Letters to the Catholic Right

The Incest Argument is Back!

Apparently, the German Ethics Council recently argued that laws forbidding incest between brothers and sisters ought to be abolished. Bloggers on the Catholic Right, always alert for signs that gay marriage is leading us down a slippery slope,* have pounced on the story. Damon Linker, who is not a member of the Catholic Right but does like to ask questions that make progressives uncomfortable, is suggesting that this development, well, ought to make progressives uncomfortable.

So I think it’s a good time to drag out this old post to remind everyone that the Catholic Right, and just about every Christian who has ever used “natural law” to argue against gay marriage, ought to find the story from Germany discomfiting, too. Because they can’t answer Linker’s questions, either.

*For the record, Germany does not recognize same-sex marriage.


From 2012:

Drop the incest talk, okay?

Dear Catholic Right:

You know how every time you get into an argument about gay marriage, you ask, “Well, if we allow gay marriage, what logical reason do we have to disallow brother-sister marriages?”

You should really stop that.  Here’s why:

If you are an orthodox Catholic, you probably believe in monogenesis—that is, you believe that all of humanity descended from two original humans, Adam and Eve. You also believe that God commanded Adam and Eve (and by extension all of their children) to be fruitful and multiply. Period. These are non-negotiables, as Pope Pius XII pointed out in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis.

In order to be fruitful and multiply, Adam and Eve’s kids had to have sex with each other. Ergo, you believe God commanded incest. God can’t command something that’s contrary to God’s will, and no commandment from God can ever be unnatural.

So there’s no getting around it: by that logic, brother-sister incest is natural.

Now, I’ve seen some attempts to explain this away.  One suggestion is that Adam and Eve’s kids got a special dispensation to have incest, but as soon as there were enough people to make incest unnecessary, it became unnatural. That doesn’t fly for two reasons. First, natural law doesn’t work that way—the whole point is to figure out what’s timeless and unchanging. Nothing that was natural for Adam (or his kids) can possibly be unnatural for us.

The second is that it doesn’t square with Old Testament history, which is full of incestuous unions, even hundreds of years after they would have been necessary. Abraham’s marriage to Sarah, for example, came ten generations after Noah. By that time, Abraham could have married plenty of unrelated women—we know Hagar was willing to make him a baby—but he chose Sarah, his father’s daughter. And that union was blessed in the sight of the Lord.

Catholics can rightly point out that Church law has since proscribed brother-sister unions, and that such unions are therefore, for Catholics, now a sin.  But Church law holds no weight in our legal system. This, again, is why you use natural law in your arguments against gay marriage.

So why do we ban brother-sister marriages? Most people will tell you it’s because we don’t want brothers and sisters reproducing, since pregnancies that result from those unions have an unusually high incidence of problems. This wouldn’t have been a problem before the Fall, obviously, because that’s when disease and death entered the world.

But as she ages, every woman is at a greater risk for producing a child with birth defects and genetic disorders. And this risk increases every year of her reproductive life. If a woman gets pregnant at 45, the risk for down syndrome is about 40X higher than it was when she was 25. And I don’t see the Catholic Church arguing against marriage for women over 45, or asking those already married to practice celibacy. Nor should they—I’m just pointing out an inconsistency here.  

Besides, we have models for allowing marriage among partners we hope won’t reproduce—several states allow first cousins to marry, but only after they’re too old to produce children. Arizona, for example, allows first cousins to marry if a) they’re both over 65, or b) they get a doctor’s note proving that one partner is infertile.

In the twisted thinking of certain natural lawyers, these marriages are okay because they’re “ordered” towards procreation, even though to enter one, one partner has to prove incapable of reproducing.     

So let’s say you live in Arizona. A brother and sister (let’s say the sister is infertile) come up to you and ask you why, legally, they shouldn’t be allowed to marry. What are you going to say?


You can’t argue that it’s unnatural.

You can’t argue that it’s to prevent a risk to potential children.

You can’t argue, in our constitutional system, that it goes against Church law.

So you’re stuck, aren’t you?  It’s best not to bring this subject up.  Seriously, stop.

Baroque Homecomings


Anyone reading this blog probably also reads every word Elizabeth Bruenig writes, so I feel no need to point y’all to her beautiful post on longing, capitalism, and football in Texas. But I did think of a way to make myself useful, since I know that some of my readers come from outside of Texas.

Bruenig writes:

Homecoming is a fifth season in Texas. It asserts itself in hazy late summer and reigns until the depth of autumn. Traditionally, the boys give girls homecoming mums to wear, and the girls give the boys garters. The mums can cost upwards of $100, some larger than dinner plates, their ribbons trailing the ground. They sport miniature mascots, fake flowers, blinking lights, lashings of glitter and sequins, and each year grow more ostentatious. My mother has a collection of four from when she was a high school cheerleader.

I never got one. I never got asked to a homecoming dance, or prom. My mom tried to show me how to do my makeup.

The homecoming mum, in this form, is a uniquely Texas tradition, and it struck me that, though Bruenig describes the practice well, readers might have a hard time visualizing exactly what she’s talking about. So I thought it would be worthwhile to link Bruenig’s post to these photographs by Nancy Newberry, which were featured last year at Slate, Jezebel, and NPR. Okay, that’s just about everywhere, but still, maybe you didn’t see them.

These are mums:



Look at those things! They take engineering. They take effort. They make no sense and they offend all notions of proportion, style, and good taste.

One of my other gigs is writing about Latin American literature and culture for my department’s literary blog, and right now I’m tasked with writing up a new exhibit at the Benson Latin American Collection on the legacy of the Baroque in the New World. The exhibit connects the ostentation of the triumphal arches that Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora designed for the entry of a new viceroy into Mexico City in 1680 with the postmodern poetry of Severo Sarduy and the kitschy art of the landmark MCASD exhibition on the “Ultrabaroque” (2000). The idea is that the baroque is a spirit and a style, rather than a historical period. In this, the exhibition follows a 2012 book by Monika Kaup, in which she argues that we can see the spirit of the baroque in North American lowrider culture and in certain styles of hip hop, and hip hop-influenced visual art.

