Is Perversion Possible?

We don’t often hear the word “perversion” used much any more, and anyone using the term in print to describe any form of sexual practice better have a good lawyer handy. Some people are proving themselves very aggressive these days, and seem to be not shy about litigating.

In using the term, what is not often noticed is that the use of the word “perversion” presupposes a transcendent norm, a transcultural standard capable of violation.   In discussing this, let’s begin by taking an extreme example of something that pretty much everyone can agree upon is perverted, such as food perversions. Oddly enough some people feel compelled to eat (for example) feces, and this is stigmatized because everyone acknowledges that one should only eat food and feces don’t count as food. In the case of food there is a universal standard, and violating it by eating such things is considered not simply to be gross, but also perverted. Mercifully (as C.S. Lewis once noted) perversions of the food appetite are very rare. However if you asked someone to explain why they regarded eating feces as a form of perversion, you might not get a quick answer. If you insisted upon an explanation, they might say something like “the human body clearly was designed to digest certain things, and not other things, and trying to digest the other things is wrong”. In other words, perhaps without knowing it, they would resort to the old category of Natural Law.

Natural Law is one way of stating that there exists for human beings some universal and transcendent standard, something against which all behaviour can be justly measured, and which provides us with a working definition of “normal”. Eating chocolate is normal; eating feces is abnormal. It is perverse—or, if you prefer, it is perversion.

We increasingly live in a world which is eroding the concept of a transcendent standard and of normalcy. In olden days (i.e. 1970 and before) all things and behaviours were compared to a transcendent standard. It is not just the Christians who did this, but all people of whatever creed or persuasion. Christians talked about God’s Law and the Bible; Muslims talked about the heavenly version of the Qur’an, the “mother of the book”; people further east talked about the Tao. Earlier than that even Plato talked about the forms. But everyone, religious or not, acknowledged some prior archetype to which they said people ought to conform if they desired to live authentically and well. The philosophical possibility of perversion depended upon the existence of that norm. If we deny the reality of any transcendent norm, then there can be no such thing as perversion; it will simply have been defined out of existence.

In the place of any transcendent norm we increasingly now substitute the declarations of our naked will. Today things formerly as indisputably clear and biologically obvious as gender have become subject to our arbitrary decisions. I get to decide whether or not I am a man or a woman. If I have the money for medical assistance, my body will cooperate somewhat in my decision. If I have the necessary fame, I might even get on the cover of Vanity Fair.

Are there any limits? Maybe not: one hears in the news of people denying the normalcy of having the usual number of limbs, and who want to have healthy limbs amputated. Said one such woman from (where else?) California who wants to have her legs removed: “Inside, I feel my legs don’t belong to me and shouldn’t be there.” Sounds like something from Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but it’s true. It even has a name: Body Integrity Identity Disorder, and it usually treated as a psychiatric illness, something listed as abnormal in the DSM catalogue (like other things that used to be there and are now considered to be normal).

One again asks the question: why is this re-definition of normal wrong? Who says that normal includes having two legs? If a man insists that he feels inside that he is actually a woman, on what basis do we tell this woman from California that she is wrong when she says she feels inside that both of her legs shouldn’t be there? The answer again: Natural Law, or the existence of a transcendent norm.

Please, please note: I am not (underlined, italicized and marked with asterisks not) asserting in this blog piece the moral equivalence of the practices I have mentioned here. I am not even asserting that they are all morally wrong. I am asserting that any practice should be judged by its conformity to a transcendent standard, and that until we can agree about what this transcendent standard is and what it says, our cultural debates will not make much headway.

It is no good therefore, I believe, arguing much with those keen for a LGBQT agenda. We have to start the discussion much further back. We have to ask the basic question about whether or not there exists such a thing as a transcendent norm for anything, be it gender, sexuality, or the number limbs we should have. Until this is agreed upon we will simply be talking to ourselves.




  1. Fr. Lawrence, I appreciate your explanation. Can you expand on how we can explain the transcendent aspect of our lives to people that accept these abnormal views? What is the transcendent standard? Our society has accepted the abnormal standard as normal. This is very tragic.

    You wrote: . We have to ask the basic question about whether or not there exists such a thing as a transcendent norm for anything, be it gender, sexuality, or the number limbs we should have.

    Is there a transcendent norm that can be presented? How do we discuss this with godless people? How do we help them to see that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Saviour and doesn’t want them to submit to their delusions?

    1. ” How do we discuss this with godless people? ”

      I think we have to remember that there are no godless people. Now, one of the central myths that modernists tell themselves is that they are the only “rational” people that rise above the “superstition” of religion/God. This is only a myth (rhetoric designed to obscure the truth from themselves and those they talk to). They have a god, and it is a very jealous god, it is the god of SELF. This god only wants pleasure and no pain, so it does all it can to narcissistically feed it’s pleasure and avoid pain.

