Letters to the Catholic Right

JPII vs. JPII

This is a timely post, since a) Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian came out today and b) John Paul II is on the cusp of receiving sainthood.

Terence Weldon reports that Vines’ book makes a novel argument regarding John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and its implications for the Church’s view of sexuality. Weldon writes:

His argument rests on three key premises: we are not created to be alone, but need to live in the companionship of marriage to fulfill God’s plan; we know from science that sexual orientation is fixed, and cannot be changed, so that heterosexual marriage is inappropriate for inherently gay men and women; and that although celibacy is a valid choice for some, it is a gift which can only be granted, not imposed.

“From these simple, uncontroversial premises,” Weldon tells us, “the conclusion is inexorable.”

What’s interesting is that Vines builds his third premise on the Theology of the Body. According to Weldon, Vines finds passages from JPII that “assure us that celibacy is difficult and a gift, not a command, and so is not required of all. Those for who have not been given the gift of voluntary celibacy, says John Paul, should marry. Noting that for inherently gay people, heterosexual marriage is not an option, Vines’ conclusion is that this necessarily means same – sex marriage.”

In a related vein, Catholic theologian Lisa Fullam (h/t Bill Lindsey) observes, among many great arguments for the Catholic recognition of civil gay marriage, that John Paul II also wrote that ““[E]ven when procreation is not possible, conjugal life does not for this reason lose its value.”

My feelings on the Theology of the Body are about the same as my feelings about the Catholic understanding of natural law, and in both cases, those feelings surprise some readers of this blog: I love them. There’s so much to be learned from both JPII and the Catholic “natural lawyers”. The problem is that you can’t start from the premises that they start with and end up where they do. That’s all.

Anonymous asked: Thank you for sharing Bill Lindsey's blog site with your readers. His postings help us evaluate our own stands on important social issues and challenge us all to hold accountable those in positions of power. His commentary on the controversy at Charlotte Catholic High School and Belmont Abbey College is as insightful as it is disturbing.

Thanks for visiting! I agree—the letters shed important light on some troubling incidents.

Some Great Reading

1.

Last week, spurred by the whole mess in Charlotte, Bill Lindsey published a series of heartrending and intellectually piercing posts regarding his dismissal from his post as the chair of the theology department at a Catholic college in that city in the 1990s. Lindsey wrote the then-bishop of the diocese, William Curlin, in the hopes of obtaining a meeting that never materialized. Lindsey shared that correspondence last week at his blog, Bilgrimage, and powerfully connected his questions in those letters to the current situation in the Queen City. His posts, in order:

May God Send You Many Outspoken Truth-Tellers and Holy Trouble-Makers

More Excerpts from My Letters to Charlotte Bishop William J. Curlin in Latter Half of 1990s

When the Church Treats People as Things … It Undermines the Very Meaning of the Eucharist

I Began to Realize That the Abuse Crisis Was Rooted in a Profound, Widespread, Deep, and Systemic Betrayal of Pastoral Office in the Catholic Church

Why’s, Wherefores, and In Conclusion

2.

If you paid attention to the Brendan Eich affair (and you’re probably better off if you didn’t), you know that it caused quite a bit of controversy among gay marriage activists. People who supported the public pressure on Mozilla to remove/chasten Eich felt (with some justification) like they were being called fascists and intolerant. People who opposed that pressure felt (with some justification) that they were being called Uncle Toms.

Rob Tisinai wrote a self-searching post that not only diagnosed the differences between the two groups but also offered a measure of reconciliation. Tisinai wrote:

In recent days, we’ve seen two admirable sets of values collide. First,

A free and open society works best when all positions are argued clearly and explicitly, along with their rebuttals. This climate of open debate, whatever its bumps and pitfalls, is the best way to try and secure a culture free of ignorance and superstition. It’s important to do as little as possible to discourage such debate because when an orthodoxy is imposed through legal or social pressure, it opens the door to tyranny and corrodes the human spirit.

But also,

A free and open society can only work when it recognizes the humanity, the dignity, and the equality of all its citizens. Movements that stigmatize entire swaths of the population, that declare them to be inferior, that try to rob them of their rights, have no place in such a society. They open the door to oppression and tyranny, and corrode the human spirit.

It’s hard, for me at least, to oppose either of those positions. Gay people have suffered in the past when either one was discarded. They overlap, they reinforce each other, but they can also contradict each other. And when that happens, long-time allies flare at each other and demand to know, How can someone I’ve respected hold such a view?

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I link to Tisinai and the other writers at Box Turtle Bulletin all the time. And I use their writing in the trenches, too, whenever I get involved in debates with folks on the religious right. They do great work, in other words, work that I think is especially persuasive. So it bothered me to see them characterized as anti-gay apologists. One commenter even wrote, “soon nom will be inviting [andrew] sullivan, tisani [sic], [jim] burroway, and [john] corvino as key-note speakers to their hate march in june.” 

But the intellectual honesty of Box Turtle Bulletin is one reason I think it’s so effective, and this post is a great example of that.

