Tuesday, October 13, 2009

News Flash: U.S. Catholic Bishops Forbid Marriage to Couples Who Cannot Conceive

Well, of course not. The bishops have not forbidden marriage to couples too old to conceive a child or with known conditions that prevent conception.

Because then they would look foolish. And perhaps reactionary. And even prejudiced.

What they do say, however, in a draft of a proposed new pastoral statement about marriage that is anything but pastoral, is the following:

Sometimes one hears it said that as long as the marriage as a whole is open to children, each individual act of intercourse need not be. In fact, however, a marriage is only as open to procreation as each act of intercourse is, because the whole marriage is present and signified in each marital act.

And of course the logic of that statement—the strict logic used to forbid marriage of same-sex couples—is that the Catholic church ought to deny marriage to opposite-sex couples beyond childbearing age and to couples in which either or both partners are unable to conceive a child. If the quality of a marriage hinges on the capability of each act of intercourse to result in conception, then the church has no business marrying any couples, straight or gay, who cannot conceive a child.

Each and every act of intercourse must be open to the possibility of procreation. Otherwise, marriage loses its meaning, its sacredness, its ability to foster a bona fide unitive relationship between spouses. That’s what the church teaches, and that’s what “the” teachers of the church in the U.S. intend to keep teaching, regardless of what those who actually live those sacred marital unions think about their marriage, or experience as they go about their lives of marital union.

The teachers of the church recognize, it goes without saying, that the church has long married couples unable to procreate, and will continue to do so—without demanding that these couples refrain from intercourse on the grounds that their non-procreative acts of intercourse are just plain old sexual acts that will never reach the exalted mystical level of acts open to procreation. It’s interesting to see how the proposed pastoral statement deals with the obvious disconnect between what the church wants to teach about the meaning of marriage, and its choice to marry couples incapable of procreation.

The document states:

It is true that some marriages will not result in procreation due to infertility, even though the couple is capable of the natural act by which procreation takes place. Indeed this situation often comes as a surprise and can be a source of deep disappointment, anxiety, and even great suffering for a husband and wife. When such a tragedy affects a marriage, a couple may be tempted to think that their union is not complete or truly blessed. This is not true. The marital union of a man and a woman is a distinctive communion of persons. By its very nature, marriage is both love-giving and life-giving. An infertile couple continues to manifest both of these attributes when their hearts remain open to the needs of others, including adopted and foster children.
Even when their child-bearing years have passed, a couple should continue to be life-giving.

You see what’s going on here, I hope. This pastoral statement treats the revelation that some couples can’t conceive as a surprise, a discovery that takes place only after the church has married said couples in the belief that it is blessing marital unions in which each and every act of intercourse is open to the possibility of procreation. Because marriage loses its meaning as a sacred institution fundamental to the well-being of society otherwise, doncha know.

But that’s not what’s actually happening, is it, when the church marries, say, a woman aged 60 to a man, say, aged 65? Or a woman of childbearing age who has had a hysterectomy due to medical conditions. Or a man infertile due to mumps in childhood or all kinds of other reasons.

Note the sly little qualification the document slips in here, to try to disguise the patent flaws in the logic of the church’s position on procreation and marriage, when that logic is measured against the actual practice of the church: the church marries only people “capable of the natural act by which procreation takes place.” That is, it marries only straight people, because by definition same-sex couples are incapable of the “natural” act by which procreation takes place.

And yet the entire passage is seeking to draw our attention away from the fact that the church routinely marries couples who are capable of that “natural” act only if we define the act in question as the copulation of a male and a female. The church routinely marries couples that are, as the church officials celebrating the marriage and the congregation witnessing it know full well, not capable of the procreation that this document wishes to tie to the “natural” act in order to make the act natural and legitimate.

And so the document (wisely and generously) recognizes that non-procreative couples can be just as love-giving and as life-giving, just as generative, as couples capable of procreation. But lest we imagine that this criterion might as reasonably apply to same-gender couples as it does to the many opposite-sex couples incapable of procreation, the draft of the pastoral letter reminds us, “The marital union of a man and a woman is a distinctive communion of persons.”

There’s something different, you see, about the union of a man and a woman, as compared to the union of a man and a man or a woman and a woman. Only the former reaches the level of “a distinctive communion of persons” that is really life-giving and love-giving and generative.

Why so, you might ask? Because, the draft of the pastoral letter informs us elsewhere, “It is precisely the difference between man and woman that makes possible this unique communion of persons, the unique partnership of life and love that is marriage.”

Gender—biology—and not characteristics rooted in the unique personhood of the two distinctively different members of a married couple, is the basis for the “unique communion” and “unique partnership” of the couple. The complementarity that results in the ability of two distinctively different people in a marital relationship to give to others, to transcend themselves in generative acts that build the community around them, has everything to do with the fact that one of the members of the couple is a man and the other is a woman.

