Ryan Anderson, Sherif Girgis and Robert George’s NRO article—addressing the same sex marriage “argument from compassion”— has generated a new wave of discussion about what lies, for many (most?), at the heart of the marriage debate: not principled arguments about social institutions or the legal implications of redefining marriage, but a consideration of what homosexual persons whose romantic-sexual relationships aren't affirmed as marriages are to make of their relationships, their sexuality and their lives.
I agree fully with the trio's piece. It is only in the minds of those for whom marriage is an intense emotional bond, occupying the pole of the linear spectrum of all interpersonal bonds, that non-marital relationships are qualitatively less fulfilling than marital ones.
Yet the trio’s article, for me, evokes a further reflection. They are offering a public argument about the public meaning of marriage, speaking as professional scholars in professional fields.
But for those of us reading their piece whose religious views require celibacy of all unmarried persons, and whose faith teaches that marriage can only be truly formed by members of the opposite sex, such an argument may leave us feeling a bit guilty.
Legally speaking, enshrining conjugal marriage doesn’t ban same sex couples from pursuing whatever sort of private relationships they want. But I, as a Catholic, believe that regardless of one's attractions, all are called to live a life without same-sex sexual intercourse. Isn’t that truly a lack of compassion? What, then, are homosexual persons supposed to do?
Such questions are very understandable, even if the resistance to the Catholic answers bespeaks misunderstandings about human sexuality. If marriage—which (well, almost) everyone acknowledges is a relationship built upon sexual relations—is simply the pinnacle of meaningful relationships, anything short of marriage is necessarily sub-optimal; such a view is thrust upon us by a hyper-sexualized culture that has blurred if not buried the distinction and difference between our longings for intimate union and sexual gratification. Not surprisingly, the people who see the Church’s teachings on homosexuality to be cruel and unusual are the same folks who fail to see the deeply beautiful point about religiously-consecrated celibacy, or the committed (and chaste) single life. The cultural view seems to boil down to a perceived need for and entitlement to sex.
How can people of faith reach out to and engage those who espouse this view? How can our language and vision of a sexual ethics grounded in nature and nature’s laws and normative principles reach those whose arguments indicate precisely a departure from that paradigm of thought and morality?
By building bridges, even if we can only place one stone at a time, and even if the other shore seems far off.
Recently, a strong supporter of same sex marriage commented on an article I wrote about marriage for an online journal. His post was rambling and aggressive, and my first instinct was to ignore him or shoot back a cool, dismissive sentence or two. After all, hadn’t I already received a lot of positive feedback on the piece (It’s hard to imagine how much ego-wrecking a dislike button on Facebook could inflict)? This man clearly just didn’t get my point, so I thought.
But then I wondered: If I’m content to garner affirmation from those who already agree with me about marriage, and am not open to the methodical and sometimes tedious process of rehearsing an argument in its structural entirety for those who aren’t familiar with that structure at all—rather than simply sowing seeds into what I already know is fertile and receptive soil—am I really engaging in evangelization of any sort? Am I giving the Good News to those who need to hear it, rather than reposing in the easy complacency of like-minded company?
All too often, I think, supporters of conjugal marriage really do fail even to reach out to others who strongly disagree with them apart from formal fora of discussion or debate. At least I am certainly guilty of this. Eric Teetsel's recent Public Discourse piece was well-done, but I can't help but think that his aspirations—though perhaps not his expectations—fall a bit short. "Forget beating the entrenched opposition" he writes. "When we debate in the public square and in social media, our goal should be to win those silent observers whose commitments are shallow and subject to change."
In the end, I offered to email with the commentator. Since then he and I have enjoyed a long and fruitful discussion. We haven’t changed each other’s minds on marriage, but I know that talking with him has helped me view the marriage discussion with a fresh perspective and a better understanding of where "his side" is coming from. Behind every argument is a person longing for truth; many of us believe as a matter of faith that all people are, as Pope Benedict has beautifully written, ontologically oriented towards the true, good and beautiful. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that when arguments get heated and people can hide behind anonymous comments in the blogosphere. It’s hard to picture what the pharisees would have been like had Twitter been around in first century Palestine. But I know that Christ would have remembered that the marriage debate is about people, not arguments, and that behind most bad arguments are people who are hurting. He had a knack for perceiving that.
