Thursday, August 7, 2008

Gay Marriage: A Theological Argument from Tradition

After the big build-up that I posted earlier today, I find myself strangely hesitant to get to the heart of the matter, to the reflections on gay marriage I promised earlier. It’s all rather simple, in my own mind—so simple that I suppose I wonder why others don’t see it. It’s so simple that I am afraid that my argument may appear simplistic, particularly when it may turn out to be shorter than its prologue.

Among the various theological objections to gay marriage that I’ve been encountering in the NCR dialogues I mentioned previously, the one that, in my view, carries the most weight is the objection that marriage is really all about procreation. This argument assumes that marriage has developed as a social (and church-sanctioned) institution to safeguard families, to assure that the rights and property of husband, wife, and children are handled within clear legal strictures that prevent the social disarray that occurs when such a central social institution is not clearly enshrined in custom and law.

There’s validity to this argument, but it works only if the sole or major purpose of marriage as an institution is procreation. And it seems to me that both history and current practice demonstrate to us that this is simply not the case.

It is not the case because we have long married non-procreative heterosexual couples, and we continue to do so without question. People who do not intend to or cannot have children are permitted to marry—heterosexual couples, it goes without saying. Nary an eyebrow raised. No one thinks twice about approving such marriages; churches don’t think twice about blessing them. Among my own ancestors was a widow, Elizabeth Gainer Cherry, who married her second husband Edward Byrd in 1822 when she was 71 and he 82. By this time, the couple had children who had married each other.

In announcing the marriage, the Raleigh Register (North Carolina) notes, "The proverb is that, ‘Old Rats love Cheese,’ and by the information below it will be seen that, ‘Old Byrds love Cherrys,’ when fully ripe. On the 7th at the residence of Lawrence Cherry, Esq., by the Rev. Joseph Biggs, Mr. Edward Byrd, age 82, married Mrs. Elizabeth Cherry, late consort of Jesse Cherry, Esq., Dec'd., age 71. Both of the county of Martin."

No opprobrium or shock, just a bit of gentle amusement at the choice of the elderly couple to marry . . . .

As the Times (London) article by Ruth Gledhill that I cited in the prologue to this posting notes, in a 1989 essay entitled “The Body’s Grace,” Rowan Williams observes that the churches’ willingness to bless heterosexual marriages in which contraception is practiced opens the door to gay marriage. I would go further and argue that the churches’ longstanding practice of celebrating heterosexual marriages in which there is no possibility of procreation—in which the bride is too old to bear children or medical issues prevent the couple from conceiving, issues known prior to marriage—indicates that Christian marriage has long been viewed as about more than procreation, as about something else, at its most fundamental levels.

And that something else is actually not difficult to identify. The most traditional theologies of the sacrament of marriage—in the Catholic tradition, at least—point to it.* It is not often recognized that marriage is a “late” sacrament in the Catholic tradition, one of the last of the now-canonical list of sacramental acts to be added to that canonical list. Marriage was a “late” sacrament because it ritualized a social institution that preceded it, which the church eventually decided to bless in a sacramental way, while incorporating the historic roots and presuppositions of that institution into its sacramental theology.

Prior to its sacramentalization, marriage was viewed within Graeco-Roman culture as first and foremost a contract between two people to commit their lives to each other, to share their lives and goods, to use their committed relationship for the common good within their community, and to partake of the benefits afforded by the community to those making such a public commitment. Marriage is, in its historical roots in Western culture—and this includes its historical roots in the church itself—the contract or commitment of two persons to live together in a committed way that builds the community which sanctions the marriage, and which affords legal and other benefits to the committed relationship because it serves the common good of the community.

Which is to say that procreation is not the foremost goal of marriage, either in its intent as a social-ecclesial institution, or in the reasons for legal sanction and church blessing of the institution. The foremost goal of marriage is a generativity that may or may not include the procreation of children; marriage's foremost goal is a pro-creative generativity in which (shifting here from legal to theological language) the spouses commit themselves to share in the manifold pro-creative possibilities offered to all of us, single or married, straight or gay, as we share in the call to co-create the world with God. Within the context of marriage, the primary pro-creative task is to build a life together that is solid, committed, open to the community that sanctions a couple’s committed life, and thus capable of offering gifts to the community that would not be possible for the couple to develop apart from the community’s support, expressed through its official recognition of the marital relationship.

It is within that context, I would argue, that the legal benefits and supports accruing to marriages in which children are borne makes most sense. That is, there is a larger context within which the specific decision of some couples to have children makes sense, as an argument for marriage: this context is the generativity of all marriages, whether those marriages include the bearing and raising of children or not. Every marriage, every legally sanctioned (and/or ecclesially blessed) union of two people who commit themselves to each other in a public and solemn way within the communitarian context, has the potential to bring gifts to the community (i.e., to be generative and pro-creative), and those gifts are most effectively fostered and protected when the community sanctions, blesses, and supports the public union of the spouses.

As this historical analysis of the deep roots of sacramental marriage in the Catholic tradition also reveals, in the Catholic tradition, marriage has always been regarded as a sacrament that the two spouses themselves effect. It is not the church that marries the spouses, in venerable Catholic sacramental theology. It is not the priest who makes the marriage. It is the couple themselves who marry each other, standing before the Christian community, which is represented in the person of the priest.

