Last Thursday the Philadelphia Inquirer published an op-ed on gay marriage. On the whole, it was blandly predictable, full of the usual tedious pieties and empty of cogent argumentation. Its interest lies not so much in the content as in the identity of the author, Paul F. Morrisey, a Catholic priest, and the context. Philadelphia is home to Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the most solid and admirable Roman Catholic leaders on the issue of marriage and also the man set to host the World Meeting of Families later this year. On the same day, the newspaper published an article accusing the Archdiocese of complicity in the firing of a married lesbian teacher from a parochial school. Apparently, the Inquirer and mayoral candidate Jim Kenney find it morally problematic that some Roman Catholics believe that those who are happy to take pay checks from Roman Catholic organizations and to use the Roman Catholic name to promote their institutions should actually uphold by precept and example the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The knives are obviously out in Philly for the Archbishop.
Pedestrian as it is, Morrisey’s article is worth reading for the insight it gives into the mindset of liberal Catholicism: It is really no different from the mindset of the secular world. Central to Morrisey’s case is the fact that many of us now know gay people and like them. “Liking” is the key concept here. If “liking” someone is the basis for affirming a sexual orientation, then ethics is really reduced to matters of personal preference. That is a dangerous position to hold. By the same aesthetic token, one could then argue that “disliking” someone offers a sufficient argument for outlawing some aspect of their behavior—an approach to ethical questions generally known as “bigotry.” It is also a very unstable position today because it effectively cedes moral authority to the whims of the entertainment industry and popular media.
Morrissey is apparently aware of this but in an unfortunately uncritical manner. He rightly notes the the impact of the media, especially television, in shaping opinion on the issue of sexual ethics, and yet he reveals more than he realizes when he declares:
Over the past 10 years, almost everyone who lives and breathes and watches television knows someone—especially a relative—who is gay. Think of Ellen! That experience changes everything.
It is interesting that he here instinctively uses the language of “know” in a way that elides real relationships with the pseudo relationships created by the celebrity industry. I confess that I find Ellen DeGeneres to be a very clever and entertaining comedian, one of the most talented people on television. But I would hesitate to say that I know her in any real way. At most, I know the carefully constructed and marketed media persona, not the real person. Morrisey thus provides a great example of exactly what the media has done to public discourse: It has blurred the lines between reality and fiction in the service of remaking social and sexual ethics, and it has helped to trivialize the language of relationship in a profoundly significant manner.
I wonder, will Morrisey come to consider Karol Wotjyla's philosophy and the Catechism of the Church that pays his salary to be fundamentally wrongheaded on human nature after watching an episode or two of All That Jazz? The simplistic naiveté of the approach to sexual ethics and identity in this op-ed indicates that he might well do so. The confected televisual narratives and the faux intimacy of our celebrity age really provide no safe basis for ethical decisions. For a priest, one tasked with offering moral guidance, not to realize this is quite astounding.
More interesting, however, than Morrisey's predictable substitution of sentimental rhetoric for logic and emotive appeals for argument is what this article indicates about the internal problems facing the Catholic Church. Now, as a Presbyterian, I have no personal stake in the doctrinal position or discipline of the Roman Church, beyond the obvious point that, if she were to change on same-sex unions, it would make the fight for religious liberty much more difficult for all of us. But the existence of views such as Morrisey's within the priesthood raises the practical question of what the Church will do with such clergy. It seems to me that the official teaching of any church is in practice defined by the range of views she permits to be publicly taught by those she appoints to hold office. Thus, the Catechism may say one thing but, if the parish priest says something else, then that is what the people hear the Church saying. And that is then, for all practical purposes, what the Church actually teaches.
Coincidentally, I happened to be rereading Cardinal Newman’s Apologia last week for a forthcoming article. Now, his concept of doctrinal development is complicated, as Thomas Guarino’s excellent exposition in his book on Vincent of Lerins makes clear. Yet no plausible reading of Newman can make him a friend to relativism and historicism, whatever certain thinkers on the Catholic Left may claim. Underlying all of Newman’s life and work is his conviction that Christianity is a dogmatic religion and that the antithesis of Christianity is “the anti-dogmatic spirit.” Well, that anti-dogmatic spirit seems to be alive and well in the Roman Catholic priesthood. It will benefit all friends of orthodox Christianity and religious freedom if that problem is dealt with by the Church sooner rather than later.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.