Fighting Gay Marriage Is a Lost Cause
Changing attitudes toward sex in the 20th century, and especially since the (latest) sexual revolution, have led to the slow abandonment of this philosophical anthropology. Fewer and fewer Americans believe that marriage is rooted in an overarching order in the world. This change is especially uncomfortable to many Christians, whose theological anthropology (marriage is created by God for the good of human beings and the good of the human family) could be easily squared with the modern philosophical anthropology. Uncoupled from that philosophical anthropology, many Christians have found themselves scrambling for ways to respond, and even developing theological responses to the changing American attitudes. To be sure, some have embraced these attitudes as reflective of a need to continue to develop Christian theology, so that it more adequately reflects what they perceive to be perennial flaws in the theology of sex. In their view, Christian theology ought to accommodate itself to include the blessing of many different kinds of sexual relationships, rather than the more specific permanent male-female relationship known as marriage in the New Testament.
Others, however, believing that modern attitudes toward sex depart significantly from the Christian tradition, find themselves needing to simply assert that these modern attitudes, while gaining in popularity, are fundamentally flawed. And in honesty they must therefore assert that as these modern attitudes become the law of the land (in a growing number of states), their own views of marriage represent a countercultural posture.
A countercultural posture is not new to Christian history. For if Christians indeed think in trans-historical terms (what God is doing over human history, not what's popular opinion), then there is no scandal in the humble admission that our focus need simply be on developing good attitudes toward sex, good practices of interpersonal relationship, and good marriages. By extension, our shared witness to the wider culture will be one of persuasion, rather than coercion through the force of law.
I believe that the strength of the historical development of Christian anthropology lies in its thorough exploration of the dynamics of desire, and especially sexual desire. Simply put: I find the New Testament model of marriage to be responsive to both individual and social goods in ways that contemporary American attitudes are not. People desire lots of things, but only some of them bring life; and societies do well to encourage those that bring life.
The permanent sexual relationship of marriage between men and women is regarded in both the Old and New Testaments as a close analogue for the relationship between God and people, such that over time the Church came to understand marriage as a sacrament: a sacred symbol that serves the goods of individuals, families, societies, and the human family as a whole. By agreeing to marry, men and women take on social roles that call them to the kind of covenantal love that God shows. They further accept the possibility that their love will lead to the raising of children.
In a real sense, the linking of sex and procreation is a key example of that social encouragement, and the blurring or dissolution of that link is destructive to individuals, families, and societies, especially for children. The key opposition is not to homosexuality, but to the social acceptance of sex that is not ordered toward procreation.
For that reason, Catholic opposition to contraception is an important (if unpopular) element in that way of thinking. Its biblical, doctrinal, philosophical, and theological roots are, in my view, without question. The only question today is whether it remains a consistent response in a world of virtually unrestrained sexual desire.
I believe it does. Resistance to contraception is part of the logic that sees sexual desire as a privileged manner of healing the rift between men and women, as well as of orienting one's life toward goods beyond oneself, through family-making and the accompanying participation in social structures. Further, resistance to contraception is resistance to the social pressures that place the onus for unrestrained sex entirely on women, especially the most vulnerable. It is rooted in the recognition that sex without promise, without real love, does violence to people.
The Christian response, therefore, to American assumptions about sex and marriage must be the prophetic one: the pruning of sexual desire, for the sake of orienting all our desires toward a flourishing of community, especially its most vulnerable young members, and allowing our understanding of marriage, as rooted in the Bible and Christian tradition, to be a sign to the culture.
Tim Muldoon holds a Ph.D. in Catholic systematic theology and is an award-winning author and Catholic theologian of the new evangelization.