Wednesday, September 19, 2012

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!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The (Losing) Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage

This November in Minnesota, there will be a constitutional amendment to permanently ban gay marriage on the ballot. I oppose this amendment for countless reasons, and for the past few months, I have been doing my best to engage and persuade family and friends to vote against it.

In my efforts to talk about this issue, I have tried to listen to and genuinely understand the objections that opponents have to extending marital rights to same-sex couples. I have discovered that there are four basic arguments against gay marriage. What follows is a discussion of each, and why in the end, none are adequate to deny martial rights to same-sex couples. 

Religion seems to make the strongest case against marriage equality for gays. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage argue that homosexuality is a sin, and have long pointed to the Bible as the primary source of their objections to same-sex relationships. It is the most difficult argument against same-sex marriage to counter, because religious beliefs can be so genuinely and deeply held.

The most obvious problem with this argument is that ours is a nation in which the separation of church and state is the law of the land. I would like to think that this alone does away with the need to address religious objections: the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment should eliminate religion from consideration in public policy on this issue. I get the sense that Christians feel that this is a cheat, though; a legal technicality that forces them to accept and/or tolerate something that they find morally wrong. And so I will set aside the First Amendment for the moment, and consider the Biblical argument against same-sex marriage more closely.

The Bible contains over thirty-one thousand verses; of those, only six mention same-sex relations. Right away, this is not exactly a clear indication of the significance of homosexuality as a sin: contrast it to lying or murder, for example: each of those sins are denounced as such in scores if not hundreds of passages. Still, these six passages seem to speak rather forcefully on the subject, and so deserve some attention.

It turns out that these verses have been carefully scrutinized, and surprisingly, they lack a straightforward, clear meaning. Current Biblical scholarship, as well as new translations of the earliest versions of these texts, has thrown traditional interpretations into question. This video, for example, is an extended explanation of these new understandings.

Over the course of his lecture, the speaker eloquently discusses the passages in which homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, and makes a strong case that the Bible does not in fact issue a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. He actually petitions his audience to consider the possibility of Christian same-sex marriage. I challenge everyone, Christian or non-Christian, supporter or opponent of gay marriage, to watch the whole lecture and not be affected by it.

My ultimate point here is not to say that any and all Christian objections to homosexuality are invalid, nor to argue that one must endorse these more recent interpretations of the Bible. My point is to illustrate that Christians themselves do not agree on the question of homosexuality. Since among Christians there is no consensus on the morality of homosexuality, it is unreasonable to try and codify a particular sect's teachings on the subject. In short, this argument does not work because it cannot be applied as a universal, secular law.

Natural Law
The natural law argument against same-sex marriage goes something like this: the procreative efforts of human beings are fulfilled by biologically-ordained heterosexual coupling, and society is built and maintained through reproduction, and so the state must support and favor long-term, opposite-sex relationships. At first glance, it sounds secular, scientific and reasonable. Interestingly, though, the only people who invoke this argument are religious, and very often Catholic; I know of no secularist who has made this argument (in fact, I know of no secularist who opposes same-sex marriage). At any rate, by invoking this argument, church leaders seem to acknowledge that Biblical arguments will not prevail in a society in which not everyone is religious, and in which some religions actually recognize and endorse same-sex marriage.

In order for the "natural law" argument to work, however, one must first ignore the research that demonstrates the presence of same-sex attraction in hundreds of species of animals. There is a growing body of evidence that throughout the animal kingdom, same-sex preference is a naturally-occurring phenomenon that serves useful functions among social creatures. And so it is with human beings: basically, same-sex attraction is natural for a subset of humanity.

Once the naturalness of same-sex attraction is established, it is difficult to maintain a "natural law" argument against same-sex marriage. Even so, it is worth discussing the argument further, because of its central conceit: that the state should favor opposite-sex relationships, because the state in turn reaps benefits from these relationships. This logic puts the cart before the horse: couples do not marry to gain privileges from the state, nor do they marry for the benefit of society. People marry for love, for security, to build a family, to make a life together, and for a host of other reasons. In short, people marry - regardless of the state's interest in marriage.

