In text messages released this past May, the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson described watching an online video of some Trump supporters beating a protestor, around the time of the January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“It was three against one, at least… jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight. Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it.” Soon after, “an alarm went off” in his brain, Carlson added, telling his producer he realized he was “becoming something” he didn’t “want to be.”
It was the casual racism that ended up drawing the most attention. But for me, the more interesting element was the glimpse into a person’s conscience at work. Carlson wasn’t at the fight. He saw it, as so many of us see such things, online. He identified with the brawlers, despite misgivings about how those like himself should behave.
As Carlson watched, he found himself rooting for their violence, wanting to hurt their victim—actually tasting it. “An alarm” in his brain kicked in, warning him that he’s becoming something he didn’t want to be—a murderer, someone who would participate in a lynching.
How conscience works
Tucker Carlson’s admission of self-awareness seems to me a good place from which to talk about conscience. Conscience kicks in when something we might do could seriously re-write the story of who we are. And everything about both the doing and the being is how we relate to others. It’s about who we have been given to be through our relationships, and who we will find ourselves becoming if we allow those relationships to run us in this way rather than that.
Now, of course, who we are is always given to us relationally. We are utterly dependent on others’ treatment of us, from conception onwards, and it is not as though we become independent upon reaching adulthood. What we become, at least legally, is equal to other adults in navigating our different forms of dependency, owning our decisions and accepting consequences. My “I,” my “self,” is the way that this body, born at such a time in such a place, navigates viably in the midst of the “we,” the social body, which brought it into being.
Most of the time, we go along with the way that the social body runs us. We pick up its language, its gestures, its customs and the stability given by its legal system, as part of what sustains us and gives us identity. We learn to desire through what it models to us. And we may, at certain times, make decisions not to do things suggested to us by some sort of apparent authority, simply because we like other ways of doing things. (For instance, choosing white wine with meat, or red wine with fish. But we would hardly refer to that as a matter of conscience.)
Issues of conscience arise on the relatively rare occasions when we detect that “our a— is on the line” with an issue that presents itself. If we carry on imitating and being drawn along in the way that we have been, suddenly a line will have been crossed and we will become someone else. That is what Tucker Carlson described: his fully-functioning “mirror neurons” were allowing people like him, of whom he more than half approved, to lead him on.
They started to reproduce in him the same desires, emotions and passions that he saw being enacted, to the point that he was even able to “taste” the thrill of being caught up in the lynching mêlée. Then his conscience said to him, “I see who I am becoming and, woah, I do not want to be that person.”
Conscience and the LGBTQ person
I bring this up in an Outreach article, specifically for LGBTQ readers and their friends and allies, since I suspect that the issue of becoming who we are (and feeling “on the line” in the decisions we make) has been strong since we were very young. After all, even in the best circumstances of a loving family, we begin to discover that we don’t know how to go along with expected behaviors. We discover that we don’t share the expected desires and emotions of the majority around us. And we may discover this at quite a young age, before we’re able to talk about it.
We may or may not have role models, others like ourselves, who can help us imagine coming to viable adulthood. We may be in places or families where who we are is referred to with contempt. Eventually “who we are to be” becomes related to “who we love,” and this, at puberty, will have consequences related to sexual acts.
Indeed, many of us, especially those who have grown up in strongly religious households, are taught from a very young age to doubt our feelings and emotions. We come to agree that those feelings are our enemy and not to be trusted as telling us anything true about ourselves.
And in the midst of all this, Christians know of the strength of Bible verses where Jesus tells us that it is better to lose your life, but save you soul, than it is to save your life but lose your soul (Mt. 16:25). In other words, the biblical equivalent of being “on the line,” the existential issues to do with discerning who we are to be, come at us very forcefully in our youth and take many years to work through.
Here, there is a difference between a certain evangelical culture, such as the one I was brought up in, and Catholicism, which I received the grace of entering many years ago. Evangelical culture, teaching our radical depravity after the fall, effectively freezes into permanence our inability to trust our feelings, thinking of our body as only a source of lies and inspiring a radical lack of confidence.
It tells us not to trust any natural or scientific claims. So to claim that we are bearers of a non-pathological minority variant is automatically suspect as “the wisdom of this world,” a diabolical illusion. The only thing trustworthy is the written Word of God. This means that, for LGBTQ people from an evangelical background, the entire battle for survival of the soul is fought over “those passages”: the clobber texts.
Catholic theological culture is subtly, but significantly, different. Everything that is created is good, even after the fall. We may be screwed up, but we are still basically good. Desire is essentially a good thing, however distorted by our own and other people’s waywardness. Our bodies are essentially truth tellers, bearers of the glory of God in whose image we are made, however much we may make liars of them.
