Love the Sinner but Hate the Sin

This is a distillation of some posts a non-Christian MySpace friend had placed on the MySpace group "Support Same-Sex Marriage". The original context was a discussion about Fred Phelps, known for protesting funerals and his fierce anti-gay stance. One poster had rightly pointed out that Phelps does not represent all Christians, and does not represent what it means to love. My friend was concerned, however, that this insistence that Phelps was not "truly Christian" painted an overly positive picture of "Christianity". This led to the topic of "hate the sin, but love the sinner".
Many Christians who portray themselves as gay-positive repeat the old mantra of "hate the sin, but love the sinner". I contend that due to certain widely accepted background beliefs, this is not possible when it comes to homosexuality; and that those who claim to reject homosexuality as a sin but accept homosexuals as persons are either
  1. deceiving themselves, or
  2. accepting homosexuals not because of their Christianity, but despite it.
The key point around which everything else revolves is that communally, we think of homosexuality as involving either exclusively or at least partially a certain form of sexual desire. That is, we distinguish homosexuals and heterosexuals by their erotic desires. This may not be legitimate or helpful or wise, but it is what we tend to do.

Next we need to add the condemnation of homoeroticism - same-gender sexual behaviour. If what it means to be homosexual is that one's erotic desires are homoerotic; then the homosexual becomes "essentially"
sinful. Compare this to some other sexual "sin", like adultery. In this case, the desire for extramarital sex is not understood as definitive of that person's identity. We do not socially divide people up into adulterers and non-adulterers based on the presence or absence of desire for extramarital sex. That is, adultery is considered to be "accidental" to who the adulterer is as a person. [Please note the Aristotelian, or at least Thomist analysis here - Pharsea.] In the case of homosexuality, we operate as if there were a fundamental difference between those who desire homoerotic sex and those who do not (again, regardless of whether we do so rightly or wrongly). This means that - unlike adultery - homosexuality is considered to be "essential" to what the homosexual is, as a human being.

Now at this point, many are probably thinking what the Vatican (at least under John Paul II) proclaimed: to have the desire is not sinful, only to act on it is. Doing this ignores a crucial element in Jesus' moral teachings: the doctrine of "sins of the heart". Jesus teaches that to desire sin is to have committed it in one's heart already; that is, to desire sin is already to commit sin. So if we treat homoeroticism as sinful, and understand homosexuals in terms of sexual desire, then this doctrine guarantees that the homosexual is essentially sinful. The very existence of the homosexual is itself sinful.

More recent Vatican teaching has bowed to the inevitability of this argument and has declared that the homosexual human being suffers from a nature that is objectively disordered and so essentially evil. I don't think, however, that Jesus' teaching concerning "sins of the heart" is the issue here, though. The question is more basic than any religious aphorism. If someone's personality and appetites orientate them towards evil acts then their personality and appetites themselves must be characterized - to that extent - as evil. If the inclination towards evil can be classified as a "non essential defect" or a "correctable fault" then it is deemed to be "accidental". If the inclination towards evil is deemed to be "incorrigible" then it is classified as an "essential defect" or "chronic and terminal sickness" - basic and constitutive of what the human being in question is.

On the other hand, according to the New Catechism:

"In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, 'either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way.' It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason." [CCC #1767]

So it would seem that one cannot jump directly from "the object of the desire is sinful" to "the desire is sinful"; at least not given current teaching on the passions, which says directly and explicitly that no passion [note that this is an Aristotelian term] in itself is good or evil. However, magisterial teaching in the matter of sexuality is ambivallent and - I would argue - deviates from the generality of ethical teaching. This is, in fact, one way in which one can tell that it is wrong. The Magisterium tries to say that:

  1. All "homosexuals" are just messed-up heterosexuals. The "passion" of "homosexuals" is therefore in fact a "heterosexual passion" [!] - and is so morally neutral. It is just that "homosexuals" are too immature or sick (or whatever!) to know themselves well enough. It is their confusion that amounts to "disorder" and therefore "sin" - which is a disorder of the appetites. This implausible model corresponds to general ethical teaching. Such a "disorder" would - of course - not be "intrinsic" but "extrinsic"; it would be something that just happened to be a[n accidental] fact about a person's particular human nature, not something that was definitive of - and so "essential" to - it. [I do so hate this false Aristotelian "accident" versus "essence" categorisation!] In which case being "homosexual" is not radically different from "having a quick temper". It is no more than "a tendancy to respond inappropriately to certain external stimulae". Such a deffect would be no kind of absolute impediment to ordination into the Apostolic Ministry!
  2. There are some people who are clearly "homosexual" in a way that is constitutive of what they are, so that - as human beings - they can be described as "intrinsically disordered". This model is more sensible, though it be posed in offensive terms and puts much too much emphasis on sexuality. It is incompatible with the general ethical teacing as expressed in CCC #1767. Only on this kind of a model is it possible to errect the kind of ban on the ordination of gay men that the Vatican has recently sought to impose.
"It seems to me, that what the Vatican under John Paul II did, was to deviate for the very first time in history from unofficial catholic moral teaching (none of which is defined or infallible dogma!), according to which the homosexual inclination is neutral (neither good nor bad), but acting upon it would be wrong.

