Friday, November 6, 2015

US Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Marriage, Part 1: An Overview

Recently, my introductory ethics class was considering same-sex marriage. As part of that unit, I typically have them read key sections of the US Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Marriage, "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan."

The reasoning on display in that pastoral letter plays an important role in shaping much Christian opposition to same-sex marriage. As such, I think that any Christian who supports same-sex marriage, as I do, ought to engage with it seriously. Since I haven't done so explicitly on the blog, I thought I'd devote a series of posts to doing that.

This post is the first in that series. Others will follow as I have the time to develop them, which may not be right away. Here, I will simply offer an overview of what I take to be the key features of the views and arguments laid out in the Pastoral Letter, especially as they relate to same-sex relationships.

The Roman Catholic Definition of Marriage

The main aim of the Pastoral Letter is to articulate a Catholic vision of the sacrament of marriage, and to explore the implications of that vision. According to that vision, marriage is " a lifelong partnership of the whole life, of mutual and exclusive fidelity, established by mutual consent between a man and a woman, and ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation of offspring."

The Bishops argue that marriage is not merely a human institution but a divine one, authored by God for two interconnected purposes: conjugal union and procreation. That is, marriage serves to unite a man and a woman in a distinctive kind of bond characterized by mutual self-giving love, a love which culminates in the generation of new life and becomes the context within which that new life is nurtured into adulthood.

"It is the nature of love to overflow," say the Bishops, "to be life-giving." And so marital love is designed by God to produce new life: a child onto whom the love of the parents overflows.

The Bishops maintain that same-sex marriage violates God's purpose for marriage. In fact, they hold that it "poses a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society, striking at the source from which society and culture come and which they are meant to serve." (By contrast, terrorism only kills people and destroys infrastructure!) To make this case, the Bishops rely on two key premises, what I call the Inseparability Thesis and the Complementarity Thesis.

The Inseperability Thesis

The Inseparability Thesis holds that one cannot separate the two purposes of marriage (loving union and procreation) without doing violence to the nature of human sexuality and the marital union. As the Bishops put it, these two purposes "cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family."

This inseparability cuts in both directions, according to the Bishops. It's not just that the procreative aim is harmed if mutual self-gifting love is absent between the sexual partners (because children are then brought into the world in less-than-ideal conditions, lacking the stability and overflowing love that conjugal love brings). It's also the case, they think, that conjugal love itself  is undermined if the couple's intimacy isn't properly directed towards reproduction. It is the latter claim that is particularly crucial for making the case that same-sex marriage (not to mention contraception) is unacceptable. Insofar as same-sex couples cannot be procreative, their intimacy cannot be directed towards reproduction. And this, the Bishops maintain, entails that the kind of love they can have for each other is diminished and cannot be of the marital sort.

The Complementarity Thesis

The Complementarity Thesis holds that men and women are designed by God to complement one another in a distinctive way, such that when a man and woman form an intimate partnership there is a natural fit, a way in which they complete each other. Male and female are, according to the Bishops, "distinct bodily ways of being human" that have personal and spiritual implications (since the body cannot be separated from the rest of the person). The result is "two distinct yet harmonizing ways of responding to the vocation to love." 

And these two ways of being  human were "made for each other," created by God to suit each other uniquely "as partners and helpmates." The idea is that there is a distinctive kind of union that is possible only between a man and a woman because of how men and women are differentially designed. And according to the Bishops, the conjugal union simply is this distinctive kind of union--and hence is not possible at all for same-sex pairs.

Key Concessions

In the course of developing their case, the US Catholic Bishops make a couple of important claims that I will call "key concessions." I call them concessions because they express strong moral intuitions that Catholics don't want to give up, but at the same time they create prima facie problems for the arguments sketched out above. In a sense, they are concessions to human decency, made because of human decency, even though they create some difficulties for their position. Typically, Catholic thinkers treat these as soluble problems: while they might appear to generate contradictions, this is only an appearance, one that evaporates when the right distinctions are made.

The concessions are these:

1. The Infertility Concession: Infertile heterosexual couples can have marriages that are in no way defective, but are fully valid and complete. The Bishops recognize that some married couples who learn they are infertile "may be tempted to think that their union is not complete or truly blessed." The Bishops reply that this is a false impression. "The marital union of a man and a woman is a distinctive communion of persons," they say in response. "An infertile couple continues to manifest this attribute."

2. The Gay and Lesbian Dignity Concession: The Church stresses that "homosexual persons" have a "human dignity" that needs to be treated with "respect, compassion, and sensitivity." Implicit here (and explicit elsewhere in Roman Catholic writings) is the acknowledgment that a homosexual orientation is not a perverse choice but a discovered condition--that just like a heterosexual orientation (or a bisexual one, for that matter), a homosexual orientation is a feature of a person's lived reality that they cannot ordinarily change. Although Catholics teach that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered," what they mean by this is that it is a kind of disability in the way that blindness and deafness are. In this respect, it is like infertility: an unchosen feature of one's life that one can't wish away but must live with. This is why, in general, the Catholic Church urges gays and lesbians to pursue celibacy and "chaste friendship" rather than attempt a doomed heterosexual marriage (doomed insofar as a homosexual orientation would thwart the unitive end of such a marriage).

The first of these is a concession to the human needs of infertile couples. It is one thing to face the often difficult challenge of infertility, something else to be part of a religion that would dissolve your marriage over it (or forbid you from marrying in the first place if they knew about it in advance).  A Church that did that--that barred you because of some disability from pursuing your human longing for conjugal love and life partnership--would, we might say, be rather monstrous, certainly not a Church that seeks to faithfully live out Jesus' ethic of love.

Likewise for the second concession. It is one thing to discover that you are gay, something else to be part of a religion that vilifies you for something you can't help, casts you out and refuses to offer you a place of dignity.

Hence, I think it is quite clear that the Catholic Church should not back down with respect to either concession. They should insist that infertile marriages are fully valid. They should insist that gays and lesbians have a human dignity that demands respect. Were I feeling hyperbolic, I might say that failure to do either of these things would "pose a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of the Christian love ethic, and to the Catholic Church's claim to represent the love of Christ in the world."

But although the Catholic Church thinks these concessions to decency are wholly compatible with their broader argument about same-sex marriage, I think, on the contrary, that they are not. Together with other considerations, I think these concessions help expose some very fundamental problems with the Roman Catholic conception of human intimacy and sexuality.

More significantly, they highlight that an impulse born of love has only been incompletely carried through. Jesus' call to love has the power to shatters walls, to break down calcified ideas that get in the way of love's fullest expression. But sometimes love hits walls of resistance and only succeeds in making cracks. But the cracks have a trajectory.

Likewise, the concessions above have a trajectory. If we follow them, I think we will see that what Christian love demands is something more than what these concessions allow.

I will begin exploring why I think this in subsequent posts.

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