Friday, July 01, 2016

Inflammatory language, perversions, and the church

This new push to downplay pedophilia was shared with appropriate outrage on Facebook lately.

What I want to point out here is the danger that this sort of talk poses specifically to those, including Christians, who have leaned in the wrong way on the act-orientation distinction concerning homosexuality. It is entirely possible that we will be asked, to be consistent, to apply the act-orientation distinction in the same way to pedophilia, and I'm afraid that some won't know how to reply and will be sitting ducks for what is, in effect, a partial normalization and, at a minimum, a desensitization.

Many Christians have been so concerned about the charge of homophobia and so eager to show love toward homosexual individuals that they have applied the act-orientation distinction in a confused way. I'm not saying that there is no such distinction nor that it is never relevant to bring up. But I think the contexts in which it makes a big difference to our actions are fewer and narrower than some may think. If you are a pastor or priest advising someone in private on whether he's sinning, then it is relevant and appropriate to tell him that having temptations and inclinations toward homosexuality is not in and of itself a sin, as though he sins just by breathing in and out. At the same time, there is a delicate matter even there concerning fantasies, entertaining thoughts, self-identity, and so forth, so it's still not cut and dried. The homosexual, even the Christian, who goes around loudly proclaiming his problem and demanding that everybody must accept him and complaining about how he's not sufficiently accepted is, most likely, sinning in thought with some frequency. So a non-naive pastor counseling such a person shouldn't just keep telling him over and over again that his orientation isn't a sin. But, okay, the act-orientation distinction is relevant there.

It's not nearly so obviously relevant to issues of discrimination, and especially not if the person is "out." There are all sorts of issues of discretion, morale, normalization, and so forth that are created by an "out" homosexual, especially one with a chip on his shoulder, especially in a business or non-profit that aims for a high moral tone. And there are direct practical issues in a residential context, such as a college, camp, retreat, and traveling. Who even can be the appropriate roommate, with all the loss of privacy that entails, of a person with same-sex attraction disorder? So already when Christians (and, I'm sorry to say, the catechism of the Catholic Church) go on about how baaad discrimination is on the basis of sexual orientation, they are doing a disservice to clarity of thought.

But there's even more. Here are two false implications of an overuse and misguided use of the act-orientation distinction that will come back to haunt us as the push for "understanding" pedophilia starts to ramp up:

1) The false implication that all sins are equal. No, they are not. Scripture never teaches that all sins are equally bad, it teaches the contrary, and common sense teaches us that all sins are not equally destructive in a social context. Hence, the temptation to all sins is not an equal problem. The fact that a man is tempted to a sexual perversion ought to create more complexities in which jobs he can hold, how to arrange for his accommodations when he travels, and in many other areas, than the fact that a man is tempted to gluttony. That's just how it is. But saying that "the orientation isn't sinful, and we're all sinners and tempted to sin in many different ways" glosses over these practical and moral facts.

2) The false implication that disgust is an inappropriate feeling for normal people to have in response to finding out about a "mere" orientation. The idea seems to be that if the "mere" orientation isn't a sin, we shouldn't feel disgusted when we learn about it, because that is "phobic" and unloving. Baloney. Pedophilia is an obvious counterexample, and we're going to have big problems if we continue on this path that says we're not supposed to feel, act, or convey disgust about anything as long as it's "just" an orientation.

It's a tragedy that there are people who have same-sex attraction disorder and who are upset and don't want it. For that matter, it's a worse tragedy, in a different way, that there are homosexuals who are proud of their orientation and their acts. But what even those who resist and don't act are tempted toward, what they are oriented toward, is a perversion. It was a mistake for Christians to stop saying that. I think we said to ourselves, "What possible value could there be in using inflammatory language such as 'pervert'? That just looks unloving. We don't want to look like those Westboro Baptist types" (always a useful comparison for getting as much compliance and apology as possible from Christians). "It's just a pointless insult." Well, no. To say that someone is a sexual pervert by orientation, even if he does not act on it, is to retain the knowledge of the unnaturalness of what he is inclined toward. It is to remind ourselves and those to whom we speak that his temptation is not merely contrary to God's law but also contrary to nature, and that this matters. But errors #1 and #2 tell us that we aren't supposed to know this, that we are supposed to elide it. So much of our language becomes conciliatory and deliberately erases all references to disordered affections and perversion: "The LGBT community," "God loves gay people very much," and the like.

