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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Gay Marriage and the Catholic Moral Tradition

[A reader suggested that I re-word my remarks about Roy Bougeois, lest those remarks be interpreted to mean that he was making himself rich by his protest work.]

Right after Vatican II, when I was in my early years of priesthood, there was a move toward replacing the old moral theology manuals that had been used in seminaries. In my theology years, the early 1960s, we used a 17th edition of a Latin text published at Louvain in Belgium, authored originally by Ed. Genicot, S.I and Ios. Salsmans, I.S., with the title Institutiones Theologiae Moralis.

After Vatican II seminaries abandoned the old approach. But what to replace it with? One replacement was a text by Bernard Haring titled The Law of Christ.

I never read Haring's book. I understood that he talked a lot about "love." "Love" was just too wishy-washy a concept for me. I judged the book to be pious froth.

The problem was the word "love." I had never seen a definition of love. In fact, I went thirty-five years looking for such a definition. I thought that in a world dominated by scholastic reasoning, the very first thing one would do would be to provide a definition of such an important idea as love. But I found nothing.

But then, in the 1990s, my colleague and Franciscan confrere here at Quincy University, Fr. John Joseph Lakers, OFM, published Christian Ethics: An Ethics of Intimacy. That book gave me a definition of love, or, as he named it, intimacy. Intimacy or love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement.

Lakers had studied at Oxford in England under the analytic philosophers of the day, whose work focused on language. But throughout his life he had become passionately involved with two categories of people: young people preparing for marriage, and people of any age who were hurting. For forty years he spent hours talking with such people. His linguistic philosophy was shaped by his conversations with real people.

It is his synthesis that is the basis of our approach to the issue of gay marriage.

His synthesis is this. Jewish and Christian moral reasoning has been based on one of two metaphors: the metaphor of judgment and power, and the metaphor of intimacy. Christian ethics should be based on the metaphor of intimacy.


One of the biggest changes in philosophical thinking in the last hundred years has been a new way of thinking about thinking. The new way focuses on the word "metaphor."

A metaphor is a piece of language that recalls an experience.

Our brains record experiences we have. Words are the key to retrieving memories of those experiences. I see a chair in front of me. I have had past experiences of seeing chairs. When I hear the word "chair," my brain calls up memories of those past experiences. We might call a word a lower-level metaphor.

But our brains record more lengthy sequences of experiences. We use words to recall those sequences.

Jesus says, for example, that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is combining memories of camels, of needles, of rich people, and of kingdoms. A camel passing through the eye of a needle is not an experience that anyone has ever had. But by using language, Jesus combines two experiences into a story: here is a camel going through the eye of a needle. That story is a metaphor. Jesus uses it to teach about the relation of riches to God's kingdom.

Some years ago preachers were urged to say that the "eye of a needle" was in Jesus' time a certain small gate in a wall. Thinking about the metaphor that way made it a little easier to swallow. The scripture scholars came back and informed us that there was no such gate, and that the story of the gate in the wall is a way of softening Jesus' original metaphor. When Jesus said "eye of a needle," he meant the eye of the kind of needle everyone knows about.

The gate-in-the-wall story is a good example of how people raised in a world of scientific language are always tempted to make every statement into a scientifically-provable statement. Most people throughout history had no such temptation. They used language freely and creatively, with the result that their language was shot through with vivid metaphors, many of which would be scientifically impossible.

There are three metaphors that are relevant to the gay marriage issue. One is "judgment," the second is "power," and the third is "love."

The word "judgment" calls up the experience of a courtroom, where a judge determines whether a person has committed a crime or not. Crime cannot occur without law, which is language designed to spell out what is permissible and what is not permissible. But judgment is only the first step. After judgment must come "power," which is the ability to punish.

Punishment is any experience that most people would rather not have. The mildest form of punishment is a dirty look, a simple gesture that expresses displeasure--displeasure of course that follows behavior that is forbidden. I reach across the table in front of my neighbor and grab the water pitcher. The people around me judge this to be a violation of a rule of etiquette: when you are at a meal table, you ask your neighbor to pass the water--you don't just reach in front of your neighbor's face and grab the pitcher. So they punish me by giving me a disapproving look, and by exchanging disapproving looks with each other.

When the violation of a law is more serious, the punishment is more serious: a fine, jail time, prison sentence, even capital punishment.

The combined metaphor of judgment and power lies behind our entire legal and criminal justice system. It lies behind much of the way the Church deals with moral behavior.

