Saturday, December 03, 2011

Marriage: "Part of What is Best in Human Nature"

So says Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England. It's quite a beautiful and true statement, wouldn't you agree?

Of course, when the Archbishop talks about "marriage," he has a very specific definition in mind, one that excludes the same-sex couple pictured above. The good news is, however, that neither the Archbishop nor the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church has a monopoly on the word "marriage," no matter how hard they try to assert otherwise.

The Archbishop made this particular comment about marriage on December 1, when defending his recent statements of support for civil unions for same-sex couples. Some Catholics are upset by these statements, noting that they contradict guidelines from the Vatican that mandate opposition to civil unions.

Odd and insulting

In defending his earlier statements, Archbishop Nichols makes some very odd and rather insulting remarks about gay relationships and human sexuality in general.

Same-sex partnerships are not marriage because they have no root in a sexual relationship, which marriage does. And that’s the distinction that I think it’s important for us to understand, that marriage is built on the sexual partnership between a man and a woman which is open to children to their nurture and education.

I think it would be fair to say that most people – gay or straight – would find the Archbishop's understanding of what marriage is built upon very limiting. It seems that unless an intimate physical act (what most people would call a sexual act) is "open to [biological] procreation" than it's not actually a sexual act at all! Also, it's quite insulting to say that marriage is based, first and foremost, on what the Archbishop is narrowly defining as a sex act. It's funny how the defenders of so-called traditional marriage often label gay people as sex-obsessed. And yet here they are pushing a definition of marriage that reduces this beautiful, multi-faceted relationship to a certain type of sex act.

It's not only insulting but also quite ridiculous to suggest that this particular sex act is what compels every heterosexual couple to marry. I'm not saying that biological procreation is not an important and beautiful aspect of many marriages. But it's actually not dependent on marriage to occur, nor should it be (or can it be), the primary, long-term focus of any marriage.

An ignorant argument

Which brings me to a common argument against granting civil marriage rights to gay couples. Archbishop Nicols expressed a version of this argument when he said December 1 that "the convictions about marriage mean that this is not something that the Church has invented nor the State has invented. And therefore it is not, as it were, at the disposal of the Church nor the State, if you like, to change."

Another version of this argument was recently expressed by Australian political figure Joe de Bruyn: "The definition of marriage as set out in the legislation is that it is the union of one man and one woman, voluntarily entered into for life. It has always been that way since the dawn of humanity."

Oh, really? What about humanity's long history of polygamy, arranged marriages, women as chattel? In addition, there is historical evidence that there have been cultures that have respected, honored and recognized same-sex relationships. "Since the dawn of humanity," my ass.

Archbishop Nicols' statement is also constructed on a basis of ignorance. Humans have always been actively involved in redefining what marriage means. It's a total cop-out to say that, Well, God made marriage as we in Western nations understand it today, so we can't possibly think about changing a single aspect of it. Well, actually, when it suits them, the members of the clerical caste have no hesitancy in playing God and changing aspects of marriage. Annulment, anyone?

And, quite frankly, it's idiotic to say that anyone invented marriage. As a religious person, I think it's more reasonable to say that those qualities that comprise the "best in human nature" and which
can be inspired and embodied in very special ways in a relationship like marriage, definitely have their genesis in God. But "marriage," as a means for two people who share a mutual sense of attraction and connection to intentionally create a life whereby those "best" qualities are mutually inspired and expressed, is very much a human (and thus social, economic, religious and historical) construct – one that has been and continues to be in a state of evolution. And I see this as a good thing.

Why marriage?

Although I disagree with the arguments against marriage equality that folks like Archbishop Nicols espouse, I am very interested in working with others in discussing and discerning the purposes of marriage or, put another way, the reasons that people choose to marry. One thing I've observed for sure: people don't get married simply to promulgate the species. And I've long appreciated how the following exchange between the characters of Rev. Shannon and Hannah Jelkes in Tennessee Williams'
The Night of the Iguana articulates and supports this observation.

Shannon: When a bird builds a nest, it builds it with an eye for the – the relative permanence of the location, and also for the purpose of – mating and propagating its species.

Hannah: . . . I'm not a bird, Mr. Shannon. I'm a human being and when a member of that fantastic species builds a nest in the heart of another, the question of permanence [or propagation] isn't the first or even the last thing that's considered. . . .

