shall see how, once the objective status of Nature is lost or denied, one is incapacitated from making such distinctions and, in fact, from possessing any true knowledge about ourselves or the world.
Man first deduced the existence of Nature by observing order in the universe. The regularity with which things happen could not be explained by random repetition. All activity seems governed by a purpose, by ends to which things are designed to move. In non-human creation this design is manifested through either instinct or physical law. Man, however, possesses free will. He alone can choose the means to his end or choose to frustrate his end altogether. This, of course, is why “moral” laws are applicable only to man. That man can defy moral law in no way lessens the certainty of its operation. In fact, man not so much breaks the moral law as the moral law breaks man, if he transgresses it. In short, when we speak of man’s nature, we mean the ordering of man’s being toward certain ends. It is the fulfillment of those ends which makes man fully human.
Since Socrates, we have called man’s end “the good”. The good for man, Aristotle tells us, is happiness. However, happiness is not whatever we say it is, but only that thing which will by our nature truly make us happy. (That good, the theologians tell us, is God). Aristotle explains that happiness is achieved only through virtuous actions — the repetition of good deeds. Deeds are considered good and bad, natural and unnatural, in relation to the effect they have on man’s progress toward his end. So, it is through Nature that we come to understand the proper use of things.
The case for homosexuality is a vulgarization of a philosophical anarchism which denies the existence of Nature and therefore the ability to discriminate between the use and abuse of things. This is popularly manifested in the most frequent defense of homosexuality which takes the form of an anthropological survey of societies which invariably produces a tribe or two in which homosexual behavior is accepted as normal. This is offered as proof that either homosexuality is an expression of natural law, or that such a variety of human behavior proves there is no such thing as natural law. The first conclusion is simply a way of robbing the word Nature of its meaning by including within its definition anything man is capable of doing. But this approach becomes less attractive when we recall that besides sodomy, it includes incest, human sacrifice, and mass suicide, for all of which there are numerous historical — and some recent — examples. The second conclusion errs by supposing that there can be a natural law only if it is universally acknowledged and adhered to. This overlooks the fact that man is unique in that he can affirm or deny his Nature. However, his denial of his Nature in no way refutes its existence, anymore that the denial of the law of gravity will keep one from falling.
It is ironic that the proponents of homosexuality so often point to ancient Greece as their paradigm because of its high state of culture and its acceptance of homosexuality. Ancient Greece’s greatest contribution to Western civilization was philosophy, which discovered that the mind can know things, as distinct from just having opinions about them, that objective reality exists, and that there is some purpose implied in its construction. The very idea of Nature and natural law arose as a product of this philosophy, whose first and perhaps greatest exponents, Socrates and Plato, were unambiguous in their condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural: “The intercourse of men with men, or of women with women, is contrary to Nature, and… the bold attempt was originally due to unbridled lust.” (Laws 636C’; see also Symposium of Xenophon, 8:34, Plato’s Symposium,219B-D). Though some ancient Greeks did write paeans to homosexual love, it did not occur to any of them to propose homosexual relationships as the basis for marriage in their societies.
Sharing of life
Perhaps it would be appropriate here to sketch very briefly and only partly (space does not allow for more) what the nature of sexual acts are. We can begin with the overwhelmingly obvious fact that human bodies are better designed for heterosexual intercourse than for homosexual. As George Gilder put it, “Procreative genital intercourse stands at the crux of sexual differentiation, and is for the normative pinnacle of sexual relationships to which all other sexual energies aspire, and from which they flow.” And William May expressed the combined unitive and reproductive nature of the sexual act: “There is something of paramount human significance in the fact that one especial kind of touch, the touch of coital sex, not only requires for its exercise a difference between male and female, but also is an act that of its own inherent dynamism is capable of expressing an intimate, exclusive sharing of life and love between a man and a woman and at the same time is capable of communicating that life and that love to a new human being.”
As procreative, this pinnacle of sexual relationships is naturally ordered to the family, the structure of which places a couple in a context larger than just themselves. Compared with the act of marital union, homosexual acts are, as Michael Novak has pointed out, “self-centered in a way that is structural, independent of the goodwill of the individual”. They have in them an in escapable element of solipsism. “The other side of the bed is occupied, as it were, by more of the same — the same half of humanity, instead of the other half for whom each person is constitutionally seeking.” The renunciation of the other half leaves homosexuals bereft not only of a role in continuing the human race, but of the personal growth entailed in adjusting oneself, as Samuel McCracken expressed it, “to someone so different from oneself as to be in a different sex entirely.”
