Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Best Justification For Gay Love

The Nature of Marriage:
Biblical Metaphors and Complementarity

Traditional Catholic Arguments Against Lesbian and Gay Marriage

Whatever the legal outcome of the Hawaii court case, a case which may possibly make legal marriage between people of the same sex a possibility throughout the United States, it is likely that some Catholic voices will argue that no such "marriages" really exist. They will argue that marriage, by definition, can only be between one man and one woman.

Two main arguments will be used to back this up.

1. Drawing from Genesis 1 and Matt. 19, it will be argued that the sexes are created by God to be "complementary". Marriage, it will be claimed is a social recognition of this complementarity, and while same sex couples may indeed aspire to such union, they will always be incapable of achieving it.

2. Drawing from natural law theory, it will be argued that since homosexual sex is lacking, a homosexual marriage is also impossible. That is the teaching on homosexuality precluded homosexual marriage.

Response to Traditional Arguments

In response to this, I would argue:

Minor responses:

A. Catholic respondents typically ignore the huge variability in marriage across time and cultures, including Biblical cultures. Marriage is not a "Catholic institution": although there is a Catholic "sacrament" of marriage, this is a sacrament built upon an already existing human phenomenon. But this phenomenon called marriage is hardly fixed: it cannot by any rational account exclude polygamous marriages, which were allowed and even encouraged in the "Old Testament" and not condemned in the New. Furthermore, there is no doubt that at many diverse times and places same-sex marriages have been socially acceptable. See my paper on Lesbian And Gay Marriage Across Time And Culture available on the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Catholic Handbook.

B. It also cannot be legitimately asserted that the Church has always and everywhere taught that marriage is a pre-requisite for any sexual activity. Although the early Church was keen on purity issues, it would have been impossible for it to insist that all sexually active members be legally married [there were no Church marriages for hundreds of years as all acknowledge]. This is because marriage in Roman society was restricted to those who had the right of "conubium" - that is free Roman citizens. Marriage was understood as a contract, but contracts could not be made by many - including slaves. Thus many Gentile converts especially in Rome, [Jews, and residents of some cities could presumably make use of local marriage customs] would have been unable to contract marriage. While slave relationships did have some recognition as conterbinium, a huge array of couples simply had no legal way of being "married". But there is no evidence that they were precluded from marriage. Another interesting variant was in Syria. There the extreme ascetic form of Christianity practiced apparently precluded all but celibates from being baptized until their deathbeds. Thus, apparently, no Syrian Christians were united by any Church ceremony. Certainly as non-baptized "adherents" they would not have been able to contract "sacramental marriages".

Major Responses:


point 1: the imposition of a bipolar sex system on human beings is not drawn from "nature". A fairly high number of people seem to be born with characteristics, both external, internal, and genetic of both "males" and "females". We may of course exclude these people as fully human, but I wonder if this is an acceptable strategy.

point 2: the Biblical creation account is metaphorical. Literally it is incoherent [how long was a day before the sun and earth were created?], but as metaphor it works wonderfully. Indeed to deny the metaphor is to so literalize the story that the message gets lost.

Catholic Biblical scholars, at the highest level, have been at the forefront of those who attack such literalizing "fundamentalism". So why is it ' legitimate to literalize the creation of "man and woman"? The Genesis account - in which Adam is given a mate for companionship, not to have children, must surely be read as an origin story of our "Co-Humanity". It is an account not of the origins of marriage [which it does not mention] but of all our mutual relationships with "mates"; this includes heterosexual marriage, but also same sex and different sex friendship, camaraderie and so forth. To literalize the metaphor [see the Mollenkott/Ramey book on "Is the Homosexual my Neighbor?" on this] is to deprive it of its power.

Homosexual couples, engaged in the widespread transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon of social acknowledged same-sex unions aka marriage, exemplify in every way the God-given human characteristic of 'Co-Humanity' as heterosexual couples.


point 1. John Finnis, along with Germain Grisez, have been most responsible for attempting to rehabilitate Natural law ethics out of its Catholic seminary ghetto [Although Grisez has not helped his cause in the area of homosexuality by referring to gays as "sodomites" thoughout his magnus opus.

I want to leave aside serious questions as to whether this rehabilitation has succeeded. [Finnis/Grisez try to remove natural law from a specific religious context - but there is serious doubt {see Russell Hittenger on "The New Natural Law Theory"} as to whether they succeed in doing this], and to accept for the sake of argument that Natural Law can be sustained as a system of Ethical "practical reasoning".

Finnis, who has written on this precise issue, claims that homosexuality is always a frustrated attempt [he is willing to accept, as is Grisez, that foe whatever reasons there are in fact people with a homosexual orientation] to achieve "finality". This idea of "finality", I suppose goes back through Aristotle to Plato. Human beings it argues are limited by their temporality and temporariness. Their striving towards eternity and perfection gives rise to eros which seeks "finality" by the procreation of children. Plato of course, famously, sees the procreation of eternal goods by homosexual lovers as the best instantiation of such eros, but later writers, less convinced perhaps of the ontological reality of virtues, have used this argument from finality to legitimate heterosexual sexuality, and marriage, and delegitimate homosexual activity. Later Christian writers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo, who were concerned to assert the goodness of matter against the gnostics, but suspicious of passion, like the Stoics and Epicureans, furthered this basically Platonic justification of eros by insisting that sex was legitimate ONLY when it tended to procreation of children.

