Friday, August 20, 2010

Commonweal Breaks Silence on Prop 8 Ruling: Are Judge Walker's Facts Really Facts?

I blogged some days ago (and here) about the continuing silence at the center of American Catholicism—the continuing silence of the opinion mavens of the American Catholic intellectual elite—about Judge Walker’s prop 8 ruling, and what it  portends.  As my frame of analysis, I adopted an historical perspective: I imagined that at some point in the future, people of good will looking back on this moment of American history will seek to understand why some groups rejoiced and why others were silent about a human rights breakthrough now being greeted with justifiable joy by an oppressed group of human beings.

I noted the admirable prophetic investment of large swaths of American Catholicism (and its intellectual elite) in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—the unabashed joy with which many Catholics greeted advances in civil rights for people of color in that period of history.  I’ve noted in the past that it was precisely this strong commitment to civil rights for people of color that attracted me to Catholicism as a young evangelical teen in a small Southern town, whose family church resisted supporting the Civil Rights movement.

And so I cannot avoid finding the silence of the American Catholic center about gay human rights today—what Mark Silk calls “the silence of the lambs”—tragic.  Exceptionally painful.  Shameful and scandalous in the extreme.

The first posting to which I link above specifically mentions the U.S. Catholic publication Commonweal.  I’m now . . . pleased? . . . to report that Commonweal has finally broken silence about Judge Walker’s prop 8 ruling.  And I am not surprised—but I continue to be saddened and scandalized—at the tenor of the essay Commonweal has chosen to publish on the prop 8 decision.

Commonweal has decided to publish an essay by Robert K. Vischer of the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  Vischer’s angle on Judge Walker’s statement?  He calls into question the facts cited by Judge Walker in his massive fact-based summary refuting the raw prejudice of those who cannot and will not provide a cogent rational defense of their case against same-sex marriage in courts of law.  

Walker’s facts are not facts, Vischer proposes—not as patent, reality-grounded, and irrefutable as he and his supporters are claiming.  And Walker prescinds, Vischer maintains, from the inescapable moral questions that surround any discussion of what constitutes fact in cases like this, even in secular courts in a pluralistic democracy.  Furthermore, making that moral case requires that we admit religious belief into our court system as a basis for substantiating moral claims, even when the question being debated is a civil matter (e.g., civil marriage) in a secular court.

I find Vischer’s argument both insubstantial and misleading.  It is insubstantial because it does not make a clear case for what amounts to an argument that religion be provided special privilege in a democracy in which church and state are separated.  It does not engage the question of why faith-based moral hunches or suspicions ought to be given primacy of place in arguments about civil issues—including those with a moral foundation and moral implications—in a society in which no faith is or can be established by the state.  

It confuses, in other words, civil and religious marriage, and in doing so, muddies rather than clarifies what is at stake in the debate about permitting same-sex couples access to civil marriage.  The possibility that Vischer and the many Catholics who walk alongside him in this argument do not seem willing to grant is that religious and civil marriage for gay folks can harmoniously co-exist, side by side, without detriment to the institution of religious marriage.

This was a key issue in the prop 8 trial, and one that, in my view, Judge Walker’s ruling lays to rest.  The onus of proof is on those religionists opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples to show precisely how, in what exact way, permitting civil marriage to gay couples will undermine the sanctity of religious marriage.

Prop 8’s advocates did not succeed in showing how gay civil marriage threatens “traditional” heterosexual marriage.  As I have noted on this blog in the past several days, they cannot successfully substantiate their claims in this respect as evidence mounts around the world in nation after nation (and in the U.S. in various states) that traditional heterosexual marriage (with procreation) remains intact, viable, as open to those who want it as it ever has been, even when gay couples are marrying civilly.

There is strong confusion in Catholic circles, including elite Catholic intellectual circles, about these issues, and it strikes me as significant to note that this confusion is woven right into the heart of the theology of the body, with its belief in the centrality of male-female complementarity  It is no accident that the theology of the body argument lurks behind the case many Catholic intellectuals seek to make today against civil marriage for gay couples.  The confusion of the Catholic case against same-sex civil marriage is rooted within the theology of the body itself.

The theology of the body argument for traditional marriage rests on the assertion that the biological facticity of gender, of maleness and femaleness, issues in complementary gender roles with which we tinker to our great peril.  It is perilous to renegotiate gender roles because they (and the institution of family they undergird) are the most important glue that holds the social fabric together.  Maleness and femaleness and the roles attendant on these biological designations are at the very heart of the Judaeo-Christian revelation, the linchpin on which all of scripture and tradition hang.  One cannot claim to be an orthodox Christian or Jew while urging a re-thinking of this taken-for-granted central thesis of the Jewish and Christian traditions.

John Paul II arrived at these conclusions by reading the creation myths of Genesis through the optic of natural law.  The conclusion that John Paul reached in the theology of the body that he developed through his natural-law reading of Genesis is this: body is never merely body, but enshrines spiritual norms that are not reducible, in the final analysis, to biological imperatives, even when they depend radically on biological givenness, and above all on the facticity of gender.  And how do we know that this is the case?  Because spirit tells us so.  Spirit dictates the meaning of embodiment, even when our reading of body is a natural-law reading that claims simply to be gleaning data from biological facts that are then fed into the hopper of dispassionate reason.

