Truth, Joy and the Marriage Debate
Truth, Joy, and the Marriage debate
Timothy Danaher, OP FAITH Magazine November - December 2015
Since the legalising of same-sex marriage in the United States this summer, surprisingly few Catholics have voiced their dissent, either in pulpit or public square. Most have tended to murmur together in their own small groups, sharing worries for the future and disbelief at the present state of affairs. It’s understandable in the face of an aggressive cultural movement which quite frankly doesn’t “play fair” in allowing any opposition view.
But we all know in our hearts that we cannot stay silent. It’s a matter, then, of finding the right words and methods to defend the truth of marriage, without producing just another shouting match or a public smear campaign.
Perhaps a closer look at some basic elements of the recent shift may offer us a few conclusions, with which we can cut through the complexity of this debate. Then we might find practical ways to move forward.
The cultural shift isn’t the fact that same-sex couples exist. They have done so since the beginning of written history, in various forms either socially acceptable or not. The shift is that people have accepted that such couples should be allowed marry: “It’s their own choice, not mine,” goes the refrain, “It’s not my place to decide their lifestyle for them, is it?”
But when something is enshrined in law, it becomes education. Law itself has an educative power. Whatever is on the books becomes a recognized “right” due to persons. Society then takes it to be the right thing. The concern from the Catholic perspective, then, is that such laws will then promote same-sex attraction. This conflicts with the Church’s traditional approach – patiently and truthfully dealing with such an attraction on an individual basis.
We’re still left with the question: how can a majority of citizens support something with which they don't identify? The general attitude today is essentially scepticism. We have grown sceptical of calling any particular thing true. We are comfortable with allowing many truths, so long as no one claims to have the truth. We are sceptical that such a claim is even possible.
Yet Christians cannot help but claim this! And not because we are against others, or merely because we are convinced of the intellectual and experiential integrity of our own tradition. We claim this because we are in love. Every love makes absolute claims: “My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world!” And for such a man, she is the most beautiful woman, surpassing even Helen of Troy. But when someone falls in love with God, who reveals himself in Jesus Christ, they do not make the absolute claim of having met the most beautiful person for me, but the most beautiful person period. Jesus Christ is the most beautiful thing that has ever happened in the world, and he is still happening. The only reason to be a Christian (and to remain a Christian) is to have faith in Christ. Faith does not mean we generally trust that Christ loves us and guides us, but that he is Lord! He is the very One who thought of us in the first place, who made the heart of man, and who alone can direct it truly. We follow someone who said of himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). He is the first to make absolute claims on the truth of human life. Christians only do so because they are in love with him and trust in his every word.
Speaking of God’s word, St. Augustine makes some fascinating remarks in his work On the Letter and Spirit. He says that even the new law of the Gospel would kill us, unless it is accompanied by inward grace, healing us and helping us from within. No wonder - from the outside looking in - people call Catholic teaching an impossible standard. Christ’s instructions are impossible to live out without personal contact with Christ himself, with his grace, which his very words give to us so we might accept his word and keep it in our lives.
People too often talk about Jesus aside from his words, about his compassion towards all, while they fail to wrestle with some of his steepest moral teachings: “Whoever divorces his wife… and marries another, commits adultery; Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart; If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; I have come to bring not peace but the sword; Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 19:9, 5:28, 5:30, 10:14, 10:37). To outsiders, these seem the cruel pronouncements of some a mere law-giver. To those who believe, it is the voice of a lover, assuring us, “Whatever I ask of you, I am with you always…” (cf. Mt 28:20).
There is, then, no place for a Catholic to wish for others whatever they would wish for themselves, allowing them to find their own truth. This is a false idea of love, against even the first instincts of love, which is for two people to try to see the world in the same way, so they might live in the same way. Catholics cannot be sceptics, even towards very sincere people with other views. Having met Christ the Truth, we believe in the integrity of truth, saying, “I wish Christ for you, and all that he teaches. What is true for me, is also meant for you.”
A high standard
This has always been the underlying reason why the Church has always held (and continues to hold) a very high standard regarding sex. The Church is after an even higher standard: a relationship with God. The long history of Christian living shows that intimacy with God is something possible, something concrete which affects our marriages, friendships, moods, careers, even our sex lives. Sexual union is sacred – so much so, that God has bound to it the of co-creation of new human life. If we refuse to obey the designer and giver so great a gift, one result is inevitable: it will begin to take the place of our relationship with him.
Of all the goods that God has given us, sex is one of the most powerful. The Church cannot sanction any act of sex outside of true, ie male/female, marriage, because it directly goes against the Church’s primary vocation as the Bride of Christ, i.e. that Body of believers who spend their lives seeking “him whom my soul loves” (Sg 3:3) and making him the first priority of their lives. She cannot approve or promote anything which would get in the way of that search, and sex outside of the sacrament of marriage always gets in the way of it. This includes a whole range of activities, from fornication and adultery to same-sex activity, and even including imperfections within marriage such as abuse, lust, or contraception.
What we can do about it
Even if we re-examine some aspects of the current debate, what good does it do? The fact remains that the western world is changing its laws on these issues, and the Church is pressured to get on board. Catholic institutions have been targeted and penalized for resisting to comply with this new wave.
What do we do when we’re being told to love and not to hate, while we ourselves are hated for even mentioning our own views out of love? There are experts who can help us navigate the legal issues involved with running Catholic institutions, and of course, certain people in the pulpit or the public square must continue to raise their voice in defence of the truth. But what can we as individual Christians really do about it?
Above all, we can and must preserve our joy. We have no reason for joy in the legislative setbacks of late. But we have reason to rejoice simply because God is still with us: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace” (Hb 14:9). It's an enormous privilege to live in this world as Christians. We must not let legitimate concerns overwhelm or define our faith. We are Christians first because we belong to Christ, not because of our public stances.
Now, of all times, we must get busy living Christian lives, living as Christian families: “Let marriage be held in honour among you all” (Hb 13:4). Our first job is just to pray, grow, teach the children, and enjoy Christian community, because God is still blessing us despite all that happens in the world.
We must also bring joy into our conversation. Joy itself is evangelical, and people are more easily shocked by a happy, chaste Christian than they are by hearing about statistical studies of homosexuality or even philosophical arguments, such as sexual acts having intrinsic meaning and being open to new life.
Try asking people about their joy in God. Too many conversations begin on the same wrong footing: “Why doesn’t the Church let people...?” or even among certain Catholics, “Will I go to hell if I...?” This often lead to dead ends: the questioner claims he is the realist, while the struggling response attempts to define Church teaching. We need a new approach, not starting with the the Church as a government, nor of Christ as merely some final judge, reserving for us a good or bad outcome. Rather he is Someone present right here, right now, inviting us to follow him.
So we should begin with: “Do you have joy in God? What’s that like for you? Because that’s what we’re about. That’s where we’re really coming from, where are laws are coming from, and where they’re going.” The results can be surprisingly personal and sincere, opening the way for a deeper discussion. Gritty details of contentious issues are not unimportant. But what is most important is that Christianity is a relationship, and that all Church teachings are within that very personal, very intimate, and admittedly sometimes difficult context.
Christian witnesses must be intelligent and joyful. We must treat others in a human way (even when they may not return the favour) and in a divine way as well. And our joy is an invitation to them to find a new way forward.
Timothy Danaher became a Dominican friar in 2011, entering the Province of St. Joseph in the eastern United States, after a BA from Franciscan University of Steubenville in British & American Literature. He is currently studying for the priesthood at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.