Our goodness is lived out in ways which are often ignorant, and always disordered, and with these we have to wrestle over a lifetime. And this, our lifelong vulnerability to God’s creative forgiveness, is something shared with everyone else, so that none of us can be judges of another.
Conscience is focused on what really is
Because of this, the question of conscience in Catholic LGBTQ circles is not so much about the interpretation of “the clobber texts” as it is about what really is. We understand that there is something about being a human—this body in a process of humanization—that automatically and intrinsically tends to what is true. Conscience is inherently related to what is true, and our journey is one of stepping out of rumor and falsehood into the freedom of truth.
So, the question is: Is the thing that I am discovering myself to be real or just a phase? Then, after a time, when it clearly isn’t a phase, the question becomes: Is what I am discovering myself to be some sort of defect in who I’m supposed to be, something that should be “straightened out”? Or is this what I am created and gifted to be, and so to be lived with enthusiasm and gratitude as I come to discover what it’s all about? What is true here?
If it were some sort of “defect,” then any loving same-sex relationship that includes sexual acts would tip me over into becoming someone that I’m really not—a gay or lesbian person. And I would have to hold out against that, alerted by some sort of “brain alarm.” If you do “y,” you will become “x.”
However, at this stage, there is no credible evidence that being gay or lesbian is some sort of defect in a human being who ought to be straight. From everything we have learned over the last 150 or so years, it seems much truer to say that we are bearers of a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition.
And this is not something that has been “deduced” by boffins in some sort of closed laboratory. It took quite specific social and historical changes to enable a group that was traditionally half-hidden, its members often victims of violence, to be recognized, observed and confirmed as bearers of this non-pathological minority variant.
However, once that started to become clear, it has become ever more obvious to the public that the gay and lesbian people whom they meet, and who can be increasingly open about who we are, are not defective straight people. LGBTQ people tend to flourish as well as anybody else when treated with the same dignity as everybody else.
Moving towards what is “authentically good”
Why is this so important to conscience, from the Catholic perspective? Because from the Catholic perspective, there is no specifically Christian moral teaching. There is merely teaching about what is authentically good for humans. And this means that we would have already fulfilled Catholic teaching in large part by allowing ourselves to be guided by what is true about LGBTQ people: that this is just who we are.
The next step in Catholic conscience formation would be the recognition that in ethical matters “how we behave flows from who we are” (in Latin, agere sequitur esse). And this, of course, is linked to the Catholic understanding of grace perfecting nature, rather than abolishing it or replacing it with something different. Our flourishing, which is what the Creator wants for us, is to be worked out by all of us starting from what we are, and not in spite of what we are.
All this is available to the Catholic conscience the moment it becomes clear that we are the bearers of an almost banal thing: a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition.
Is there anything else? Does the Catholic Church have anything else to say about this variant? Personally, I would claim that, formally speaking, it doesn’t. There is nothing in divine revelation concerning sexual relations between unrelated consenting adults of the same sex who also share a certain social equality.
“Nevertheless,” you might properly reply, “are there not traditional claims by Roman teaching authorities? Do they not have a couple of things to say to us, one of long standing and one very recent, which has something to do with homosexuality?” Why, yes! Funny you should mention them.
Traditional claims of Roman teaching authorities
The first, going back to the second century, is that there is no such thing as a good same-sex sexual act. This claim is made entirely as a negative deduction from the conviction that the only genuinely good sexual act is one between spouses open to procreation. Anything else is a defect from that good sexual act. There is no other source than this negative deduction for the claim that a same-sex act is “intrinsically evil.”
And it should be pointed out that the word “intrinsically” is not a pointer to the gravity of the act. It is not adding a factor of increased terribleness, however much we may tend to hear it that way. It is merely saying that there is no occasion when this sort of act might be a good act since, for obvious reasons, there’s no possibility that it could lead to procreation.
The second claim, in case we were to say, “But we’re not trying to achieve procreation, we’re sharing love and friendship,” is made in a church document as recently as 1986, which I’m paraphrasing here. “Well, your bodies are, by their very nature, aiming at procreation, and your deeply disordered desire means that you fail to tend towards your appropriate object, an act with someone of the opposite sex”.
In other words: “Your tendency itself is disordered as to its object, not part of who you really are. You are an intrinsically heterosexual person who suffers from a grave disorder of desire called ‘same-sex attraction,’ which you can fight against. And only fighting against it will make you flourish.”
Roman dicasteries give no evidence for this position. Once again, the only source for this claim about who you are is the presumption that all humans have intrinsically heterosexual bodies, and therefore anything other than heterosexual intercourse open to procreation is wrong. None of this is taught either by the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus or St. Paul.
