Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Marriage Equality Debate, Nature, and Reason: Historical Perspectives

One of the primary props of those arguing against marriage equality in the U.S. today is the constantly advanced argument that the "natural order" established by God dictates that marriage must be between a man and a woman, and tampering with that natural order will throw everything in the society that disregards natural order into chaos.  A corollary of this argument is that we know this "natural order" not only by divine revelation, but by reason, as well.

And so though many people of faith oppose marriage equality on the ground that scripture and religious tradition forbid same-sex marriage, people approaching marriage from a non-religious perspective can, so this argument has it, make common cause with religious groups to oppose same-sex marriage.  Since reason shows even the non-religious what natural order demands.

These arguments, which originate with Catholic natural law theology, are everywhere in anti-gay movements these days.  They crop up in a rather sketchy, logic-challenged form, for instance, in two recent postings of the leader of the U.S. Catholic bishops Timothy Dolan at his Gospel in the Digital Age site.  

I discussed the first of these postings several days ago when I noted that Dolan had recently issued a blast against the current proposal to extend the rights and benefits of civil marriage to same-sex couples in New York.  That blast speaks of Dolan's notion of marriage as a "definition as old as human reason and ordered good."  In a subsequent Fathers' Day posting at his blog site, Dolan informs readers that, in opposing same-sex civil marriage, he's merely defending "nature's understanding" of the institution of marriage.

What this argument from nature, reason, and venerable tradition never refuses to admit, of course, is that definitions of what is natural and reasonable have shifted constantly in every field imaginable over the course of human history.  And that venerable notions stamped with the seal of nature and reason (not to mention divine revelation) which were held as essential to the fabric of civilized cultures for millennia have been discarded when the human community began to recognize that these notions comprised insupportable prejudice against a particular group.  Regardless of what the scriptures and traditions of various religious groups maintain to the contrary . . . .

Two cases in point would be the longstanding defense of slavery (and, later, racial segregation) as an institution biblically mandated, practiced consistently from the dawn of human history, and congruent with (and even demanded by) nature, since reason informs us that the natural world is so ordered that some are endowed with talent and virtue that mandate their domination of those less endowed.  The function of an ordered society depends on such domination--even to the extent of enslavement of the subordinate group of people--this argument from nature and reason maintained for centuries in Judaeo-Christian cultures, until it was finally decisively rejected by the social mainstream.

Similar arguments have been made for years on end about the place of women in the world--arguments that use scripture and religious tradition to argue that women must submit to and be governed by men.  Arguments that see male domination as "nature's understanding," to echo Archbishop Dolan, as a "definition as old as human reason and ordered good."

What many people who are now trying to assess and understand the pros and cons of these and other arguments about marriage equality often don't realize is that very similar arguments have been part and parcel of our culture's discussion of ideas about marriage itself, right up to the recent past--of our culture's discussion of ideas about marriage itself now considered outmoded, illogical, anything but reasonable and natural.

A case in point: as Jeremy Hooper notes at his Good As You site two days ago, as recently as 1973, New York Supreme Court justice Margaret Mary J. Mangan ruled that the state of New York was right to permit women to marry at age 18, but to require men to be 21 years old at the time of marriage, because "natural order, designated by both history and reason," dictates such laws.  For those interested in reading more about this case--Friedrich v. Katz--a case summary is at the Find a Case website.

And as Steve Breyman points out at the OpEd News site yesterday, Archbishop Dolan's appeal to nature and reason as trump cards to keep same-sex marriage at bay ignores shameful strands of Catholic history in which  Catholic officials made common cause with other religious groups to defend slavery as biblically mandated and "nature's understanding," a "definition as old as human reason and ordered good."

Breyman notes that uring the debate about slavery that led up to the American Civil War, Rev. Richard Furman, a leading Baptist divine of the American South, stated the Southern pro-slavery position succinctly by noting, "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example."  And several years later, as the war broke out, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith added Catholic fuel to the pro-slavery fire by writing, "Slavery itself . . . is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law."  

The definition of what is considered natural, reasonable, and according to divine revelation changes over the course of human history.  It is not only ahistorical and illogical, but disingenuous, for those opposing marriage equality to pretend otherwise.  Just as it is disingenuous for many people of faith to refuse to admit that faith communities have sometimes been entirely on the wrong side of history, at the wrong end of the moral arc of history, when they have promoted prejudice, discrimination, and the unjust subordination of one group of human beings to another in the name of God.

The position now being taken by the leaders of the Catholic church regarding the human rights of gay and lesbian persons around the globe--a position that promotes prejudice, discrimination, and the unjust subjection of a stigmatized minority group to the majority--is shameful.  It is one for which later generations of Catholics will be obliged to apologize, just as Catholics now apologize for the church's previous defense of slavery, the subordination of women to men, anti-semitism, etc.

If Dolan and his allies in the National Organization of Marriage succeed in their current strategy of maneuvering behind the scenes to block a vote about marriage equality in the New York legislature, this maneuver will very quickly be seen by most Catholics and by many members of the public as a pyrrhic victory (see also here).   If the bill now before the New York legislature fails even to come to a vote, this will rightly be seen by many observers as a victory for NOM and the bishops, something they have accomplished through behind-the-scenes finagling and bullying.

Meanwhile, the tendency of the moral arc of the universe in the debate about the human rights and human dignity of LGBT people is increasingly clear.

It is not, unfortunately, the direction in which Dolan and those Catholics for whom he speaks intend to head, with their defense of bigotry and oppression.  And for this, their church and its future adherents will soon be paying a very high price, indeed, at the judgment seat of history.

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