Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Susan Meld Shell Cautions Against Radical Redefinition of Marriage: My Response

I posted the following piece yesterday, and it was subsequently swamped by a number of other pieces I posted the same day.  Since I think that this discussion remains very important, I'm bumping this posting back up in my queue of postings.

And the posting appears to have hit a bit of a nerve: in a roundabout way, the following critique of what I write below, from a colleague of Dr. Shell's, has reached me.  Like Shell, the author is a married man (heterosexually married, of course), with a degree from a major American university.   Like Shell, he teaches at a highly regarded Catholic university in the U.S.

I find it interesting that this particular critic regards it as "weak" to argue that privileges he enjoys as a heterosexual married man should not be extended to gay and lesbian persons, even when he and other heterosexual married couples might choose to contravene the very standards used in their arguments to exclude gay and lesbian persons from the privileges they enjoy.  It's difficult to take  seriously people's commitment to abstract principles--particularly when those abstract principles seek to claim moral legitimacy--if they exempt themselves from the very principles they use to deny privileges to others, even as they enjoy those privileges. 

My critic writes:

Well, well.

Your moderation has at least earned you some respectful argument.  But not much: you're dismissed as a Catholic centrist -- that's the bulk of it -- and as simply deploying stereotypes without meeting these two invincible arguments: men & women marry without having children (or wishing to) and partners of the same sex bring up children.  Surprisingly weak response, which must reflect on Lindsey, but may also mean that you've gotten somewhere.  For the 2nd argument may imply a model from what you affirm as the central purpose of marriage, and the first ignores the way that (traditional) marraige  remains a kind of standard even for the men and women who don't fully satisfy it.  (Think of the hetero's who take on one another's chldren--the obligations thereof.).  My arguemnts are no doubt much weaker than those you advance. 

And here's my posting of yesterday, bumped up in the blog queue:

I'm grateful to Rob Tisani at Box Turtle Bulletin for drawing attention to Professor Susan Meld Shell's recent contribution to the ongoing debate about same-sex marriage now occurring at the website of the journal The Economist.  Rob Tisani is right to draw critical attention to Shell's argument for a cautious approach to same-sex marriage.

As he notes, Shell employs a catastrophic straw man to imply that acceptance of same-sex marriage will have unforeseen cultural consequences, particularly in its effects on long-held societal understandings of marriage as linked to procreation.  Because the venue in which Shell is making this argument is an influential one, and because the argument she pushes here--that same-sex relationships are essentially self-involved and non-generative, and therefore undermine the "traditional" definition of marriage as about nurture of children--often goes unchallenged when presented in rational-seeming language in centrist cultural discussion spaces, this argument deserves careful attention. 

Shell frames her argument as a response to Jonathan Rauch, who calls for societal acceptance of gay marriage as he argues that marriage is (per Shell's summary of Rauch) "essentially, a legally enforced, long-term relationship of mutual aid and support between two sexual partners."  In Shell's view, this definition of marriage represents "a radical redefinition of marriage" that transfers the emphasis from what "has been understood and practised almost universally"--its "main conjugal concern"--to a primary focus on "relieving adult anxiety about facing catastrophe alone" and offering mutual support of one spouse to another.

For Shell, it's unambiguously clear where the weight of the Christian tradition falls: the "traditional Christian" definition of marriage appeals to divine authority for its understanding of marriage as "a monogamous, heterosexual and devotional relationship directed towards the rearing of children."  And so the "radical redefinition of marriage" proposed by those who call for legalization of same-sex marriage will have "likely consequences" for the "traditional" understanding of marriage, consequences that need much more reflection--notably, the "radical redefinition" of marriage will undercut the longstanding "traditional" Christian understanding of marriage as about procreation, and the recognition of liberal societies that the sustenance of civil society depends on raising children who will be responsible citizens of the future.

What to say about this argument, which is hardly novel, but which continues to exert strong influence in our culture as a quasi-rational argument against precipitous movement towards full societal acceptance of gay marriage?  First, I think it's important to note that this argument represents the view not of religious adherents adamantly opposed to any acceptance of gay and lesbian persons at all, but a moderate centrist position that, in its effects, does, however, adamantly reinforce the exclusion and intolerance of those on the political and religious right who resist any movement at all towards greater social acceptance of those who are gay and lesbian.

