A constitutional right for men to marry men and women to marry women is a done deal. That’s how I read the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear cases in which lower courts ruled that marriage laws in various states that recognize unions only of a man and a woman are unconstitutional. Lower courts will continue to draw this conclusion. If portions of the country resist, the Supreme Court will very likely intervene and find a right to same-sex marriage amid the penumbras and emanations of due process or equal protection.
We are thus fast approaching a fundamental distinction between government marriage and church marriage. Government marriage is . . . well, it’s hard to tell. The courts have studiously ignored traditional arguments about the meaning of marriage. That’s not surprising, because all thick descriptions of marriage end up focusing on the male–female difference, which isn’t very useful if your goal as a judge is to find a constitutional right of same-sex marriage.
Given this new legal reality, what are we to think and do? First, we need to recognize how miserably we have failed. We sought to convince our fellow citizens of some simple truths. That marriage is a universal institution found in all cultures. That it properly organizes, regulates, and sanctifies the sexual union of male and female. That to say otherwise is unprecedented, strange, and unwise as a social policy. We tried to speak these truths in many different ways but without success.
Clarity about our failure need not entail giving up on the arguments we’ve made. Sometimes things need to be said because they’re true. But facing our failure should lead us to a keener sense of what we’re up against. It’s very hard these days to speak about men as men and women as women. Last month I wrote about the perverse way in which political correctness prevents us from talking about the problems of date rape and sexual assault in a manner that acknowledges the unique sexual vulnerability of women. We have the same problem when it comes to marriage. Our culture dreams of equality so complete that the male–female difference becomes irrelevant. Why do we need an institution to regulate the union of men and women if there aren’t any real differences between men and women?
Our current culture of the intimate life adds to our confusion. Widespread cohabitation makes marriage seem increasingly irrelevant. Our date-then-fornicate social mores run counter to the traditional claim that we should discipline our sexual instincts in accord with the limitations imposed by the institution of marriage. The fact that this culture shapes a great deal of our lives and those of our children, friends, and relatives makes our situation all the more troubling. How can we speak clearly about marriage if we participate in trends that obscure its proper meaning?
And then there’s the general fear we all feel about being “judgmental.” We take for granted the minute regulation of our economic relations. We accept extensive educational expectations and adopt rigorous regimes of exercise and dieting. But when it comes to sex and sexual “identity,” our culture finds regulation suspect, even odious. This involves more than solicitude for our perennial hedonistic impulses. Anxious efforts to secure “transgendered” rights don’t focus on sexual relations at all. Those rights secure the freedom for a male to think of himself as—and to be treated by others as—a female, and vice versa. Most people I know roll their eyes when talk turns to the rights of the “transgendered community.” But they also shrink from saying anything censorious. To give full voice to traditional moral judgments about sex, sexual identity, and relationships is insensitive, puritanical, or just plain bad manners.
In this respect, Pope Francis is both very right and very wrong. We have not found a way to talk about sex and marriage, at least not one we’re confident will humanize, which is what clarity about moral truth should do. But he’s dangerously wrong to suggest that the way forward is to “obsess” less. The opposite is the case, for as both Roger Scruton (“Is Sex Necessary?”) and James Kalb (“Sex and the Religion of Me”) observe in this issue, our age is already obsessed with sex. If we don’t speak—if our church leaders don’t speak—we’ll be absorbed into our culture’s way of thinking, and our children will be catechized by progressive creeds of sexual liberation.
In the new regime of redefined marriage, we need to think long and hard about what we need to do—or refuse to do. For example, I can’t see how a priest or pastor can in good conscience sign a marriage license for “spouse A” and “spouse B.” Perhaps he should strike those absurdities and write “husband” and “wife.” Failing that, he should simply refuse the government’s delegation of legal power, referring the couple to the courthouse after the wedding for the state to confect in its bureaucratic way the amorphous and ill-defined civil union that our regime continues to call “marriage.”
More generally, I think we need to make a simple change in the way we talk about marriage. I propose dropping the term civil marriage and adopting the term government marriage. In the past, the state recognized marriage, giving it legal forms to reinforce its historic norms (or, in more recent decades, to relax them). Now the courts have redefined rather than recognized marriage, making it an institution entirely under the state’s control. That’s why it’s now government marriage rather than civil marriage. On this point I believe in the separation of church and state. The Church may participate in civil marriage. It should not participate in government marriage.
