Friday, June 09, 2006

Natural Law and the Catholic Medical Association

A recent visitor to my web site e-mailed me and asked me to comment on the Catholic Medical Association's publication on homosexuality, Homosexuality and Hope, this after reading my posts about the identity police. The CMA's position is that homosexuality is changeable through therapy, maybe not cured but changeable. For instance the publication claims that:

"If the emotional and developmental needs of each child are properly met by both family and peers, the development of same-sex attraction is very unlikely. Children need affection, praise and acceptance by each parent, by siblings and by peers. Such social and family situations, however, are not always easily established and the needs of children are not always readily identifiable."

In other words same sex attraction is seen as a symptom of family issues, not something that is biologically based, and certainly not genetically based, and the authors give a long laundry list of what they see as risk factors for the development of homosexual behavior.

The publication argues that homosexuality does not have a genetic basis. For instance the publication claims that :

"If same-sex attraction were genetically determined, then one would expect identical twins to be identical in their sexual attractions. There are, however, numerous reports of identical twins who are not identical in their sexual attractions. (Bailey 1991[11]; Eckert 1986; Friedman 1976; Green 1974; Heston 1968; McConaghy 1980; Rainer 1960; Zuger 1976) Case histories frequently reveal environmental factors which account for the development of different sexual attraction patterns in genetically identical children, supporting the theory that same-sex attraction is a product of the interplay of a variety of environmental factors. (Parker 1964[12])"

Unfortunately this misuses, twin data by ignoring the very real possibility that genetics and environmental factors interact with each other. Many traits are what geneticists call multifactorial- that is they arise through an interaction between genetics and environment. Any good general genetics book will discuss this sort of interaction in greater detail.

The data to date really seem to indicate that homosexuality is just this sort of trait. But most of the twin studies are flawed because the samples were either not properly drawn or the twins were not really reared in different environments. For a dated yet balance discussion of twin studies of homosexuality see Taylor(1992). Even more recent studies attempting to look for genes causally related to homosexual behavior, for instance Dupree(2002), warn that available twin studies should be viewed with caution. Very recently Backlandt, Horvarth, Vilain and Hamer have found evidence that a certain class of homosexuals have mothers with extreme skewing of X chromosome inactivation rather than the random 50:50 inactivation supposedly typical in humans. Whether this indicates a role for the X chromosome in the son, or represents an effect on maternal environment is not clear, at least to me. The point is that genetics and environment seem to interact in complex ways and that there are likely to a number of levels of causality involved.

The CMA then notes:

"Persons should not be identified with their emotional or developmental conflicts as though this were the essence of their identity. In the debate between essentialism and social constructionism, the believer in natural law would hold that human beings have an essential nature -- either male or female -- and that sinful inclinations (such as the desire to engage in homosexual acts) are constructed and can, therefore, be deconstructed."

Notice the belief that gender being either male or female is part of our essential nature as determined by natural law. Natural law according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, citing St. Thomas, is "..the rational creature's participation in the eternal law.", that is the law of God. (As an aside, the CMA continuously conflates same sex attraction with gender identity issues, such as Gender Identity Disorder.)

Thus Natural Law in this sense is related to design, since God sets forth how God wants us to behave in Scripture. Indeed according to the Catholic Encyclopedia Natural Law is universal and every one is bound by it, and it is immutable, unchanging. So there is really no room for any sort of moral relativism or any room for sexual behavior outside of the context of "normal" sexual behavior and of course no room for any gender variance. This sort of typological view namely that we have an essential and universal nature is also very similar to the way scientists used to view species as opposed to the messy but more realistic approach to species taken in biology today.

Now I have some sympathy with some of things stated by CMA from a Catholic perspective for instance:

"For a Catholic with same sex attraction, the goal of therapy should be freedom to live chastely according to one's state in life. Some of those who have struggled with same-sex attractions believe that they are called to a celibate life. They should not be made to feel that they have failed to achieve freedom because they do not experience desires for the other sex. Others wish to marry and have children. There is every reason to hope that many will be able, in time, to achieve this goal. They should not, however, be encouraged to rush into marriage since there is ample evidence that marriage is not a cure for same-sex attractions. With the power of grace, the sacraments, support from the community, and an experienced therapist, a determined individual should be able to achieve the inner freedom promised by Christ."

The CMA at least recognizes that one may always have same sex desires and that the goal of therapy at least from a Catholic perspective is not really to cure homosexuality. However, if by "chastely" means that homosexuals should not act at all on same sex attractions, that is a more complex issue. Perhaps the goal ought to be to allow people to live authentic lives in the context of committed relationships- maybe the same sort of chastity that married men and women are supposed to practice or whatever the patient's goals for therapy are.

Obviously I am not a therapist, but therapy it seems is an art that blends science with dealing with a patients' values perceptions and feelings. If one wants to do therapy from a Catholic perspective, that is fine and quite frankly laudable if thats what the patient wants. See my next post. But one needs to operate from the best science available which seems to be that human nature is more complex than the theological concepts embodied in Natural Law might lead one to think. As Joan Roughgarden amply documents in her recent book Evolution's Rainbow, human sexual and gender variation from "the norm" is way to common to be a disease or disorder. Indeed I suggest that rather than trying to shoehorn people (and scientific findings) into a concept of Natural Law that dates to before the rise of modern science, that Catholic theologians need to reinterpret the basic concept of Natural Law in the light of modern science just as Genesis has been richly reinterpreted in the light of evolution.


Roughgarden, Joan. (2004) Evolution's Rainbow. University of California Press. 474p

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