May 10, 2012
History is being made. Again and again we are told this. Every time a war starts or ends, every time a stock market crashes, every time a tower falls. But is history really made in sudden, monumental, movie-montage events? Or does it move more slowly, in the time of dinner table conversations and daily commutes, in the twenty years it takes to raise a child?
I’m afraid I barely noticed when President Obama made his first public statement on same-sex marriage. I was lazily browsing BBC News, and to be perfectly honest, stories about the increase of plastic waste particles in the ocean (a 100% increase in the past forty years) and Google’s plans to develop driverless cars caught my attention much more strongly than this. Maybe it’s due to my social privilege as a person who has not been the object of sexuality-based discrimination. More likely, though, I think it’s due to the fact that Obama’s stance really wasn’t any news to me. I’d known all along that he is a supporter of LGBTQ rights, even if in official discourse he previously hedged the issue. However, as scholar Sarah Wildman has stated in a recent BBC news article,
“Among many progressives, a feeble stance on gay marriage has become almost a political liability. Witness the quick hurrah! response from Nancy Pelosi and Mike Bloomberg to the president’s statement.
But it is far easier to make a statement as a governor, a congresswoman, a mayor. The country needed the president to take a stand here. The country needed this statement to come from on high: a clear-headed recognition that these are people’s lives, that rights can’t be traded or put off for later. The pomp and circumstance of the White House is no gimmick. A major new direction has been announced for the country.
“Historic,” in this moment is not a cliche.
However, Wildman also takes the long view, noting that this moment is part of a long, gradual process that is unfolding. While there may exist a realm of eternal truth and good, we who dwell in Plato’s cave know only shadows…and the shapes and sizes of those shadows change over time. We are in the midst of a value shift that has been developing gradually over much time, and Obama’s annoucement is just one of many movements in that shift. I rejoice with Wildman in the implications of this change for human rights and freedoms.
“Malia and Sasha Obama might, rightly, be shocked by all the fuss this is causing. Certainly, by the time they are of an age when their peers begin to marry, 15 or 20 years from now, this day will glow with that Instamatic glow through which we view many of the civil rights successes of the past.
You mean women had to ask their husband’s permission to work? You mean interracial marriage was… illegal? You mean gay marriage was once… banned?”
Like many others of my generation, I find it impossible not to be a supporter of same-sex marriage. I am enough of a traditionalist to believe that marriage and family (and the lifelong commitment implied in each) are highly important moral institutions that should be preserved for the health of both the individual and society. Meanwhile, my postmodern education has suggested to me that traditions might be amended without forfeiting their integrity, that marriages and families can take on many forms, and that gender is a socially constructed as well as a biological category. However, when I try to discuss my perspective with my parents – who firmly see marriage as a union between a man and a woman with the goal of raising children – we reach a communicative impasse. On this particular issue, a gulf has formed between our values, and we stand on opposite sides.
But, for me the gulf is perhaps not so wide as it is for many of my fellow millennials. To an extent I can empathize with conservative journalist Rod Dreher, whose opposing BBC opinion piece concurs with Wildman in acknowledging that a value shift is occurring. But while Wildman rejoices in the change, Dreher laments it:
“As is commonly known, polling data show a stark generational divide among Americans on same-sex marriage. The younger the voter, the greater the support. The demographic tidal wave on this issue is undeniable…As long as the traditionalist position on same-sex marriage, almost universally held only 25 years ago, is treated as irrational hatred and nothing but by the media, business, and social elites, there will be powerful social and psychological pressure to shun it.”
Dreher discusses the many correlations made between the gay rights movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s (and tries to endorse the latter while distancing himself from the former). Ultimately, he argues that just as political and social pressure from elite opinion makers gradually forced small-town white Southerners to accept integrated schools, so this same pressure will ultimately force same-sex marriage opponents to accept the phenomenon as it spreads.
I believe that Dreher is most likely correct in his predictions, and while I don’t join him in decrying this change, I am intrigued by the conclusion of his article, in which he attributes the increasing support for same-sex marriage in America to a decline in religious practice:
Leaving aside the role of elites in forming mass opinion, it is not sufficiently appreciated why so many younger Americans support same-sex marriage.
It fits easily with what they already believe about the nature of marriage, of sex, of liberty, and of human nature. The high level of religiosity shown in US polls is deceiving.
More recent, comprehensive research by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, and sociologist Christian Smith, indicates that young Americans are not only abandoning formal religious observance in large numbers (while still claiming to be “spiritual”), but they see religion primarily in therapeutic terms.
That is, they believe that God wants us to be nice, happy and self-fulfilled – and that’s about it.
