Saturday, March 10, 2007

In defense of marriage

What follows is a dialogue based on an exchange prompted by a consideration of an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, entitled: Study finds age divide on gay marriage on another blog. The dialogue that follows is not identical to the original dialogue, but is faithful to it. I freely admit that my responses are more robust than my immediate responses in the give-and-take of the dialogue, but I duly note departures from and additions to the original dialogue.

The point at which I entered the discussion was when the issue of the relationship between morality and societal consensus in a democracy was introduced. In what follows my responses are in normal font and what I am responding to is in italics. It bears noting that my responses constitute my considered opinion on the matter and nobody else's. Furthermore, while I hope this dialogue instructively address some common questions and confusions on this delicate matter, I fully realize my opinions are far from definitive or comprehensive and fall far short of the last word on the matter. There is certainly much more that can, has been, and yet needs to be said and written in defense of marriage in constructive dialogue. Nonetheless, rushing in where angels fear to tread, but with confidence in the truth, I offer the following exchange.

So what we really have is a question of whether or not the majority will permit the minority to have with it wants for itself.

This, it seems to me, gets to the crux of the issue, as it touches the point where morality and democracy intersect. I will state up-front that morality is never determined democratically. By contrast, discussion of ethics, which I see as the application of morality to life, is a constant in the public life of a democracy. Neither can society reduce morality down to what we can agree upon. All this brings up the whole issue of happiness and the classic question, posed by Aristotle, What does it mean to be happy? One possibility is that true happiness consists in getting what I want for myself. This seems to me an impoverished notion of happiness.

I am inclined to agree with those who do not think allowing legal recognition, which amounts to societal sanction, of same-sex relationships will end the debate, just as Roe v. Wade was not, thankfully the last word on abortion. Rather than strengthen marriage, legally recognizing such unions would further weaken an institution, vital to all societies, and that pre-dates the founding of our nation, or any nation, and that is already reeling from our failure to legally safe-guard it (i.e., by allowing no fault divorce, etc.).

The most common argument I hear in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, apart from it being a right, is the argument that points out that roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, which is true. Now, I realize there are better arguments than these in favor of same-sex marriage or domestic partnerships, but these seem to comprise the basis of many peoples' reasoning on the matter. After all, U.S. citizens tend to be pragmatic to a fault. Beyond that, an appeal to human rights is hugely problematic. Such an argument typically follows the logic: It is a human right to marry. Homosexuals are human beings. Therefore, homosexual human beings have the right to marry. Homosexual persons are certainly human beings and are, therefore, equal to every other human person and are bearers of all human rights. Not Part of Original Dialogue: This why the Church teaches that it "is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law" (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 10).

Return to dialogue:
What is problematic with this reasoning is its equivocation on human rights. Marriage is not a human right, properly understood. A human right is something a person has by virtue of being human, like the right to life, a living wage, health care, etc. Even arguing that one has the right to pursue happiness, with happiness being defined exclusively as what I want for myself, fails this test. Marriage, even as it pertains to heterosexual persons, is not an arrangement that any man and any woman can enter enter into. One is not free to marry a sibling, a first cousin, or more than one person at a time. To bring such a view to its logical conclusion, if marriage is a universal human right, the state would have no business regulating who could be married to whom, apart from seeing to it that there was no coercion and that parties were of legal age.

I do want to make it absolutely clear that I am not making a moral comparison between homosexual marriage and incestuous marriage. I am using the legal prohibition against marrying within certain degrees of consanguinity and being married to more than one person at a time (which homosexual marriage would- presumably- have no effect upon) to show that marriage is not a human right because it does not extend to everyone without condition, even to heterosexual persons. In terms of both society and even biology to change this would yield bad results as much of what ills us is attributable to societal changes that have resulted in an altered view of marriage, with this altered view resulting in deleterious legal changes related to marriage, which has been devastating for families and, therefore, to the individuals who comprise society.

Not part of the original dialogue:
As regards the necessity of a proper view of human sexuality, Pope Paul VI, with his promulgation of Humane Vitae, has proven quite prophetic, especially in number 17 in which he writes:

"Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law" (emphasis of underlining mine). Is anybody going to make the argument that sexual ethics have risen since 1968? This is not as big a digression as it may appear.

