Monday, August 9, 2010

Ross Douthat Tackles the Ideal of Marriage: Male-Female Complementarity Embedded in "The Order of Creation"

Ross Douthat in today’s New York Times admits that most of the arguments on which American neocon-style opposition to same-sex marriage is based are flat wrong: our definition of “traditional” marriage is hardly universal, as the religious and political right wishes to claim; polygamy, not monogamy, is the default setting for marriage in many cultures; and far from being raised by one man and one woman, many children around the world have historically been reared by a village.

Even so, Douthat wants to continue the drumbeat against same-sex marriage.  And it’s interesting to see where he goes as he tries to retrieve a foundation for his opposition.  He goes to the same place that other Catholic neocon thinkers like Robert P. George go, the place to which evangelicals and other groups with little else in common with Catholic natural-law thinking are now also going as they seek to craft a compelling argument, any compelling argument, against gay marriage.

He goes to John Paul II’s theology of the body with its insistence on the complementarity of the sexes.  In other words, he grounds his opposition to same-sex marriage on the assertion that the genders are, in some essential, irreducible, “natural” and divinely “ordered” way, inherently opposite to each other.  And that marriage exists to tame and order the natural opposition of the genders.  Without that opposition all you can have is a simulation of real marriage.

It is essential to marriage that the spouses be different, Douthat proposes—and different in a way that surpasses any of the differences that same-sex partners may bring to the table.  The difference that is all-important for a real marriage is gender difference, and that difference is grounded in an essentialist understanding of the nature of man and woman which makes the two into irreducible opposites.  Men sleep around.  Women want to sleep with the highest-status male possible.

Marriage throws these two ravenous tigers—promiscuous daddy, cunning, designing mommy seeking higher status—together and makes them work at living together.  Grimly and for all they are worth.  For the sake of the salvation of the world.  And for the sake of the children.

On this arrangement alone, on this social institution uniquely, depends the salvation—the order—of the world.  Let men avoid being yoked to a woman who tames their promiscuity, and let women keep shopping around for the male mate of highest status, and who knows what discord might ensue at a cosmic level?

Only this sort of marriage can create, Douthat proposes, the unique kind of domestic life in which children can best be brought to well-developed maturity.  Children need to see the tiger of Daddy’s whoring and of Mommy’s sly unstinting search for a higher-standing male caught and tamed, in order to turn into psychologically healthy adults with an edge on those poor unfortunates deprived of that drama in their households as they grow up.

What lurks at the murky bottom of this new (since it began with John Paul II) gender-complementarity argument about divine “order” and “nature” is precisely the thing that Judge Walker wanted to point out about most arguments for traditional marriage: they rest on the insupportable belief that there is something inherently fixed and unchangeable about gender roles due to the biological difference in the sexes.  The gender-complementarity argument seeks to find a way around the obvious fact that we accept the marriage of a non-procreative man and a woman as a real and “traditional” marriage, while we kick and scream against the thought of two people of the same gender marrying because, we claim, they cannot procreate.

It wants to move around that marriage-is-for-procreation argument because marriage is clearly not for procreation if we permit a man and a woman who cannot or will not have children to marry.  The justification for traditional marriage grounded in John Paul II’s theology of the body imagines that it has discovered an irrefutable argument to counter those who, like Judge Walker, note that marriage, as a social institution, has moved away from state-decreed gender roles, and that marriage as it now exists has long since departed from the notion that the two spouses must agree to play the role of mutually opposing opposites, each with an assigned task.  Because one is male and one is female.

The neocon application of John Paul II’s theology of the body believes it has discovered an unanswerable argument for the superiority of “traditional” marriage when it maintains that masculinity and femininity are encoded in the “order of creation,” and that we tamper with that order (and the marital arrangement it implies) at our peril.  

From a theological standpoint, the most important question to ask about this argument is where in scripture and tradition one finds it written that the order of the cosmos and of social institutions depends on identifying and maintaining an essential difference in the sexes that goes beyond biological difference?  Where is it written that men have male souls and women have female souls?

And if gender difference and marriage revolving around this difference are the key to the gospels, why did Jesus not marry?  Why did he not marry a woman?  Why did he almost never speak of the centrality of marriage, and why did he even appear to disdain marriage and family when he told us that following him and seeking the reign of God takes precedence over the claims of family?  Why did he transgress the taken-for-granted gender roles of his day (which mandated female subordination) by permitting women to follow and touch him, by eating with impure women as well as with men?  

If maintaining a natural, God-given, established order of creation (and of society, based on the divine order of creation) was so central to Jesus’s message, why do the writers of the Christian scriptures so constantly and vehemently insist that those joined to Christ become a new creation, and that the old creation has passed away?  And that in Christ there is no male nor female, because the new creation abolishes such non-essential differences, with the opposition (and subordination) we have long sought to ground in our perception of such differences?

With its appeal to an immutable “divine order” encoded into creation by the Creator, and with its curiously obtuse insistence on the irreducible difference of masculinity and femininity (a difference that goes well beyond biological difference), the theology of the body and its adherents want to do two primary things.  They want, first, to ground fixed gender roles in nature.

And they want then to assure that no matter what other cultural renegotiations take place, what it means to be a man remains constant.  Constant and grounded in nature and divine order.  

The theology of the body is all about maintaining the domination of the world by heterosexual men in the name of God and divine order.  No matter how wildly novel its arguments become as each straw-man argument of patriarchy and homophobia is demolished in the debate about same-sex marriage, that assertion will continue to dominate the male-female complementarity argument appealing to the theology of the body.  

Because that is what this theology is designed to do.  And what it is all about.