The Problem with ‘Natural Law’ in 6 Short Quotes

Emphasis added.

1.

"The intrinsic desirability of such states of affairs as one’s flourishing in life and health, in knowledge and in friendly relations with others, is articulated in foundational, underived principles of practical reasoning (reasoning towards choice and action).”

(John Finnis, “Natural Law Theories,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

2.

"Marriage and family are not merely apparent goods but real ones, and the rules and habits necessary to their flourishing belong to the natural law.

(J. Budziszewski, Touchstone Magazine)


3 & 4.

"With the normative framework provided by the telos of human flourishing, social science can serve as the common language with which to talk about human life in a way that is comprehensible and legitimate to non-Christians."

AND

"But Christians have nothing to fear and everything to gain from good social science, because it should confirm what we already know from natural law—or help us revise our understanding of the natural law in light of human experience.”

(Paul D. Miller, The Public Discourse)

5.

The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the oldest peer-reviewed medical journal in the world, last week published an article detailing how same-sex marriage makes entire families healthier.”

(David Badash, The New Civil Rights Movement)

6.

"I’m not telling you whom to love; I’m telling you that there is nothing loving about mutual self-destruction."

(J. Budziszewski, “Advancing a Heterosexual Public Ethic With Grace, Wit, and Natural Law”)

Sigh.

Three More Things: Jamie Quatro, Johnny Cash, J.D. Salinger

Who else needs a break from the culture war?

1. The Oxford American has made available online Jamie Quatro’s musings on reading Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, from the Spring 2014 issue. Those musings start:

I received Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal while in residence at the Sewanee Summer Writers’ Conference. I carried the galley around with me for a week. Dorm to lectures to lunch to workshops to readings, the book always in my backpack. I’d take it out multiple times a day, turn it over in my hands, read the press materials—then put it back. Flannery O’Connor’s prayers. Flannery O’Connor’s prayers. In her handwriting. To peer over her shoulder and read what she’d written to God, and God alone? It felt voyeuristic, uncouth. Sacrilegious, even. O’Connor’s fiction, letters, and especially her essays were of tremendous importance to me as both artist and believer. Would reading her intimate communication with God alter my perception of the feisty, guns-blazing Flannery I’d long admired and, in many ways, needed?

Surely this was holy ground. I felt I should at least remove some figurative sandals.

2. At The American Conservative, Daniel J. Flynn explores Johnny Cash’s complicated Christianity, including this:

Once the rescued had the ability to rescue, he himself needed a rescuer. Cash was a sucker. Folsom Prison inmate Glen Sherley, whose “Greystone Chapel” found its way into Cash’s set list in his famous concert at the penal institution, served as the poster child for both the country artist’s activism and his gullibility. “To Cash, Sherley, who was four years younger, was living proof of redemption, which is why he spent months lobbying California prison authorities to grant Sherley a parole,” writes Hilburn, noting that the singer “had met the man for only a few minutes.” Helping to win the release of his very own Hurricane Carter, Cash experienced Sherley’s shiftlessness and psychopathic behavior when he brought the untalented musician on tour. Sherley’s story ended with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Some people are better off stuck in Folsom Prison.

3. On Ash Wednesday, I quoted from an Andre Dubus essay on the sacramental nature of making sandwiches for your kids, of dropping them off and picking them up at school. Knocking around on the internet this week, I found this piece by Casey N. Cep at the Paris Review blog. Cep writes:

One way of understanding the sacraments, perhaps best articulated by liturgist Gordon Lathrop, is that simple things become central things. When Christians refer to the bath and the table, they refer not only to the specific sacraments of bathing and eating, but they point also to the sacramental character of every bath and every table. The setting apart of one table and one bath shows forth the splendor of all tables and all baths.

That setting apart is the calling of Christians but also the vocation of the writer. The attentiveness of the writer is shown in how that writer lifts to the level of extraordinary the most ordinary of people, places, and things.

She even finds a fragment from Salinger’s Franny and Zooey that echoes perfectly what Dubus was getting at. “When the benignity of Bessie’s chicken soup offering goes unnoticed by Franny,” she writes, “Zooey tells his sister that ‘if it’s the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you’re missing out on every single goddamn religious action that’s going on around this house. You don’t even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup.’”

Consecrated chicken soup. Sacramental sandwiches.

I like that.

[About the song above: “Rollerskate skinny” is a description from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and the title of a 2001 song by Dallas band the Old 97s.]

Three Things for Thursday Night. Okay, Make it Four.

1. Do you care what I think about the Brendan Eich situation? I didn’t think so. If you do, the piece that best expresses my opinion is this one, by Bishop Gene Robinson.

2. Remember when I said, after the Michigan gay marriage case, that Mark Regnerus’ NFSS study is now, finally, D-E-A-D? And that “it would take serious stupidity for gay marriage opponents to keep pulling it out now?”

Well, it looks like I was right. And it turns out that the attorneys representing the state of Utah in its appeal of that state’s gay marriage decision aren’t quite that stupid. According to Jim Burroway at boxturtlebulletin.com, those attorneys are distancing themselves from Regnerus. They had largely based their case on Regnerus’ work, but after his humiliation in the wolverine state, they filed a supplemental brief yesterday basically writing Regnerus out of their argument.

