Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Catholics and Gay Marriage

My grandfather - a conservative Catholic - was a wise and funny man. He used to quip that he was against prayer in the public schools because he was convinced that they would teach children the wrong way to pray. This simple and folksy logic actually reveals some profound insights: it is an acknowledgement that ours is a pluralistic nation, and that in such a free and open society, there are many different religious traditions; it is an admission that on some matters of faith, Catholics are not willing to compromise; and it also expresses a measure of acceptance that all of this is just fine. I think it even illustrates his gentle yet piercing sense of humor, the comment coming as it did back at the height of the animus-filled debate over prayer in the public schools. 

Which brings me to the topic of marriage. Right now, gay marriage is a contentious issue for people of faith, much like the issue of school prayer used to be. In Minnesota, led by the bishops, the Catholic Church has come out in support of a constitutional amendment to permanently ban gay marriage. Frankly, I am not sure what is driving the Catholic campaign against gay marriage, nor do I understand why the church has chosen to take such a stand at this time. If I had to guess, I would say that it is a top-down effort by the Church to re-assert its moral authority in the United States at a time when it has been rocked by scandal and its influence is waning. It certainly does not seem like a widespread and spontaneous expression of anti-gay sentiment by its members.

In a way, I can understand why this debate is so important to Catholics. For Catholics, marriage is more than a long-standing and powerful institution; it is a sacrament: a sacred rite that binds its recipients to each other and to the church. Catholic marriage has many tenets: it is a lifelong, indissoluble commitment and the only proper place for sexual expression. Procreation is seen as a primary purpose. Marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics is circumspect and even frowned upon. And so on. In a formal and strict sense, the church does not recognize non-Catholic marriage because its expression outside of the church does not enshrine these tenets as its foundation.

I have seen a fair number of essays and other commentary by Catholics that purport to explain why everyone should oppose gay marriage. Really, though, all of these arguments simply express why people should oppose Catholic marriage for gays. Essentially, they reiterate Catholic beliefs about coupling, reproduction, and sexual morality. Forgotten or abandoned in these essays is that there are other ideas about marriage that simply do not conform to Catholic beliefs.

Religious people of many faiths, as well as non-religious people, define marriage differently, and some religious organizations openly embrace marriage between same-sex couples. I am certain that Catholics do not want to have the marriage standards of another faith imposed upon them. So they should not seek to impose their standard on others. This is the heart of the matter, and everything else simply clouds this essential truth. Whether or not the amendment passes, Catholics will continue to define and to celebrate marriage in their own way. Similarly, passing this amendment will not alter the expression (or lack thereof) of marriage by non-Catholics.

In short, the issue of gay marriage really does not challenge or undermine Catholic marriage as an institution in any way. Instead, this issue offers another, deeper challenge to Catholics: to find the humanity and the good in people with whom they disagree. I do not say this glibly; this is one of the most difficult challenges that we as human beings face. And it is a sacred as well as civic duty to do so.

Catholic Minnesotans should choose to protect the religious and personal liberty of non-Catholics so that those outside of the Church may find fulfillment and practice their beliefs in their own way. Or they should choose to protect the Catholic sacrament of marriage from being misused and diluted by forcing it upon a reluctant public. Either way, let's all take my grandfather's advice: leave Catholic teachings and practices to Catholics. Vote No.

Update: This essay is a plea to Catholics to reject the Church's anti-gay marriage position on the grounds that the State of Minnesota does not administer the Catholic sacrament of marriage, and never will. For those interested, here is the first essay I wrote on the subject of Minnesota's anti-gay marriage amendment, and it includes a more expansive plea for marriage equality.

Update II: I wrote two additional essays that respond to the "natural law" arguments against marriage equality. "Natural Law" is commonly invoked by Catholics to mask the religious nature of their opposition to same-sex marriage. You can find these essays here and here.


JoAnna Wahlund said...

Actually, there are solid secular reasons for defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman: http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2011/11/whats-state-interest-in-promoting-gay.html

Knight of Nothing said...

JoAnna - first, thank you so much for your comment. I appreciate that you took the time to read my essay.

There are actually some excellent essays that eloquently describe the state's interest in promoting same-sex marriage and describe some of its attendant societal benefits. Please see here and here, for example. To me, essays like these illuminate our understanding of marriage as it is practiced, and puts marriage into the context of a diverse and healthy society.

I have a critique of Mr. Heschmeyer's essay. He begins with the premise that the state favors marriage for "the well-being of children or potential children." This premise is problematic in at least two ways.

(1) It does not have a strong basis in history. It is difficult to unravel secular customs from religious practices, but historically speaking, the state's interest in marriage was fundamentally one of property rights between two families. Insofar as a marriage involved children, the state's interest was again the property arrangements: the marriage determined lawful heirs. The concept of the "well-being of children" is a relatively modern one.

(2) This premise simply does not reflect marriage as it is practiced today. The state has absolutely no fertility requirements, no sexual requirements, and no requirements whatsoever regarding children. Couples may take steps to insure that they never have children, and they may even choose never to have sex, and still be legally married.

Without his foundational premise, the rest of Mr. Heschmeyer's essay pretty quickly collapses. To me, it seems that he is doing exactly what I described above: he uses the Catholic concept of marriage in place of the state's definition. I do not mean to say that the Catholic conception of marriage is wrong. My point, and I hope that I made this clear, is that the Catholic Church should not ask that its doctrine on marriage supersede beliefs about marriage held by other religions, nor should it supplant the state's definition and be written into Minnesota's Constitution.