As the late sociologist Philip Rieff observed in his great 60s work of cultural analysis, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Western culture had by then abandoned the Christian moral matrix, especially on sexual matters.
Given the haplessness of the churches as a counter-cultural force to the hedonism and individualism celebrated by popular culture, it should surprise no-one that arguments, Christian and otherwise, for traditional marriage are hard for young people to conceptualise.
Traditionalists keep winning battles, but we have lost the war at the level of ideas... Like it or not, this is what it means to live after the passing of the Christian era.”
It is on this point – the “passing of the Christian era” – that I can empathize with Dreher. Although I do not lament the increasing support for LGBTQ rights, I admittedly bemoan what I also see as the decline in religiosity in American society and the increase in what he calls the “therapeutic” mentality (so seductive, but so shallow in the end). I also think that there are many traditional values – particularly loyalty, commitment, and devotion to ideals higher than the self and individual well-being – that are worth preserving.
But, while I relate to Dreher’s concern about religion, I can’t help but notice the glaringly obvious flaw in his reasoning. What is the relationship between this decline in religious practice and support for same-sex marriage? There may be a correlation, but can we really say that one is the cause of the other? Most important, why does religious practice have to be coded as socially conservative? What about progressive Christians and LGBTQ churches and openly gay priests? Dreher speaks of the Civil Rights Movement – let us not forget that many of its great leaders, as well as its detractors, were professed Christians. The LGBTQ rights movement is different, but still, Dreher is incorrect in his categorical linking of religiosity with social conservatism.
We human beings are constantly making history, both collectively and individually, and we have a choice about which morals we want to preserve and which we want to change. It is true, as Dreher shows, that societal pressures will often compel us to choose one value over another…but ultimately, the decision is ours. And, these values do not have to come in a neat pre-packaged set. Being pro-same-sex marriage does not have to mean being secularist or nonreligious. Being a liberal does not have to mean rejecting certain traditions that one deems worth preserving. As always, values are messy. What matters most is to understand our own motivations for having them, their influence on our actions and their impact on other people.
September 24, 2011
Even when people’s perspectives are different – even when they are diametric opposites – mutual understanding is still possible:
September 20, 2011
The Toronto Catholic School Board is on a mission to prevent student gay/straight alliances from forming in its schools. Justin Beach of the Huffington Post calls on of us to raise our voices in favour of LGBTQ rights for our students.
June 27, 2011
Have I been living under a rock, or what??
After a lovely, luxuriant, lackadaisical weekend spent sleeping in, dancing to cumbia music in the park at my friends’ BBQ, sipping bubble tea, conversing with my loved ones and (yes) attending Sunday Mass, I woke up this morning to a great surprise:
My home state has legalized gay marriage!! And just in time for PRIDE week! Yayyyy!!
Of course, the fact that I just noticed this tiny piece of news now (two days after the rest of the world found out) makes me realize that I have a lot to learn if I ever think I’m going to make it in the blogosphere. Lesson #1: Get with it!!
Sadly and embarrassingly for me, I did not learn of this news until this morning, during a telephone conversation with my mother that went something like this:
Me: So, how are you doing?
Mother: I’m okay. I’ve been a little down.
Mother: Well, I know we disagree on this issue, so there’s not much point in talking about it, but…the gay marriage bill was passed.
Me: Oh… (trying to mask my excitement and elation)
Mother: I mean, it’s just disappointing. Mark Grisanti was against it, and then he changed his mind…
Grisanti, for those unfamiliar with his name, is a Catholic Republican New York State Senator from Buffalo who, after taking an anti-gay marriage stance during his campaign, changed his mind and cast the decisive thirty-third vote in favour of the bill. Now, he is some people’s hero and other people’s villain: http://www.buffalonews.com/city/politics/article468372.ece
For most traditionalist Catholics, he is obviously a villain. In the words of Buffalo’s Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, the bill “leaves us deeply disappointed and troubled…We strongly uphold the Catholic Church’s clear teaching that we always treat our homosexual brothers and sisters with respect, dignity and love…But we just as strongly affirm that marriage is the joining of one man and one woman in a lifelong, loving union that is open to children, ordered for the good of those children and the spouses themselves.”
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York took a much harsher stance:
“We who oppose Same-sex Marriage are not callous to the very real human longings for friendship, affection and belonging that proponents of this legislation espouse as the rational ‘Marriage Equality’…Indeed, we like other New Yorker discuss these issues with our friends, family, co-workers and loved ones who have same-sex attractions. We have in part failed as the proponents of the historical understanding of marriage as that between a man and a woman precisely because we have sought to be sensitive to those who have same-sex attractions. Perhaps we must now speak more forcefully and clearly.”
