Thursday, September 3, 2009

Michael Sean Winters on Gay Marriage Debate in D.C.: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Though I disagree in some fundamental respects with Michael Sean Winters about the issue of gay marriage (and, above all, about the theological warrants on which the discussion stands), I’m not going to quarrel with his latest statement on the issue. Winters has just published a piece on the America blog about the attempt of Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., to push against the city council’s decision to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere.

I’m not going to quarrel with Michael Sean Winters about this for two reasons. The first has to do with solidarity. Those of us in the faith communities who are resisting the strong attempts of the right-wing noise machine to weaken our witness to moral imperatives like health care coverage for all have every reason in the world to stand together around such moral imperatives, and every reason to refuse to let cruel (and immoral) divide-and-conquer games played by the powerful fragment our solidarity.

I’m also not going to quarrel with Michael Sean Winters about this issue because I see incremental but very welcome forward movement in his own thinking about issues of sexual orientation. So even though I don’t agree with Winters when he employs his “we Catholics”* tactic once again to argue that “[t]he Church does not owe anyone an apology for stating our belief in the importance of traditional marriage,” I’m going to focus, instead, on what is promising in his current statement about gay marriage and the involvement of the Catholic church in D.C. with this issue.

Winters notes clearly that Catholic opposition to gay marriage cannot be used to fuel bigotry against gay and lesbian people. And that’s a step forward. One has only to look at the blow-back on this blog for the last two days by brothers and sisters of the Catholic far right to see how important that distinction is. Many of my Catholic brothers and sisters approach gay people and gay lives not only with zeal to defend marriage, but also with the unrighteous determination to demean, hurt, and exclude their gay brothers and sisters in any way possible.

And it does hurt. Considerably so. It hurts to be told that if one is gay, one must support murder, that anyone who happens to be born gay is part of the culture of death and is of the devil. By people who do not even know those they are savaging in this way. It hurts to be told that one's Christian witness and contributions to the body of Christ are not merely unwelcome but tainted, simply because one happens to be born gay. To be told this by Christian people who say love is what they are all about.

Since opposition to gay marriage continues to be used as a cover in Catholic circles for much uglier impulses to attack gay people at the very core of their personhood, it is important—it is a step forward—to dissociate opposition to gay marriage from ugly, indefensible discrimination against LGBT people. I give Michael Sean Winters credit for taking this step.

And as Winters also notes, the monomaniacal focus of many Catholics on same-sex marriage as the threat par excellence to traditional marriage is hardly consistent with the data, which show that traditional marriages founder not because gay couples are permitted to marry, but due to divorce. A church that is really determined to save traditional marriage by pushing its moral teachings on the public sector should be pushing as hard as possible against divorce, not against same-sex marriage. A church that attacks laws permitting gay marriage on the ground that it is saving marriage and has a right to intrude on the secular sphere to do that, but does not attack laws making divorce easy or even possible, is a church that seems motivated more by anti-gay prejudice and less by determination to save heterosexual marriage.

Winters also accepts the distinction between marriage as a religious ritual and as a civil contract. He argues for the “Levada solution” in D.C. This is an approach developed by Archbishop Levada of San Francisco when the city required agencies contracting with the city—including church agencies—to extend health benefits to same-sex partners. Archbishop Levada accepted the extension to gay couples of “societal benefits that are not intrinsic to marriage but which have for a variety of complex reasons become associated with marriage.”

The logic of this argument, of course, points in the direction of a two-tiered solution to the needs of same-sex couples, which permits civil unions for gay couples while reserving the right of marriage to opposite-sex couples. Winters does not explicitly argue for such an arrangement, but this arrangement seems inherent in his argument that 1) marriage must be reserved exclusively to opposite-sex couples on theological grounds, but 2) gay persons have rights that are violated (and needs that are not fulfilled) when needs like partner health care benefits are denied to them by mechanisms that Christians ultimately have to recognize as discriminatory and unjustifiable.

Though I give Winters credit for moving to this point in his thinking about gay marriage, I have some strong reservations about the Levada solution that he proposes as a working arrangement allowing the church to hold what he sees as unchangeable traditional teaching about marriage, while moving against homophobic prejudice. Here are my reservations:

Separate but equal is never equal. There is not and never will be any real equality in a two-tiered arrangement that reserves the right of marriage exclusively to opposite-sex couples and excludes same-sex couples from that right on irrational grounds that ultimately come down to prejudice.

If marriage is to be reserved to opposite-sex couples because they can procreate while same-sex couples cannot do so, then to avoid gross injustice to same-sex couples, we must refuse to marry opposite-sex couples who are 1) beyond child-bearing age, 2) have physical barriers preventing conception, 3) and/or do not intend to bear children.

If we do not take that step while arguing that our sole reason for excluding same-sex couples from the right of marriage is that same-sex marriages are non-procreative, we have implicitly admitted that our real reason for denying the right of marriage to same-sex couples has to do with prejudice. Not with procreation and safeguarding procreation. Ultimately, only with sheer, bald prejudice against gay persons.

We’re talking here, after all, about civil marriage, not church marriage. Churches have the right to do whatever they want to do in the case of marriage.

What they do not have the right to do is impose theological views peculiar to themselves on the public at large, when those views comprise discrimination against targeted groups of citizens. And it’s clear to me that, even when we deplore homophobic discrimination and try to weed it out from the push to “save” traditional marriage, what ultimately energizes that push is prejudice, pure and simple. And that’s not defensible, not for people of faith.

