Thursday, September 13, 2012

Catholics and Gay Marriage: Another Response

(Note: I found many essays while researching what Catholics say about gay marriage. The proprietor of a blog in which one such essay appeared was kind enough to reply to my critique of the arguments against same-sex marriage. She felt, though, that I did not really address the arguments offered on her site. This essay is a more direct response to that particular post.)

What is marriage? That is the most important question in the debate over same-sex marriage, at least according to one Catholic seminarian on the subject. As an advocate of marriage equality, I can agree that this question is at the heart of the debate. The problem, however, is that there is more than one answer to this question, and the essay to which I now respond gives only the Catholic answer. Though it should be obvious to everyone by now, Catholic marriage is not the same thing as civil marriage. This substitution is actually so common that I wrote a plea to Catholics to stop applying their definition of marriage to everyone else.

Almost everything in the argument hinges upon this initial conceit, and thus it has already foundered: the state simply does not define marriage using the definition provided by the Catholic Church. (If you think otherwise, then why is there such a concerted effort to amend constitutions?) Instead, it performs a sleight of hand: define all marriage using Canon Law, and then show how conclusively that definition matches itself. I could stop here, but there is a lot more to discuss, and what follows is a point-by-point critique of the essay.

I.A. Traditional Marriage
This rosy portrait of traditional marriage ignores two essential realities present throughout human pre-history and most of recorded history: 1) infant mortality was extremely high and the likelihood that children would survive into adulthood was very low; and 2) in agricultural societies, children were a primary source of wealth and production. It is impossible to overstate the significance of these two fundamental truths. So, yes, traditional marriage had a lot to do with making babies. But this misses the forest for the trees - it was a practical arrangement, not a spiritual one. The Catholic definition of marriage attempts to elevate the union described into something more than a clan organizing itself to maximize its physical survival and economic potential. But one may describe the same phenomenon without adding religious significance to it, and allow for the idea that in the 21st century, we can imagine building successful marriages and families in other ways.

It is also worth pointing out that this section dances around the point that marriage is a cultural and social construct not determined by nature. I've just explained why "traditional marriage" bears such "striking" similarities among various cultures around the world - as it turns out, it isn't very mysterious. The most basic point that advocates of marriage equality are trying to make is that marriage can and has changed to suit our culture's changing values. Liberty and equality are strong values in the United States in the 21st century. Our (civil) custom of marriage should reflect these values.

I.B. Importance of Family 
No one in favor of marriage equality argues that family is not important. So this entire section is a nonstarter: yes, families are important. Also, kittens are cute and nice days are nice. Platitudes aside, the nuclear family actually seems rather small and insubstantial when set beside the multitudes of familial configurations that have flourished throughout history. There has never been a time in which the care and raising of children did not extend beyond the confines of a nuclear family; this is the true human experience. I might add that the current single-minded focus on the primacy of the so-called nuclear family is the narrowest definition of family ever seen.

II.A. Love and Marriage
This section is merely semantic parsing: it conflates "love" with "romantic love." Ask any opposite-sex couple anywhere, "why do you want to get married?" and you'd likely get "because we love each other" as an answer. It's a pretty intimate (and very important) question, really, but it doesn't necessarily deserve a more nuanced answer unless the interviewer has some special relationship to the couple. Let me be clear: love is defined in many, many ways, but in the end, it is an essential part of modern marriage. Traditional marriage has already been redefined, not by homosexuals, but by heterosexuals: before the last 150 years or so, "love" rarely if ever factored into marriage. Now, however, along with commitment and shared values, love is at its core. Sure, there are some couples who cling to the notion of romantic love as the basis of marriage, but that has nothing to do with same-sex marriage.

In the words of a gay friend of mine, "marriage is and will always be a mutual promise to take and to cherish, to be true in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, a promise to love and to honor all the days of one's life." Florid, but pretty compelling, and at least as valid as the definition offered by the Catholic Canon Law. Or, take it from a Catholic lay minister who counsels men and women about to enter into the Catholic Sacrament of Marriage: "[I've spent] 17 years mentoring engaged couples, and we've been talking about commitment and communication. Don't marginalize the sanctity of my marriage by telling me that it's a marriage only because one of us is male and the other a female. We've worked too hard to define our marriage the way Jesus asked us to: it's about love, not sex."

It is unclear why, but here the essay takes an unfortunate detour to state that "homosexuality is wrong because it perverts sex from something reproductive into something non-reproductive." Non-reproductive sex is not perverted; this is merely the Catholic view of it. This view may be valid for Catholics, but it is not universally shared, and it is not supported by biology or any other natural science. The essay goes on to conflate homosexuality with "the sky-high divorce rate... massive amount[s] of infidelity... and premarital sex." I realize that the essay is trying to draw a connection between libertine sexual morality and the problems facing modern marriages, but frankly, this goes too far. Same-sex couples, by trying to marry, are seeking to create a normative institution which enshrines fidelity and commitment. Precisely how does fighting marriage equality promote these values, which both sides agree are worthy goals?

II.B. Marriage and the State
The first sentence of this section is strange: "because the heart is fickle, don't condition marriage on romance." Is this a statement of fact or a recommendation? Whatever is meant, here is the reality: the state does not condition marriage on anything, and to my knowledge, it never has. A man can go to city hall and get a license to marry a Chinese woman he's never met. Now, I don't think this is a very good idea, and most people take marriage much more seriously than this. But the state doesn't require seriousness, and more to the point, the state has no means to test the intentions or the seriousness of the couple.

The essay wants to argue that the only societal benefit of marriage is children. As I have written before, this simply is not true. Think of the inverse: that couples without children have no societal purpose and offer no benefits to its stability and success. Demonstrably false, and trying to prove otherwise would be a waste of time.

III. Conclusion
Social conservatives spend a lot of time lamenting the state of marriage in the United States. What they overlook is that historians are demonstrating that the successful marriages of today are more intimate, more egalitarian, and more satisfying than at any time in history. Historians also tell us that in the past, people did not work harder at their marriages; they simply had fewer choices. So the question becomes, do we really want to return to a time with fewer choices and its attendant bland, expedient, inequitable, and yes, loveless marriages? I think not. Modern marriage is a fulfilling institution for loving, committed couples, and people with same-sex attraction should be granted the right to enter such an institution.


I was raised Catholic, and I have a strong respect for the intellectual rigor of its scholars, theologians, and apologists. I know most to be gentle, honest in their convictions, and measured and earnest in their reasoning. So it is painful for me to watch the church apply its abundant gifts, talents, and resources toward passing the (anti-same-sex) Marriage Amendment in Minnesota. To focus so relentlessly on passing this hurtful amendment strikes me as petty and mean-spirited.

I've seen it written more than once that "Tolerance Is Not A Christian Virtue." Sure, okay. It's not on the list. But this seems like cynical word-play. What about Charity, Kindness, Justice, Humility? From these virtues, I think it's possible to promote marriage equality without compromising one's own vision of what marriage should be.

Vote No, Minnesota!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this! What a shame that the author of the original essay has not commented.

Knight of Nothing said...

Karifur - yeah, I would love to hear their response to my piece, because I tried to address his argument very carefully. I'm pretty sure that both the author and the website proprietor saw my post - I had some click-through traffic from their sites the day I posted the link.