Who Am I and Where Am I Going?
One of the most often heard defenses homosexual persons make concerning their lifestyle is that it reflects “the way we are, the way God made us.”
In other words, people ought to have the right to be and to act in accordance with the way they have been created. The invocation of God is particularly interesting given the fact that all the major religions strongly condemn homosexual practices.
What most interests me about this defense, however, is not its theological claim, but its facile reduction of the “ought” to the “is,” which is tantamount to the complete elimination of the “ought” and along with it, all morality. Mere logical consistency would therefore permit pyromania, kleptomania and manias of any stripe to make the same claim. Does the legal code, then, constitute hate literature against those disposed by nature (or God) to engage in maniacal activities?
That redoubtable political philosopher, Nicolo Machiavelli, whose Il Principe (The Prince) also served as a handbook for the Mafia, endeavored “to study man as he is and not as he ought to be.” He was, in his view, simply being “realistic.”
The “is” is all there “is.” For this early 16th-century thinker, Plato's morality was unrealistic since it was founded on an idealism that did not correspond to the way people actually live.
Yet, the whole burden of ethics is to enlighten man about what he ought to do. And it is the task of religion to give him the strength to become what he ought to become. Alfred Lord Tennyson was both sagacious and succinct when he wrote: “And ah for a man to arise in me, / That the man I am may cease to be.”
The Catholic Church has always been very evolutionary in its attitude toward human beings. She wants people to change for the better, and such moral evolution requires a great deal of grace as well as effort. Change is an inescapable part of life. As Cardinal John Henry Newman has remarked, “Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
By reducing the “ought” to the “is,” we do not really abolish the “ought,” we merely transfer it to the “is.” But this view legitimizing everything that is is morally static and robs people of any end or purpose that would give their life meaning. We ought to become more than what we are at the moment, just as “man's reach should exceed his grasp.”
The question, “Who am I?”, which has plagued man from the beginning of philosophy, is the most crucial of all existential questions. If we answer it wrongly, the consequences can be tragic.
George Weigel has stated, in his splendid book Letters to a Young Catholic, that “in the first half of the 20th century, perhaps as many as a hundred million human beings have paid with their lives for the consequences of some desperately defective ideas of who we are.”
Who are we? Are we merely pawns of the state or radical individuals? Are we completely driven by biological impulses or are we totally conditioned by culture? Are we spirits trapped in an alien body or are we purely material entities?
The Catholic Church answers this vexing and crucial question by pointing out that Christ reveals to us who we are. In Christ, we learn that we are called to know and to love.
Therefore, we are persons who can discover the truth about things and live in communal harmony with other persons. We are “bodified” and we are free. We know something about our end to which we are naturally inclined. We know that our destiny is to be complete and integrated persons. We are called to holiness.
In his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio John Paul II writes, “Family, become what you are.” By this paradoxical exhortation, he refers simultaneously to both the family's “identity, what it is, but also to its mission, what it can and should do.” The family, since it is composed of persons, is essentially dynamic. It can never be complacent about any particular stage of development, but is always striving to realize more completely the promise of its prototype.
The claim made by those who defend homosexual acts, that one must “be who he is,” ignores the challenge to moral growth, personal wholeness, and a life that has a positive trajectory. It commends a life that would be just as stifling for heterosexuals as for homosexuals.
Sinners can change to saints. Homosexuals can often change their sexual orientation. J. Nicolosi and others, for example, have reported in Psychological Reports (86, 2000), that in a study of more than 800 dissatisfied homosexuals who received “Reparative Therapy,” more than 34% perceived themselves as having become either exclusively or almost entirely heterosexual.
The injunction to remain enclosed in the moment is not a defense of anything. We all need a hearth and a horizon, a ground and a goal, a present and a promise. Life is surely a journey, and every journey has a destiny. To know who I am implies a sense of how our present self needs to be transformed in order to become what it was meant to be.
In the words of G. K. Chesterton: “If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?”
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
- November 13-19, 2005