This argument, couched in terms of reason and scholarship, ultimately ends up not far at all from where the eminently unreasonable and ill-researched arguments of people of faith suspicious of gay and lesbian persons and opposed to human rights of gay and lesbian persons end up.  Shell's argument against same-sex marriage illustrates in a very clear way a thesis I have promoted repeatedly, for some time now, on this blog: namely, that academics and members of faith communities who espouse a centrist approach to issues like same-sex marriage ultimately ally themselves with those on the political and religious right, while remaining impervious to the insights of those on the political and religious left.  

Second, I think it's important to note that Shell's argument here is a version of the argument that, as I've also repeatedly proposed on this blog, now dominates the approach of the Catholic intellectual and media elite to gay and lesbian questions.  As I've noted, when open, honest discussion of same-sex marriage (and of the unjust treatment of gay and lesbian persons within Catholic institutions) does finally break forth in the discussion spaces of the Catholic center, it's not at all uncommon to observe powerful figures of the U.S. Catholic intellectual and media elite parachuting into these discussions to ask where women and children fit into the picture.

As if, ipso facto, any opening to acceptance of same-sex marriage (and gay persons and gay lives and gay relationships) is inimical to women and children.  Since gay men (and gay men are almost always the unacknowledged focus of preoccupations with the ostensible catastrophe that will happen when we endorse gay marriage) are, as we all know, disinterested in if not downright hostile to women.  And therefore disinterested in having children.

As if gay men are, ipso facto and as we all know, self-involved.  Caught in perpetual adolescence.  Unable to reach full adult development.  And therefore erotically fixated on members of the same sex because they are self-involved.

And so, of course, when they ask permission to marry and ask for social approval of their relationships, they are asking first and foremost for approval of their narcissism.  Children are not part of the picture because gay marriage can be about nothing else than the mutual support of two spouses whose relationship is not and can't be procreative.  

There is a whole universe of unacknowledged suspicions--and outright prejudices--hidden within the centrist Catholic proposal that all thinking about sexual ethics should continue to be framed by the procreative norm, even when, astonishingly, those proposing this framing of sexual ethics are themselves married (heterosexual) Catholics appealing to the magisterium to understand that they will not and need not always conduct their own sexual lives with the intent to procreate!  Running through the centrist Catholic understanding of sexual ethics today, with its appeal for acceptance of non-procreative sexual activity on the part of heterosexual married Catholics, but its insistence that all homosexual relationships are ipso facto self-involved and non-generative, are vicious, unacknowledged rumors about who and what gay human beings are (and gay men, in particular).

Stereotypes that vitiate the discussion of sexual ethics within a Catholic context because they are never brought to the table for open discussion.  Stereotypes that vitiate the discussion of sexual ethics because they refuse to admit that heterosexual persons (and heterosexual males, in particular) enjoy unmerited power and privilege in Catholic institutions, and that these institutions simultaneously practice overt and often harsh discrimination against human beings who happen to be gay or lesbian.

Professor Shell's argument is situated within this prevailing argument of the American Catholic intellectual and media center today.  Her suspicion that openly gay men such as Rauch, who call for societal approval of same-sex marriage, are primarily interested in the mutual support afforded by marriage to spouses, and not  at all in the procreative dimension of marriage, is congruent with the suspicions of the current American Catholic intellectual and media elite.  

Her suggestion that social calamity will ensue if society accepts same-sex marriage--her suggestion that accepting same-sex marriage represents a "radical redefinition" of marriage that is antithetical to the "traditional Christian" understanding of marriage--fits neatly with the presuppositions and unacknowledged (but clearly apparent) suspicions of the American Catholic intellectual and media elite, as that elite entertains the question of same-sex marriage.  

And, unfortunately, these discussions of the purported social catastrophe that will result if self-involved gay couples are permitted to marry are vitiated from the outset by the unwillingness of those promoting the traditional-definition-vs.-projected-calamity thesis to talk openly about several large, clumsy elephants in the centrist living room.  There's first of all the fact that the "traditional" definition of marriage has long since included heterosexual couples who cannot or do not intend to procreate.

