When Opposing Sides Adopt the Same Strategy

November 23, 2012

I always find it both a little curious when people of opposing political positions end up adopting the same strategy to respond to a situation.

A case in point:  Before marriage equality became the law of the land in my home state of Maryland, a group of interfaith clergy got together to sign a pledge that they would no longer sign marriage licenses for heterosexual couples until they could also do so for lesbian and gay couples.  They would continue to perform the religious ceremony for these pairs, but they would not act as agents of the state until they saw marriage equality for lesbian and gay duos, too.

Recently, George Weigel, a conservative Catholic writer, has proposed a similar strategy for Catholic clergy, but for a different purpose.  In an article in First Things, Weigel, alarmed at the recent electoral successes for marriage equality and the growing social acceptance of this phenomenon, suggests:

“. . .it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.

“If the Church were to take this dramatic step now, it would be acting prophetically: it would be challenging the state (and the culture) by underscoring that what the state means by ‘marriage’ and what Catholics mean by “marriage” are radically different, and that what the state means by ‘marriage’ is wrong. If, however, the Church is forced to take this step after “gay marriage” is the law of the land, Catholics will be pilloried as bad losers who’ve picked up their marbles and fled the game—and any witness-value to the Church’s withdrawal from the civil marriage business will be lost. Many thoughtful young priests are discussing this dramatic option among themselves; it’s time for the rest of the Church to join the conversation.”

Interesting.  Progressives and conservatives end up with the same strategy, but for different reasons.

Joel Mathis, a writer at PhillyPost.com, points out that Weigel’s application of this strategy doesn’t solve any problem.  If Catholic priests were being forced to marry lesbian and gay couples, then a boycott may be an appropriate response, but such is definitely NOT the case:

“This might make sense if the legalization of gay marriage would force the Catholic Church to act against its collective conscience—that is, if the law suddenly required priests to give their blessings to gay and lesbian unions. But we’ve got a First Amendment freedom of religion in this country, and there’s zero chance the any anti-gay-marriage church will ever be required to perform such ceremonies. What’s going on here is that the Church—or, at least the portion of it that listens to Weigel—can’t abide the rest of us having gay marriage, whether we’re Catholic or not.

“Which is kind of irritating.”

Mathis goes on to point out that Weigel’s strategy is bad for both the church and for the rest of society.  It’s bad for the church because some couples may decide that they might need civil marriage more than sacramental marriage, and simply forego the latter, thus hastening further decline in church participation.

It’s bad for society, Mathis says, because

“. . .society has long benefitted from the church’s wider participation in our civic life, from its hospitals to adoptions service to services for the poor. There’s been a growing inclination in recent years for the church to take its ball and go home—to stop providing services unless everybody involved is playing by Catholic rules. I’m not sure who benefits if the Church decides that, instead of undergirding and strengthening society, it exists in opposition to it. Probably nobody. But it’s possible we’re about to find out.”

He concludes by noting what I consider the essential problem of so many of the religious liberty arguments made by conservatives:

“The Catholic Church shouldn’t act against its conscience. But Weigel’s proposal of a civil marriage boycott suggests a rather more expansive vision of the boundaries of the Church’s conscience than is perhaps warranted. The Catholic Church is losing the fight over gay marriage in America; the question now is whether it will decide to lose in a manner that causes a great deal of harm.”

What I find most interesting is that even though the Maryland clergy mentioned above and Weigel may have landed on the same strategy, in the hands of the former, it appears as a civil disobedience protest, but in the hands of the latter, it looks more like biting ones’ nose to spite one’s face.   Worse yet, it is indicative of a destructive trend among some traditionalist Catholic leaders to build walls and fortresses around Catholic culture to “protect” it from the world, rather than building bridges to  the world to help both the church and the greater society to grow and develop.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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