      I think one way to start with these people is not to discuss God, Christ, or “religion”, or the god of SELF that they so faithfully worship, but instead to focus on *suffering*. Discuss with them the reality of suffering, how it is an aspect of life that can not be “fixed” with technology (they will resist this), and explain to them that they will suffer and die (as everyone does). How have they suffered in the past, in what way are they suffering now – physically, emotionally, because of their work, relationships, etc. Then as them what this suffering means.

      Unless people have a sense of the Real, they live in their false world and are subhuman (cf Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis). Until they suffer (or rather realize they suffer), they are not human. Until they are human, God is an impossibility for them…

    2. Joanna: Thank you for your comments. You ask, of course, a real and important question. If you will forgive me dodging it here, I will do my best to offer some sort of response in my next blog post.

    3. Joanna: Sorry for the delay in answering your question; I will attempt an answer here (I’m not sure it rates a blog post after all). If I were speaking to those outside the Faith (in my blogs I assume an audience of my co-religionists) I would perhaps begin by first asking them to share their own understanding of morality. Everyone has some kind of transcendent standard, which allows them to protest violations of it, whether it be minor ones (like someone butting into line ahead of them) or major ones (like racism or genocide). I would ask them where they got their own standard from and how it compares to other standards in other cultures and in older times. Then, after a lot of listening, I might share my own standard, which I got not from meditating on Natural Law (however much Natural Law might be an improvement over nothing at all), but from Christ. That is, I long ago became convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God as He claimed, that He rose from the dead, and that He sent His Holy Spirit from heaven to empower and guide His Church. That means that I accept as my own whatever Jesus said or could be reasonably thought to have concluded about any given moral issue. Becoming His disciple involved embracing His “views” as my own. And since He was a Jew who affirmed the moral reliability of the Jewish Torah (Mt. 5:17-19) that also means accepting the moral trajectories of the Law of Moses. Jesus taught a lot that was not in the Torah, but it seems clear enough that did not reject it as morally unreliable. Further, accepting that Jesus is the Son of God also involves accepting as reliable the teaching of His apostles. Since Jesus chose and trained the apostles and sent them out to proclaim His message and to establish His Church, I must trust them, and am therefore not free to junk their teaching, but must logically accept their teaching as I would His own. In short, I give my moral assent to the apostolic Tradition and the writings of the New Testament. That is the written expression of my moral standard. The conversation of course would be a long one, and best carried out in the course of a lasting friendship.

      1. ” I would perhaps begin by first asking them to share their own understanding of morality….”

        Fr. Lawrence,

        I used to start there but I have found from experience that it reapetadly leads to the same place – they have a morality that flows from their god (the modern god of SELF) that ultimately can be reduced to pleasure (good) and suffering (bad). This is why “fairness” and “freedom of the individual” is their ruling moral in relation (with others, the state, etc.), because this allows the SELF the path of least resistance to pleasure.

        I found that once I was able to work to alternative sources for morality (beyond the SELF), say to something like natural law or even the reality of Christ, that it did not matter because the modern person simply says “well, that’s ok for you, but not for me”. In other words, they say that is ok for your SELF, but not their SELF, and stay out of the way (“fairness” and “freedom”) of their SELF. In other words, they simply project their god unto you.

        I suppose I am saying that starting with morality is not deep enough – and there are too many defenses built up around it (e.g. the modern conception of Christianity and all religions merely being moralities that are justified by false metaphysics).

        This is why I have been trying different things. I want to get behind “morality” as such to “ontology”, or “person”, and try to indicate or shine a little light on their god – because part of the modern persons myth is that they don’t have a god when in fact they have a very jealous god, the god of the SELF. This is why I said above that I try to talk about suffering, or death, or other things the modern person is in deep denial about and which the god of SELF normally deludes so well. Other times, I talk to them about God by challenging their anthropology (though this is really the same thing as bringing the discussion to suffering, death, etc.) that lies behind any morality (to ask “what is right for man” is to ask first and on a deeper level “what is man”).

        What do you think?

  2. I suppose where things started to go wrong, was with the whole conception of “natural law”. For the western philosophers natural law, ie what was normal, was not the reality of paradise before the Fall, much less the transfigured reality of the Christian saint in how they are truly living in the image and likeness of God, — but rather natural law, the transcendent norm, was merely the moral ideals that existed in western culture at the time that these philosophies started to flourish – so something not really transcendent at all, and not pure good either, but still containing a large degree of unrecognized perversion from the genuine transcendent norm that God created us for.

