I really enjoy your blog, and I am writing to get your help and advice. Someone I know who rejects the Church’s teaching about sexuality wrote to me as follows. He is a candidate for a theology degree.
"Augustine is clearly the determinative person for western Christianity's thoughts on sex and marriage. There are two places I began my questioning:
“1) Augustine's understanding of desire. He thinks sex is only good when it makes a child; he does not see a difference between desire and lust (the drive to satisfy particular physical urges with another person). That is, if non-procreative sex can still have a good as its end, namely the fulfillment of desire which teaches us something about God's love for and desire for us, then there may be space for same-sex and non-procreative sex within marriages.
“2) Augustine's understanding of marriage. He thinks marriage is the discipline of sexual moderation for the mediocre Christian. If the celibate is the holier Christian, then marriage is the place of mediocrity. Yet, there is no mediocre expression of gay sexuality. So, while celibacy is understood to be a gift from God, it is also understood to be a requirement for those who are gay, and a requirement for Christian faithfulness. But that suggests that there is something that God may not gift someone with that they must nevertheless exercise on their own, namely celibacy. That starts to sound like the Pelagian heresy, in which one's own goodness is determinative for the capacity to save oneself. That does not add up."
I would appreciate your thoughts and advice about how to respond.
It seems to me that your friend’s arguments are a series of non sequitur, but this isn’t just about same-sex attraction. Arguments like his are frequently used to justify heterosexual misbehavior, which is much more widespread.
First faulty argument, concerning the Church’s teaching:
1. Augustine had more influence on the Church’s teaching about sex than anyone else.
2. Therefore, we may treat Augustine’s view of sex as though they were the Church’s teachings about sex.
Invalid, because even if premise 1 were correct, the conclusion does not follow. We cannot substitute an influence on the Church’s teaching for what the Church actually teaches.
Second faulty argument, concerning the good of marriage:
1. Celibacy is a higher calling than marriage.
2. Therefore marriage serves no positive good, but only a negative good, restraining lust.
Invalid, because from the fact that the celibacy is even better, it does not follow that marriage is not very good in itself. In fact, August explicitly declares that marriage serves several positive goods, each of which depends on the difference of sex. As he writes in On the Good of Marriage, “concerning the good of marriage ... there is good ground to inquire for what reason it be a good. And this seems not to me to be merely on account of the begetting of children, but also on account of the natural society itself in a difference of sex.”
Third faulty argument, concerning lust and desire:
1. Augustine keeps warning about bad sexual desire.
2. He must not think there is any such thing as good sexual desire.
Invalid, because Augustine vigorously denies that the Creator of the attraction of the sexes could have created anything evil. In the treatise I quoted above, he smiles upon the “gravity of glowing pleasure, when in that wherein husband and wife cleave to one another, they have in mind that they be father and mother.” What else is it to cleave to each other, but to be united in the coital embrace? Sure, Augustine puts a lot of energy into warning about lust – about disordered sexual desire which rages against nature and reason – but only because the Fall has so deeply wounded us.
Fourth faulty argument, concerning the meaning of temperance:
1. People who are attracted to the opposite sex are allowed to temper disorderly sexual desire by getting married.
2. Therefore, people who are attracted to the same sex should be allowed to temper disorderly sexual desire by indulging it in some way.
Invalid, because temperance requires limiting the sexual embrace to its proper occasion. Desire which is directed to an unnatural object has no proper occasion. Therefore, indulging it is intrinsically incapable of tempering it.
Fifth faulty argument, concerning the remedy for lust:
1. People who are attracted to the opposite sex have a legitimate way to relieve their desires.
2. Therefore everyone should have a legitimate way to relieve their desires.
Invalid, because there is no right way to relieve a desire directed to a wrong object. People who are attracted to the same sex can do the same thing that people attracted to the opposite sex can do when marriage is not possible: They can practice the discipline of abstinence. To many persons today – heterosexuals too -- this seems impossible because their desires are so fierce. But their desires are made fiercer by continual indulgence.
Sixth faulty argument, concerning consecrated celibacy:
1. Not every single person is called to consecrated celibacy.
2. Therefore not every single person is required to be abstinent.
Invalid, because although not every single person is called to the consecrated religious life of which abstinence is a part, every single person, irrespective of calling, is called to be abstinent.
Seventh faulty argument, concerning moral discipline and salvation.
1. Augustine thinks we are able to practice abstinence.
2. Therefore Augustine thinks we are able to save ourselves, which is the Pelagian heresy.
Invalid, because as Augustine explains in On Marriage and Concupiscence, even unredeemed persons can abstain from unchaste acts, even if only to avoid trouble. However, this is not enough. Salvation requires not just abstention from things that are forbidden, but the transformation of motive by charity, which is a gift of grace.
Remain your friend’s friend, because the mere refutation of his excuses is unlikely to reach his heart. But to reach his heart, you may have to get past his excuses.