CAMPUS CHRONICLES: Cancellation of Marriage Lecture Leads to Community Reflection

September 28, 2013

Providence College students at Thursday night’s forum

The decision by Providence College to cancel an event called “The Meaning of (Gay) Marriage” has ignited controversy and raised questions about academic freedom at the Catholic school located in the capital of Rhode Island. However, the cancellation became more than a typical controversy around Catholic higher education and LGBT issues when students organized a constructive forum to replace the event.

The New York Times reports that an administrator notified faculty members last Saturday that a lecture by John Corvino, a philosophy professor at Wayne State University, Michigan, was cancelled because it defied the school’s Catholic identity.  The Times report states:

“In his e-mail announcing the cancellation, Hugh F. Lena, the provost and senior vice president of Providence College, cited a document produced by the American bishops in 2004, ‘Catholics in Political Life,’ to support the decision. And he said that college policy ‘dictates that that both sides of a controversial issue are to be presented fairly and equally.’ “

John Corvino

John Corvino

Nine departments and programs at the College were co-hosting the event scheduled for last Thursday, September 26th, and Dr. Dana Dillon of the Philosophy Department was to present the bishops’ position on marriage equality during the event. Cancelling in light of these facts caused many faculty to question the College’s commitment to academic freedom. The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a statement yesterday condemning the decision, which you can read in full at The Providence Journal. For his part, Corvino released two statements, one about the initial cancellation and one after the rescheduling, writing in the former:

“As a fellow scholar I am offended on Dr. Dillon’s behalf…For her provost to declare her unprepared, however, is an affront to scholarly autonomy and academic freedom. It also does not speak well of Provost Lena’s confidence in his philosophy and theology departments that he believes that no one there can persuasively articulate the Catholic position on marriage with a week’s notice.”

Student reactions echoed faculty concerns, but also wondered what message Providence College sent to LGBT community members in so brusquely treating Corvino and the issue of marriage equality. The campus LGBT group, called SHEPHARD, released a statement emphasizing the progress being made on campus.

Other students launched “Fighting for Academic Freedom” a Facebook page, as a form of protest.

In place of the cancelled lecture on Thursday night, students organized an open forum to discuss the administration’s decision, LGBT issues, and marriage equality. The forum included testimonials from students , as well as small group discussions wrestling with questions like, “Why is open and honest dialogue about gay marriage important to you? To the broader Providence College community?” and “How do we stay true to Providence College’s identity as a Catholic, liberal arts institution?” It ended with a larger discussion aimed at creating constructive next steps. One professor who attended wrote in an email:

“I attended the event last night and was bowled over by what came forth from our students; they compelled me to look at this whole thing with new eyes. The hurt that was expressed by our students with same-sex attraction (forgive me for being ol’ fashioned) when confronted by the efforts their college would go to prevent a gay academic coming to campus filled 64 Hall. . . .[I]t would take a person with a stone-heart not to be moved by their sense of injury that the college they call ‘home’ would act this way. I could not but help of thinking about the question Pope Francis posed when explaining his famous “who am I to judge?” comment: When God looks at a gay person, does God see a gay person or just a person? I heard lots of persons last night, and it alerted me to the reality that this is not simply a question about policy, about who said what to whom and when, but also a question of how Catholics speak about the issue of homosexuality.”

Providence College has announced that John Corvino will debate Sherif Girgis, a well-known anti-equality activist, this coming spring. Yet, for many faculty and students at the school this incident has been an occasion to come up with ways that the campus could be more welcoming of LGBT people and issues.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


A Catholic Conservative Comes Out for Same-Sex Marriage

August 29, 2013

At the end of last week, Commonweal magazine published a long essay with the provocative headline:  “The Things We Share:  A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage. ”   While accurate, the headline doesn’t tell the whole story.   The essay is not just a Catholic argument for marriage equality, it is an argument that comes from a leading Catholic conservative and he bases his stand on natural law theory–the philosophical position that bishops and other religious thinkers use to oppose marriage equality.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum

I have to admit that I’m a bit ambivalent about recommending this essay to you.  Not because I disagree with it (though there are some points with which I differ), but because it is long, complicated and extremely digressive.  At over, 9,300 words, it may be one of the longest articles Commonweal has published,  The numerous erudite digressions in the essay make it seem even longer.

