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, June 17, 2013

The Rainbow Flag and the Tripping Wire

The Supreme Court decision on DOMA is coming up. If it is upheld, another attempt to overturn it will likely be made; if it is struck down, gay unions will probably obtain federal recognition within a few years.

I've actually heard less rhetoric from the Church on this subject than I was expecting to. Living in Maryland, I heard a good deal more last year and the year before that, as state recognition of gay unions was considered but stalled for lack of support, then considered again and passed.

I have expressed my own thoughts on gay marriage before; it isn't a subject I relish, not because I have any animosity towards gay couples, but because I hate the idea of meddling in other people's affairs, especially on such a scale. I have no intention of arguing further on the subject if I can possibly escape from doing so; my heart isn't in it, and there is next to nothing I can say that will not be offensive to one side or the other. Since most of my friends are either Christians or gay, or both, that's an awful lot of social circle at stake.

A lot of Catholics, especially some in prominent positions (in the Church, as lobbyists, as academics, &c.), assert that all Catholics must vocally and persistently oppose gay marriage, and that to do otherwise is to risk scandalizing our neighbors. Scandal is a technical term in Catholic theology, and means nudging someone else closer to sin; it actually comes from a Greek word that means "tripping wire." The contention is that, by remaining quiet on the subject, we encourage the passage of fundamentally unjust laws, and the corruption of our society into one even more tolerant of sexual decadence than it already is. And usually Hitler comes into it somehow, but I didn't follow that part very clearly.

Far be it from me to say that the structure of society is unimportant, or outside the Church's power to discuss right and wrong. I will say, as I have said before, that widespread support for gay marriage is not in fact the cause of marital decay in this country; that a redefinition of marriage has already happened, and gay marriage is simply the logical extension of the new definition; and that it is largely with the connivance or indifference of Christians, that that new definition of marriage came into being and overwhelmed the previous definition. From being fundamentally oriented toward the family, marriage became fundamentally oriented toward romantic love -- and that change has nothing at all to do with the supposed decadence of our age, nor with the queer movement, and everything to do with the age of our grandparents and before -- the household gods of neoconservatism. Blaming the gay movement, or gays as people, is as hypocritical as it is ridiculous.

I'd like, however, to consider this question of scandal more closely. It seems constantly to be cited in the Catholic-LGBT dialogue: not only opposition to gay unions, but to (it sometimes seems) any kind of social acknowledgment of homosexuality, from hostility to coming out to insisting on misleading half-truths as a precondition for simple hospitality.

The thing is, scandal is not just doing something that could, somehow, be interpreted as tolerance for homosexuality. (For one thing, tolerance is something we should definitely have for homosexuality, but let's not get sidetracked.) The primitive Church behaved in ways that were regarded as scandalous: their greetings of one another as spiritual siblings were so affectionate that they provoked rumors of incest; the secrecy of the liturgy, combined with references to the Blessed Sacrament, resulted in accusations of cannibalism; their insistence that Jesus and not Caesar was kurios, "Lord," brought them under suspicion of sedition. Or consider Our Lord Himself, who laid His hands on lepers, consorted with Gentiles, ate and drank with drunks and grafters, and numbered whores and political malcontents among His intimate friends. He must have really not cared about people's souls if He was so willing to scandalize people!

St. Thomas (I'm told) said that Christ never scandalized the Pharisees who protested His behavior, but that they scandalized themselves. To speak bluntly, I think the exact same thing is happening now. Scandal is a disreputable thing; and the Pharisees set great store by reputation: the very word hypocrite comes from the Greek word for an actor's mask.* But respectability can be the enemy of supernatural Love, and whenever it is, respectability can go to the devil. (It will.)

Consider what scandal essentially is. It is moving someone else away from God by your own actions, or inaction. That means that doing the wrong thing can be scandalous; it also means that doing what is technically the right thing in a way that's alienating and ugly can be scandalous. Nobody could have accused the Pharisees of breaking the Sabbath; but when they were preparing to accuse Jesus of impiety for healing (doing the work of a doctor!) on the Sabbath, He looked around at them and said to the man with the withered hand, 'Stretch out your hand.' He intended to provoke them, to break the artificial rules they had erected as an aid to virtue -- scandal is more complicated than simply allowing people to think you might be doing something that might be wrong. The worst kind of scandal is sending the wrong sort of message about who God is. And sending the right sort of message, to judge from the example of our Jesus and His chosen Apostles, is emphatically not neat and tidy and respectable -- indeed, the disreputable act of eating with Gentiles was nearly turned by St. Paul into a litmus test of orthodoxy, and he applied that test to the Pope!