When I was in the seminary, we were taught that the job of a priest in confession is to pass judgment on the sins that the penitent confesses, so that the confessor can "bind or loose" the penitent. If the confessor judges that the penitent is not sufficiently sorry, the confessor should withhold absolution, which means that the penitent is still subject to the punishment that his or her sin deserves. Forgiveness simply means the writing off of the punishment that an act deserves.

The language of binding and loosing has become central to the way that Church leaders see their roles among the Christian people. They have made law the central concept of Christian life.

The third metaphor relevant to the issue of gay marriage is love. Love is not wishy-washy sentimentalism. It is a type of behavior, which means that it can be observed empirically. It is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful involvement of one person with another. The problem is that the word love is used as a metaphor for all types of emotional experiences, especially the experience of what social scientists call "romantic love." Romantic love is a specific kind of experience, apparently based in human biology, that attracts one human being to another. The experience is accompanied by powerful feelings of attraction and jealousy. It is a temporary experience--we can never seem to make it last for very long. Like all feelings or emotions, it is not under our control.

The word love refers to other metaphors: one person sacrificing her life for another, two people remaining faithful to each other for years. But these metaphors are limited. We are seldom asked to sacrifice our lives for someone else, and it takes years to be faithful to someone over a long period of time. Love is something that we have to do every day, and we have to know when we are doing it and when we are not doing it. The definition of love as passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful involvement can apply to everyday experiences. Some involvements with others are short-term, such as my handing a sack of candy to a clerk and asking the clerk to accept my payment for it. Even in that limited context, I can be involved with the person respectfully. Passion, vulnerability, and faithfulness are less relevant to that situation, but in small and tiny ways even those characteristics can be observed at the cash register.

What Lakers and I are suggesting here is that Christian moral thinking, which is often based on the metaphors of judgment and power, needs to be based on the metaphor of love.

Sources of the Metaphors of Judgment and Power

The metaphors of judgment and power are solidly enshrined in Jewish Scripture. Perhaps their clearest expression is in the book of Deuteronomy. "I set before you here, this day, a blessing and a curse: a blessing for obeying the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin on you today; a curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord, your God." (Dt 11:26-28) The metaphors are explicitly stated in that passage, but they are implicit in most of the stories of the journey of the people from Egypt into the promised land.

Using this metaphor, Jewish authors interpreted the experiences of their people as God's interventions in the people's fate. When the people obeyed God's laws they lived in peace and prosperity. When they disobeyed the laws, God punished them with foreign invaders and exile. Eventually their reflections on law resulted in its canonization: The Law. Psalm 119 is a good example of the respect that the Law gained among the people. It has 168 verses, and is the longest psalm in the bible. Almost every verse contains the word "law" or a synonym of that word.

Christians took up the metaphor. Their use of it grew immensely when Christians, in the late 300s, after Constantine, gained the upper hand politically in the Roman Empire. Christians began to construct a Christian law in imitation of Roman law. Eventually Church leaders developed the Inquisition, which often used secular power to enforce religious beliefs.

The criminal codes of our federal, state, and local governments are all based on the metaphor of judgment and power. They are based on two statements: this is what you should not do (law), and if you do it (judgment), we punish you (power). If the law itself does not cover my grievance with you, I can sue you, which is a different form of punishment--you will lose money hiring the lawyers you will need to defend yourself against the lawsuit.

We are a nation of judges and punishers.

Judgment and power still exist within the Christian community. We Catholics have pitied Protestant ministers who cannot challenge the beliefs and practices of their congregations lest they be fired by those congregations and have to look for another job. But the Catholic Church uses power, though these days it is mostly restricted to priests, religious, and theology teachers in Catholic institutions--people whose livelihood depends on the approval of the hierarchy.

Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who took part in the ordination of a woman in 2008, was recently punished by an edict from Rome ordering his Maryknoll superiors to expel him from the Maryknoll Congregation. Bourgeois, who has for years led tens of thousands of people in protest against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, is so well known and respected that people involved in the protest are likely to replace the support that Maryknoll had given him. But other members of religious orders vowed to poverty have no such security.

Recently a bishop in Australia was forced to resign his position because he violated the law that forbids discussing the issue of women's ordination. It is commonly believed that any bishop who comes close to such questioning can forget about advancement in the hierarchy.

That is power in operation. Is it any wonder that a young person would think twice about joining a Christian church where you can be punished for even discussing something?

