May 30, 2015

Being and Doing: A Response to an Essay on Marriage

A few weeks ago, John Bauerschmidt, Zachary Guiliano, Wesley Hill, and Jordan Hylden published a response to the report of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage (TFSM), titled “Marriage in Creation and Covenant,” henceforth MCC. This essay appeared on the Anglican Theological Review website along with three responses from Scott MacDougall, Kathryn Tanner, and Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski. The three responders took up some of the serious problems with MCC and I commend their essays to your attention.

As one of the authors of “Essay 1" (Biblical and Theological Framework) in the TFSM report, I had hoped for a better level of engagement than MCC demonstrates; it is largely and off-handedly dismissive, but also mistaken in some of its characterizations of content, leading me to the conclusion that the MCC authors do not actually understand the argument. I have long been an advocate of the position that one can only truly have a meaningful discussion when you can state your interlocutor’s position in language she can recognize and affirm. MCC fails that test, even to the slight extent it engages with Essay 1 at all — the authors spend most of their time disagreeing with the essay on history, and I leave it to the author of that essay to address their concerns.

MCC to a large extent follows the method of questioning motives and form rather than engaging deeply with the content of the TFSM report. Interestingly enough, this seems to me to reflect the deeper issue of what constitutes marriage: MCC expounds a thesis about the form of marriage as a male-female bond that serves as an icon of the relationship between Christ and the Church in a constructive sense (I hope I’ve understood and stated their thesis correctly); whereas the TFSM focuses on the content of the marriage relationship as expressed in the vows, and in the spouses’ living out the loving mutual self-offering inherent in those vows, as an iconic realization of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Some might say, What’s the difference? We are dealing, to some extent, with the old perceived conflict between being and doing. (It also likely reflects the distinction in the honor given to icons as dulia rather than latria. Some, it seems to me, want to exalt marriage to a place it does not belong. However, in the present context, this also reflects the old difference of opinion as to what constitutes marriage: consent or coitus.

Which gives me the opportunity to correct a misapprehension of MCC, one of the few observations about Essay 1. On page 4, in the context of bemoaning the lack of references to the literature, the authors state,

...Brundage's work makes a brief appearance in "Essay 1" (13), where an incorrect citation is provided, making unclear the reference to a definitive "papal ruling" on the significance of consent and consummation in marriage. Perhaps it refers to Alexander III's Veniens ad nos or Innocent III's Per tuas? It is hard to know; neither said quite what the essay states nor offered a final word.

First, the citation is only “incorrect” to the extent that it fails to include “ff” after the page indicated — the page which marks the beginning of a subsection of a chapter dealing with this issue. More importantly, however, is the coy, and erroneous, rejection of what Essay 1 says, which is, “The eventual papal ruling settled the debate (for Roman Catholics) by taking a middle ground: consent makes the marriage, but consummation seals it.” It is true that “seals” is my language for the more convoluted “renders indissoluble by any human power.” But this is the conclusion reached by Alexander III (not in a single decree but in a process of development through many rulings) and enshrined in the Roman canons to this day (see CCL 1141-42.) As George Hayward Joyce, S.J., put it, in a work written long before our current controversies,

Alexander III... settled the dispute between the Schools of Paris and Bologna about the essentials of marriage. He approved the teaching of the Paris doctors that marriage is effected by the consent of the parties..., rejecting that of the Bolognese canonists who held that until consummation the partners were not strictly speaking married. Yet he did not accept the Paris teaching in its entirety, but retained one important feature of the Bolognese system.... Alexander III, though pronouncing consent to be the effective cause of marriage, taught that until consummation the bond was capable of dissolution. (Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, Second Edition. London: Sheed and Ward, 1948. pp 430-431.)

Now, this may seem trivial, but it appears to me to indicate a problem that the MCC authors, and many others, have when wrestling with the issues surrounding marriage — same-sex and otherwise. There is a reluctance to place the locus of marriage in the action of marriage, the exchange of vows that makes the marriage, as an act of self-dedication through the human faculties of will and love. Instead there is a repeated retreat — often rhapsodically articulated — to the formal biological reality of male and female. With Augustine, and many since, they emphasize that which is shared with the animal realm rather than that which is uniquely human. (The reponses to MCC detail a few of the other problems with their use of Augustine. I would add to that, their failure to distinguish between sacramental marriage as Augustine understands it, as only existing between Christians, and what is often called “natural marriage” — a point I think fatal to their thesis about the constitutional nature of male-female marriage in and of itself. But that is a point for another essay.)