It isn't only that a lot of Catholics don't appreciate the legal obstacles to the everyday lives of some gay couples -- or their not-so-everyday lives, as when bereaved partners can be shut out of the deathbeds and funerals of their loved ones, because they have no legal rights. And the point is not that the Church needs to change her teaching on the subject, it's that one element of that teaching -- that LGBT people are human, and ought to be accorded the same dignity as everyone else -- needs to be made much more explicit. The fact that a lot of people will read that and suppose my orthodoxy questionable is a perfect example of the problem: not because I'm of any importance, but because the human dignity of homosexuals should not have an aura of controversy. Justin Lee put the matter with biting clarity on his Tumblr, to which I've linked above: 'You might also have a hint of why, when American Christians are so vocally opposed to granting [gay and lesbian couples] those civil protections on the basis of our religious beliefs, it makes many gay people even less interested in hearing anything Christians have to say.'

This is not simply a question of making Catholic sexual mores palatable through gentleness of language. It is a question of setting Love before respectability, and being willing, maybe, to be accused of being a friend of sinners -- the one thing the Pharisee will never do.

A great place to start would be a serious consideration of the plight of queer persons internationally. The Church disgraced herself in the country of Georgia recently by participating in an anti-gay rally, with some of the demonstrators threatening to lash people with nettles if they showed support for the gay community there. Sixteen people were injured. Or we might look at the cruel and frightening discussions taking place in Uganda, where a bill to make homosexual acts punishable by years, even decades, of imprisonment (because putting men in prison is the best way to get them to not have gay sex) -- and even under some circumstances by death. And yet the only language we generally hear from devout Catholics in this country is that of defending the Church against the depredations of the gay lobby. The text 'Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger' springs to mind. These outrages are not a question of politics but of human dignity, and if the Church remains silent about them, rather than protesting them, then we are giving scandal: disreputable Jesus warned the virtuous Pharisees, 'The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.' If the Church allows herself to seem uncaring about human dignity when the humans in question are homosexual ones, she is going to ruin her credibility with a generation.

*In the ancient theater, actors wore iconic and exaggerated masks. So sort of like a reversal of a 3D film today, except that theirs really were in 3D.


  1. I have long said this about "scandal." Misunderstanding the concept of scandal has caused nothing but trouble in the Church.

    Catholic Encyclopedia says, "Still less can that be considered scandal, which only arouses comment, indignation, horror etc., for instance blasphemy committed in the presence of a priest or of a religious; it is true that the act arouses indignation and in common parlance it is often called scandalous, but this way of speaking is inaccurate, and in strictly theological terminology it is not the sin of scandal. Hence scandal is in itself an evil act, at least in appearance, and as such it exercises on the will of another an influence more or less great which induces to sin."

    Yet many Catholics seem to think scandal is "anything that arouses moral horror or indignation" or something like that. Just think of how all the child-abuse was covered up in the name of "avoiding scandal"!

    What they really seemed to mean was "avoiding a scandal" (in the popular sense of that term. But "a scandal" and "scandal" are two very different things. Their logic was ridiculous; it seemed to go something along the lines of "If people find out a priest was a child molester, that might cause them to lose their faith by discrediting the moral mystique and authority of the Church and Her clergy" though that's hardly a "direct" or inevitable outcome.

    What this sort of attitude does, I've often said, is to put the emphasis on keeping up appearances and NOT GETTING CAUGHT rather than avoiding bad behavior in the first place. A priest molesting a child may be scandal. Publicly exposing this fact is not. Even if we can speak of scandal, scandal is in the bad action, not merely in other people FINDING OUT about it, not merely in the knowledge, as if there is some positive duty to keep sin swept under the carpet and hidden away. Rather, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

  2. This leads into another pet-peeve of mine which is the "two-tier" system of sinners within the Church, the "public sinner" category which I think is largely a huge double standard.

    No one is too worried about "secret" use of contraception or premarital sex or even adultery, etc. But, whoa, suddenly if a couple moves in together without getting married, or gets civilly remarried after a divorce, or appears in public with a gay partner...then it's as if they had sex on the altar in front of everyone (even though cohabitation or having a gay boyfriend etc doesn't necessarily say anything about ones private sexual activity). But even if private sexual activity did somehow become a matter of public record, surely we have an obligation to avoid gossip and to give the benefit of the doubt regarding whether someone has reformed or goes to confession after, etc.

    The justification often given for persecuting these "manifest sinners" in various ways is "avoiding scandal," but it's unclear to me how their behavior is scandalous in the strict moral sense. "Bad example" doesn't really make sense, because one is inclined to ask "Except for maybe clergy, or children with parents or something like that, why should anyone be taking anyone else as a moral 'example'?" That it induces people to gossip or dissensions within the community doesn't really work either, because surely the moral burden is on the person who gossips, not on me to avoid doing something that might be fodder for their vice.

