What you do

March 08, 1996|By ANDREW SULLIVAN

WASHINGTON -- ''Andrew, it's not who you are. It is what you do!'' Pat Buchanan yelled across the table. We were engaged in a typically subtle ''Crossfire'' debate on same-sex marriage.

I'd expected the explosion, but still it surprised me. Only minutes before, off the air, Mr. Buchanan had been cooing over my new haircut. At least he could distinguish, like any good Jesuit, between the sin and the sinner. It was when his mind drifted to thoughts of homosexual copulation that his mood violently swung.

OK, Pat, let's talk. It's not only I who have a problem here.

Mr. Buchanan's fundamental issue with ''what homosexuals do'' is that it's what he calls a ''vice.'' (I'll leave aside the demeaning reduction of ''what homosexuals do'' to a sexual act.) Now, there's a clear meaning for a vice: It's something bad that a person freely chooses to do, like, say, steal. But Mr. Buchanan concedes that gay relations aren't quite like that; they are related to a deeper, ''very powerful impulse,'' (his words) to commit them.

So a homosexual is like a kleptomaniac who decides to steal. Kleptomania is itself an involuntary, blameless condition, hard to resist, but still repressible. Kleptomaniacs, in Mr. Buchanan's words, ''have the capacity not to engage in those acts. They have free will.''

The question begged, of course, is why same-gender sexual acts are wrong in the first place. In the case of kleptomania, someone else is injured directly by your actions; they're robbed. But in the case of homosexual acts, where two consenting adults are engaged in a private activity, it's not at all clear who the injured party is.

Mr. Buchanan's concern with homosexual acts derives, of course, from the Roman Catholic Church. And the church's rTC teaching about homosexual sex is closely related to its teaching about the sinfulness of all sexual activity outside a loving, procreative church marriage.

Two elements

The sexual act, the church affirms, must have two core elements: ''procreative,'' the willingness to be open to the creation of new life; and ''unitive,'' the intent to affirm a loving, faithful union. In this, the church doesn't single out homosexuals for condemnation. The sin of gay sex is no more and no less sinful on these grounds than masturbation, extramarital sex, marital sex with contraception, heterosexual oral sex or, indeed, marital sex without love.

In some ways, homosexual sex is less sinful. The heterosexual who chooses in marriage to use contraception, or who masturbates, is turning away from a unitive, procreative sexual life. The homosexual has no such option; she is denied, because of something she cannot change, a sexual act which is both unitive and procreative.

If a lesbian had sexual relations with a man, she could be procreative but not unitive, because she couldn't fully love him. And if she had sex with another woman, she could be unitive in her emotions but, because of biology, not procreative. So the lesbian is trapped by the church's teaching, excluded from a loving relationship for no fault of her own; and doomed to a loveless life as a result.

The church urges compassion for such people. But its real compassion is reserved for another group of people, who, like homosexuals, are unable, through no fault of their own, to have unitive and procreative sex: infertile heterosexuals. Sterile couples are allowed to marry in church and to have sex; so are couples in which the wife is post-menopausal. It's understood that such people have no choice in the matter; they may long for unitive and procreative sex, and for children. But they are unable, as the church sees it, to experience the joy of a procreative married life.

Why doesn't this apply to homosexuals? In official teaching, the church has conceded that some homosexuals ''are definitively such because of some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable.'' They may want, with all the will in the world, to have a unitive and procreative relationship; they can even intend to be straight. But they can't and they aren't. So why aren't they allowed to express their love as humanely as they possibly can, along with the infertile and the elderly?

The theologians' answer is simply circular. Marriage, they assert, is by definition between a man and a woman. When pressed further, they venture: Well, sexual relations between two infertile heterosexuals could, by a miracle, yield a child. But, if it's a miracle you're counting on, why couldn't it happen to two gay people? Who is to put a limit on the power of God? Well, the church counters, homosexuality isn't natural, it's an ''objective disorder.'' But what is infertility if it isn't a disorder?

As the current doctrine now stands, the infertile are defined by love and compassion, while homosexuals are defined by loneliness and sin. The church has no good case why this should be so.

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