Natural law theory
To see more specifically the way in which nature is removed as an objective standard by the argument for the morality of homosexuality, we may turn to an example provided by Professor Burton Leiser, who offers a fairly typical argument against natural law in his chapter on homosexuality in Liberty, Justice, and Morals,a college textbook. He quotes Pope Pius XI as a representative of the natural law position: “Private individuals have no other power over the members of their bodies than that which pertains to their natural ends.” Leiser goes on to question: “Is it true that every organ has one and only one proper function?” He gives the example of a woman’s eyes as well adapted to seeing, but also well adapted to flirting. He then asks, “Is a woman’s use of her eyes for the latter purpose sinful merely because she is not using them, at the moment, for their primary purpose?” Similarly, he questions whether any use of sex can be condemned because it is not being used for its principal procreative purpose: “Why should any other use of these organs, including their use to bring pleasure to their owner, or to someone else, or to manifest love to another person, or even, perhaps, to earn money, be regarded perverse, sinful or unnatural?”
The natural law theory which Leiser pretends to debunk is a straw man. The natural law argument has never been (nor is it in any way suggested by Pius XI’s statement) that there is one and only one purpose or function of an organ, but that within the other ends an organ may be intended to serve by Nature, there is a hierarchy which subordinates some ends to others. (While flirting with one’s eyes is not unnatural, it is certainly subordinated to seeing. In fact, one can hardly flirt with one’s eyes while at the same time not seeing. Strange, indeed, would be the person who flirted with their eyes so as to impair their sight.) Moreover, this hierarchy is arranged according to the one final end which is expressive of the whole nature of man: the good of which Socrates spoke or the God of revealed religion.
But the real crux of the natural law position is that however many purposes an organ (or any other natural object) has, those purposes originate in Nature and not in man’s desires. Leiser, on the other hand, contends that “the purpose or function of a given organ may vary according to the needs or desires of its owners.” With this argument, he justifies the use of sex not only “for pleasure, or for the expression of love “but “for some other purpose” — whatever that may be. Homosexuality, under this dispensation, is not wrong, because there is no “objectively identifiable quality in such behavior that is unnatural.”
This removal of the objective quality of human acts leaves the true reality of things residing in man’s desires. This results in the reduction of morality to human intentions. In other words, an act such as sodomy has no meaning in and of itself, apart from the meaning it happens to be given by the person acting, ie, what he intends or desires the act to be. As a consequence of this, we are unable to say that the act of sodomy is inherently wrong (or right), but are required to look to the person performing the act. It is according to his interior disposition or desires that the act becomes evil or good.
It should be carefully noted here that while the natural law position emphasizes the moral nature of an act, it does not disregard the intent of the actor. Indeed, the very idea of a moral act presupposes that the necessary conditions for a moral act are present, ie, a thorough understanding by the actor of what it is he is doing, full and free consent in the performance of the act, etc. But at the same time, when we say that an act is objectively good or evil in itself, we mean that intention cannot change the goodness or evil of the act, which is intrinsic to it. A good intention – love – cannot change an evil act into a good one. It will harm the nature of the person acting and the person acted upon, regardless of intent. However, intention may affect the guilt or innocence of the actor, eg, if the person is not fully aware of the evil of the act or does not perform it with full consent.
But by what standard are these desires to be judged? If human acts are not objectively good or evil and only individual desires are real, how can distinctions between desires be made? This is the existential dilemma created by the abandonment of the objectivity of Nature. Since the moral quality of an act cannot be discerned, one is left with a quantitative standard of intensity. How intensely (genuinely) is the desire felt? Adultery, incest, pederasty, masturbation — according to the school of desire, no moral distinction can be made between any of these acts and, say, the act of marital union. This is sexual equality with a vengeance.
The wider social and political implications of this moral egalitarianism are not hard to deduce. If there are not pre-existing, intelligible ends toward which man is ordered by nature, every individual must invent, in an arbitrary and subjective manner, some ends by which to guide his actions and order his life. The way one lives then becomes a matter of “lifestyle.” The elevation of the word “lifestyle” to its present prominence is an indication of the total loss of any serious meaning in one’s choice of how to live. What used to be man’s most profound ethical concern has been reduced to an element of fashion. The choice of homosexuality or family life becomes equally “valid” in this denatured contest. If the concept of an intelligible common good is denied, so are the moral grounds for social approval or disapproval of personal behavior. With each person a law unto himself, political community becomes impossible.
(In another very literal way, political community is impossible for homosexuals. Aristotle begins The Politics with the first condition for the existence of a polis — a man and a woman in the family. As to what sort of citizen a homosexual would make, try to imagine a polis composed only of homosexuals. Like the Shakers, such a community would have to rely for its continued existence on recruitment alone.)