A Time to Rend
Getting out of the government-marriage business is exactly what Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz now urge. They’ve formulated a pastoral pledge. It requires ordained ministers to renounce their long-established role as agents of the state with the legal power to sign marriage certificates. I find their reasoning convincing. Easy divorce, prenuptial agreements, a general tolerance of cohabitation, the contraceptive mentality—this degrades and obscures the meaning of marriage. But redefining marriage so that male–female complementarity is irrelevant? That’s a fundamental contradiction of the most fundamental meaning of marriage.
Here’s the pledge:
In many jurisdictions, including many of the United States, civil authorities have adopted a definition of marriage that explicitly rejects the age-old requirement of male-female pairing. In a few short years or even months, it is very likely that this new definition will become the law of the land, and in all jurisdictions the rights, privileges, and duties of marriage will be granted to men in partnership with men, and women with women. As law-abiding citizens, we join in according the appropriate legal recognition to these partnerships where and when they are accorded the legal status of marriage.
As Christian ministers, however, we must bear clear witness. This is a perilous time. Divorce and co-habitation have weakened marriage. We have been too complacent in our responses to these trends. Now marriage is being fundamentally redefined, and we are being tested yet again. If we fail to take clear action, we risk falsifying God’s Word.
The new definition of marriage no longer coincides with the Christian understanding of marriage between a man and woman. Our biblical faith is committed to upholding, celebrating, and furthering this understanding, which is stated many times within the Scriptures and has been repeatedly restated in our wedding ceremonies, church laws, and doctrinal standards for centuries. To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage.
Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.
Please join us in this pledge to separate civil marriage from Christian marriage by adding your name.
For a long time Christianity has sewn its teachings into the fabric of Western culture. That was a good thing. A Christian culture is not the same as a Christian community. No society is a church, no matter how thoroughly Christian its ethos. But as David Bentley Hart has written so eloquently, such a society will participate, however imperfectly, in the heavenly civilization of love. But the season of sewing is ending, and we need to separate that which is Christian from cultural forms taken over and reshaped for post-Christian purposes. Now is a time for rending, not for the sake of disengaging from culture or retreating from the public square, but so that our salt does not lose its savor.
We have posted the pledge on firstthings.com. Signatures welcome.
More Religion, Please
History doesn’t proceed along straight lines. It ebbs and flows. That’s true for the role of religion in public life. Right now we seem to be in a bad spell. The boundaries of religious liberty are shrinking or being challenged on many fronts. When it comes to gay marriage, judges often label legal arguments against it as “religious”—and then summarily dismiss them because they are religious. But this may not last much longer—if, that is, judges take their cues from shifting attitudes. A recent Pew poll suggests that John Q. Public wants more religion in American public life, not less.
The poll was conducted in early September. Forty-nine percent said they think churches should have a say in public debates about political and social questions. This is up from 40 percent in a 2012 poll. Those who agreed that churches “should keep out” of politics went down from over 50 percent to 48 percent. This general shift is matched by an uptick in support for the idea that religious leaders should endorse political candidates, something that runs afoul of current tax law that prohibits tax-exempt religious and educational organizations from direct involvement in the political process. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to show support for this significant change, but even Democratic support is up over the last few years.
These results aren’t earth-shattering, but they reverse a decade-long trend. Midway through the Bush presidency, Americans became more wary of the role of religion in public life. In advance of the 2008 election, support for church involvement in politics started to decline. Perhaps the rhetoric and tactics of the Christian right had grown stale, as happens with all social and political movements. Or perhaps the close association of the Bush presidency with religious conservatism meant that as his popularity declined so did that of his allies.
Regular Pew polling indicates that this distaste for religiously motivated political action peaked in 2012. Now the taste seems to be returning. Perhaps this stems, paradoxically, from the success of secular progressives. With the Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act last year and same-sex marriage now imposed by court after court, it’s hard to sustain the illusion, much cherished by the secular left as a scare tactic, that our country is on the brink of a theocratic takeover. The contrary is more plausible. Even the most casual observer of political life in America sees that churches and religious institutions are being harried and harassed. There’s no Christian demagogue calling for the courts to shut down the liberal church (which is to say, the secular university). But progressive activists have succeeded in shutting down Catholic adoption agencies and other organizations that don’t conform to today’s dogmas about sexual orientation.
