I Agree With Douthat, Church Can’t Accept Gay Marriage

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will decide whether to renew the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty for another three-year term when they meet in New Orleans later this week for their semi-annual general assembly.

The Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty has been the USCCB’s main vehicle for opposing same-sex marriage and the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Whether or not the bishops renew the conference’s mandate will say a lot about its political direction. Will it hear the message of Pope Francis and stop “obsessing” over “gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” or will the conference continue in culture-warrior mode epitomized by committee chair Bishop Lori, who presumably will argue for its continuation?

That discussion is part of a larger debate going on among Catholics about what should be “done” about society’s seeming acquiescence to same-sex marriage. Should faithful Catholics accept that it’s a done deal and move on or should they continue to fight?

In a forum on Commonweal in response to Joseph Bottum’s essay last year suggesting that Catholics should embrace same-sex marriage as good for marriage in general and for gay couples, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues against retreat on the issue:

For the Catholic Church to explicitly support the disentanglement of civil and religious marriage, and to cease to make any kind of public argument against treating same-sex unions the same way opposite-sex ones are treated in law and policy, would be a very serious withdrawal from political and cultural engagement. It is one thing to urge the church to prepare for political defeat on this issue—such preparations are obviously necessary, more obviously so now even than when Bottum’s essay first appeared. But it is quite another—more separatist, more sectarian, and thus more problematic—to say that the church should preemptively cease to even make the argument.

Douthat argues that such a withdrawal would be “a statement not of prudence but of cultural despair” and says that the church’s definition of marriage is too core to its central identity on all sexuality-related issues to acquiesce.

Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter argues, however, that “American Catholics can and should accept recognition of same-sex marriage because they are Catholics”:

The church should revise its attitude toward same-sex relationships not simply because the culture is moving in that direction—which by itself, as Bottum says, is no reason to alter any moral teaching—but because it has become clear that that what the church teaches about homosexuality is not true….Anyone with an experience of loving same-sex relationships will find unpersuasive the Catholic teaching that such relationships are sinful by their very nature because only sex acts that have the potential to create new life are licit.

Manson says a more sophisticated notion of “fruitfulness” wouldn’t focus on “conceiving and raising children” but on “bring[ing] the life of God into the world by caring for one another, nourishing other relationships, working to mend our broken world, and being a sign of faithfulness to their community.”

I hate to admit to agreeing with Douthat, but he’s right. The church can’t retreat from its fight on gay marriage because to do so would take it back nearly 50 years to when it was on the brink of approving the use of contraception but backed down because it would codify the idea, which it had already tacitly accepted, that the purpose of marriage wasn’t limited to reproduction.

This, in turn, would negate much of the church’s biological determinism around the role of women. Many of the doctrinal developments on issues related to sex and women since then have been ever-more elaborate constructions to shore up this theologically weak underpinning. But like any structure built on a shaky foundation, you can’t start moving pieces around without the whole thing tumbling down. To give up the fight on same-sex marriage would be to cast doubt on the entire Pope John Paul II-Benedict moral framework around sexuality and that’s a house of cards the church can’t mess with.