Finnis' contribution to all this has been to tie in the idea of complementarity and the insistence by the Second Vatican Council on the "unitive" nature of marriage. Finnis claims that only by putting a penis in a vagina can "true" physical union take place. In other words, to become, in Jesus' words, "one flesh", only "penis in vagina" counts.

But, even if we grant most of Finnis' natural law argumentation, it is not at all clear why "penis in vagina" is so special. There is no literal fusion of flesh, nor, by natural design apparently, are the vast majority of heterosexual acts open to "egg meeting sperm" [Women are fertile only a few days a month, but open to sex all the time; and no one suggests that known sterile, through age or other reason, couples need refrain from sex]. If Finnis were to argue that couples should use Natural Family Planning methods to ensure female fertility before all sexual acts, he would have a stronger but not conclusive point. But he does not and cannot argue such a position.

Again, literally, when a sperm and egg fuse, it is not a man and women who are united as "one flesh", but a new genetic entity which is created [with its own rights according to Catholic teaching!]

So what is the nature of "one flesh". Since it has no literal meaning as a phrase, it must be a metaphor. And the reference is not to any specific sexual act, but to the Genesis account of God's creation of Co-Humanity.

Such Biblical rumblings have no real place in pure natural law reasoning, and so Finnis is left, ultimately with the claim that his prejudice that only "penis in vagina" is "real sex". As far as I can see he does not even really try to defend the point. But his argument falls on it.

point 2. Nature, presumably, includes women. And so natural law argumentation, which acknowledges that it draws from human experience, to establish its precepts, or at least knowledge of its precepts, cannot exclude women's experience. Without essentializing two much, it seems fair to argue that men and women have very different relationships to their bodies and to nature. For a man, his body is discontinuous, and different, from both his mother's and his children, but for a women continuity is more visceral [literally.] I find the views of one woman - Audre Lorde important here. Lorde provides an explanation of the place of the erotic which eschews the continuity anxieties of male writers.

Lorde was not a theologian, more a poet of the Lesbian and gay community. But she did have a Catholic girlhood and contributed an essay of some importance to considerations of all aspects of sexuality. In 1983 she published "Uses of the Erotic: The erotic as power", in Sister outsider: essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, (Trumansburg NY; Crossing Pint, 1984) [Much of the discussion here relies on a paper by Ruth Ginzburg, "Audre Lorde's (Nonessentialist) Lesbian Eros" in Claudia Card, ed., Adventures in Lesbian Philosophy, (Bloomington IN: University of Indian Press, 1994), 81 ff]

Lorde identifies the erotic as "a considered source of power and information within our lives" that "rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge". It provides "the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person" as well as "the open and fearless underlining of one's capacity for joy". Rather than making the erotic a claim to pleasure, Lorde is trying to answer the question "why is the erotic a good thing" can comes up with the answer that "the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference". This is a political and moral conclusion of some importance.

What Lorde succeeds in doing is explaining why the erotic is virtue without teleological concerns. She does not require procreation to make eros virtuous, the strategy which had been central to its defense since Plato. Ginzburg at least, claims this is a gynocentric and Lesbian insight into eros. The implications for evaluation of homosexual relationships are immense [and not pursued by Ginzburg]. The entire tradition which has condemned homosexuality as "lacking finality" is based on a justification of eros which required finality .

Lorde's contribution then, consists in enabling as yet undone reconsiderations of both the nature of the erotic and the moral evaluation of the erotic. Repeatedly commentators on the topic see the inability of Lesbian and Gay marriages to produce children as, at best, a defect. But when we see the erotic as virtuous because of its ability to share joy and bridge isolation immediately , then the teleological framework totters.


Traditional Catholic arguments against the *possibility* of gay marriage fail easily in the arena of secular discussion. Since such marriages have existed, and are in fact conceivable in many cultures [and in almost as many forms as heterosexual marriage], they are possible. But even in the arena of Catholic Biblical and theological reasoning, there is no convincing reason to assert that same sex marriages are impossible.

I will acknowledge that in the law of the Latin Church, sacramental marriage between baptized Christians has always been seen as a union of a man and a woman [the definition of the Roman jurist Herrenius Modestinus], but this is open to change I think. [The application of "sacraments", especially ordination and penance has varied so wildly over history, that the only rational explanation is that the Church on earth has tremendous power over their form. Even now when all Catholics are taught that there are seven sacraments, the positions of confirmation and episcopal consecration are fitted into the picture only with difficulty.]. At all events, the sacramentality of Catholicism has never been limited to the designated "sacraments", but extends to all sorts of religious activities [a notion even more comprehensible to the Orthodox, who will agree that there are seven sacraments, but have a pretty hard time excluding funerals and monastic vows from the sacramental field].

Since there is no good reason to exclude gay marriage, never mind deny that it can exist, we can hope that the Church of the future will recognize its past limitations, and begin to record again marriages by same sex, intersex, and different sex couples - all in witness to the Creator's gift of co-humanity.

1 comment:

Tobias Haller said...

Good essay. I have taken a similar approach to that suggested by Lorde, based on the rearrangement of the "ends" of marriage in the Episcopal liturgy (1979) -- with "mutual joy" as the first "cause." Joy is ateleological, in that joy is its own satisfaction, an "end-in-itself" that does not use the spouse or partner as a means to some other end. This was also a main point in the theological rationale for the 2015 change in the Episcopal Church's marriage canon, of which I was a principle author.

Good to see we are thinking along similar lines!