Unfortunately for them, as Mark Joseph Stern notes in Slate, that turns their argument into “gibberish.”

3. Important but relatively un-discussed on this side of the Atlantic: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently disclosed that he was once shown a mass grave in Nigeria, and informed that in it were buried hundreds of Christians who were killed by people who claimed that their actions were justified by American Christians’ tolerance for gays. The Guardian reports that, “Speaking on an LBC phone in, Justin Welby said he had stood by a mass grave in Nigeria of 330 Christians who had been massacred by neighbours who had justified the atrocity by saying: ‘If we leave a Christian community here we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians.’”

On one hand, this helps me better understand the reluctance of the higher-ups in the Anglican Communion to embrace simple, obvious justice. I feel for leaders like Welby and his predecessor, Rowan Williams, who must be constantly aware of the ways their actions and decisions will be interpreted globally. And Welby is right to say that, “We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact.”

On the other hand, it’s a misguided stance. At least if Welby is suggesting that we shouldn’t embrace gay marriage because non-Christians might use that as an excuse to kill Christians. As Andrew Brown points out in the Guardian:

[Y]ielding to bullies does nothing to discourage them. It’s a dreadful thing to say that the lives of Christians who will die in Africa should be balanced against the rights of LGBT people here. But the equation is worse than that. The lives of LGBT people in Africa are put at risk whenever homophobic arguments are accepted as valid. We’re balancing Christians who are massacred for being Christians against gay men burnt alive by Christian lynch mobs in Uganda. Unfortunately, it seems that the lives of LGBT people in Uganda are just as much threatened when foreigners reject homophobic arguments as bigoted.

More to the point, it’s not a very Christian stance. As Brown aptly puts it: “Archbishops are not supposed to be Peter Singer-style utilitarians.”

4. You know who should know that? Catholic (and former Anglican) priest and blogger Dwight Longenecker. In a disturbing post from last week, Longenecker (who opposes gay marriage, obviously) writes:

I’d never thought of those ramifications. The African Anglicans are heartily opposed to homosexuality and the biggest fight in the Anglican Church over this issue is between the Africans and the Americans. The Africans think homosexuals are all demon possessed while the Americans make soothing, patronizing noises to the Africans saying things like, ‘One day you will have grown in your understanding of human sexuality as we have…’

And then:

What will Church of England proponents of same sex marriage do with this information? In my experience they will dismiss it as irrelevant. As one Episcopalian minister said to me, ‘I don’t really understand what the problems of a Nigerian have to do with the people in my parish in Massachusetts.’

Look. There a few things that ought to be clear to any moral person. Among them:

Killing Christians for being Christians is wrong.

Killing gays for being gay is wrong.

Killing Christians for supporting gay marriage is wrong.

Killing Christians because other Christians support gay marriage is wrong.

Believing that living near Christians will turn you gay is wrong. (This one is less morally wrong than just stupid.)

But those moral truths aren’t what Longenecker finds important in this story. Instead, for him, this story is a chance to beat up the real villains: American Episcopalians. 

And, yes, this is the same Dwight Longenecker who spends half of his posts insisting that “progressives” are all relativist utilitarians who don’t believe in objective truth.

Whose Keyboard is Spittle-Flecked?

If you can stand it, read all of Father John Zuhlsdorf’s reaction to the Charlotte situation, linked in my previous post, and compare it to the online petition written by Catholic High student Emma Winters. In an ungrammatical, typo-riddled mess, Father Zuhlsdorf accuses Ms. Winters and her classmates of being “whiners” and mocks parts of her petition as “stupid” and “manipulative.”

Ironically, he also calls her petition “spittle-flecked nutty, bullying, intimidation [sic].”

Like I said, compare.  

Another follow-up: this blog is “Letters to the Catholic Right,” and I really do intend it to be seen by the Catholic Right. And I welcome responses from a) the people I write about and b) folks who agree with them. I almost never get that, though, so I was glad that blogger Katrina Fernandez, whom I mentioned in the previous post (and a tweet), at least replied via a twitter:

If you read my post, you know that I didn’t say that criticism is the same thing as hate—I didn’t even say that Sister Jane Dominic’s presentation was motivated by hate. I just pointed out that you can’t defend her talk as doctrine, at least not the parts to which Catholic High’s students are objecting. Nor can you defend it as objective truth. And I tied those facts to a question I had been answering in a previous post—why the Catholic Right’s “love” is so often taken as hate.

So Fernandez missed the point of the post, and avoided the questions I asked at the end of it. But it was good to get a response.

Why Your Love Looks Like Hate, pt. 2

Because you can’t keep your arguments straight.

Your company line, Catholic Right, is that you oppose homosexual acts and gay marriage not because you hate gay people, but because your church teaches that any sexual act outside of marriage is a sin and gay couples, by definition, can’t be married. Because marriage is inherently procreative. In no way does that diminish your love for gay people, you tell us.

