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This is the blog of the faculty of the Ave Maria University Philosophy Department. We post our philosophical reflections on perennial and contemporary questions as well as on Departmental and University news and other topics of interest.
  • December 29, 2012 2:02 pm

    Same-sex “marriage” and some of Benedict XVI’s Italian critics

    With the recent progress of powerful movements in favor of same-sex “marriage” in the U.S., France, and the U.K., 2013 promises to be a decisive year in the struggle over this issue. The Catholic Church has been and will continue to be at the forefront of the loyal opposition. If anyone had any doubts about that, Benedict XVI has done his best to dispel them.

    By now everyone has heard about – and some have read – the pope’s controversial remarks, clearly aimed at same-sex marriage advocates, in his annual Christmas address to the Roman Curia. Featuring prominently in the address is a discussion of an approach in contemporary gender theory that takes human sexuality to be the product of our own creativity and choices. You might call it the “Play-Doh” theory of sexuality. Borrowing from an essay by the chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, the pope indicates Simone de Beauvoir as laying the foundation for this view. “[O]n ne naît pas femme, on le devient,” de Beauvoir writes in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), that is, “one is not born a woman, one becomes one.” You could, of course, point to kindred ideas in more recent thinkers, like the later Foucault’s talk of life as a work of art, or trace a genealogy back through Sartre’s thesis about existence preceding essence, which he more or less gets from the Heidegger of Being and Time (1927), whether or not Heidegger wishes to acknowledge it. And you could press even further back to more remote causes: Nietzsche’s notion of interpretation, for example. But I don’t care to do any of that here. Let’s look further at what Benedict had to say to the Curia.

    In his address the pope argues that there is a basic natural duality, created by God, between man and woman. Here he appeals to the account of the creation of human beings as we find it in Genesis (1:27). For the pope, there is no third (or fourth or fifth) option between being a man or a woman and, further, what one is is written into his or her body. Thus, he suggests, the rejection of this fundamental duality is likewise a rejection of the body. From now on, he concludes, drawing out the logical implications of this rejection of the body, human beings are merely “spirit and will.” If biology is not – or assumed not to be – destiny, so to speak (and putting limit cases aside for the moment), then the pope would seem to have a point. Scratch an existentialist – or a postmodern, or a gender bender – and you get a Cartesian (of sorts).

    All of this is bad news for the family, according to the pope: “If, however, there is no duality of man and woman as a datum of creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality pre-ordained by creation.” He sees the family, in its essence, as constituted by a man and a woman (and children if the couple are so blessed). For him this is the “authentic form of the family.”

    Benedict proposes a similar line of thought in his message for the World Day of Peace (January 1), which has been up for some time on the Vatican website:

    The natural structure of marriage – as a union between a man and a woman – must also be recognized and promoted in view of attempts to make it legally equivalent to radically different forms of union, which in reality damage it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its special character and irreplaceable social role.

    While in the address to the Curia the pope appealed largely to revelation, in the message for the World Day of Peace he notes that these ideas are also accessible to reason apart from any particular religious convictions:

    These principles are not truths of faith, nor do they merely derive from the right to religious liberty. They are inscribed in human nature itself, recognizable by reason, and therefore common to all humanity. Consequently, the Church’s activity in promoting them does not have a confessional character, but is addressed to all persons, prescinding from their religious affiliation. This activity is the more necessary the more these principles are denied or misunderstood because this is an offense to the human person, a grave injury inflicted on justice and peace.

    The moral “outrage” that followed upon the publication of the pope’s words was predictable. However, in this post I would like to consider only the responses by three leading Italian gay rights activists: Franco Grillini, Aurelio Mancuso, and Fabrizio Marrazzo, as these were reported in the (left-leaning) Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. Whether these responses constitute a representative sampling of the reactions on offer, I will let someone with more time and interest decide. For my part, I would say that the content of the responses is what I would have expected.

    We’ll start with Grillini, the president of Gaynet:

    We suspect that Ratzinger’s real objective is the division of fixed roles for men and women such that men have that power expressed so well by the elderly male regime of the Vatican. We find it strange that it is alleged that gender theory, through gay marriage, has called the traditional family into question since where marriage equality has been approved there has been no consequence for heterosexual marriage.

    It’s considerate of Signor Grillini to let us in on Ratzinger’s “real objective.” Pardon me if I must stifle a yawn here. Is Grillini working from a script or did he come up with this idea about the oppressive male hierarchy of the Vatican all on his own? At any rate, applications of the hermeneutics of suspicion don’t get a free pass; they must submit themselves to the same standards as all discourse that wishes to be regarded as rational. One of those standards is evidence — without it, Grillini’s charge becomes arbitrary and can be reasonably ignored. Perhaps he has supplied this evidence elsewhere. I would be happy to weigh it if someone could direct me to it.

    Grillini’s second claim – presumably against the pope – is that the legalization of non-heterosexual forms of marriage has had no adverse impact on heterosexual marriage. This is bewildering. As we have seen, the pope thinks of “heterosexual” marriage as being the only form of marriage. In other words, in his judgment, speaking of “heterosexual marriage” would be comparable to speaking of “round circles.” It follows, then, that the bare hypothesis of a non-heterosexual marriage – to say nothing of its legal recognition – is, in the pope’s eyes, all by itself an attack on marriage. If I claim that X is P and only P and you claim that X can be P or Q or R or any number of things and try to convince others of this, you are certainly causing problems for X, at least from my perspective. Suppose – to consider and analogous case – you hold that justice is giving people their due and only this but I insist that justice, besides this, could also be, as Thrasymachus argues in The Republic, the advantage of the stronger, or, as Plato has Polemarchus suggest, benefiting friends and harming enemies. “Justice,” I then tell you, “is flexible enough to include all these meanings along with others.” You would rightly regard my views as a threat to justice.