Of course, the TFSM does not deny this formal reality. However, what we do attempt is to articulate the reasons for our emphasis on the vows rather than the “purposes” of marriage — recognizing that the Episcopal Church did without an articulation of these “purposes” in its marriage liturgy for almost 200 years. But even here MCC misunderstands. For instance, on page 18 they state,

The very idea that marriage is a social form with ends (or purposes, teloi) given by God is not grasped at all; rather, such ends are described as "extrinsic" (perhaps better put, heteronomous) and so run afoul of Kant's categorical imperative never to treat persons as means rather than ends (21, 24). By this argument, we are told that the marriage vows are what really count, as they represent the moral "commitment" that two make to one another, and that the opening exhortation describing the ends of marriage is extraneous to this deeper reality (20-25).

The last sentence approaches but misses an accurate grasp of our position, though why commitment is in scare-quotes escapes me. However, the first sentence here not only misstates the TSFM position, but presents a thesis Essay 1 explicitly rejects as mistaken. Here is what the report says about “extrinsic” and the way in which the TFSM proposes to balance the Kantian ethical concern with the role of the “ends” of marriage (page 23):

Procreation can become a problematical cause or purpose when it is understood primarily as an extrinsic end, rather than as the natural outgrowth of the loving couple treating each other as ends in themselves. It is acknowledged that as the end in this case is a human life, it has its own inestimable worth. It must also be noted that many, if not most couples, desire this end and work together toward its accomplishment; and that the generation of new life is a tangible expression of their mutual love.... Children are a gift and a grace and a hope — but ought not be understood as an extrinsic expectation or demand, in the absence of which a marriage is deemed to have failed in some intrinsic way. Moreover, the greater and more fully realized the love of a couple for each other, the more likely any child who becomes part of the growing family, by birth or adoption, will be nurtured and raised in a way that expresses the familial virtues.

What the TFSM essay does is attempt to give procreation in marriage its proper place and role as reflected in the Prologue to the marriage liturgy: as a positive good (when possible, and “when it is God's will” or as the older (1946) canon put it “if it may be”). This stands in opposition to the rhetoric advanced in some circles that it is an "essential element" of marriage. This has never been the teaching of the church. The confusion arises precisely when one drifts from the language of "goods" or "fruits" into “ends,” "causes," or "purposes." The issue is that the institution of marriage (as the Prologue puts it) may have purposes which never are realized in a particular marriage — and that should not be seen as a reduction in the value of that marriage. The traditional position — which the TFSM paper supports — is that procreation should take place within a loving marriage; not that any given marriage must lead to procreation in order to be a valid and loving marriage that reflects God’s love and generativity.

I hope I’ve adequately addressed these two problems with MCC. A more general concern is that they seem to think that the proposed canon change undercuts the church’s teaching on marriage, and I hope I’ve addressed that in the previous posts on the topic of that change. Obviously, the canon change will remove an obstacle (in some minds) to authorizing liturgies for solemnizing marriages of same-sex couples where it is permitted by civil law, but that in no way alters the teaching concerning the nature of marriage — merely refocuses it on the moral center of marriage, which the tradition holds lies in the couple’s mutual consent to live by the vows they make to each other; not on their capacity to fulfill a “purpose.” It is, in short, the content of marriage, not its form, that ought to be the focus of our canonical, liturgical, and theological attention.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


thomas bushnell, bsg said...

Do they really make the inattentive freshman's misunderstanding of Kant? Kant most certainly did *not* say that we should "never to treat persons as means rather than ends". He said that we should never treat persons as means unless, at the same time, we also treat them as ends. For example, it is perfectly ok to treat the barista as a means to obtaining a cup of coffee, *provided* we also treat them as an end in themself at the same time, and so if they're a slave for example, or being treated abusively by their employer, or we want to shout at them for being slow, we are likely not treating them as ends in themself.

And that, it seems to me, gets to the rub of the matter. There's nothing wrong with using people to achieve your own ends, *provided* you treat them as an end in themselves at the same time, according to Kant. And hence (amazing!) commitment and mutual respect and consent suddenly come to the fore, as being, oh, I don't know, essential for marriage.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed so. We tried, in the TSFM document, to treat this notion with the nuance it deserves, not as an either/or -- something that the MCC authors miss. For instance, that

"as Kant would put it, the principal end of marriage must be found in the couple themselves, and in their life together, as well as in a pragmatic recognition that marriages are not always procreative even when that is the couple’s intent — and a couple incapable of procreation cannot reasonably intend it — but they are always meant to be loving and faithful. As noted above, a child coming into a loving and faithful context, whether by birth or adoption, is more likely to grow to be a loving and faithful person."

In other words, procreation ought not be understood simply as an "end" but as an outgrowth of the couple treating each other as ends in themselves. The problem with much of the anti-SSM rhetoric is that it elevates procreation as an end above the other moral values.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Of course, they were also not alone in seeing "Kant" and reacting with a litany against all the supposed bad thoughts that the Enlightenment has brought upon the church and the world.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

The more I read your comments, the happier I am that I have not read the originals. I have enough to keep track of. :)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Wish I could say the same... Though you might enjoy the "essays in response" to the Bauerschmidt et al. paper. They range into some of the more serious problems.