Human sexuality is a complex and fragile thing – far greyer than black or white. It is best tended to by gentle, wise, and humble hands.
There hasn’t been much gentleness or wisdom surrounding the same sex marriage debate.
Like most issues of public importance, we tend to be led to the voices of fear that inhabit the extremes, and both extremes certainly have fiery preachers who are skilled at trotting-out the emotive and incendiary; all taken-up with alacrity by a mass media and consumer market that revels in confrontation – confrontation that is too often devoid of intellectual rigour, dispassionate reasoning, and wisdom.
Those for same sex marriage have cleverly positioned themselves under the canopy of equal rights, of marriage equality: “Thus, if you oppose us, you are not only homophobic, but support continued discrimination as well.”
While those against counter with the not so clever approach that involves wielding a bible as though it were a hammer: “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”.
No wonder there is little mutual respect.
There are many layers to a good debate, to prosecuting a good argument. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, held to three: logos (reason), pathos (emotion) and ethos (credibility); each complementing the other in striving for wisdom and truth. In the case of same sex marriage, however, discussion has tended to gravitate towards the pathos only, hence the emotion and pique.
Each of us comes to life matters informed by different experiences and realities: gender, sexuality, atheism, belief, politics, religion, family, humanism, anger, fear, and so on. If each is honoured with a voice, then, in time, logic-pathos-ethos are given room to gently sort out the wheat from the chaff, and the common good is more likely to emerge.
“If we are to understand someone else, we must know of what they are afraid,” so said English philosopher, Iris Murdoch.
No one can tell me who to love
So, what are the fears and assumptions that underpin those who support same sex marriage? Fundamentally, they centre on discrimination, on challenging and eradicating social and institutional prejudice. Thus, marriage is laid-out before us as a civil rights test: Are you for equality, or for continued discrimination?
American writer Andrew Sullivan speaks for many when he says: “The Constitution guarantees the right to marry to murderers, to prisoners, to people with a history of neglecting their children, to people who have married 10 times … If all these people have a fundamental civil right to marry, as I think they do, we do too.”
What Sullivan and others say has power because they are emerging from a longstanding and documented history of marginalisation, brutally so in many instances; one that is still quite pervasive. And churches of all persuasions need to reflect on their contribution to this injustice.
Given this painful historical backdrop, the civil rights approach is both compelling and persuasive. After all, who wants to wear the responsibility of saying yet another “No” to those who have been marginalised and refused entry into much of the mainstream for so long?
Same sex marriage is a bridge too far
And what about the fears and assumptions that underpin those who oppose same sex marriage? Most tend to be shaped by religious affiliation – e.g. fidelity to scripture and dogma, the fear of secularism (modernity) eroding traditional values, and the rights of children to be raised by their biological parents.
In regards to the latter, Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville also speaks for many:
“By institutionalizing the relationship that has the inherent capacity to transmit life, marriage symbolizes and engenders respect for the transmission of human life.
“Advocates of same-sex marriage argue … that the inherently procreative relationship between a man and a woman means that opposite-sex couples who cannot or do not want to have children should be excluded from marriage; or, more extremely, that only a man and a woman who produce a child should be allowed to marry.
“Even if a particular man and woman cannot or do not want to have a child, their getting married does not damage this general symbolism. The reproductive potential of opposite-sex couples is assumed at a general level and is not investigated in individual cases. To do otherwise would be a serious and unjustifiable breach of privacy.”
Critics of these generally faith-based voices tend to dismiss them as out-dated, conservative, and intolerant: “Just more prejudice from believers fearful of difference, fearful of change.” The inference being that those who support same sex marriage embrace difference and, in so doing, are better able to tread the path of tolerance which is more readily countenanced within open-minded modernity.
Yet, as the Dominican priest and author Timothy Radcliffe muses, “Is modernity so very tolerant after all? Lots of sociologists like Richard Sennett, argue that modern society is so fluid and mobile that we fear to really engage with difference. We have to pretend that we are all the same.”
Whatever one’s take, in order for this debate to move beyond the superficial noise and emotional peaks and troughs that prevail, it behoves us all to listen with humility, even to positions that are antithetical – yes, even repelling, to ‘my worldview’.
So where to from here?
