Here’s an instructive exchange between Luke Timothy Johnson and Eve Tushnet. Johnson is a distinguished New Testament scholar at Emory University and Tushnet is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She is a recent convert to Catholicism and identifies herself as a lesbian. The exchange appeared a few months ago in Commonweal and was again brought to my attention when I spoke to a meeting of Courage a while back.
Courage is an organization founded by the remarkable Father John Harvey, and its purpose is to help people who are afflicted by same-sex attraction to live chaste lives. In private conversation, a young man at the meeting cited the Johnson–Tushnet exchange in support of his view that Catholics who attempt to accommodate homosexual practice have, in fact, rejected the authoritative sources of Christian teaching. As someone who had, with personally disastrous consequences, bought into that accommodation for some years, he spoke with more than an edge of bitterness.
The Commonweal exchange is titled “Homosexuality & the Church,” and in it Johnson describes how he came to his position through the experience of a lesbian daughter. “I trusted God was at work in the life she shares with her partnera long-standing and fruitful marriage dedicated to the care of others, and one that has borne fruit in a wonderful little girl who is among my and my wife’s dear grandchildren.” Trust your experience, says Johnson. “When read within the perspective of a Scripture that speaks everywhere of a God disclosing Godself through human experience, our stories become the medium of God’s very revelation.” What does this mean for the authority of Scripture and the Church’s teaching? Johnson does not flinch:
"I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us."
Eve Tushnet responds: “I’m not convinced this is how human love stories relate to the divine love story. Loving one another can be an echo of the love we receive from God; it can be the child of that love; it can be preparation for our own awestruck love of God. (I would argue that my erotic and romantic love of women has been all three of those things, at different times.) But our human experience, including our erotic experience, cannot be a replacement for the divine revelation preserved by the Church. We must be careful not to let it become a counternarrative or a counter-Scripture.”
Tushnet also says this: “So it’s tempting to conclude that prohibitions against homosexuality are culture-bound, no more universally binding than the requirement that women cover their heads in church. It’s true that culture conditions how we read Scripture, and that as Christians we need to be open to the countercultural implications of the gospel. But this fact argues far more strongly against Johnson’s position than against the Church’s. If we seek to overcome any aspects of our culture that conflict with the gospel, I’m not sure why we would expect the gay liberation movementslightly over a hundred years old, and largely Western in characterto be less culture-bound, and therefore a better guide to the countercultural aspects of the gospel, than the Catholic Church. The Church is bigger and older than you, me, or the very concept of the homosexual person. (The view that sexual orientation is intrinsic and constitutive of a person’s deepest identity comes from a school of psychology that owes very little to the gospel, and a great deal to anti-Christian forms of philosophical materialism.)”
Tushnet is impressed by the “theology of the body” as set forth by John Paul II and the richness of the Catholic tradition on the meaning of friendship, “helping me to express my love of women both sacrificially and chastely. . . . Every week or so I discover yet another hidden treasure of the Church that speaks to me in exactly the way I need in order to deal specifically with my struggles, resentments, longings, and strengths as a woman and a lesbian. We can make the Church’s teaching believable by becoming more Catholicwhich is, not incidentally, what we should be doing anyway.”
On a related question, David Blankenhorn writes in his recent book The Future of Marriage against the idea that marriage is a private relationship based on an emotional commitment between two adults. Marriage, Blankenhorn persuasively contends, is and always has been a social institution with the primary public purpose of ensuring that children will have an emotional, moral, and legal relationship to the parents who are responsible for their existence. Blankenhorn quotes approvingly the counsel of the German theologian-martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote to a young couple getting married that it is not only their love that will sustain their marriage but also their marriage that will sustain their love.
Blankenhorn argues in a very civil manner free of polemics that the idea of same-sex marriage is a further and potentially fatal deinstitutionalizing of marriage. Political scientist Peter Meilaender is sympathetic to Blankenhorn’s argument but believes that same-sex marriage is on the way to becoming a fait accompli. Writing in The Cresset, a magazine published by Valparaiso University, Meilaender notes that there are already about 600,000 same-sex partner households in the United States (about 1 percent of the “coupled” households in the country), and that there are an estimated 160,000 children in these same-sex households, a number that is almost certainly growing. (Only Florida absolutely bans adoption by same-sex couples.)
Those hundreds of thousands of children will certainly feel grievously stigmatized if society refuses to recognize that their parents are married, writes Meilaender. “For feel it they will, at least if marriage remains the meaningful institution that Blankenhorn wants to resuscitate. Marriage and those children are on a collision course.” Peter Meilaender’s argument is of more than passing interest. At the same time, one may wonder whether 160,000or even twice that number in the next twenty yearsare enough to drive such a major change in social policy in a country of more than 300 million people. The number of children of same-sex couples pales in comparison with the number of children of single mothers or of heterosexuals cohabiting without benefit of matrimony. It seems unlikely that these children will be advocating for a redefinition of marriage that suits their circumstances.
As Blankenhorn argues in The Future of Marriage, the crucial factor is not the number who deviate from the norm, although that is not unimportant, but the effectiveness with which the norm is defended. The idea that marriage is a private relationship based on an emotional commitment between two adults has no doubt gained ground in recent decades. More important than its impact on agitation for same-sex marriage is the impact of that idea on the prevalence of divorce. Many millions of children have been subjected to the wrenching experience of the divorce of their parents, and studies suggest that young people today have little patience with the notion that the family is expendable if the adults responsible for holding the family together do not find their relationship emotionally satisfying. That is a hard-earned wisdom born of much sorrow, but it is wisdom, and it enhances the persuasiveness of David Blankenhorn’s argument in The Future of Marriage.
The adoption of children by same-sex couples is still a novelty and the numbers are relatively small. It may be that many of these children will want the relationship of their adoptive parents to be legally legitimated as a marriage, and it may be that many more of them will resent having been subjected to a social experiment depriving them of having a mother and a father. Peter Meilaender’s argument is highly speculative. There is nothing speculative about the millions of children of divorce who have a deep personal interest in not further destabilizing what is meant by marriage and family.