Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Independence, Freedom, and Same-Sex “Marriage”

Boston is a great place to celebrate the Fourth of July. Along with most of the population, we relax in the warmth of midsummer by day and revel in fireworks and the Boston Pops by night—and with good reason. It’s the birthplace of America’s experiment as a democratic republic. Without the ideology of New England forged within the crucible of the Mother Country’s reactionary policies and without the relentless prodding of Boston’s John Adams, the Declaration of Independence would never have even made it onto paper. Even so, every colony paid a heavy price in the Revolution that followed. We are the beneficiaries of their largesse.

I wonder what they would have said about New York two weeks ago when same-sex “marriage” became legal. When I was a girl I thought that freedom meant I could live the way I wanted to. Of course, that idea came from history class, as we studied a nation’s liberation from a foreign ruling power. But I personalized the notion, so that as a teen I longed to break “free” of home, to run my own life. Need I say that the reality of adult responsibility was a rude awakening?

Independence Day came early for New York’s LGBT citizens. The legalization of same-sex “marriage” may have signaled a new independence, but not necessarily a new freedom. Our nation’s founders knew and practiced enough philosophy to make a distinction between the two and between freedom and license. Philosophy, however, wasn’t a major factor in the campaign for marital equality for gays. In contrast to a reportedly disorganized religious and civic opposition, an astute political plan and extraordinary funding, plus emotions and family ties, drove the vote that ended 33 to 29. (See the June 26 issue of the New York Times.) I’m not sure that there’s a family or circle of friends among us that doesn’t feel torn on the issue because of a gay or lesbian relationship in its midst. Still, with most of the country bracing itself for a similar firestorm, it’s worth searching for some clarity that can help us all.

I wonder how many people realize that when we opened the door to contraception, this controversy was inevitable. As nothing else, contraception divides the unitive and procreative purpose of marriage, or as the U.S. bishops mercifully chose to say, its love-giving and life-giving aspects (To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life). Once marriage is cast in terms of “love” without openness to generating life, any loving union between consenting adults can then qualify as “marriage.” Just to be really clear, when the bishops said “life” they weren’t referring only to its cultural, spiritual, or social dimensions, but to children generated by that union. This doesn’t imply that there shouldn’t be any family planning or that childless couples are not living a true marriage. It does say that, to be what it’s meant to be, the couple’s relationship has to be structured and lived in such as way as to welcome the possibility of new life.

Jeff Jacoby
Advocates for same-sex marriage are now taking as their heroes Mildred and Richard Loving, whose case led the Supreme Court to legalize interracial marriage in 1967. Last Wednesday Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe, took a swipe at the way these two moments in history are being linked. In perhaps the clearest, most cogent opinion I've read on the topic, he commented that because the state of Virginia, representing the status quo, had penalized interracial marriage, it had been in fact attempting to change the meaning of marriage. Far from denying that meaning, as the New York “law” has done, the Supreme Court’s decision on interracial marriage “affirmed it”* and restored its integrity in the public sphere. The state of Virginia had skewed the purpose of marriage to “promote white supremacy, a value completely alien to marriage. Marriage is designed to bring men and women together; anti-miscegenation laws frustrated that design….”* While gay and lesbian dignity must be protected in law, skewing the truth about the human person or human society does not ensure anyone’s dignity or freedom, not even theirs.

I’ve been meditating a lot these days on the words and actions of that champion of freedom, the Apostle St. Paul. With his sometimes flaming rhetoric, he traces out a few key themes:
1. Freedom from sin through faith in Christ. This is probably the aspect he’s best known for. As a sacrament of faith, Baptism effects that freedom through the power of the Holy Spirit and inserts us into the body of Christ as sons and daughters of God. We are freed from our sins, freed for faith, hope, and love in Christ and in the Church, the liberated People of God. “For freedom Christ set us free” (Gal. 5:1).
2. Freedom to be who God made us to be, with our potential, gifts, and relationships. This launches us light years away from just what we think we want to be, especially when what we want is contrary to what the God of love desires for us. Our best plans for ourselves pale in comparison with what marvels God has in mind. “What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, what the mind…cannot visualize, all that God has prepared for those who love him” (1Cor. 2:9).
3. Freedom to grow in our humanity, which is what Christianity empowers us to do when it’s really lived. We become truly human as God intends. We shed what “makes us wobble” in our humanity, as one sister put it to me this week, and grow in “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Each of us can probably point to something that would make us better persons—a course of study, a bad habit put to rest, an improved relationship—but because we’re shackled by something else (sometimes even by what we want)—circumstances, a compulsion, our weakness—we’re not free enough to do it. Clearly, then, freedom pertains to something other than our less-than-human desires. The social implications are just as clear.
In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI offers his own insights into a freedom, not arbitrarily or subjectively determined, but a “seeing” freedom, with “our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2).