The priest hears and receives the marriage vows on behalf of the community, and on behalf of the community, promises the support of the community, so that the public committed couple are welcomed into a community that promises to welcome and cherish the two whose lives are now becoming one, and to provide a communitarian context in which their committed lives may be effectively lived out. In traditional Catholic thinking about marriage, one of the chief benefits—perhaps the chief benefit—promised to those who marry is the recognition and support of the community.

Depriving married couples (heterosexual ones for the most part, at present) of the support of the community—of its welcome, assistance, sanction—simply because they are unable to have children or choose not to have children is unthinkable. What Christian community today would really consider proposing that heterosexual couples that cannot have children should be refused such community welcome, sanction, and support?

What Christian community today would try to exclude such couples from full communion? Would any Christian community today preach that couples which appear capable of bearing children but apparently choose not to do so should be censured and excommunicated?

If the answer to that question is no (and, on the whole, I believe it is), then there is a principle of elemental justice—of fairness to all—at work here, which the churches are grossly denying to gay couples simply because those couples are same-sex couples. If Christian opponents of gay marriage who use the marriage-for-procreation argument would think a moment about the practical consequences of their theological position, I think that they might begin to see that it is not merely capricious and unjust: it is actually cruel.

To make the point as sharp as possible: a significant number of married heterosexual couples who cannot have children choose to adopt children. In doing so, they take the generative, pro-creative gifts of their officially sanctioned and blessed life together, gifts developed in the communitarian context of the church, and offer them to children borne biologically by someone else.

We honor that choice. One of my grandmother’s uncles was a man of such generosity that he and his wife adopted a number of orphans, when it proved impossible for them to raise children of their own (they do seem to have had two children who both died young of mysterious illnesses that may have resulted from a genetic incompatibility of husband and wife). The choice of this couple to raise three orphans was so highly regarded by their community, including their church community, that they are still spoken of in that community as paragons of generosity. When they died, people assumed that they were wealthy, because they also had the practice of never turning away a beggar. People came from miles around to search for buried treasure in their yard and on their farm—though they had been simple farm people without a great deal of wealth.

Now think for a moment about what we, as a Christian community, say to the children of same-sex couples, when we refuse to offer those couples (and thus their children) the same support, sanction, blessing, and benefits we offer to a couple such as my great-great uncle Patrick and his wife Delilah Jane. The one variable in the two examples is a simple (and, I would argue, insignificant) one: the fact that one couple consists of a man and a woman, another of a man and a man or a woman and a woman.

When we refuse to sanction, bless, and take into the church context a gay couple with children, we implicitly punish the children of that relationship simply and solely because their parents are of the same sex. Non-procreativity is not really the issue, is it? Not if we sanction, bless, and take into our community a non-procreative heterosexual couple with children . . . .

Are Christians so certain of the rightness of their belief that gay marriage is not to be blessed that they can afford to stigmatize children, when a not insignificant number of gay couples do choose to raise children—in some cases, biological children of one member of the couple? This is not even to raise the issue of the way in which the resistance to gay marriage on the part of churches affects family members other than the progeny of a gay union; these members include siblings, parents, and other relatives who are often also part of the community context in churches that refuse to sanction and bless the love of their brothers/sisters/children/relatives.

It is certainly also possible to make strong arguments for gay marriage that prescind altogether from the church context. Again, there is a principle of elemental fairness at stake here: if we choose to marry couples legally without demanding that those (heterosexual) couples are capable of bearing and intend to bear children, then it seems that we are running the risk of profound injustice when we deny legal sanction to the many gay unions that exist all over the world—unions that many people in the communities within which they occur would regard as beneficial to the community as a whole.

Excluding gay couples from the right to marry excludes gay couples from all kinds of legal benefits automatically available to non-procreative heterosexual couples when they marry: clear laws governing the disposition of property; shared health benefits; tax benefits; legal visitation and decision-making rights in cases of hospitalization and sickness, etc. When society actually penalizes gay couples who seek to maintain a generative shared and committed life by withholding such benefits, it makes committed gay relationships—along with their potential to provide generative gifts that serve the good of their communities—difficult, indeed.

The gist of my argument has to do, however, not with these legal benefits, but with the “benefit” of inclusion and support within the church context. No social benefit is more significant to human well-being than the benefit of being brought inside the communitarian circle of love and support. No social practice is more cruel than pushing people outside that circle.

Churches that push out and refuse to bring inside—churches that do this to anyone—are abdicating the most fundamental mission of church. I would argue that before churches decide that it is God’s will that they close ranks, tighten the circle, and exclude, they think long and hard about their rationale for doing so, and about what Jesus would have them do.

*I am using Catholic theology of marriage as a case study here not because I believe it is the only possibly way to view marriage within the Christian context, or even the best way. My point is that even the most traditional and hidebound ways of looking at marriage in a church context may have surprising points of openness to gay marriage—if we first clear away the briars of malicious prejudice and the clutter of ignorance that does not understand the tradition and its rationale.

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