Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Fine Debate on Same-Sex Marriage...

...between Andrew Sullivan, the gay conservative blogger, and Douglas Wilson, an Evangelical theologian. Chaired by Peter Hitchens with a sore throat.

I really love a well-conducted, good-humoured debate. This one becomes rather tetchy at times but remains more or less friendly. Both participants accept the good faith of the other.

It's hard to tell who gets the better of it. As some people have already pointed out in the comment section to the video, and on Peter Hitchens's blog, Sullivan tends to appeal to emotion rather than argument, at least at the beginning of the debate. Later on he lands some strong blows against Wilson, who does not argue against same-sex marriage on the grounds of natural law but appeals unapologetically to Scripture. When he is repeatedly urged to exlain what harm same-sex marriage causes, he can only argue that it opens the door to polygamy.

Sullivan challenges Wilson to describe the ill effects of same-sex marriage since it was introduced in various states. It doesn't seem to occur to Wilson to point out that a few years is hardly sufficient for the ramifications of same-sex marriage to be observed.

As for me, it is not simply my profession of the Catholic faith that makes me oppose same-sex marriage. I am utterly and totally incapable of believing that romantic love between two people of the same sex is the same as romantic love between a man and a woman. And this is not just because marriage should be open to procreation, or because making same-sex love equivalent to opposite-sex love then opens the door for an acceptance of polygamy and incest and other variations.

It's because I believe in a transcendental order. I believe that the difference between male and female is absolutely central to human culture and society. I believe it is a difference that makes a difference, and that should make a difference. And I believe that when we strike at that central knot-- when we declare that masculinity and feminity are irrelevant to the matter where they have always mattered the most-- then we devalue not only sex but the entire idea of a transcendental order underlying human life. The consequences may not be observable in any empirical way (though they might well be), but the subtler consequence is that all deep-seated and ancient intuitions about the way life and society should be are under suspicion. The very idea of a natural order is under attack.

I find this debate so interesting because, not only is it intrinsically important, but it illustrates a typical quandary that social and moral conservatives find themselves facing. It is hard to argue against same-sex marriage. Not only does it make you seem like a meanie, but the arguments against it seem weak, on the face of it. Opponents of same-sex marriage argue from a sense of wrongness which is difficult to translate into rational arguments. This sense of wrongness could simply be called prejudice (and of course, it often is). But the same sense of wrongness is what we often fall back on when trying to justify moral positions which don't seem open to rational argument, but which most people would want to defend. Why do we consider variety better than uniformity? Why do we consider moral character to be more important and praiseworthy than intellect or physique? Why do we hold childhood innocence to be important?

In this, as in so many ways, my Catholicism merely ratifies my instinctual belief.

I make these arguments even though I know (and regret) that they might cause pain and offence to gay people, and despite knowing that many people are born homosexual, and despite knowing (as Andrew Sullivan points out in this debate) that homosexuality is not only narrowly about sex but pervades the entire personality. I feel no personal animus towards gay people whatsoever. It seems very probable that, in modern society, most people deliberately offend against both Christian morals and natural law in their sexual behaviour, whether that is through the use of pornography, though masturbation, through pre-marital sex, or in some other way. (Interestingly, Sullivan defends both pre-marital sex and masturbation in this debate.) So I see no reason to single gays out for special disapproval. But what I will never accept-- what I can never accept-- is that homosexual desire and heterosexual desire are simply two variations of the same thing, and are morally on a par with each other.

Incidentally, I would be grateful if anyone else could point me to any worthwhile debates (I mean formal debates, not TV studio debates) that are available for viewing on the internet. Any subject of reasonably general interest wil do. I've seen the various debates about God and religion between William Lane Craig, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Dinesh D'Souza, et al. Thanks!


  1. The trouble is not that the Church teaches that sex between a man and woman within marriage and without any action that would make procreation impossible is simply the supreme form of human sexual relations and that all other forms are hugely inferior. Many current objectors to church teaching might take issue with this position or grumble about it but not, I think, assault or ridicule the teaching of the Church.

    But the Church doesn't teach that the above is the supreme form of sexual relations. It teaches that all other forms are evil and disordered. By taking part in any other possible form of sexual activity, the Church tells us, we step off a moral cliff edge and plunge downwards into full blown sin and moral disorder.

    I have my doubts.

    The vision of married love presented in Humanae Vitae is beautiful and inspiring and many would, I think, strive towards it, if they were not made to think that every thing that didn't match it was outright sinfulness.

  2. Obviously the majority of people I know and love are not living sex lives in accordance with the teaching of the Church. I don't judge them for it, but the Church's teaching, challenging as it is, rings true in my own heart. It IS hard-- I struggle with it. Ever since I came to believe in the truth of Catholicism, striving for purity of act and (especially) thought has been an immense challenge. But it has also given me a lot more peace and internal harmony and self-respect, in the long run. I think Chesterton made the good point that sex is NOT like the other appetites-- it is a fire and it is always in danger of raging out control. That is why I think the Church is right to be uncompromising on this subject, because it is such a powerful instinct that it requires our utmost efforts to integrate it properly into our lives, and because nothing is as much help when it comes to self-mastery as clear boundaries.

  3. The Church does not lack for clear, uncompromising boundaries on sexual ethics. Church teachings on, for instance, adultery, divorce and abortion will attract controversy and criticism but they are defensible and they address clear and conscious moral choices.

    Holding up one form of sexual relations clearly and uncompromisingly as the standard that all should strive for or hope to achieve makes sense to me. Condemning every other mode or shade of sexual experience doesn't. It feels like a refusal to see human beings as they are, as God made us - a bit messy.

    With the Cardinal 0'Brien affair, and all the other scandals and controversies in a similar vein that have preceded it, you would almost wonder whether God is trying to send his Church a message: think again.

  4. I use to be an ardent gay marriage advocate, but now I find my self either being indifferent to the issue or arguing against it.

    I'm not a fan of government redefining institutions in attempts to create a Utopia since I feel, nay know, that once the door is creaked open it'll be open entirely. It may not happen instantly, but it'll happen eventually, little by little, and when that time comes I hope I won't be alive. If have any offspring I hope they'll fight against it and survive whatever lukewarm standard is held on a pedestal.

  5. People do criticize Church sexual teaching as being unrealistic, but how is it that it was only discovered to be unrealistic in Western society in the middle of the twentieth century? Surely "what man has done, man can do". It's not that I think there was no such thing as sex outside marriage before 1960-- I'm not that naive or historically ill-informed-- but the Christian ideal of chastity certainly does not seem to have been seen as almost a superhuman standard until recently.

    I think the Church compromises in many areas-- the difference between venial and mortal sin, for instance, or the permissibility of mental reservations to avoid a direct lie, or the conditions pertaining to a just war. But surely there is a place for compromise and a place where compromise is impossible. I think it could be argued just as easily (and it has been argued, for instance by Christopher Hitchens) that the command to love your enemies is impossible to live up to. And, although "slippery slope" arguments are (rather unfairly, I believe) often rejected on principle, it does seem to me that once you concede the principle that Christian ethics must accommodate actually existing sexual mores, why is abortion or adultery or divorce any more indefensible than sex outside of marriage?

    Of course, the "gold standard" of Christian sexual ethics is not sex within marriage and open to procreation, but consecrated virginity.