The cool thing about the baroque (understood this way) is the way it travels, the way it infects (José Lezama Lima compares it to a glorious virus) and devours (Haroldo de Campos compares it to cannibalism) the cultures it encounters. The Benson exhibit traces Sor Juana’s New World Baroque not just into modern Latin American writing, but into a drive-in theater in San Antonio and into contemporary installations like (San Antonio native) Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Infinito Botánica.

This is pure hypothesis, but considering the fact that football culture is common throughout the American South and Midwest, but the mum-giving ritual is pretty much limited to Texas, the US state that shares the longest border with Mexico, I don’t think it’s crazy to read the mum as a manifestation of the baroque spirit.

At the very least, Texas mums share the strange appeal of baroque art. They trade in superficiality and excess, yes, but also in exuberance and  accessibility—or at least the illusion of accessibility.  Mums are expensive, as Bruenig points out, but with them distinctions between high and low culture disappear. As with the baroque, you only need a sense of awe, not “taste” or an upper-class sensibility, to appreciate their splendor. Newberry’s photos capture all that, I think, and in doing so, illuminate the ambivalence that Bruenig expresses in her essay.


Two Quick Things for Sunday, September 21

1. Silliness from the Catholic Right

I don’t visit CatholicVote.org much these days, but I stopped by last week and, oh, man, do I have some silliness to report back. Joshua Bowman has a list of “Five Ways Gay Marriage Affects You—Even if You’re Not Gay or Married.”

All five “ways” on the list are pretty bad, but the first one takes the cake. Bowman says gay marriage threatens your freedom of worship, and he cites as precedents what’s happened to the state churches of England and Denmark:

In 2012, the legislature of Denmark passed a law requiring churches in that country to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Last year, a gay couple in Britain announced they were suing the Church of England even though the recently passed law there was drafted with strong religious freedom protections. If they win their legal battle, England will join Denmark in requiring state-sponsored churches to endorse same-sex marriage.

Ooh. That sounds scary!

What’s that you say? England and Denmark are in a fundamentally different situation than the US, because they have established state churches? Well, don’t be so quick to dismiss the danger. I have it on good authority the Queen of the USA is considering forcing our state church to perform gay marriages, too. She’ll get to it right after she’s done taxing Santa Claus and putting a speed limit on the Easter Bunny.

2. Leonard Cohen’s “Almost Like the Blues”

A couple of months ago, I compared the knowledge of faith to the experience of “understanding” we get when listening to a blues song:

The Creeds don’t “answer” the questions of faith the way a mathematics teacher demonstrates arithmetic. They “answer” them the way the return to the tonic in a blues progression answers the tensions raised by the sub-dominant and the dominant chords.

And we don’t assent to them the way we assent to our mathematics teacher after she shows us how to count on our fingers. We assent to them the way our heads start nodding to a blues song. When you say “Amen,” it is, or should be, the way you answer Freddie King when he says, “Let me hear you say yeah.”

It’s not 1 + 1 = 2. It’s I-IV-V-I.

I’m not the first person to make that comparison, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was cool to hear, via David Zahl at Mockingbird.com, these lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s new album:

There is no G-d in heaven
And there is no Hell below
So says the great professor
Of all there is to know
But I’ve had the invitation
That a sinner can’t refuse
And it’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues

Have a good week, everybody! Posts on Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay and Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage are coming soon.

Drinking With Women, ctd.

[This time on TV.]

So, I’ve long been fascinated by the theological implications of booze. And I’ve also spent some time thinking about the ways theological conservatism (if that’s the right term) goes hand-in-hand with a heavily gendered view of drinking—one best summed up by Taylor Marshall’s insistence that “virtuous drinking involves male friendship, plain and simple.” Marshall writes:

It’s usually a time for men to remove themselves from the company of women that they love and sit together around a fire pit, in the darkness, or on the back porch. Some of the most meaningful conversations that I have had with my father, my brother, and my friends have been over a Scotch. Real relationships are forged. It’s a beautiful thing.

As I’ve made clear, I don’t think this way.

Which is why one of my favorite TV shows these days is Comedy Central’s Drunk History, in which comedian Derek Waters goes to the houses of his friends and fellow comedians, watches them get totally tight (to use Hemingway’s term), and records them recounting historical events with surprising detail and accuracy. The show mixes intelligence and silliness; it uses good actors cleverly, having them re-enact the scenes that the storytellers narrate, often to hilarious effect. But another reason to love Drunk History is the way it treats women.

In this great post from a few weeks ago, blogger Amma Marfo writes that Drunk History is “the best place on TV to be a woman right now” for, oh, lots of reasons. First, while the show tells some familiar stories (the Alamo, Lewis & Clark), part of its mission seems to be recuperating lesser-known pieces of history, and those often involve the stories of women that you don’t usually hear about—like Sybil Luddington, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mary Dyer and Oney Judge.*

And on Drunk History women get to tell the stories, too. They’re authorities. Not just on “women’s history” or female characters, either. Marfo writes:

[A]lthough the story of Patty Hearst’s capture is told by a woman, so is the story about the pair of matches between Joe Louis and German boxer Max Schmeling. All narrators, according to Waters, are selected for their likeability and excitement about the story they’re about to tell. The show has featured several men who fit these credentials, but it has also selected some exceptional women to do the same. The result? Women are allowed and encouraged to be smart in a space that doesn’t typically allow for it.

Marfo points out that popular culture usually portrays drinking as a source for either danger or embarrassment for women; the hardcore (mostly) Catholic theologians I chase around on this blog portray drinking as a source of boys-only bonding, a place where men get to exercise together their right to determine meaning and value.

Those points are connected. A world where women can’t be drinking buddies is a world where women can’t be authorities. And what Drunk History illustrates, really well, is that a world that takes women seriously—as authorities and as drinking buddies—is a lot richer, and a lot more fun, than one that does not.

Anyway, in case you missed the link up there, you can find Marfo’s post here. Check it out!


