Morning’s Minion (MM) at Vox Nova also looks at Kathryn Jean Lopez’s recent interview with Robert George in response to New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage.
Pushing back on George’s singling out of same-sex marriage, MM presents an alternative approach to public life for Catholics in America, one that recognizes the constraints of a multi-religious, pluralistic society:
Let’s get past the semantics. As Catholics, me must recognize that the culture does not see marriage as Catholics do, or are supposed to. Same-sex marriage is mere a symptom of this problem, not the problem itself. If we continue to single-out same-sex-marriage, we risk looking hypocritical. Why the years of silence about the culture of serial monogamy, followed by vehement outbursts against same-sex marriage? This is presents a unique opportunity for Catholics to be countercultural – to emphasize how our approach to marriage differs from the dominant cultural norm. Let’s stay positive and let’s stay optimistic.
Many people of faith (though not a majority) hold genuine views about gay marriage that differ from the increasingly supportive views of society at large. But as MM points out, this is far from the only issue in which that’s the case. Many religious communities have already handled changes in societal norms about divorce, sex and gender with moral disagreement but with respect for the law and democratic process. There’s no reason to believe changes in the civil institution of marriage need to be any different.
People of faith can and should speak up for their values in political life, but effective arguments extend beyond their own faith tradition and appeal to shared values and principles that cut across a broad swath of the American public.
As I highlighted before, groups like the National Organization for Marriage seem to understand this, mostly avoiding explicitly religious arguments against same-sex marriage and instead focusing on the alleged effects on children and what they refer to as “traditional marriages.” The problem, of course, is that those arguments just don’t hold up, falling short in both empirical tests and in the lived experiences of Americans who are getting to know the increasing number of gay couples and families in every community.
Despite the nostalgic protestations of some, it’s highly unlikely that our political system will return to a model where policy around sex and gender is set by exclusively promoting a specific faith tradition’s vision for society. Maybe George and other opponents of same-sex marriage ought to heed MM’s advice, focusing on ways to positively articulate their beliefs in the face of cultural changes, rather than bemoaning their loss of moral monopoly.
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In addition to the conservative Catholic outcry in response to the New York marriage decision we highlighted earlier this week, Adam Serwer had a great post examining how some conservative commentators have taken to describing the result as a failure of democracy. Serwer points to Kathryn Jean Lopez’s radical redefinition of tyranny as the passage of any “capricious laws” she doesn’t agree with.
But Lopez’s rant pales in comparison with that of the interviewee on her blog yesterday, Robert George. The Princeton politics professor is one of the leading thinkers in the conservative Catholic world, and has been involved with political activism on this issue as chairman emeritus of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).
In a long interview with Lopez, George makes very clear that he sees the marriage issue, and the New York decision in particular, as only a symptom of a much larger cultural degradation. In his mind, the real problem is, ultimately, about sex:
The vote in New York to redefine marriage advances the cause of loosening norms of sexual ethics, and promoting as innocent — and even “liberating” — forms of sexual conduct that were traditionally regarded in the West and many other places as beneath the dignity of human beings as free and rational creatures…For people who have absorbed the central premises of sexual liberation…marriage simply cannot function as the central principle or standard of rectitude in sexual conduct, as it has in Western philosophy, theology, and law for centuries.
This view is in line with George’s opposition to Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court decision striking down state sodomy laws and helping solidify the idea that there’s no compelling state interest in regulating sex between consenting adults within the privacy of one’s own home:
As a result, to the extent that one is in the grip of sexual-liberationist ideology, one will find no reason of moral principle why people oughtn’t to engage in sexual relations prior to marriage, cohabit in non-marital sexual partnerships, form same-sex sexual partnerships, or confine their sexual partnerships to two persons, rather than three or more in polyamorous sexual ensembles.
George, of course, is well within his rights to hold whatever moral beliefs he wants about these topics. But “we need to ban same-sex marriage because I’m still upset about the 1960s” isn’t a very good legal argument — nor do I imagine it’s very popular. That’s why NOM and other opponents of gay marriage have taken great care to deflect and deny any such motivation, sticking to talking points specifically focused on the definition of marriage. From NOM’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page:
Extensive and repeated polling agrees that the single most effective message is: “Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.” This allows people to express support for tolerance while opposing gay marriage
To give George credit, he is fully honest about the implications of his views. For him, the marriage debate is just the latest flashpoint in a long battle to stem the tide of social change.
George doesn’t necessarily represent the views of NOM or anyone other organization, but he is widely respected as one of the intellectual drivers of the anti-same-sex marriage movement, particularly for his use of underlying moral arguments and philosophies.
Political organizations like NOM tend to employ language that sidesteps or contradicts the more extreme positions George articulates, in an attempt to rebut the belief that opponents of gay marriage operate out of an animus towards LGBT people or are trying to ‘legislate morality.’ I’d be very interested to hear whether NOM disagrees with George’s more comprehensive case, and if so, why.
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Earlier this year we blogged about research by Third Way that revealed several keys to building broader support legalizing same-sex marriage. Among the findings was that “…those who have talked to a gay person about marriage are significantly more likely to support marriage for gay couples.”
