Last week, I had a post on Catholicism, homosexuality, teleology, and holding hands. The post generated a discussion among some friends, and I thought I’d share it (to begin, you should probably skim the post here).
The cast of characters:
- Beth, college professor
- Chris, author of this blog (and pot-stirrer)
- Sam, husband/father/architect (and skeptic towards social media debates)
- Josh, seminarian
- David, canon lawyer
- Liz, mother of 3 (and avid reader of Aquinas)
- Tom, a lover, not a fighter
Beth: I had one question after reading this. Is sex good in itself? Isn’t it good in some situations and not in others, and therefore not good in itself?
Chris: So, I would say that, yes, sex is good in itself, though it is good in some situations and not in others. So, sex is a good thing, though it shouldn’t always be done in every circumstance. I’d say something similar about hugging people, as well.
But my concern here would be the insistence that a married couple come up with sufficient reasons, before engaging in it. Certainly they should be responsible and discerning, but they don’t need to provide grand justifications for it. I hope that makes sense…
Sam: Married people don’t need to go through a justification ritual every time they have sex because they made the decision with their vows to give the proper justification to sex. It’s a false dichotomy to set up “over-thought sex” against “non-teleological sex.”
But, of course, you can’t have “non-teleological sex” or any “non-teleological” action. You always do things for some reason, even if it’s a bad reason. So, gay sexual activity has an end, as does holding hands, whether between gay persons, or between straight persons, or between a gay person and a straight person. The question is whether the end is a good one or not.
Or how else would we be able to determine what actions should be done or not?
Chris: Perhaps I should clarify. I’m not arguing at all against teleology. I’m a big fan of teleology, and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s improper to think about things in teleological terms. My concern is more about: 1) the burden of having to articulate teleology, and 2) the pursuit of, more or less “deep teleology,” which ends up being a sort of secret motivation which may or may not make sense to the actor, hidden beneath actions which may best be considered in themselves.
Sam: And what I’m saying is that actions can’t be considered “in themselves.” Only subjects can be considered “in themselves.” An action can only be considered on the basis of what it moves the subject toward.
Chris: Oh, that’s helpful. Ok, so maybe the distinction I set up wasn’t very clear. I suppose two things I’m pushing against would be: 1) insistences to put all actions into articulated teleological terms before they can be done, and 2) over-broad considerations in the scope of teleology. For example, saying that handholding must be connected to a future event like marriage, rather than just considering it as part of a more present enclosed intimacy.
Josh: Pursuing an immediate good within the context of some kind of tradition that safeguards its appropriateness in relation to more ultimate ends is what allows you to “be present” and enjoy that more immediate good, without needing to fall into constant abstract justification. There are so many examples of this.
Think about food and cuisine. A regional cuisine provides a framework that, broadly speaking, orders eating towards health. Because of this framework, the more immediate good of eating itself can be enjoyed and relished. It’s not that no one ever thought about the relation of eating those particular foods to the more ultimate good of health; it’s that a tradition was developed within which those considerations were built-in, so the relation between each meal and overall health does not need to be constantly considered.
The same could be said for the rule of life of a religious community. Or the routines of a busy layman. The routine is what allows the busy layman to enjoy his play time as the immediate, intrinsic good it is precisely because of the routine limits and guides this time and provides criteria for when it is and isn’t appropriate. I think this is what Chesterton means when he talks about doctrine being like the walls of the playground… not merely that they protect, but that they allow one to fully enter into and be present to the immediate good before them.
Chris: I think I agree with all that.
Josh: Your issue seems to be that you think the “tradition” with regards to romantic affection is inadequate, underdeveloped, etc. Maybe it is. But if I found myself in a situation where there wasn’t a developed cuisine, my approach would not be to say “Ah, well I’m just going to eat cake all the time because it’s an immediate good and considering how it relates to the more ultimate good of health is abstracting and preventing me from enjoying my cake!”
