Mind your language!

(Guest writer and gay priest Bart continues his weekly series):

Cogitum autem est in cognoscente secundum modum cognoscentis. No, you haven’t been redirected to another site from QTC! I thought it’s time to grapple a topic which is crucial to our discussion on gay issues. So: A thing known exists in the knower according to the mode of the knower.” This Scholastic principle implies that we can never really speak about the world around us as if we are talking of naked facts. Rather, our human perception of the world impinges on the information we receive from the world around us, thus colouring our reception of information. Facts don’t tell us anything about the world around us, except their being facts. We need to input these facts, analyse and process them, and interpret them in the light of previous knowledge. We have no access to pure experiences of facts, just as much as we do not have access to pure knowledge.

Embraced by Words

Image by Robbert van der Steeg via Flickr

Enter language. Words are the tools we use to interact and grapple with the world of facts, storing information in our mind, manipulating and evaluating that information for further use. There is no such thing as a bare reality which is instantly and purely absorbed. Reality is inevitably mediated by the human person, and consequently by human society, because we receive our words, and therefore our language from others. Meaning is essential to our interaction with reality, and meaning is dependent on the human society within which it is framed. Contextualisation thus becomes an essential part of the game when we try to analyse issues. Realising that our thoughts, the words we use to express them, and the meaning that is attached to these words are all products of the human way of thinking is an important start. Humans develop these thinking patterns through interaction with their peers in society, and that are thus subject to a continuous process of development.

I may have oversimplified my explanation above, but even so, it’s pretty clear that those who insist on reading Scripture in a literalist fashion, as well as those who build their arguments on “natural law” are on shaky foundations. In the former case, the mistake is due to a lack of contextualisation of the scriptural texts. To those who argue that the moral standards that govern human behaviour are objectively derived from the nature of human beings and the nature of the world, the response would be that (i) the nature of the world is always subject to human interpretation and meaning, and (ii) it is in the nature of human beings to evolve and develop – any moral standards need to take that into account and develop accordingly.

The above prelude leads me directly to my discussion on gay issues. Let me start by giving an example. Scientific evidence to the contrary, there are still many today who decry gay sex as unnatural. Which obviously provokes the question: what is natural? Often, the argument is that our biological plumbing is proof that only heterosexual, penetrative (we may add: procreative) sex is morally acceptable. And how is this so, if I may ask? Aren’t we making a serious logical mistake of moving from “facts” to moral statements? Sparks start to fly when we introduce words such as family, love, marriage.  These words can hardly be referring to bare facts that exist in some pristine state of nature. Such words are intimately tied to human society. Let us take the plunge and have a look at the word “marriage.”

In one of his more recent posts (Pope Benedict’s Strong Argument for Gay Marriage, Queer Families) Terry discussed Benedict’s address to a group of politicians in Italy earlier this month. Unsurprisingly, the Pope raised the subject of the family, calling the family “the primary cell of society … founded on marriage between a man and a woman.” The pitch is cranked up a couple of notches, as he moves on to say:

The approval of forms of union which pervert the essence and goal of the family ends up penalising those people who, not without effort, seek to maintain stable emotional ties which are juridically guaranteed and publicly recognised. In this context, the Church looks with favour upon all initiatives which seek to educate young people to experience love as a giving of self, with an exalted and oblational view of sexuality. To this end the various components of society must agree on the objectives of education, in order for human love not to be reduced to an article of consumption, but to be seen and lived as a fundamental experience which gives existence meaning and a goal.” [Emphases mine]

In terms of what I have attempted to explain earlier, it becomes clear that in the texts I have just quoted, words are being used to define reality in a particular way (granted that the Pope is following a specific tradition). If one is to argue from such a definition, then one also has to be aware of the flaws in such an argument. “Between a man and a woman” as a definition doesn’t really stand the tests of history and socio-anthropology because it is a culturally biased definition. That we, in Western society, assume that marriage is between one man and one woman, we cannot thereby exclude other possible unions. Neither does it rob these other unions of their meaningfulness; the reason being that one cannot bring scientific proof or arguments from “nature” to prove that marriage has to be defined in such a way.

What the Pope probably fails to realise is that by fighting tooth and nail to block legislation extending marriage to same-sex couples – or aiding groups bent on reversing such legislation where it exists – the Church is liable to the same condemnation. The reason being that it “ends up penalising those people who, not without effort, seek to maintain stable emotional ties which are juridically guaranteed and publicly recognised,” in this case, same-sex couples and their children. Is the Church’s leadership so out of sync with what LGBT persons are asking for when these demand equal marriage rights? Isn’t it precisely for the same reasons that the Pope is giving, that is: “in order for human love not to be reduced to an article of consumption, but to be seen and lived as a fundamental experience which gives existence meaning and a goal”? And seriously, are these forms of union seeking to pervert (Benedict’s words) anything? That sounds a tad homophobic to me.

I will continue to expand on the topic of marriage and civil unions/partnerships in my next post. As a teaser I thought of including the following video (you may also watch it here):



Suggested reading:

The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Todd A Salzman & Michael G Lawler)

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (John Boswell)

The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (Mark D Jordan)

Gay Catholic Priests And Clerical Sexual Misconduct: Breaking The Silence (Donald L Boisvert & Robert E Goss, editors)

Previously, in this “Gay Priest” series:

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