But it is an important article, given the fact that the author, Joseph Bottum, was once the editor of First Things, a leading publication for religious and political conservatives.  His “defection” from the “party line” of these types of thinkers is, therefore, significant, especially since he uses their very esteemed theory of natural law to make a case against their stand.

Bottum’s case for marriage equality actually comes very close to the end of the essay.  He spends the first three-quarters of the essay dealing with a variety of tangential issues that (somewhat) lay the groundwork for his marriage argument.  The New York Times ran a story about Bottum’s Commonweal argument, and their summary of his case is actually easier to read and more understandable than the original, so I quote from it here:

“Natural law, as systematically explained by Aquinas in his treatise Summa Theologica, is the will of God as understood by people using their reason. Aquinas extrapolates many principles of natural law, including those of marriage. But Mr. Bottum contends that these rules are not the point.

“Natural law, Mr. Bottum writes, depends for its force on a sense of the mystery of creation, the enchantment of everyday objects, the sacredness of sex. In the West, that climate of belief has been upended: by science, modernism, a Protestant turn away from mysticism, and, most recently, the sexual revolution. The strictures of natural law were meant to structure an enchanted world — but if the enchantment is gone, the law becomes a pointless artifact of a defunct Christian culture.

“ ‘And if,’ Mr. Bottum writes, ‘heterosexual monogamy so lacks the old, enchanted metaphysical foundation that it can end in quick and painless divorce, then what principle allows a refusal of marriage to gays on the grounds of a metaphysical notion like the difference between men and women?’ “

Where I tend to disagree with Bottum is not on his view of natural law, but with the fact that he seems to discount all other approaches to supporting marriage equality.  He spends a good deal in the beginning of his article refuting some of the more popular ways that marriage equality has been argued for in the U.S., i.e., based on legal fairness:

“It’s not enough for a Catholic to say that legal fairness and social niceness compel us. We have a religion of intellectual coherence, too, and the moral positions we take have to comport with the whole of the moral universe. That’s the reason for trying to be serious—for demanding that the unity of truth apply, and that ethical claims cannot be separated from their metaphysical foundations.

“If there is no philosophical or theological reasoning that leads to Catholic recognition of civil same-sex marriage, then we’re simply arguing about what’s politic. What’s fair and nice. What flows along the channels marked out by the dominant culture. We’re merely suggesting that Catholics shouldn’t make trouble. And how is that supposed to convince anyone who holds intellectual consistency at more than a pennyweight?”

Where I disagree with him on this matter is that these arguments for marriage equality are not just secular and political ones, but are also often theological and faith-filled.  For example, many Catholics have used our church’s social justice tradition, not the Democratic Party’s talking points,  to support marriage equality.  Bottum seems to be unaware of the fact that Catholics have been arguing for many years for marriage equality from a faith perspective.

His unawareness of a faith-based perspective affirming marriage equality makes him fall into the trap of spending a good deal of his essay arguing what I consider an irrelevant point.  He states that there exists

“. . . a question religious believers must ask: a prior question of whether the current agitation really derives from a wish for same-sex marriage, or whether the movement is an excuse for a larger campaign to delegitimize and undermine Christianity.”

In raising this point, Bottum shows a great suspicion of secular culture which is characteristic of many conservative Catholics.  I don’t doubt that some on the left want to bring down the church, but my own personal dealings with many LGBT advocates has shown me that many are sincerely respectful of religion.

Still, the value of his argument is that it addresses conservative Catholics on their own terms of natural law theory.  Many traditionalist Catholics will not support marriage equality from a social justice perspective because they don’t think that this tradition applies to LGBT issues.  I’m not sure that many will even be convinced by Bottum’s argument from natural law theory, but it will be harder for them to refute such a position.