*Haven’t heard of Sybil Luddington, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mary Dyer and Oney Judge? Neither had I. Love this show.

Refining my Point: a Response to Gobry & Cupp


This weekend, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote a great response to my response to his piece at The Week. His post included some necessary corrections to what I wrote: I take his point, for example, on the theological distinction between metaphor and analogy. As I say on my “about” page, I always welcome input from those better trained in theology than me  (which is just about everybody) and Gobry’s post is an example of what I mean.

Then, on Monday, Kyle Cupp built on the conversation, arguing that “the fatherhood of God is more than a metaphor, but the analogy of fatherhood doesn’t preclude our addressing God by other names and titles, including ‘Mother.’”

Reading both pieces, I realize I need to refine my point. I was too breezy in my first post, what with the “Relax” title (I almost titled it “Frankie Say Relax”) and with my sentence “Who cares if it takes imagination to see the fruitful love of God for his Church in the marriage of Charity and Sylvia?” That was the general tone of my post.

So I get why Cupp said that I called the fatherhood of God a “replaceable metaphor,” and I guess I invited Gobry to characterize my argument as saying that “God’s Fatherhood is just a metaphor, and therefore doesn’t have implications for how we view the sexes.” That phrase, “just a metaphor,” shows up a couple of times in Gobry’s response, which is my fault, but it isn’t what I meant. I wasn’t trying to say that metaphors (or analogies) don’t matter—and less still that the language of the Bible doesn’t “teach us anything about what fatherhood means on Earth and what the sexes were created for.”

I agree with Gobry that “wrestling with both/ands is hard–but valuable,” and especially that “there is always an element of mystery, of groping in the dark, but taking a shortcut by simply jettisoning one side of the equation simply will not do.” I didn’t intend to jettison one side of the equation; I did intend to emphasize the side that I think sometimes gets short shrift.

Let me explain.

It seems to me, the Church’s problem is that increasingly, people like me (and, in a different way, Conor Friedersdorf) are able to both accept the Church’s understanding of the meaning of the two sexes and the way they come together in heterosexual intercourse and understand that that’s not how it works for everybody, that there might be other paths to that same point. That is, we can look at a gay couple, see God’s love in them, and not see that as a challenge to our own sense of the importance—both secular and sacred—of fatherhood (or motherhood). This is what I took Friedersdorf to be getting at when he said, “Even if I knew [that procreative sexual intercourse is a special act], however, I would not feel compelled or even inclined to declare homosexuality to be wrong,” and that’s the reason I endorsed his column in my post.

Gobry has an answer, and it boils down to Yes, but that’s not marriage. “To say that other forms of love also reflect God’s glory,” he writes, “misses the point—of course they do.” Putting aside the question of the sinfulness of homosexual acts (which is a big question, but one I’ll not get into today) Gobry’s point is that while we might see God’s love for man in the love and commitment of two men, or two women, the traditional view holds that it’s a categorically different thing. It’s not marriage. Marriage is a bodily and spiritual union, open to life, whose bliss “is an inkling of the bliss of the union of the Persons of the Trinity.”

Except the Church doesn’t say that’s necessarily what marriage is. Okay, more precisely, it does and it doesn’t. Both/and. I know I keep harping on Josephite, or Spiritual, marriages, but I do so because I think they present a tremendous challenge to the Church’s reasoning on marriage. Or would, if not for the Christian imagination.

In fact, one reservation I have with Friedersdorf’s column is that I don’t think he goes far enough. He says that, in the Christian framework, non-procreative marriages are “less reflective of God’s glory,” which leads one of Gobry’s commenters to describe his position as saying that gay relationships are partly good, but not as good as heterosexual ones.

This is difficult to articulate, but while I think that procreation is sacred and adds something to a marriage that isn’t present in a non-procreative marriage (well duh, I guess), I don’t believe that my marriage is one jot better, one iota more sacred, than a non-procreative one.* This is the both/and that Gobry is talking about, and it can definitely lead one into positions that are hard to defend. BUT, and this is a point I was trying to make in my first post, Christianity gives us examples of how to do it. Josephite marriages, which don’t have “organic bodily union,” which aren’t “open to life” in the physical, literal sense, aren’t disparaged by the church as less-than; instead, they’re often talked about in saintly terms. Fulton Sheen got positively flowery describing them:

Here the marriage is of the heart and not of the flesh; it is a marriage such as the stars have, whose light unites in the atmosphere although the stars themselves do not; a marriage like the flowers in the garden in springtime, who give forth perfume, although they themselves do not touch; a marriage like an orchestration, where a great melody is produced but where one instrument is without contact with the other. 

 So, Christianity shows us that something that lacks that which is said to be essential to marriage, can not only still be marriage, but even be considered among the greatest of marriages.

Gobry writes elsewhere (in another post I loved) that we moderns have “overlearned” Christianity, and maybe I’m taking this particular lesson too far. And, yes, I know that Josephite marriages are still male/female, and that they have precedents in the Christian tradition (you know, starting with Joseph and Mary) that gay marriage, obviously, doesn’t. But their existence makes the prohibition on gay marriage a whole lot harder to defend. And, anyway, with something like the radical possibility inherent in Christianity, it’s hard to know where to stop learning.


*By “non-procreative” marriages, I mean not only gay marriages, but also those that are childless by choice. And I’ve written before (here & here) that I think elderly marriages ought to be grouped with those, since, the example of Abraham & Sarah notwithstanding, past a certain age people aren’t getting married with the intent of having kids.

Ugh. Stupid internet.

Bill Lindsey is stepping away from his computer for a few days while he processes some recent, ugly attacks (in public and via email) on his incredibly valuable blog. I cite Bill a lot here,* and while I’ve never met him in person, he has been very kind to me and, when you’ve (electronically) celebrated somebody’s wedding, it’s hard not to take things like that personally.