    Once again, this all seems to send the message "The question of sin is less important than the question of other people knowing about it/finding out about it." The message seems to be "Be discreet" more than "Be holy."

    Really, the only public categorical division in the Church should be heretics/schismatics (that is to say, people who publicly dissent from dogma or Church authority). All the rest of us sinners should just be sinners. The milieu of shaming or shunning or excommunicating [certain classes, usually sexual, of] "public" sinners (who aren't even necessarily that)...needs to end.

    No one should feel that there is some EXTRA moral burden, if they sin, of hiding it or covering it up or keeping up some goody-two-shoes misleading mask about their struggles or needing to avoid appearances that some busybodies MIGHT assume involves some sin (even if really it's ambiguous).

  3. As for a "new definition of marriage" ALREADY having triumphed, and gay marriage being simply the logical extension of that...I'm not so sure it's that simple.

    The logic behind a lot of this "redefinition of marriage" talk seems to be that the category labelled "marriage" has some sort of strict internal logic and that if gay couples are being included then that changes the essence of the categorical parameters (or indicates that they've already changed).

    But this seems to be an overly-precious sort of anally Scholastic view of how language and categories work in the human mind. In truth, many terms or concepts are extended BY ANALOGY to some other reality without thereby redefining the "stricter sense" of the original category or definition. We've had "common law marriage" for a long time, even though it is "common law" exactly because it WASN'T contracted as an "actual" marriage. And we speak of "marrying" two half-empty bottles of the same drink, even though there is no notion of complementarity-in-difference or procreation there, merely an analogy based on the concept of "joining" contained in marriage.

    Likewise, though certainly part of gay marriage's success socially has been a greater emphasis on the romantic-partnership aspect that is a PART of the natural institution of matrimony, it doesn't necessarily follow that the extension of the concept, based on this, to gays is some sort of "redefinition" that imposes itself "back onto" straight marriages. It can possibly just be viewed as a case of language and societal valuing being extended by way of ANALOGY onto domestic partnerships that in SOME ways are comparable to the original concept.

    With such extensions by analogy, it doesn't necessarily mean a radical reform the original concept/category, as if people are suddenly going to start thinking (or have already) that reproduction has "nothing to do with" straight marriage. I think that conclusion is rather hysterical. Adoption, for example, hasn't undermined the concept of parenthood. Yes, it is a sort of supplemental extension of the concept of "parenthood," based on reconstructing a relationship "like" that which parents have with their genetic offspring, yet in the absence of an actual genetic relationship. But adoption hasn't reduced the concept of parenthood to merely "some adults raising some kids" as if biological relations are irrelevant. Rather, adoption is seen as a sort of "exception that proves the rule," it remains conceptually DEPENDENT and DERIVATIVE of biological parenthood whose form it is an attempt to approximate. There's no reason to believe gay "marriage" represents anything different than this.

    Furthermore, I think you underestimate gay marriage a bit. I don't think it's fair to say it's JUST "about" adult romantic relationships and not "ordered to the family." In seeking social recognition of gay marriage, many gay couples are indeed trying to express that their relationship (and possibly children being raised therein) IS "family" to them, is a relationship of kinship (if an "adoptive" rather than genetic sort). It's not just about marriage being an accessory to the fuzzy pink fantasies of infatuation. It IS about family and kinship for many people, people who otherwise don't necessarily have one.

  4. Outstanding comments all: well-written and well-reasoned. Thank you for posting them.

    I feel that the popularization of contraception was partly a symptom and partly a cause of what I take to be an essentially different understanding of the purposes of marriage; I do think that this notion has more or less taken over from the old in the popular imagination. But that "in the popular imagination" is key: the atmosphere of thought of our culture does exist, and I think it produces or at least affects many people's political opinions, but these opinions are rarely thought through logically and cohesively from first principles to full implications. The older meaning of marriage is still operative, partly from the fact that marriages in the "old sense" are virtually always marriages in the "new sense" too, at least in the West, and partly from the (somewhat fitful) attempts at maintaining and reasserting the older understanding on the part of social conservatives, traditionalist churches, &c. I'm not espousing anything sociologically or historically simplistic, you understand -- I just feel that the generalizations I made were helpful ones.