Ross Douthat wrote a commentary for The New York Times on Bottum’s essay in which he points out another value of Bottum’s essay.  Douthat describes the piece as

“. . . a literary Catholic’s attempt to wrench the true complexity of his faith back out of the complexity-destroying context of contemporary political debates. He’s writing as someone who loves his church, and wants everyone else to love it as he does — and I don’t blame him for imagining that perhaps, just perhaps, ceasing to offer public resistance on the specific question of gay marriage would liberate the church from some the caricatures that the culture war has imposed upon it, and enable the world to see its richness with fresh eyes.”

I cite this evaluation of the piece because I believe that Bottum’s strongest point in his essay is his awareness that the hierarchy’s strong vocal opposition to marriage equality is doing pastoral harm to Catholics. And it is doing even greater harm to the reputation of the bishops as national leaders. (I make this point about the bishops’ reputation not because of the content of their position, but because of the very angry and insensitive rhetoric they often use to make their point.) After reviewing the stunning recent victories for marriage equality in legislatures, polling booths, and courtrooms, Bottum states:

“We are now at the point where, I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.

“For that matter, plenty of practical concerns suggest that the bishops should cease to fight the passage of such laws. Campaigns against same-sex marriage are hurting the church, offering the opportunity to make Catholicism a byword for repression in a generation that, even among young Catholics, just doesn’t think that same-sex activity is worth fighting about.”

Bottum’s essay is complex and important.  If you are a progressive Catholic and read the essay all the way through, I think you will find yourself nodding in agreement on some points and shaking your head in disagreement at others.  I suspect that the same will be true for many conservative Catholics.   Regardless of one’s political and ecclesiastical orientation, the essay will make the reader think in new ways.  And for that reason, it is worth the effort.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

QueeringTheChurch.com:  A Conservative Catholic Evolution on Gay Marriage

The Wild Reed: A Conservative Catholic’s Contribution to the Journey to Marriage Equality

The American Conservative:  J. Bottum Flip-Flops On Gay Marriage

The Dish (by Andrew Sullivan):  The Latest Conservative Defector On Same-Sex Marriage

 

 


Support for Marriage Equality Shouldn’t Create an ‘Us vs.Them’ Mentality

October 6, 2012

John Coleman, SJ

John Coleman, SJ, a respected social ethics scholar who blogs for America magazine, recently stated his support for civil marriage equality.  In a post about Newark’s Archbishop John Myers recent statement that those who disagree with the hierarchy’s position on marriage should not receive communion, Coleman, perhaps unwittingly, noted that he is among that group Myers describes:

“I actually tend to be in favor of civil gay marriage. The term, marriage, has a long history of secular meaning and resonances the way the term, civil unions, does not. It carries overtones of fidelity, mutual support and sustenance and monogamy. Whether the state should recognize civil marriage for gays and lesbians is not, it seems to me, a matter of clear church teaching, as such. Bishops and others can oppose civil gay marriage, to be sure. But to claim that to disagree with their, at best, ‘ prudential’ reading of what is best in a pluralistic society is tantamount to denying ‘ authentic church teaching’ strikes me as a little bizarre.”

While Coleman agrees with the hierarchy that sacramental marriage should only be reserved for heterosexual couples, he sees the question of civil marriage to be much more complicated:

“I do not assume that all those who oppose gay marriage are homophobic. They, I assume, presume that allowing the title marriage to be granted–note civilly ( There is no question of a sacramental marriage in the church except between a man and a woman)–somehow denigrates marriage or threatens heterosexual marriage ( but we need sociological evidence to back up any such, essentially empirical, claim!). Nor do I assume that a Catholic who supports civil gay marriages necessarily is dissenting from church teaching that Catholics, outside of marriage, should remain chaste. But more than Catholics are involved in approving gay marriages civilly. A Catholic who votes in favor of gay marriage is not counter-acting any clear church teaching about civil marriages ( is there such a thing?). Clear church teaching is that a sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman. There is no clear church teaching about what constitutes a civil marriage. The church opposes divorce but does not counter civil laws which allow divorce and also allow divorced people to re-marry ( the church does not allow divorced Catholics to remarry if their first marriage was a valid sacrament). Similarly, the church opposes contraception for Catholics but does not oppose civil laws which allow their sale and use more widely in society. To do so would violate others’ religious liberty. Also, as Thomas Aquinas once argued, civil law need not enshrine in law every virtue or punish every vice ( this would make for an overly intrusive government).”

