If we’re going to legalize alcohol, why not legalize crack cocaine?
If boxing is a legal sport, why not fights to the death with chainsaws?
And if same-sex marriage is recognized by law, why not polygamy and polyandry?
This is the desperate reasoning one hears from Catholic Church spokesmen [sic] these days, affirming the Vatican’s staunch opposition to civil same-sex marriage. Quoth Fr. Federico Lombardi, Director of the Vatican Television Centre (if we watch television, why not also visit strip clubs?):
It is a question of admitting that a husband and a wife are publicly recognized as such; and that children who come into the world can know, and say they have, a father and a mother. In short, preserving a vision of the human person and of human relationships where there is a public acknowledgement of monogamous marriage between a man and woman is an achievement of civilization. If not, why not contemplate also freely chosen polygamy and, of course, not to discriminate, polyandry? It is not expected, then, the Church will give up proposing that society recognize a specific place for marriage between a man and a woman.
Father Lombardi’s editorial is not new—indeed, what is striking about it is how old it is. While purporting to respond to events “in recent days” (namely the 4-for-4 sweep for marriage equality in the United States, as well as progress in Spain and France), this reasoning suggests that Church spokesmen have learned nothing from the last several years of public discourse on the matter. It did not address any of the data we have for why moderates in Minnesota voted for marriage equality—concerns about fairness, distinctions between religious and civil marriage—and indeed suggests a rather cloistered view of the issue. Which perhaps makes sense.
Well, without demonizing those in polyamorous relationships (i.e., without taking the bait that these kinds of analogies present), let’s repeat the distinctions between polygamy/polyandry and same-sex marriage. First, we do not as yet have any evidence of millions of people whose sole path to emotional and physical intimacy is polyamory. We do have that data for gays and lesbians. Thus, if it is true that “it is not good for the human being to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), religious people face a crisis with regard to gays and lesbians that they do not face regarding polyamorists: that refusing to recognize same-sex unions causes more aloneness, and violates this biblical value. There may be some polyamorists who feel the same way, but we haven’t heard from them as we have from millions of gays and lesbians who have pleaded for equality in public squares, courts, and churches. To analogize the visible to the invisible, the real to the unreal, is absurd—and thus offensive.
Second, this kind of slippery-slope reasoning simply doesn’t hold water, as my examples at the start indicate. Societies often permit one thing while prohibiting another similar thing. Driving 55 is legal—75 or even 85 on one Texas highway—but driving 95 is not. There are differences in degree, not in kind; and yet, societies sit on the slippery slope all the time, and don’t slip. The hysterical rhetorical questions one hears in such contexts say more about the asker’s inability to reason empathically than anything else.
Third, the Catholic Church hierarchy, as evidenced by this latest editorial, continues to deny the distinction between religious rites and public rights. No one is telling the Church what to do within its magisterium (misleading rhetoric about “religious freedom” notwithstanding). I would appreciate it if it would stop telling New York what to do with ours. We’re not changing religious definitions; we’re expanding secular domains of equality. Of course, I understand that such distinctions may fly in the face of a thousand years of Church teaching. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
Ironically, if we followed the Church’s theocratic logic, we’d validate polygamy first, same-sex marriage second. After all, polygamy was a biblical value, practiced by Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon… the list goes on. If religious values (which, according to dogma, are absolutely and objectively true) are to dictate civil laws, presumably we should re-institute polygamy, strip married women of all rights against their husbands, and regard women as chattel to be purchased: all of which are part of the biblical definition of marriage.
Really, though, what’s most amusing about such reductio ad absurdum arguments is how weirdly dated they already feel. Come on, really? You’re still telling me that same-sex marriage is going to destroy traditional marriage and lead to wild sexual anarchy? As if. The only thing thousands of boring, ordinary gay marriages have changed is the demand for matching suits. The sky just hasn’t fallen, and it’s not going to—and by the way, the Earth revolves around the sun.
I have a lot of sympathy for folks sincerely wrestling with this issue and honestly reflecting on their religious and civic values—whatever side they end up supporting. I have written about and spoken with many of these people, and I respect the journeys they are on. But must we also respect bloviating theologians who should know better, and who continue to harm vulnerable LGBT kids by poisoning the atmosphere in which they grow up? What kind of rhetorical question is that?