Complementarity and generativity in marital unions has nothing at all to do with the many obvious complementary differences of two unique persons forming a martial union, differences people that are in no way grounded in gender or other biological facts. Complementarity that issues in generativity in heterosexual marriages in which procreation is not possible has everything to do with the fact that a man and a woman form the union. Complementarity and generativity, the bishops want us to think, have nothing to do with personal characteristics at all. It is entirely, crudely biological. It hinges entirely on gender.

In the last analysis, that is what the entire meaning of marriage hinges on for this document. As a result it is anything but a “pastoral” statement, because it overlooks not only the experience of all Catholics who happen to be gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. It overlooks as well the experience of the vast majority of Catholics in the developed parts of the world, who do not believe that the entire meaning of marriage revolves around the openness of each and every sexual act to procreation, but, rather, on the interpersonal aspects of the marital union that build that union and that build the community in which the marital union is lived out.

The vast majority of Catholics are appalled at the unwise decision of the pastors of the church to hang the whole meaning of marriage and of human sexuality on biology, as if human beings are nothing more than animals when it comes to marital life. Because the insights of the faithful in no way inform the teaching of teachers who do not even live the reality about which they are issuing teaching, the teachers keep trying to hammer home teachings that are simply not being “received” by the faithful.

They’re not being received because they run beside our experience. They are parallel to and disconnected from the experience they claim to address. They do not in any way overlap with that experience, because only the bishops are teachers. The experience (and voice) of lay Catholics does not count, even when marriage is the subject under consideration.

Teachings like those offered by this pastoral letter are extrinsic to our experience, to the experience of lay Catholics. They are irrelevant to our lived experience of the faith.

And as a result, they are ultimately—I have to use this word here, because its true and it fits—simply silly. The logic of this pastoral letter is so mindlessly top-down, so feverishly controlled from above, so counter to and imposed on real-life experience with its manifold twists and turns that cannot be encapsulated by draconian logic, that it moves inexorably into one tight cul-de-sac after another in which ordinary, common-sense logic easily overturns the argument offered to justify the magisterial position.

For instance, the pastoral letter wants us to read the Genesis creation narratives literally as a foundation for marriage (and, it goes without saying, for “traditional” opposite-sex marriage)as if reading these narratives literally does not open nightmarish vistas in every direction one looks except the tiny area of male-female complementarity on which the letter wants to shine its light.

Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.Later she gave birth to his brother Abel (Genesis 4:1-2). Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth . . . . (Genesis 4:25).


This is the written account of Adam's line. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them man.
When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Adam lived 930 years, and then he died (Genesis 5: 1-5).

And so it all began with one man and one woman, the pastoral letter wants to remind us. One man and one woman who became the progenitors of the human race because they were a man and a woman, and not a man and a man or a woman and a woman. And who procreated.

And who then had Cain, Abel, Seth, and later—centuries laterother sons and daughters. All conceived during Adam’s 930 years of life.

And where did those sons and daughters find spouses who were not their siblings, as they lived out this traditional model of marriage established from the beginning? If we read the story literally, as it was never meant to be read, we lock ourselves not only into a literal understanding of marriage as all about male and female complementarity (and of everything else in creation as all about male-female complementarity). We lock ourselves into a nasty little narrative about incest as the procreative context of the whole human race.

All things considered, it might be better simply to avoid the literal reading of any part of this narrative, particularly when our intent is simply to justify our own prejudices and bolster the prejudices of others. Powerful mythic texts like this have resonances whose tendency is to subvert rather than bolster prejudice, when we listen to them respectfully, as we’re meant to do.

And it might be better, all things considered, to avoid analogies like the comparison of the inner life of the Trinity to the “distinctive communion” of marriage that occurs only when a male and a female unite for life and assure that every act of intercourse between them remains open to the possibility of procreation. That is, it might be better to avoid this analogy (which the pastoral letter offers us) as long as the church refuses to entertain any discussion of the gender of the persons of the Trinity, and insists that the communion married couples are emulating is the communion of three male persons. You know, the kind who can't form a sacred, generative union in real life, since real marriage is based solely on the union of a man with a woman.

This is what happens when inexorable logic meets the real-life experience of those being talked down to by logic-bearers who adamantly refuse to listen to those they claim to be teaching. As a number of valuable statements* about this proposed pastoral letter in the past several days note, the bishops would be well-advised to ditch a draft that is anything but pastoral and start over.

And I can't think of a more splendid starting point than opening all the discussions that have been closed and permitting the laity to talk to the bishops about marriage and sexuality, for a change.

*“On Marriage, the Bishops Should Start Over,” National Catholic Reporter editorial, 12 Oct. 2009.

Tom Roberts, “Bishops’s Draft Pastoral Warns of Dangers to Marriage,” National Catholic Reporter, 12 Oct. 2009.

Cathy Lynn Grossman,“Bishops Aim for a Pastoral Way to Say ‘No’,” USA Today, Faith and Reason blog, 13 Oct. 2009 (h/t to Joe Feurherd at NCR).