Monday, July 7, 2014

Another Reprise: Margaret Farley's Challenge to Make Love of Gay Persons Just in Christian Churches, and the Vatican Synod on the Family

Here's a reprise of another sort today: I published the excerpt below (from Margaret Farley's book Just Love) on November 2, 2012. Here's why I'm republishing it now:

Pope Francis has said that the Catholic church needs a deep theology of women. But that deep theology of women (for that matter, even a shallow one) is absolutely not in evidence in the instrumentum laboris that the Vatican has prepared (and here) as a working document for the October synod on the family. Though, from its opening passage about the Genesis creation narratives, the document hits hard on the "man and woman" definition of "traditional" marriage (the phrase "man and woman" appears 13 times in the document, as contrasted with the 8 times we read the word "joy"), the document is utterly devoid of any insights from the "woman" half of its idealized notion of family life as a configuration of male-female couples and their offspring. 

Effectively, as Questions from a Ewe has recently noted, women have absolutely no voice at all in the Vatican document on the family, though they represent half of humanity and half of the idealized definition of family expounded repeatedly in Vatican teaching. They're there as mute presences who are being defined by an all-male clerical elite, rather than as active voices assisting in their own self-defintion. They're there in the document on the family as voiceless presences standing on the pedestals to which the men of the Vatican have consigned them, where they can be iconized, adored, and kept from making trouble within the church's deliberations in the way in which pesky wives make trouble when they get down from their pedestals and make their voices heard in real family life.

My proposal: if Pope Francis and the other (all male) pastoral leaders at the top of the Catholic church really dared to take the theological insights of trained Catholic theologians who happen to be women seriously, they'd perhaps find that those insights completely explode the smug, idealized assurances about family life of documents like the instrumentum laboris. Take, for instance, Margaret Farley's insights about the glaring discrepancy between how the church views straight and gay people when it applies its procreative norm to human sexuality. I wonder how the insights she articulates in the following paragraph might affect the thinking about family at the synod on the family, if they could be heard by the (all-male) pastors of the church.

In her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (NY: Continuum, 2006), Margaret Farley writes:

All of these changes have made a significant difference for many Christians’ evaluations of same-sex relationships. Still, however, the motifs of a procreative norm and gender complementarity continue to appear in, for example, evangelical Protestant views of marriage and family, and in official Roman Catholic negative assessments of homosexual activity. In the latter, the procreative norm is relativized for heterosexual relationships (following the acceptance of some forms of contraception such as "natural family planning"), but it is absolutized once again when homosexual relationships are at issue. For many Catholics and Protestants, the view of sexuality as an indomitable and chaotic drive needing above all to be tamed is gone for heterosexual sex, but it appears alive and well in judgments made about gay and lesbian sex. Construals of male-female gender hierarchy and complementarity are moderated for general social roles, but the importance of gender complementarity undergirds the final barrier against an acceptance of same-sex relationships (279).

You see her point, don't you? She's pointing out that, for all intents and purposes, the leaders of the Catholic church tacitly accept that marriage is not wholly about procreation for heterosexually married couples.

But when the question is the lives of gay people and gay couples, suddenly the procreative ethic reasserts itself with utmost rigidity, and with ludicrous, counterintuitive claims that marriage is, after all, all about procreation, and society would be harmed if we allowed non-procreative couples to marry. The further bogus claim that marriage is about biological complementarity — about tab A fitting into slot B — is also increasingly thrown into the mix as another ironclad warrant against letting same-sex couples marry, as people become increasingly aware that the procreative argument against same-sex marriage is, on the face of it, grossly unfair when societies freely permit non-procreative heterosexual couples to marry.

As Farley is suggesting, there's an element of radical unfairness in the different way in which the procreative norm is applied by the magisterium to the lives of heterosexual Catholics and the lives of homosexual Catholics. At the most fundamental level possible, what Catholic magisterial teaching about gender and family is doing is actually blessing unreflective cultural norms about these issues, while it claims to be strongly countercultural. Those cultural norms incorporate anti-gay bias into their understanding of gender and the different roles to be played by males and females.

Vatican teaching about human sexuality tacitly lifts to the level of core church doctrine cultural norms that view men and women as essentially different from each other in their very natures, because of their different biological make-up. Catholic magisterial teaching accepts and furthers cultural presuppositions that men are made for one thing and women for another — just as it accepts and furthers the hidden presuppositions inside those taken-for-granted cultural presuppositions that men are made to rule and women to obey.

The homophobia freely incorporated into official Catholic teaching about gender is homophobia that flows from these longstanding, unreflective cultural presuppositions about the place of men and women in the scheme of things. It's homophobia that gives heterosexual males pride of place in God's plan for the world. Far from being countercultural, Catholic magisterial teaching on these matters is stolidly rooted in the status quo, in culture itself. It is a prop for what people already believe (and want to believe) about men, women, and gay folks, and what they do not want to question, since the questions that flow from any critical analysis of the easy scheme of dominant male, submissive female dualism that runs through all the major institutions of our culture make many of us extremely uncomfortable.

It is better not to question, when comfort is our goal. It is better not to read the gospels even as we claim that our church teachings are firmly rooted in the gospels, because the gospels (and Jesus himself) are far more about raising questions than providing hard and fast assurances. Unlike magisterial teaching, the gospel teaching about the family puts us radically at odds with the status quo, since it challenges us to think that the biological understanding of family has to be expanded until we view everyone as a family member.

Like the gospels, like Jesus, women who are trained theologians, women like Margaret Farley, raise important questions, and in doing so, make a critically important contribution to Catholic theological discourse — though those questions and the powerful theology such women do are still kept firmly outside the high walls of the Vatican. 

More's the pity, if credibility and coherence in what we have to say about these issues matter to us.

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