Gay Marriage: A New Christian Response
By Dave Kovacs
Since everyone* is talking about Barack Obama’s affirmation of gay marriage** today, I suppose I should say something about it. First, I am going to suggest that people of faith ought to radically re-think the issue from scratch. This is as true of conservatives as of liberals. Then I am going to suggest that when President Obama’s comments are taken in context, he might actually have a good idea.
(*That is, everyone except people being attacked by predator drones, or by predatory lenders, or who are victims of other injustices).
(**Really, I don’t like the term “gay marriage” since no marriage license application asks your sexual preference. Homosexuals have always been allowed to get married, just as long as it was to people of the opposite gender. But since the parlance of the times must win, I will concede and use the term “gay marriage” in this post in the usual sense).
Part I: The traditional argument against gay marriage.
The old argument goes something like this. Things have purposes and proper ends. The proper end of the sexual act is procreation. Homosexual acts can not result in procreation. Therefore, homosexual acts are morally problematic. Since marriage is the proper place for sexual acts, homosexuals can not get married.
It is worth noting that at the Second Vatican Council, it was hotly debated whether the section of Gaudium Et Spes dealing with family life should invoke the claim that the proper end of marriage is procreation. It was a narrow vote, but the decision was that the old scholastic distinction between “primary” and “secondary” ends of marriage was no longer useful.
Part II: Where I try to save teleology while questioning the traditional argument.
I’m a (subversive) Thomist, so I like teleology (the claim that things have purposes and proper ends).
But it is a basic principle that we come to know the proper function and end of a thing by observing what that thing does in the most general way. That is, what characterizes it? The proper end of a bird is to fly because, as we see every day, birds are basically understood as flying creatures. The proper end of a knife is to cut stuff because knives are cutting instruments.
But it seems that the sexual act, while capable of procreation, is not usually understood as “the procreating act.” There is a reason couples make love even when not trying to conceive. If we thought of the sexual act primarily in terms of procreation it would be, at the least, unromantic. Worse, it would call into question why we expect parents to love each other.
Nor should we be so base as to say that the proper end of sexuality is merely genital stimulation and pleasure. Rather, let us say that, if we observe human sexuality in its best forms, it serves as a basis for self-giving. It is the means by which two people grow in trust, love, affection, and absolute self-giving.
Part III: Why not?
Is there any reason that homosexuals should not be able to participate in this sort of self-giving love?
If sexuality, as I described it above, is what I think it is, then it is also ultimately a spiritual act. Lovers, in finding each other, can find God. For Christians believe that God, in purest terms, is complete self-giving. The message of Christ on the Cross is one of absolute self-giving and total self-sacrifice. When we love, whether in sexual union or in caritas, we are following Christ, we are finding God.
So why should homosexuals be denied this spiritual experience?
Part IV: The “official” argument is self-contradicting.
The official argument of Church officials, for some time, has been that homosexuals are, by reason of their identity, called to celibacy. To refuse to be celibate, for a homosexual, is supposedly sinful.
Celibacy, meanwhile, is seen in Church tradition and current practice as something someone freely takes up in a special way to enhance one’s love affair with God. This is noble and can be found in most of the world’s religions.
But there is a tension: If the homosexual is required to be celibate on pain of sin, then how can it be said that his celibacy is truly free? The homosexual who chooses to be celibate on pain of sin isn’t choosing out of freedom in the virtuous way a priest chooses celibacy. No such merit can be said to exist in such a case.
So the official argument seems self-contradictory.
Part V: Toward a new Christian Response.
I am not here going to suggest a rush to legalize, either in secular law or Canon law, same-sex marriage. My reasons for hesitating are given below. Instead, I am going to suggest that the Christian response is to completely rethink sexuality and to open ourselves toward homosexuals in a radical way.
We must purge our language of terms that are causing homosexuals to have feelings of shame or guilt. We see this when clergymen declare that homosexuals have a “war on marriage.” There is no homosexual war on marriage. In fact, many homosexuals are trying to embrace marriage for the same reasons any lovers do.
We must examine for ourselves, in our own lives, how we treat and view homosexuals. We must open ourselves to them the way Jesus Christ would. Nay, we must treat them with the tender compassion with which Jesus Christ does treat them and all of us.
Part VI: Why a top-down law is not the solution.
Today Obama said he thinks homosexuals should be able to get married; more importantly, he said he thinks it is an issue that should be worked out by the states. I think he is right on both counts.
Recently, Ruth Bader Ginsberg said that the Supreme Court made a serious error in even hearing the Roe v. Wade trial. It wasn’t that their decision was flawed: It was that they should have let the issue work itself out in the states and local courts. Her belief is that in the long run the outcome would have been the same but that the subsequent culture war that it caused would not have happened.
I think there is an analogue here. We live in a country where right wing neoconservatives have already made people very suspicious of the government whenever it steps into controversial social territory. Rather than exacerbate that, the Federal Government does well to express vocal support for same-sex marriage (this includes removing barriers to it that are imposed on the states) but to let states work this out over the coming generation.
Those who wish to move this forward may serve their time best, not in political battles, but in social ones. Are we opposing church initiatives to discriminate and harm homosexuals? Are we being vocal about our tolerance, love and compassion? Are we stating publicly that we don’t believe, as some clergy do, that homosexuality is equivalent to a war on marriage?
Once we change the minds and hearts of people that way, I expect the question of how homosexuals express their love (in ways analogous to how heterosexuals currently do) will resolve itself.
As always, the mission of the Christian is the struggle to find ways to live justly and kindly in a world on the brink of collapse. But that collapse is not one that homosexuals are perpetrating.
Views expressed herein are my own and may or may not be shared by other blog contributors.