And no one has ever raised an eyebrow as these couples have freely married.  To be specific: no one has proposed that permitting heterosexual couples to marry, who either cannot or do not intend to bear children, threatens the longstanding definition of marriage.  Or that it will have catastrophic consequences for traditional marriage and for procreation--though, on the face of it, the choice of faith communities and of society at large to marry non-procreative heterosexual couples intuitively threatens the "traditional" definition of  heterosexual marriage as all about procreation far more powerfully than would the choice to marry couples of the same sex.  Many of the former are, after all, capable of procreation.

Curiously, as we suddenly raise our voices in alarm at the presumed threat posed to "traditional" Christian marriage by same-sex couples, we seem not to notice the high proportion of heterosexual couples perfectly capable of procreation who have been choosing in recent years not to have children.  Or to have children according to their own schedule and not the "natural" schedule of procreation.  (And, by the way, an increasing number of same-sex couples are raising children--something never acknowledged in these discussions about the calamity that will ensue with the "radical redefinition" of marriage--and the exclusion of their parents from marital status affects those children in manifold negative ways.)

And the high proportion of heterosexual couples perfectly capable of procreation who have been choosing in recent years not to have children includes a very large majority of married Catholic couples, though the "traditional" argument about procreation as the most significant norm to frame all sexual ethical discussions is strongest in the Catholic community.  Even as we talk about the sudden emergence of a threat to "traditional" marriage unparalleled in human history--the appeal of couples of the same sex to marry--we don't talk at all, curiously enough, about the all-important fact that stares us in the face in recent demographic data, the fact that large numbers of married heterosexual couples in developed nations are choosing either not to have children or are strictly limiting the number of children they have.

Which development poses more of a threat to the "traditional" notion of marriage, I wonder--social acceptance of same-sex marriage, or social acceptance of the uncontested right of heterosexual couples who cannot or do not choose to have children to marry?  Why the sudden discovery of a non-procreative understanding of marriage that will affect "traditional" marriage in a catastrophic way, I wonder, only when couples of the same sex ask to marry?

Also never acknowledged in these discussions of the Catholic center is the clear, easily proven fact that Catholic institutions--including numerous Catholic academic institutions, at one of which, Boston College, Professor Shell teaches--practice discrimination against gay and lesbian faculty members, staff, and students.  And that the U.S. Catholic bishops are even now lobbying for the "right" of Catholic institutions to continue such discrimination (and here).  So that there's something not quite . . . well, seemly . . . in the willingness of married heterosexual people working in Catholic institutions to argue for the continuation of a procreative framework for sexual ethics which simultaneously tags each and every gay relationship and gay person as less than normative and outside the moral center, while it also leaves room for heterosexual couples to choose when and if they will exercise their procreative options.

It's not seemly to discuss these issues as if they are mere abstractions, I'm proposing, when real-life human beings right in our midst, as we discuss these issues, are affected by the abstractions in deleterious ways--even as we refuse to discuss those deleterious effects.  Or even pay any attention at all to the real-life human beings we're denigrating, excluding, and treating unjustly as we engage in our rational-sounding   but prejudice-laden intellectual discussions.  When we ourselves enjoy astonishing unearned power and privilege due to the norms we keep defending, but which we demand the right to alter and interpret according to our own needs as married heterosexual couples, while we arbitrarily exclude all same-sex couples from that right from the outset.

Justice is not served by many of the arguments now emanating from institutions of the American Catholic center, vs. same-sex marriage.  It is not served, above all, by the conspicuous (and vitiating) tendency of these arguments to continue to treat gay and lesbian human beings as if we are not even in the room, as these arguments about us, who we are, what we do and want, and what is owing to us, roll forth.  Nor is it served by the refusal of the American Catholic center to look honestly at abundant data which demonstrate that non-procreative understandings of marriage have become commonplace in Catholic life, while no one speaks of the catastrophe that these understandings portend for society at large--no one speaks of catastrophe until same-sex couples ask to be married, that is.

Nor is justice served by ignoring the actual, easily proven and widespread discrimination that Catholic institutions continue to enact against those who are gay and lesbian.  And institutions that do not build towards justice and will not even talk about the injustice enshrined in their own practices can hardly have bright futures, when they profess to be all about justice.

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