Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The French Catholic Bishops' Document on Marriage Equality: My Response (2)

As I noted yesterday, I want to offer a response to the recently published statement of the Committee for Family and Society of the French Catholic bishops' conference after Jim Lopata's notice of my translation of the document has brought a significant number of readers to that translation. Meanwhile, I note that Jesuit Eric Sundrup also linked to my translation yesterday at his blog The Jesuit Post--though as he does so, Sundrup warns his readers "to compare any unofficial translation" against the original French document, and notes that his linking to my translation and excerpts translated by Tom Luce at the New Ways Ministry blog does not represent "an endorsement of these sites and their viewpoints."*

My comments yesterday noted the importance of what the French bishops have accomplished with their statement:

1. They recognize the value of honest, open, respectful dialogue between the Catholic church and the gay community. 
2. They acknowledge the misery inflicted on gay human beings by discrimination and prejudice (see the comments following the asterisk below for a contemporary real-life illustration of this point), and flatly avow that discrimination and prejudice have no place in the Catholic community. 
3. They recognize the value of gay relationships, and the need for these relationships to be strengthened and given some official recognition.

Even as I recognize these positive contributions of the French bishops' document, I have strong misgivings about some aspects of the bishops' analysis--in particular, about their understanding of the norm of equality in the debates regarding same-sex marriage, and about their argument that opening the institution of civil marriage to same-sex couples may undermine the common good by militating against legal structures that have long safeguarded the common good through their regulation of opposite-sex marriage and laws of filiation and inheritance.

At its heart, the bishops' argument is for same-sex civil unions that have official sanction and support of the state; but it is against the extension of the term "marriage" to those unions. The bishops recognize that in justice, committed same-sex relationships deserve official recognition and support because they are socially fecund: they contribute in manifold ways to the common good, and they deserve to be recognized and supported because of what they contribute to society.

At the same time, the bishops are worried that opening civil marriage to same-sex couples will create legal entanglements that work against longstanding principles of French law such as the presumption of paternity, a principle which assures that children born to a married woman are recognized by a husband as his children, and which clearly establishes the legal links between a husband, his wife, and his children in the important areas of inheritance and property rights.

As the bishops note,

Marriage has always had the social function of providing a framework for the transmission of life as it articulates, in the personal domain and the domain of inheritance, the rights and duties of spouses to each other and in relation to any children to come.

They also note that French law inherits the dominant assumptions of Roman law in these areas, and that  article 312 of the French Civil Code, which codifies the presumption of paternity, builds on assumptions of Roman law that bind the children of a mother to her husband juridically. This juridical binding assures clear lines of inheritance and transmission of property from fathers to their children (and  husbands to their wives).

What's striking about this analysis is how it overtly--if perhaps unselfconsciously--recognizes that the entire system of marital bonds, property rights, and inheritance arrangements is constructed around the pater. The principle of Roman law to which the bishops point as they talk about the presumption of paternity--pater is est quem nuptiae demonstrant--is about pater. It's about the father. It's about the male head of the family.

As with their Roman templates, French laws in the area of filiation and inheritance are designed first and foremost to assure paternal ownership and paternal claims--over a wife and over the children of a family. The law stresses the presumption of paternity. Inheritance laws are, quite literally, about patrimony.

And even though the French bishops note that the juridical traditions they're defending as foundational for well-ordered society have "enshrined prejudices and injustices towards women," they still defend these traditions as essential to the constitution of a sound civil society, and they maintain  that changes in marriage laws--particularly ones that would open civil marriage to same-sex couples--run the risk of  overturning the foundations of society. 

What I hear the bishops actually saying, however, is that any tinkering with venerable legal codes and assumptions about marriage that enshrine patriarchal principles run the risk of weakening the foundations of a well-ordered society. The real danger to which the bishops are pointing with their analysis here, it seems to me, is the danger that patriarchal assumptions and patriarchal ways of doing business long enshrined in legal codes of Western civilization are threatened by notions of equality that 1) recognize the essential equality of women with men, and 2) recognize the essential equality of gay human beings with straight ones.

The question is why removing men from their thrones represents the bouleversement of civilization as we know it. And the question is why same-sex civil marriage represents some kind of unprecedented threat to male entitlement, to patriarchy, to male domination, such that the extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples accomplishes what none of the other manifold changes to laws governing marriage and family have accomplished over the long course of Western civilization.

The bishops recognize, after all, that a number of other countries (e.g., the Netherlands, Canada) have crossed bridges to civil marriage for same-sex couples without having come apart at the seams--and in doing so, they have made arrangements for the recognition of parental rights that do not necessarily hew to the principles that the bishops defend as essential to the maintenance of the common good. To grant that other nations have extended civil marriage to same-sex couples without falling apart--and that they have done so while ditching laws that grant privileged status to heterosexual males--is implicitly to grant, it seems to me, the weakness of the central argument the bishops are advancing in this document.

Though the bishops make much of the complementarity of the sexes, as if that biological complementarity is a central aspect of Judaeo-Christian revelation, there is little in the long, complex history of Christian theology which builds everything around the biological difference between male and female as a central aspect of Christian faith. Viewed in light of Christian tradition, the fixation of some contemporary Christians (see the photo at the top of Dennis Coday's NCR "Morning Briefing" column today) on the biological difference between man and woman as a core tenet of Christian faith, an articulus stantis et cadentis, seems curious. It seems misplaced, if not downright perverse.

