fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

on equivocation; or, why Congress and the Supreme Court are not (and *can*not) redefine the sacramen

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Over at Patheos, BadCatholic wrote a lengthy (but well worth reading) post about gay marriage, particularly why he cannot accept it. His argument as I understand it boils down to something like this:

First, when Catholics talk of marriage, they talk of marriage, they talk of the sacrament of marriage, which (based on Mt 19) is clearly male/female only. Catholics should stand against gay marriage, but they should also stand against things like divorce and contraception – really, anything that treats marriage as something other than “a permanent consortium between a man and a woman which is ordered toward the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation.” (That’s the RCC Canon #1096 he’s quoting, but he quotes it as representative of his view.

This means, again quoting BadCatholic, “the love and commitment of husband and wife maybe awesome and true, but the government recognition of that awesome and true union amounts to an uncommitted tax break.” It’s not the real marriage.

Second, while having the state in the marriage business is at best misleading and at worst debasing of true marriage, it does serve a useful purpose. As he puts it, “[T]he question of redefining civil marriage ultimately boils down to this: Do children have the right to a mother and father? If the answer is yes, then I oppose the redefinition of marriage on the grounds that such a redefinition would restrict a child’s basic, human right.” He briefly argues that men and women are essentially different and that children are harmed by “the excess of one, the lack of the other,” and then points to several specific gay people who have said they think children really are better off when being raised by opposite-gender parents. He doesn’t argue that children are never in families where there’s only one gender present – single mums, for instance, or widowers – but he does think we owe it to the kids not to normalize this kind of family. That should always be viewed as second-best.

First, hats off to BadCatholic, and I mean that genuinely. Last week on FaceBook I asked my conservative friends to point me to posts making the case that civil marriage should only be between heterosexuals, and mostly I got comments from my fellow marriage equality supporters saying they’d never heard of good arguments. I did get pointed to a series Christianity Today is running, on how folks in the church should respond if the Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage. I want to respond to that as well, but that topic will have to wait. BadCatholic’s post is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for – a nuanced, reasoned account of why he doesn’t think civil marriage should be opened up to homosexuals. He also does it without passing judgement on homosexuals, instead framing the discussion in the context of love for children. I wish we had more discussions operating at this level in politics, even among people I disagree with.

Now, I disagree with a lot of his assumptions in a big way. I don’t think children are better off being raised by a man and a woman than by two women or two men, or for that matter by two or more adults who aren’t related. Boy do I disagree with this assumption, but it’s related to the same point I saw in the CT posts, so I’ll bookmark that concern for now. I’m also not okay with his assumption that changing theology is an existential threat to a religion; in fact, it’s this approach more than anything else that has kept me from converting to Catholicism. But one thing my philosophy training has taught me is you can disagree with the premises and still respect the intellectual rigor of an argument. That doesn’t mean you’re ready to go along with the conclusion, but it’s a start, at least.

It’s the first point that I want to talk about now, because it reminded me of a question I’ve been thinking about a lot: how much of our confusion and fighting over gay marriage can be traced back to equivocation? My guess: quite a bit.

I shared this picture first because it makes me laugh, but second because it’s one of the best pop culture illustrations of the problem of equivocation I know of. In The Lord of the Rings, the Witch-king of Angmar had all the protections of already being dead (or at least not alive), being one of Sauron’s most powerful lieutenants and a truly fear-inspiring baddie in his own right, but he also had a prophecy in his back pocket: several centuries earlier the elf Glorfindel had foretold, “Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.” He’s finally killed in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields by a hobbit – so not of the race of Men – and a woman – so not a man in the gender sense. It seems old WiKi just couldn’t catch a break. (Though, as my fellow fanfic writer Elana showed us years ago, non-mannish characters were hardly in short supply that day.)

Now, this is standard fare in mythology. Think about the people who consulted the Delphic Oracle in Greek mythology, for instance, and how those myths didn’t come through in the way anyone would expect. But when you pull this move in logical arguments, it’s called equivocation. Basically, if you’re using the same word more than once, you have to make sure you use it in the same way. Consider an argument along these lines:

1. Éowyn is a man.

2. A man cannot become pregnant.

3. So Éowyn cannot become pregnant.

Taken on their own, both (1) and (2) seem reasonable enough. Éowyn is a man in the same way that Galadriel is an elf, Gandalf is a wizard, and Frodo is a hobbit: she is of the race of men. And men – here talking about the gender rather than the race – can’t get pregnant. So what’s the problem? Well, obviously Éowyn could get pregnant. (In point of fact she did, after the war, because she and Faramir had descendants.) The trick is we’re not using “man” the same way. The premises seem right on their own, but they don’t go together the way we need them to in order to get to the conclusion.

What does all this have to do with marriage? Well, let’s just look at what BadCatholic writes. He explains why Catholics shouldn’t be hating anyone, LGBT or otherwise, and then writes,

Secondly, when the Catholic speaks of marriage he refers primarily to the sacrament of marriage. The sacrament has nothing to do with the vague acknowledgment of unity by a government agency called civil marriage. It has everything to do with the erotic union of male and female, who – by the very reason of their difference – become one flesh. This comes from Holy Scripture, when Christ dishes out a stinging, clearly-not-hip-and-with-it, insensitive Rabbi-slap:

“Haven’t you heard,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?”

