Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Thoughts on Gay Marriage, Part One: Framing the Problem

I approach the subject of gay marriage* with some nervousness, and rather more pessimism. My views probably go rather too far, from a traditional Christian perspective, and not nearly far enough from a gay perspective; and since gays, Christians, and Christian gays make up a decided majority of my friends, I don't see how I can address the topic at all without upsetting and angering people. So I take this opportunity, before the post proper has begun, to beg every reader to read with an open mind and -- more importantly -- an open heart.

As I've stated a couple of times before, I am gay, and my beliefs about homosexual conduct are those of the Catholic Church. Interestingly enough, I've rarely been taken to task for this by any of my lesbian, gay, or transgendered friends, or by allies. Most people are willing to accept it as a matter of personal belief and personal choice. The Catholic contention that it is not merely a religious obligation (religion being freely chosen), but a question of universal moral principles proper to all humanity, edges into more uncomfortable territory. And when we get to gay marriage, conceived of in strictly civil terms, things can get downright hostile, on both sides. The only time I was ever contemptuously called "sodomite," it was by a Christian pastor; while, when I was at the state legislature a couple of years ago, for a hearing on the gay marriage bill, a total stranger leaned over to me while a woman from the Maryland Catholic Conference was speaking and said, "So we should just allow them to be pedophiles?" Stay classy, America.

Though they didn't have to be, traditional mores -- and, I say with great sorrow and bitterness, nowhere more than in Christendom -- have been frequently accompanied by a hideously unjust suspicion of, and hatred for, homosexuals. There were worse and better times, and not always the ones you might expect; the authorities of the fastidious Victorian era often turned a blind eye to those who did not parade themselves (one of the many reasons the Oscar Wilde case made such a splash), while the Late Middle Ages, which saw a definite decline in the power of the Church, ranked homosexuals with heretics, and burned both at the stake. We've gotten out of both eras, for which I'm grateful, though I wonder whether it represents a real moral advance or a mere collapse. Charles Williams said of the rise of religious toleration that we fancied ourselves as having mastered charity, when in fact we were merely sick of the sight of blood. I prefer that to the prior bloodthirst, but it is no great advance to congratulate ourselves upon -- nor any great security.

The job of disentangling moral stands from their legal expression is a difficult one, even when not complicated by the task of distinguishing an authentic moral stand from a phobia dressed in theological language. Nor is it easy today. The casual assertion from many Christians that love for homosexuals demands disapproval of homosexuality, due to the actual attitudes displayed by many believers, is as unconvincing and repellent as is the tendency of many in the queer community to label absolutely any opposition to, or even uncertainty about, gay causes as homophobic.

Let's see if we can't clear away some of the smoke, and consider the issue from multiple perspectives, so as to approach a greater objectivity.

The case for gay marriage is straightforward enough: marriage is the legal union of two persons, and religious mores are not relevant, because of the separation of church and state. To obtrude a specifically Christian character into the civil institution of marriage is inappropriate; and, given that there is debate, not only between the churches and society in general, but among the churches themselves, about the gravity and even the liceity of homosexual practice, gay marriage can scarcely be rejected on grounds of a commonly held morality. Grounds for accepting that gay sex is moral vary, but most appeal to consensuality as the basic principle of sexual ethics, and point to the appearance of homosexual behavior throughout nature as a proof that there is nothing that weird about it.

It must be said that this does more or less demolish a case against gay marriage that we commonly hear set forth, that which appeals to Biblical prohibitions and Christian values as such. A lot of Christians, especially of my generation, on realizing that this case -- the only one, often enough, that they had ever heard -- was, truly, an appeal to the authority of revelation, which is outside the state's purview, have consequently abandoned opposition to gay marriage. I did so for several years (not that I ever opposed it very enthusiastically to begin with). Of course, there are also those who abandoned it out of the desire to be modern and fashionable; but equally, there are surely people who oppose gay marriage out of a general self-righteous disapproval of all things recent. I propose, at least for now, to ignore the motives of all segments of the population as irrelevant to the argument, and resume the discussion.

