May 15, 2012

Framing Some Questions

But suppose there is no child; do they remain two and not one? No; their intercourse effects the joining of their bodies, and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment.” — John Chrysostom, Homily 12 on Colossians
 This quote from John Chrysostom popped upon the HoBD list recently. It provides a good rejoinder to a common assertion made by those who oppose same-sex marriage (and birth control) that the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage cannot be separated without seriously damaging the very concept of marriage itself. Even without Chrysostom’s testimony, it is obvious that the unitive and procreative are separated by nature during the “infertile period” and in not-all-that-advanced age, as well as by accident or illness.

Arguments that an infertile couple are “open to procreation” or that their conjugal acts are “procreative in principle” or “in kind” or “essentially ordered towards children” are a kind of verbal legerdemain. For example Girgis, George, and Anderson compare sex between an infertile couple to a baseball game in which a team plays but fails to win, analogized with failure to conceive. But it’s still baseball, they say. The problem with this analogy is that, apart from a no-hitter or a tie, one or the other team necessarily loses a baseball game; and the possibility of winning is real, not merely intended. The proper analogy to an infertile couple would be a baseball game played without bats, or perhaps in this case more appropriately, balls. Such a mimed game would not be baseball any more than infertile sex is “procreative.” To use an analogy from my own writings, air guitar is not musical. Only a pre-scientific mind would could think that procreation did not require, at minimum, sperm and ovum.

So, as Chrysostom wisely observes, the conjugal act is in and of itself, regardless of any actual, potential, or intentional procreation, unitive.

The real questions ought to be: What, if it is not procreation, is the locus of the unitive aspect of marriage? Can a same-sex marriage be unitive? Can such a marriage be moral?

I think that Scripture and reason together can give us answers to these questions, or at least guidance the testimony of which is not lightly to be discounted.

In response to the first question I say that limiting the unitive function to the genitals is problematical. That the genital is one aspect of union is beyond denial. But it is also obvious that the union is also in mind and heart, as the preface to the liturgy notes. Adam recognized Eve as of one flesh (and bone) with him prior to their conjugal (and postlapsarian) joining. And Jesus helpfully noted, in a negative context, that the eye and the heart could be the organs for adultery. (Matt 5:28) So “unity” is not solely or even necessarily a matter of genital union.

In answer to the second question I hope that no one will doubt that same-sex couples can experience union of heart and mind. It would also appear, again from a negative example, that (at least) a male couple can unite in the flesh in the same way as a heterosexual couple; the oft-cited Leviticus 18:22 could find no other way to describe male homosexual relations than in heterosexual terms: literally, “with a male do not lay the layings of a woman.”

Obviously these negative texts raise the question, “Can such uniting be moral?” However, I think it important to note that not every uniting of male and female is moral; in addition to adultery, there is also the harlotry condemned in 1 Cor 6:16, in which becoming “one flesh” is a scandal, not a good. So, clearly, uniting in and of itself is morally neutral — the good or the bad depends on something other than the union itself.

So the issue before us is whether the uniting of two persons of the same sex can be moral. Clearly it can be, and in a growing number of places is, legal. But the church’s proper province is morality, not legality.

I hope that this brief note has dispelled or at least disabled the circular “impossiblist” argument as expounded in the Girgis, George, Anderson paper (marriage requires a male and a female ordered to childbearing to be marriage, ergo only males and females can marry), and moves us to the real issue that faces us: is same-sex marriage capable of being moral.

To answer that we need to look at the locus of morality, which is not in the anatomy, but in the mind and heart, as Jesus taught.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


MarkBrunson said...

Careful, careful bringing in Chrysostom into any possible discussion of same-sex marriage. He was also vicious about homosexuals, advocating capital punishment for them. You may be able to separate out provincial views of the time from true insight, but most are not, and I've never know a conservative who could do it. You'll just give them further fuel, at best. said...

Dear Tobias

Thank you for this excellent post.

In the focus on gay marriage, one particular form of union has been left out of the debate - the sort of marriage my husband and I have: happy, and childless by choice.

Of course, in some pious quarters, our decision is condemned as "selfish", but we are happy like this.

I could add, of course, that in a world that now labours under some 7 billion human beings, any union that is childless is to be welcomed.

Keep up the good work - your blog is excellent.

Jane Smith (Pretoria, South Africa)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Mark. I'm painfully aware of Chrysostom's vehement errors, but I don't want those to cloud the things he got right, which are many.

Thank you, Jane. The accusation of "selfishness" or "hedonism" is common but nonetheless irrational. Childless and gay couples are often among the most generous of people -- and they are not just generous to those bearing their own genetic material. It is "dynastic" relations that are truly selfish in that light. (I should also note that one of the key arguments for celibacy is that it allows one to give freely of oneself to all.) The 'hedonism' position is effectively baseless.

Thanks for your comments.

Daniel Weir said...

I am reminded of the essay in Our Selves, Our Souls, Our Bodies in which generative was more widely seen as including ways beyond procreation in which all couples and single persons may be generative.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed, Daniel. "Generation" is about more than flesh.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

"bob" left this comment on the previous post, but I think he meant to leave it here:
It may be fruitless to point this out, but when Episcopalians try to invoke St John Chrysostom as a way to back gay marriage...Well, is it any wonder you don't have any talks with Orthodox any more? It's so hard to convince you that you insult any Christian with a horizon longer than about two weeks. Really. Grow up. When you get this desperate why bother "arguing" about the subject? You've decided to do it. You don't need to pretend there's a "traditional" way to argue it. There isn't. Wasn't. Won't be. There's just the Episcopalians doing what they want.
By all means, continue with quoting St John Chrysostom to make him mean whatever else you think up. How dishonest can you get?

I respond:

Bob, far be it from me to suggest that John Chrysostom would have supported same-sex marriage; nor is that what I am saying here. What I am saying is that John Chrysostom, in this passage from his sermon on Colossians, undermines one of the principal arguments against same-sex marriage, i.e., that it represents a separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage. If you want to look for intellect7ual dishonesty, go to the people who continue to hammer away at assertions in spite of the evidence to the contrary, selectively ignoring what they don't want to hear.

Anonymous said...

Jane Smith:

"...any union that is childless is to be welcomed."

Just don't call it marriage.