The way New York’s historic passage of same-sex marriage unfolded appears to strongly confirm this lesson. Sunday’s front-page New York Times story noted that ” [t]he story of how same-sex marriage became legal in New York is about shifting public sentiment and individual lawmakers moved by emotional appeals from gay couples who wish to be wed.” Although the story described the many complex political dynamics of the struggle, a recurrent theme was the personal connections between legislators and LGBT family members and constituents.
Third Way’s research also found that “telling stories of committed gay and lesbian couples who are already doing the hard work of marriage in their everyday life is a great way to convey those similar values.” The coalition that led the campaign in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage – New Yorkers United for Marriage – seems to have taken this lesson to heart. Here are a couple of their campaign spots:
In the final analysis, appealing to values and connecting the political debate to its impact on real couples and families played a critical role in passing the bill.
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After having spoken out publicly against the marriage bill passed in New York last week, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archdiocese of New York, gave an interview this Sunday expressing “sadness” at the result of the vote, but also a desire to move on from the issue and foster some kind of reconciliation within the Catholic community:
Dolan’s reasonable response stands in stark contrast to fellow Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn:
Today, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature have deconstructed the single most important institution in human history. Republicans and Democrats alike succumbed to powerful political elites and have passed legislation that will undermine our families and as a consequence, our society.
In light of these disturbing developments and in protest for this decision, I have asked all Catholic schools to refuse any distinction or honors bestowed upon them this year by the governor or any member of the legislature who voted to support this legislation. Furthermore, I have asked all pastors and principals to not invite any state legislator to speak or be present at any parish or school celebration.
DiMarzio’s call for Catholic institutions to blacklist elected officials is being echoed by members of the Catholic right who are reaching into their presidential campaign playbook to call for Gov. Cuomo to be denied Communion. Here’s canon lawyer Edward Peters:
I see no way, absent a public reversal of his public conduct, that Andrew Cuomo may present himself for holy Communion (per Canon 916), and, if he does present himself, I see no way that a minister of holy Communion may administer the sacrament to him (per Canon 915). Indeed, the only question in my mind is whether the ordinaries of New York should lift from the shoulders of individual ministers the burden of reaching this decision, by making a determination to this effect themselves and, assuming they do reach this conclusion, whether they should announce it publicly or in a personal letter to Cuomo. (Personally, I think a public announcement more befits the markedly public character of Cuomo’s conduct and responds better to the danger of scandal presented to the faithful by his actions).
Both DiMarzio and Peters’s responses are unfortunate appeals to a vengeful bitterness that divides the community instead of working to heal it after such an intense debate.
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Over at Commonweal, J. Peter Nixon has a thoughtful post that raises important questions for Catholic Church leaders engaged in high-profile campaigns against same-sex marriage. It’s a timely topic as Archbishop Timothy Dolan devotes considerable attention on his archdiocesan blog to taking sharp jabs at New York legislators pushing to legalize gay marriage.
Unlike some commentators who lash out against Catholic bishops, Nixon’s tempered warnings echo the sentiments of many Catholics who love their Church but worry that a hierarchy consumed with opposing something most Americans (including a majority of Catholics) now support and view as an historical inevitability weakens the Church’s ability to find a receptive audience for its social justice agenda. “The way in which the Catholic Church loses this particular campaign will have an impact on its ability to communicate the Gospel to younger Catholics, to say nothing of the broader culture,” he writes. Nixon continues:
While the bishops have not only the right but the responsibility to bring Catholic teaching into the public square, they need to do so in ways that do not seem uniquely obsessed with the sins of gays and lesbians. It might have been helpful, for example, if the bishops’ willingness to take on same-sex marriage has been coupled with an equally enthusiastic effort to reform no-fault divorce laws. Given contemporary mores, such an effort would have had almost zero chance of success. But coupling the issues would at least make it clear that the bishops understood that the most serious threats to marriage arise from the behavior of heterosexuals. More fundamentally, I suspect that many young people who grow up within the Church sense that the ways that heterosexuals fall short of Church teaching–fornication, cohabitation, contraception, remarriage after divorce–are, in pastoral practice at least, taken less seriously than the sexual sins of gays and lesbians. While I have no illusions that a more consistent application of the Church’s teaching would be “appealing,” it would at least immunize the Church against the charge of hypocrisy. The emerging generation of young people may not be inclined to adhere to the Church’s sexual ethics, but it would be a measure of progress if they could at least respect them.
Last fall, I urged Catholic leaders to read American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell. The authors’ research, examining the intersection of religion and politics over the last half century, offers critical findings about why a growing percentage of Americans – particularly twentysomethings – now identify their religious affiliation as “none.” Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Putnam and Campbell specifically identify vigorous opposition to same-sex marriage as a position driving younger Christians away from churches.
Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics…Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives.
Catholic bishops and other Church leaders play a vital role in advocating for a moral economy that serves the common good, defending workers’ rights, lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform and urging political leaders to address climate change. Maintaining this moral witness and relevancy in the public square will only grow harder if Catholics who value their faith’s commitment to justice and the common good perceive the Church as becoming primarily a culture-war institution fixated on sexuality.
For another thoughtful read on this issue, check out David Gibson’s post: The Church’s real marriage crisis?
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