    For the secular philosopher, the transcendent norm was had no relation to God at all. Morality was merely a set of laws and cultural conventions loosely based on the Bible and Christian tradition as a kind of vague legal and moral advisor. Once different cultures with different moral ideals and norms started to come into closer contact, then the question arose, on what basis can I claim that my culture’s moral norms are better than this other culture’s moral norms? at first this attempted to be answered according to a system of what was universally recognized by all cultures, but with an understanding of “normal” disconnected from man as the image and likeness of God, no adequate answer could be given as to what the transcendent norm was. “Majority rules” was insufficient as an answer to satisfy the deeper moral intuition, and so everything became subjective.

  3. Its very thought provoking considering we live in a world that has laws against GMO foods and values all natural, organic livestock. Apparently there is a mindset that hates and considers harmful the altered form of food but at the same time praises as courageous the altered state of humanity.

    1. Dear Frank,
      What an excellent observation. I think you have brought up an incredible dichotomy which no-one could argue.

  4. The problem with a morality based on natural law, is that what is regarded as natural all too often serves the interests of power. Case in point; segregation in the Southern United States, in which every single defender of racism insisted that racism was natural. That it was a natural, God-ordained order in which blacks and whites were to be kept separate.

    The other problem, of course, is that what is natural is too often subjective. Some people insist that homosexuality is natural, while other insist that it is not. And that is just one example.

    And finally, the ultimate pin to the balloon, is that a study of nature does not give us any insights into ethics. We can observe co-operation among the species as much as competition. We can only decide what is ethical behaviour by making reference to something outside of nature. Indeed, it should be clear that “natural law” and “transcendent norm” are two different things. What is transcendent is not of nature.

    My own view, which I admit has it’s problems, but which I will defend, is that we cannot expect people outside of the Church to have our moral codes. We can insist that marriage is one man and one woman as an icon of Christ and His Church (He does not take a groom, and the Church is not betrothed to a bride). But, like it or not, we cannot make this insistence with those outside the Church. The approach to take in that case is to say that someone’s else’s rights are your rights. Someone else’s right to marry is your right to marry. The best we can do is love our neighbours as ourselves. And hope that with that love, they can come around to Christ. And that’s all we can do. Arguing will do nothing.

    1. Gavin,

      You got me thinking and I wanted to respond to a few things:

      “… what is regarded as natural all too often serves the interests of power. Case in point; segregation in the Southern United States…”

      Does a misuse of a thing make the thing in itself illegitimate? If, I use a shovel to bash your brains in, does that make shovels altogether useless (in gardening, for example)?

      As someone who grew up in the South (born just after the civil rights act) I frankly grow weary of these sorts of references. Only certain strands of sola scriptura Protestantism ever defended racism in anything that can be mislabeled as “natural law”. RC’s and Orthodox never did (going way way back) and racism was more cultural. Heck, secular philosophies (such as Nazi Germany) had a much more systematic and theoretical defense of “racism”.

      ” is that a study of nature does not give us any insights into ethics”

      Not true. Exibit A, the whole “natural law” tradition. One could start with St. Paul’s observations in the NT (but you would only be starting in the middle), or Aristotle, or (the list is endless). You are using “observation” and “nature” in that peculiar modern way, which presupposes several “isms” (such as naturalism) that lead directly to “scientism” and thus nihilism in ethics.

      “…we cannot expect people outside of the Church to have our moral codes…like it or not, we cannot make this insistence with those outside the Church. The approach to take in that case is to say that someone’s else’s rights are your rights.”

      Again, behind these assertions is a modern way of thinking about ontology, anthropology (philosophical, not that class you took in college), and how man understands what is “moral”. These assertions are nominalist, thus everything is “all in your head” and the best one can do is assert “rights” over against one another. Thankfully, Christianity and just about every other philosophy known to man throughout history understands that reality is not “all in your head” and thus what is “moral” and “ethical” corresponds to something “out there”, in reality and “nature” (and natures God) itself – in other words Christians are realists (at least classical/traditional Christians: small “o” and big “O” Orthodox).

      If you have never read C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man”, drop everything and read it now. It has been rightly described as the single greatest work of “natural law” of the twentieth century. It does even more than that, and it will disabuse you of these notions of ethics being nothing but relative and relativizing “choices” that can only be thought of in the framework of “rights”…

      1. I forgot to add that Fr. Hopko of blessed memory has an excellent talk on The Abolition of Man here:

        I notice that it is an Apple format however – here it is divided in six parts:

        I noticed Ancient Faith also has a talk by Hopko on this subject, though I have never listened to it and I know it is different than the above one (it is a bit shorter however):

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