I think that reasoning is wrong, but I understand it. The problem, Catholic Right, is that so many of you don’t seem to get it.  

Maybe you’ve read about the dust-up in North Carolina at Charlotte Catholic High School; if not, Bill Lindsey has (as always) excellent coverage here. Here’s the gist: Dominican Sister Jane Dominic Laurel was brought in to talk about the “theology of the body,” and, in doing so, she strayed far from that company line. According to students, she 1) claimed that homosexuality is caused by masturbation, pornography, and family deficiencies (such as a father’s absence), and 2) suggested that gay people are incapable of monogamy and of raising healthy, well-adjusted children.

While there is no recording of the speech, diocese spokesperson David Hains acknowledged that Sister Jane Dominic’s speech was “not the one he expected her to give” and that “[d]uring her speech, Laurel quoted studies that said gays and lesbians are not born with same-sex attractions, and that children in single-parent homes have a greater chance of becoming homosexual.”

None of that is Catholic doctrine, even by the strictest, most orthodox interpretation. None of it. N-O-N-E. There is no ex cathedra pronouncement that masturbation or bad parenting leads to homosexuality, no conciliar decree stating that gay people are inherently non-monogamous. Nor are those things objective fact—there are lots of studies, and counter-examples, that contradict Sister Jane Dominic’s reported claims. And the effect of these claims is to demean gay people and their families. In other words, even if Sister Jane Dominic’s words don’t come from a place of anti-gay prejudice, they sure look like they do. 

And yet, the Catholic Right’s reaction to this incident has framed students’ protests as a rejection of Catholic doctrine. To wit:

1. According to the Charlotte Observer, “The Rev. Tim Reid, pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church, sent an email lauding the nun, saying ‘she represented well the Catholic positions on marriage, sex, same-sex attraction and proper gender roles … The Church has already lost too many generations of Catholic schools students to … a very muddled and watered-down faith.’”

2. Patheos blogger Katrina Fernandez snarked, “Apparently the students at Charlotte Catholic High School had a bit of a problem with a nun teaching *gasp* Catholic doctrine.”

3. Father John Zuhlsdorf wrote, “This is the was [sic] it is going to be for a long-time, friends.  If we Catholics (read: faithful to the teachings of the Church concerning faith and morals) actual [sic] dare to speak in public about those teaches [sic] favorably or attempt to govern our lives by them, the blowback will be instantaneous, relentless, savage.”

Of course, the students haven’t been protesting the teaching of Catholic doctrine. Here’s the petition of protest written by student Emma Winter. Read it and you’ll notice that her objections are not to church teachings, but to unsupportable, non-magisterial claims that oh, by the way, also happen to disparage gay people and their families. The only two bullet points that could be construed as objections to the teaching of Catholic doctrine are the last two, in which Winter questions why the school held an assembly to “blast the issue of homosexuality” in the first place. But in that question, as she notes, she’s following Pope Francis—and obviously with good reason, since Sister Laurel’s presentation was hurtful to some of the students listening to her. And, again, it wasn’t Catholic doctrine anyway.

In fact, reading that petition, it seems to me that a sincere, conservative Catholic opponent of gay marriage—one who hews to the company line I outlined above—could sign on to most of its complaints.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. Catholic Right, last week I gave you one reason why your “love” for gay people often reads as hate. This is another.

Ask yourself these questions:

When a nun used bad science to demean gays, why did a chorus of you rise up to defend that as doctrine?

How do you think it looked to the rest of us when you did that?

And how do you expect others to distinguish between your religious beliefs and anti-gay prejudice when you can’t draw that distinction yourselves?

Why Your Love Looks Like Hate

Over at Dominicana’s blog, Brother Dominic Mary Verner, O.P. tries to figure out why Catholic opposition to gay marriage, which he sees as a form of love, is so often taken as hate. “You seek your neighbor’s spiritual well-being,” he complains, “and you are accused of denying his very dignity.” He sets out to explain the disconnection and fails.

Brother Verner, it’s very easy. Here is why your love looks like hate:

Because love means seeing your brothers and sisters for who they are. That’s what love is. To know the Other. To make the effort to understand him. And so much of what you write against gay marriage shows an inability to do that.

You write things like this:

First, our love looks like hate because our concern for souls chafes against the claim that human dignity is founded upon man’s power of self-determination. Our love calls into question the quasi-religious reverence paid to this supposed power.

And this:

Second, our love looks like hate because the life we propose often looks like death. By withholding endorsement for gay marriage, we implicitly suggest the alternative of lifelong chastity. For the man or woman with same-sex attraction, this certainly entails self-denial and the cross.

And this:

Third, our love looks like hate because we seem to advocate restraint in the enjoyment of all that the world has to offer.

Brother Verner, these are the three reasons you give to explain why people take your stance against gay marriage as unloving. Every one of them suggests that you see your fight against gay marriage as a battle between restraint and license. As if gay couples seeking to marry have no idea about self-denial or personal sacrifice. As if marriage is the easy way out, the way of self-determination and indulgence. When we read that, we shake our heads at your blindness.