And, even if one granted that the biological difference between men and women is at the very heart of Christian revelation, that the church stands or falls on the recognition or refusal of this core principle, one has to wonder why gay marriage, in particular, represents a unique threat to that core principle, one which transcends all other threats to the principle over the course of Christian history. Why, for instance, does equality in civil marriage between homosexual and heterosexual persons represent a threat to biological gender difference (and therefore to procreation) that is patently more compelling than, say, the widespread acceptance of contraceptive use by heterosexually married couples?

What I'm working my away around to here is the principle of equality which is, the bishops admit, critically important to the debate about same-sex marriage--about marriage equality. The bishops grant the importance of the principle of equality to the debate about same-sex marriage, though they argue that equality is not the sole principle to be applied in complex debates about the common good (and they are surely right on this point).

Even so, they nowhere engage a central shortcoming of their proposal that civil unions be opened to same-sex couples while civil marriage be kept exclusively for heterosexual couples. This is the problem of separate but equal arrangements that, while they may appear just in principle, never function in just or equitable ways in real-life experience. 

The bishops might do well to listen to the testimony of those who remember accurately how the system of separate but equal education worked in the segregated South in which I grew up. I remember that system well. We whites had our own taxpayer-funded public schools. African-American citizens had their schools--separate from ours, but equal to ours. Or so we maintained.

When we had used our textbooks in the white schools to the point that they were tattered, dirty, scribbled over, and out of date, those textbooks were carted over to the black schools which were equal to ours while being separate. When our desks and school furniture broke down, they were handed over to black schools. When the equipment in our science labs was obsolete, it went to the separate but equal schools of African-American citizens--who paid taxes just as we white citizens paid taxes.

That's how separate but equal institutions of all sorts functioned in the segregated South. It's how all separate but equal arrangements of which I have any knowledge at all have always worked. I daresay that, if the French bishops did an historical sounding regarding how separate but equal arrangements worked for France's Jewish or Algerian citizens for many years, they might find something not altogether different from what I remember from my formative years in the American South.

And so, equality (and this is why I chose to head this two-part series as a series about marriage equality): it's hardly the incidental principle that I hear the French bishops taking it to be in their statement about same-sex civil unions. It's at the very heart of the debate about marriage equality in nation after nation today. And to broach the subject of equality is to ask Christian leaders including the French bishops why such extraordinary emphasis has been placed for so long--for the entire course of Christian history--on the rights and privileges of heterosexual males. And why the appeal for female equality and its concomitant appeal for gay equality represent such a profound threat to many leaders of Christian churches today, such that they now wish to identify the gospel itself with male entitlement, with male power, and with male privilege--with heterosexual male entitlement, power, and privilege.

Why does same-sex marriage represent an incomparable threat to such entitlement, power, and privilege, when the negotiations about marriage that the bishops fear and decry in this document on same-sex marriage have been going on for some time now in heterosexual marriages? The bishops focus fearfully, for instance, on what might happen in a society in which adoptive children do not know their biological parents, or in which they regard their adoptive parents as their real parents.

But these are hardly new questions. They are questions with which almost all societies have been dealing for years now, and with increasing force as heterosexual marriages have shifted, fallen apart, taken on new forms in the 20th century and the early 21st century. I suspect that, like me, many readers of this blog know people who have been raised by adoptive parents and who rightly regard those adoptive parents as their real father and mother (or real father and father or mother and mother), because of the love and care the adoptive parents have shown to them throughout their lives.

And society hasn't fallen apart as a result.

Nor will it fall apart if the leaders of Christian churches finally stop identifying the gospel itself with heterosexual male entitlement, power, and privilege, and recognize at last that the equality of men and women in the eyes of God, and of homosexual people with heterosexual people, is far more central to Judaeo-Christian revelation and to the good news of Jesus Christ than is the biological difference between men and women--which is talked about, after all, only to shore up heterosexual male domination of everyone else in the world.

* It's interesting to note that Mr. Sundrup issues his caution about my translation and my blog in the context of a posting emphasizing the need for Catholic love and compassion for and respectful dialogue with those who are gay! Mr. Sundrup notes that those who are gay often feel "left out or personally attacked" by some members of the Catholic church, who have failed too often to show love and respect for them.

And so I wonder: if Mr. Sundrup happened to have earned a doctorate in theology, and had labored for many hours over a translation that he then freely offered readers on his blog, only to have an inexperienced M.Div. student come along and avail himself of the resources of said translation while warning readers that it may be defective and that any recognition of the translation as a resource does not constitute an endorsement of the blog on which it's offered--how would Mr. Sundrup feel?

Would he feel loved?  Respected? Treated with compassion? Included? 

And (again) this in the context of a posting that applauds calls for respectful dialogue with those who are gay!

This is a fairly typical experience, I've found, for many of us who are Catholic scholars who happen to be gay, as we deal with the patriarchal, heterosexist institution. Many members of that Catholic institution often freely take what we freely offer, while implying that what we have to offer is defective solely because it happens to be offered by gay hands.

It's easy to talk about love in a self-congratulatory way, it seems to me, when one imagines that one has some kind of special corner on the love market (and, especially, the scholarly translation market) as a priest in the making.

Readers, please note: my linking to The Jesuit Post (or any other blog) does not constitute my endorsement of that site and its viewpoints.

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