I think we all can see that something is off there, and that, no, the more ultimate good of health does in a way need to be a criteria brought into play, at least insofar as there is no established cuisine. It’s hard work, and yes, probably allows one to be less present in the enjoyment of those immediate goods, but it seems necessary to actually make sure they are goods.
And I don’t know if I think it is inadequate or underdeveloped. I probably don’t.
David: I just want to chime in with a caution re: “But of course you can’t have ‘non-teleological sex’ or any ‘non-teleological’ action. You can always do things for some reason, even if it’s a bad reason.”
Not to say that I disagree with this, but only that, when speaking about teleology, I do think we need to be careful to distinguish between our own human ends or motivations, and nature’s ends or purposes.
Because “nature’s ends” (e.g. what nature intends the body to be used for) is far and away the primary point of departure for a discussion centered on Thomistic teleology or natural law, and doubly so when it comes to speaking about anything as “intrinsically disordered” according to nature… even though our own imposed human ends remain important when it comes to ethics. I guess I’m just saying that if “what the individual intends” is the first thing you’re jumping to analyze, you’re kind of starting on the wrong foot. And if something is not genuinely contrary to nature’s ends, then the playing field for analysis looks very different… That is to say, there is a legitimate “playing field” at all.
Sam: Yes, I agree, but I think our human motivations are either tied to nature’s ends or they’re not. In the case of holding hands, it’s not intrinsically linked to marriage and thus the “natural end” of marriage isn’t necessarily relevant. However, the natural end of friendship is relevant, and our human motivations can either tie into that or work against it. It could be totally consistent with the end of friendship for two gay men to hold hands. It could also be contrary to it, depending on our human motivations.
I will say this. I think Chris is right, that we shouldn’t judge hand-holding based on how it relates to the natural end of marriage, no matter who it is holding hands, unless the human motivation is partially sexual, in which case it does fall under the natural end of marriage. I will fully admit that two gay men can hold hands without sexual motivation, but I think it would be a mistake to discount the possibility that it does happen with a sexual motivation in some cases, just as it can between a heterosexual couple.
Liz: I think Chris’s post makes a good point. Why are you putting your shoes on? To go for a walk. The shoes are not an end in themselves. Why am I going for a walk? For the joy of going for a walk. It can be an end in itself. Of course I could also say, to get to the grocery store, to buy chicken, to make dinner… Endless teleology can become kind of utilitarian.
I’m not saying I think gay men should hold hands. I think that they shouldn’t. I just agree with you that not all things need a justification, and I think I even agree that hand-holding doesn’t necessarily need a justification, intrinsically.
Sam: I’d quibble with your example, since “the joy of going for a walk” is not the same thing as “going for a walk,” so the action isn’t done for its own sake, but for the sake of the joy that accompanies it.
Liz: I think that means that the walk is an end in itself, to be appreciated for itself. I mean, I think what you’re saying is also correct, because all of creation exists for the sake of our enjoyment of it. But we can enjoy something without having a greater purpose for enjoying it. Going for a walk to go for a walk, as opposed to walking for exercise, transportation, nature study, camaraderie, brain-clearing, inner meditation, etc.
It doesn’t need a justification, except that walks are nice. I don’t have to snuggle with my baby for the sake of attachment, or emotional regulation. But you’re right, that if something can’t be ultimately traced to what is good for us, then it’s bad for us. Even if it doesn’t need to be thought out that far to know that it’s good.
Sam: I think you have to distinguish between the action of walking from the joy that comes from walking. They are different categories of being, and one is done for the sake of the other.
Chris: So, I thought about this a bit more, and I should clarify the point I think my post makes, which is quite narrow: we shouldn’t have to prove something fulfills a specific ultimate good in order to engage in it. Such a requirement leads to insanity.
Sam: For sure. On the other hand, an exclusive focus on the immediate apparent good of an action is a dangerous approach. We are exceptionally good at justifying bad behavior with the “good” of something.
Liz: I think we should be able to prove that something a) contributes to some true good, if not an ultimate good, and b) does not cause harm, or brings about good that outweighs the harm.
Tom: I expect a whisper in my ear upon our next embrace.