09 September, 2010

Catholic Bishops React to Judge Walker’s Decision on Prop8. Part One: Cardinal George and USCCB.

By now just about everyone knows that Judge Walker of the 9th Circuit ruled that Prop8 in California is unconstitutional and that his order to implement the ruling and allow Gay Marriages in California by 18 August was stayed indefinitely by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Catholic hierarchy, through Cardinal George, issued a statement of disappointment and total opposition to Walker’s decision. Cardinal Mahoney issued his own statement as did other bishops. See Part Two in a separate post).

For quite some time the bishops have publicly argued against gay marriage primarily of the basis of damage to and destruction of the family unit. This was a form of explanation and an argument that many conservatives intuitively accepted. This allowed a coalition of Prop8 supporters to form a religious-political group to proceed at Law. However, Judge Walker ruled that no credible evidence had been presented by the supporters of Prop8 that gay marriage would, in fact, endanger “Traditional” marriage and family life.

I have no intention here of arguing the “facts” or details of the trial or court decision. I’m more interested in what appears in the bishops’ statement that gives some insight into a change in the focus of the bishops’ argument and the evidence they present.

Cardinal Frances George,
President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

Immediately after Judge Walker’s August 4th decision declaring Prop8 unconstitutional, Cardinal George issued the Bishops’ official reaction to the court’s decision in these words, 

Marriage between a man and a woman is the bedrock of any society. The misuse of law to change the nature of marriage undermines the common good. It is tragic that a federal judge would overturn the clear and expressed will of the people in their support for the institution of marriage. No court of civil law has the authority to reach into areas of human experience that nature itself has defined.

The first thing to note in this statement is that there is no longer any direct mention of the preservation of the family and caring for children. The emphasis is now on marriage itself rather than on the family and children. Second, the emphasis is on nature and natural law and there is no mention of God. Third, the Cardinal claims that marriage between a man and woman is the bedrock of society.

Archbishop Kurtz, Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage issued a statement in tandem with Cardinal George’s statement. Both statements appear in the same press release issued by the USCCB. The Archbishop says,

Citizens of this nation have uniformly voted to uphold the understanding of marriage as a union of one man and one woman in every jurisdiction where the issue has been on the ballot. This understanding is neither irrational nor unlawful… Marriage is more fundamental and essential to the well being of society than perhaps any other institution. It is simply unimaginable that the court could now claim a conflict between marriage and the Constitution.

This statement also focuses on marriage and at best only indirectly on family. It also focuses on a philosophical argument by using the phrase, “… neither irrational nor unlawful.” The statement apparently defends the Catholic understanding of marriage by appealing to the majority votes supporting “traditional” marriage in civil ballots. Finally, the claim is made that marriage is more basic than (“perhaps”) and other institution; that it is the “bedrock of any society.”

I suggest that the Bishops reevaluate the strength of their arguments to find ways to frame our religious beliefs in a manner that contemporary people (including a majority of US Catholics) can at least understand enough to actually deal with them through discourse in the public square or in the courtroom. I would also suggest that the bishops give the findings of social science their just due and refrain from gross, oversimplified, general statements that social science cannot defend because they are oversimplifications of the findings of science or just wrong because they have no empirical support. 

One can make such a philosophical argument but it flies in the face of all empirical social science. Social anthropologists and sociologists will agree that kinship and marriage were, in fact, the only organizing principle for Hunter Gather societies and that some form of “marriage” was present. As societies grew larger and underwent major technological and other changes, the role of kinship-marriage-family decreased over time.

A Few Observations on these Statements.

  1. These statements on not based on nor is there any reference to Sacred Scripture. This is no doubt due to the realization that arguments in civil courts can not be posed as arising from particular religious belief systems and because the Catholic Church has always been uncomfortable arguing marriage and other sexual norms from the Bible.
  2. These statements do begin to frame the debate in philosophical terms by appealing to “nature,” and “natural Law.” The Church’s preference to argue from the perspective of philosophy goes all the way back to the Stoics through Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to the “manuals” of theology used in seminaries well into the first half of the Twentieth Century; all of which focused on a particular concept of “natural law.'” One of the difficulties is that the bulk of contemporary adults haven’t any idea of what Thomas Aquinas Aquinas met by the terms “nature” and “natural law.” In fact, among those outside the Church who still use the terms there are various definitions and perspectives. This is also true within Catholic Theology.
  3. The Church uses an historically conscious perspective that reaches out to adequately understand the historical and cultural settings within which the real experience of people occurs. And it willingly uses information from sociology, anthropology, and other social sciences to form its principles and norms for action in the area of social ethics. However, the Church uses an entirely different, classist ethical system of doing ethics to make judgments about personal and sexual ethics (including marriage, family, birth control and homosexuality). Because most reasonably educated people today understand the world in historically conscious terms, it seems incumbent on the Church to open a dialogue in this area and realize that those who see marriage and family in this “new” way are not stupid or are badly misinformed. For example just about any professional social anthropologist or macro-level sociologist will say that although the first mention of a male-female “marriage” was present in Ancient Greece, that throughout history and across cultures marriage has meant many things and served many purposes. Today Kinship-marriage-family form just one of a number of institutions competing for our loyalty.

All I am asking is that Church Leaders realize that the understanding they have from past “tradition” is incomplete and needs to be developed in light of what has happened through the years and centuries, and make honest attempts to understand marriage and sexual ethics, in general, in this way . We in the Church gain nothing from refusing to hear “the other.” An interesting point of discussion is that well into the 1200s, the northern European Catholic Church maintained the legitimate practice and rite of “betrothal” distinct from the actual “wedding.” During the in between period, sexual intercourse was not encouraged but was permitted. How might this idea be reevaluated and reformed in light of the very high percentage of young people who have sex before marriage these days? This is not a recommendation, but a suggestion to think over potential ways to keep to tradition and still speak to contemporaries. Remember, at the end of World War II, Cardinal Suhard even argued that some form of “trial marriage” be allowed by the Church.

In summary, all I am asking for is that when the official Church takes its position on gay marriage that it, first, seriously take into account ways of speaking about contemporary issues to contemporary people, including civil courts, in ways that dialogue and common understanding can be reached, second, that it see the value and fruitfulness of applying to personal and sexual morality, the same principles it uses in speaking about social morality, and, third, that Leaders of the Church realize that in US civil courts, religious beliefs cannot be used to defend or oppose governmental laws or policies.


See: Catholic Bishops React to Judge Walker’s Decision on Prop8. Part Two: Cardinal Mahoney.

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