These two errors are going to turn on us when it comes to pedophilia. Because frankly, if #1 and #2 are true, then why not try to eradicate disgust from our thought and language concerning people who "merely" have a pedophile orientation? If it is a settled doctrine that all sins are equal, then "all" presumably means "all" without exception, so this one should be included. If disgust is generally a wrong feeling to have concerning any "mere" orientation, then that's it. The principle is set.

If we should try as hard as we can not to "discriminate" on the basis of a "mere" orientation, then presumably we should try as hard as we can to accommodate even an "out" pedophile in as many activities as possible, even if we have to restrict him, for safety reasons, from some activities involving children. Anything like broader avoidance on the part of, say, people with children would be cruel, right? Notice that in the interview linked above the woman "researcher" is very uncomfortable when the interviewer suggests that he should in general try to keep his children away from pedophiles. She never agrees with him on this principle. Instead she turns the question to "child pedophiles," with the obvious implication that keeping such children away from other children would be wrong, so "we" have to find some other way to deal with them. In the Salon article last year garnering sympathy for non-offending pedophiles, the author explicitly states that there are pedophiles he would "trust with" his own children, if he had any.

Moreover, if there is no shame in being "out" about one's inclinations to sexual perversions, because then one can "get help" and because then we as Christians have a chance to show our love and kindness, then why should "coming out" as a pedophile be TMI when coming out as "gay" isn't TMI? The whole idea about discretion and not telling the whole world about your sexual perversions has been abandoned wholesale in the Christian community, even among conservative Christians, with the support groups for homosexuals and the praise for coming out. How are we ever going to reclaim the notion of discretion and the condemnation of TMI, how are we ever going to affirm again that there could be something good about being "in the closet," at least as far as the general community is concerned? We've pretty much tossed those ideas out, and we'll just have to say that "it's different this time" when it comes to some new perversion for which our compassion and support are being urged. To be consistent, I think we will need to back up and say that, after all, it isn't such a great thing for homosexuals to be coming out either, that we don't all need to know about that, and that if you really recognize that what you are experiencing is a desire contrary both to the law of God and to the law of nature, you will understand (except in unusual situations) that you need to exercise discretion and discuss this only with specific people who need to know. And voluntarily exclude yourself from activities inappropriate to you given your problem. Once these principles are established again in our minds, and once we as social conservatives and Christians don't feel ashamed of ourselves for having such principles, we can think more clearly about how to apply them in various situations and to other perversions.

We will also be in a position to recognize the extremely fine line between encouraging people to be "out" about something and abandoning opposition to it. This has come up again and again and again in "support groups" for homosexuals in churches and Christian colleges. Repeatedly the deliberate eradication of shame in being out, the hugging and kissing and support, the frantic urge to assure everyone that we are not phobic, and the formation of open groups explicitly oriented (pun intended) to something so vague as the "support" of people with certain perversions, have resulted in the erosion of opposition to the acts, just as these practices have involved a deliberate erasure of disgust at the outset. After all, how bad can it really be if everybody is telling you all the time that they have this problem? How bad can it be if we are all urged not to discriminate on the basis of someone's having this problem (as long as he doesn't "act on it")? How bad can it really be if the main message we are hearing is that we as Christians need to be kinder, more accepting, less ostracizing, more supportive, and so forth?

Once we admit that it was a mistake to have "support groups" connected with Christian organizations and churches, a mistake to encourage general coming out, a mistake to abandon the "inflammatory" language of disorder and perversion, and a mistake to try so hard to be upbeat and sentimental as part of being loving, we will be able to apply those lessons learned to worse things.

Sometimes you can't go forward without going back. The church's treatment of perversion is one such area.


John said...


There are times when I find your critical thinking skills up there with, say, Clive Staples himself. And what a great experience to read these thoughts so clearly and carefully expressed. I have long been alert to the rise in our cultures of sins that have advocacy groups. You offer a return to cultural sanity.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you, John. You are encouraging as always.

Matt and Liz said...

One of the most sane articles I've read on these things, thanks for posting.