A lay Catholic like Garry Wills can publish a scathing criticism of the papacy, claiming that it has made an art out of speaking falsehood for the last two hundred years, but the Church cannot punish him. The worst it can do to him is to forbid people to read his book. I am not aware of any such condemnation of Wills's work, which is probably wise on the part of Church leaders, because a condemnation would likely increase the sales of the book.

The bottom line is that all of us, those in the Church and those not in the Church, firmly believe that if we do not spell out the boundaries of acceptable behavior by laws and then punish violators, everything will fall apart. In social science language, we believe strongly in stimulus-response theory: people do what rewards them and do not do what punishes them. We do not have the resources to do much rewarding, so we focus on the punishing. The Law will save us.


Lakers argues that a different metaphor appears in the prophets, for example, in Hosea. God speaks to the people as a spouse who takes back a wayward wife even after she has been adulterous.

God says (Hosea 2:21-22):

I will espouse you to me forever:
    I will espouse you in right and in justice,
    in love and in mercy;
I will espouse you in fidelity,
    and you shall know the Lord."

Similar metaphors can be found in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

And then there is Jesus.

Jesus used metaphorical language. Some of his language reflects the metaphor of judgment and power--for example the famous scene in Matthew 25 of the king separating the sheep from the goats. But more often Jesus' actual behavior was grounded in a metaphor of intimacy or love. He was passionately, respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully involved with the people who came into his life. He forgave sinners, to the point where he scandalized the defenders of the Law. He ignored the Law when love seemed a more appropriate response to a person's behavior. ("The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath.")

Jesus did talk about the fires of gehenna. Surely the threat of eternal punishment is using judgment and power. Or are the fires of gehenna metaphorical?

We interpret the metaphor of the fires of gehenna literally, but we do not take literally the metaphor of cutting off your hand when it causes you to sin. The sociologist would explain this by saying that the metaphor of the fires of gehenna is a useful political tool. If God can put you in fire for eternity, I should be able to punish you by causing lesser pain. I can burn you at the stake in the hopes of motivating you to escape eternal fire, but in the meantime I am preserving my own political power.

Jesus, as I read the Gospels, never himself actually inflicted punishment on anyone. Even when he drove the money-changers out of the temple, his action was more of a defense of the sacredness of the place than a punishment of those who were doing the buying and selling.

Jesus' whole life was a demonstration of passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement with people and with his Father. His whole life was based on love. And didn't he say that love of God is the first and greatest commandment, and love of neighbor is second only to that first commandment? The reason we have not taken those two commandments more seriously is that our thinking about love is confused. We think that love means warm feelings, and we rightfully decide that we cannot take love seriously.

What if we Christians had grounded our moral thinking in the metaphor of intimacy four hundred years ago. I think it would have been difficult for Christians to go along with the atrocities committed in colonizing the newly discovered lands in the western hemisphere. I cannot see how a Christian could capture and force a native American to work without pay in gold mines if the Christian believed that God calls us to treat every person with respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness. Still less could a moral code founded on love allow people to transport other people across the Atlantic like cattle in order to use them as slaves in those mines. Colonialism and slavery were grounded in violence--there was just no other way to do it. Violence is the opposite of intimacy.

It would be difficult to over-estimate the damage that colonialism has done to our world. Ever since former colonies gained political independence in the 1960s, they have suffered decades of violent conflict and economic failure because of the leftovers of the colonial system. It would be hard to over-estimate the damage that slavery has done to our own country. It has left us with racism and violence, both of which contribute to the paralysis that is afflicting our government right now. Too many of our fellow citizens judge the behavior of others to be downright evil, deserving of firepower, and they are all set to provide that firepower. 

Those two examples should be enough to counter the charge that grounding moral behavior in a metaphor of intimacy is too easy and subject to one's personal prejudices. Traditional Catholic moral thinking was too accepting of colonialism and slavery. Voices raised in objection to those two institutions were drowned out by the voices of those who saw no incompatibility between the following of Jesus and domination of others by violence.

What the metaphor of intimacy does not do is to spell out in detail exactly what is right and what is wrong. That is what law does. We believe that if we do not spell out in detail what is right and what is wrong, society will go off into chaos.

What law cannot do is to provide guidelines for situations where the law has not yet been developed--for example, in colonies and the slave trade. Intimacy is not opposed to law, it is ahead of law. It gets there first. It sometimes requires us to do things that the law would not command. We all know of cases where a parent sacrifices his or her own well-being in order to give life to a child.

