Debating Same-Sex Marriage
by John Corvino andMaggie Gallagher
Oxford, 296 pages, $16.95
The debate surrounding same-sex marriage is prone to intense, interminable emotional arguments. John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher’s Debating Same-Sex Marriage diffuses rather than incites the irascible appetite and brings arguments on both sides into focus. Aiming to “achieve disagreement,” the authors—the former a gay-rights advocate and philosopher teaching at Wayne State University, and the latter a founder of the National Organization for Marriage—go head-to-head in “point–counterpoint” style on whether marriage as a legal and social institution should include same-sex couples.
Corvino’s main argument for extending marriage to same-sex couples is consequentialist—and curiously brief. He contends that the institution of marriage should include same-sex couples because marriage promotes the welfare of society, families, and individuals by extending social and legal recognition to mutual lifelong relationships of care. Happy couples make for happy citizens, and “marriage helps sustain this commitment like nothing else.” While children are a “supremely important rationale” for marriage, they are not the “sole important rationale.”
In Gallagher’s view, however, marriage is not merely the relationship of two people committed to each other for a lifetime but a committed, exclusive union between a husband and a wife oriented to caring for any children they may produce. Since same-sex unions sever the connection between sex and children, same-sex unions simply cannot be marriages.
The legal institution of marriage, Gallagher contends, arose historically to regulate sexual relationships and the children that result from such a union. Society needs children in order to ensure its continuity, and children do better when they are raised by a mother and a father, and so society has a vested interest in promoting traditional marriage.
The essays make it clear that we are still at a crossroads in the same-sex-marriage debate despite increasing attempts to shut it down. The issue is this: Is marriage the type of institution that is essentially ordered toward procreation? Corvino and Gallaher’s disagreement is lucid and civil, and the book merits a wide readership.
—Beth A. Rath is a doctoral student at Saint Louis University.
Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our January 2013 issue.
The New Religious Intolerance
by Martha Nussbaum
Harvard, 304 pages, $26.95
University of Chicago philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum, in her latest book, wades into the murky debates on religious freedom that today sweep liberal democracies, especially with respect to their Muslim-minority communities. The introductory chapter provides a dire catalogue of contemporary Western anxieties over headscarves and minarets, which by the second chapter are developed into a “heuristics of fear.” Her examples of such fear, understood as a “narcissistic . . . instinct for survival,” include the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and post-9/11 airport profiling (contrasted as fears that are respectively irrational and “reasonable within limits”).
Nussbaum then surveys the American legal history of religious accommodation. She develops a categorical imperative of political consistency by pointing out logical gaps in various arguments for banning the burqa. Occasional diversions in her argument often prove more interesting than the main thesis itself, as when she explores literature as a prime site for cultivating a sympathetic imagination to yield genuine respect toward others and takes up the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” as a case study for analysis based on the principles articulated in earlier chapters.
The visceral fear of Muslims evident in the anti-Sharia movement is proof enough that the anxieties she describes must be addressed. However, her well-intentioned recourse to the cardinal virtues of liberalism—invoking the vocabulary of principled equality and empathy—is unlikely to reach those afraid of Muslims. Nor does it engage those not compelled by the first principles of liberalism, for whom more-pressing arguments addressing anti-Muslim hysteria might lie in insistence that they accept Muslims as neighbors—that they extend to them a more demanding, comprehensive charity instead of the ethereal “sympathy” Nussbaum suggests.
Finally, the book does not engage the work of such critics as the political scientist Wendy Brown, for whom tolerance discourse only “sustains the abjection of the tolerated” while declaring intolerance anathema. If the answer to the politics of fear is not to be simply more religious tolerance—indeed, if it is the paradigm of religious tolerance that has exacerbated communal tensions while limiting possibilities for human flourishing—it is unfortunate that The New Religious Intolerance leaves us with few alternatives.
—Basit Kareem Iqbal is an editor living in Toronto.
Religious Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically
by Gordon J. Wenham
Baker Academic, 256 pages, $22.99
Do the Psalms teach us ethics? Gordon Wenham, an Evangelical biblical scholar at Trinity College in Bristol, England, thinks so. When reading the Psalms, he argues, we commit ourselves to a particular relationship with God and other people. In the act of reciting the Psalms we embrace the Lord as one of faithful, long-suffering mercy and take up for ourselves his particular concern for the poor and needy. And this praise entails specific ethical content.
To make his case, Wenham attends to the headings of the various psalms (which are generally skipped over and not read) and adopts a canonical approach: He reads the placement of a particular psalm in the five books of the Psalter, with their distinctive characteristics, as a key to each psalm’s interpretation. He then argues, more controversially, that the Psalms were intended to be recited (or sung) from memory in the presence of a community, thereby upholding for the community its ideals and values—a function similar to the Homeric corpus in ancient Greece.