Coleman sees the marriage equality debate, and Archbishop Myers’ attempt to separate Catholics who disagree with him and other bishops on this issue, as part of a larger problem in the church:  an Us vs. Them mentality:

“Now, to be sure, we need not nor can not be simply relativistic. But compromise in a pluralistic society does not necessarily mean relativism. We have a right to plead our own vision of a pluralist society, even on the question of opposing gay marriage, if we believe it would somehow denigrate or undermine heterosexual marriage. But I find it distressing, as the church begins its Year of Faith to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II which did so much to encourage ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue ( looking for connections and not just where we differ) and counseled us to work for the common good of society, even with unbelievers, in its document,’The Church in the Modern World,’ that so much rhetoric in the church is tilting much more now toward an us versus them mentality.”

Coleman’s post is a good reminder that while we can get some times get caught up in the particulars of passionate debate when discussing marriage equality, we can some times fall into the trap of setting up an Us vs. Them scenario.  While Archbishop Myers’ recent statement about not receiving communion is the latest public example of such behavior–and a particularly harmful one pastorally–he is not the only person guilty of this propensity.  Unfortunately, all of us, as humans, need to work against promoting such thinking.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


How Sacramental Is Marriage? Wills and Manson Offer Perspectives

May 23, 2012

Jamie Manson

Garry Wills

Inside and outside the church, the debate on marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples has provided some interesting discussion about the institution of marriage generally.  Two recent articles by prominent Catholic thinkers and observers, Garry Wills and Jamie Manson, are two exceptionally good examples.

In “The Myth About Marriage,” published in The New York Review of Books, Wills focuses on whether or not marriage has any religious significance:

“Why do some people who would recognize gay civil unions oppose gay marriage? Certain religious groups want to deny gays the sacredeness of what they take to be a sacrament. But marriage is no sacrament.”

In examining the scriptures used to support a religious view of marriage–such as the Creation story, Jesus’ comments on divorce (Mark 10:8), and the wedding at Cana (John 10:1-11)–Wills finds no evidence of the institution of marriage as a Christian sacrament.  He quotes Fr. Raymond Brown, the renowned Scripture scholar on the Cana story:

“Neither the external nor the internal evidence for a symbolic reference to matrimony is strong. The wedding is only the backdrop and occasion for the story, and the joining of the man and woman does not have any direct role in the narrative.”

Wills also relies on Joseph Martos, who wrote the classic text on the history of the sacraments, Doors to the Sacred, for a history of the sacrament of marriage, which begins only in the 12th century, and culminates in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. (An accessible summary of Martos’ scholarship on marriage can be found in Marriage Equality: A Positive Catholic Approachchapter 8.)  Wills concludes his argument:

“Those who do not want to let gay partners have the sacredness of sacramental marriage are relying on a Scholastic fiction of the thirteenth century to play with people’s lives, as the church has done ever since the time of Aquinas. The myth of the sacrament should not let people deprive gays of the right to natural marriage, whether blessed by Yahweh or not. They surely do not need—since no one does—the blessing of Saint Thomas.”

While I appreciate Wills’ point, I think he is throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water.  Marriage does have both civil and religious dimensions to it.  Many marriage equality advocates strongly support this dual dimension to the institution, but equally as strongly advocate for a separation of the dimensions to their proper authorities:  the secular, political realm governs civil marriage, while the religious realms govern religious marriage.