Now, that’s fine for Catholics. But society consists of people from many faith backgrounds. How does religion factor in without imposing itself?

Every social issue is a moral issue that bridges religious divides. As a recognized moral authority, even in spite of the damning events of the last decade, the Church weighs in on what undergirds political solutions, even though it may not be partial to the solutions themselves. Even-handed pastors of other persuasions do the same, because they have both a right and a responsibility to. By the way, the Church’s leaders and teachers are also voters with opinions that can be and should be legitimately expressed. I remember Cardinal O’Connor writing in the Catholic New York about thirty years ago that he didn’t mind being beaten in the ring. Just don’t tell him he has no business in the ring!

Unfortunately in New York last month—and way before last month—the Church dropped the ball. That ball may be in the bishops’ court, but we’re all there with them. Like the rest of us, they’re overwhelmed by their responsibilities in an incredibly complex society and find that they spend a large part of their time just putting out fires. As Church we are still too accustomed to leaving the Big Issues of the day for them to handle, while the rest of us content ourselves with managing our own concerns.

They need our help. First, we all need to study how our contemporaries think and to accept the fact that the strict rules of logic are not completely compatible with the postmodern way of reasoning and emoting. Once we accept that, we can set about making ourselves better understood, not by tossing logic aside, but by finding a person’s tap root, and feeding it with what makes sense to us together. For instance, you and I may agree that a compelling reason for accepting a teaching of the Church (read: “marriage”) is its tradition that is thousands of years old. To a postmodern person whose reference points do not include history or authority, but the effort to be a better person or to make this world a better place now, our starting point will have to be centered on the truth we hold in common. Then our logic can be heard. Then we can craft our witness to the Gospel accordingly, with courage, creativity, and fidelity. A readable book in this vein is Secularity and the Gospel: Being Missionaries to Our Children, edited by Ronald Rolheiser. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago contributed one of the essays.

Second, we need to be proactive in deepening our understanding of faith in its particulars, not waiting to be spoon fed, so that we will readily recognize truth when we hear it and so that our moral/spiritual discernment can be honed. Too often sound bite theology or feel-good stories suffice for our exploration of faith. Then when weightier issues elbow their way into our lives, we have nothing to fall back on (cf. Mt. 7:24ff.).

Finally, we need to learn the language of media. Without a doubt the digital revolution has had a lot to do with our contemporaries’ insistence on moral self-determination. With the advent of social media, suddenly the speaker’s podium became accessible to anyone, informed or not. Together with situations once considered taboo that have been “normalized” on TV and film, this accessibility has conditioned people to relativize authority and adhere to their own standard of truth.

Forgive me if, in the light of this, I tuck in an appeal for the Education Fund on behalf of our sisters, who are working toward both their liberal arts degrees and advanced specialization. Our studies prepare us to do just what I described (and prescribed), to help prepare our people—God’s People—for all that lies ahead. Click here to learn more and to donate. As the weeks go by, I’ll be telling you more about this year’s Afternoon Tea with the Daughters of St. Paul, our annual fundraising event to support this cause.

May our families and neighborhoods be the “home of the brave” as we gently yet boldly witness within them to the truth that sets us all free.
* © 2011, The Boston Globe


  1. Dear Sr. Margaret,

    Many thanks for this posting. May the deliberate sacrifices we make to bring souls to Christ lead us and our companions in our spiritual journey to happiness in the company of the holy ones in heaven. Amen.

    Let us not waste our sufferings by offering them up for the salvation of humanity.

    Blessed Pope John Paul II & Blessed James Alberione, pray for us through Mary, Queen of Apostles. Amen.

    Margie Skeels-Pauline Cooperator - NYC

  2. Great post. I feel like logic and reason simply don't work in this argument because the other side is not using it in any way shape or form. Their argument is a childish one - "Johnny has a bike! I want a bike!" followed by a temper tantrum to which we are now giving in. Arguing that Johnny earned the bike or is willing to learn how to ride doesn't do any good because the argument is essentially emotional and devoid of reason.


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