Obergefell and New Identities

Obergefell and New Identities June 27, 2015

I would not have known this yesterday, but reading Slate on the morning after an epochal culture-war defeat can be good for the soul. In her analysis of the dissenting opinions in Obergefell, Dahlia Lithwick makes a shrewd and pertinent observation. “Everyone,” she notes, “writes about how this decision will affect them and people like them.”

Well, why not? One striking feature of the majority decision was the explicit concern shown by Justice Kennedy for the quality of human experience, particularly in the forms of dignity and loneliness. Rather than argue over whether he was right or wrong to do so, we Catholics might as well run with it, asking ourselves just as explicitly whether or how our the quality of our lives, and the life of our Church, will change in the new matrimonial free-for-all.

All the justices who wrote opinions seemed anxious to protect marriage-equality outliers from any taint of bigotry. That was kind of them, but their influence doesn’t (and shouldn’t) extend to the editorial policies of newspapers, like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s Penn-Live/Patriot News, which has announced its refusal to print any letters or opinion piece opposing gay marriage as “wrong/unnatural.” There’s also the mob to worry about. It had its way with Brendan Eich and Memories Pizza. Who knows who’s due to be clobbered next?

On an institutional level, it could get even worse. Simcha Fisher, usually the last to spaz out over these things, warns that the Church’s opposition to gay marriage could cost it its tax exemption. Not only would that diminish its ability to perform charitable works, the operating costs would be passed along to the believer. If you think the Church already looks like the GOP at prayer, imagine how it’ll look once abandoned by those who find membership out of budget.

Honestly, I despise catastrophizing. It feels so chickenshit. Worse, it practically begs on its knees for someone to come along and list all the indignities, from workplace discrimination to physical attack, that gays and lesbians continue to face. I have gay friends. Some are happily married and pleased as punch to know their vows will be respected wherever in the US they travel. In unguarded moments, I find it impossible not to feel happy for them. (Those rainbow memes all over Facebook are just too jaunty to frown at.) Nevertheless, for me and my tribe, these negative possibilities are real and deserve to be spelled out.

Most of them will take months or years to realize. The more immediate threat is a loss of identity, a subject we’ve all been reading a lot about lately. For as long as the culture war has raged, a big part of the Church has defined itself as the age’s opposition. Much as I found it annoying sometimes, I picked up the habit myself. Now that the culture war is mainly over, we’re like the washed-up celebrity stopped on the street by some rube and asked, “Didn’t you used to be So-and-So?”

Taking the long view, of course, the Church remains what it’s always been: the Mystical Body of Christ. Its job remains the same as it’s always been: to win converts. Many people, having foreseen the Church’s slide toward the margins – which, let’s face it, hasn’t exactly been sudden – have been taking up the role of creative minority as though born to it. Here on Patheos, Melinda Selmys rolls out a program aimed at removing obstacles to traditional marriage for luckless proles. Speaking as a luckless prole, I must say it’s not too shabby for the morning after.

Also worth a mention here are those Catholics who have never had any time for the culture war, at least not when it concerned sexual ethics, but who nonetheless poured their time, talent, and treasure into ministries that help the poor, the environment, undocumented immigrants, etc. Now that gay marriage has become a moot point, maybe we can let them point the way forward. (Inshallah, they won’t lord it over us.)

This all sounds lovely on paper. But the difference between standing athwart history yelling, “STOP!” and standing in the corner whispering, “Got a minute?” is a big one. I, for one, am not going to be able to make the transition so easily. It will take time before I get it through my head that the Church has come down in the world.

Catholics love ritual and ceremony, so maybe the thing to do is acknowledge the change formally. The Church loves military metaphors – it is, after all, the Church Militant. We can always borrow from the Gyokuon-hōsō, Emperor Hirohito’s announcement that Japan was withdrawing from World War Two. Among other things, His Imperial Highness said:

The hardships and sufferings to which Our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great…However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.

In point of fact, Japan ended up doing all right. Also note: at no point did the emperor ever use the word “surrender.” So praise the Lord, and spare the wakizashi.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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