I read Bill’s announcement right after I read Elizabeth Bruenig’s piece “Civility, Outrage.” At first, I thought Man, does Bruenig have it wrong. Look how nasty and harmful a lack of civility can be! But then I realized that was a dumb misreading of Bruenig’s argument and, that, in fact, Bruenig is exactly right. The attacks on Bill Lindsey were attacks on his civility—he was called disrespectful and told that his blog is home to “wild claims” and rants. But here’s what Fred Clark at Slacktivist said, correctly, about Bill earlier this year:

What I like best about Bilgrimage, though, is that Lindsey doesn’t just consider the perspective from his own peripheries. His own peripheral status, rather, has led him to seek out, engage and amplify the voices of others from other peripheries, other margins, other otherings.

There’s wisdom and virtue in that seeking out of other voices, but also too — at a more practical, selfish level for me as a reader — it makes Lindsey a better blogger as well as a better theologian. It means he’s often ferreting out and lifting up voices, people, ideas and perspectives that I might never encounter otherwise. He may quote or link to them directly in one of his regular round-up posts, and he’ll also allow their views to inform his own.

Part of what that means, too, is that when he writes in anger, it never seems to be anger solely, or even mostly, on his own behalf. He’s not fueled by resentment of those who would push him away, further out into the periphery, but by solidarity with the others he has met out there.

To attack Bill as disrespectful—of all things!—is to illustrate Bruenig’s point that these calls for civility are a way to blunt moral arguments. They come in these types of conversations, Bruenig says, when you’ve “argued exactly what you meant to argue, where the strictures of civility would’ve forced you to give up not only the way you wanted to argue, but the very thing you wanted to argue.”

Anyway, I’m saddened at Bill’s distress, and I’ll miss reading his posts while he’s away.


*Seriously, I quote him all the time. I have to sometimes set limits for myself, like I won’t quote Bilgrimage for at least the next two posts. Then I write about punk rock or something else that seems outside of Bilgrimage’s scope.

Relax: Nothing Unravels

Some time ago, Bill Lindsey pulled this quote from Richard Rodriguez’s Darling: A Spiritual Biography:

Nevertheless, the desert religions will stand opposed to homosexuality, to homosexual acts, unless the desert religions turn to regard the authority of women. And that will not until the desert religions reevaluate the meaning of women. And that will not happen until the desert religions see ‘bringing into being’ is not a power we should call male only. And that will not happen until the desert religions see the woman as father, the father as woman, indistinguishable in authority and creative potence. (116)

Seeing the woman as father, the father as woman. As radical as that sounds, one reason I love the one Catholic and Apostolic Church is that it offers a religion big enough, supple enough, and imaginative enough to do just that. And it disappoints me when Christians don’t see it. Just this week, at The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry explained “why so many Christians won’t back down on gay marriage.” It was an argument very similar to the one Kyle Cupp outlined weeks ago, also in The Week. Where Gobry was specifically addressing gay marriage, Cupp was emphasizing the importance of gender differentiation in “traditional Christian” understandings of sex.* But, as Rodriguez shows, those two questions are really the same.

Both Cupp and Gobry see the issue as one of language. Specifically, figurative language. You know, metaphors. Cupp writes:

The bible presents God as Father, a name with a specific meaning. In the words of the Catholic Church, calling God Father indicates that ‘God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority,’ attributes historically associated with the male of the species. Now and again the bible describes God in feminine language, but it never calls God by the title of Mother. … This use of language assumes differences between masculinity and femininity, as well as a solid, hierarchical line delineating them. It also assumes true gender roles are grounded in this unchanging, ordered nature of men and women.

Similarly, Gobry writes, “Christianity’s view of sexuality isn’t some encrusted holdover from a socially conditioned patriarchal era on its way out, but is instead deeply connected to its understanding of who God is and what human beings exist for.” Like Cupp’s traditional Christians, he thinks sex matters, most of all, as a sign.

The subhead of Gobry’s article tells us that a gendered notion of marriage is “deeply woven into the 2,000-year-old ethic at the heart of our faith.” Likewise, Cupp’s column refers to this post at First Things by Matthew Schmitz, who fears that if we “tug on the strand of sexual difference,” we “risk unraveling the whole” of Christianity. The fear is the same: accept gay marriage, or reject mandatory “complementarian” gender roles, and everything falls apart.

To Gobry and Schmitz, and to Cupp’s (largely Catholic) “traditional Christians,” I want to say: relax. Gay marriage unravels nothing. First of all, we’re dealing with metaphors, and this is what metaphors do: they show us similarity in difference. Look at Cupp’s definition of fatherhood: it’s not “contributing the male gametes to biological reproduction”; instead, it’s “the origin of everything and transcendent authority.” If that’s what fatherhood means, then there’s no reason we can’t, like Rodriguez suggests, see it in a woman.

Remember, we’re talking about a church that teaches us to see fruitfulness in a cloistered nun, and that holds up as paradigmatic a marriage between two people who never once partook of what we’re told is the defining marital act. So who cares if it takes imagination to see the fruitful love of God for his Church in the marriage of Charity and Sylvia? The Christian Church is precisely the institution teaches us that imagination.

Then, too, look at the metaphors the Church uses to teach about marriage, gender, and the nature of God. That’s a big ol’ Gordian knot, and no one on earth is undoing it. Consider: the Church is the Bride of Christ, but men have to lead it because they have to stand in persona Christi, even though those men are sometimes referred to as “wedded to God,” who by the way has to be male because we call him Father, but gay marriage can never be allowed because a male can never be married to a male…

See? No one is unweaving those strands.

So it’s weird to me when the Church all of a sudden says, No, no! We have to keep our metaphors pure! Or, weirder still, We can’t taint our metaphors with figurative thinking!

That’s not logical, and it’s not consistent with the Church’s approach to anything else. And it looks to me like the sort of puritanism that represents the worst, not the best, of the Christian tradition.**


*To be clear, Cupp’s post is more descriptive than an endorsement of the “traditional Christian” view. And I don’t intend this post as an attack on Gobry, who (with Cupp) is one of my favorite Catholic writers on the web.