Wills is accurate in relating Martos’ history of marriage, however, I came away with a different perspective from Martos than he seems to have done.  In my reading, Martos’ history shows that, indeed, marriage is an institution which has evolved over time.  It changes with different understandings of human beings, their relationships to one another, their sexuality, and the “contract” that society has with its members in terms of conferring rights and responsibilities.

Marriage also changes with evolving religious understandings of love and its symbolic roles and messages.  Religious people and institutions do have the right to determine those roles and messages–within the confines of their institutions.  More importantly, those roles and messages, even in religious settings, evolve and change over time, as new understandings emerge.

Marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples is being considered by society now precisely because our society has come to realize the value of the love and commitment between couples who share the same gender.  And as polls continue to show, for many Catholics, their is a religious dimension to the quest for securing marriage equality for these couples:  Catholics want equal justice for all couples whose love and commitment contribute to the common good.

Jamie Manson, in a National Catholic Reporter column entitled, “Sacramental Marriage Beyond Anatomy,”  explores this religious dimension of marriage (applying it to same-gender and different-gender couples).  She first recounts her personal experience, first in witnessing difficult marriages, and then witnessing marriages that were life-giving:

“It wasn’t until I attended graduate school, where many of my classmates were married, that I began to see that two people could flourish in a relationship. I realized that the same couples share a love so deep it actually can inspire hope and faithfulness to their larger community.

“Watching these couples, I began to understand what sacramental marriage means. If a sacrament is a sign of God’s grace, it follows that relationships that are signs of God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and faithfulness are sacramental. These signs of grace are part of the new life that married couples are called to bring into the world, with or without children.

“I was well into my graduate studies when I realized that I was not heterosexual. I was grateful to have had so many married friends to show me the marks of a good and holy marriage. It helped me to know what to aspire to in my own relationships with women. I also met many same-sex couples during my studies and through them I was able to see that God was present in their relationships in the same way God was manifest in the relationships of my straight friends.”

Manson continues this line of thought by making the sacramental dimension to marriage explicit in her argument, pointing out that anatomical gender is less important that quality of relationship as an indicator of sacramentality:

“What made my straight friends’ marriages sacramental wasn’t the fact that their anatomies matched up in a particular way or that they could procreate. As I learned from my childhood, complementing genders and an ability to reproduce in no way guarantees that a marriage will be graced or sacramental. Their marriage was good and holy because it helped both partners to grow in generosity, compassion, mercy, and faithfulness. . . .

“To make procreation and gender complementarity the criteria for marriage simply does not do justice to the Catholic sacramental imagination. To believe that a sacramental marriage cannot happen between two people of the same sex is to place limits on God’s power to work within the relationships of God’s beloved children.

“If we take seriously the Catholic notion of sacramental love, then our concerns shouldn’t be over the anatomies of a couple, but whether or not the couple, through their commitment, brings the life of God more fully into our world. Is their relationship inspiring others to greater faithfulness? Are they a sign of the power of forgiveness and unconditional love? Are the sacrifices that they make for one another an incarnation of the selfless love to which Jesus calls us? . . .

“Rather than concern over the anatomical reality of a couple, the sacramental nature of marriage should be judged by whether there is equality and mutuality between spouses, whether the relationship helps both spouses to flourish individually and as a couple, and whether their relationship brings the love, mercy, and faithfulness of God more fully into our world.”

Manson makes a convincing case for the fact that marriage does have a religious dimension to it.  What I like about her argument is that her view is that the religious dimension comes from the relationship between the partners, not the anatomy of the partners.  Is this a development in our understanding of marriage?  YES!  And a very good one!  It reflects both our religious and psychological understanding that sexuality and marriage are about more than just human beings’ potential for procreation.

Manson’s view of marriage not only aids committed same-gender couples who seek recognition of their relationships, but it also can help us to take a different, more compassionate, approach to heterosexual couples whose marriages are marred by inequality, injustice, and abuse. In effect, by recognizing the importance of relationship as an indication of sacramentality, the discussion on same-sex marriage is helping, not hurting, heterosexual marriage to become a better institution in society.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 


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