Sunday, July 05, 2009

False Premises

In an episode from the final season of the (late lamented) TV series The West Wing, Vice-Presidential candidate Leo McGarry is being prepped by an aide (I forget the character's name; the actress was Kristen Chenoweth, hardly forgettable) for a meeting with members of the media. She hits him with a mock question, and he begins to respond, and she cuts him off emphatically, "No! Don't accept the premise of the question." The premise, of course--invariably unspoken--sets up the logic by which the question must be answered. But that logic, and the answer it yeilds, are only as good (and true) as the underlying premise. I tried to shine a light on this dynamic in my previous post. But some of the responses I have received, both in the comments and privately, indicate that it's a subject that deserves further exploration.

Let's get back to the question of justice, which has been the consistent foundation of the arguments offered by those who are advocating that the traditional understanding of marriage be stretched into something that includes same-sex couples. (I understand that, in Episcopal Church politics on the eve of General Convention, there is more in play here than gay marriage, but--let's face it--it all boils down to that. Whether we're talking about actual marriage or marriage-like relationships being liturgically blessed and recognized as sacramental in nature, the premise is the same, and the matter of partnered lesbians and gays being consecrated to the episcopate then becomes simply a corrollary.) The talking point is something like this: Marriage is a sacramental relationship between two people, a relationship that participates in and is a sign of the mystery of God's redemptive love. So it is fundamentally unjust to extend the privileges of marriage to heterosexual couples and not also do so to homosexual couples. It amounts to invidious discrimination. Anyone who is baptized is potentially a candidate for any other sacrament.

Taken on its face, there is a certain inexorable logic to this line of reasoning. But the quality of that logic is only as good as the premise upon which it is founded. Is the "premise of the question" worthy of acceptance? Let's take a look. Here's what I see as the premise underlying the "justice" argument: Human beings are instinctively inclined to form (what biologists might call) "pair bonds." For the majority of people, the field of potential mates toward whom this inclination is configured is limited to members of the opposite sex. For a minority, it is limited to members of the same sex, and for a still smaller minority, it can be someone from either sex. (Yes, I know I'm not accounting for those who consider themselves "transgendered," but I'm not writing a book here.) Thus, an entire class of people--that is, those whose ability to form pair bonds is oriented toward members of their same sex--is thereby discriminated against by being denied the same opportunity for liturgical blessing and sacramental recognition (which includes such homey privileges as coming up for an anniversary blessing during the Sunday Eucharist) that is accorded to heterosexual couples.

However, this premise rests on a shaky foundation. It slices off and isolates one facet of what marriage is--a relationship of mutual companionship--and invests it with a life of its own, decontextualized from the whole institution of marriage. It neglects the Church's theological conviction that marriage was "instituted by God in creation" (BCP, p. 423, emphasis added); marriage is no mere human social construct that we are free to tamper with as seems expedient, but is part of the given fabric of who we are as human beings. Moreover, it is inherent to the given character of marriage to be ordered by the gender polarity (what some have called sexual dimorphism) that is also "from the beginning"--i.e. "male and female created he them" (Genesis 1:27). The fact the people (with the rarest of possible exceptions) come in two varieties--male and female--is not an insignificant datum of biology, but rather a highly significant datum of Divine design.

Then there is what we might call the "cosmic" dimension of marriage, laid out for us in Ephesians 5 (21-33) and referenced conspicuously in the aforementioned preface to the Prayer Book marriage rite. Christ (ascended and glorified but still very much the "man" Jesus) is the bridegroom and the Church is his ... wait for it ... bride--not generic partner or companion, but bride.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for not uncritically granting the premise that any pair-bond between non-related mutually consenting adults is an appropriate candidate for the institution and sacrament of marriage is what is arguably still the principal social end of marriage, which is to provide a stable environment for a pair-bonded couple to raise the biological offspring of their relationship to adulthood with as few risks as possible. Individual exceptions notwithstanding (heroic single moms and single dads, devoted adoptive same-sex parents, dysfunctional and/or abusive two-parent couples raising their own kids), secular society knows, and the Church knows, that the traditional norm is still the best thing we've got going for turning out well-brought up adults. It deserves to be privileged. We all benefit from the good parenting done by couples who bring up the children they brought into the world.

