[Turing 2013] Christian Entry #7

This is the seventh entry in the Christian round of the 2013 Ideological Turing Test.  This year, atheists and Christians responded to questions about sex, death, and literature.  


I’m choosing to assume that the question is not about the enforcement of limitations on an activity by definite political/religious authorities, i.e., not about the social/spiritual planning measures of committeemen attempting to promote beatitude or create a perfect Fourierist phalanx (or whatever else). The question of active “limitation” will be bracketed, and instead I will look at marriage as something people do, as individuals, and its significance and potential variability on that level.

Once the question of the regulation of marriage by some authoritative group has been cast aside, the discussion of marital issues becomes very different from what most of us are (I expect) used to. Regulation demands the use of political prudence, which seeks the good of the whole through the realization of the individual good of members in society, and the speculative exercise of political prudence in private debates stirs the heart of every layman to pontificate. Let’s skip that.

Before we launch into speculation about what marriage is, it’s worth asking how we know about marriage. For most of us, knowledge of marriage is based on constant, low level cultural formation. Our knowledge is not part of any innate idea; it is culturally dependent, and grasped only after being proposed and considered. This creates difficulties when we attempt to speak of “marriage in general” across cultures and time periods, because the various items grouped under the word “marriage” do not seem to share a common cultural ancestry, and thus cannot without hesitation be called one thing. And if I encounter a variety of marriage in which polygamy is accepted, or a peculiar set of taboos are in place, or find that certain behaviors/ideas form the primary context for the bond, it would be foolish to simply suppose that these differences are deficiencies or those alternative arrangements are perversions of the natural order. My knowledge of the natural order is culturally conditioned as well. My insights into human nature are derived from experience and observation. I cannot reasonably claim merely on the basis of my cultural background (setting faith aside) to have any privileged insight into the natural order of marriage or the limits of its variability.

I realize that on this point I am violating the highly confident natural law orthodoxy most of us know from The Abolition of Man(though Lewis does not mention polygamy, as far as I can tell), and endorsing (shudder) an idea borrowed from relativistic cultural anthropology. I guess it’s good this is anonymous! Well, things are about to get worse. Not only do I reject the epistemological underpinnings of much of contemporary Christian marriage apologetics, I also believe that polygamy is not, strictly speaking, contrary to the natural law. (Oh no!) It seems clear that the just man will care for his offspring, and therefore (given the length of minority among humans) it is in the interest of parents to protect their children by entering into a covenant. Since friendship is nothing more than the cooperative pursuit of a shared goal, it follows necessarily that these covenantal bonds will take the form of friendship, and that to the extent that this friendship flourishes it will benefit the child, who is its primary goal. And further, because friendship is a good in its own right, and this sort of friendship (formed between two for the benefit of their offspring) has a distinctive lasting and productive quality that enriches everyone involved, we can say that a secondary goal in this kind of covenant is the excellence of the friendship proper to it. For the sake of convenience, this sort of behavior, i.e., of forming a lasting promise between two for the protection and benefit of offspring, is what I call “marriage”. Now, one can make all sorts of fuzzy speculations about the psychology and biology of sex and weave together a lovely lovely theological-sexual poetics, expound on the erotics of the Trinity, the providential rhythms of coitus, etc. But it’s grandiose fluff, and frequently tends toward theological error, and I’m not going to do that.

So where does that leave me? Polygamy, while POTENTIALLY obstructive to the secondary (and in some cases also to the primary) end of “marriage” (i.e., that thing people do who agree to rear and protect their offspring together), does not INHERENTLY exclude it and therefore is not, according to the natural law, wrong. But according to Divine Revelation as mediated through the Church, a polygamous marriage arrangement cannot be sacramentally blessed. From this fact one can deduce that there must be some feature of monogamous marriage that is superior for the attainment of the SUPERNATURAL END of eternal beatitude, but it certainly does not follow that we can demonstrate that superiority or grasp it by the natural exercise of reason, or monogamy is inherently better for rearing children (though that seems like a plausible guess to me). I am content to leave it there.