Separate but equal is never equal. I’ve spent the last few weeks hard at work researching a book on which I’m working, which will deal, in part, with some of my experiences growing up during the Civil Rights movement in a small Southern town. Among those with whom I’m collaborating on this book are several high school classmates of mine who were among the first African-American students to integrate my high school in the latter half of the 1960s.

These friends (who have refused to let me stop working on this book, and I thank them for that) have been sharing stories with me about their experience of studying in the “separate but equal” black schools our society maintained prior to integration. They tell me that their textbooks were the used, worn-out, torn, out-of-date textbooks from the white schools, which were discarded and sent to the “equal” black schools when they could no longer be used in white schools.

Their school furniture, lab equipment, and other educational materials were the broken-down discards that could no longer be used in the white schools. When they were useless, they were sent to the “equal” separate black schools.

Separate but equal is never equal. And the churches have to be frank about recognizing this and the discrimination they are promoting, when they say that they are willing to accept arrangements short of marriage that level the playing field for gay couples. The churches are, in fact, supporting and fostering prejudice when they propose such arrangements—and in the final analysis, the only compelling argument that I can find for their decision to propose such two-tiered solutions is sheer, insupportable prejudice.

▪ “Societal attitudes are changing on the nature of homosexuality as fast as scholarly consensus, or faster actually, about its complex origins.”

Winters ends his piece with the preceding fascinating statement about the relationship between society’s change of attitudes vis-a-vis gay people and gay lives, and the moral teachings of the churches. He notes that the American people have a profound commitment to fairness and justice as well as an abiding belief that marriage is different from other social arrangements and should not be lightly changed. (Well, Michael says “the American people” just as he says “we Catholics,” but he surely has to know that “the American people” are about equally divided on that abiding belief, with strong demographic indicators that the scales will tip decisively in favor of same-sex marriage in the next generation).

Winters concludes that there has to be some way to reconcile that commitment to justice with the belief in marriage, which both preserves what he sees as unchangeable traditional views on marriage, and protects gay citizens from discrimination.

As I say, I find these observations fascinating, because they tacitly admit that 1) societies (and churches) can change their moral minds about moral issues, when it becomes clear that 2) their “traditional” approach to those issues has been spectacularly wrong, and because 3) the core values of a society (or church) militate against the cruelty and indefensible prejudice enshrined in what has traditionally been thought to be right.

To admit this is actually to admit that societies (or churches) which value their moral foundations and want to be known as moral societies (or churches) have an obligation to stop fostering prejudice, when social developments begin to cast new light on how their traditional beliefs enshrine prejudice. Once we recognize—as Michael Sean Winters does in this piece—that there is a strong, intuitive link in many people’s minds between Catholic opposition to gay marriage and gay bashing, we have to begin searching for ways to break that connection. We have to do so, that is if we value morality and being thought of as moral people.

Again, I think back to lessons I learned as I grew up during the Civil Rights struggle in the South. Once it became increasingly evident to many of us that our long-standing—deeply traditional and biblically founded—belief in white superiority and black inferiority was totally indefensible and morally reprehensible, we were faced with questions about how to change.

Our initial response to that challenge was to do all we possibly could to keep change at bay—while trying to depict ourselves as responsible moral agents whose primary motivation was doing what was right. We talked about integrating “with all deliberate speed”—not right away, but when it could conveniently be worked out. And that meant, of course, that we'd change only when we were good and ready and defy anyone who urged us to move quickly along the path to change.

We proposed halfway measures that were stop-gap solutions to a moral imperative we had come to see starkly, but which we did not want to see. Because seeing involved us in doing, and doing is inconvenient at best and painful at worst, especially when it means revising what we have “always” done—our cherished traditions—and rethinking the religious and theological assumptions on which we believe our traditions are based.

When one first recognizes the possibility of shifting the moral consensus of a social group or a church’s regarding a widely-accepted practice, because social changes are casting new light on that practice, one has admitted that social groups—including churches—can change their moral minds. And that they sometimes have to do so, in order to be true to core moral imperatives woven into their scriptures and traditions.

To admit this is, of course, simply to admit what has already happened in the past with churches. For centuries—for almost two millennia, in fact—the Christian churches not only accepted but blessed slavery. Because slavery is blessed by the scriptures themselves.

When social changes caused the churches to recognize that, despite scriptural sanction for slavery, slavery runs against the most deeply held moral convictions of the scriptures, the churches had no choice except to change their moral mind about slavery. And then again about the role of women in church and society.

And now about gays and lesbians. And stop-gap and halfway solutions to justice just aren’t going to work now, because those solutions are clearly an indefensible attempt to keep prejudice alive at the very same time that they claim to be all about maintaining “tradition” while purifying that tradition of prejudice.

* As I’ve said before, I disagree that “we Catholics” all hold the same position on issues such as gay marriage that Michael does, when he argues that “we Catholics” all hold one position and must hold that position to be faithful to church teaching. And as I’ve also said before, I disagree with Michael’s bottom-line argument that church teaching is synonymous with the word of the bishop in each diocese. I see the transmission of what the church teaches as a much broader, more diverse, and richer process involving the sensus fidelium as well as the final word of pastoral authorities. And I don’t see the same total conformity in the views of the faithful that Michael Sean Winters finds when he looks at issues like sexual ethics or same-sex marriage.