Should We Really Fight About Gay Marriage?

“A religion that doesn’t interfere with the secular order will soon discover that the secular order will not refrain from interfering with it.”—Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Relativists and liberals have ethics. Non-liberals tend to have morality. Many people of Catholic heritage are prone to present this contrast offensively, by suggesting that those not in communion with the truth can never appreciate good things, or indeed that they cannot do good. This understandably drives relativists, many of whom lead what would appear to be more honest and decent lives than many believers, mad. This in turn feeds those who rage against God and humanity in innovative ways, usually aided by social networks and the declamatory power of the modern media and internet. When Catholic intellectuals, schooled in the language of Church perfection that the neo-Thomists introduced and which Pio Nono would have grasped at had he been around, come out with this, they really don’t understand the offence they cause; or perhaps, they don’t care, because Platonic truths are such overwhelming things they tend to displace sensitivity.

The contrast need not, however, involve religion. In foreign policy, for instance, the tendency to expect ‘moral’ behaviour from ‘civilised’ states and to see an ethics flowing from that rather than being freestanding is associated with the ‘English school’ of former practitioners and historians who write in contrast to the various social science schools. In economics, historians of political thought would point to the origins of economics not in mathematics but in political economy. In law, once one puts aside the myth of the enlightenment as the font of all that is good, the contribution of the Salamanca school to the idea of a moral world order and human dignity, in the face of the Iberian conquest of the Americas, is not very well known but fairly clear. All of these schools and views purport to stand above ethics, which they class as behavioural, and in favour of morals, which they see as definitional. Most of them induce their morals from their understanding of human history.

For a very long time, there were non-religious traditions in the West which stood in contrast to both the ideas of extreme individualism and the immorality of raison d’etat realism. J.G.A. Pocock, for instance, long ago identified what he termed ‘Florentine republicanism’. This was a species of classical republicanism that emphasised duty and liberty—not rights—which, when transferred to the close-living communities of the American frontier and overlaid with common law rights, produced an American republicanism which was not a product of the Enlightenment. It saw guided repression as a good thing; a man had to do what a man had to do. Vitoria, in Salamanca, both prefigured and eclipsed Immanuel Kant in his understanding of similar duties of man and state in the years before knowledge of the Americas became widespread in Europe. Thomas Hobbes, and the Dutch and non-Machiavellian thinkers of the early modern period such as Justus Lipsius also showed how duty, rights, science and the classical inheritance, should lead to restraint on the natural tendencies of the West.

For the West is, more often than not, a dark place. It was born in the rubble of Rome, which in itself wasn’t the most pleasant of orders, and from one point of view, grew by mechanising massacres that then inspired criticism, regret and progress. The Crusades, the sack of the great cities of antiquity, the encounter with the New World empires, and the long trail of political holocausts from the seventeenth to the twentieth century would attest to that. It isn’t enough to say that the Aztecs or Muslims did the same thing, or that there were good reasons for some of the activities I cite—a Northern European determination not to let the Muslims rebuild the Roman Empire on their own lines, for instance. Many of the West’s behaviours have just been organised badness. The interesting thing is how often critics of this secular world emerged, and how they didn’t accept or understand a necessary division between the secular and religious worlds.

Such a division only makes sense if one adopts the religious language of temporal and spiritual; it doesn’t if you believe that morality informs ethics, underpins public life, and flows from the recognition by the individual informed by historical tradition of what morality is. Morality can’t be recreated or adapted—ethics can. The more history a person knows, or the greater their grasp of what the past tells us about human nature, the less a person can sustain a division between belief and action.

The practical implications of this knowledge for an understanding of the ‘gay marriage’ debate are quite interesting, and can lead to unexpected conclusions. The proposition that gay people should be able to marry is essentially now a semantic one. Most states allow for civil unions. Indeed, in the eyes of churches in the apostolic tradition, all non-church unions are civil unions. Different states reciprocate by requiring a state ceremony or certification of marriage after a sacramental one, maintaining a clear difference. On the face of it, the union of two homosexuals by the civil power exclusively, or by a denomination which is not based on sacraments, has nothing to do with the Church and is something in which canon law has no writ.