**GAH!!! What do you do when, in between the time you write a draft and post it to the internet, a better writer with a bigger platform says what you wanted to say, only better? I just saw that Conor Friedersdorf wrote a must-read response to Gobry over at The Atlantic. I guess I’ll write something about Friedersdorf’s post tomorrow or Sunday, time and football-viewing permitting.

Gay Marriage Will Cause More Fergusons!

No sooner had I announced that I was struggling to write about Ferguson because all I do on this blog is argue and like when the journal First Things gave me something to argue about.

Pivoting off a post by Rusty Reno, Mark Bauerlein laments what he calls the “script” of racial tension: “Black youth shot by policeman [arrow] outrage and protest [arrow] rioting and looting [arrow] indignant and solemn discussion of American racism by pundits and columnists.”

Bauerlein, like Reno, says this script can be flipped by “speaking frankly about marriage and family, the dignity of work, and the nobility of faith.” He points out that in 1965, only 25% of black children were born into fatherless homes, where now that rate is around 70%. But he argues that conversation won’t happen because “an entire class of academics and journalists” sees such talk as a rebuke.

He writes:

But this is precisely the script that the liberals refuse. It posits the traditional family as a bulwark against disorder, and it maintains that boys need mothers and fathers. Honest inquiry would force them to acknowledge that the ‘experiments’ in family structure of the last half-century prove not an advance, but a disaster.

The phrase “experiments in family structure,” paired with the insistence that “boys need mothers and fathers” (emphasis his) sure looks like a swipe at gay marriage and yet another attempt to tie it to no-fault divorce. Bauerlein suggests that where liberals have been seeking to explain our national race problem with the idea of white supremacy, we should have been focusing on strengthening the traditional family, which he says, has been undone by “Marxist attacks on the family as a bourgeois conservation, feminist presentations of it as patriarchal, and ‘queer’ critiques of its ‘heteronormativity.’”

So there are two parts to his argument, which we’ll take in order:

First, he seems to be saying that racial tensions like the ones now engulfing Ferguson result from the breakdown of the black family. I’m not sure, exactly, whether he’s saying that the uprisings themselves are caused by widespread fatherlessness or whether he’s echoing Reno’s point that fatherlessness causes police distrust of black youth. Either way, he’s off base. If he’s arguing the former, then 1965 was a very bad comparison to choose, because, umm… remember Watts? As Jelani Cobb wrote this week, “Between 1964 and 1967, riots erupted across the nation—in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Cleveland, and Newark. The Kerner Commission, convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson, concluded that the systemic exclusion of blacks from opportunity was at the root of the uprisings.”

But if he’s saying the latter, that police treat blacks unfairly because police distrust blacks because fatherless blacks commit more crimes, well that’s just as far off. Unjustified, systematic violence against African-Americans is as old as the country, and it has always been rationalized by portraying blacks, particularly black men, as uniquely threatening. Bauerlein is smart enough to know this history, which has nothing to do with the Sexual Revolution or queer theory, or feminist attacks on the patriarchy.

Which brings us to the second part of his argument, the notion that Marxist, feminist, queer theory academics have “undone” the family. There’s a lot wrong with this thinking: first, it ascribes way too much power to academia. I guess you can find radical critiques of “the family” as such in the academy—especially in writings from the 1970s—but they’ve never found much purchase, even in universities, let alone in the larger culture. And in the real world, no one is attacking the family, unless you buy into the faulty premise that arguing for a more inclusive definition of family is an “attack.” We have families; we love families; no one has any interest in tearing down “the family.”

Bauerlein says that “it’s going to take stamina and courage to hold [liberal academics and journalists] to the facts.” But I don’t see any facts that support his rather ahistorical argument, and plenty of facts that contradict it. 

Upcoming Projects: Reading “Making Gay Okay” and “Defending Marriage”


First off, sorry for the blog slowdown. I’ve been traveling, and working at my second job, and when I haven’t been traveling and working at my second job, my wife has been traveling, which means I’ve got sole responsibility for the little one. All of which is great, except it leaves little time for writing.

Plus there’s the dissertation, which I have to finish at all costs this year or else. And on top of that, the semester starts this week, which means I’ve got to have some lesson plans in order for the first few classes.

Also, Ferguson has been dominating my thoughts, and I’m not sure how to write about that. This blog really has two notes, arguing and liking; I’m not good at writing anger or shame, at least not to the extent I need to put words to what I feel while watching tear gas streaming into crowds of black citizens on the streets of a Midwestern suburb.

But I will post more in the next couple of weeks. And as soon as I get into my semester routine, I’ll start two new long-form book review series, along the lines of what I did last school year with J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex.

First, I’ll get into Robert R. Reilly’s Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything. If you haven’t been paying attention, Reilly’s book has been The Book Of The Summer for the Catholic Right. Fr. John McCloskey, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf—all of them have praised the book. Reilly, who served under the Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration, has appeared on Ave Maria Radio and Relevant Radio (which, believe it or not, I listen to a lot while working at the ranch).

Here’s what Matthew J. Franck says about Making Gay Okay in his review at Public Discourse:

Among the ‘LGBT’ activists and their allies who have lately been so successful in transforming our culture’s understanding of love, marriage, and sexual integrity, Reilly’s book will be hated and denounced. It is likely that many of those who denounce the book most strongly will not actually read it. They will certainly not squarely confront or refute its arguments.

Oooh. Readers, that sounds like a challenge.

But I might be even more pumped to get into the second book, Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity.


Esolen is a literature professor, and I’m familiar with his writing on culture and sexuality, which ranges from anger-inducing to hey-that’s-kind-of-good. Here’s how Longenecker describes Defending Marriage:

We should not suppose that Professor Esolen does anything so banal as to go snooping for proof texts from Shakespeare or Milton. He does much more than that. He takes the reader into the mind and the world of Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, Tolkien and Spenser. He does not argue against homosexuality, but for a healthy, wholesome, innocent and natural approach to human sexuality. Esolen presents us with a vision of human sexuality, courtship, marriage, and romance which is timeless and poignantly alluring.

