Daniel Avila’s piece on the causes of homosexual orientation has people, including David Gibson and our friends at dot.Commonweal, upset. The problem is that, near the end of his explanation, Avila cites the devil as the ultimate cause of homosexual inclinations. He has since apologized and was removed from his position as policy advisor on marriage to the USCCB. However, I would like to look carefully at his explanation of homosexual attraction, since it is helpful and illuminating in several ways:
More than once I have heard from or about Catholics upset with the Church for its insistence that sexual relations be limited to marriage between husband and wife. Does not this moral rule force people with same-sex attraction into lives of loneliness? If they are born that way, then why should they be punished by a restriction that does not account for their pre-existing condition? God wants everyone to be happy, and for persons with same-sex attraction is not their happiness to be found in the fulfillment of that attraction? Some seek to change the Church’s teaching on marriage or have left the Church because of it. They believe either that God through the Church ignores the needs of people or that the Church misunderstands what God desires.
That is, if God causes same-sex attraction, and yet commands that it not be satisfied, then this is divine cruelty. Or, if God causes same-sex attraction, then it must be the divine will that those with the attraction should act on it and it is the Church that is being cruel in its teaching or at the very least tragically mistaken about what God wants. In either case, the belief that the Church is wrong on this issue starts from a faulty premise. God does not cause same-sex attraction.
He does a nice job of laying out the dilemma. If God causes homosexual attraction, then how can he punish people for acting on it? He goes on to explain where this orientation comes from:
The best natural evidence of what God causes and wants for us is our genetic code. Science has isolated certain genetic combinations that are typical to human creation and development. The most basic and the first genetic expression is that which occurs at our conception, when at the same time our individual human life begins our sexual identity as male or female begins. That which is genetically encoded, for believers, points to a codifier, and communicates through its design the codifier’s intent. Interpreting from a spiritual perspective the genetic code which supplies our sexual difference, we have to conclude that God wants us to be male or female.
No one has found a “gay gene.” Identical twins are always, of course, the same sex, providing further proof of male and female genes. If there was a gay gene, then when one twin exhibits same-sex attraction, his or her identical sibling should too. But that is not the case. The incidence of finding identical twins with identical same-sex attraction is relatively rare and certainly not anywhere near one hundred percent. Something other than the hardwiring found in the genetic code must explain the variance.
So what causes the inclination to same-sex attraction if it appears early and involuntarily and “who,” if anyone, is responsible? In determining the answer to the “what” question, the most widely accepted scientific hypothesis points to random imbalances in maternal hormone levels and identifies their disruptive prenatal effects on fetal development as the likely and major cause.
Thus, homosexuality is “caused” by random imbalances. In that sense, it’s cause is in no way different than anything else caused in nature — by random natural selection and random modification. All scientifically observable causality is secondary causality, only caused by God insofar as God “upholds all causes in their causing,” as Aquinas explained.
The “problematic” material is in what follows:
The most recent and most comprehensive discussion of this research is found in a book published earlier this year by a scientist who also happens to be a gay-rights advocate. Even though it discounts other environmental factors that other scientists believe also may play a role, Simon LeVay’s publication, “Gay, Straight and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Attraction” is worth the read.
LeVay is not interested in the “who” question and describes same-sex attraction as just a variation among other human inclinations. Catholics do not have the luxury of being materialists. We look for ultimate explanations that transcend the strictly physical world and that stretch beyond our limited ability to mold and reshape reality as we know it. Disruptive imbalances in nature that thwart encoded processes point to supernatural actors who, unlike God, do not have the good of persons at heart.
In other words, the scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil. Any time natural disasters occur, we as people of faith look back to Scripture’s account of those angels who rebelled and fell from grace. In their anger against God, these malcontents prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. They continue to do all they can to mar, distort and destroy God’s handiwork.
Therefore, whenever natural causes disturb otherwise typical biological development, leading to the personally unchosen beginnings of same-sex attraction, the ultimate responsibility, on a theological level, is and should be imputed to the evil one, not God. Applying this aspect of Catholic belief to interpret the scientific data makes more sense because it does not place God in the awkward position of blessing two mutually incompatible realities — sexual difference and same-sex attraction.
If in fact this analysis of causation and culpability is correct, then it opens new perspectives on the Church’s teaching in this area. Being born with an inclination which originates in a manner outside of one’s control is not sufficient proof that the condition is caused by God or that its satisfaction meets God’s purpose. Furthermore, a proper understanding of who is really at fault should deepen our compassion towards those who experience same-sex attraction and inform our response to the question of loneliness. Ultimately, an accurate attribution of responsibility for same-sex attraction frees us to consider more fully the urgent question of why sexual difference matters so much to God. These matters will be addressed in my next column.
The crux of the argument lies in this point: “Being born with an inclination which originates in a manner outside of one’s control is not sufficient proof that the condition is caused by God or that its satisfaction meets God’s purpose.” This seems completely valid to me, and his analysis of sin as the root to unhealthy imbalances is also a legitimate explanation. However an inclination, just because it is “variation” on normal sexual inclination, is not thereby necessarily illegitimate. For that, the Church has always turned to Scripture.
However, Avila has gotten to the core of the argument, as David Gibson points out at Commonweal:
On a somewhat more serious note, I wonder if this Avila kerfuffle and the anxious reactions of his defenders is symptomatic of a segment of the church that is painted into a corner on homosexuality. As evidence grows of an innate aspect of being gay, as is being straight, it provides a huge challenge to a church that preaches the innate dignity of each person. The responses from those who cannot square this circle seem to be to make arguments from pseudo-science that attempt to argue away the gay, while another fallback is to say that homosexuality is a thing but homosexuals cannot be themselves in the way every other person can be. They are in a straitjacket of celibacy, rather than receiving that as a gift, and yet for many (in the Vatican and elsewhere) they should not even be ordained celibates. This requires a cognitive dissonance, or understandably leads to a kind of panic, I think, that makes some look foolish when they try to reconcile the church’s best instincts with its worst, and perforce use bad theology or science or both to do so. Thoughts?
Gibson is not fair here to Catholic thought on the matter, nor does he take LeVay seriously. Not every genetic predisposition is a “gift,” which surely he would admit to an alcoholic. But he does put his finger on the matter: If being gay is innate, and humans are innately created in God’s image, then being gay is part of being in God’s image.
Part of the problem here is that Avila seems to conflate genetic hardwiring with natural law. The long evolutionary history of human beings has hardwired a variety of things into our genetic code: an inordinate taste for salt, for violence, in some for alcohol, etc. But that does not mean that these are all part of the natural law. Rather, ultimately the decision of the Church is based not on “nature” but on an interpretation of nature in the light of revelation. And this is true of all morality. The Church, in the light of revelation, has decided that the homosexual inclination is one of those inclinations, whether within our genetic make-up or external to it, that is not a part of God’s plan for sexuality and for human society. There is no “cognitive dissonance” here, only the interpretation that is always required to understand the human condition.