    I also most certainly didn't wish to imply that people entering gay unions didn't think of them as creating families (first in terms of the union itself, and second, in many cases, in terms of adoption). That is one of the things that makes the rhetoric about gay marriage being an attack on the family so utterly ludicrous. The Catholic Church does consider marriage (whether natural or sacramental) a fundamentally different kind of thing from being in love, and that erotic love is not adequate to produce kinship (save by analogy); but it doesn't follow from this either that being in love is unimportant, or that those who disagree with her doctrine of marriage are not interested in the family. That is another reason I have so little relish for the gay marriage debate: I crave the exact same things that other gay men do in pursuing husbands and children, and have no wish to portray them as foolish, uncaring, or selfish, if only for my own sake.

    Moreover, my own favoring of civil unions, and my beliefs about the kind and degree of strengthening they should receive, bring it so close to civil marriage that few people, even if they saw the difference, could be convinced to care. And I don't know that I can blame them; the distinction is in some ways a pedantic one. But I find that I cannot help caring -- there are many fine distinctions that I find not merely important, but the sort of thing I would pray to receive the grace to go to the stake over (e.g., the difference between the Catholic and Lutheran doctrines of the Sacrament).

  5. I really liked how you phrased: "It is a question of setting Love before respectability, and being willing, maybe, to be accused of being a friend of sinners -- the one thing the Pharisee will never do." Well written, thanks for sharing.

  6. "I feel that the popularization of contraception was partly a symptom and partly a cause of what I take to be an essentially different understanding of the purposes of marriage"

    Still, in many people's minds (well, I actually don't know about in poor communities; no one seems to care about them in general, sadly) there is still the idea that marriage marks the line after which "respectable" people can then have kids, and when men really become men with socio-political standing as such (can you imagine a single man becoming president??)

    However much the "romantic" narrative has increased, I'd argue that most people still see marriage as about founding a stable family/household (and that usually does include the idea of subsequent children). I'm not sure what the "essential" change is other than one in emphasis about what factors make a good family and perhaps an expansion (but not a decrease) in what the family is supposed to provide people socially and emotionally.

    And if there is a division on this question it seems less one between upper-middle-class white people and their contraception, and more one about economic enfranchisement and illegitimacy rates among the poor and how the poor therefore structure familial networks differently (often, matriarchal extended family networks due to the absence of fathers).

    Worrying about gay marriage and thinking that "defending marriage" means fighting that when the bastardy rate among poor blacks is over 70 percent (due to poverty, largely, and structural injustice I'm sure)...just strikes me as a ridiculous stance for the Church to take regarding its priorities towards marriage and family.

  7. "the distinction is in some ways a pedantic one. But I find that I cannot help caring -- there are many fine distinctions that I find not merely important, but the sort of thing I would pray to receive the grace to go to the stake over"

    I can understand this, but I'd say a few things.

    First, no one is asking the Church to change Her terminology. Certainly not in the "original" Latin or whatever; though one might ask if we should start translating the Latin as "matrimony" exclusively or something like that if English shifts in such a way that "marriage" as a word no longer corresponds to the intent of the Latin. Language does evolve like that, after all.

    But my point is that the question of civil marriage and the Church's philosophical category of "marriage" are two different things. There can be stricter and less strict, more precise and less precise, meanings of words. Gay civil marriage doesn't in itself involve any imposition on the internal categories of the Church's theology. By introducing gay civil marriage, the government isn't actually "changing marriage" as if the conceptual category is some sort of concrete reified "thing" that they have the power to touch or manipulate.

    A "common law marriage" is not even a marriage in the "Catholic sense" (inasmuch as it lacks an explicit exchange of consent to lifelong commitment) and yet I never heard of the Church protesting THAT terminology, nor do Catholic refuse to use that terminology in common usage. Not in a theological discussion, maybe, but all our registers of speech are not theology.

    If gay marriage becomes widespread, it will sound weird and rude to dance around the new terminology as if a popular social reality needs to be parsed in precise theological terms. "Gay vs SSA" seems the same odd sort of thing. I can just imagine affected conservative Catholics having fumbling and demeaningly offensive conversations with married (on their terms) gay coworkers about "That guy and those kids who live in the same house with you." When dialoguing with a culture, we usually accept things on its own terms, as Catholics.

    Further, I think what's much more important than the word is the reality. To me the statement "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman" is a meaningless statement because it amounts to saying something like "I believe this word can only ever be defined this way!" as if signifiers can be reified and essentialized like that.

    Rather, I think the reality being expressed by this statement is better framed in the other direction, "Whatever you want to call it, I believe that the reproductive commitment of a man and woman to each other is a natural institution, special and unique, and conceptually foundational for the notion of family."

    Surely terms are interchangeable as long as you make it clear that the SENSE in which you use them is orthodox. Calling a gay partnership "marriage" isn't heresy as long as you make it clear that you don't believe it is "exactly the same thing" as the thing that straight marriages are and emphasize the continued importance of the essential differences in spite of also recognizing the similarities.