So Obama is now in favor of gay marriage. I can’t say I was surprised. But what did surprise me was the wall-to-wall adulation on sites like Talking Points Memo. This issue is being cast as a huge deal, a watershed moment, a historical turning point.
Forgive me if I don’t join in. To me, this issue is simply not that important. It’s really a niche issue for comfortable middle-class people in their comfortable little world. With all the attention, you might forget the real issues that are still not being addressed. Economic issues like unemployment, poverty, inequality, access to health care, the rights of workers. Political issues like immigration, the death penalty, the lack of gun control, ceaseless war and foreign belligerence, the corruption of the system by monied interests. Global issues like global warming, global poverty, war and terror, the exploitation of workers and women. Cultural issues like consumerism, pornography, the ubiquitousness of violence.
Still, this evolution of thinking was perfectly predictable. Perfectly natural, even. Same-sex marriage does not redefine marriage. That has already taken place. The institution of marriage has been transformed from a social institution geared toward the bearing and rearing of children to an individualistic institution geared toward personal happiness and fulfillment. Once homophobia started to fade away, and gay people were finally treated with the dignity they deserve, then same-sex marriage – defined in this way – is a completely natural progression.
In other words, we now define marriage in purely Lockean terms, as the unfettered ability of the fully independent individual to choose and exercise power, to be fully in control of his or her possessions and persons. Marriage, in this sense, becomes a natural right and any prohibition against marriage becomes an unjust act of coercion, especially since there is no apparent competition with the rights of others.
Of course, this is far removed from the Catholic understanding of marriage. Here, any “right” to marriage cannot be distinguished from a corresponding “duty” to order the married life toward the good, including the good of society and the social order. It must be open to the bearing and rearing of children, and it must not create a false dichotomy between the unitive and procreative elements. Marriage is a sacred bond that cannot be dissolved, and for that reason requires a consent based on a deep understanding of the obligations that are being undertaken. As the Catechism summarizes, “unity, indissolubility, and openness to fertility are essential to marriage”. Marriage is not only a social bond – it is sacramental bond, giving it a superratural as well as natural dimension.
Here’s the problem – you would not know any of this from Cardinal Dolan’s press release yesterday, in which he found the “redefinition of marriage” to be “deeply saddening”. He asks for people to “uphold and protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman”. Does this embody the Catholic understanding of marriage? Not at all. He claims that the decision to recognize same-sex marriage constitutes a redefinition of marriage, without any acknowledgment that heterosexuals have done a good job redefining marriage themselves.
Nothing he says here would cause discomfort for those who believe that married should be entered into lightly or that divorce should be quick and easy. Nothing he says here would cause discomfort to adulterous serial monogamists like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who seem to have commodified marriage – trading in wives every few years for better models, just like used cars. Nothing he says here would cause discomfort to the vast majority of Catholics in the pews who use contraception as a matter of course (in fact, during the HHS mandate debate, Dolan went to great pains to say the issue was not about contraception).
He seems blithely unaware that this move is merely a natural consequence of a Lockean view of society, once we strip away some unjust prejudices against gay people. Of course, this Lockean view also underpins the individualist view of economic relations – the poisoned spring of the evil individualist spirit, as Pope Pius XI put it. It’s all related, all part of the same problem. In their own ways, both President Obama and Cardinal Dolan seem blind to these obvious connections.
Sometimes I think we need a “last alliance” of Catholic progressives and Catholic traditionalists to take on this dominant Lockean paradigm. I would not push for a rollback of same-sex marriage. That train has long left the station. The demographic forces are just too strong. Plus, I actually don’t feel strongly about this one way of the other – it does nothing to the institution of marriage that has not already been done, and I’m not in the business of picking on gay people.
But I would like to see a greater degree of reflection on the pitfalls of Lockean liberalism as it relates to the dignity of the human personal and responsibility to the social order. I would like to see a greater distinction between the Catholic and the secular ideas of marriage. And I would like to see fingers pointed in the right direction – not blaming Andrew Sullivan for the sins of Newt Gingrich.