The Peculiar Logic of Robbie George

The Peculiar Logic of Robbie George June 30, 2011

Robbie George has weighed in on gay marriage in general, and gay marriage in New York in particular. He tries to make a nuanced internally consistent argument, but it doesn’t work. Basically, George blames the “ideology of sexual liberalism”, especially in its 1960s manifestation, for paving the way for same-sex marriage. For, he holds, if you follow this path to its logical conclusion, “the reality that has traditionally been denominated as “marriage” loses all intelligibility.” As a core argument, this has a strong kernel of truth. But I contend it is George himself who does not take the argument to its logical conclusion. Consider this point:

“Devotion to “sexual freedom” had been no part of the liberalism of FDR, George Meaney, Cesar Chavez, Hubert Humphrey, or the leaders and rank-and-file members of the civil-rights movement. Today, however, allegiance to the cause of sexual freedom is the nonnegotiable price of admission to the liberal (or “progressive”) club. It is worth noting that more than a few conservatives have bought into a (more limited) version of it as well, as we see in the debate over redefining marriage”.

This mirrors I point I have made often here, as have others. The Democrats ceased being the party of the worker and the middle class, and instead became the party of more elitist interests – interests based on the core ethic of individual rights. But George misses something profound. In tracing the developing of changing sexual ethics, he misses the connection between sexual individualism and economic individualism. It is no accident that the revolution in sexual ethics in the 1960s pave the way for the revolution in economic ethics in the 1980s. It has the same philosophical foundation – downplaying the notion of a harmonic social order in favor of the supremacy of individual freedom. The satisfaction of individual needs trumps all, and the sole purpose of the social contract is to set boundaries on individual freedom. From this perspective, bringing to sexual ethics what had long been present in economic ethics was quite natural. It was bound to happen. Getting the government out of the bedroom is the same as getting the government out of the wallet.

Catholics, of course, don’t accept this philosophical foundation. They believe in a cohesive social order, where the different parts form a cohesive unity, well-balanced and bound together by solidarity and subsidiarity. From a policy perspective, everything is channeled through the prism of the common good, not individual liberty. And for a few decades after the New Deal, this outlook rose to greater prominence in the United States. There was a feeling of solidarity, an instinctive distrust in the perils of industrial capitalism. It was a stance based on the lost value of prudence, as it acknowledged the real and legitimate attractions of socialism and other forms of social upheaval. This all came to a head in the 1960s, with a younger generation rebelling against what they saw as stultifying conformity (plus some grave injustices such as war and entrenched racism). But they through the baby out with the bathwater. As they strove for social justice, their focus on individual rights paved the way for a return of the cult of the individual, both sexual and economic. Ronald Reagan is as much a child of the 1960s as High Hefner.

But George doesn’t get this for a simple reason – he himself is enthralled by the dogmas of laissez-faire liberalism, in the boardroom if not the bedroom. Just look at his American Principles Project. This is a site that twins “the sanctity of human life and the integrity of marriage and the family” with “economic freedom, limited government, private property and the free market”, completely blind to the discontinuity in these positions and completely oblivious to the disconnect between Catholic social teaching and this flawed philosophical foundation. This philosophy – which the Church refers to as the “poisoned spring” of the “evil individualist spirit” – is just as wrong in the economic spehere as in the sexual sphere. It’s actually sad for a Catholic philosopher of George’s reputation to set up an outfit that simply echoes every awful Republican talking point on economic matters – including the truly insane, unfair, imprudent, and immoral tea party positions. George himself has acted as a court theologian to Glenn Beck, a man whose views on Catholic social teaching are well-known and scandalous. Is it really any surprise that some of the biggest backers of the gay marriage initiative in New York are Wall Street firms? This clear connection seems lost on George.