The problem for Church people, and particularly those in the Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic traditions, is manifold. Since the invention of printing, things which have been mooted in private and then placed in public law with an assurance that they will not affect the Church overmuch—from the takeover of Church property, through the French Revolution, Italian unification, the education debate, and adoption laws—have in fact ended up forcing churches into positions in which they have to do things that they do not wish to do. This practical point might be finessed, by, say, an absolute guarantee that institutions offering marriage might offer it differently and on the basis of their own interpretation, with conscience trumping rights.

What happens, however, when one rejects the whole idea of ‘gay’? Some men have homosexual elements to their personality which they act upon. I know gay academics, parents, relatives and colleagues, and their friendship gladdens my heart. It would be a mortal sin to sponsor or repeat any sort of hatred. Yet I have trouble believing that one can or should create an identity between a practice and a person. Is a worker or a manager or a winedrinker or a lawbreaker or a writer or a cook or an alcoholic only that? Even if these things infuse their existence, is that all there is to them? The proposition is absurd.

 A person, whatever they do, is possessed of full human dignity. A person should therefore be respected at some level regardless of their sexuality, and again, lawmakers are surely under a duty not to recognise gays, but to reject the idea that distinguishing between adults on the basis of what they do harmlessly and privately (or productively in public) has any meaning. We should all be as equal before the law as we are before God. In other contexts, Churchmen and women have been tortured, and died, for this proposition, in the face of murderous and oppressive regimes the world over.Some still are. They have also, as I noted, argued from a position that civilisation is repression rather than expression of desires and badness. This position may be a profoundly anti-modern one to some eyes, but it is one that modernity always should have been contrasted with.

The apostolic Churches also tend to show a reliance on naturalistic interpretations of law. Thomas Aquinas apart, the nature they speak to is a social rather than a scientific one; every single sex-differentiated species, which is around ninety-odd percent, has shown polysexual behaviours and the proposition that there is something unique to humans in that regard is unsustainable. From the point of view of Christian tradition (rather than simple biblical exegesis of the sort the Protestants do) marriage has a positive value as a ceremony uniting a man and a woman for the purpose of children, and also as a validation of their union of differences. Most Churches therefore have a sexed idea of the spiritual, rather than a gendered one. Genders can be overcome, and are constructs after all. This is in itself curious, as in Christ there is no east or west, famously.

Again, one can turn the logic over and over in one's mind. The Church sees people turning practices which are in themselves no different from extramarital sex or non-procreative sex into things that define a person, and from there they see the effort to create gay marriages as validating not only that definitional step, but also threatening their own autonomy to believe as they will. The most institutionally strong of these Churches also recall not only the ultimate sacrifice of Christ for truth on the cross, often in daily contemplation (this is the importance of the crucifix) but also their early and continuing tradition of martyrdom. They recognise, they fear, and they worry.

So a clear hierarchy of reasons exists for such organisations to reject the general introduction of ‘gay marriage’. The reasons are similar to the injunction to agitate for a system of public welfare, or against executions, or euthanasia and abortion. They are rooted in a conception of human dignity. They also belong to a long tradition sponsored or inspired by the Church, but not necessarily part and parcel of it. The problem is that the world is not the Church. I also cannot see that sexual practices between adults, which are by definition usually sinful regardless of who is involved, are anywhere near on a par with injustice, war, the toleration or propagation of poverty, or killing. We used to have hierarchies of sin, and we answer alone to God, though we would do well to accept the Church's offer of guidance. 

Catholics shouldn't refrain from voting or speaking their conscience or members of the ecclesial community from arguing theirs. However, a public campaign involves dialogue between groups who are profoundly distinct in outlook. I would argue that it demands respect for doubt. After all, I cannot prove my faith; that is why it is so nourishing, because it escapes the bounds of the mundane. I could make a physics based argument for it, but that would have something of the parlour game about it. Ultimately, my logic may not in itself persuade, and so I should accord to others the benefit of the doubt if they are unpersuaded just as they should accord it to me. I cannot impose my beliefs through law and nor should others, and the only judgment which matters comes after we are dead. If I do not pursue this course, then I will be accepting a parody of martyrdom—a self-inflicted and conflicted confrontation.