According to Longenecker, Esolen looks back into literature (Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, Tolkien, Spenser)  and “conjures up a forgotten world where girls and boys were naturally attracted to one another and flirted and played together innocently. He helps us look back to a world where young men and women courted, stole a kiss, and kept themselves pure for their wedding day.”

Against this “forgotten” world, Longenecker says, Esolen will pose the sexual revolution, “with its tragic legacy of divorce, broken homes, battered and scattered fathers, predatory and prostituted females, the fractured family, ravished relationships, and a desiccated sexuality” that has “left us as wounded warriors wandering alone on a devastated cultural battlefield.”

Um, wow. THAT book sounds right up my alley. Remember when we puzzled over Budziszewski’s use of Dante and Beatrice as his ideal for married love? Remember when I got to pull out two of my favorite Sidney sonnets so we could look more carefully at historic notions of marriage, love, and sex? This sounds like a whole book’s worth of that, though I expect Esolen to be a savvy reader of the texts he handles. I can hardly wait.

I’m not sure how exactly I’m going to do these two reviews. Longenecker says the two books complement each other (yay!), so I’m thinking about reading the two books together, and posting a review of a chapter from both books each weeks. But that also sounds insanely ambitious, so I’ll probably end up reviewing them consecutively. 

But the reviews are coming soon. Be ready!

The Questions Regnerus Didn’t Ask


You may have heard about this: Mark Regnerus is pushing research that suggests Christian supporters of gay marriage are, well, a bunch of morally degenerate libertines. At least that’s what it will signal to the audience of The Public Discourse, where he posted it.

Now, Regnerus’ work is entirely unbelievable and unworthy of serious consideration, but his post is worth responding to because it connects to conversations going on around the internet these days: notably, in some of Damon Linker’s recent posts at The Week and, earlier, in Rod Dreher’s insistence that “traditional” Christians can be separated from “modern” Christians solely on matters of sex. Part of Dreher’s argument is that the modernists have been “conquered” by the Sexual Revolution. So there’s an undercurrent there suggesting that “modern” Christians aren’t real Christians, that they’ve given in to secular norms and betrayed “what nearly all Christians for over 19 centuries believed.”

That’s a flawed understanding since, as Linker points out elsewhere, “modernity” as we know it was shaped by Christianity. And, conversely, there’s nothing specifically Christian about the “traditional” understanding of sex, which, at least on the matter of homosexuality, has a lot in common with the beliefs of “traditional” Muslims, and Jews, and even the atheistic regime of Soviet Russia. But that’s a topic for another post.

Back to Regnerus. To summarize, Regnerus asked churchgoing Christians how strongly they agreed with a series of statements, and then compared the answers of Christians who support gay marriage with those of Christians who oppose gay marriage. The statements were:

1. Viewing pornographic material is OK.

2. It is a good idea for couples considering marriage to live together in order to decide whether or not they get along well enough to be married to one another.

3. It is OK for two people to get together for sex and not necessarily expect anything further.

4. If a couple has children, they should stay married unless there is physical or emotional abuse.

5. It is sometimes permissible for a married person to have sex with someone other than his/her spouse.

6. It is OK for three or more consenting adults to live together in a sexual/romantic relationship.

7. I support abortion rights.

Regnerus found that Christians who support gay marriage were far likelier to say viewing porn, cohabitation, divorce, no-strings sex, infidelity, and polyamory are OK, and to say that they support abortion rights. In fact, on those questions, Regnerus concluded that pro-SSM Christians “look very much like the country as a whole—the population average.”

But there are problems.*

For example, Regnerus concedes: “There is more to sexual and relationship morality than just these seven items.”

No kidding.

All of the items he chose reflect an unstated premise: that support for same-sex marriage is all about sexual license, about dispensing with sexual rules. Conveniently, Regnerus’ data seems to confirm that premise.

Of course, I would say that support for SSM comes from a very Christian understanding of equality and the inherent dignity of human beings, and that what may come off as “anything goes” really comes from an understanding of the damage that busybodies can cause by giving strangers, in Jim Burroway’s words, “unsolicited edicts in how to order their lives.”

And I can think of a whole different series of questions that would paint both groups of Christians, SSM-supporting and SSM-opposing, in a different light. Like these:

Should a married woman submit to the authority of her husband?

Should a married woman stay home with her kids rather than working full-time?

Is sex a duty that a married woman owes to her husband?

Is rape within a marriage a contradiction in terms?

Does a provocatively dressed woman bear some responsibility if she is sexually assaulted?

Is oral sex between consenting, married adults a sin?

Is contraception a sin?

Should homosexuality be criminalized?

With little effort, I could find a blog post from an opponent of same-sex marriage answering all of those questions in the affirmative. Certainly those views are reflected in our “traditional” social and legal customs, the very ones that “modern” Christians (and secularists) are working to challenge. And while plenty of opponents of SSM don’t hold those positions, I think we all know that those views are more prevalent among opponents of gay marriage than among supporters.

I’m not saying that Regnerus’ questions are bad. They’re worth asking, but so are the questions I brainstormed above. My point is just that Regnerus’ questions reflect an obvious bias. As Bill Lindsey writes, Regnerus’ post is a blatant attempt to say “morality belongs to us. It does not belong to you.”

Or, if he’s really, truly, honestly trying to answer the question What is the sexual and relational morality of Christians who accept same-sex marriage, compared with those who don’t?, then his research is very poorly designed. Again.


*I can’t get to all of the problems in this post. I recommend Jim Burroway’s post on the subject at Box Turtle Bulletin, and Jeremy Hooper’s post at Good As You, and Bill Lindsey’s (linked above).

Three Things for Tuesday or Wednesday

(as usual, I meant to get these out on Sunday)

1. A Happy Return

A couple of weeks ago, I lamented the fact that Casey Fleming had stopped posting her weekly sermons. In her goodbye post last year, she said that in writing the sermons she had come to recognize that she has “the right subject matter, the right form, the right experience, the right motivation” to write a book, and she was going to take time off from her blog to work on that book. I hope that book is coming along well, but I’m also thrilled to say that Casey has resumed her posts, and they’re as good as ever. Do visit nonseculargirl.com every Sunday, or subscribe to the site, so you can get the sermons in your email inbox. You won’t be sorry.