Does society benefit from stable, lasting relationships? Absolutely. It is true that opposite-sex pair-bonding is a building block of society. But same-sex pair-bonding has the same effect. There are actually many ways in which the community, businesses, and the state could benefit by recognizing same-sex marriage. Essentially, pair-bonding immediately creates a private, familial social safety net, which is inherently stabilizing for society as a whole, regardless of the sex of the partners.

Another canard of this argument posits that marriage is intrinsically heterosexual, and thus same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms. This is simply a tautology: marriage is a social institution, not a biological function. The fact that historically, gays and lesbians have not had access to marriage does not make marriage any less of a social institution.

The people who use this argument focus on the biology of the married couple, and the couple's ability to bear children. This leads us to the most basic problem with this argument: its premise simply does not reflect marriage as it is legally defined: the state has never had any requirements regarding children. Historically, the state's interest in marriage has been quite limited, and centered on practical matters: marriage defined the property rights between the familial clans involved, and determined the lawful heirs of the couple.

In the end, the "natural law" argument becomes a religious one, because the state has never been concerned with a couple's interest in or ability to reproduce. Religion, on the other hand, has long sought to conflate the two. Ultimately, "natural law" fails because the state does not hold opposite-sex couples to a reproductive standard, and same-sex couples would offer the same benefits to society as opposite-sex couples.

Think of the Children!
Speaking of children, we arrive at the next objection. As we go through the list of arguments against gay marriage, they become less compelling. This argument suggests, without any evidence to support it, that children will be harmed by exposure to gays and lesbians. It simply has no basis in reality. In fact, age-appropriate sex education has been repeatedly shown to be beneficial to children of all ages. My favorite response to this trope is an anecdote: a child once asked his mother, "why are Mike and Steve always together?" The mother answered, "because they are in love, just like me and your dad." To which the child replied, "Oh, okay. Can I have a cookie?"

This argument is really just a form of salacious innuendo, and deserves to be called out as such. Enough said.

Slippery Slope
The most degrading and dehumanizing of the arguments against same-sex marriage is that allowing same-sex marriage will lead the state to recognize forms of marriage that most would find repugnant. It is difficult to overstate how genuinely cruel this argument is. Anti-gay activists attempt to conjure specters of polygamous clans, parent-child and sibling incest, and even pedophilia and bestiality. They openly compare the healthy, monogamous relationships of same-sex couples to these fringe expressions of human sexuality. It takes a special contempt for gays and lesbians in order to make such an argument - one must have no respect for the basic humanity of people with same-sex attraction.

Fortunately, there are real-world examples from states and from countries that have legalized gay marriage. We can see from these examples that there aren't any movements to allow any of the types of extreme relationships described above. It turns out that "gay" marriage coexists just fine alongside "traditional" marriage, and it does not lead to the legalization of fringe or deviant behavior.

Another fundamental problem with this line of reasoning is that so-called "traditional" marriage itself offers no reasons which explain why these extreme relationships are inappropriate, deviant, and harmful. Instead, it places the burden upon same-sex marriage advocates to articulate the reasons for these taboos. This is unnecessary. The same moral standards that forbid these kinds of relations for opposite-sex couples hold true for same-sex couples.

It is also worth noting something not mentioned by gay marriage opponents when they cite polygamy as the bottom 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. This simple fact demonstrates that the arguments against gay marriage do not automatically support a "one man, one woman" conception of marriage.

Essentially, this argument attempts to evoke shock, horror, and revulsion, and to associate those feelings with homosexuality. The idea that gays and lesbians belong in a category with the extreme simply does not have a rational or evidentiary basis, and it unfairly demonizes an otherwise unremarkable minority group.


The most disheartening feature of all of these arguments against same-sex marriage is that they display a callous lack of experience with same-sex couples and with families led by same-sex parents. It is very easy to make abstract paeans to traditional marriage when same-sex couples are made invisible. These arguments represent a nullification: in a real way, they assert that actual gays and lesbians and their families do not exist, and they place a heavy mask over the everyday experience of thousands of same-sex couples.

The first response to this apparent erasure is to cry out: gay couples exist! Gay families exist! We must lay down our defenses and acknowledge the humanity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We must listen a while. When we do so, we will find that the wisdom of these couples and the wholesomeness of these families will enrich our own lives.

Vote No.