Fr. John responds to Neal Sumerlin – Post 4

March 29, 2013  – Fr. John

Neal, thanks for your e-mail which I received on Monday. I appreciate the spirit and the tone of your invitation to a further exchange on the matter of same sex marriage, and the broader issues it raises. I’ve taken some time to collect my thoughts in response.

This debate is about two things: a) benefits and b) legitimacy. As touching “a,” I have no objection to the government or corporations extending a cornucopia of benefits to whomever they wish. If a gay person wishes to have inheritance rights or be named next of kin on a hospital form, so be it. It is complicated, of course, and the paperwork would take a long time to push. But why should any of our marriages – gay or straight – be a social object of the tax code in the first place? There are hundreds of ways and means to accomplish these things, and gay advocates have been offered options in several different ways. They have not accepted the offers.

Which leads to “b.” Homosexuals advocate for the designation of marriage because they desire legitimacy and affirmation that what they are doing is the same thing I am doing. It is not, and they know it. Thus, their appeals typically avoid moral argumentation. When they do, they insist that people like me back out of their private lives. This fails to recognize that marriage, while entailing very private matters, is a public institution. Marriage is the public declaration that two people are in an exclusive social and sexual relationship, and, until the 60’s was an enforceable contract. A society with a healthy culture of marriage makes sex public – marriage declares to all who is sleeping with whom. Only a society in which marriage is degraded is one in which sex is intensely privatized, resulting in bunches of people sleeping together, without public declaration. I am digressing already, but I mention it for the purpose of showing that the debate about same sex marriage – or any marriage debate – concerns a public question, not a private one.

In our democracy the state has taken upon itself the burden of enforcing public morality, thereby legitimizing a point of view with the imprimatur of law. Social policy, but especially law, has an affirmative, normative, and pedagogical effect over time. The state, however, is now being asked to decide whose morality to enforce. Ah, there is the rub, and politicians everywhere, sensing that the center isn’t holding, are flipping faster than crappie on a dock. They can read the polls as well as I can (I admit that I am in a rapidly shrinking minority). But as I have written elsewhere, I do not hold that matters of morality are up for grabs in the demos. Vox populi, vox humbug. Morals ultimately descend from transcendent principles, largely summed up in the Ten Commandments. I accept these as normative for the people and the prince.

Now, more specifically to your objections. You are correct that my argument is framed as a slippery slope, and as such, you wish to set it aside. Indulge me once more as my thinking is a bit more nuanced. I am fully aware that affirming A does not provide a necessary and sufficient condition for claiming B. By arguing the possible consequences that might flow from A, I cannot insist that consequence B will necessarily follow. Thus, the inference that same-sex marriage would be a strong shove down a slippery slope to other marital arrangements was adamantly rejected.

But such a rejection is revealing. When you say “telling a committed couple that they may not do so [marry] IS a violation of their privacy,” you draw the line at two – no more than two – individuals who wish to marry. My point is not to insist that “B” necessarily flows from “A.” Rather, I am pointing out that you squirm at the thought of polyamory or polygamy, but your arguments for same sex marriage are exactly identical to those already being used to advocate these arrangements.  [See the recent article in the online Washington Post’s “On Faith” for more on this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/unitarian-universalists-would-prefer-their-polyamory-activists-keep-quiet/2013/03/22/f3d14eaa-9333-11e2-8ea1-956c94b6b5b9_story.html?tid=pm_national_pop] At the risk of bludgeoning you with semantics, I insist that we are parsing very important definitions. Such a qualitative redefinition of marriage effectively turns my “slippery slope” in to a sheer granite rock face. Rather than admit that gay marriage vaults that cliff and opens the clerk’s of court’s office to all comers (at the same time), it is easier for you to cry foul on form. But the fact that an argument is disliked does not make it go poof.

Thus, I am pressing the point that challenges your basis of exclusion, which marriage equality necessarily creates, to wit: you favor marriage for one class of persons, homosexuals, to the exclusion of another class (e.g., Muslims and polyamorists, etc.), which are also growing minorities, and which have religious and historical practices that are being ignored. To quote you, “Traditional” marriage is just that, a tradition, not a moral dictum, and a tradition that has assumed its present form historically recently.” If so, what exactly, do we say to Abdul when our secular democracy throws up its hands and says, “Sorry, it was just recent tradition after all!” but then proceeds to limit the number of partners he may have to just one, when the Koran says he gets up to four? This is no mere thought experiment. At the risk of redundancy, I am not arguing that it will happen. I am arguing that marriage equality arguments affirm a definitional change which must apply to all cases. I am pointing out that your argument contains a categorical fallacy, because it refuses to admit that a categorical definition of one group, in this case, homosexuals, does not cover others who may ask for the same treatment even though they meet the same criteria, i.e., people in loving relationships should not be denied the civil right of marriage.