2. Another Happy Return

Bill Lindsey is back from much shorter hiatus, but it must have been a fruitful rest, too. Since returning, Bill has hit all of the notes that make his blog indispensable daily reading: a beautiful meditation on a journey through the Midwest, a scathing call to conscience to those of us with privilege, a touching message of gratitude.

In his first post back, Bill says he’s contemplating writing a book, and he writes about writing as calling (the theme, coincidentally, of Casey’s most recent sermon). He says:

I am called now (including by the comments of so many of you here, which I value very much) to remember in what I write. I am called to write out of remembrance—but out of remembrance as the spiritual act of capturing (better: of pointing at) meaning that goes well beyond what is specifically called to mind by memory.

I am called to write as someone who challenges himself to be spiritually alive, writing what he writes not to please others, with a view to the success of what he writes or even the completion of what he writes. But because he must write. Because the significance to which the remembered events point needs to be captured, even if very imperfectly, in words.

And to be shared, passed on, transmitted.

Also, Bill was also kind enough to share my post on sex and union on his blog, where it generated lots of thoughtful comments.

3. Joan Didion on Marriage

Finally, I recently came across this 2011 conversation in Believer between Sheila Heti and Joan Didion. Whenever two people that smart get together to talk, something interesting is bound to happen. This passage in particular, about marriage and motherhood, caught my attention.

BLVR: I want to ask you about the idea of the “extreme or doomed commitment.” You have a line in The White Album where you say, “I came into adult life equipped with an essentially romantic ethic,” believing “that salvation lay in extreme and doomed commitments.”

JD: Right.

BLVR: I wonder if you consider marriage or motherhood, or even writing—

JD: I did consider marriage and motherhood extreme and doomed commitments. Not out of any experience of them as such, but it was simply the way I looked at things.

BLVR: And having experienced motherhood and marriage, do you still see them as extreme and doomed commitments?

JD: No, I don’t. I mean, not—I don’t. I see them as, well, certainly they were for me a kind of salvation.

In her original formulation, salvation and doom aren’t mutually exclusive—in fact, salvation comes through doom. Remember, Didion’s recent books have included Blue Nights, about her troubled relationship with (and the death of) her daughter, and The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband. So, in a real sense, for Didion, marriage and motherhood have been extreme and doomed commitments. And yet she doesn’t hesitate to affirm that they’ve meant salvation.

In a weird way, the exchange reminded me of Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent post on tragedy and marriage. Bruenig writes, “[I]f you allow tragedy to guide you to look beyond the meeting of needs, beyond the temporary scarcities and lacks of life on earth, you see that the irresolution of tragedy imagines a looming surprise.”

That surprise, Bruenig says, is salvation.

Of course, Bruenig is responding to a very different subject—specifically, the phenomenon of polyamory and the notion that marriage is supposed to meet every single one of our needs. And Didion probably wouldn’t hold her thoughts to exactly the same Christian meaning that Bruenig does. Still, it’s striking that the two come down in the same place, on the same word. 

Where is the Union in Sex?

It occurs to me that while we talk about sex a lot here, we’ve still got some fundamental gaps in our vocabulary, some essential disagreements that keep us talking past each other. For example, there’s a huge gap between what I mean when I say “union” and what that word means for some other people.

“Union” has long been used as a euphemism, even a synonym for sex. In other words, you don’t achieve union through sex; sex is union. Which is fine. But “sex” is also a big, messy word that (if you’re doing it right) includes lots of different actions and distinct moments.

So within sex, where and when and how does union occur? When we talk about sex, what exactly does union mean?

Here’s one answer, from a commenter in a thread at Leila Miller’s Little Catholic Bubble:

"The bodies become fully united at, well, to be blunt, ejaculation in the vagina, thus fulfilling the necessary requirements to allow the potential of reproduction to take place."

Leila said something similar later in the thread, and that notion clearly underlies a lot of the Catholic Right’s thinking on sexuality. It was used in that thread to argue against the use of condoms; it’s also used to argue that gay marriages are impossible, because in them union is impossible, since two don’t become one in gay sex acts.

To me, that idea is at once too literal and too symbolic. Too literal because it defines union only in the most obvious, most physical way: in the genetic material of two parents coming together to form a child—which remember, doesn’t happen in the vast majority of human sexual encounters. It thus misses the subjective value of sex, the ways that everything besides the male orgasm brings a couple together.

Too symbolic because it doesn’t explain how union happens, especially when no child comes from the encounter. I mean, what happens: the semen comes out, and magically, the couple is united? This is the idea that Bill Lindsey calls the “union-cementing function” of semen, which he describes as “bogus natural law propped up by ludicrous science posturing as religious conviction and profound, serious moral insight.

In fact, this definition, traditional though it may be, takes all of the meaning out of the word union. Think about it: it means that one-night stands are union, and inconsiderate sex from which only the man gets pleasure is union. It means that a woman’s pleasure, while nice, is not necessary for union. Chillingly, it means that rape is union. And it means that a loving, married couple having a transformative bonding experience is not union, if the man is wearing a condom. Leila says as much, writing, “There is no ‘one flesh’ union, no real intimacy, when the people uniting have placed a physical barrier between them!” And later, she says:

“[S]ex is about full union with another, becoming one flesh. It’s the closest we can get to another human being on this earth (and I’m talking conjugal union, not any type of sodomy). It is the mechanism that is so life-giving, so profound, that it brings new human beings into existence. To put a barrier between two people when they are ‘speaking the language’ of total union, is to lie. One does not make love by gearing up as if one is going to battle. It’s a contradiction. Using a condom in lovemaking is a contradiction.”

Those claims are absurd for anyone who has had unifying sex while wearing a condom.