Sexual intercourse completely divorced from procreation is the heart-breaking result Paul VI is referring to throughout this encyclical, which is the best example of speaking the truth in love of the twentieth century. It is also one of the things Pope Benedict XVI alludes to some twenty-eight years later, in Deus Caritas Est, when he writes: "Today, the term 'love' has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings." The attitude that getting pregnant, the love between a man and a woman bringing about the existence of a new human being, is incidental or accidental to having sex is at the heart societal and personal ills too numerous to list, not the least of which is the male abdication of true manliness. In all this, we must never lose sight of God's mercy, God's love, God's tender concern for each one of us.

Return to original dialogue:
To argue that morality cannot be legislated makes about as much sense as saying "Keep your laws off my body." If morality and action, which requires a body to perform, were not legislated, life would be, to quote Hobbes's Leviathan, which cannot be seen as a religious argument, "nasty, brutish, and short."

More generally, I am arguing that there is no way of allowing homosexual marriage that does not seriously undermine our societal and legal understanding of marriage and/or diminish our understanding of human rights.

Is there no room in our democracy for differing moralities? Who determines for homosexuals that their morality (between consenting adults) is 'wrong'? The majority who are not homosexual and who are from a different religious point of view?

Of course there is room for differing moralities. The question is how do we resolve issues between differing moralities? Along with MacIntrye, I reject emotivistic ways of so doing because they tend toward a relativism that cannot be sustained. My position was expressed well by Rocco Buttiglione, who was rejected as the E.U.'s Justice, Freedom and Security minister primarily because he is a believing, professing, and practicing Roman Catholic, when he said during his confirmation hearings on the subject of homosexuality, "I may think that homosexuality is a sin, and this has no effect on politics, unless I say that homosexuality is a crime."

Should two people of the same-sex choose to live in a committed marriage-like relationship that is their right. As far as granting legal recognition to such arrangements, as stated previously, I am opposed. So, two consenting adults of the same sex can, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision finding the Texas law prohibiting homosexual acts unconstitutional, decide for themselves whether to have such consensual relations. As a Christian, I have no problem with such a ruling because it allows the freedom proper to the individual human being, even though I believe any sexual expression outside of marriage to be immoral. It is a different thing altogether to gain societal recognition for same-sex partnerships.

Since it seems like we are moving beyond this particular case to a more general consideration, the bigger question is, Does being pluralistic necessarily mean being relativistic, or hedonistic (I realize hedonistic is loaded term- I mean it in the sense of happiness conceived of as what I want for myself) and thereby abandon the need for societal consensus in search of the common good?

Surely one does not have come from a position of religious faith (i.e., Jürgen Habermas in recent years and even Richard Rorty) to see that relativism conceived as: "I have my morality and you have yours and since we have no way to decide between what is right and wrong, morality goes out the window and we all do what we want with no regard of the damage to the common good," has to be rejected, especially as it bears on our common life together.

This is the one I never get: How does it "seriously undermine" anything? All I can see is that allowing homosexuals to marry seriously undermines the religious sensibility that homosexuality is morally wrong... this is one clear way that the religious can continue to demonstrate that they believe homosexuality to be wrong. I don't see how two people of the same sex marrying changes anything for anyone else

As a first approach to answering this specific query, allow me the following:

You are correct in that legally allowing two people of the same-sex to marry does not change anything for anyone else, it changes the entire understanding of marriage for everyone! This is a crucial distinction. As to how it changes things for everyone, I refer you back to my first, lengthy, response.

Along with the argument from rights (from either the perspective of equality or pursuit of happiness), the one, if I am not misreading you (always a risk!), you make here is simply a red-herring. To answer the question I think you're posing, Does marriage between to people of the same-sex affect my marriage or your marriage? I can say unequivocally, No!

I have to comment on your dismissal of the belief that homosexual activity is immoral as a "religious sensibility." My objection is a logical one, such a dismissal begs a serious question and makes a huge claim. In the first instance, my understanding does not prescind from revelation and, hence, faith, but reason and nature.