Let me make this real clear:

Brother Verner, your love looks like hate because you refuse to see your gay brothers and sisters. And, still worse, that refusal leads you to denigrate their very real love and harm their very real families—love that most Americans can see and families that most Americans now value.

I believe you, I really do, when you say you don’t hate gay people. But, on the other hand, you can’t say you love gay people if you don’t see them. So I’ll try this again: please watch the video at the end of this post. (I know, readers, that I posted this video last time, but bear with me—maybe repetition is good for some people.) This time, maybe for the first time, watch with your eyes open. Please.

Entirely Unbelievable and Unworthy of Serious Consideration

I went quiet here last week as I prepared for and headed off to a conference; now that I’m crawling out from under that rock, I’m amazed at just how much went down while I was away.

1. Most gratifying was Reagan-appointed federal judge Bernard Friedman’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in DeBoer v. Snyder, ending Michigan’s ban on gay marriage (pending the inevitable appeals). Friedman’s treatment of Mark Regnerus and his worthless, expensive, and too-influential NFSS study was particularly noteworthy:

The Court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration. The evidence adduced at trial demonstrated that his 2012 “study” was hastily concocted at the behest of a third-party funder, which found it “essential that the necessary data be gathered to settle the question in the forum of public debate about what kinds of family arrangement are best for society” and which “was confident that the traditional understanding of marriage will be vindicated by this study.”

And then:

 Additionally, the NFSS is flawed on its face, as it purported to study “a large, random sample of American young adults (ages 18-39) who were raised in different types of family arrangements,” but in fact it did not study this at all, as Regnerus equated being raised by a same-sex couple with having ever lived with a parent who had a “romantic relationship with someone of the same sex” for any length of time. Whatever Regnerus may have found in this “study,” he certainly cannot purport to have undertaken a scholarly research effort to compare the outcomes of children raised by same-sex couples with those of children raised by heterosexual couples. It is no wonder that the NFSS has been widely and severely criticized by other scholars, and that Regnerus’s own sociology department at the University of Texas has distanced itself from the NFSS in particular and Dr. Regnerus’s views in general and reaffirmed the aforementioned APA position statement.

Note the scare quotes around the word “study.”

Besides being fun to read, I think this means Regnerus’ work, which has been cited in anti-equality court briefs and brought up in state legislative debates, is finally D-E-A-D. It would take serious stupidity for gay marriage opponents to keep pulling it out now. 

2. Fred Phelps died. When the members of his church tried to protest a Lorde concert in Kansas, “counter-protesters” held signs expressing condolence.* Both Timothy Kincaid at boxturtebulletin.com and Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon connected this act of kindness to another, more amusing recent incident. It turns out that Catholic League president Bill Donohue, trying to make a point against LGBT groups that were seeking to march in St. Patrick’s Day parades in NY and Boston, applied to march in New York’s Gay Pride parade with a banner proclaiming “Straight is Great.” Kincaid writes:

But, of course, we don’t hate straight people. And we agree, straight actually is great – just like gay and bisexual. And, though Donahue probably didn’t know it, many many straight people – Catholics, even – happily march in the parade each year to show their support for the community. Heck, some Catholic churches even have delegations.

"So," Kincaid reports, "the organizers immediately said yes."

3. Donohue, of course, started looking for a way to back out, and settled on complaining that the parade organizers require participants to attend training sessions about start times, logistics, etc. He shamelessly called these info meetings “gay training sessions,” to which Williams responded, brilliantly:

Do those sessions include tips on how to be classy and compassionate when a homophobic bully dies? Do they include information on how to be welcoming and inclusive when some jerkwad who blames gays for the sex abuse in his own church tries to crash your biggest party of the year? Because if so, I think we’ve all already had a few stellar gay training sessions in the past week. They’ve shown us how to respond to hate and fear with love and humor and positivity. And if there’s an agenda there, sign us all up.

And with that, I think we can also connect these two incidents, regarding Phelps and Donohue, to the Michigan trial. Because the plaintiffs in that trial, a lesbian couple seeking the ability to jointly adopt the special-needs children they’re already raising, could give us all lessons, too. According to everyone involved in the case, they are exemplary parents. So not only did they put the state in the absurd position of seeking to damage an exemplary family in the name of upholding an imaginary “gold standard;” they actually gave us a real, living gold standard, a model for words like love and family.

And, now, justice:

*By the way, Bill Lindsey also has an amazing reflection on Phelps’ death.

William Saletan (and William Faulkner) on the Race Analogy

1. At Slate, William Saletan opened a recent column with two questions:

Is gay marriage just like interracial marriage? If you’re against gay marriage, is that the same as racism?

Saletan, who supports gay marriage, answers that no, there’s a big difference between the two issues. He explains:

The central, categorical objection to gay marriage is that same-sex couples can’t produce biological children together. Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson emphasize this distinction in their recent essay and book, What Is Marriage? My colleague Mark Stern challenged their case in Slate last year, and I agree with his critique. The procreation argument focuses too much on sex and too little on love and commitment.