Furthermore, those who propose this claim about who you are have notorious difficulty in producing witnesses to the flourishing that supposedly comes from fighting “same-sex attraction.” A number of the early groups proposing “conversion therapy” folded precisely because the opposite became undeniable to them: the flourishing came in those who found themselves in loving partnerships.
Is it too much to suggest that the following is scarcely a lampoon? “We know more than you do about who you really are. We are confident that what we know is from God, handed on to us through our tradition from the second century and solidified in the 13th. It is true that during that period we, along with the rest of humanity, knew little to nothing of the relationship between desire and biology, nothing of how human reproductive organs worked, indeed nothing about sexual orientation at all until the last century or so. Nevertheless, we are confident that it is your desire that is leading you astray from our truth.”
Learning something new and genuinely true
Now, let us suppose that you have followed a Catholic conscience concerning the possibility of our learning something new and genuinely true about who we are in the midst of fallen reality. Let us suppose that you have seen that slow, solid learning instantiated in the recognition of the non-pathological minority variant that we bear.
Let us suppose that you have recognized that creation is good, and that there is some ordered-ness toward the Creator in being a bearer of this minority variant. Let us suppose that you have recognized the principle that grace perfects nature, and that how we act flows from who we are.
If you take on board all those Catholic things, in which you have been obedient to the Magisterium, then perhaps, like me, you will find it odd that some brethren claiming to be “the Magisterium” have an automatic right to be believed, when they behave as if speaking from God, telling you that “you must deduce who you are and how you are to behave from something you are not.”
Although our very best available knowledge about Creation tells you that you are not a defective heterosexual, “God, the Creator, demands through us that you so treat yourself.” However, the Magisterium, as “Amoris Laetitia” made clear, is only ever alongside and never above the conscience of the faithful. It can only ever be a sibling teaching for us, and never a paternal teaching, for no one on earth is to be called our Father.
The deliverances of the Roman dicasteries in this area are predicated either on untenable claims about who the people involved really are or on bad readings of Scripture, or some mixture of the two. More seriously, the claims they make seek to oblige a Catholic to suspend a well-formed Catholic conscience in this area, in favour of brethren who claim to know more than we do about who we really are.
Yet, their “knowledge” in this area is only meant to be one of natural learning; it is manifestly less true to reality than what we have appropriately learned from natural sources ourselves. The implied “We know more than you who you really are” is automatically suspect, as not an appropriate form of sibling teaching.
Personally, I think it would be disrespectful to church authority to insist that these deliverances are genuinely part of the Magisterium, rather than to recognize them for what they evidently are: theses of venerable antiquity maintained forcibly by Roman dicasteries long after their sell-by date was signaled by the Second Vatican Council.
Maybe it would be better to see them as temporary “instead-of-teachings”—placeholders which “worked” to uphold general norms at a time when human subjectivity, and its own forms of bodily objectivity, were little understood. Placeholders until we can allow the one Magister, who teaches us all from within our hearts, and can never teach falsehood, time to make available to us what is true about LGBTQ people, and how to live starting from what we know.
Our one Instructor, the Christ, longs to teach us to give ourselves away in love. And among the things he taught us, in order to make that possible, was how to distinguish between obeying the Word of God, and holding fast to human traditions that make that Word void.
Above all, what Jesus made available for us, and his Spirit still does, was and is how to receive the conscience of sons and daughters of God, heirs to the kingdom, so that we may learn freely how to follow him. We may learn mercy and generosity, starting from where we are. And to do so without being frightened of those who promote hatred and fear of our boldness in discovering what is true, and bearing witness to its goodness in our lives.
True Catholicity of conscience
So what is left? Gay and lesbian persons working out for ourselves, alongside and with our pastors, how to follow Christ and what is true and good in our lives, our marriages and so on. We must draw creatively from the most traditional general sources concerning human flourishing, since there is no obvious jurisprudence relating to the newly understood reality we bring to the table.
This confidence inspires an ability to speak about these realities in the first person, unafraid of making mistakes and so learning. So we may come gradually to un-frighten those who live under the terrible burden that they must sacrifice who they are on the altar of some deity who supposedly demands sacrifice.
Taking up our cross each day and following Jesus does not mean making such a pagan sacrifice. It means being prepared to live truthfully and lovingly even in the midst of persecution and the threat of persecution. It means being prepared to lose reputation, livelihood and maybe even life itself in bearing witness to how Jesus detoxifies all our places of shame.
Christ makes possible and shares love that bears witness to God in places and ways that no sectarian could ever imagine. It is this that allows our shame to be held tenderly in love, and gifts us with true catholicity of conscience.