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

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The issues behind the issues

In an article on the First Things blog last week, Prof. Robert P. George wrote (emphasis added):

There are many profound respects in which our culture is in need of transformation. Work is needed in every sphere. There are two issues, however, that are so central to our future and, indeed, to the future of mankind that they must, surely, be given a certain priority. Both are on the table now and will be resolved—for better or for worse—in the next decade or so. Critical (possibly irreversible) decisions will be made in the next year or two. I speak of the issue of marriage and the complex set of issues sometimes referred to compendiously as “bioethics.” In respect of both matters, things will go one way or the other depending on the posture and actions of Catholics.

Having once briefly worked under Robby, and having continued to follow his work with stupefied admiration, I am obliged to agree with him that the political difference will be made by Catholics—if, that is, a difference is going to be made. But I am far from convinced that there is still time to make a difference. That is because the issues behind the ones he identifies as top-priority seem largely to have been decided—and decided wrongly.

In the case of marriage, the "developed" world as a whole has firmly adopted the premise that marriage is only what people collectively decide it is. That holds of the Anglosphere, which includes the United States, in particular. What is still understood to be "traditional" marriage—a lifelong union between a man and a woman, ordered to the transmission and maintenance of new life—is no longer assumed by our legal and cultural norms to be divinely instituted. To be sure, many tradition-minded believers of all major religions still maintain that assumption. Some even act accordingly. But in the public square, traditional marriage is now treated as just one option among others, just like one's choice of religion. Marriage as an institution is thus becoming something we may adapt at will, on the basis of ideas, preferences, and goals that make no necessary reference to a divine or even a natural law. That is the main reason why intentionally sterile marriages, no-fault divorce, serial divorce-and-remarriage, and even cohabitation without the formality of marriage are now more widespread than at any time since the pagan Roman Empire. That is why same-sex "marriage," currently opposed by the majority of Americans—who are, after all, still formed by the residual sentiments of tradition—is slowly spreading among nations and states. Ineluctably, it will gain well-nigh universal acceptance. So long as our legal and cultural norms assume that it is human choice, not "the laws of nature and of nature's God," that determines what marriage is to be, then what is called "marriage" will become more and more elastic, stretched to fit more and more forms of moral and spiritual absurdity defended by the buzzwords of "freedom" and "equal rights."

As for the array of bioethical issues that keep arising with the advance of science and technology, we can raise all the "ethical" objections we like to this-or-that practice made newly possible; but in the end, such objections cannot of themselves make much difference. I need not discuss specifics, such as pre-natal screening or human cloning; for the underlying problem is that there is no longer any common religious or philosophical framework in which to discuss such issues, and to which appeal could successfully be made to resolve them. The very terms of discussion reinforce the default impression that this array of issues is a matter of adjudicating democratically among competing ideas and beliefs—many of which have a certain plausibility, but none of which are ultimately more than just matters of opinion. So, amid the cacophony of competing opinions and Weltanschauungen, the irrefragable fact of what can be done ensures that all of it, eventually, will be done. And once such things are done, they develop too much of a constituency to make banning them politically realistic. Just look at what's happened with IVF.

All of this is the fruit of what I call "autonomism": the idea that human freedom entails the freedom to decide what the most fundamental norms of life are to be, a freedom constrained only by obvious considerations of physical reality and social utility. Now if autonomism could still be effectively reversed, Catholics would indeed be best placed to do the job. The pope and the bishops say all the right things, in theory; and they do have allies among the Orthodox, conservative Protestants, observant Jews, even Muslims. The Catholic Church is certainly pivotal here. But as Robby seems implicitly to recognize, the most the Catholic bishops can realistically do is "encourage, exhort, and cajole." That is not just because the political sphere is the province of the laity, which of course is true; it is because the bishops confront, among the Catholic laity themselves, the same autonomism that has gained purchase in the culture at large.

Among those Catholics who care enough to even understand Church teachings about marriage and bioethics—and such Catholics, in my observation, are not the majority—many regard such teachings as reformable, and thus as "take-it-or-leave-it." In other words, the teachings are treated as matters of opinion. That, I believe, is the most likely reason why why more American bishops do not withhold the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who support a so-called "right" to abortion. If they were to get tough about that particular matter, the ensuing storm of controversy would rightly raise the question why they don't get equally tough about other moral issues on which many Catholics, in theory or in practice, treat settled Church teaching as a matter of opinion and thus as optional. Marriage is quite high on that list of other moral issues: the divorce rate among Catholics roughly matches that of the general population, and many divorced-and-remarried Catholics receive the Eucharist without qualm or question. And of course there's contraception, a matter on which the vast majority of Catholics reject, in both theory and practice, a teaching of the Church which has not varied for as far back as we have records on the subject. I don't hear any bishops suggesting that loyalty to such teaching be made a litmus test of good standing with the Church. So, if they can't crack down on those issues, how are they going to energize Catholics who aren't already loyal to join forces with other religous believers about the issues Robby sees as so crucial? Even leaving aside the aftershocks of the sex-abuse scandal, the de facto moral authority—the street cred, if you will—just isn't there.

None of this is to say that I wouldn't want to join forces with people like Robby on such matters. I'd be on the side of light and truth, after all; in fact, this blog is my own small way of doing it. And if, in careerist fashion, I got a job out of the whole business, I'd have an interesting life to boot. But I believe that, in the end, only radical divine intervention will make much difference. Things have to happen that will shock people back into a sense of spiritual reality. I hope it won't have to be a combination of natural disasters, wars, and economic dislocations that would reduce us to a peasant-style existence; but I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's what it takes. In the meantime, let us keep saying what needs to be said; but above all, let us pray, do penance, and love one another. Drawing people back to God depends above all on his grace, light, and joy shining in our hearts and faces. In short: on our holiness.
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