That’s because Obama’s election empowered progressives. Hard economic realities have largely stymied their efforts in that sphere. Recent developments in the Middle East and Ukraine have contradicted their geopolitical fantasies about soft power. But in culture they’ve run free. Gay marriage is their signature achievement. Polling suggests that many are OK with that. But perhaps they also sense a dangerous trend, one leading toward the wholesale deconstruction of marriage. The same goes for legalization of marijuana, another development in our political culture that reflects the ascendancy of libertarian sentiments among the general public. There’s an increasingly powerful consensus among both liberals and conservatives that, within reasonable limits, people should be able to do as they please. But these polling results suggest that many are having second thoughts and want countervailing forces at work in society as we experiment with moral deregulation. Thus they now tilt toward injecting religion back into public life.
I’m speculating, of course. The Pew poll doesn’t ask people why they want more religion in public life. But it makes sense given social realities. Religion embodies the highest and most powerful form of authority: “Thus saith the Lord!” This claim to ultimate authority is what makes faith both an anchor of any social order (see Romans 13:1) and its most powerful critic (see John 18:36). The claim of the sacred on our loyalty stabilizes life—and shakes it up.
We need both today. When it comes to established institutions, progressivism in America adopts a guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude that undermines the sacred authority of secular institutions. This includes marriage, of course, but also the rule of law and other constraints that might limit the quest for “justice.” It was Woodrow Wilson the progressive professor who argued for a “living Constitution” rather than a supposedly stultifying devotion to the founding document. He wished to unshackle the ?“spirit” of democracy from the legalistic “letter” of the law. It’s an attitude widely characteristic of progressive engagement with culture and politics. Nothing is sacred. Everything—the family, the classroom, the workplace, the Constitution—must be reshaped to serve the future.
And yet, as progressivism denies authority, it also exercises an often ruthless and dictatorial control. It claims to be nonjudgmental and committed to freedom but subsists on condemnation, tarring reasoned dissent with epithets of ignorance and bigotry. (Consult Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinions for illustrations of this paradoxical combination.) The result is a new order oriented around technocratic, therapeutic, and meritocratic control. In the place of right and wrong—concepts accessible to all citizens—we get “healthy,” “productive,” “inclusive,” and other catchwords, the meanings of which are controlled by experts and subject to endless redefinition by the chattering class.
Our democratic political system is flooded with money. Citizens are stupefied by 24/7 spin. But our political culture remains functional in spite of itself. For the most part, we get the kind of government we want, which is why I don’t buy the argument that progressive elites are sandbagging the common man and imposing a political and social order he abhors. Yes, those who occupy the commanding heights of culture have tremendous influence, but influence is not control. Over the past decade or so, the majority of Americans affirmed or at least acquiesced to the progressive agenda, at least in cultural and moral matters.
I wonder if these results from the recent Pew poll of attitudes toward religion in public life don’t foretell a real change, however partial, however qualified by any number of other factors. (The libertarian trend shows no sign of abating.) If so, I’d be grateful. For the most part, progressives have delivered moral disorder, not to themselves, of course, but to those least capable of thriving in an environment where everybody gets to make up his own mind about the meaning of life. “Question authority!” works for progressives because they’ve developed their own sacred causes that largely go unquestioned. We’re all free to decide for ourselves what we believe—as long, of course, as it involves sustainability, locally sourced food, and just the right etiquette when talking about sexual identity. Which means as long as we adopt progressive, upper-middle-class attitudes that function well only if you’re actually upper-middle-class.
Moreover, it’s becoming quite clear that secular progressives, trained in the ruthless methods of political correctness, are quite comfortable using government power to crush dissent. Those who resist progress are bad people, and they must be prevented from influencing the future! In this atmosphere, it’s not surprising that religion and the spokesmen for religious authority are starting to look more attractive.
The Future of Catholicism
How do we promote the common good in a time of polarization? That was the question John Carr posed to me and other magazine editors at an evening discussion on October 16 at Georgetown University, hosted by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. My answer: It’s not going to be easy. Some people think that the polarization in the Church (and culture more broadly) can be explained by sound bites, fragmented media that tend to attract the like-minded, and cynical manipulation by activists. That’s not my view. I think we have deep disagreements for substantive reasons. In the Catholic Church, we’re divided about how to bring others to Christ, and we’re divided about how to serve the poor. I said as much at the October 16 event.
As a Church we’re united in our commitment to evangelization. Yes, some have drunk the diversity Kool-Aid and think evangelization a form of cultural imperialism, but for the most part Catholics are triumphalists. They think Christ and his Church are at the center of reality and it’s our job to call others to join us.