However, I dare to suspect that Grisanti is not a villain to all practicing Catholics (and he himself is a practicing Catholic). The Church is cracking and rippling with the voices of those who want change. I remember my exceedingly liberal high school chaplain, a priest who founded a nonprofit organization in the early-80’s to help people with AIDS and on more than one occasion spoke openly to the student body in favour of gay rights. And even in the recent Buffalo News article which I’ve posted above, there is a sign that change in the Church might be on the horizon, even if it is all too slow in coming:
…The Rev. Gregory H. Faulhaber, a moral theologian on the faculty at Christ the King Seminary in the Town of Aurora, said Saturday he thought Grisanti “was doing what is most pragmatic” for a politician.
“He may have felt it was going by with or without him,” Faulhaber said.
But Faulhaber also said he doesn’t believe Grisanti should be banned from church.
“He certainly is a Catholic, and he is allowed to come to church. As a Catholic, he has an obligation to come to church. As far as whether he has sinned, I would not judge on that. … The Eucharist should not be used as a tool to force people to do something one way or the other.”
Nevertheless, the situation remains very difficult for Catholics who identify as anything other than heterosexual. These Catholics are left with basically three options. The first is to leave the Church, perhaps in favour of a more liberal-minded Christian denomination, perhaps in favour of no religion whatsoever. This is what many of my queer friends have done, as have many of my straight friends who refuse to associate themselves with an organization which they view as discriminatory and intolerant. The second option is to remain in the Church and follow the mandate that it offers to its LGBTQ membership: to pursue the vocation which it terms “the single life,” i.e. a life of celibacy, or, if they feel called to do so, to become a priest or a nun, which also demands celibacy. (The Catholic Church teaches that there are three vocations which its members can follow: heterosexual marriage (which must be open to children), the single life, and the religious life). At this point I should make it clear that the Church is not against queer identity/sexuality, or even against queer sex per se, but simply against all sex that does not hold procreation as its objective. Thus, from the Catholic perspective, a heterosexual couple who live together without being married, or a married heterosexual couple who purposely avoid having children, are “sinners” just as much as a gay couple are. The sin lies in seeking a relationship based on the desire for companionship and love only, rather than based on the desire to “participate in the great enterprise of forming the next generation,” as DiMarzio states in his editorial.
I could point out the logical flaws in this argument (or make the obvious point that it is in fact possible for LGBTQ couples to have children), but for now I won’t do so – that could be a separate post entirely. I could also take up DiMarzio’s statements about the erosion of moral values in our society and the breakdown of the family (which I agree are very serious issues that we as a society should be addressing, but I don’t think that trying to prevent gay marriage is the way to do so) but that, also, is material for a completely separate post. Instead, I’d like to return to the experience of being a queer Catholic (or, for that matter, a heterosexual Catholic who prefers to keep the Church and its teachings out of his/her bedroom). As I’ve said, the first option is to leave the Church; the second is to follow its laws. The third is to go the route of the hypocrites: to remain in the Church, to love the Church, to follow its teachings in so far as they conform to one’s own moral compass…essentially, to be a “cafeteria Catholic,” to take what you like and leave the rest behind.
That is what Mark Grisanti did. That is what, in my own private life and indeed in starting this blog, I have done. That is what so many of my friends – for so many reasons – have done and continue to do.
But is it right?
About a year ago, I discussed this issue with a nonreligious friend who argued that this “cafeteria Catholicism” is not right. It’s hypocrisy – subscribing to one set of ideological beliefs while living according to another. “The Church is never going to change if all these people who don’t agree with it remain part of it and keep perpetuating the system as it is,” she said. “If all these dissenters were to leave, then maybe the Church would wake up and realize that it has to make a change.”
A valid point. However, my answer to this issue was that, frankly, I don’t want to leave the Church. While I may disagree with some of its teachings, I firmly believe that the overall message it preaches is one of justice, mercy and compassion. For me – and I think most of my fellow liberal Catholic dissenters can agree on this point – God is real, and while Catholicism may be deeply flawed, for us it is the best path toward knowing and experiencing the Divine in our everyday lives. We don’t want to leave the Church. We love the Church. We just want it to grow, to change, to become truly representative of the mission Christ started on earth, which we understand as a mission of inclusiveness.
We’re not hypocrites because we remain in the Church. We’re hypocrites because we’re too scared to make our divergent opinions heard, for fear of the rejection and isolation that might occur. But then, maybe I should be more careful with my choice of pronouns. I believe this “we” is getting smaller, as more and more Catholics are daring to critique the Church from the outside. I applaud Mark Grisanti for his courage. May more of us be inspired to follow his example.