Gay Marriage: Should Empathy Or Thomistic Intellect Be The Deciding Factor For Heterosexual Opinion?

With regard to gay and lesbian marriage, maybe empathy is not the way to go. Maybe Aquinas-style intellect separated from empathy is correct. Aquinas, after all, was quite tough on Jews without apparent pangs of conscience. He called them “Christ-killers” (Occisores Christi), and believed that God had willed supersessionism on the Jews for killing Christ (the Church replaces Israel). So perhaps Thomas Aquinas, the strictly logical fellow that he was, would say of Auschwitz that the Jews had it coming to them. Who knows what Aquinas would have said of Auschwitz?

But I think Aquinas’ anti-Semitism stains his whole legacy–and concretely illustrates its folly. Nobody who closes their hearts to racism, anti-Semitism, or women’s inequality is on a path that’s moving them closer to God, and I think it’s true as well for those who have hardened their hearts to gay and lesbian equality and marriage. If God exists, intellect divorced from close attention to empathy is not a path to God.

So to oppose, as Aquinas did, love between two men or two women, it’s difficult to ground it in positive emotions. All you’ve really got is appeal to religious authority and “natural law,” two dubious epistemic constructs, not reason.

Appeals to natural law are dishonest about sex. Contemporary Thomists are really just proscribing sex in accord with religious authority. Natural law is the window dressing. They equate natural law with reason because reason has the sheen of legitimacy that religion no longer has. Religious prohibition seems arbitrary–and who wants to seem arbitrary?

But natural law is not reason, it’s rationalization. And it’s often heartless, walling off people from one another–and, by guilt, turning sexual desire, variation, and otherness into an emotional dungeon (“The form of the penis is for reproduction only, therefore…”).

If Christianity is true, humility should bring one to the cross, wrestling with such things as Auschwitz, evolutionarily derived sexual variation in humans, and empathy (imagining oneself in the shoes of gay and lesbian people). There shouldn’t be arrogant, smug, confident, and pat answers to such question as Auschwitz, evolution, and gays. A state of doubt about what God really wants for gay and lesbian people follows an honest wrestling with Auschwitz, evolution, and empathy.

Unfortunately, after God didn’t prevent Auschwitz, we don’t even know whether He (She?) is moral–unless you’re ready to get Orwellian about what morality and goodness are (“Whatever God does or doesn’t do is good, and (S)he doesn’t answer to anybody”). And so a question mark ought to be the new cross; the new way to interact with Jesus. Doubt gives gay and lesbian people space to flourish as themselves. Maybe their existence is just part of the healthy continuum of human sexuality–and if it’s not, God will sort that out. At least you haven’t iced up your heart with intellect and erected hate on them, harming your own soul.

If you adopt an empathic attitude–as Aquinas might have done toward Jews, women, and gays, but didn’t–even if you’re being over-indulgent about an issue, at least your heart is staying open to love.

Pope Francis is trying to keep an open mind and heart about the lives of gays and lesbians–“Who am I to judge?”–and surely any God worth wanting to love–and worthy of human love–can hardly be too angry at those who erred in life on the side of love. Jesus hung out with “sinners.”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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