Paul VI was the first pope in history to mention homosexuality in an official Vatican document ["Personae Humanae" (1975)]. He did so along with ma5turbation and heterosexual fornication, lumping them altoghter as "intrinsically and objectively wrong acts". This doucment admitted to the existance of a fixed homosexual orientation, and passed no comment as to its moral status. Also, the policy since before Vatican II, of annuling marriages contracted by constituently homosexual men shows that the Vatican has long known that homosexuality is, in many persons, a stable orientation.

John Paul II was the first pope who issued a docuement ["The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons" (1986)] which claimed that the homosexual orientation (now called a ''deep-rooted inclination"), was in fact not morally netural, but evil. Hence the new prohibition to ordain homoseuxally inclined men to the priesthod." [A Catholic Priest, Spring 2008]

It seems to me that there is only one way out of this situation: to deny (as some Christian thinkers, such as John Shelby Spong, Cornel West or Michael Eric Dyson have done) that homoeroticism is sinful or morally wrongful. I don't see how we can completely eliminate consideration of sexual desire in our understanding of sexual orientation (it is sexual orientation, after all); and rejecting Jesus' moral theory looks to be a non-starter for Christians. [And in any case, wouldn't help, as far as Catholics are concerned! - Pharsea.] So if we maintain in addition that homoeroticism is sinful, then homosexuals are portrayed as persons who are necessarily sinful - for them to exist at all is sinful.

The last refuge to avoiding this conclusion is the doctrine of Original Sin. Doesn't this contend that we are all sinful? [Up to a point, but what do you mean by "sinful" here? - Pharsea] Indeed it does, though I should note right away that it's not clear that a doctrine of original sin requires that one believe that we have all actually sinned. [Indeed it doesn't! No orthodox believer seriously thinks that an infant has had the opportunity to sin! - Pharsea.] Even so, a tremendous difference remains. The doctrine of original sin may say that we are all sinful, but that sinfulness is a deviation from human nature. The combination of beliefs mentioned before has as its conclusion that homosexuals are essentially sinful: one could not be homosexual and sinless.

Correct. Justification would have to involve the change of a "homosexual nature" into a "heterosexual nature". On the whole there is no evidence of this being a realistic possibility.
But to think of homosexuals in this way is clearly not to "love the sinner". It is to portray them as inherently, essentially and necessarily sinful.
Here lies a slight mistake. One might love a psychopath as a person while detesting large parts of their personality. One might despair of their moral education and correction in this life while still hoping for their eventual rehabilitation in the next.
To declare homoeroticism sinful but insist that one "loves the sinner" is ultimately duplicitous.
I think not quite, if a distinction is made between personality and person; but few people are capable of making this distinction.
Is it any wonder that you have people who one one hand will insist that they accept, and even love, homosexuals as people, but on the other hand can support legislation and social norms that keep homosexuals closeted, tolerate (and sometimes even exacerbate) violence toward them, and deny them fundamental civil and human rights? Is it any wonder that maintaining the meaning of marriage (as if there were only one) comes to take precedence over the needs of people? Is it any wonder that so many exhibit their "love" by trying to "cure" people of their homosexuality? If we fail to support full civil and human rights for homosexuals, for whatever reason, we are failing to express love in any meaningful sense.
I agree. If one did really "love the sinner", then one would identify those issues where "the sinner" did harm to themselves or to others (in the case of homosexuality, it is very difficult to figure out what these are!) and act to prevent that harm from coming about - if necessary by constraining their behaviour by imprisonment. In the case of "psychopaths" or "child molesters" or "dangerous schizophrenics", society acts to protect both the sick individuals and their potential targets from clear and present danger. In the case of "homosexuals" society and the Church takes no such action: it simply acts to inconvenience, vilify and persecute.
Christianity may officially teach love, but so long as one accepts the three background assumptions I have noted, a Christian can only "hate the sin but love the sinner" through the mental gymnastics of self-deception. As long as one accepts those background assumptions, one can only genuinely "love the sinner" by going beyond Christianity and allowing one's basic sense of humanity to override their moral condemnation of homoeroticism. [Or by distinguishing between personality and person - Pharsea.] Of course, as mentioned previously, there is one authentic way out. It is to deny the immorality of homoeroticism. The so-called "Biblical support" for this condemnation is specious indeed. I invite all Christians who have not yet done so to take this route. After all, if homoeroticism is not recognized as sinful, we needn't worry any longer about hating the sin, but loving the sinner.