"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The "theology" of gay marriage: Part Deux

Recently on this blog, I criticized an argument for gay marriage that I found noteworthy because it is theological not secular. Only after composing that post did I discover that its author, Todd Bates, wrote his PhD thesis in philosophy in the same department, and even under the same professor, I did! That it occurs in such a small world makes the debate partly personal for me. As an Episcopalian, of course, Bates does not operate with quite the premises I do as a Catholic; so for me, the rest of his argument's interest has come to lie mostly in how its premises illustrate some of the larger theological problems in the Anglican Communion. Yet now I note a rejoinder to my criticism that defends Bates' argument and comes from a Catholic: Joe Cecil of In Today's News. Hitting at home, that presents something of renewed interest.

Stated baldly, JC's thesis is that I have failed to show Bates' key premise to be false. I appreciate the implicit acknowledgment that I have in fact identified the key premise; but like another critic of mine to whom I've replied at Pontifications, JC seems to have things precisely backwards. Since the very concept of same-sex marriage is incompatible with the unbroken teaching of the Church, as sustained by Scripture, Tradition, and natural law-arguments, the burden is on the concept's proponents to show that the teaching of the Church is false. That I did not, in my reply to Bates, show that the teaching of the Church is true is no criticism of my claim that Bates failed to show his key premise, which is incompatible with said teaching, to be itself true. Interestingly, Bates has indicated that he is quite circumspect about the potential success of carrying the burden of proof; but JC says some things that can be construed as beginning to do so. So it is to JC's arguments that I shall now briefly address myself.

JC begins his argument with the apparently unexceptionable claim that the author of Ephesians starts with the collective relationship between Christ and the whole Church, and from that relationship, he draws the image of what Christian marriage should be like. (That JC is careful not to identify St. Paul as the author is itself a sign of an education whose premises I would question; but that is an issue for another day.) Thus, the author does not start with the concept of monagamous permanent committed consensual sacramental marriage between persons who possess equal dignity, and draw conclusions from that concept about Christ's relationship to the Church. That much is true. The concept of marriage so understood is distinctively Christian and was not the prevailing social norm in any pre-Christian society. But what is said to follow?


He [the author] is drawing from the collective experience of the whole to formulate moral directives for the several or the individual. Interestingly, what the author of Ephesians is doing is saying that Christ is united to the body in such a real way, that this is why Christians cannot divorce: "the two become one flesh."
And now the punch line:

...precisely the relationship R between Christ and a man that becomes the basis for a heterosexual man to be mutually submissive to his wife and consider himself in union with her. Thus, if it is the relationship R between Christ and a man that is the basis for a hetersexual man to consider himself in union with his wife, how much more so does R serve as the basis for a homosexual man to consider himself in union with his lover? (Emphasis added.)
That is interesting and important. It shows that the Pauline and Christian concept of marriage does indeed depend, to some extent, on how Jesus modelled for men in marriage the kenosis (self-emptying) of which the author of Ephesians, by tradition, also spoke in Philippians 2. The only question is whether gay men can imitate that model just as well in committed homosexual relationships as straight men do in sacramental marriage as traditionally understood by the Church.

The Church's answer is clearly no. In keeping with Paul's very traditional abhorrence of sodomy, unmistakeably expressed elsewhere in his epistles, the Church has always taught that legitimate genital activity must be confined not only to marriage as she has always understood it but also—this is essential—must be of the inherently procreative sort even if, per accidens, procreation happens not to be possible. The ways in which the New Testament and the Church developed the concept of marriage have always assumed that. Accordingly, and following what she understood to be the mind of Christ, the early Church believed that her concept of monogamous, indissoluble, and thus sacramental marriage was simply restoring how things were "in the beginning." From the standpoint of prevailing norms, both Jewish and pagan, marriage so understood was indeed a social innovation; but it was one which was meant to restore what every human society had corrupted, including but not limited to homosexual liaisons. The Church has always insisted—though not always, to be sure, with the same language and emphasis—that the procreative dimension of marital sex must not be separated from the unitive. Somehow the procreative has been understood to be inseparably connected with the unitive as described in Ephesians 5. On such a premise, gay marriage is simply a null hypothesis that, as such, cannot model R as Christ intends.

People nowadays question said insistence largely, I believe, because until very recently it has never been adequately explained. JC, of course, implicitly rejects it, as do almost all "progressive" Catholics. And natural-law explanations, though valid as far as they go, do not go nearly far enough. But a fuller, remarkably profound and beautiful explanation is at hand in John Paul the Great's "theology of the body." It actually explains why the unitive significance of genital activity cannot dispense with the procreative. In so doing, it sublates the old natural-law approach into a richer, higher, more appealing synthesis characterized by a thoroughly biblical personalism. I do not have time or space here to get into the details, but people like JC would do well to explore them before rejecting a premise the Church has always held and is not about to abandon.

In conclusion I note that JC's procedure is, at best, dubiously Catholic. If his position is correct, then the Church has been in error for nearly 2,000 years about a matter of great moral and sacramental importance: the very nature of marriage. Now that consequence by itself would not disturb JC inasmuch as he has elsewhere argued that the Church's refusal to ordain women to the priesthood is "immoral and heretical." (See his post to that effect at Pontifications along with my reply.) But the fact that any person could claim loyalty to a church that he believes has always been in error about at least two matters of great moral and sacramental importance beggars my understanding. That holds quite generally; but in particular I have never understood "progressive" Catholics. If one wants to be progressive in the sort of way JC does, there are mainline Protestant denominations that would make one feel very much at home.
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