The difference emerges in the approach to evangelization we think most effective. Liberal Catholics tend to reduce the impediments to entry into the Church. They want to soften aspects of Church teaching that grate on contemporary sensibilities. Sex is the obvious example in our time, but there are other issues as well. The typical American today finds the idea of obedience to authority troubling. Liberal Catholics respond by downplaying the Church’s authority, putting an accent on freedom of conscience and emphasizing that there’s room for questioning and doubt.
Karl Rahner was the grand master of this approach. His theological textbook, Foundations of Christian Faith, attempts to show that what well-educated, morally serious modern people believe pretty much accords with what Christianity teaches. Few Jesuits I know are Rahnerians of the strict observance, but most take his general approach. It’s properly called “liberal,” not because it adopts American-style political liberalism (though it often does, because that’s the dominant culture of higher education, which is the context in which most Jesuits exercise their ministry) but because it’s an approach to theology dedicated to freeing us from constraints and limitations that impede our ability to draw closer to Christ.
This liberalism—again, liberal in a religious and not a political sense—isn’t a cynical attempt to hollow out and destroy the Church, as many of us are tempted to think. (I’ve certainly felt this temptation.) It’s a sincere strategy of evangelization, a genuine belief that if we make the Church more flexible and “modern,” more people will join. The evidence shows, however, that it doesn’t work. Over the past few decades a cohort of Catholics have emerged who counsel the opposite approach. I count myself among them. We believe evangelization is best served by boldness and clarity about the difference faith makes. Hard, demanding truths clearly stated win hearts and minds. The Church is most relevant when she stiffens her spine and refuses to listen to all the voices that tell her she must change to remain relevant.
Years ago, the Episcopal chaplain at Yale asked me what I thought he should do to attract students to his ministry. I said, “Find as many candles as you can, adopt Gregorian chant, and use the old liturgy with its archaic thee and thou.” He was taken aback, but he shouldn’t have been. We don’t go to church for more of the same. We go to find God, who, although undoubtedly is in all things, dwells in light inaccessible. In our postmodern culture of irony and endless critique, the Church stirs our imaginations and wins our loyalty when making demands upon our souls, asking us to press upward, often beyond what we imagine we can reach. It’s the lure of heroic virtue, the radicalism of the beatitudes, the consuming demand of Christ’s call to follow him that appeals, however short we fall.
We’re also divided on what it means to serve the poor in an affluent society. Liberal Catholicism fixes on the economic well-being of the most vulnerable. A First Things Catholic like me focuses on their moral welfare. The liberal Catholic tends to think that the greatest crimes of our era are to be found in underfunded welfare programs and failures to raise the minimum wage. I point to the callous way in which upper-middle-class deconstructions of traditional morality have made marriage into a luxury good. To serve the poor, we must rebuild social capital.
Moreover, I fear that, while necessary, many welfare programs have contributed to the decline in social capital. These programs were developed to blunt the negative consequences of problems like illegitimacy and lack of economic opportunity. In so doing, however, they often create perverse incentives. It’s a law of human behavior that we tend to get more of what we subsidize. For decades our welfare programs have subsidized choices and behaviors that have hurt poor communities over the long haul. As a result, I don’t just disagree with liberal Catholics about the problem of poverty in twenty-first-century America; I think they contribute to the problem by supporting programs that are ill designed and have many negative consequences.
The feeling is mutual, I’m afraid. Liberal Catholics were apoplectic about welfare reform in the 1990s and denounced those of us who supported it as enemies of the poor and unfaithful to basic Catholic social teaching. Congressman Paul Ryan suffers the same denunciations with every effort to make our entitlements sustainable over the long haul. We’ve all felt the lash of denunciation when we’ve suggested that the Democratic party’s economic policies were not delivered by God on Mount Sinai. These experiences indicate that, when it comes to how we serve the poor, liberal Catholics are very committed to polarization.
I’m grateful to John Carr for inviting me to participate in the Georgetown event. It reinforced my view that the Catholic Church has a unique role to play in American society. Our disagreements in the Church are in some ways akin to the divisions in society at large. But our friendship in Christ makes (or should make) it easier to see that these deep differences are about how to achieve common goals, not about what those goals are. The bonds of civic friendship are not transcendent, but they too should remind us that our present polarization is penultimate, not ultimate. As we debate laws and policies and even first principles, we should be confident that we are united in our desire to serve the common good.
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