I almost feel sorry for the authors of a new manifesto from the conservative political group Evangelicals and Catholics Together. They could not have known that the very day they released their moralistic document asserting that same-sex marriage is a greater threat to the culture of marriage than is divorce, the pope would deliver a sermon that could not sound more different from their defensive cultural warrior text. Regrettably, as of this morning, the text is not yet posted at First Things. Here is a link to David Gibson’s article at RNS about the document.
There are many problems with this document. Even when they are on to something important, that something must be tailored to fit the political needs of the authors. For example, they note the differential in the health of marriage culture between affluent families and poor families:
Everyone suffers from the current crisis in marriage, but some suffer more than others. A growing class divide is becoming alarmingly clear. College-educated men and women marry and are unlikely to get divorced. The less educated are less likely to marry, and those who do so are three times more likely to get divorced. Rates of illegitimacy are even more striking. A very small percentage of college-educated women have children out of wedlock (6 percent). Nearly half of women without a college education now have children out of wedlock.
Marriage is a basic, foundational institution of society, but it is also complex and broad in its cultural and sociological reach. There are literally hundreds of laws that intersect with marriage law, from tax provisions to ethics requirements to property right. Changes in marriage are reflected in society and changes in society will be reflected in marriage. So, the facts that the affluent seem to be experiencing a significantly lower divorce rate, and very significantly lower out-of-wedlock birth rate, are important facts. But the authors do not ask why that might be. They are remarkably uninquisitive on this point. Do they think affluent people have better morals? Surely, they do not want to look at the way our society has disadvantaged the working poor for decades and they demonstrate no familiarity with, nor interest in, the loss of social capital in large sectors of American society. Clearly, more is going on here than the sexual revolution. But, it is the sexual revolution that makes these conservative Christians anxious so better not to cloud the narrative.
The authors of this manifesto note, but understandably do not dwell on, the fact that some of the signers do not consider marriage a sacrament.
As Evangelicals and Catholics, we do not agree on the status of marriage as a sacrament of the Church. But we affirm strongly and without qualification, following the clear testimony of Holy Scripture, that marriage is a unique and privileged sign of the union of Christ with his people and of God with his Creation—and it can only serve as that sign when a man and a woman are solemnly joined together in a permanent union. (emphasis in original)
For us Catholics, sacramentality is the most important thing to know about marriage, yes? For people who consider themselves possessed of a certain theological expertise, this difference is significant, yes? And, seeing as some of these same churches do permit divorce, what is to be made of the qualified “permanent”? Indeed, the metaphor between marriage and the relationship of Christ to His Church only works because it is a sacrament, yes? I understand that our evangelical brethren are a bit parsimonious when it comes to sacraments, affirming only two and leaving marriage as a mere sign. But, why get into all that when one is merely interested in blaming the gays for wrecking marriage.
Contraception is another thorny issue because some evangelical churches permit it. Here, then, strangely, we find one of the most obnoxious comments in the document. The authors write of “a contraceptive mentality which insists that sex has an arbitrary relation to procreation.” I would point out that most people I know who practice contraception, even if mistaken about the moral significance of its use, see contraception as a means of being responsible, not arbitrary. I am one of those leftie Catholics who actually think the contraception issue – and the issue of same-sex marriage – are difficult and complicated and I dislike it when people look at me like I have five heads when I say so. These issues are not “no-brainers.” But, they are complicated for all sides, and calling people who are trying to behave responsibly “arbitrary” is not helpful.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about the text, indeed its raison d’etre, is its claim that same-sex marriage is more of a threat to the culture of marriage than is divorce. Certainly, as a matter of historical fact, the divorce rate started to rise in the late 1950s, long before Stonewall, long before “Will & Grace” and long before the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision in Goodridge. And, the issue of divorce should especially concern the Catholic signers of this text seeing as the twin synods are focusing on family life. I have written about this before, but if there are three essential promises in a Christian marriage - fidelity, permanence and fecundity - it is divorce that vitiates the permanence and fecundity, even though we only apply the penalty of denying access to communion when the issue of fidelity is broached by a second union.
I agree with the authors that there is something Orwellian about marriage licenses referring to “Spouse 1” and “Spouse 2” but, again, the gay people I know who have entered into civil marriages do not refer to themselves that way. Years ago, on a radio talk show, I was discussing the issue with Andrew Sullivan and I referred to “his partner” and Andrew jumped in to say “He is my husband.” Now, I have long believed that society can and should privilege the marital union of a man and a woman above all other varieties of human friendship. But, the issue of same sex marriage is simply not the huge threat that these authors paint it to be. Why do they draw the line here? I agree, and the Holy Father just mentioned, that there is something about gender theory that is weird and unrealistic in a quasi-gnostic way, and the advocates of some people in the same sex marriage debate certainly bears on that. But, there have been thousands, not millions, of same sex marriages, and there have been millions, not thousands, of divorces. I just do not see the connection between the decline in marriage culture and the rise of same sex marriage that these authors see.
There is one very interesting part of the document that bears further reflection by its authors. They write:
For centuries the parents of adopted children have been acknowledged as legal parents. And we warmly commend the generous practice of adoption. But this was understood as a humane exception to the more fundamental rule of natural descent. Today, however, the most basic principles of family life are being reconstructed around exceptions. Because the male-female difference must be erased to make way for same-sex marriage, the procreative potential of the male-female union must be set aside as well. A child’s parents are whomever legal documents designate as Parent 1 or Parent 2—or, as California documents now allow, Parent 3 or Parent 4. Thus, children are exposed to the risk of coming into the world as strangers, in which the biological ties that form the natural family are arbitrarily broken. The law no longer recognizes the primordial, complementary natural roles of mother and father. The natural family as the fundamental context defining where we have come from and who we are is set aside.
“Humane exceptions.” This is what I think gay men and women are asking for to what they recognize as the biological norm. They know that their marriages will always be different from those of heterosexuals but that there are also similarities that cannot simply be dismissed. They know that their unions are characterized by devotion, mutual responsibility, shared dreams and shared history, just like other people. This document from Evangelicals and Catholics Together makes much of the fact that human sexuality is more than biology yet, when it comes to same-sex marriage, it is the biology that seems to matter most. Both our civil laws, and our Church’s moral theology, needs to find more adult ways of wrestling with the need for “humane exceptions.” We are too often stuck in the distinctions between doctrine and discipline, or worse, between sin and sinner. And, when stuck, as this document is, it is easy to forget what the Gospel is about, to lose the joy of the Gospel, to become doctors of the law rather than heralds of the Gospel.
It goes without saying that the man who delivered that powerful sermon Sunday at St. Peter’s could not have written this document. Indeed, it is more than a little interesting that when Evangelicals and Catholics Together was launched in 1994, they had some real ecclesiastical and theological heavyweights. Now, not so much. I think people have come to understand, and this latest document more than proves the point, that this group is about politics more than it is about religion. They have drawn a line in the sand, and that line is same-sex marriage. But, if one truly wants to understand that challenges facing the culture of marriage, one should refrain from drawing lines, recognize that the sands are shifting in complicated ways we still do not entirely understand, and stop blaming the gays.