Compare this exchange to the memorable lines of America's leading Bishop:Read on...
"Good for him," Dolan said. "I would have no sense of judgment on him," Dolan continued. "God bless ya. I don't think, look, the same Bible that tells us, that teaches us well about the virtues of chastity and the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people. So I would say, 'Bravo.'"
LETTERS in May 2015s FIRST THINGS
The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage” (March) is a clear articulation of the importance of marriage in Christian theology and the need for churches to remain faithful to Christian teaching. But for all that it gets right, the piece contains one line of argument that Christians should be on guard against. The authors write, “Christians have too often been silent about biblical teaching on sex, marriage, and family life.” It goes on, “In a few matters, we do not speak with one voice: We hold somewhat different views about the morality of contraception, the legitimacy of divorce, and clerical celibacy.” Finally, later: “An easy acceptance of divorce damages marriage; widespread cohabitation devalues marriage. But so-called same-sex marriage is a graver threat, because what is now given the name of marriage in law is a parody of marriage.”
Taken together, these quotes represent a dangerous line of argument, because same-sex marriage cannot be abstracted from the wider background of marital collapse enabled by widespread divorce and contraception. This is true both as a matter of principle and of prudence.
As a matter of principle, any argument against same-sex marriage that invokes the reproductive end of sex necessarily implicates contraception. Contraception frustrates reproduction no less than homosexual sex does. Therefore, to say that the morality of contraception is merely questionable but the morality of homosexual sex is clear is internally incoherent. And it’s not just pure logical consistency at stake, either. The Christian intellectual tradition has the sweep and grandeur of the Cathedral of Notre Dame; it is a space of cavernous beauty and monumental profundity. Anyone who takes even a step inside is immediately struck by the sense that something important happens here. You cannot separate the discussion of gay marriage from the full scope of Christian sexual ethics without limiting this sweep and grandeur.
As a matter of prudence, prioritizing the wrongness of same-sex marriage over divorce or contraception (or even masturbation) only serves to reinforce the claim that Christians are motivated by some kind of anti-gay animus when they defend traditional marriage laws. The best defense against that charge is an equally vocal concern for all the threats to marriage, and all varieties of sterile sex.
Many of the leading writers on gay marriage have spoken well about the need to limit no-fault divorce, and are clear about their moral opposition to contraception. Indeed, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh” makes several gestures in the direction I outlined above. For instance, the authors write, “Christians are implicated in this decline. Evangelicals and Catholics are more likely to divorce than they were fifty years ago. Moreover, Christians have adopted to no small extent the contraceptive mind-set that in society at large has separated sex from reproduction and so weakened the centrality and attraction of marriage.”
But these statements coexist with the ones I quote at the start of this letter, and that creates an ambiguity that has bedeviled the marriage movement. The authors contend that Christians have often been silent on marriage. When it comes to gay marriage, this is simply not true. The debate over gay marriage has consumed the nation for several years, and there has been no lack of Christian voices expressing the Christian view. That Christians are “anti-gay” seems to be one of the few “facts” this country knows about us. But when it comes to divorce and contraception, we have not always raised clear objections. The uneasy relation this document bears to those issues does not really correct that silence. It dances around it.
The Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage” was an appropriate summary of the many articles on this question in First Things.
But please allow me to express my disappointment that there was nowhere a recognition that there is a morally and theologically serious case for the validity of lifelong, monogamous gay relationships. In addition, there was no recognition of the tensions embedded in the text. Roman Catholics make the link between sexuality and procreation an absolute (thereby forbidding the use of contraception); Evangelicals allow contraception (and therefore implicitly concede that procreation is not necessarily a required possibility in every sexual act).
In addition, with the overwhelming majority of people continuing to enjoy heterosexual marriage, I am not persuaded that the biblical theme of gender complementarity, which is modeled between Christ and the Church, is under threat, nor that this theme is authoritative for all relationships. The biblical image of our “heavenly Father and children” does not require us to exclude the legitimacy of adopted children becoming part of a family. Finally, the statement needed to explain why this issue is both more significant and less open to disagreement than other issues over which Christians disagree, such as just war and pacifism.
In the long run, First Things must make a decision. First Things aspires to celebrate a creedal and orthodox faith. There will be friends who disagree with First Things on the issue of same-sex intimacy, but support it in other areas. I know plenty of gay and lesbian couples who are strong advocates of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The question is: Are such friends welcome in these pages? There has been very little signal thus far that they are.
Ian Markham Virginia Theological Seminary (of course)
R. R. Reno replies:
I do not speak for the members of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, but only as a member. So this must be read as a considered response of one person, not a statement by ECT.