Just because I don’t agree with an argument, however, doesn’t mean it’s irrational. Marriage has historically been a sexual institution. A rational person can maintain that a relationship between two people categorically incapable of producing children together—that is, two people of the same sex—can’t be a marriage. That argument doesn’t justify denying them the right to love one another openly, nor does it justify denying them the benefits and honors we bestow on couples for making lifetime commitments. But it can justify a person’s refusal to accept a same-sex relationship as a marriage.

In contrast, he argues, there’s no “biological basis for refusing to accept an interracial relationship as a marriage.” He concludes that, at least in that sense, opposing gay marriage is more defensible than opposing interracial marriage. (He also argues that from the perspective of gay couples, it is less defensible than a ban on interracial marriage, because it entirely excludes them from the institution.)

Saletan is right that interracial heterosexual relationships and gay relationships are biologically different (duh), and that opponents of gay marriage point to this difference in order to differentiate themselves from racists of the past (and present). Here’s what Saletan misses: the argument doesn’t end there. Because if you’re trying to argue that the designation marriage shouldn’t be extended to gay relationships, it’s not enough to argue that the word has always been applied to two people who (categorically) can make a kid together; you also have to show why that definition matters. This is why NOM and all the other anti-gay marriage folks always move from the fact that gay couples can’t biologically have children to the argument that those couples shouldn’t have children (through adoption, IVF, etc.). And it’s why they were so giddy about the Mark Regnerus study, which looked like proof of the most important part of their argument—the idea that gay marriage is bad for the children.

And this is where the arguments against gay marriage and the ones against interracial marriage converge. Both groups claim that their real aim is protecting the children. Do you remember, readers, Keith Bardwell, the Louisiana justice of the peace who caused a scandal a few years ago by refusing to marry interracial couples? Here’s how he justified himself: “I think those children suffer and I won’t put them through it.”

Sound familiar?

“Traditionalist” blogger Laura Wood, who stops short of calling interracial marriage “categorically wrong,” nonetheless opposes the practice (along with transracial adoption) for the same reasons. She writes:

I also think children do definitely experience confusion in a mixed race home. I have known a number of Asian/white families. They are very loving parents, excellent families. But some children may be torn between two worlds, especially because they look so strongly like the Asian parent and yet have been raised among whites. They must choose one identity and some struggle with the decision. That doesn’t mean these families are catastrophes. Not at all. But it does mean we must look carefully at which social models we approve of. It is heartless to children to avoid doing so.

We must look carefully at which social models we approve of. Again, sound familiar?

2. In fact, the more I read about the history of bans on interracial relationships, and the thinking behind them, the more the rhetoric supporting them seems to me to resonate with the things I read from opponents of gay marriage.

There’s a great illustration of this in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, in the scene in which Charles Bon is trying to convince Henry Sutpen that his marriage to a mixed-race woman (with whom he has a child) is not legitimate and, therefore, he is free to marry Henry’s sister. Henry says, “But you married her.” Bon replies:

Ah. That ceremony. I see. That’s it, then. A formula, a shibboleth meaningless as a child’s game, performed by someone created by the situation whose need it answered: a crone mumbling in a dungeon lighted by a handful burning hair, something in a tongue which not even the girls themselves understand anymore, maybe not even the crone herself, rooted in nothing of economics for her or for any possible progeny since the very fact that we acquiesced, suffered the farce, was her proof and assurance of that which the ceremony could never enforce; vesting no new rights in anyone, denying to none the old—a ritual as meaningless as that of college boys in secret rooms at night, even to the same archaic and forgotten symbols?—you call that a marriage, when the night of the honeymoon and the casual business with a hired prostitute consists of the same suzerainty over a (temporarily) private room, the same order of removing the same clothes, the same conjunction in a single bed? Why not call that a marriage too?

Then he follows that by asking if Henry has forgotten that the woman and the child are black, and asks: “You, Henry Sutpen of Sutpen’s Hundred in Mississippi? You, talking of marriage, a wedding, here?”

Bon reminds Sutpen that marriage between a white man* and a black woman is, for Henry Sutpen, a categorical impossibility. You can practically see Bon making air quotes around the word “marriage.” Henry knows in his heart that Bon is wrong, but the cultural logic of nineteenth century Mississippi convinces him that Bon is right, and soon he’s referring to Bon’s marriage as “no marriage.”

Once again, sound familiar?

3. I point all this out not to lump the Keith Bardwells and Laura Woods of the world with all gay marriage opponents. Particularly on the Catholic Right, it seems to me that when it comes to gay marriage the arguments are motivated more by concern for the Church’s authority rather than by hatred for gays. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone write: If the Church is wrong about this, how can I trust any of its teachings?  That’s the great fear, and that’s why the people I engage here will argue as vehemently against contraception and divorce-and-remarriage as they do against gay marriage.

