"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ecology and Autonomy

Yesterday, the Pope spoke of the need to recognize and defend something called the "ecology of man." Significantly, the occasion was the "traditional exchange of Christmas greetings with prelates and members of the Roman Curia." What attracted media attention was, of course, not so much explanation of our duty to be responsible stewards of the rest of the planet; apparently that's taken as platitudinous, which it isn't. The antennae went up for his remarks on gender theory.


"It is not outmoded metaphysics," Benedict XVI affirmed, "when Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman, and demands that this order of creation be respected." He said it has more to do with "faith in the Creator and listening to the language of creation, the contempt of which will lead to the self destruction of humanity." The Pope warned against the manipulation that takes place in national and international forums when the term "gender" is altered. "What is often expressed and understood by the term 'gender,' is definitively resolved in the self-emancipation of the human being from creation and the Creator," he warned. "Man wants to create himself, and to decide always and exclusively on his own about what concerns him." The Pontiff said this is man living "against truth, against the creating Spirit." "The rain forests certainly deserve our protection, but man as creature indeed deserves no less," he added.

The immediate expressions of outrage at that were predictable. What's remarkable about them all the same is their unintended irony.

Most people who consider themselves environmentalists are also left-wing politically and, as such, favor "homosexual rights." Like the Pope, they want to protect the natural ecology; but unlike him, they don't seem to think that there is a human ecology, distinct but not separate from the natural, which entails a normative human sexuality. Indeed, there's a strong movement at the UN to "de-criminalize" homosexual activity, which the Obama Administration will doubtless sign onto. Now as a Catholic and a conservative, I too favor the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults, as well as of prostitution involving consenting adults, because I believe that such laws cannot be enforced fairly. To that extent, I actually disagree with the Pope. But the decriminalization of homosexual acts is only one item, and not the most important one, on the LGBT agenda. As the reaction to Proposition 8's victory in California indicates, that agenda is less interested in privacy, democracy, and due process than in establishing an ever-widening range of sexual deviancy (i.e., what the phrase "Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender" is really referring to) as equal in moral value to marriage, and in some cases even as marriage. If incoveniences such as the will of the people in a sovereign state get in the way, then recourse to other authorities (the courts, the UN, the Episcopal Church) must be had to eliminate them.

That kind of determination signifies a radical philosophical anthropology, not merely a desire to be free of oppression and hate. The idea is that the freedom of the human person is not so much freedom within the limitations of human nature as freedom to define what human nature is to encompass. Thus if I experience, as a given prior to choice, a desire for genital intercourse with members of the same sex, then respecting my freedom means affirming me when I define my personal identity in those terms. If I experience myself as being of one gender-identity when my overt bodily features would suggest that I'm of the opposite gender-identity, then respecting my freedom means affirming me in my choice to alter my body, surgically and chemically, so as to bring my physical reality more into line with what I take to be my spiritual reality. If all that is so, then the Pope's call for respecting a sexual "ecology of man" on pain of collective self-destruction is a rejection of human freedom at a very basic level, akin to medieval Christendom's physical punishment of those who publicly professed heresy. The Church has outgrown the latter; so why not the former?

The reason is that the latter was a historical distortion of the divine and natural law, whereas the former is a rejection of the very idea of the divine and natural law. Once we claim the right to treat heterosexuality as only an empirical norm, rejecting any suggestion that it is also the moral norm, then we have re-committed the sin of our first parents: aspiring to be as gods, "knowing good and evil" apart from what God has told us. By transgressing the limits God has set for us, we have claimed a moral autonomy that leads only to our spiritual self-destruction. "Original" sin is that state of spiritual destruction which we inherit from our first parents. Carried as far as we've carried that today—e.g., with atomic weaponry, human cloning, and now the idea that marriage need not be between men and women—it could lead to our physical self-destruction too.

Of course the "progressive" response to all this is to insist that religion needs more updating, more "enlightenment," not that humanity needs more humility and self-abnegation before God. But once again, that betrays the assumption that religion as well as morality is a purely human cultural product. The idea that an all-powerful, perfectly holy God might actually have told us that sodomy is an abomination must be "outmoded metaphysics," so that sticking to such an idea is naïve, or a mere defense mechanism, or downright evil. I've heard it all before, and I've heard it many times. But I don't buy it. Like many other human tendencies, homosexuality is objectively disordered at the psychic level—which ought to be evident just by knowing what human genitalia are for. It is incompatible with the ecology of man.

I find it funny that left-wing environmentalists and Gaia-worshippers don't get that. But this Christmas season, when we contemplate God's assuming human nature in the form of an infant, it is perhaps one of the most serious truths we can contemplate.
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