John Heard: Of God and the gay gene

30 Apr 2008

By The Record

Speaking in Sydney this month, before a crowd of nearly 600 young people gathered in preparation for World Youth Day, I was asked various questions about the Catholic teaching on human sexuality.
While I spoke mainly on what might be called the phenomenology of same sex attraction (what it feels like to be a same sex attracted man, and how that experience has lead me to a greater appreciation for Catholic teaching) and the Catechism condemnation of homogenital acts, many of the attendees asked one or other of a number of variations on these questions: how likely is it that scientists will discover a so-called ‘gay gene’ and what might that mean for the Church’s teaching on homosexuality?
It was, at first, an off-putting line of questioning.
I am not, of course, a scientist, certainly far from an expert in gene-technology and research, but inasmuch as I write about same sex attraction and morality, and about the Catholic approach to sex and homosexuality, the issue had not featured much in my previous efforts.
Indeed, since the event, it has become clear that I haven’t even given the idea much prominence in my private reflections and analyses.
Why not?
I just don’t think these questions and the ideas behind them, while seemingly pressing, really get at what is at stake in any discussion about moral responsibility and human sexuality.
In fact, the importance accorded the question probably rests on a mistaken understanding, one that is alien to the Catholic approach and most of the more compelling moral theories on offer.
For it is open, of course, in the sense that it is at least possible, that the discovery of a ‘gay gene’ might radically overturn some individuals’ views of human sexuality. Certainly, inasmuch as someone thinks that various sexual behaviours (perhaps sodomy and fellatio) are constitutive of being ‘gay’ and inclinations to the same are stereotyped according to one’s genetic heritage; one would be inclined to think the discovery of a ‘gay gene’ very significant indeed.
But this is not the way Catholics and other serious moral theorists think about human sexuality.
This is because all of the most impressive, robust accounts of human agency, moral value and responsibility stress the distinction between pre-determined outcomes and situations that involve some free-agency, implicating one’s will, intentions and orientation with regard to some moral standard.
Put simply, one is judged, in the best moral theories and certainly in Catholic teaching, according to what one does, not on who or what one is. Where some characteristic, attribute or pattern of behaviour is uncontrollable or unchangeable (one’s skin colour or propensity to breathe for instance) it is necessarily morally neutral (at least as it bears on individual responsibility).
For a ‘gay gene’ to wreck Catholic teaching, then, it would need to provide irrefutable evidence that the Catholic account of human nature, that there is no real difference between human beings as to sexuality except that which is related to one’s sex (‘male and female He created them’ – Genesis 1:27), is flawed.
It would need to show that same sex attracted men and women are, by virtue of genetics alone, either a new category of human, a third sex perhaps, or otherwise endowed with some normative attribute or mechanism that always leads, in a pre-determined way, to specific, stereotyped behaviour (sodomy, fellatio, etc.).
Put like this, it becomes obvious that such a thing is so unlikely that the common view of a ‘gay gene’ is mostly ridiculous. For it to pose any major threat to Catholic teaching on homosexuality, a ‘gay gene’ would need to produce something like a ‘gay male arm’ that is inextricably patterned so as to grasp only other male genitals, is patterned so even despite the best intentions of the arm’s owner; alongside even more outlandish and indeed fantastical – I’d hazard – appendages and their rigidly predictable associated forms of behaviour.
Why? Because, again, the Church teaches against homogenital acts. She abides by the sage, humane distinction between what a man does and what he experiences, unchosen, as a man-in-the-world. Catholics are not called, therefore, to some extreme standard, some impossible way of living that wars against our natures and our very biology.
We are, rather, called to govern ourselves, to choose right over wrong, and to know the difference.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.