I find that many if not most people on both sides of this discussion are not acquainted, or only imperfectly, with the argument actually set forth by the Catholic Church. Her contention is that marriage as a natural institution (i.e., an institution arising from human nature both biological and spiritual, yet apart from that special divine intervention we call revelation) is oriented, not simply toward the romantic coupling of the partners, but toward the generation of the family. Romance is a beautiful, good thing, but it is not one of the essential qualities of marriage, as evidenced by the fact that most societies in the past, and many still today, arranged marriages, sometimes years or even decades in advance. Likewise, they all agreed on the nature of marriage: namely, that its purpose was to bring a family into being. If a couple found themselves infertile, of course, that was a saddening irregularity, but not one which affected the essential character of the institution. Nor was this necessarily due to ignorance of, or hostility to, homosexual couples, including monogamous ones; classical Greece is a good example. This being the nature of marriage, a couple that, intrinsically -- not simply by something reparable in principle, such as infertility -- cannot bring forth children cannot enter into a marriage, not even because of any question of its being wrong for them to do so but by the nature of the case. I don't like this doctrine, and never have, but I find it convincing and so I accept it.

Most contemporary Americans find it harder to swallow. Its characterization of marriage as something with a definite purpose in mind, and one that not all Americans are eager to engage in, is repellent to our sense of liberty. Moreover, the appeal to history seems rather backward: we've redefined so many things, made so much progress; why not this, too?

Speaking of the ancient Greeks, though, altering the essence of one of the basic institutions of human society strikes me as a little hubristic; that sort of thing tends to have consequences, and not nice ones. Moreover, it seems to me to miss its own aim. For what are we trying to do in redefining marriage? If we are trying simply to secure legal and social benefits for same-sex couples, I personally have no objection; that is why civil unions do -- and, in my view, should -- exist (not that they are everything they could be, but that's a story for another time). But in that case, why bother appropriating the term marriage?

I think the reason is because gay and lesbian couples want their love recognized and legitimated by society at large. Note that I have written love, not sex; I have yet to meet a fellow queer person who identifies primarily with their sexuality (much religious rhetoric aside), but I have met plenty of people, straight and gay, who want their relationships to be acknowledged as an integral part of them. And our culture has taken the institution of marriage and made it primarily a matter of the parties being in love -- which a lot of gay and lesbian couples are. (The palpably counterfactual claim that two people of the same sex cannot fall in love is, to my mind, beneath serious reply.)

Here, I believe, the churches have already fallen down on the job. Part of the reason the Catholic argument falls on such deaf ears is that the general Christian sentiments about marriage have exactly followed those of the culture at large, changing the definition from a deliberate, sacramental choice to pursue a family, to a social, symbolic affirmation of how deeply two people love each other. It is scarcely surprising; the shift has been taking place since the nineteenth century, and has been the cause of radically altered attitudes to divorce, contraception, and extramarital sex. American Christians, meanwhile, have tended more to oppose such things as they found them personally inconvenient or ideologically embarrassing, than on the basis of a consistently held philosophy of marriage. The idea of gay marriage hasn't redefined marriage, nor will it; marriage has already been redefined, as far as American culture is concerned. The Church has allowed the World to invade her, and the World has correspondingly elected to plunder her. For that, we have ourselves to blame, not gay activists, who are only carrying to their logical conclusion the principles that we found it too bothersome to examine or oppose.

"How shall we then live?" Two answers to that question are necessary. One is the answer regarding how we are to reinfuse our culture with a true understanding of marriage; the other, how we are to behave towards legally partnered lesbians and gay men; both are a part of the New Evangelization. I will answer them in my next, and commend myself and all who read this post to the Holy Family.

*A lot of writers will put a phrase like this in scare quotes. I find this habit unaesthetic, childish, and alienating, so I haven't; I feel that my views on the subject speak for themselves.


  1. Well said! I have long thought the fight was over use of gov't power to enforce "social legitimacy" rather than the actual legal rights at stake... That said tying this into the larger shifts in understandings of marriage and self puts this all into a highly relevant context. Thank you!

  2. You can get a peace of paper saying you are married but in Gods eyes you will never be married.
    What you do will effect ever one in America in Some way and maybe as Sodom was.
    Think God will wink at your sin? You read the book.

  3. I did not suppress the above comment, because I powerfully dislike doing so -- I believe in freedom of speech as a matter of principle, not only as a matter of law. But I feel strongly that it expresses exactly the atmosphere we do not need in this discussion. The Bible identifies the sin of Sodom, and identifies it as pride and cruelty to the poor and the stranger, not homosexuality -- those being long-standing sins of American culture, too. I think the reminder that God will not wink at human sins (or not forever) is better used as a rebuke to our own consciences than as a way of accusing other people. It is something of a trope, but it is nevertheless quite true, that it was the pious and orthodox Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke in this fashion, not those who indulged in sexual sin.

  4. Super interesting and well written post (and very nice reply to the comment.)