But enough on that. Now I should like to move to the matter of science and morals. I know you aren’t pressing this strongly, and that you were willing to set it aside, so I will be brief. I also know that you are a man of science and possess an appreciation for its contributions to human understanding. I share that appreciation, and thus, I take your objection seriously. For your part, you admit that science hasn’t spoken – yet – at least with as clear a voice as you might like regarding innate sexual orientation. You are hopeful that the gay gene is somewhere in the triple helix, and that it will be found.

This is tricky for both of us. It is tricky for you, on the one hand, because you must proceed upon an argument from silence. You have no scientific evidence for the claim; it is tricky for me, on the other, presumably because I have to proceed with the fear that science might prove me wrong in the future. There are far too many issues to pursue here, so I will summarize more basic commitments. First, I do not think that the human race has been required to suspend judgment on homosexual practice and marriage arrangements for all of recorded human history, until our progeny cracks the DNA. This is because I do not think that moral authority is finally dependent upon physical science.

Second, we likely differ on the weight that science actually brings to bear on the matter. As I briefly pointed out in my longer blog version, science may tell me much about what “is,” but it tells me little about what “should be.” Post-Enlightenment thinking reduces our world to a material universe. Not surprisingly, science is king (god?), and the discoveries available through the sciences are now understood and relied upon to unlock the totality of the human experience and ultimate reality. I recognize that I am painting with a broad brush and you may not share this point of view. I do believe, however, that this is mainstream thinking in academia. The effect of elevating science in this way has been to relegate moral propositions, which, by definition, are not falsifiable, to an interior, private world of individual opinion. We are free to believe or make value judgments about anything we wish, as long we don’t believe that it is true for all. Thus, science is used to undermine moral discussion in the public square in general and moral absolutes in particular.

The appeal to science assumes that, if we could just show that there is a homosexual gene or other natural causation, we would have to sanction the behaviors that flow from it. Much has been written on this which I won’t repeat here, but this is patently a non sequitur. In the Christian account of human experience, all human sorrow is directly attributable to the Fall, and our subsequent state of sin and misery. Those of us who still accept the doctrine of Original Sin posit the physical and noetic effects (psychological, mental, and affective domains) of sin are profound – more than we imagine. The Christian vision is one of redemption from sin – body and soul – not sanction of sin.

Should science discern next week that there is a genetic predisposition in serial killers who prey on females – and there is literature on this – I would be no more likely to sanction the behavior, much less affirm it. This is neither a false analogy, nor a head-in-the-sand denial of science. I welcome any science that deepens our understanding of the human condition, but I am firmly committed to the proposition that all facts are God’s facts and all data in the natural world must be interpreted in light of what the Scriptures declare about that world. The most offensive fact to the modern mind, I suggest, is not the explicit (what you call ambiguous references) proscription of homosexuality, but the first fact: In the beginning God created…and made man in his image. Developing the implications of this is far beyond a reasonable intrusion upon your time.

This brings us to the teachings of Jesus, which I am glad you raise, though I am equally troubled by how easily you wish to slice the Gospel accounts away from Moses and the Prophets, the rest of the New Testament, and the tradition of the Church which flows from the sacred writings. If Jesus did anything, he affirmed that seeking justice with our fellow man meant first satisfying the justice of God. The righteousness or justice of God is his own covenant faithfulness, which we are to imitate. Jesus carefully and consistently defined the justice of God in such a manner as to affirm the whole of God’s law and the prophets. It is absolutely preposterous to assert otherwise and we are not free to interpret Jesus out of the context of Moses, which Jesus himself expressly affirmed. It would be easier for you to say that Moses, Jesus, the prophets, and Paul are simply wrong on the matter, and let it go, because what they actually teach on the matter is not a question of reasonable debate.

So I agree that it would be useless to argue the Scriptures with each other – we disagree profoundly on their nature, and thus upon a definition of justice. As you say, “You and I are left with different views of what an ancient text is telling us about how we ought to live our lives, and how we ought to treat others.” That is correct. We particularly disagree about the authority of the Bible for faith and life. But if you find that arguing over the Bible with me is tiresome, wait until you debate authoritative texts with Abdul.

I am pleased, however, that you seem to recognize and agree with me that at the end of the day, moral questions require defense with the strongest authoritative appeals. I locate that authority in the whole Bible – both testaments – including Moses, Jesus, Paul and the other writers. I affirm that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are unified, and that their message is essentially perspicuous. I also affirm that neither the Church nor anyone else, has the authority to tamper with the plain teaching of what we have received from the apostles and prophets. Post-Enlightenment scholarship may have denied the supernatural nature of our Book, attempting to label it as a hopelessly hidebound relic of an ancient culture, but the orthodox faith cedes no ground here.

I understand that you do not hold the Scriptures in the same way I do. The bad news is that we’ll likely not agree on very many important things. The good news is that we understand why, and we don’t have to shout at each other or call names. So, I thank you for the invitation to offer this lengthy and final word, and I appreciate the civil tone you have taken with yours. I trust that my tone, while pointed, is equally gracious. I certainly intend it to be.