For Catholicism, arguments matter. And a good conclusion does not transform a bad argument into a good one. For these reasons Archbishop Chaput’s September 19 column, critiquing Fr. James Martin’s approach to sexuality, should concern Catholics. In fighting one scandal, the Archbishop creates another.
In his book, “The Literal Meaning of Genesis,” St. Augustine warns Christians against bad science. Augustine argues that Christians who derive bad science from Scripture weaken not only science but also the claims of Christianity. When discussing natural science, Augustine writes:
“Non-Christians will have knowledge of this in a way that they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. Now, it is quite disgraceful and disastrous… that non-Christians should hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these [scientific] topics. And we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear the Christian maintaining his foolish opinions about our books [of Scripture], how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think our pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”
Augustine calls Christians who proclaim bad science in the name of religion to be “reckless and incompetent.” He chastises even their recitation of Scripture passages from memory to defend their “utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements.” Indeed, their bad science might be even worse than heresy, because it allows non-Christians to dismiss true doctrine before even considering it.
For Augustine and most of the pre-modern world, “science” was not simply confined to biology, physics, or mathematics. Indeed, theology has been considered the “queen of the sciences.” And logic has been considered a science as well. Bad logic, like bad theology, like bad natural science, harms the Church. Indeed, it is scandalous. Seeing that we cannot be trusted with science, non-Christians will not trust us with religion. And this is why the Archbishop’s recent column is, unfortunately, a scandal.
The column is not an unqualified scandal. Catholics everywhere can certainly learn from much of its candor, its desire to affirm sound teaching, and its call for respectful dialogue in an increasingly polarized world. Archbishop Chaput continues his role as educator in drawing on the Catechism and magisterial writings, and we should praise his aim of integrating teaching and experience. However, as stated above, good conclusions (or aims) do not excuse bad logic.
To identify the problem, one need go no further than the Archbishop’s first point, in which he argues against using the phrase “LGBT Catholic” in “Church documents and language.” To prove his position, the Archbishop makes two syllogistic claims and one suggestion. First, he writes that “while the Church does teach that the body is integral to human identity, our sexual appetites do not define who we are.” In making this statement, he suggests that use of the term “LGBT” implies that one’s “sexual appetites” become the defining characteristic of the person. Second, he makes this suggestion lead to the claim that we must identify and act in a certain way: “If we are primarily defined by our sexual attractions, then… it would follow that we must identify with and act on our attractions.” Finally, from this claim he concludes, “Anything calling for the denial or restraint of our sexual appetites would logically amount to repression and even cruelty.”
The problem with this logical progression is that none of these statements actually follow logically from the preceding assertion. The logical leaps are straightforward, so I will consider each syllogism in turn. First, it does not follow that using the term “LGBT” necessitates that one consider “sexual appetites” as the defining characteristic of the person. While people who use the term “LGBT” do consider their sexuality with varying degrees of centrality to their lives, use of the term alone doesn’t necessitate a total centrality any more than use of the terms “American,” “male,” “hispanic,” or “disabled.” Americans use a number of labels to describe themselves, and these labels usually form a constellation of identities with varying degrees of integration and centrality. I share the Archbishop’s concerns about overinflating certain forms of identity and about limitations with regard to integrating certain identities. But the Archbishop’s claim that use of a label necessitates total identification just does not follow logically. To make the point clearer, I wished that many who identify as “Catholic” would make this identity more central to their personhood.
Second, even assuming that adopting a desire-related label necessitates total centrality to identity, the next claim does not follow. An identity attached to attractions (or even activities) doesn’t necessitate that one must act in a particular way, any more than our naming of “the good thief” in Luke’s Gospel necessitates that his thievery continue in heaven. If this were the case, the Archbishop would need to advocate criminal justice reform so that persons would not be labeled as “felons” or sinners be labeled as… “sinners.”
Finally, assuming that the Archbishop’s bad logic were good logic, and that use of an adjective necessitates its centrality to one’s identity, and that it follows that we must act in a way consonant with these desires, it does not follow that “any” call for denial or restraint of an appetite would “logically” amount to repression or cruelty. No reasonable man who identified as straight—and considered “straightness” the key to his identity—would believe that, upon seeing a sexually attractive woman on the street, he should engage in sexual intercourse right then and there. However, this is where the Archbishop’s logic takes us. It leads us to madness and to my non-Catholic friends rolling their eyes.
In addition, I should point out four further issues with his initial point, with hopes that future Catholic writers will do better. First, the Archbishop does not use consistent terminology. He uses “[same-]sex attracted,” “sexual appetites,” and “sexual attractions” in ways that might suggest the terms are almost synonymous, which they are not. Second, he talks about the Gospel’s “clear teaching that our identity is found in Jesus Christ,” when in reality, “identity” as we use it is a modern concept that cannot be found in the texts of the Gospels. The word “identity” doesn’t appear anywhere in either the Old or New Testament. Personhood, the self, and actualization take on different conceptual forms within Scripture. Third, the Archbishop insists on using the term “same-sex attracted” rather than “gay,” a term that some Catholics justify by alleging that “same-sex attracted” is an adjective, while “gay” is a noun. In reality, most people use “gay” as an adjective (as in, for example, the term rejected by the Archbishop, “gay Catholic”). In any event, it’s worth noting that the term chosen by the Catechism for these discussions is “homosexual,” which is often a noun, and which functioned linguistically at the time the Catechism was released in much the same way that the word “gay” functions today. Fourth, the “T’ in “LGBT” is not a term focused on either “sexual appetites” or “sexual attractions” and thus its inclusion in the Archbishop’s critique will probably strike readers as sloppy and undiscerning.
I’m writing this for two reasons. First, I should reiterate that good aims and conclusions do not turn bad arguments into good ones. I share the Archbishop’s affirmation of Church teaching and laud his desire to uphold it with integrity and unabashedly, particularly in a time when it is met with misunderstanding and, often, hostility. But bad arguments tend to turn good conclusions into bad ones. Heresy, as Chesterton has said, is really nothing more than a half truth.
Second, I’m writing this because I have a lot of non-Catholic friends who see the bad logic. I want them to know that there are Catholics who see it, too. I ask that they not dismiss the Church as a whole simply because of one bout of bad logic.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.