The Pope and the “Play-Doh” theory of sexuality

Among the pieces of good commentary about Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the Roman Curia is a recent post by philosophy professor Joseph G. Trabbic, which takes on criticisms made by three Italian “gay rights activists”. Here is Trabbic’s response to the seond of the three:

We turn now to Aurelio Mancuso, the president of Equality Italia:

For some years now in the Vatican the question of gender theory has been used to call into question the acquisition of civil rights by homosexuals. To help the Curia to put things into perspective we could say that the culture of gender is similar to the choice of celibacy (castitÀ), that is, they are moral and personal convictions that have nothing to do with what is given by nature (sono convinzioni morali e personali che non c’entrano con il dato naturale). If we really want to debate each other with good will, we need to start with the scientific and statistical findings that show two essential facts: homosexuality is in no way linked to the diminishment of heterosexual marriage; the societies that legally recognize all forms of love increase the well-being of their citizens.

There is a touch either of silliness or sarcasm in these comments; I can’t tell which. The distinction between what is by nature and what is by choice is elementary in Catholic thought to the extent that it draws (as it does quite heavily) on Aristotelianism and Thomism. The Roman Curia surely do not need Mancuso’s instruction on this matter – he might as well pretend to teach geometers arithmetic.

From the Catholic perspective nature, that is, natural law, ideally guides us in our choices. And, it goes without saying, the proper application of natural law requires prudence. This is not to suggest that we all in fact think of or understand what nature demands when we act. Again, I am talking about the ideal. So, from the Catholic perspective the distinction between nature and choice is assumed: the question is whether the choice is in conformity with nature. Catholic thought denies that homosexual acts are in conformity with nature. Does Mancuso accept a natural law approach to morality? If so, what is his argument in defense of homosexual acts being in conformity with natural law? If he does not accept the natural law approach, what is his complaint against it? These are the salient questions to be asked.

Mancuso also tells us that we need to consider scientific and statistical findings about the relationship between homosexuality and heterosexual marriage as well as the positive effect of legalization of all forms of love on our well-being. First of all, is it too much to ask for the numbers and the details of these studies? Like Grillini’s employment of the hermeneutics of suspicion, the crucial weakness in Mancuso’s appeal to science and statistics is the evidence. I do not wish to imply that there is none. I only wish for it to be presented.

Secondly, when Mancuso says that there is no link between homosexuality and the diminishment of heterosexual marriage, what does he mean by “diminishment”? Are we talking about diminishment in numbers, in respect for heterosexual marriage, in the quality of such marriages? What exactly is at stake here? I can think of good reasons to doubt Mancuso’s claim if any one of these three senses is in play. In any society in which homosexual lifestyles were once discouraged but are now broadly accepted and encouraged are we to believe that we would not find any empirically verifiable diminishment in heterosexual marriage in any of these three senses during the later time period? But I don’t want to waste time on a hypothetical. Once Mancuso provides the evidence to which he alludes we can continue that conversation.

Thirdly, is it really true that, as Mancuso asserts, “the societies that legally recognize all forms of love increase the well-being of their citizens”? Well, to have a fruitful discussion, we would first need to know what Mancuso means by “love.” If he includes here homosexual love, then there would be a basic disagreement with Catholics, since, appealing to natural law and revelation, we would take homosexual relationships to be disordered forms of “love.” As such, they could not, in our view, contribute to anyone’s well-being. If Mancuso thinks otherwise, he can go on claiming that they do or he could formulate an argument against the Catholic view. I suppose we would probably have to arrive at an understanding of what “well-being” means too.

In the introduction to his responses, Trabbic notes the philosophical geneology of the gender theory that Benedict criticizes:

Featuring prominently in the address is a discussion of an approach in contemporary gender theory that takes human sexuality to be the product of our own creativity and choices. You might call it the “Play-Doh” theory of sexuality. Borrowing from an essay by the chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, the pope indicates Simone de Beauvoir as laying the foundation for this view. “[O]n ne naît pas femme, on le devient,” de Beauvoir writes in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), that is, “one is not born a woman, one becomes one.” You could, of course, point to kindred ideas in more recent thinkers, like the later Foucault’s talk of life as a work of art, or trace a genealogy back through Sartre’s thesis about existence preceding essence, which he more or less gets from the Heidegger of Being and Time (1927), whether or not Heidegger wishes to acknowledge it. And you could press even further back to more remote causes: Nietzsche’s notion of interpretation, for example. But I don’t care to do any of that here. Let’s look further at what Benedict had to say to the Curia.

Read Trabbic’s entire post.

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.