Sunday, July 15, 2012
Strange Bedfellows: Same Sex Unions, Marriage, and Being Human Together
Today's Age newspaper carries an article by Simon Mann seeking to offer a more circumspect view than most of opposition to same-sex marriage. In some ways it is a companion piece to Barney Zwartz's recent criticism of cheap shots and reductionism in the debate, and calling for greater nuance.
Some of my friends (and some others too) will be surprised to see me mentioned and quoted along with opponents of same-sex marriage, after a conversation with the author a couple of weeks ago. The quotes as Simon checked them with me are fair, and the only potentially misleading element - more a reader's responsibility than the author's - would be assuming that I agreed with views expressed in the article or elsewhere by such as Nicholas Tonti-Filippini or Jim Wallace. If guilt by association were ever accurate or fair, I would be better judged by the companionship of Frank Brennan SJ and English theologian John Milbank.
However being "outed" as a doubter in the question prompts me to say a little more, conscious I am likely not to please those with strong views at either end of the spectrum.
First, I believe that the Christian Churches must re-assess their traditional attitude to same-sex attraction and to forms of committed relationship between people of the same sex. I take the Bible seriously, but am unconvinced that the (few) negative references to sexual activity between persons of the same sex in scripture are particularly relevant to what we now understand as homosexuality, or that they provide a basis for making moral judgements about committed relationships between gay or lesbian people.
To come closer to home, I think Australian Anglicans must scrutinize the conservative position we have so far maintained in hope of preserving a fragile unity on the issue, and begin asking far more seriously what damage is being done to gay and lesbian members inside our faith communities, and what damage to the Church as far as those outside it are concerned, by prioritizing our own real or perceived institutional concerns over theirs.
Like Barney Zwartz I do not assume that those who think differently from me on the subject are all homophobic or fundamentalist or incapable of intelligent exchange on the subject. I do not expect to change all their minds any time soon. I do however ask them to consider how our differences on these issues are a matter for intelligent debate among committed and faithful Christians, and not merely a sort of impassable chasm between faith and apostasy.
What I have just said may deepen the puzzlement about my hesitation over same-sex marriage. In conversation with Simon Mann I did characterize my position as one of hesitation rather than of opposition, and that remains true. That hesitation does not arise from any belief that same-sex relationships are inherently inferior, let alone immoral. I believe that relationships need to be judged on their merits rather than merely by formal or exterior categories; but that does not make the categories insignificant.
The public debate is being waged largely on the territory of the inherent worth or possibility of same-sex relationships. The conservatives generally feel that these are wrong, either because of revealed religious truth, or from natural law reasoning. Progressives tend to assume that if these are allowable or valuable, then marriage immediately follows as a logical way of defining them.
The overlooked possibility is that same-sex unions are valued and allowed but defined differently from marriage, at least in certain respects.
Marriage has historically not been negatively defined relative to same-sex relationships, but positively relative to sexual differentiation. That is, the reason marriage has been seen as a binding agreement between male and female persons has to do with the character of humanity itself as male and female. This is certainly the view in Christian and Jewish understandings, might also be true of other religious traditions, and might be inferred by others who view human sexual differentiation as inherently significant.
Arguments against same-sex marriage - and for that matter against protections for same-sex unions that extend to adoption and related aspects of family formation - tend to move quickly from this acknowledgement to the inherently procreative aspect of sexual differentiation, and of marriage itself. In that case it tends to be the fact of procreation more than that of differentiation itself that is emphasized. Heterosexual marriage is valuable or important as a unique institution supposedly because men and women have babies, usually without trying too hard. I am less convinced about such arguments, because they both dismiss the value of non-procreative marriages and ignore other elements of Christian (and other) tradition concerning the good of marriage.
One well-known understanding is that of Augustine of Hippo, who added the inherent value of companionship and commitment to the expected good of fecundity. These goods are capable of being realized in same-sex unions of course. In fact the progressive argument about same-sex marriage, which has had depressingly little really theological content even when undertaken among faith communities, tends to work from the premise that only these are relevant to the issue. It runs the risk of defining all marriage, not just same-sex marriage, as what Milbank calls a "lifelong sexual contract".
Just as important, I believe, is the fact that marriage signifies something about the character of humanity and human sociability, namely our existence as male and female. This has traditionally included something we mostly now rightly criticize, namely inequality; but it has also meant far more, including value attributed to the characteristics of male and female and of their complementarity. Even amid the continued struggle for full participation by women in leadership roles in the industrialized world, and for full access by women to basic requirements for life in many others, there persists widespread acknowledgement that men and women differ, and that this matters. Marriage is in part an expression of this.
Every marriage says something about all of us, whether or not we are married - just as every birth, and every family, says something about all of us, whether or not we have children or live in family units. This does imply that something about marriage may only be available to men and women, but there are things about parenthood only available to mothers and fathers too, and we do not - or ought not - to disrespect those whose calling is different.
Those of us on the more catholic side of Christianity can also receive with joy the fact that one of us vows celibacy and then relates to the rest of the community as monk or nun. Historically this has been seen even as a higher calling than marriage, but that has not often led to the denigration of the other and more common possibility. The specific vocation and its fulfillment says something to and for others, rather than being a merely private or personal matter. Assimilating all sorts of relationship to an ill-defined norm called "marriage" does not necessarily serve the participants well. More attention could still be paid to the historic precedent identified by John Boswell's work on how the Church did once sanction permanent friendships between members of the same sex, for instance.
My preference would then be to acknowledge marriage between men and women as a specific form of social institution, a calling among others, and also to provide appropriate protections for civil unions. The Churches and others for whom this might have been an appropriate settlement may however have lost the opportunity to argue such a case. Anglicans could have been making it over the last decade or so, promoting justice for gay and lesbian people and considering how to bless their unions, when instead we have sat on our hands because of the divisions in our own Communion, and have little to show for that in any case.
If, as seems likely, civil law ultimately allows persons of the same sex to marry in Australia, Christians should not decry the possibility that loving committed relationships are thus honoured or defended. Some of my argument has been premised on specifically Christian understandings of human identity, and there will be readers as much or more unconvinced by these as by how I have worked them out. But this only underscores that a change in the law will not end the need for Christians themselves, and others too, to think further about what marriage actually is, and who men and women really are.