It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

I’m watching a strong reaction to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion to the Court’s ruling opinion on the question of gay marriage. The strongest reactions revolved around Scalia’s assertion that the government allowing slavery did not deprive the slave of his or her dignity. I understand the reaction. ARE YOU SERIOUS? Justice Scalia said that dignity is innate. He chose the wrong word. Scalia was responding to a Catholic philosophical/theological principle, one aggressively promoted by Saint John Paul II, that the human condition has an intrinsic dignity.
Saint John Paul II’s choice of wording is much more careful than Justice Scalia’s wording. There is a difference between saying something is “intrinsic” and saying something is “innate.” “Intrinsic” is a metaphysical term in justiposition to “extrinsic.” Intrinsic dignity means I have dignity simply because of who I am. Extrinsic dignity means that the source of my dignity comes from outside of me. Innate, the word Justice Scalia used in his dissent to the opinion declaring gay marriage a Constitutional right, on the other hand, is language deriving from the scientific community. “Innate” looks for the scientific source of conditions or behaviors. “Dignity” is not something science can explore, so “intrinsic” vs. “extrinsic,” studied from a philosophical approach, is the correct way to ask the question of dignity.
I’m certain that, when Justice Scalia argued that dignity is “innate,” and that the governent can neither grant nor take away that dignity, he meant dignity is “intrinsic” to the person. To that point, I cannot disagree. I absolutely believe that the human person has an intrinsic dignity that nobody can take away.
Where I disagree with Justice Scalia is on the question of whether the government can choose to honor or dishonor the intrinsic dignity of a human person; and, by extesion, the relationship a human person is driven to enter into. While Justice Scalia seems to have gotten the Catholic philosophical/theological position down, he proved very ineffective in communicating that position in his dissenting opinion in this ruling.
There is another misuse of language that affects debate about gay people I want to use to exemplify this problem. In the lat 90’s, the Catholic Church can out with a universal “Catechism of the Catholic Church” – the first since the Catechism of the Council of Trent – in order to clarify to Catholics what we believe. At the time, a number of bishops in the United States opposed its publication because the Catechism employed philosophical language not easily assimulated into popular thought. The American bishops who opposed its publication at the time have since been proven right. So much of the language is rooted in classical philosophical/language that is not easily accessible through contemporary thought. I’m not saying the Catechism is wrong, I’m saying it doesn’t communicate meaningfully. That is specifically true on the assertion when the Catechism asserts that the incliniation to same-sex attraction is “objectively disordered.”
Early on, after the Catechism was published, I was arguing with gays who were upset that the Catechism was calling them mentally ill. At the same time, I was arguing with homophobes who were using that same assertion from the Catechism to assert gays were mentally ill. I quickly gave up arguing with either group. Neither understood what the Catechism meant by “objectively disordered” because neither had any background in Catholic philosophy/theology.
When the Catholic Church says the “tendency to homosexuality” is “objectively disordered” the Church is drawing on an ontological argument proposed by Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. In that argument, the Church wants to know not only whether something exists, but why. Applying the argument to ethics, the Church is asking, “What is the purpose of a particular act?” The Church had long ago decided the purpose of sex is to produce children (later, the Church decided it’s to deepen relations and produce children). To say the inclination is “disordered,” then, is to say it’s an inclination to engage in sexual activity not aimed at what is believed to be the natural purpose of sex: to produce children.
I think we can debate that onotological purpose of sex; but only if we understand what it is we’re actually debating.
At the same time, I think we can debate what Supreme Court Antonin Scalia meant when he said human dignity is innate and can neither be granted nor taken away by the State. But first we have to understand and respect what he meant when he wrote that. By the way, I have a low opinion of Scalia that he could attach himself to that philosophical tradition, but not think to translate that into a meaningful legal reasoning.