It is easier to maintain that we have free will than it is to demonstrate
with certainty that any decision which we make is actually free. Behind it
lies a vast hinterland of unconscious causes: uncritical assumptions,
forgotten memories, genetic influences, values absorbed – some in infancy,
the persuasive power of the culture or subculture within which we live. Even
when we are confident that a decision is free we can still be aware of
multiple, and perhaps less worthy, motivations.
I will have reason to return to aspects of this difficult question on other
occasions, but here I want to look at a particular feature about which we
are learning more from day to day. Whatever our decisions, the brain is
involved. It is the vehicle or medium through which we work. The rapid
developments in different ways to scan the brain are now providing methods
of diagnosis and analysis of how parts of the brain function and
interrelate. But we are only as yet on the borders of understanding how such
an extraordinarily complex organ works.
A particularly interesting piece of work has recently been done on the brain
structure of male and female homosexuals. Hitherto experiments in different
brain activity have been usually done by measuring it in response to various
stimuli. These do provide information but they lack the uncontaminated
objective information which is required. Ivanka Savic and Per Lindström at
the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have now made good progress in this
Twenty-five heterosexuals and 20 homosexuals from each gender underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans which display different internal structures. Heterosexual men and homosexual women proved to have asymmetrical brains with the right hemisphere slightly enlarged. Homosexual men and heterosexual women had symmetrical brains. For further tests, positron emission tomography (PET) which shows functional processes was used to measure blood flow to the amygdala, which plays a central role in the emotions. By mapping the connections between the amygdala and other brain locations it was detected that in heterosexual men and homosexual women the signals mainly passed to regions which triggered action. By contrast, signals from heterosexual women and homosexual men preferred regions associated with mood and anxiety.
This is significant because women are three times as likely than men to
suffer from mood disorders and depression. Increased rates are present in
homosexual men too, but in this case it is difficult to separate the effects
of negative social pressures from biological brain processes. So that
question, although suggestive, remains open.
Another question which remains open is whether these different structures
and processes are inherited or a result of levels of exposure to hormones in
the womb (which could also be indirectly genetic). But what is not open to
question, provided that similar studies confirm these phenomena, is that
brain differences are strongly associated with sexual orientation. This does
not exclude environmental factors external to the womb playing some part.
And I stress here that more studies are needed not only to replicate the
experiment but to apply its methodology to, for instance, bisexuals, or to
those whose orientation only becomes a factor when they are confined to
Can sexual orientation be changed? This biological difference suggests not,
and the existing research into attempts to change give very little
encouragement that this can in general be so. And arguably they may not be
desirable if they set up a tension between a biologically based tendency and
an unreachable aspiration.
The Catechism describes the homosexual orientation as ³intrinsically
disordered² (2357ff). In the absence of biological knowledge at the time of
drafting it was of course described only as a psychological condition. One
has to question in what respects an inclination harmonised with brain
structure should be described as intrinsically disordered. Its incidence may
be statistically abnormal, but then so is having red hair.
One would expect that homosexuality would gradually breed itself out of society, but it clearly hasn¹t. One theoretical suggestion, based on computer modelling (Andrew Campario, Padua University) is that a combination of genes, one of which at least would need to be on the X (female) chromosome, could produce a small but permanent proportion of homosexuals.
Does this presence of the homosexual tendency have any benefit for society?
Leaving aside some cultures which have found this to be so, the answer is
complex because social prejudice can distort homosexual behaviour. I would
speculate that a homosexual orientation in the caring professions (and I
would include the priesthood) could have advantages. And many of us know
stable homosexual relationships which clearly make valuable contributions.
The part that homosexuals have contributed to the artistic and creative
aspects of our culture is immense. I would argue that this is because of,
and not in spite of, their orientation.
Civil Partnerships, in my view, confuse the issue. There is a strong case
for extending the tax benefits and financial security they offer to a wider
range of those who are in interdependent relationships – elderly sisters who
share a household, for instance, or a permanent carer of an elderly
relative. To make these benefits dependent only on presumed sexual
orientation, apart from the clear injustice of the discrimination,
reinforces the idea that homosexuals are a group on the margins of society
and not truly part of it.
I am aware that any questions concerning homosexuality can provoke emotional responses. But one of the purposes of this column is to separate emotions from clear thinking, and so get nearer to the truth. In a previous column, on natural law, I described how growing knowledge of nature could require us to modify our conclusions. So here is an opportunity to comment on this, and to give us the benefits of your thoughts on the Church’s attitude towards homosexuality.