The strength of this book is its all-encompassing biblical imagination. Wenham finds not only exact parallels but also implicit ones, between particular psalms on the one hand, and biblical laws and narratives on the other. In such careful details is the value of this book. And along the way he explains the Psalms’ concept of the Law, fights off misunderstandings of lex talionis, addresses squarely the problems of the imprecatory psalms, and notes remarkable parallels with the law and ethics of Deuteronomy.
Nonetheless, Wenham, who is not an ethicist, lacks subtlety in his account of the distinction between deontological and utilitarian ethics, and he could say much, much more about the importance of virtue in the Psalms. But these quibbles should turn no one away from this book, to which I look forward to returning with my students and parishioners.
—Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence at
Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York City.
Ten Popes Who Shook the World
by Eamon Duffy
Yale, 160 pages, $25
The title might better have been “My Ten Most Interesting Popes,” since not all of them were “world shakers.” Eamon Duffy zeroes in on popes—St. Peter, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Gregory VII, Innocent III, Paul III, Pius IX, Pius XII, John XXIII, and John Paul II—who either marked (and sometimes authored) turning points in papal history or who instantiated notable characteristics of the papacy.
It is inevitable, but still curious, that he chose to begin with St. Peter, since in his introduction he appears to embrace the currently fashionable view that in the first century the Church in Rome was “not so much a single church as a constellation of independent churches,” so that there was no historically genuine succession link between St. Peter and the later bishops of Rome.
As Duffy describes the popes, St. Peter was the talisman (my term) of the papacy, although not, it seems, its founder; St. Leo built the foundation for papal universal jurisdiction and papal infallibility; Gregory the Great “invented Europe;” Gregory VII drew a line “between the claims of conscience and the claims of state power”; and so forth, down to John XXIII, whom he characterizes as “a simply good man,” and John Paul II, who was “the greatest man to occupy the chair of Peter for centuries” and yet sponsored a “repressive clericalism” and a “strict orthodoxy” that “divided his Church.”
Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge University, is a self-described “cradle Catholic,” from a strongly nationalistic Irish Catholic family that emigrated to England when he was thirteen, in 1960. He might not unfairly (although he would dislike the description) be characterized as something of a theologically liberal ultramontanist and a liturgical and devotional conservative—or, as he once wrote in an autobiographical sketch, a youthful Catholic “zealot for change” who has increasingly returned to his “roots.”
None of these “papal portraits” are wholly negative or wholly positive (except for that of John XXIII, which is wholly positive), and all are winsomely written and a pleasure to read, though perhaps for many readers that of John Paul II will be less so than the others.
—William Tighe is associate professor of history at Muhlenberg College.
Reading Romans with St. Thomas Aquinas
edited by Matthew Levering and Michael Dauphinais
Catholic University of America, 332 pages, $34.95
This collection combines essays written by Catholic and Protestant theologians and biblical scholars on St. Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on Romans, which he probably wrote while lecturing in Naples near the end of his life. The sixteen contributors include First Things writers Robert Louis Wilken, Bruce Marshall, Hans Boersma, and Geoffrey Wainwright, as well as Markus Bockmuehl, and Mary Healy.
Aquinas builds on Augustine to examine Paul’s treatment of grace, specifically the way it is manifested. In his commentary, the Angelic Doctor follows Paul through his exploration of natural theology, faith, God’s justice, Judaism and Christianity, political theology, and justification.
Even readers familiar with how Aquinas treats each of these topics in the Summa and other treatises will find great value in seeing how he understands them in particular passages of Scripture. If the strength of the treatises lies in his deep analysis of particular topics, the strength of these commentaries lies in showing how those topics fit into his broader vision of God, human nature, grace, and salvation.
As numerous contributors note, Aquinas’ belief that Scripture could have multiple literal senses allowed him to distinguish between different, but not contradictory, senses of one idea or term in places where modern scholars see only juxtapositions or oppositions. For example, contemporary scholarly debates on Romans center on the meaning of phrases such as “the faith of Christ” and “the righteousness of God.”
Do these terms refer to the faith we have in Christ or Christ’s faithfulness to us, to God’s righteousness in keeping his covenant or to the righteousness that God gives to believers in justification? Scott W. Hahn and John A. Kincaid argue that Aquinas admits of both contested interpretations, and sees them as related, not opposed: “It is God’s faithfulness to his historically situated covenant promises that leads him to make both Jew and Gentile righteous members of his covenant community.”
Other essays highlight the nature and importance of preaching, Aquinas’ understanding of reckoning and imputation in justification, and pneumatology. The book will benefit those interested in the role of medieval exegesis in contemporary theology, Aquinas’ use and reading of Scripture, and the many aspects of his theology of grace.
—Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral student at Boston College.