But the similarities between the anti-miscegenation arguments and the anti-gay-marriage arguments are real. We’ve rejected the former, in the name of justice, because they’re bad arguments—shoddy reasoning built on bad assumptions and supported by problematic evidence. They fall apart when challenged. And now we’re challenging the arguments against gay marriage, and they’re not holding up any better.

*I know, I know—SPOILER ALERT—it turns out that Bon is actually Henry’s half brother, and that he’s of mixed blood himself. Most disturbingly, it turns out the former fact doesn’t change Henry’s disposition towards a possible marriage of Bon and Judith, but Bon’s blackness changes everything. But that’s beside the point I’m making here.

Like I Keep Telling You…

1. Nothing makes people behave better. At least not religion, yoga, or even reading books. At least not necessarily. Andrew Santella writes at The Atlantic about the “realization that loving a great book doesn’t make you a great person.” He starts:

I was raised to believe that reading was a healthy and wholesome pursuit, like drinking whole milk or doing sit-ups. The hallways of my high school were papered with the American Library Association’s “Read” posters, featuring pop stars posing cheerfully with their favorite books. Next to the lunchroom, there was Phil Collins grinning in a coonskin cap, a biography of Davy Crockett open before him. Could the man who sang “Sussudio” really be wrong?


But reading fiction doesn’t always make us better people. Ted Kaczynski was not improved by his obsession with Conrad’s The Secret Agent, nor Timothy McVeigh by his fascination with The Turner Diaries. Mark David Chapman was not healed by his love of The Catcher in the Rye. The disturbed reader—or, in my case, the merely immature reader—won’t always be ennobled simply by cracking open a great book.

But that doesn’t take the value away from doing those things. The article is Santella’s ode to his “childish, unhealthy, joyous” obsession with Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, an obsession I totally share.

2. On the other hand, nothing makes people behave worse. At least not birth control. At least, not if “behaving worse” means having more sexual partners. Kim Painter reports:

Women and teen girls participating in a study that provided free birth control did not take up riskier sexual practices as a result, contrary to fears among some social conservatives, a new report says.

The participants were less likely to have sex with more than one man after the program began. And though they did have sex a bit more often, they were no more likely to be diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases, according to results published online Thursday in Obstetrics & Gynecology.

The article also reminds us that the same study, “involving 9,256 girls and women in the St. Louis area, previously showed the free birth control program dramatically reduced abortions and unintended pregnancies.” Previous LttCR on that finding here.

I love Maya Dusenbery’s take on the report at Feministing:

Frankly, I’m getting more than a little tired of writing about painfully unsurprising studies about birth control that are really only necessary to dispel right-wing myths.

  Unfortunately, Emily Bazelon reports at Slate that many of the briefs filed on behalf of Hobby Lobby in their upcoming Supreme Court case treat birth control as “the original sin of modernity,” whose “widespread availability changed everything, for the worse.”

Sorry, Maya. The dispelling never ends.  

There Is Your Trouble

I’m really into emblems these days, I guess. The office in the Victorian house from which “persecuted” academic Mark Regnerus conducts his research, for example. And yesterday, there was this article by Fr. Dwight Longenecker: “The Clash in Comtemporary Christianity.”

Longenecker argues that Protestantism and “sadly, most of American Catholicism” have been reduced to what he calls (borrowing from Rod Dreher) “moralistic therapeutic deism.” I disagree with his analysis, but I’d  let the whole post slide by except for this paragraph at the end:

And yet despite the fact that more and more people are abandoning this false religion the modernists keep dishing up more of the same. They are like the insane people who, seeing the rise in teen pregnancies, say, ‘I guess we need MORE sex education at a younger age.’ They’re like the socialists who see poverty increasing as a result of their programs and say, ‘I guess we need MORE socialism.’

Teen pregnancies, of course, are at historic lows.

How emblematic is that? Both the mistake and vehemence with which he makes it: people who support sex ed are insane. Doesn’t that perfectly capture the disengagement from reality that characterizes certain elements of the religious right?

On Living in the Ghetto

 photo b23ee60b-cb14-40a2-87ae-c4dde3b341e1_zpsde60a494.jpg

This is not the ghetto.

This is a historic home in the center of Austin, with a veranda and a leafy magnolia tree shading its eaves. It dates to the early 1900s; some of its neighbors are designated historical buildings, marked with handsome plaques. It is within walking distance of both the University of Texas and downtown; as you drive by it, you can see the dome of the state capitol peaking over the oak and elm trees that line its street.

It is not the ghetto.

The building is now home to the Austin Institute for the Family and Culture, the new venture of, among others, UT-Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus. I bring it up because, in reading Steve Friess’s live-tweets of Leslie Cooper’s cross-examination of Regnerus on Tuesday, you could sense Regnerus playing with the theme that has run through so much of the cultural right’s thinking of late: Now we’re the ones being marginalized, they insist.

On Tuesday, I pointed to Stephen Kokx’s column, which asked if a “Catholic Ghetto” is all that’s left for people who think like him (Of course! And that’s been so for years, he answered). On Sunday, Ross Douthat described himself as among the defeated, waiting to learn the will of the victors. And Rod Dreher predicted pain for those who, like him, argue against gay marriage. Thomas Peters took it further, writing that they are coming for all of us.