Let me now tackle another core problem with George’s narrative. He says the following:

“Once one buys into the ideology of sexual liberalism, the reality that has traditionally been denominated as “marriage” loses all intelligibility…As a result, to the extent that one is in the grip of sexual-liberationist ideology, one will find no reason of moral principle why people oughtn’t to engage in sexual relations prior to marriage, cohabit in non-marital sexual partnerships, form same-sex sexual partnerships, or confine their sexual partnerships to two persons, rather than three or more in polyamorous sexual ensembles.”

As before, there is some truth to this. But George has another huge blind spot. He ties it to New York being a “socially liberal state” , where its leading political leaders – Cuomo and Bloomberg – “openly cohabit with women with whom they are not married”. He sees them as an urbane, sophisticated, elite that look down their noses at the less enlightened unwashed masses. This, of course, is a dominant theme in current American politics on the right. It serves as a useful ruse to disguise the upward distribution of income toward the real elites – those with the money. Of course, this game wouldn’t work so well if the Democrats didn’t keep playing into their hands…

But the idea that marriage is viewed differently in “socially liberal” and “socially conservative” regions is bogus. Marriage is no longer seen as a social institution, a bedrock of the social order, in any place. It is a not seen as an institution whose primarily function is the bearing and rearing of children (and this function extends beyond the narrow nuclear family). It is certainly not seen as a total self-giving of one man and one woman, bonded for life. Not even close. Instead, it is seen as romantic individual wish-fulfillment, the search for the perfect mate that can satisfy sexually, emotionally, and economically. When every little girl wants to be Princess Kate, you know the institution of marriage has been debauched. It is about the perfectly American “pursuit of happiness”. It is an individual right. If this is what marriage is, then of course it should be open to same-sex couples. Those who oppose the extension of this version of marriage are not protecting traditional marriage at all – they are just highly uncomfortable with homosexuality.

While George focuses on Cuomo and Bloomberg, he misses the point that marriage in the so-called “socially conservative” states is even more debauched. Divorce rates are higher. Out-of-wedlock births are higher. Serial monogamy is the norm. Contraception is ubiquitous. There is nothing “elitist” about the sexual revolution and the re-definition of marriage among individualist lines since the 1960s. There is nothing partisan about it either. And it has nothing to do with the gays, even if George claims that a huge proportion of gay marriages are “sexually open” (if monogamous, does that mean there are OK?). The damage has been done long ago. What George calls “counterfeit” marriage has been with us for some time. Newt Gingrich probably did more to destroy traditional marriage than Andrew Sullivan.

One more point that annoyed me – George’s smug attack on fellow Catholics:

“There are many devout Protestants and even Jews and Muslims whose moral beliefs and practices are far more closely in line with Catholic teachings than Andrew Cuomo’s are. Andrew’s father’s views and policies gave scandal (as Catholics use that term) precisely because people took him to be a serious Catholic.”

Irony is lost on George. His interviewer is Kathyrn Lopez, a known supporter of torture, which is a clear and unambiguous intrinsically and gravely evil act. He himself cavorts with Glenn Beck and holds views on economic issues that (to put it charitably) are not exactly in line with the tenor of Catholic social teaching. And there is no way a Catholic can admire Ayn Rand. Of course, he mirrors Edward “One-Note” Peters here, who is yet again calling for somebody to be denied communion under Canon 915. Yet again, this uniquely American concern wants the Eucharist to be used as a political tool in a selective and partisan fashion. That’s the real scandal.

But if George is off base, how should Catholics respond to the coming acceptance of same-sex marriage? George may carp on about “marriage” not being marriage and he has a point. But then again, what he dubs “conservative” isn’t conservative either. Let’s get past the semantics. As Catholics, we must recognize that the culture does not see marriage as Catholics do, or are supposed to. Same-sex marriage is merely a symptom of this problem, not the problem itself. If we continue to single-out same-sex-marriage, we risk looking hypocritical. Why the years of silence about the culture of serial monogamy, followed by vehement outbursts against same-sex marriage? This is presents a unique opportunity for Catholics to be countercultural – to emphasize how our approach to marriage differs from the dominant cultural norm. Let’s stay positive and let’s stay optimistic.

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