The architecture of the Christian intellectual tradition admits of careful parsing. For this reason, I find Peter Blair’s claims unconvincing. The use of a condom in the sexual intercourse of a man and a woman has a different moral meaning than the intercourse of a man with a man. The first impedes by artificial means the intrinsic potential of the sexual act to give rise to new life. The second is an act that’s intrinsically sterile. The first enacts in an imperfect but real way the one-flesh union of a man and a woman, something Scripture suggests is fundamental to the human community. The second does something else entirely. In both regards, the procreative and unitive ends properly sought in our sexual lives are complex rather than simple, admitting of nuance and degree. For this reason, Evangelicals and others are not being incoherent when they allow for the use of contraception (a mistaken judgment) while judging homosexual acts immoral.
Casuistry aside, I find it very hard to understand how some Christians, perhaps most, fail to see the fundamental threat same-sex marriage poses to the biblical view of marriage. Divorce wounds marriage. Cohabitation and a contraceptive mentality reflect a private indifference to the goods of marriage. But same-sex marriage does something much more fundamental: It asserts public control over marriage, detaches it from the reality of our bodies as male and female, and remakes it into a purely affective union for the sake of . . . affective union.
Only the blind can fail to see the difference. Using pornography, a contraceptive mentality, premarital sex, divorce, adultery—all these transgressions ignore divine law, sometimes with a haughty disdain that says “To hell with traditional morality; I’ll do as I please.” Same-sex marriage is different. It insists on claiming the public sanction of the marital bond. Nobody is calling for a blessing of the condoms. Meanwhile, wedding photographers are being taken to court for failing to join same-sex celebrations.
Let me put this a different way. Onan reminds us that human beings have always sought sex without consequences—the contraceptive impulse. The Old Testament allows for divorce as a concession to human weakness, as have other religious systems. Prostitution, adultery, fornication: These are perennial. All reflect our failure to live in accord with the biblical view of sex and marriage. But same-sex marriage? It’s not an all-too-human failure. Instead it’s an assertion of human will, the conscription of a sacred institution to serve a contemporary ideology. Where is that to be found in the Bible? In the prostitution of Israel to Baal.
Blair worries that prioritizing the wrongness of gay marriage will make us seem anti-gay. Seem? Christianity is opposed to the contemporary ideology that equates us with our sexual desires and tells us we’re entitled to their satisfaction. We oppose the Gnosticism that says our bodies have no intrinsic moral meaning and are mere instruments in the service of our fine inner feelings. We assert the male-female union as normative, surpassed only by the sublime, supernatural vocation of the celibate life dedicated to divine service. Christianity can’t avoid being seen as anti-gay, because a failure to be “pro-gay” today is invariably regarded as “anti-gay.”
Christianity is “pro-person.” I am profoundly sympathetic to Christians who want to provide hospitality and companionship to our gay friends—and that includes friends who don’t obey biblical norms, and even gay friends who have married. I have such friends—along with divorced friends and friends who cohabit—and friends who have stolen, cheated, and lied. The company of the perfect is vanishingly small, and I’m not among them. But we need to get a grip on reality: We are the bad guys of the sexual revolution. We are the heretics of our time: We forbid when it is forbidden to forbid. No appeals to the great cathedral of Christian doctrine are going to change that.
Ian Markham is mistaken. The overwhelming majority of people do not enjoy heterosexual marriage. Forty years ago, 70 percent of American adults were married. Today 50 percent are. The decline comes from the collapse of marriage among the working-class and poor. Only those living in the gated moral world of elite America can possibly imagine that our grand experiment in sexual liberation has not come at a great cost to the most vulnerable. Gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich that will be paid for by the poor.
I’m glad Markham raises the question of whether First Things welcomes articles arguing for the validity of “lifelong, monogamous gay relationships.” I appreciate the delicacy with which he cordons off the question of gay marriage. But, no, we won’t. In the present climate, it is for all intents and purposes impossible for a person who publically dissents from gay rights orthodoxies to get a job teaching in higher education. It’s increasingly impossible to be the leader of a major corporation or to get a job at a major law firm. The New York Times certainly won’t publish the most modest demurrals from these orthodoxies. And I dare say one cannot find preferment in the Episcopal Church unless one subscribes to the same orthodoxies. Pretending that there is an honest public debate about the gay rights agenda is an act of dishonesty.
And not just dishonesty. There are many courageous people who have refused to capitulate to the ruthless Jacobin suppression of all dissent. Many have paid a heavy price, including gay writers who defend Christian teaching in our pages. Were we to play the idle game of “dialogue” on this issue, the implication would be clear: These people foolishly sacrificed their livelihoods and reputations for the sake of an ambiguity, not a truth. That’s an act of betrayal First Things will not commit.