This does not pertain to euthanasia, but it falls under the question as stated. I am of the (uncertain) opinion that it is permissible for the state to exclude by execution perpetrators of heinous crimes from membership in the community. While doing so probably is not an expression of charity (except in cases of necessity), it is very clearly the right of the community in protecting the common good.

Communities (aside from the Church) are not subjects of charity, and we cannot expect them to be in this life. Sovereigns ought to be merciful, in any case, wherever it does not damage the common good. As for Euthanasia itself, this is a very complex question. Being short on space, I’ll settle with an appeal to authority. In May 1980, the Holy Office issued a document (Iura et Bona, DS 4660ff.) which defines Euthanasia as “an action or omission that of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated.” The document goes onto clarify that the omissions referenced include only normal care, not experimental care, or “forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life.” The document grants that many people “may be led to believe that they can legitimately ask for death or obtain it for others” and that the presence of intolerable pain may reduce the guilt of the one seeking death, but cannot change the intrinsic evil of the action of killing an innocent. The document is brief and worth looking over. Themes from it were later taken up in JPII’s Evangelium Vitae.


You can vote on whether you think these answers were written by a Christian or an Atheist here.  Comments are open to discuss the substance of the post and for speculation about the true beliefs of the author, so please vote before looking at the comments.

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  • Brendan Hodge

    Christian. No question in my mind there.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    This one was truly fascinating. I had a hard time deciding between progressive Christian and atheist, but finally went for atheist, more on the grounds of it being a double-bluff that the respondent so clearly set out non-traditional arguments that it was almost a challenge to say “Can’t be an atheist, it’s too different to what you’d expect an atheist to expect a Christian would say!” 🙂

    But it’s a wonderfully constructed answer and really intriguing arguments. If you’re not an atheist, dear author, I apologise and may I say this could develop into a great exchange of views (or a screaming row, this being the internet)?

    • Progressive Christians probably wouldn’t use “the Holy Office said so” as an argument. And (having just spent half an hour with my copy of DH) I think this is a giant stretch but not technically condemned by the magisterium.

      My guess is a half-reactionary, half-contrarian Catholic, perhaps from the super flumina croud.

      • EMMilco

        I agree about “Holy Office” (not to mention the use of Denzinger-Schönmetzer reference numbers), but I’m wondering what in this you see as “a giant stretch”. Am I the only one who thought of this passage from the Summa? http://newadvent.org/summa/5065.htm

        • The part about polygamy not violating the natural law.

          If this had been said by a theoretically conceivable secular natural law theorist I would still disagree but it would be a fairly hard question. But this author presumably would agree that the magisterium extends to the natural law too. And then it gets harder:

          – In context Innozenz III, Gaudemus in Domino, DH 779 “[…]Nor was it ever allowed to anyone to simultaneously have several wives unless it was conceded to him by special revelation, which is sometimes taken for custum sometimes also for divine law[…]” can barely be interpreted in an “even in the old covenant” way, but then unless Gen. 2 witnesses to natural law, reading it as revealed law Dtn. 24 needs to dispense from really smells of emanations and penumbras.
          – While possible, divorce is sinful even for natural marriages. (Pius XI, Casti Connubii, DH 3711) Given that separation is sometimes licit, that fact would have no practical application if the natural law allowed polygamy.
          – There can be no non-sacramental marriage between two baptized people, so if there could be polygamous natural marriages we would have to assume baptism itself sometimes effects divorce. This would be in God’s power to ordain, but it would be big enough that we would expect to see it mentioned somewhere, which we don’t.
          – There is a canonical dispensation (CIC can. 1148) allowing polygamous people getting baptized to retain a unbaptized spouse other than the first one if staying with the first one would be a hardship. In this case they must remarry. The canon is grouped with those about the Pauline priviledge. This only makes sense if a natural marriage exists only with the first spouse.
          – While he does discuss the other option, the author of the Summa’s supplement you linked to actually agrees with me.