Perhaps I should take the logic further, and suggest that it is my duty to bear witness to Christ and to truth, but I have none to propagate except by example and argument. It’s not up to me to forcibly convert people. Law boils down to respect for property, natural justice, and the punishment of those who would abuse their power in relationships from high to low. Society is about the distillation and installation of values, and this has been shown to work best in freedom based on respect. So those who want a word—‘marriage’—when they already have the liberty and the social recognition which may or may not correspond to their understanding of their identity—have a duty to put calm, ordered arguments and to explain why they might compromise the freedom of Churches to which they do not have to belong.

This final point is not to adopt relativism or to replace morality with ethics. It isn't even to suggest that truth unfolds or evolves,and very rarely arrives pure, although a good Augustinian would agree with that proposal. Rather, I would like for people to stop shouting, to argue their difference where necessary, and to work together for social justice beyond their own interests where possible. I cannot see the case for making every institution which offers what is commonly known as a marriage pursue the equality of particular iterations of sexuality over a free market in conscience, which I am convinced the Truth will win. You, reading this, might not agree. But can we not both come together at work, in the public sphere, in the pursuit of things that we can agree on, and in respectful dispute?


Merseymike said…
I think its the other way round. We are not a theocracy, and marriage does not belong to the Church - which itself has differences of opinion within it

So it is up to the church to explain why same sex couples and opposite sex couples alike should not have a single status to recognise their mutual commitment - and this must be in solely secular terms, as the church is not the majority provider of weddings, and marriage is predominantly a secular institution. The Church will simply have to sort out its own position, but they cannot dictate to those outside it.

In my view, the Church should exist purely in the private sphere, giving full religious freedom to individuals but no status in the public other than as one of many civic institutions

I don;t think there is much point in fighting. We will simply have to agree to differ, hold the vote, and whatever the outcome, adjust to the consequences
Martin Meenagh said…
By definition, marriage is a sacrament, so it does belong to the Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic Churches only in the sense that they mediate from God.

However, the word has also taken on the meaning of a relationship recognised by the state, and I would have thought that a reading of what I wrote showed that we agreed on that.

I don't want people who would otherwise support social justice falling out because they haven't the courtesy or sense to just disagree about something stupid like sex.

As I wrote, but as usual you aren't able to pay attention, being a parody of some bigot from the culture of death, you can't confine a moral system to a 'private sphere'. That's a liberal delusion. There simply isn't a private sphere for right and wrong and a public one. There is ethical elaboration of morality. You're confusing the perfectly legitimate division of the spiritual and the temporal with the religious and the secular.

Being a Liberal, you start from a view of human nature which is, to be fair, Lockean at some point--man is for you, as far as I can tell, a creature of body and mind, and for you personhood is literally identified with practice, and individuated. That's not true for me. I believe in families, duty to a fellow being, tradition, community, and liberties rather than rights, and I would never accept that a person should be 'identified' with anything narrower than everything that produced them.

You're absolutely right that there is literally no point in fighting though. There are no consequences to adjust to, only circumstances, and if the circumstances which arise are contrary to life, reason, and society, they themselves will die, long after we are both gone to our judgment.

I don't care if 99, a thousand, or a million people tell me otherwise, and nor, I suspect, would you.
Merseymike said…
I don't actually believe in the 'spiritual' - as I have embraced atheism since we used to discuss matters when I was still clinging on to Christianity.

I do agree that there is little point in fighting. This issue is important to me, but I think like all the other advances in this area, it is likely that it shall very son become entirely uncontroversial.

Its interesting how both Spain and Portugal have marriage for same sex couples and how the issue of the Church really hasn't been a great problem.

Incidentally, I do think the Church should be able to do as it wishes, but I generally think the French have the right approach in terms of the public role of religion
Martin Meenagh said…
That's a fairly classy response, Mike. Sorry for the edge to my earlier words. It's interesting to see you following your variant of liberalism to a logical conclusion. That French tradition isn't as exclusively Gallic as I think the men over the water might have us believe; you made me think of Jefferson, often wrongly prayed in aid as a friend of religion, stripping Christ and God from his Bible and then attempting to be ethical whilst 'swearing eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man'.

But glad to see that we agree too that it is bizarre that we are fighting over these things.

I'm a Laurel and Hardy fan. In one very early short, where they are not formally together, they play cavemen getting married. The priest is lined up; the happy couples approach the rock; feathers are placed in left ears, the priest blows in the right, and if the feather comes out, the groom is hit over the head. Seems about right as to the summation of the weight of validation necessary if you love someone to me.

Best of the Season to you.