Tuesday 27 August 2013

Should we abandon the struggle on gay marriage?

                                                         Do we surrender?

There's a bit of a cultural meme where a former bigoted sky fairy worshipping homophobe sees the light and becomes in favour of gay marriage and stuff. The evangelicals in the UK had Steve Chalke a while back and now American Catholics have Jody Bottum, former editor of the excellent 'theocon' journal, First Things.

It's of course a bit dismissive to describe changing one's mind as a 'meme'. People think and change their views and that's exactly how it should be. But reading Bottum's article gives the impression less of an intellectual rethinking, and more of a sort of world weary bowing to the inevitable.

The Catholic US response to this (H/T Catholic Herald) has rightly pointed out the meandering and inconclusive nature of the arguments. Indeed, it's hard to see it really as an argument: it's much more of a experiential report on the world wearying nature of being against same sex 'marriage' and of the promised land of relief once it is accepted. It is, after all, quite a demanding job to be a full time homophobe on this issue. Almost no one will thank you for it. If you voice your opinion and you're a politician or public figure, Stephen Fry will start tweeting at you. Friends (such as Jody Bottum's gay friend) will start hating you. You constantly -as a Catholic- have to tread the lines between hating the sin and loving the sinner, and distinguishing between the province of law and the province of morality. It really is much easier to change your mind and give up.

Insofar as there is an argument in Bottum's article, I think it's here:

And so, I argue, a concern about the government’s recognizing of same-sex marriage ought to come low on the list of priorities as the church pursues the evangelizing of the culture. For that matter, after the long hard work of restoring cultural sensitivity to the metaphysical meanings reflected in all of reality, Catholics will have enough experience to decide what measure of the deep spirituality of nuptials, almost absent in present culture, can reside in same-sex unions.

Two aspects to that. First, the practical one. Given limited resources, the Church ought to be turning its fire against other, more important things. Second, a principled one. The development of a disenchanted view of sex in modern culture-a view of sex as simply the rubbing of surfaces rather than a sphere enchanted with theological and moral meanings- means that the arguments against same sex 'marriage' have no purchase. We need to go back, argue for the re-enchantment of sex, and then see where that leaves us with the gained 'experience of the deep spirituality of nuptials':

If marriage is nothing more than a licensed sexual playground, without any sense of sin attached to oral sex and anal sex and almost any other act, then under what intellectually coherent scheme can one refuse to others the opportunity for the same behavior?

And, of course, not only did marital relations become a value-free zone in the sexual revolution, but non-marital relations did as well. The seal of virginity, the procreative purpose, the mystical analogy of marriage to Christ’s espousal of his church, the divinely witnessed vow, the sexual body as a temple, the moral significance of chastity: all that old metaphysical stuff got swept away. And regardless of whether the metaphysics was right or wrong, without it there is simply no reasoning that could possibly outweigh the valid claims of fairness and equality. Same-sex marriage advocates don’t just have better public relations than their opponents. They have better logic, given the premises available to the culture.

Let's take the principle point first. Bottum seems to be suggesting that, once we (as Catholics) have thought through the meanings of sex, then we'll be able to come to a conclusion about same sex 'marriage'. Now I think that's fine insofar as it suggests the Catholic idea of the development of doctrine: that we deepen our theological understanding over time and, in this case, through wrestling with ideas in the public space. (Certainly, my own understanding of marriage has deepened through arguing about same sex 'marriage'.) But it's not fine insofar as it suggests that the general shape of our conclusions will change. The Church simply doesn't have the theological possibility of change on the issue of homosexual practice and the nature of marriage: homosexual acts are always going to be wrong; marriage is always going to be about the procreative and educative function of the relationship. More may be said on these areas. But that basic minimal foundation simply cannot change: it's far too deeply enmeshed in the 2000 years of theological reflection in these areas.

Given that the truth about marriage can't change, that leaves the practical point: we have better battles to fight. Now, from a US point of view, that simply strikes me as defeatist:in some of the individual states, same sex 'marriage' is a long way off. In other countries (think Russia), same sex 'marriage' just isn't going to happen in the foreseeable future. But let's turn to an example nearer home. Very shortly, when the Scottish Parliament starts its new session in September, a Bill will be introduced to create same sex 'marriage'. That Bill will, given the widespread crossparty support in Holyrood, pass. What should Catholics do about that?

Bottum's point, broadly, seems to be that the sort of argument we raise against the Bill simply can't be appreciated in a culture which has the present idea of sex that it has: we need to work on that understanding of sex. I don't disagree with that. I think that, given the current view that sex is just pleasant rubbing and marriage is about celebrating emotional attachments, it's not surprising that we have lost the argument in fact if not in principle. OK. So what do we do about getting the message out there about the nature of sex? Well, lots of things, but one thing is to argue as clearly and publicly as we can against the Bill.

Leo Strauss (in Natural Right and History) talks about this in connection with Burke:

Burke comes close to suggesting that to oppose a thoroughly evil current in human affairs is perverse if that current is sufficiently powerful; he is oblivious of the nobility of last-ditch resistance. He does not consider that, in a way in which no man can foresee, resistance in a forlorn position to the enemies of mankind, "going down with all guns blazing and flag flying," may contribute greatly toward keeping awake the recollection of the immense loss sustained by mankind, may inspire and strengthen the desire and hope for its recovery, and may become a beacon for those who humbly carry on the works of humanity in a seemingly endless valley of darkness and destruction. He does not consider this because he is too certain that man can know whether a cause lost now is lost forever or that man can understand sufficiently the meaning of a providential dispensation as distinguished from the moral law. It is only a short step from this thought of Burke to the supersession of the distinction between good and bad by the distinction between the progressive and retrograde, or between what is and what is not in harmony with the historical process. We are here certainly at the pole opposite to Cato, who dared to espouse a lost cause.

Bottum notes that a number of American conservatives have abandoned the Republicans as a result of the party's response to same sex 'marriage'. And that is precisely Strauss' point. A conservative, a Burkean conservative, is ultimately resting on what is and the desire to preserve it. A Catholic (or a Straussian) is resting instead on what is a matter of natural law: what ought to be. We cannot assume that what is happening is good: what is good is discernible not entirely through history, but only through the moral law.

Opposition to same sex 'marriage' provides an opportunity to point out the errors of so much that passes for thought in the modern world: a misunderstanding of sex; a misunderstanding of morality; a misunderstanding of the nature of law; a misunderstanding of progress. We won't win the vote in Parliament. But we may, eventually, win the cultural argument. In any case, clear and reasoned opposition to the Bill will make clear that there is a difference between winning an argument in terms of political success, and winning an argument at the level of principle. Surrender, at least in the sense of keeping stum on this issue, simply isn't an option.

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