Catholics and Queer Theory

John Corvino, the co-author of my latest book, takes on Catholics like Michael Hannon, who in First Things essay “Against Heterosexuality” try to use queer theory to dismantle homosexuality as a “real” category in Commonweal (John is an ex-Catholic and an ex-seminarian as he makes clear):

“Hannon argues that religious conservatives should embrace queer theorists’ view that sexual orientation is a social construction, rather than a natural and inevitable feature of persons. Furthermore, they should stop categorizing anyone as gay, because doing so organizes that person’s sexual identity around a particular temptation to sin, leading him to believe that he needs that sin in order to be fulfilled. Finally, and most important, they should stop categorizing anyone as heterosexual, because doing so lets people off the hook as “normal,” thus blinding them to their own sin. . .

Hannon, who is a candidate for religious life with the Norbertine order, is hardly the first Catholic to invoke queer theory in support of conservative causes. Back in the late 1990s, when the essentialist/constructionist debate was still fresh, my old sparring partner Maggie Gallagher made a similar point at a Georgetown University conference on “Homosexuality and American Public Life.””

Small point, I don’t recall making this point in that conference but it’s years ago and I don’t still have a copy of that talk (and neither does John).

In any case I agree with John Corvino more than I disagree with him in this piece on his main point, although he seems to interpret a discussion of how Christians should think about same-sex attraction and the people who have it with an attempt to determine how everyone thinks about it.

Even if the broader culture accepts homosexuality as a social fact, which is clearly the case whether Hannon likes it or not, that does not settle how Catholics should think about it.

Here’s my view: When Christians tell me that homosexuality is “socially constructed” and therefore not a “real” permanent feature of human existence, I generally respond “I know gay people exist the same way that I know that Methodists exist. I’ve met them.”

In other words, not all categories that are real are founded on fixed unchangeable essences. Sexual orientation as a concept is a way of organizing “given reality” (sexual attraction) into a communal identity, the strongest kind.  It is therefore not at all like race, and but rather more akin to religion.

I never ever think of myself as a heterosexual, nonetheless my own ideas about my experience of sexuality (“we are born male and female and called to come together in love in this thing called marriage”) are core enough to my identity and my sense of what is required for communal good that I am willing to suffer rather than renounce them, if necessary. They are not positions I hold, they are part of who I am.

Corvino acknowledges that in a gay-affirming culture more people will label their feelings as gay and grow up to live a gay life, which he sees as the great moral advance on the subject and orthodox Catholics see as Not a Good Thing. (Although the openly gay community of priests, brothers, and seminarians in Corvinos’ seminary by his account applauded his coming out).

I do not have strong feelings whether Hannon is right or whether  orthodox gay Catholics like Eve Tushnet are right in thinking she should retain her lesbian identity while committing herself to faithful Christian practice (meaning in her current situation, celibacy).

But as an atheist, that is not the question that John Corvino is thinking about.