Now, I am well aware that homosexuality occurs naturally outside the species homo sapiens, but the natural argument would factor in that human beings are the only species possessed of full reason, will, and intellect, thus causing this analogy to break down.

I can see that by allowing same sex marriage we are changing the definition of the word marriage as it has been traditionally applied. Is that the primary change then?

My point about differing moralities didn't have to do with differing opinions, but with provisions within the law for different moralities. For instance, I would also support polygamy for Muslims and Mormons. I support both conscription for the armed services but agree that the law should provide for an exception to those who are of the Mennonite and pacifist traditions.

This is what I meant in my argument. I think it is fine for churches to withhold the right to marry within their particular traditions. I don't know why the government ought to.

In your comment about social consensus of morality, then, we are back to the primary point of the article I posted, right? If the moral consensus shifts to supporting gay marriage, then I suppose you would also support it (or at least, you would support it in the sense that you would tolerate or accept it as expressing the moral consensus)? Or am I misreading you?

I have to disagree because the societal consensus is based on something other than the fact that it is the social consensus. See my previous response on reason and nature.

However, I will be the first to admit that the reasons underlying the societal consensus are just as forgotten among those who support it as those who oppose it. I would even go so far as to give credit to those who oppose the consensus, understand the reasons for it, and engage those reasons. Fr. James Alison comes to mind as one such person.

This is where we differ. I am a moral relativist when it comes to allowing the widest possible expression of personal beliefs/moralities to coexist in a pluralistic society. I agree that the lines drawn become more and more difficult to articulate. In this case, I need to see some way in which this differing point of view is a threat in order to withhold something as important as marriage from them.

I see a bit where you are headed now, though. You see homosexuality as being disordered nature, right? As such, you wouldn't criminalize it, but you also wouldn't sanction it with state endorsements in the form of marital benefits. Is that closer to what you're saying? And your argument stems from a complex of spiritual, rational (as in the application of reason), natural (as in science) and historical (as in historical definition of marriage) reasons for not allowing the state to sanction marriage for gay couples.

So how would you argue this to a gay couple who didn't share your spiritual worldview? How might they come to see it the way you see it? I think that's the case that hasn't been successfully made. And while that case isn't made, it becomes more and more difficult for the younger generation to see this debate as anything more than generational up tightness... at least that's how it looks to me.

Why would I feel the need to change my arguments? What argument would a gay couple who did not share my "spiritual worldview" and who wanted to get married make to me? It is our right? I've addressed that one. To accept marriage as a human right has bad consequences both for our understanding of marriage and for our understanding of human rights. It bears pointing out that this is a philosophical, not a theological argument. They might also state, We should be allowed to get married because we want to. I have addressed this, too, with a philosophical argument.

I have to admit being a bit puzzled by your insistence on dismissing philosophical arguments as mere religious sentiment and as part of a spiritual worldview.

As to relativism, I don't think your analogy between homosexual marriage and conscientious objection bears any weight whatsoever. It is a classic apples and oranges argument. I, too, accept your principle "the widest possible expression of personal beliefs/moralities to coexist in a pluralistic society". This, however, is not relativism. To keep this as a principle and to prevent it from degenerating into a mere slogan, the question must be answered as to what constitutes the limit of possibility? But this is circular in that it just poses the same question that started our exchange, rather than answer it. I think (hope?) we would both agree on the need for such a limiting of possibilities in order to prevent a fall into absolute relativism, which is both unsustainable and even dangerous.

Beyond the dialogue:

Even the canonical definition of marriage is taken from a natural, rather than a supernatural, understanding. According to canon 1055 §1. "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized."

For a more authoritative statement on much of what I argue for, see the 1993 document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the prefecture of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, entitled Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons. In addition to the posts on marriage and sexuality- Marriage and the Gift of Life: Some Diaconal Observations and Observing the Gap through the Prism of Sexuality, respectively- I provide the link for my first post on the matter What's in a name? An observation of some societal consequences of Philosophical Nominalism.


  1. Hi Scott,

    I enjoyed reading the dialog yesterday at Julie's place and honestly thought that the question of how gay marriage hurts society was left largely unanswered.

    From a secular legal perspective it seems that it is discriminatory to exclude gays from marrying ... but I am not sure.