          All of this can technically be reconciled with polygamous natural marriage, but as I said, it’s a giant stretch.

          (And while the dismissal of the TOB is orthodox, it is a different kind of reactionary contrarianism than the one I like.)

          • EMMilco

            Interesting. It seems like there are two different possible meanings of “natural law” at work here: (1) Natural law as determining what is right for all men everywhere, and what is sinful, vs. (2) natural law as the knowledge which emerges naturally from human activity, concerning what must be right and what must be excluded. The first seems to have more to do with Thomas’s nifty definition of natural law as “the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law”. The second seems to have more to do with Paul’s saying in Romans 2:14-15.

            As for the Supplement, the corpus of the first article ends, “It is therefore evident from what has been said that plurality of wives is in a way against the law of nature, and in a way not against it.” That seems pretty much in line with what’s said above, or close enough for the two to work out their differences.

            I still don’t see that there has to be a doctrinal stretch. It would be pretty foolish to publish the above as a worked-through analysis of marriage and the natural law, though.

          • OK, looking at it that way I agree the stretchesy charge is overblown and downgrade it to a boring “it’s more complicated than that”.

          • Martha O’Keeffe

            When the arguments from the liberal side are made regarding marriage equality/same-sex marriage/gay marriage/whatever you’re having yourself, and using Scripture to back it up (or contrariwise, knocking down the usual quoted verses against same-sex behaviour), I have always felt that there is a much stronger and easier case to be made for polygamy than for “David loved Jonathan, Naomi loved Ruth, these are accepted and blessed same-sex relationships we can point to in the Scriptures” extrapolation. They also, with some justice, point to the concession the Anglican Church made regarding polygamists in Africa who converted to Christianity.

            However, where I part company with the “polygamy does not violate the natural law” derivation is that I consider this was a concession made to human weakness (as in Matthew 19: 8 about divorce: “He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”) and, post-revelation and the Gospel and living under Grace not Law, we don’t get to go backwards.

            Now, where we can get into a fascinating discussion is does this apply outside of talking about sacramental marriage, does it apply to a secular, non-Christian/post-Christian society? Is marriage as currently understood and practiced so different from what it has traditionally been understood to be, that we can no longer speak of civil marriage/marriages recognised by the state and given status in the particular law of a country as “marriage” and so concessions on polygamy, same-sex marriage, and the rest are not alone permissible but inevitable?

            Since there were laws punishing adultery as a criminal offence but these have been allowed to fall into desuetude or struck off the books, since the introduction of ‘no-fault’ divorce so that it is not necessary to allege adultery to dissolve a marriage (although you can still sue for an ‘at-fault divorce’ with adultery as one of the grounds), since “that annual blister/marriage with deceased wife’s sister” was finally settled by the 1907 Act (and ironically cut the ground from under Henry VIII’s plea that the grounds for annulling his marriage with Catherine were that it was incestuous to marry his brother’s widow) – why do we cling on to the law against bigamy? Why shouldn’t we make a further change that if people are already living in a ménage à trois and are de facto living as spouses and have formed a household and a family, we legally recognise this?

            Laws against bigamy/polygamy don’t act to support public morality; there are plenty of people with multiple sexual partners, either formally or informally. As our present restrictions on divorce have led to “serial monogamy”, why on earth should John or Sally have to divorce Annie or Tim if they fall in love with and wish to marry Rachel or Bill? And what about someone who comes from a country where he is legally married to three women who are all considered his wives, yet we insist that if he wants to live here, he has to pick one as his ‘real’ wife and the others are – well, what is their status?