All of that was in my head when I read, via Friess, that Regnerus told the court, “I’m not as open about my faith as I might once have been,” and when he characterized the reaction to his study as “severe and swift.” Regnerus has been made into a martyr by some, and it’s clearly an image he cultivates, at least to a certain extent.

Regnerus’ work has been rebuked by the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association. Darren E. Sherkat, who reviewed his study’s publication process, called his work “bullshit.” And, this week, Christine Williams, the head of the Sociology Department at UT, released a statement reiterating the ASA’s verdict that the study is “fundamentally flawed.”

And you know what? That is a form of marginalization. Which is why Regnerus is such a useful symbol—he can help us draw an important distinction. Because there’s marginalization and then there’s marginalization. And then there’s also “marginalization.”

As I wrote in my last post, I understand that the recent attempts to pass “religious freedom” laws bring up real questions involving free association and business owners’ rights. I understand that being forced to participate in something that violates your conscience is a form of marginalization. That argument has to be balanced, I think, against the marginalization of minorities that freedom to discriminate can engender, marginalization that, in our country’s history, has been a thousand times more crushing than anything the USCCB is complaining about. [I should note here that Peters’ column suggests that opponents of gay rights in Arizona have faced physical intimidation. Obviously, I deplore that, and I deplore it if Regnerus has faced anything of that sort.]

But it seems to me that much of the angst coming from the right right now is actually about “marginalization.” I put it in quotes not because I don’t think it’s real, but because it’s different in kind than the marginalization I was talking about in that last paragraph. It’s a psychic pain, the sting of having one’s ideas rejected. No doubt that pain is real, but it’s one that has been felt by lots of people throughout history as their views have come to be seen as wrong, even repulsive.

What I’m reading in these complaints from the right is a conflation of the different types of marginalization. Sure, they seem to be saying, our views may be unpopular, but they never got a fair hearing. We were marginalized from the start.

Which is absurd, as the Austin Institute’s new home illustrates. Williams’ statement about Regnerus ended with this: “We encourage society as a whole to evaluate his claims.” Of all the things she said in her statement, that sentence must have hurt the most. Because Regnerus and the cultural right want us to believe that their voices are being stifled when really just they’re being evaluated; that they’re speaking from the periphery when really they’re right in the center of things; that they’re not getting their day in court when, really, their days in court just aren’t going very well.

Anyway, if you’re reading this from the Catholic Right and you’re still convinced that you’re in a ghetto, maybe this song will brighten your day:

Three Things for (Ash) Wednesday

1. Tomorrow, time permitting, I’ll be writing about researcher Mark Regnerus and his new Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Yesterday, must-reads of the day were the twitter feeds of Steve Friess and Amy Lange, who were live-tweeting ACLU attorney Leslie Cooper’s cross-examination of Regnerus in Michigan’s gay marriage trial. As Friess noted in his summary of the testimony, it was “the first time in the U.S. since 2010, when a federal judge struck down California’s similar voter-approved gay marriage ban, that an anti-gay-marriage expert was subjected to questioning under oath in open court.”

For years, a lot of us have wanted to see Regnerus confronted with questions like this:

And this:

And this:

But my favorite tweet was this one:

I could read stuff like that all day.

2. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes writes at the Guardian about the poet George Herbert, whom she calls “the man who converted me from atheism.”

She says:

"I blame George Herbert for me becoming a Christian.

I first encountered Herbert’s poems at the very beginning of the lower sixth, when they were a set text for my A-level English class. Being the rather keen and serious teenager that I was, I read them that first weekend. And by the end of the weekend, I realised that this poetry was the most dangerous challenge to my atheism that I had yet come across.

My teenage self was rather proud of being a “cultured despiser of religion”. I had dismissed religion as being for the weak of mind, a crutch, something that intelligence and reason made unnecessary and undesirable. But here was some of the most fiercely intelligent poetry I had ever read, grappling with Christian doctrines and with a relationship with God. If this brilliant mind believed all this, and devoted a life to it, then clearly I needed to look at it again.”

3. Okay, so maybe everybody else already knew about Andre Dubus. But I didn’t, and last night when I was reading his essay “Sacraments,” this passage knocked me out:

"On Tuesdays when I make lunches for my girls, I focus on this: the sandwiches are sacraments. Not the miracle of transubstantiation, but certainly parallel with it, moving in the same direction. If I could give my children my body to eat, again and again without losing it, my body like the loaves and fishes going endlessly into mouths and stomachs, I would do it. And each motion is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, of knives, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments, as putting the lunches into a zippered book bag is, and going down my six ramps to my car is. I drive on the highway, to the girls’ town, to their school, and this is not simply a transition; it is my love moving by car from a place where my girls are not to a place where they are; even if I do not feel or acknowledge it, this is a sacrament. If I remember it, then I feel it too. Feeling it does not always mean that I am a  happy man driving in traffic; it simply means that I know what I am doing in the presence of God."