And here we finally arrive upon the supreme irony which makes the homosexual’s appeal to gay “rights” so grotesque. Our rights reside in and derive from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” to which the Declaration of Independence refers for our justification as a nation. Yet the proponents of homosexuality are supporting a cause which can succeed only by obliterating that very understanding of “Nature” upon which our existence as a free people depends. The moral view from which their vindication of homosexuality emanates is one which ultimately makes impossible the very conception of rights. Their appeal to rights subverts the rights to which they appeal.
Yet it would be wrong to assign the major share of blame for this to the homosexual apologists. Homosexuality is simply the latest in a series of causes celebres which are the logical consequences of the loss of objective reality –a loss that is transforming the right to life into death (abortion), liberty into license, and the pursuit of happiness into hedonism.
Judging the act, not the person
It should be emphasized that this critique of homosexuality is not an attack on homosexuals. This would, of course, be hard to believe for anyone who has collapsed the distinction between the nature of an act and the person performing the act. It is this vital distinction which allows one to judge the act, not the person. (It is also this distinction which removes any moral onus from a person whose homosexuality, or, say, alcoholism is no fault of his own. But a genetic condition of homosexuality or alcoholism does not deprive a person of his free will, so the person is still morally responsible for homosexual acts or drunkenness. Of course, if one has no free will – which is suggested by those who declare sexual restraint or abstinence to be impossible – then any notion of morality becomes absurd.)
Who but an omniscient God could finally judge the adulterer, or murderer,or sodomite as to the true condition of his or her soul? But this in no way means that man cannot come to an understanding of the moral nature of an act, that he cannot know that adultery, murder, and sodomy are great evils.
Nor is this argument against homosexuality meant to suggest that homosexuals should have anything but the full exercise of their civil rights, as should any other citizen. Rights, since their source is Nature, are, after all, universal by definition. It is the espousal of fictitious and self-contradictory “gay rights” that must be opposed because it elevates homosexuality to, and advances it on, the level of moral principle. This claim threatens the health of the whole community, not because it would mean a wholesale defection to the ranks of the homosexuals, but because the teaching itself is pernicious and will affect and form the attitudes of the body politic in other matters as well.
The recent Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to overturn state law in order to make same-sex marriage legal is a presage of this problem. The Court trotted out “equal protection of the law” as its excuse for the ruling. Equality before the law does not mean that everyone gets to be “affirmed” in whatever they may choose to do. That is why laws have penalties. It means that the law applies equally to everyone, despite their personal desires. The Court has actually acted against this principle by saying that there should be a special category of marriage for those disposed to the act of sodomy, who, for whatever reason or indisposition, refuse to comply with the laws for marriage passed by the Iowa legislature.
In Iowa, no doubt, there are also laws or regulations that define the qualifications for service in fire departments and police forces. If one cannot meet those qualifications through some physical or other infirmity, is the state then obliged to create a special kind of fire department or police force in which one can serve to meet the requirement of equality before the law? Of course not. It would defeat the very purpose of fire departments and police forces to have people serve on them who cannot perform the duties of firemen and police officers. They would therefore no longer be real police forces or fire departments. Likewise with marriage, a far more important institution than either the police or fire departments, creating faux marriage for those who cannot or will not perform the duties of real marriage defeats the purpose of the institution. The Iowa Supreme Court should at least have the presence of mind to acknowledge what it is actually doing – denying that there is a real purpose to marriage – and be ready to explain to others, such as polygamists or those in man-boy relationships, why it should not, by judicial fiat, also create a special kind of marriage for them.
Now in the spirit of the Iowa court, super-lawyers Ted Olsen and David Boies, from the inaptly named American Foundation for Equal Rights, have filed a law suit in federal district court on behalf of two California “gay” couples who allege their constitutional rights have been violated by their inability to wed. They actually think that their inability to wed is the result of California’s prohibition against same-sex marriage, rather than their unwillingness or inability to fulfill the requirements of marriage itself, as it is spoken of in the first chapter of The Politics. By attempting to force their point of view into law, they insist that we all share in it.
In his debates with Douglas, Abraham Lincoln said that one “cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.” The insistence of certain homosexuals to foist their personal moral confusion – as a “right” mandated by the courts –upon the general populace so that it becomes public moral confusion is not some harmless caprice. They claim the right to do wrong, or more accurately, that the wrong they do is their right. (That President Obama is complicitous in this doublethink belies his much vaunted admiration for Lincoln, though it is consistent with his support for abortion.) This is dangerous for more than themselves. Each distinction we erase makes it harder for us to see or make other distinctions. The ability to discriminate is, of course, essential to the ability to choose. If we lose it, the change in our own moral character cannot help but profoundly change the character of our government. And what sort of government do you suppose it would be?
Robert R. Reilly writes from Washington DC. He is a contributing editor to Crisis magazine