Hannah's perspective reminds me of the words of Catholic theologian Daniel Helminiak, who, in a 2006 interview said:

To be sure, procreation is an inherent aspect of sexuality. But there is more to sex than that, especially when we look at sex in human beings. Procreation is an animal function. In humans sex is taken up into a new array of purposes. Human sex involves emotional bonding and the dreams and promises of lovers. That is to say, beyond the physical, human sex also involves the psychological and the spiritual. (I see “dreams and promises,” or ideals, and beliefs and ethics – all ways of suggesting meaning and value – as spiritual matters.) So having sex (physical) seduces lovers (emotional) into dreaming dreams and making promises (spiritual). The trend of sex is toward higher things. And since the spiritual dimension of human sexual sharing is the highest and most significant, it is what determines the unique nature of human sexuality, so it is what must be preserved in every case. Not procreation, but genuine care and loving are the non-negotiables of human sex.

Actually, I think what Daniel is saying about "genuine care and loving" being the "non-negotiables of human sex" is key to why people get married.

People choose to marry because they want to stand before their families, friends and community and make a lifelong commitment to the person they love. They want to share the joys and sorrows of life with this person, and be supported in this noble endeavor by their families, friends and community. Many couples also want to create, in one way or another, a family and be supported in this by their various networks of family and friends.

And in embarking on such a journey, couples – gay and straight – really do discover that marriage has the potential to bring forth and radiate the best aspects of our humanity. And so, yes, I agree with Archbishop Nicols when he says that marriage is "part of what is best in human nature." But I, like the majority of people – including the majority of American Catholics – recognize that neither "human nature" nor "marriage" is limited to heterosexual couples engaging in procreative sex, or, more accurately, biological procreative sex.

After all, as theologian and poet David Weiss points out, all forms of loving, if embodied, expressed and shared in caring and life-giving ways, can be understood as procreative. I'll conclude this post with David's words of wisdom on this reality.

Sexuality is indeed intended to be procreative, to give life; but our own prejudice – perhaps our desire to stem the flow of God’s creative energy into the world – has led us to understand this in a narrow, biological fashion. But truly, to find ourselves partnered in longing love with another person is to find that we have company in the work of caring for creation. Whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or straight – whether you are celibate or sexually active, single or in a relationship – one truth that we hear in the biblical creation account is that human beings were created to tend the Garden, to guide creation’s bounty and to tend its scarcity in ways that promote the flourishing of all. That’s why we’re here. The joy that we know sexually in our bodies is there, at least in part, to lure us into the holy act of caring for all that is embodied, for all the ecological diversity that reflects God’s rampant desire for incarnation.

We don’t need a partner to do this. But if in our partnerships we fail to look outward and tend to the corner of creation around us – whether that is children or other humans, animals or ecosystems, or simply our household resources – if our love for another person does not spill out into these areas, we have missed something of the presence of God. God is always engaged in the care of life, especially among the vulnerable. And no one need shrink from the expectation that Christian sexual love should be procreative. Lived well, it always is.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Archbishop Nichols Responds to Critics of His Civil Unions Approach – David Kerr (Catholic News Agency, December 2, 2011).
What is "Marriage Itself"? – Paula Ruddy (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 30, 2011).
Witnessing a Catholic Same-Sex Wedding – Jamie L. Manson (National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2011).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Archbishop Nichols' Support for Civil Unions
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
The Standard for Sexual Ethics: Human Flourishing, Not Openness to Procreation
Making Love, Giving Life
Getting It Right
Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
A "Truly Queer Theory" on Sex
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light
Quote of the Day – November 25, 2011)
Quote of the Day – April 11, 2011
A Head and Heart Response to the Catholic Hierarchy's Opposition to Marriage Equality
Patrick Hornbeck on Why Good Catholics Are Challenging Church Line on Homosexuality


Anonymous said...

From Chris Morley

I couldn't see any link to the Archbishop's 1 December further comments, which you are criticising and discussing here, so here's the report:

You'll see from the comments already posted there that he's stirred up a hornet's nest of traditionalists / Rome purists.

Attacked by both sides - inevitable when defending the indefensible.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Chris,

The link to the CNA story featuring the Archbishop's "further comments" is at the very beginning of my post. It may well be easily missed by folks, so I've added it to the "Recommended Off-site Links" at the end of the post.

Thanks for alerting me to the "hornet's nest" of reaction over at the CNA site that the Archbishop's comments have created. It will be interesting to see where all of this goes.



Anonymous said...

From Chris Morley
Sorry Michael, my mistake to miss the link to CNA you had included.
I've tried to add a comment to provide some balance the Catholic News Agency post's comments - it's awaiting moderation.

Greyhound81 said...

It could also be said that a relationship makes the people co-creators in the world. So that it does spill over to the rest of the community to make it a better place to live.

I am so glad you added the quote from Daniel H., because when people bring up the whole "the parts do not fit" BS they denigrate that which makes human sexuality truly human. If God only wanted people to procreate She would have only allowed people to feel horny when they could conceive. But She did not do that. She allows us to be sexual at any place at any time -- because we are HUMAN.