In the theology of the body, spirit informs our reading of body, such that what we “read” when we examine biological evidence about the body (and gender) is already imbued with spirit even before we assess the empirical data that nature provides us as we study scientific data about human biology dispassionately.

Body is about more than body.  It is about spirit.  We know the meaning of body only through recourse to spirit.  Though we are engaged in a “natural” reading of biological facts through natural law, the meaning we seek to find in nature is already there—and it has been placed there by our theological presuppositions.

There is, in short, a fatal circularity in the theology of the body and its appeal to natural law.  That fatal circularity results in tremendous confusion when it is imported into the debate about whether gay and lesbian persons ought to be accorded the right to civil marriage—and therefore, ought to be treated as fully human persons with the same rights and privileges accorded to other human beings qua human beings.  

Those resisting civil marriage for gay couples on theological grounds (ultimately, with recourse to the theology of the body) are—deliberately, I often suspect—importing into a civil debate about civil marriage religious presuppositions that, they insist, everyone else in our secular pluralistic society must respect.  Because they are religious.  Because, as religious foundations for moral insight, they must automatically receive privileged status in our laws and court system.

It’s fascinating to see Commonweal’s editors promoting an argument of such tenor, in response to the breakthrough that Judge Walker’s prop 8 decision represented for their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  It is fascinating to see Commonweal promoting an argument about the prop 8 decision that is, at its core, homophobic.  

Yes, homophobic: it is homophobic because it demands that our secular pluralistic democracy keep on excluding a targeted minority from civil rights and privileges afforded to the majority, in a way that continues to demean and dehumanize that minority and to expose it to discrimination and other forms of social harm.  It is homophobic because, while defending a decision that continues the marginalization and denigration of a vulnerable minority group, it remains conspicuously silent about the effects of that marginalization and denigration on the human beings in question.

In the final analysis, arguments like Vischer’s (and this is now the leitmotiv of Catholic arguments against civil marriage for same-sex couples in general) are attacks on reason itself.  They are attacks on the reason that, as Judge Walker rightly insists, must form the basis of any argument in a pluralistic democracy to treat a targeted minority differently than the social mainstream.  Whether they masquerade as sweet reason (as with Ross Douthat’s recent essay on the “ideal” of heterosexual marriage or Vischer’s essay), or whether they are overt, anti-rational, fascist tripe like this recent video from, their ultimate attempt is to knock holes in the wall of church and state, which requires religious bodies to demonstrate rationality when they seek to impose their peculiar religious and moral views on the body politic.

It is important to note, as well, that the reason which Catholic arguments vs. same-sex marriage wish to disqualify is, quite specifically, gay reason.  Attacks on the facts (and, therefore, reason) to which Judge Walker’s ruling appeals are ultimately attacks on the presence (and open witness) of LGBT human beings in the public square.  They are attacks designed to continue the invisibilization of an oppressed minority, as the mainstream makes “reasonable” decisions about that minority which have no recourse to the perspectives and voices of the minority itself.

It would be interesting to know how and when this kind of homophobia so incisively inscribed itself in the thought and institutions of the American Catholic intellectual elite—how it became so dominant in the editorial penchants of centrist American Catholic publications like Commonweal.  Mark Silk has a more generous interpretation of the silence of the centrist lambs than I do: he thinks that many of those who fail to address these issues at Commonweal do so because, while they actually support same-sex marriage, they do not want to incur the wrath of right-wing Catholic watchdog groups and a hierarchy that kowtows to those groups.

As someone on the fringes of the dominant conversation of the American Catholic academy who nonetheless has considerable experience with the academy as an openly gay, partnered Catholic theologian, I have a different perspective.  As I’ve noted previously on this blog, I find American Catholic institutions of higher learning overtly, if often subtly, homophobic.

They are clearly homophobic in that almost no Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. provide welcoming space to openly gay or lesbian faculty, staff, or administrators.  They are homophobic in that many Catholic colleges and universities, including flagship institutions like Notre Dame, continue even to resist the inclusion of sexual orientation in their policies forbidding discrimination, or continue to resist support groups and associations for LGBT students.

Above all, I find strong, if hidden, homophobia at the intellectual center of American Catholicism in that its mavens find it possible to continue remaining as silent as lambs in the face of all of this, even as the homophobia plays out right on their own campuses. Or when members of their own faculty engage in viciously homophobic attacks on Judge Walker, as a defense of “Catholic values” and “traditional” marriage.

There can be no more fundamentally homophobic gesture than remaining silent when one’s brothers and sisters who happen to be gay are being attacked, ignored, treated as unwelcome—even while one vaunts oneself on one’s strong commitment to human rights in general and the rights of other minority groups, including people of color and women, in particular.

Nothing is more fundamentally inhumane than pretending that other human beings are simply not in the room, as they sing, dance, and celebrate when the yoke of oppression is lifted from their necks.  And nothing is more antithetical to authentic catholic values than such callous insensitivity to the lives and human worth—to the very existence and presence—of brothers and sisters struggling to be received by the human community as human beings.