Okay, so someone in a com-box responding to Steel Magnificat’s recent post asked for a serious essay about whether homosexuality is a religious issue, or a natural law issue. Dealing with this in terms of Catholic doctrine, and the way that we understand the natural law, is a fairly complex undertaking.Today, I want to do something altogether simpler.
Rather than defending a particular position vis a vis a traditional natural law analysis of homosexual acts, I’m going to take a step back and look at the situation in terms of discursive strategy. My argument is that trying to argue against homosexuality from a natural law point of view in contemporary discourse is about as prudent and effective as the charge of the Light Brigade – which, for those of you who don’t know either the history of the Crimean war, or the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson, was basically a massive military blunder in which some light cavalry were accidentally ordered to make a frontal assault on a well-defended Russian artillery battery. With predictable results.
It then proceeds to list some of the pitfalls of talking about "natural law" with your typical modern secular (or, to be honest, often religious) interlocutor, starting with the confusion over what "natural" means anyway and going on from there. The post wraps up:
10. The Definition of Insanity Is To Keep Doing The Same Thing And Expect Different Result. Christians have been trying this natural law approach for decades. They have been steadily losing ground for decades. Arguing against homosexuality from natural law is demonstrably ineffectual. It produces no converts. It draws no souls to Christ. It doesn’t even convince people to oppose gay marriage. It’s a lame horse. Giving it another run will not alter the results. It has not worked, and it’s not going to work – for all of the reasons given above. It’s time to put this old argument out to pasture, and try a different approach.
The author promised to provide a post on how the question should addressed if not via natural law, and so I read that post too when it appeared: Beyond Nature: 10 Alternatives to Natural Law
Perhaps unsurprisingly given that the first post didn't actually focus on problems with natural law arguments, but rather on how not all people are ready to be convinced by natural law arguments, this post is not actually about alternatives to natural law, but rather about how to get people to be prepared to listen to Church teaching on sexual ethics. For example:
Pro-Good Choice – There’s a great scene in The Walking Dead where one of the characters has been asked to procure abortifacients for a woman who is pregnant during the zombie apocalypse. He does as she asks…but he also brings her prenatal vitamins. In doing so, he gives concrete shape to the possibility of choosing life. Sidewalk counselors and crisis pregnancy centres often use similar approaches to help women in crisis pregnancies make the right decisions. At the moment, when it comes to homosexuality not only are we failing to offer positive realistic alternatives to gay relationships, but anyone who makes an attempt to figure out what those alternatives might look like can expect to do so under heavy fire – not from the LGBTQ community, but from fellow Christians who seem to just want gay people to disappear.
Perhaps I'm unfairly going after the author for awkward framing, but I think the important thing missing here is an understanding of what an argument is for. An argument's purpose is to lay out the truth in a way that can be understood by reason. To achieve this, an argument should be clear and logical. However, the fact that an argument does a good job of achieving its purpose, of laying out the truth in a way which can be understood does not necessarily mean that the person hearing the argument will agree with it.
There are many reasons why someone might not accept an argument. He might disagree with its assumptions. He might not like its implications. He might dislike or distrust the person making the argument. None of these would represent a problem with the argument itself.
As the author perceives, there are a lot of things which are not arguments which will nonetheless make someone far more inclined to listen to your moral beliefs than a clear argument. Rationally or not, people are often much more moved by things like "I like this person" or "this person seems to be happy" than by rational arguments.
Does this mean that we should stop making arguments and focus on being friends with people instead? No. The real answer is, of course, more complicated. We cannot expect arguments, however good, in and of themselves to persuade people right away. Sometimes they may. Some people are actively seeking truth, and when they encounter a good argument, they have the openness and grace to see the truth in it immediately and be changed. Others actively do not want to hear a given truth. No matter how good the argument for a teaching, they will not accept it until grace opens their minds. How does that happen? Many different ways.
Perhaps it's affection for a given person. Lots of real conversions have started with affection for a given person.
Perhaps it's some other area of belief. Someone becomes deeply convinced of one truth -- perhaps that Jesus was God made man, and that He founded a church for our salvation -- and only after accepting that comes around to accepting other areas of Christian teaching which before seemed unbelievable.
We need to understand that the purpose of an argument is to lay out the truth clear, but that simply laying out the truth clearly is not necessarily enough to have it accepted. Making a good argument is worthwhile for its own sake. But it is also not sufficient to cause someone's conversion. And indeed, on the flip side, people often convert without actually being presented with good arguments.