While the refrains, “marriage equality” and “no one can tell us who to love,” are compelling pathos, they are more sound bite than substance, and should not be allowed to stifle our collective grappling. Marriage is far more than just an expression of love between consenting adults; as for the accusation that it is inherently discriminatory until available to same sex couples, well, that also needs a lot more attention and rigour than is currently the case.
Similarly, the issue cannot be hijacked by the intellectual mediocrity of those purveyors of religious bigotry and fundamentalism who retreat from reason and compassion, thus, undermining thoughtful, credible, and respectful debate. The same sex community has been shunted and bullied and belittled by irrational fear-mongers and brutes for too long.
Australian journalist and author Paul Kelly invites us beyond the pathos to consider some of the ramifications that might otherwise go unnoticed:
“The intellectual truth … is that this project is about changing the concept of marriage as the core institution of our civilisation. It needs to be addressed at this level.
“The proposal is to strip from the law the idea of marriage as a union between a man and a woman and substitute two people. This means the removal of the concepts of motherhood and fatherhood from law … in favour of parenthood. Once enshrined in law, the education systems from primary schools upwards will teach your children the ideology of marriage equality, namely equality of homosexual and heterosexual unions, as the foundation for cultural norms, and a philosophy of family that is dictated by constantly evolving social behaviours and fashions.
“This is a vast change in Australia’s secular and cultural values … [a] change [that] will institutionalise a new division: the state’s concept of marriage will stand in conflict with the church’s concept of marriage.”
To discriminate v discrimination
“In whatever context it arises, and always respecting the appropriate manner of its expression, love between two persons, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to be treasured and respected.”
(Cardinal Basil Hume)
A discriminating person is a person who can detect differences. In its basic sense to discriminate is to recognise and acknowledge difference. The problem arises only when we discriminate in order to advantage some and disadvantage others. Then we speak of discriminating against certain groups or certain people. This misuse of discrimination endangers all our institutions. Recognising and acknowledging difference is basic to medicine, as without it diagnosis would be little more than guesswork. It is basic to law, as without it verdicts would be arbitrary. It is basic to the whole scientific endeavour. The problem does not lie with discrimination (we should recognise differences), but with the purpose behind discriminating, and what it is used for.
When we reflect on the fact that committed relationships are at the heart of a healthy society, we realise how important it is to respect, encourage, and celebrate the giving and receiving of love between heterosexuals and same sex couples. We must also dialogue with the hope of deepening our understanding of experiences that are foreign to us. The loving commitment of same sex couples to each other needs the kind of protection and support that heterosexuals have taken for granted.
Surely we can achieve this while recognising that the two forms of union, heterosexual and same sex, are different, and significantly so. All societies, including our own, acknowledge the importance of heterosexual unions for the very continuance of the society. We call it ‘marriage’, and, as acknowledged earlier, while not every heterosexual union leads to procreation, the union, of its nature, is geared to it. This is not true of same sex love.
Of course, a same sex couple can love and care for children whose nurturing is a fruit of their love. Children, however, do not come into existence as a result of their sexual union. And surely, as much as is possible, children have an inherent right to be nurtured by their biological parents? If this has merit, one needs to consider the potential for same sex marriage to further entrench the separation of children from their natural parents, a separation that is becoming more and more prevalent thanks to new technologies, a prevailing individualism, and a collective infatuation with the self: “If I want it, I should have it; that’s my right.” The danger is children can become commodities to meet the social and emotional whims of adults; something for which we are all responsible.
For the sake of the child and ultimately for the dignity of all, it needs to be clearly understood that one does not have a right to a child, whatever underpins one’s aspirations for parenthood.
The committed love between same sex couples must indeed be “treasured and respected”, and while it is also a creative and nurturing reality for those involved, it has neither the biological complementarity, nor pro-creative capacity, that is inherent in a heterosexual union. It is a different expression of love and it should be treated and honoured differently. Thankfully, in relation to legal protections, same sex couples have been afforded what is justifiably their civil rights.
“But,” as former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Jonathan Sacks says, “our compassion for those who choose to live differently should not inhibit us from being advocates for the single most humanising institution in history. The family, man, woman, and child, is not one lifestyle choice among many. It is the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations and enabling children to grow in a matrix of stability and love …
“Those who are privileged to grow up in stable loving association with the two people who brought them into being will, on average, be healthier physically and emotionally. They will do better at school and at work. They will have more successful relationships, be happier and live longer.”
Peter Day is a Catholic Priest in Canberra.