Natural Law

Natural law is a metaphorical extension of the concept of human law to the realm of nature. God, we say, is the author of natural law, and we can know natural law without the light of revelation. Reason alone will reveal God's will.

But "reason" is a weak reed on which to lean. No social scientist would claim that a statement she makes is based on reason. She would be accused of failing to test an idea against empirical evidence. Lakers would say that reason is a fiction--it is a construct based on the story that nature reveals itself to us as a lawgiver. Postmodern writers have called reason and rationality into question on the grounds that whenever someone claims that a position is based on reason, the claim conceals a move to dominate. Reason allows me to pass judgment on you and then punish you.

Can the morality of homosexual behavior be judged on the basis of reason? There is more and more evidence that the condition of homosexuality is not something chosen, but is something the individual is born with. That makes the condition of homosexuality natural. True, it is not the way that most people experience sexuality, but it strains logic to claim that we can judge one kind of sexual behavior as natural and another kind as unnatural when both kinds are found in nature.

Traditional condemnation of homosexuality is grounded in the belief that the Bible condemns it. Since we also believe that it is a freely chosen condition, it must be sinful.

What if we were to ground our approach to homosexuality in the metaphor of intimacy? Here are two people of the same sex. They say that they experience feelings of love for each other. More importantly, they are involved with each other passionately, respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully.

Such loving behavior should be encouraged by Christianity. One of the more convincing reasons for not judging homosexual behavior is the empirical evidence that some homosexual men without commitments have hundreds of partners. Surely a legal framework which encourages fidelity is preferable to a legal framework which equates a loving relationship with promiscuity.

Is marriage an institution grounded in natural law? Historically, most human cultures have been polygamous. If we claim that monogamous marriage is based in natural law, we have to admit that much of human history did not realize that, because most societies, including Jewish society, were polygamous--they permitted one man to have more than one wife. That makes questionable the claim that it is obvious to all that monogamy is "natural."

True, the vast majority of people in the world today are monogamous. But the practices of the majority, the defenders of natural law say, are not a good way to judge the morality of behavior.

But, say the opponents of gay marriage, a marriage between two people of the same sex cannot propagate new life.

New  Life

Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyist who popularized the idea of adolescent identity, proposed that there are eight stages in the human life cycle. The next to last stage he labeled "generativity"--a stage where the individual becomes responsible for others and for passing on to others new life in many different forms.

Erikson's schema could be seen as another form of natural law--every person should go through the eight stages--but Erikson never claimed that his schema was given by God and not open to question. However, his idea that the adult person should be involved in the sharing of life in some way is good.

Life can be shared in many ways. The Church has traditionally argued that celibate religious give life in their own way to the Christian community. Yet their behavior is not open to new life in the physical sense. The argument that homosexual unions are against natural law because they are not open to new physical life seems to depend on a prior judgment that homosexual behavior is immoral in itself.

An environment in which children are being raised in the company of two adults who are passionately, respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully involved with each other is far preferable to an environment in which children are being raised without any parent.

Catholic Moral Positions in General

 It is widely admitted that the "western" world is going through a crisis of belief in organized religion. Pope Benedict XVI saw secularism and indifferentism as major evils to the living out of Jesus' example. He further insisted that the crisis is caused by a failure to use reason properly.

The "indifferentism" of our time is not a rejection of morality. Our society can be intensely moralistic in reaction to behavior such as child or spouse abuse--we punish sex offenders by requiring them to make their addresses publicly known, and forbidding them to be within a thousand feet of an elementary school. What people are rejecting is a system of morals that seems to have lost touch with new developments in psychology and biology. It is simply not possible for the Church to speak authoritatively on  these developments if the Church continues to ground its judgments in natural law. A moral position that sees passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful involvement as the ultimate criterion for what is good and bad is far more credible to people of our time. The increasing acceptance of gay marriage reflected in recent opinion polls is the result of more and more people having direct personal experience with gay people. A parent with a gay child finds it morally incredible that her child should be denied the experience of committed marital love on the basis of a philosophical belief about nature.

Ultimately, the crisis in young people's confidence that the Church in western societies is experiencing involves far more than just the morality of homosexuality. The Church has locked itself into a whole range of moral positions which are increasingly seen as arbitrary. The only remedy for this situation is to ground Christian morality in a metaphor of intimacy rather than in a metaphor of judgment and power. As long as the Church continues to try to claim that its laws will cover all eventualities, and then punish people who violate those laws, it will find itself losing the battle.