Saturday, January 15, 2011

John Allen on Cardinal George as U.S. Bishops' Thinker-in-Chief: Eugene Kennedy Responds (Say Whaaa?!)

Yesterday, I noted a lecture that the outgoing president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Francis George, gave in December at Boston College.  As I indicated, in his remarks at Boston College, George stated that supporters of same-sex unions have "lost touch" with humanity.  

In his defense of "traditional" marriage at Boston College, George also advanced an essentialist argument long promoted by defenders of any "tradition" that is under new scrutiny due to moral shifts in the surrounding culture.  The essentialist argument seeks to maintain that the "traditional" institution or practice it's defending has always been this way, and any attempt to change it, as we reframe our understanding of the institution or practice in light of broad cultural shifts, tampers dangerously with tradition and introduces social chaos.

George told his Boston College audience that "traditional" marriage has always been as it now is, since both Mother Church and Mother Nature set it up to function as it has always functioned.  And so "no one has the right to change marriage"--neither the church nor the state.

What these essentialist arguments conveniently overlook, of course, is the way in which all historical institutions--marriage included--evolve over the course of history, in response to one cultural shift after another.  And so the face of "traditional" marriage at one point in history is entirely different from that at another point in history.

What was "traditional" for marriage in the patriarchal period of Judaism, for instance, is hardly traditional today.  The fathers and mothers of faith in the Jewish community, whom Christians also revere as the founders of their faith, practiced polygamy for generations.  The earliest texts of the Jewish scriptures take polygamous marriage for granted as "traditional," and their procreative ethic--be fruitful and multiply--is premised on the right of one man to take many wives in order to beget as many heirs as possible.

Within the Christian context, marriage was not even regarded as a matter of ritual concern for centuries.  For centuries of Christian history, people married as they had traditionally done--by entering legally sanctioned contracts within the civil society.  The sacrament of marriage is the last sacrament of all to be incorporated into the canon of sacraments.  And the understanding of marriage that the sacramental notion of marriage enshrines in the Catholic church is largely the cultural one of Graeco-Roman civilization, baptized as a Christian practice in the sacramental ritual.

Even more to the point: Cardinal George's essentialist argument for "traditional" marriage pays no attention at all to the fact that little more than a half century ago, his very argument--marriage has always been this way; no one has any right to tamper with what God and nature have set up--was loudly promoted by those opposing interracial marriage.  Who maintained that permitting people of different races to marry interfered with God's divine plan, evident in nature itself and reinforced by scripture and tradition, to separate the races.  Why did God place people of color in one part of the globe and Caucasians in another, these traditionalists argued, if He wanted the races to mix?

And here's what I'm driving at with this analysis of Cardinal Francis George's recent comments about traditional marriage: these are hardly stellar intellectual musings on the complex subject of what has constituted marriage over the course of history, of what is at the very heart of marriage, of how cultural shifts that allow us to view some traditional practices as morally dubious shift our understanding of those practices, etc.  These are not careful, thoughtful responses to a cultural shift in which key issues of justice and human rights are at stake--a cultural shift that demands a thoughtful and respectful response from Christian leaders, no matter which side the church eventually chooses to take.

And because I have never found the previous leader of the U.S. bishops to be a compelling thinker who engages difficult ideas carefully, and who encourages his brother bishops to be thoughtful men engaged in respectful dialogue with lay Catholics and the culture at large, I was surprised, to say the least, to read John Allen's interview with George a week ago, anointing George the "thinker-in-chief" of the U.S. bishops.

And because I think Allen is full of . . . blarney . . . as he does one somersault after another to  try to turn mediocre thinkers and shepherds of the flock into intellectual and pastoral giants, I'm delighted to read Eugene Kennedy's current rejoinder to Allen in NCR.  Even if Kennedy had to break his new year's resolution to be nice to bishops.  A resolution I myself didn't make this year.

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