Thus marriage – leaving the father and mother to be united to a wife in the physical union of sex that creates another living, breathing “flesh” – is inseparable from being made “male and female.” “For this reason” says Jesus Christ, and how we wished that left wiggle room for other reasons, like marriage for money, convenience, politics, status, or tax breaks! As usual, God disappoints our modern sensibilities.

Nevertheless, the Church holds Christ’s reason-for-marriage as unchanging truth. If the sacrament of marriage were to change its definition, there would cease to be a Catholic Church, for such a change would indicate that the Holy Spirit has left the Church, and that what the Church binds as true on earth is not, in fact, bound in heaven. A change-of-mind means she is not built upon a Rock, not safeguarded against the ever-changing tides of fashion and culture.

BadCatholic didn’t do us the favor of boiling down his argument to premises and conclusions (perhaps because this is a blog post and not a philosophy class), but if I were to reconstruct it along those lines, I’d put it something like this:

1. Marriage describes a specific kind of bond built around procreative sex.

2. The state wishes to define marriage so it’s open to people who can’t form this kind of bond.

3. The Church must oppose any attempt to redefine marriage (since this change would destroy the Church).

4. The state wishes to redefine marriage.

5. So the Church must oppose this attempt to redefine marriage.

It’s not as elegant, as simple of an argument as the one about Éowyn and pregnancy, but I think it ends up in a similar place. It seems like a well-formed argument to me – if all those premises are true (and true in the same way, i.e. no equivocation) we should also accept the conclusion, that the Church should oppose marriage equality. I don’t accept the idea that changing theology means the Holy Spirit has abandoned the church, but if you believe that, it makes sense that you’d oppose anyone who tried to change church doctrine.

But just like with those different meanings for man, BadCatholic is making a pretty big jump here. He recognizes there’s a difference between civil marriage and sacramental marriage, and he also recognizes that when Catholics like him talk about marriage being about Jesus’s call for the different types of humans, men and women, they’re talking about sacramental marriage. He actually says it’s “mostly” about sacramental marriage, but I suspect that’s hedging. Can you imagine any church being okay with Congress deciding whether the eucharist is literally Christ’s transubstantiated flesh, or that people couldn’t be baptized until the age of ten or some such thing? This simply isn’t the kind of thing you decide by popular vote. It always strikes me as bizarre that religious people are ever okay with their sacraments are subject to civil, democratically-decided laws. And the description he gives of marriage is a pretty explicitly religious one. It’s hard to imagine he’s talking about anything other than religious marriage here.

There’s a bigger point, though. As long as the Supreme Court and the like is only talking about civil marriage, and as long as the Catholic Church only has power over sacramental law (and really, given the RCC’s recent push for religious liberty and the First Amendment, anything else seems a little rip these days) – as long as both those things are true, the argument just doesn’t go where BadCatholic wants it to. Let’s make the argument a bit clearer.

1. Sacramental marriage describes a specific kind of bond built around procreative sex.

2. The state wishes to define civil marriage so it’s open to people who can’t form this kind of bond.

3. The Church must oppose any attempt to redefine sacramental marriage (since this change would destroy the Church).

4. The state wishes to redefine civil marriage.

5. So the Church must oppose this attempt to redefine ______________.

What exactly should go in that blank toward the end? If it’s “civil marriage,” that’s really coming out of left-field. The Church may have a reason to protect the sacraments, but unless the civil law forces it to break church law, the Church doesn’t have any real reason to fight this redefinition of civil marriage. Certainly not for the other reasons BadCatholic lays out. Or does “sacramental marriage” go in the blank? Again, where’s that coming from? At most the govt is trying to redefine civil marriage – not the sacrament. It only seems that way because we’re using the same word for two different things.

I’m glad BadCatholic made this point clear, that when he’s talking about marriage it’s the sacrament. He’s right that the government shouldn’t try to change what the church says. But he’s really and truly wrong when he suggests the government is trying to do anything of the sort. No one’s going to make priests offer sacramental marriage to two gay men or two lesbian women. As a Methodist I wish my own church would offer the rite of marriage to these couples, but that’s really a very different discussion. The important thing here is, when the government talks about opening up marriage to gay couples, this is not a threat to what the chrch calls marriage. Unlike with the man and woman in the church ceremony, the two do not become one here.

I also take issue with BadCatholic’s description of civil marriage as an “uncommitted tax break.” Interestingly there’s not even always a tax break! But more to the point, civil marriage does carry other rights and responsibilities with it. If I married my roommate for the taxes she’d also have the right to make hospital decisions on my behalf. And to inherit a certain share of my property. She’d also be obligated (I think?) to pay off any debts I have if I died, and if we then divorced she’d have a right to alimony. The government may not ask whether I love her or anything like that, but if we were to sign that form, it would give her more control over my life than I’d be comfortable with.

Civil marriage is a recognition that in our society people form families together. Sometimes it’s just the adults. Sometimes it’s their natural children together, and sometimes it’s more complicated, either one partner’s child from a previous marriage or someone they’ve adopted. Marriage helps them live their life together and gives them rights and responsibilities that reflect the fact they’re not just two individuals living together. Children is part of it, but certainly not the only part – and whether those children are natural-born to that couple or not really doesn’t matter. Neither does the couple’s gender. But that’s a topic for a different post. Believe me, I’ll get there.

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