Surely, a yawning chasm exists between those with opposing visions of marriage today. Centuries of divergent political, philosophical and theological thought render the prospect of truly converting hearts—rather than just persuading those whose minds are on the fence about marriage or reaffirming those who believe our vision but struggle to articulate it—a discouraging project.
It seems that in order to even make the conjugal vision of marriage intelligible, one must unearth and re-establish an entirely new (old, really) order of viewing the world, human nature and the meaning of sexuality. The modern marriage debate is simply the next logical step in a process that has been in play for centuries now. The onus of persuasion is ours, and its an onerous task indeed.
An able affirmation of the conjugal vision must draw on a tradition that far precedes the mental perspective of most contemporary, non-religious people. The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions whose perspective outstrips, in both directions, the progressive vision of “out with the old, in with the new.” The Church and similar religious institutions are the chief - and possibly only - source of hope for picking up the shards of the shattered marriage culture. (For this reason, the recent Pew Poll finding that most folks who oppose same sex marriage are religious is deeply encouraging for me, rather than a sign of religious discrimination and bigotry.)
I recently attended the Ruth Institute’s “It Takes a Family” conference, hosted by the eloquent Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse. There, I gathered with as diverse a group of “one man, one woman, for life” marriage supporters one could hope to find; a young demographic spanning various faith traditions and ethnicities, at least five countries and boasting a score of different professional degrees and areas of expertise. It was wonderful and heartening to gather with students, academics and young professionals to lend mutual support and encouragement to our efforts to promote a positive vision of marriage that our culture badly needs and actually wants. If same sex marriage is an inevitability, somebody forgot to tell the people gathered in San Diego that weekend. He could have saved me airfare.
As great as that experience was, it will mean nothing and bear no fruit if we don’t go forth and do good, spreading the vision of marriage that many of us first encountered in our faith but which is accessible and intelligible to all people who perceive “the anthropological truth that men and women are different and complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman and the social reality that children need both a mother and a father.”
It can’t be denied that the rhetoric of same sex marriage supporters has introduced a false dichotomy into the marriage debate, dividing Americans into those concerned with justice on the one hand and bigots on the other, and has mounted an effective bully tactic aimed at silencing those who would disagree from voicing their views in the public square—reference those unfortunate business owners who have exercised their constitutional rights to free expression. Such rhetorical deployments have effectively disabled many venues for the sort of open-minded dialogue for which so many proponents of same sex marriage have been calling for years.
Despite that fact, the cycle of rejuvenation and evangelization called for by the Church’s recent Popes requires of us a patience and compassion modeled by our Head. Christ didn’t sacrifice his message for the sake of expediency or popularity, as many politicians are doing today with respect to marriage, and he said some hard things that most of his contemporaries rejected out of hand. I say this not to inculcate an overly self-righteous martyr complex but to reinforce the necessity to go beyond being content with acceptance and strike out into the deep waters of the missionary territory of our time—the American heart and mind.
Yet the same man who offended many stirred the slumbering consciences of even more. We cannot let a fear of the former impede our effecting the latter.
The great work being undertaken by scholars and public intellectuals in the marriage debate is necessary but far from sufficient. Arguments from compassion need to be answered with personal compassion as well as arguments, and perhaps the former more so than the latter. The witness of our lives, as always, is the most powerful means of conversion and evangelization.
In the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court decisions, the marriage debate will continue in full force. In a way, even more depends now on our ability to promote a vision of marriage that will continue to erode if we fail to do so. Ours is a time in which seismic alterations in the social fabric of America—and the world—will be determined by whether we can promote a marriage vision that can once again be the pillar of a flourishing society.