    Blessings, Bob

  2. Scott, I actually really appreciate your fleshing this out in more detail. Much more helpful to me. I will leave you in peace for now. But again, thanks. I look forward to reading the links you posted that express your more fully developed line of reasoning. I hope that the spirit of dialog between us is restored.

  3. I, too, very much appreciate the dialogue and both of your comments. I realize this is a delicate matter and I am the last one to judge anybody else. Please know that at no point was I angry or even frustrated. Like you, Julie, I felt it was time to step away. I don't see our spirit of dialogue to be damaged in the least.

    Bob: If marriage is conceived of as merely a legal contract, which tends to be how it is increasingly viewed, then you are right in asking why not allow people of the same sex to marry. I would say, however, that viewing marriage as merely a contract is new to even our secular understanding of the institution, which pre-exists our polity. When it is viewed as only a contract, marriage is easily dissoluable and this is harmful. That is only one answer among many I can give to answer your question.

  4. Hi Scott,

    While I agree with you in spirit about marriage predating our legal system I also think that legality is actually what the gay marriage debate is all about. It is why ministers say "by the power invested in me by the state of" ... the government determines what is legal and what is not ... who can marry and who cannot.

    So, while we may believe that marriage is covenential in nature, to the government it can only be viewed as a contract. This is why, I think, gay marriage will eventually win on a civil rights basis.

  5. "It is why ministers say "by the power invested in me by the state of" ... the government determines what is legal and what is not ... who can marry and who cannot."

    First off as a minister who has presided at quite a few weddings in the United States, I have never once said "by the power invested in me by the State of . . ." The Rite of Marriage does not allow for such an instrusion by the state. All Catholic clergy say: "You have declared your consent before the Church. May the Lord in his goodness strengthen your consent and fill you both with his blessings.

    What God has joined, men must not divide."

    In addition to meeting the canonical form required by the Catholic Church, it is a civilly legal marriage, as well. I sign the marriage license and mail it to the County Clerk within 72 hours of the wedding. For me, it is the Code of Canon Law that has the say as to who can and cannot get married. In many countries Christian couples are required to marry twice, once civilly and again in the Church. We may be moving toward a similar thing in this country. Even though I believe anything that such a change would further weaken marriage, the family and, hence society and would further divorce sex from procreation, it would not be the end-of-the world.

    The question I am trying to address, however, is not whether, people of the same sex will ultimately be allowed to marry on whatever grounds, I am addressing what is moral and ethical. Your reasoning, which is not bad reasoning, at least in logically, demonstrates the pragmatic mindset of most in the U.S. I contrast pragmatic with moral.

    Perhaps unintentionally you introduce civil rights into the question. Previously we only discussed human rights. There is an important distinction to be made between the two, which I addressed above.

  6. Thanks Scott for the response. Yes, I think that this issue is a civil rights one for our country.

    Morally I am with you (I would not perform a gay marriage) because of my reading of the scriptures but civilly I think that these folks are US citizens that have 'civil' rights and wonder (don't know for sure) if government denies those civil rights by denying them marriage.

    I appreciate your advocacy of marriage and, really, wish that our conversation could focus more about the strengthening and reconciliation of marriages. My heart often breaks when couples come to me at the proverbial last hour trying to save their marriage and undo years of past harm.

    Blessings to you, Bob

  7. A lot of my pastoral work is directed at preparing people for marriage and strengthing marriages. As a married member of the Catholic clergy, with four children, I am uniquely positioned to assist, as much through my challenges and failures as through my successes.

    Like you, I am much more comfortable discussing what I am for than what I am opposed to. I certainly define myself by what I am for, not against. Nonetheless, from time-to-time it is important to pitch in two pennies. I just think our societal view on marriage is suicidal. We have been paying a high price for a long time already. Anything that further dilutes marriage and contributes to the confusion is to be eschewed.

    As I stated before, whatever happens I remain hopeful. I admire the response of Cardinal O'Malley in wake of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling allowing for homosexual marriage in that state.

  8. On this we agree:

    "I just think our societal view on marriage is suicidal. We have been paying a high price for a long time already. Anything that further dilutes marriage and contributes to the confusion is to be eschewed."