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Gay Marriage: Theological and Moral Arguments
Fred Parrella, associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, and Gerald Coleman, S.S., President of St. Patrick's Seminary, offered these remarks as part of a panel on Gay Marriage held Jan. 28, 2004.
It is a pleasure to be here with members of the University community today. It is a special pleasure to be with Father Jerry Coleman and my colleague, June Carbone. I was first going to call my comments as "A Straight Eye for Some Queer Guys," but I see that the name has been taken.
While George Bush calls for 1.5 billion dollars to bolster the sanctity of marriageespecially among the lower classes of societywe live in an unprecedented time of transition with reference to marriage and the family. According to the New York Times, only 56% of Americans are married today and, even more surprising, only 26% of all households are the traditional married-couple-with-children homes. One need only look at the recent one-day marriage of pop idol, Brittany Spears, and the shenanigans of "Benifer" about their on-and-off nuptials to realize that tradi-tional marriage between heterosexuals is in deep trouble.
Social conservatives are not only concerned about marriage, but also the rise of a gay and lesbian culture. Statistics suggest, however, that gays and lesbians are not increasing in number, if we accept the best research data of Edward Laumann, who puts the number at about 5% of the population1. What has grown is a much greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in our culture, as well as the social and economic freedom for gays and lesbians to emerge from the closet that has confined them for so many generations. The recent addition of same sex commitment ceremonies in the Sunday New York Times wedding and engagement announcements and the popularity of shows as "Will and Grace" and "Queer Eye " indicate a shift in our culture's attitude toward gays and lesbians.
Let me share a brief personal note: I have been teaching Theology of Marriage at Santa Clara since 1983. In every class, for the past 20 odd years, I have invited a gay former student, Lee FitzGerald, to speak on gay relationships. My intent was two-fold: first to invite students into dialogue with people different from themselves; second, to work to eliminate, in whatever small way I could, homophobic attitudes on our campus and in our community. Lee's classes over the years have been uniformly successful and very worthwhile. The attitudes of Santa Clara students have evolved significantly in the last two decades vis à vis gay and lesbian relationships.
My purpose today is not to support or defend gay and lesbian marriagesindeed, many gays and lesbians do not want to marrybut simply suggest a theological approach that might open up the possibility for greater Christian acceptance of, and ecclesiastical approval for, same sex unions. Let me begin by suggesting a tentative definition of marriage, even if such a definition is, as my dear friend Ted Mackin said, "an elusive enterprise. Even the married find it so." Marriage is an unconditional, life-long commitment between two persons who promise to share all of life and love, home and hearth, body and soul; marriage necessarily involves both the fullest of communication, the deepest of understanding, and the strongest of personal loyalty and trust between two people.
In this definition, the unconditional element is most striking. Marriage is unconditional in two senses: first, the commitment is not conditioned by other commitments, no matter what they may be. Such commitments include parents, friends, one's psychological needs, career goals, spiritual interests, sexual drives, addictions of any sort, and the like. Second, in the marriage relationship, both partners confront the unconditional dimension of life and find it deeply and profoundly personal. This means that in and through one another, each partner confronts the ultimate meaning of his/her life precisely by sharing life unconditionally with another person; put differently, husband and wife discover the presence of God in the sharing of daily life with another.
Marriage is exclusive in so far as everyone else is excluded from the innermost circle of intimacy, both sexual and personal, shared between the two partnersno one else has access to the inner heart and mind, as well as the body, of the partner in exactly the same way. For this same reason, marriage is also inclusive because all of one's lifeone's finances, career, leisure time, friendships, relationship to family friends, even one's other so-called soul-matesmust be understood from the stand-point of, and in light of, the marriage commitment. Put differently, the whole of one's life, history, successes, failures, hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows, are included in the relationship between two people.
In defining marriage this way, I am also defining what Catholicism calls a sacramental marriage. For the Catholic tradition, marriage is a commitment between a man and a woman that is modeled on the commitment of Christ and his Church, on a commitment of unconditional love. Ted Mackin defines sacramental marriage this way:
In this unconditional relationship, the quality of relation is unexceptionalthe good husband and father will also be the good friend, priest, son, or daughter; the mediocre man or woman will be mediocre in all of his/her relations. This is just as true if the person is gay, lesbian, or straight. Being a person means understanding that he or she is only one individual among others and not the center of the universe, that his/her will can not always be satisfied but must often be subjected to the will of others for the common good. Without this awareness of self, the individual will never be able to come out of his/her inflated self-importance and share his/her life with another. Marriage offers us the ideal human setting for us to surrender our own self-importance and discover, through intimacy with another, the real heart and center of the universe in Godwhether one uses the word God or not. This unconditional giving of one's self is at the core of a sacramental marriage in the Catholic tradition.
My question is this: In the ideal order, what would prevent this sacramental understanding of marriage from being applied to two persons of the same sex in the same way these words can be spoken about a man and woman? One need not use the word "marriage," but the reality is the same. A gay or lesbian orientation is not a matter of choice but simply the way an individual is. A person is born gay and lesbian and grows up this way; it is not a matter of decision, one possibility among others for the mature individual. The Pastoral letters of the Catholic bishops realize this fact.
While it is not likely that official Roman Catholic theology will sanction same sex relationships in the near future, two significant changes have taken place in the last half century in our understanding of marriage. First, the concept of marriage has moved from a legal contract to a personal covenant between two people in the pres-ence of God. Marriage is rooted, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, in "the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent." Second, the act of procreation within a marriage (until recently seen as a duty so the race may survive) is no longer the only purpose of marriage. In marriage, the partners, as the Council says, also "render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and their actions." Since not all marriages between a man and a woman end in offspring due to physical problems or personal choice, it is clear that the concept of procreation as essential to the marriage bond should be explored in a wider sense and include the creative spheres of the spiritual, moral, and cultural. Likewise, our understanding of family has broadened. In a 1980 statement, the Catholic bishops of Western Washington suggest that "whenever a relationship is formed based on mutual caring and interdependency, family is not merely a metaphor but the proper term to describe such a relationship." The Catholic theologian Rosemary Haughton suggests that perhaps the most important thing about a family is not the blood relationship, but the fact that it is a community, a group of people sharing their lives."
In this context, then, the possibility exists for a broader and more inclusive understanding of marriage and family. Such an understanding may ultimately include same sex relationships. The norm ought not to be gender but the quality or unconditional love and commitment that exists between two people. If Jesus as God's face among us could reach out to the Samaritan woman at the well and promise her living water, I cannot imagine a God who would not be pleased by deep and intense love and commitment in any of its forms. For Jesus reveals a God who wants more than obedience to the law but a God who wants nothing less than our whole hearts and minds and souls. All that matters to God is what is in the hearts and souls that God has given to us and that we seek to give to one another.
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