            I don’t necessarily agree with the above, but you can certainly make a robust argument about it 🙂

      • Help a non-Catholic out: could you describe this super flumina crowd to me? I read their description of Zion and it didn’t help much; it reminded me vaguely of the Inklings (especially the bit about abstaining from alcohol being a vice), and I can see how you’d call them half-reactionary, half-contrarian, but I can’t make much more sense of them. What’s your take? (And anyone else, please chime in.)

        • I don’t know them in real life either, just from writings there and on some other places on the intertubes. Don’t know anything about Zion either.

          Some of them (mostly the men?) are the kind of folk that would write this others (mostly the women?) add in one third modern academic leftism complete with jargon.

          Doctrinally orthodox, culturally now-bound (drats, modern means something different in this context) but then again generally contemptive of the sugary culture of modern Catholicism and cultural standards of decorum for pius Catholics. Generally fight-happy. Demonstratively eccentric. Students at famous east-costal American universities or recently been so. Can get me to buy them beer if they ever visit Germany.

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        Oh, the casual dismissal of the Natural Law theology made me gape and stretch my eyes, Gilbert 🙂

        Why it was so tough for me to decide ‘real or spoofing?’ is because of what Brendan Hodge says, the fluidity and familiarity of the use of language – it doesn’t sound like “I mugged all this out of a book or online”, it sounds like someone comfortable with the concepts.

        But definitely interesting and maybe the writer would like (with Leah’s permission) to come back when the test is over and talk about this a bit more so we can all get stuck in (to the debate, not into him, her or they)?

  • Ryan Morgan

    It is a tossup for me. In the end, I voted Christian, just because I don’t think there’s all too many atheists familiar with Abolition of Man. But wouldn’t be shocked either way.

    • EMMilco

      I think plenty of Atheists are familiar with the Abolition of Man. And *definitely* atheists who follow this blog.

  • Tom

    I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that this is Sam Rocha.

  • Brendan Hodge

    One of the things that has me convinced this is a Christian is obvious familiarity with internal Christian arguments. For instance, “Now, one can make all sorts of fuzzy speculations about the psychology and biology of sex and weave together a lovely lovely theological-sexual poetics, expound on the erotics of the Trinity, the providential rhythms of coitus, etc. But it’s grandiose fluff, and frequently tends toward theological error, and I’m not going to do that.”

    It strikes me that this is pretty obviously a reaction to certain schools of extrapolation from Theology of the Body. I don’t think an atheist would be able to do a good job of subtly bringing up resentments relating to internal Catholic theological disputes.

    • While the quote is definitely a reaction to ToB, I think some atheists—particularly, say, those that hang around hereabouts—might have been in close enough proximity to enough Catholics to witness a few internal disputes.

      • Brendan Hodge

        True, I just think it would have been a more upfront reference in that case.

        Part of what I’m focusing on is the naturalness of references. And I think this comes off as someone who’s used to making slighting references to ToB to Catholic audiences.

  • Mary E.

    I had a curious response to this one. Although I didn’t think the answers weree entirely coherent, e.g., individual arguments were coherent but some connections seemed to be missing, I also thought that the essays were danged interesting. I’d have to do some re-reading before having coffee with this writer.

  • As an atheist, I found parts of this too bizarre to have been made up, so I voted “very likely Christian” – though I’ll allow this could have been an atheist who studied theology at some point and is parroting one or more former professors.

  • Jakeithus

    I felt like the last entry of a more progressive variety was likely Christian, but this one I’m thinking the opposite. Likely atheist.

  • Kristen inDallas

    The second response seemed Christian enough, I guess. But something from deep down inside just won’t let me believe that someone who loves God could possibly write that many sentences without hitting the enter key at least once.

  • Mariana Baca

    The entry felt very odd, sort of like an episode of the Big Bang theory: it references in-group jargon, but in a way that is awkward, like an out-group person piecing it together into what they think it should look like. But it could also be someone who writes in an off-topic manner. I voted likely atheist.


    Hehehe. Once again, I’m playing the I-personally-know-people-who-argue-like-this card. This is most likely a Catholic who takes Philosophy seriously.