As I wrote, for some people of faith, and for Catholics in particular, gay marriage is a difficult issue. Because there are competing visions of marriage, society must weigh these visions carefully. In the end, in order to find a solution, the question must be narrowed: what does your marriage mean to you? This is an intimate question, and answering it takes a lot of courage and honesty.

The more we listen to the answers to this question, the more we will find that there are a lot of different ideas about marriage, even within a particular faith. But more importantly, the more answers we hear, the more we will begin to see similarities in marriage across faiths, beliefs, and even across this line we have drawn between same-sex and opposite-sex marriage.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article; I was glad to stumble across it. Might I also add, your reply to Mr. Heschmeyer's essay (and to JoAnna's comment above) is possibly the most civil comment I have ever seen. I look forward to reading more of your blogs!

Knight of Nothing said...

Karifur - thank you for your kind words! If you peruse the rest of my blog, you will discover that I am not always so diplomatic, but this is an important issue, and I am consciously trying to inject civility into the conversation. Thank you for checking in! Cheers!

Mary said...

Marriage in the Catholic Church is a sacrament binding the couple to one another, the church, and Christ (very important clarification) When my husband and I got married, we got married to Christ as well. We view Christ & The Holy Spirit as the glue that binds us and guides us in all of our ups and downs. Most Catholics, myself included do not have a problem with same sex marriage. God gave us free will after all. But, redefining marriage in the law is a very very slippery slope, because once that is done, the door is WIDE open for other definitions to be forced upon us. I continue to pray for peace, love, and understanding for all.
Also, you said that marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics is frowned upon, which is not entirely true anymore. It used to be not encouarged bc it is true (i know bc i married a non-Catholic) that it can prove difficult for couples raising children to come to agreement with what faith to raise your kids.
I married a Lutheran and had no problem from my Catholic church. We were warned though that it could be difficult, and it has, but our faith in Christ, the family, and each other has seen us through time and time again (we have been married for 12 years).

Knight of Nothing said...

Mary - thank you for reading my essay. I can't really tell from your comment whether you plan to vote for or against Minnesota's amendment to ban same-sex marriage, but I hope you will consider voting against it.

I think your comments about Catholic marriage strengthen my point that the Catholic practice of marriage is unique to Catholics.

Regarding marriage between Catholics and Non-Catholics, I am speaking not only from the Catechism ("circumspect" is the Church's word, not mine), but also from experience. The parish I belonged to would not marry us until my spouse converted. I think in practice, it varies pretty widely from place to place.

I'm not really sure what you mean by this: "once that is done, the door is WIDE open for other definitions to be forced upon us." Polygamy? There are real-world examples from states and from countries that have legalized gay marriage, and there aren't any movements to "force" polygamy or other forms of marriage. It turns out that "gay" marriage coexists just fine alongside "traditional" marriage. And in essential ways, both look a lot like, well, marriage.

I am happy to hear that your marriage is working! All marriages have their challenges. Again, thank you for your thoughts.

Bromance said...

I always find it interesting that polygamy is brought up as the end of the slippery slope. Polygamy is an extremely common idea in the old testament and was somewhat practiced in the US before it was made illegal in an attempt to marginalize Mormons.

Thanks for facilitating a nice civil talk.

Knight of Nothing said...

Bromance - you're welcome! Glad you stopped by.

I also think it's interesting that polygamy is mentioned so often. Setting the Old Testament aside, the concept of "natural law" is used in attempts to make non-religious arguments that gay marriage is wrong. So it's worth noting something that is not mentioned by gay marriage opponents when they cite polygamy as the end of a slippery slope: polygamy is a heterosexual form of mating, and one that can find many cognates in the natural world among higher mammals. My point here is simply that "natural law" doesn't automatically support the "one man, one woman" argument.

I know that when opponents of gay marriage use the term "natural law," they have a certain meaning in mind. But one must reject science and nature to erase/ignore naturally-occurring variation in sexual preference... Maybe all of this is a good topic for another essay.

Leslie Hittner said...

There is actually a very secular reason for opposing this amendment:

Setting aside the Catholic Church’s confusion of this amendment with the Sacrament of Matrimony for a moment, let’s look only at the very legitimate concern of restricting the rights of the people within the constitution.

Article I of the Minnesota State Constitution — the only article that addresses the status of people in the state of Minnesota — is a Bill of Rights. It is not a Bill of Limitations.

All other articles of the constitution discuss limitations upon government. The constitution, therefore, grants power and rights to the people and restricts the power and rights of government. There is no place in the constitution for this amendment. Inserting it into the constitution would make the constitution itself internally inconsistent, because this amendment would violate Article I, Section 16 of the constitution’s own Bill of Rights.

Clearly this is not a constitutional issue. If the legislature wishes to limit the rights of the people, it should do so by means of laws that are subject to the vetting processes of the courts. If the political climate prevents passage of such an issue at this time, then patience, not an illegal amendment to the constitution, is what is called for.

Knight of Nothing said...

Leslie - I agree: there are a host of reasons why Minnesota's anti gay marriage amendment should be defeated. Your analysis is correct: our form of government (both at the state and federal level) protects the rights of people and limits the powers of government. Clearly, this amendment doesn't fit that model.

The goal of my essay was to address some of the concerns that my Catholic family and friends have with gay marriage, and persuade them that voting against this amendment does not affect the Catholic practice of marriage. It also attempts to demonstrate that a vote against this amendment can actually be seen as protecting Catholic marriage.

I am working on another essay that specifically discusses the four arguments against gay marriage, and why each have fallacies.

Thanks again for lending your insights to this discussion!