So if the premise behind the "justice" argument cannot be sustained, then the ensuing logic also falls apart. Yes, it is discriminatory to extend the privileges and responsibilities of marriage only to opposite-sex couples. But such discrimination is neither arbitrary nor invidious. Rather, it is rational, and well-founded. Therefore, it is not unjust. In moral theology, justice is about giving someone what is legitimately due them. When I make a payment on my auto loan each month, I am "doing justice," because that amount of money is legitimately due the company that made the loan. Continuing to reserve the institution and sacrament of marriage to opposite-sex couples is also "doing justice," because such preferential treatment is what is "legitimately due them" in the light of the entire ambit of the Christian tradition--scriptural, theological, and poetic/mystical. And this is neither insult nor injury--i.e. not unjust--to other sorts of pair-bond relationships because marriage is not something that is legitimately due such relationships. If I were to decide, for whatever reasons, that I wanted to become a citizen of, say, Poland (after all, I do live in Warsaw!), the Polish government would not be abrogating justice, but, in fact, serving justice by denying my request for citizenship. Since I don't know that I carry a drop of Polish blood, nor do I know anything of Polish language or culture beyond the fact that I like their sausage, there would be good rational reasons for doing so. Marriage is not an abstraction that can shape-shift to suit our desires. It is a concrete reality with its own inherent character. Bending the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples would make it something else entirely. The demands of justice require us not to do so.


TLF+ said...

Lots of good points you make here, Dan, not the least of which is the complete exposition of marriage in the BCP.

Let's look at another premise: that the relationship with God established in Baptism is a "blank check" entitlement to every sacramental ministry offered by the church:

That's not true of Holy Communion. A baptized person who holds a grudge and is unwilling to consider reconciliation with the other party can be refused Communion (Disciplinary Rubrics in the BCP).

It is not true of Marriage. A couple at the altar, even if both are baptized, can be turned away if someone steps up with a "lawful objection" during the consent part of the service. And canon law still says that no minister can be compelled to bless a marriage.

A baptized penitent can be refused the confidentiality of sacramental confession under a number of circumstances (such as currently engaged in child abuse).

A baptized candidate for Confirmation can be turned away for inability to affirm the covenant expressed in the liturgy, for scandalous behavior or just for not showing up to classes!

Ordination? A baptized candidate who says, "Marriage should be a lifetime bond between one man and one woman" can't get through most TEC seminaries or dioceses.

So the "baptismal covenant justice" argument is nonsense by and largy and hypocritical nonsense in the case of ordination.

robroy said...

But do the revisionists really care? Is Susan Russell going to answer you? Of course not.

Rather, they simply want talking points that sound good in sound bite chunks and can't be refuted in sound bite chunks. They figure that the average joe won't pay attention to any refutation over five sentences (and that is probably pushing it), and such a talking point is thus irrefutable (in their mind).

Thus, even if you have offered your five sentence refutation, you haven't offered a refutation, and they are free to bring it up again the next day, and the next,...

Of course, the prime example is the shellfish argument which Gene and KJS have proffered time and again.

So you (and Phil Turner) are wasting your breath. Your faulty premise is that the revisionists have intellectual or any other integrity. They simply do not.

The Communion Partner types need to stop thinking this is a theological debate. The revisionists know they haven't the slightest chance of winning such a debate. Thus, they are fighting it as a political debate. Answering with theological counterpoints has had zero success thus far and yet the CP-ers keep trying.

Undergroundpewster said...


I believe you and I would agree that there comes a point where we recognize that intellectual and theological discussion with the revisionistas is fruitless.

Nevertheless, Fr. Dan and TLF+'s, as well as Phil's arguments are very helpful for those of us in the pews who have the ears to listen. Also there are scores of undereducated pewsitters out there who would benefit from these discussions.

As long as there is one soul out there to save, we need these voices to sing the Lord's praises and to teach His commandments.

The bisectional vocalist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The bisectional vocalist said...

Honestly Fr. Dan, this latest blog makes me want to leave the least the one in Warsaw. The more I hear, the more I realize that I don't believe a 'good chunk' of what is being preached at me. But, if I don't hang around then the only voices y'all will hear are the ones that reaffirm your beliefs. That wouldn't be good :)

Randy Muller said...

You wrote "...B033 will still be gone..."

B033 was gone when GC 2006 adjourned.

Resolutions are not canons. They do not persist. They merely state something, and then disappear.

Today, the most that can be said about B033 is that it was the mind of the convention in 2006.

Another resolution can be passed this year, and the most that will be able to be said will be that it was the mind of the convention this year, this week. Maybe it will have some moral force, but it certainly won't have any legal force.