Robert George at least tries to explain how union happens with ejaculation. He locates union in the idea that, in heterosexual sex, the two bodies are (together) trying to produce a baby. Granted, that is a form of togetherness. But he’s bedeviled by the fact that the female body actually isn’t “trying” to produce a baby in most sexual encounters. A woman is only fertile for a few days of each month, and even then only as long as she’s not pregnant, breastfeeding, or past menopause. And humans have sex during all of those times—much more so than animals with a marked estrus, or heat, period. So while it might make sense to say that for cows or dogs or horses sex “means” reproduction, that’s not the case with humans. We’re built differently. 

What’s more, as Rob Tisinai outlines here, George is still defining union as dependent solely upon “what is happening between their bodies,” which, George says, is independent of any psychological factors, such as the couple’s thoughts and goals. So his definition of “union” still includes rape.   

Now, I want to be clear: I’m not saying the Catholic Right, represented by the above commenters, is opposed to women’s pleasure—or still less, tolerating rape. I know that John Paul II said that, from an “altruistic standpoint,” men have a responsibility to bring their wives to climax. And he’s serious about that. But I do think that any understanding of sex that starts with the idea that union equals ejaculation-into-a-vagina is wrong right off the bat.

Which leaves the question: what is union in sex? Where and how does it happen?

I would say that it’s in the responsiveness of two bodies moving together—most of all, in the way that one partner’s arousal arouses the other partner and one partner’s pleasure pleases the other. That’s union. That’s two becoming one. Literally. Though it has a subjective dimension, it’s also objective, in that it writes itself on the body. It can be transitory, but it is real and, like grace, it can be transformative, too.

In “The Body’s Grace,” Rowan Williams writes:

To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire.” We are pleased because we are pleasing.

Good sex embodies this mutuality. In good sex, desire, arousal, pleasure, and even climax are all reciprocal—by feeling those things, you inspire them in your partner. By inspiring them in your partner, you feel them in yourself. Again, that’s union. And this understanding of word, it seems to me, better clarifies what happens in sex, and why it’s good, and why we can talk about it as pointing to God’s presence in the world.

Marriage is a Natural Institution: Just ask Charity and Sylvia


"If I were permitted to draw aside the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me most interesting history of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sicknesss; for sickness has made long and frequent visits to their dwelling. I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband. I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, which now in the days of their broken health, bloom wild without their tendance, and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them, but I have already said more than I fear they will forgive me for, if this should ever meet their eyes, and I must leave the subject."

—William Cullen Bryant, Letters of a Traveller (1850)

The next book up on my Kindle is Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, about the 40-plus year shared life of two women in rural Vermont in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Laura Miller reviewed the book here; Rebecca Onion interviewed Cleves here.

Jim Burroway regularly includes, in Box Turtle Bulletin's “Daily Agenda” feature, stories of gay marriages that made it into the historical record. Their situations vary—sometimes, as in this story, one partner lived as the opposite gender. Sometimes these marriages were secretive, sometimes they were acknowledged by a small circle, like the gay or bohemian or exile community in which the couple lived. Burroway often highlights relatively unknown couples that appear in newspaper articles as novelties or anomalies, but of course there were more prominent examples, and anyone who spends any time in the literature of the past is going to come across a gay marriage. There’s Allen Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky; there’s Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, whose marriage was even acknowledged (with a bit of a smirk) by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast.
Then there are “Boston marriages,” so-named after characters in Henry James The Bostonians, reputedly based on a relationship of the author’s sister.

What makes Charity and Sylvia distinctive is that their marriage was recognized in some measure by their wider community. In fact, Miller describes Cleves’ book as “a story of the love between those two women and their town,” in which the couple was an “integral and beloved fixture.” As Cleves documents, one local memoirist said that “in town he always heard it mentioned as if Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other.” And the women’s families seemed to respect their relationship as a marriage, too: Charity’s sister-in-law wrote the women, “I consider you both one as man and wife are one,” and Sylvia’s brother told Charity that “I consider you and my Sister Sylvia Happely one.”

One of the tropes you see a lot when you read anti-gay marriage arguments goes like this: the state can’t redefine marriage because marriage is a timeless institution, one that predates the state itself. For example, here’s Ryan T. Anderson, writing last year: “The government does not create marriage. Marriage is a natural institution that predates government. Society as a whole, not merely any given set of spouses, benefits from marriage.”

You know what? That’s one talking point with which I agree.* The state doesn’t determine what is truly a marriage and what is not. The state merely tries (hopefully tries its best) to recognize marriage as it exists.

But that’s not an argument against gay marriage, because, by that standard, gay marriage has always existed, too. In fact, Cleves’ and Burroway’s documentation shows that it’s actually a pretty good argument in favor of gay marriage.

Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to Cleves’ book, which you can order from Book People here.


*Obviously, I disagree with Anderson’s next sentence: “This is because marriage helps to channel procreative love into a stable institution that provides for the orderly bearing and rearing of the next generation.” But that’s a topic for another post. Actually, many many other posts.

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies (an Index)

Earlier this summer, I wrote a series of posts in response to a conversation on a Catholic blog in which the Episcopal Church was described as “completely out of control and untethered to anything but the winds of the age.”

I’ve been meaning to get all of those posts together, along with the footnotes and comments they generated. So here’s an index. Read through if you’re curious about what connects Pope Francis, Susan Sontag, and Freddie King:

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 1

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 2

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 3

Footnote to Part 1

Footnotes to Part 2

Anonymous Comment Following Part 1

(not so) Anonymous Comment Following Part 2

Also note that, while commenting is hard to do on Tumblr, I run a mirror version of this site at wordpress, and these posts generated some good insights over there from Michael Boyle and emmasrandomthoughts.

Procreation is the Sole Purpose of Marriage? Yeah, Right.

A funny exchange happened today on twitter between Rob Tisinai and a guy with the handle SoCalCMH. It started with Tisinai’s response to a Ryan T. Anderson tweet, and was going down the normal tortured path of every gay marriage argument, until Tisinai pulled out one of my favorite legal facts:

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