Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, May 20, 2002
Stanley Kurtz has a distressingly good piece on gay priests and gay marriage on NRO. Distressingly, I say, because I have a lot of sympathy for arguments that the state should recognize some equivalent of marriage for gay couples.

His argument, basically, is as follows. (1) Priestly celibacy is to some extent analogous to marriage, in that the priest is purportedly married to his vocation, and this is why he cannot marry and be a priest. (2) The induction of large numbers of homosexual men into the priesthood has dramatically undermined priestly celibacy, to the point where it seems irretrievable as a norm. (3) The collapse of priestly celibacy has coincided with a massive scandal of sexual predation against minors, and may be linked to it even if gay men are not responsible for the abuse of minors because, in a climate of wide flouting of the norm of celibacy, it was hard for the church to understand and respond to the abuse that was occurring as well. (4) All of this suggests that, if gay marriage is accepted, then gay marrieds will live largely in unfaithful relationships and will thereby fatally undermine marriage to the point where it is not a functioning institution for straight couples or gay couples.

He's got a number of strong points along the way to rebut the anticipated objections. Here's my rebuttal, nonetheles.

(1) Priestly celibacy is not analogous to marriage, and the Church is wrong to think it is. I'm speaking here out of the Jewish tradition, which is strongly hostile to celibacy. Marriage is in part a discipline, as is celibacy. But it is in no meaningful sense a sacrifice, which celibacy most certainly is, any more than a healthy diet is a sacrifice of the desire to gorge oneself. To marry is part of growing up, of becoming a more complete human. It is also a sanctification of the divine that is embedded in the mundane, or the training of the mundane to serve the divine. That is not the case for celibacy. Rather, in Kurtz's own estimation - and I think he's got Catholic thinking right here - celibacy is understood as a sacrifice for God. It is not my understanding that Judaism approves of such human sacrifice. If the analogy is poor outside of Catholicism, then perhaps the rest of his argument will not obtain outside of Catholic precincts either.

(2) I agree with Kurtz that the significant increase in gay clergy since the 1960s is related to the decline in respect for celibacy. But there's something of a chicken-or-egg problem here. Did the Church open itself to gay clergy and thereby undermine celibacy, or was celibacy largely abandoned and therefore the clergy turned increasingly gay? The Church faces a continuing vocation crisis, in part, I suspect, because the secular culture is not producing very many straight young men who want to live celibate. Moreover, there have been numerous scandals of straight sex - and sexual abuse - in the clergy. It seems more likely to me that the Church lost its way first, entered a period of crisis of vocations, and wound up with a largely gay priesthood because these men were, for other reasons entirely, not looking to marry, where straight men were. If this reading of history is correct, then the real question for gay marriage (or a gay equivalent to marriage) is not whether it will cause the decline of marriage as an institution but whether it enthusiasm for it is a symptom of an institution already substantially in decline. Which raises the question of how to shore up that institution, and whether focusing on this particular symptom is more helpful or more damaging.

(3) There's some slight-of-hand in his argument about how sexual predation relates to the dominance of gay clergy. It is possible that the bishops failed to act on flagrant sexual criminals in their midst because they saw their actions as merely part of a spectrum of corruption of the celibate ideal. But (a) this is in no way an excuse, and (b) this is an indictment of the Church's understanding of human sexuality. If the Church's leadership can't tell the difference between sexual predation and infidelity, then the Church's leadership understands nothing about human sexuality, and is in no business to try to give insight to the rest of us on the subject.

(4) I think Kurtz gets off some very good shots at Andrew Sullivan in particular. Sullivan has indeed been inconsistent in his defense of gay marriage, and increasingly is making the argument that marriage itself - or, rather, the norm of faithful, monogamous marriage - is oppressive, and that a more polyamorous lifestyle is a valid alternative that should be endorsed by the state. He's increasingly showing his colors as a cultural libertarian of the Pim Fortuyn school. But the fact that gay advocates of "opening up" marriage may want to change marriage for the worse is not necessarily a dispositive argument against a gay equivalent of marriage.

Here's why. Right now, the straight equivalent of gay marriage already exists. It's called domestic partnership. In New York and in many other cities, there's already legislation barring discrimination against unmarried couples - for example, in housing. I don't know if unmarrieds can adopt yet, but single men and women can. The culture has already moved a long way towards an ethos that marriage is a purely private choice, and that other choices are equally valid.

If we're going to shore up marriage, one stumbling block is the assertion that efforts to do so will discriminate against gays and lesbians in long-term, committed relationships. Whether such relationships are really equivalent to marriage is somewhat beside the point; right now, many localities treat them as equivalent and, in order to accommodate them, have undermined social norms that support marriage in order to get these relationships into the tent.

It may be necessary, then, in order to shore up marriage, to provide for some same-sex equivalent thereto, some way for gay couples to register with the state their intention to form lasting life-partnerships. The point is, that this should be an alternative to marriage, not marriage itself, and that it should be open ONLY to gay couples, not to straight ones.

Would these couples be faithful and monogamous? I don't know. Maybe not. Maybe the model of the monogamous life-partnership isn't appropriate for gay men. That's for them to figure out. The point is that if there were a way to create such partnerships - with legal and financial consequences comparable to marriage - the discrimination argument would be significantly weakened. Yes, such unions could adopt children and so forth. But they can now. With such unions, we'd at least know that the couples involved had made some public commitment to remaining couples - particularly if we also passed legislation to roll back no-fault divorce and otherwise penalized married couples - and gay unions - who sought to break up their families.

And regardless of whether these couples modelled their sexual lives on straight couples or not, the social message would be clear: the norms that govern their lives are not the norms for straight marrieds, because the institution into which they (gay couples) are united is not marriage per se but a gay equivalent thereto, designed as an alternative for them because of their unique needs. If the unsavory association can be pardoned, the message would be: separate but equal. Gay couples are not worse than straight couples, not less capable of caring for each other or for children. But they are different, and the law recognizes both the equality and the difference.

There are problems with the above argument, I recognize. First, it amounts to social engineering. The government would be telling gay people what their normative lifestyle should be. It does this with straights, but with straights the government is merely recognizing a pre-existing order. It would be better if gay unions emerged as an organic institution and were then recognized by the government, rather than being imposed by it. But this may not be possible.

Second, it opens the door to other "genders" asserting that they too have the right to an "equivalent" of marriage. If you can have gay unions, why not polygamous or polyandrous unions as well? An answer to this problem does exist, but it requires some work to articulate. In a nutshell - and I'll expand this argument another time - I believe there are only two workable models for marriage: polygamous and companionate. The former is associated with societies in which women are a species of property; the latter with more egalitarian societies. Polyandrous societies are, in fact, societies without families as we understand them. They are dysfunctional societies in which adult males have no settled social role, and are plagued by violence and social disorder. Think of the classic welfare-fuelled ghetto, in which families are overwhelmingly female-headed and these women have many sexual partners in a lifetime. Since we will not accept that women are a species of property, and since we know that families without fathers are disasters, we uphold companionate marriage as the model for straight sexuality, and we cannot accept alternatives to it. While I can make this argument, though, I recognize that it may not succeed in the marketplace and that, if gay unions are recognized as equivalent to marriage, other groups may similarly lobby, and successfully, ultimately leading to the decline of that institution. I fall back, therefore, on the argument that domestic partnerships for straights and gays are far more damaging to marriage than a gay union marriage equivalent would be, because such arrangements directly attack the notion that marriage is a social institution rather than a private choice.