    You might disagree with Pope Benedict’s restriction of marriage to heterosexual relationships but you are begging the question if you argue against him that recognition of non-heterosexual marriages has no detrimental consequences for heterosexual marriages. If Grillini wishes intelligently to respond to the pope, what he must contest is the pope’s concept of marriage. There are also the pope’s assumptions about the existence of a natural order and its normativity. Does Grillini share these assumptions? The remarks reported by Il Fatto Quotidiano do not disclose this. If some reader could enlighten me about Grillini’s views on this question, I would be grateful.

    We turn now to Aurelio Mancuso, the president of Equality Italia:

    For some years now in the Vatican the question of gender theory has been used to call into question the acquisition of civil rights by homosexuals. To help the Curia to put things into perspective we could say that the culture of gender is similar to the choice of celibacy (castità), that is, they are moral and personal convictions that have nothing to do with what is given by nature (sono convinzioni morali e personali che non c’entrano con il dato naturale). If we really want to debate each other with good will, we need to start with the scientific and statistical findings that show two essential facts: homosexuality is in no way linked to the diminishment of heterosexual marriage; the societies that legally recognize all forms of love increase the well-being of their citizens.

    There is a touch either of silliness or sarcasm in these comments; I can’t tell which. The distinction between what is by nature and what is by choice is elementary in Catholic thought to the extent that it draws (as it does quite heavily) on Aristotelianism and Thomism. The Roman Curia surely do not need Mancuso’s instruction on this matter – he might as well pretend to teach geometers arithmetic.

    From the Catholic perspective nature, that is, natural law, ideally guides us in our choices. And, it goes without saying, the proper application of natural law requires prudence. This is not to suggest that we all in fact think of or understand what nature demands when we act. Again, I am talking about the ideal. So, from the Catholic perspective the distinction between nature and choice is assumed: the question is whether the choice is in conformity with nature. Catholic thought denies that homosexual acts are in conformity with nature. Does Mancuso accept a natural law approach to morality? If so, what is his argument in defense of homosexual acts being in conformity with natural law? If he does not accept the natural law approach, what is his complaint against it? These are the salient questions to be asked.

    Mancuso also tells us that we need to consider scientific and statistical findings about the relationship between homosexuality and heterosexual marriage as well as the positive effect of legalization of all forms of love on our well-being. First of all, is it too much to ask for the numbers and the details of these studies? Like Grillini’s employment of the hermeneutics of suspicion, the crucial weakness in Mancuso’s appeal to science and statistics is the evidence. I do not wish to imply that there is none. I only wish for it to be presented.

    Secondly, when Mancuso says that there is no link between homosexuality and the diminishment of heterosexual marriage, what does he mean by “diminishment”? Are we talking about diminishment in numbers, in respect for heterosexual marriage, in the quality of such marriages? What exactly is at stake here? I can think of good reasons to doubt Mancuso’s claim if any one of these three senses is in play. In any society in which homosexual lifestyles were once discouraged but are now broadly accepted and encouraged are we to believe that we would not find any empirically verifiable diminishment in heterosexual marriage in any of these three senses during the later time period? But I don’t want to waste time on a hypothetical. Once Mancuso provides the evidence to which he alludes we can continue that conversation.

    Thirdly, is it really true that, as Mancuso asserts, “the societies that legally recognize all forms of love increase the well-being of their citizens”? Well, to have a fruitful discussion, we would first need to know what Mancuso means by “love.” If he includes here homosexual love, then there would be a basic disagreement with Catholics, since, appealing to natural law and revelation, we would take homosexual relationships to be disordered forms of “love.” As such, they could not, in our view, contribute to anyone’s well-being. If Mancuso thinks otherwise, he can go on claiming that they do or he could formulate an argument against the Catholic view. I suppose we would probably have to arrive at an understanding of what “well-being” means too.

    We come lastly to Fabrizio Marrazzo, the spokesman for Gay Center:

    There is the danger that the Church criminalize homosexuality and that the Pope’s statements become a cultural and doctrinal instrument to confirm various forms of discrimination against gays in many countries. One thinks of those countries where [homosexuality] is considered a crime or of countries, like Uganda, where they want to punish it with the death penalty, something blessed by the Pope himself. We see this continual condemnation of homosexual relationships and of the need to be recognized as a family as many countries take the route of promoting civil rights, a move which seems to leave the Church in the minority.

    I assume that by “homosexuality” (omosessualità) Marrazzo means homosexual “lifestyles” (and this must also be what Mancuso has in mind above). The pope is evidently talking about behaviors, not orientations. It is no secret that the Catholic Church sees homosexual lifestyles as a moral evil and detrimental to society. Behaviors perceived in this way are often subject to “criminalization” in legal systems and to “various forms of discrimination.” This is the fate, for example, of drug trafficking and prostitution in many countries (to mention behaviors whose legal and cultural status have been similarly debated). Should the Church reject legislation and discrimination aimed at homosexual behavior? She certainly should if it is unjust, but this would have to be determined on a case by case basis. All such legislation and discrimination would be a priori unjust if there were no defensible reasons for considering homosexual behavior morally and socially harmful. So, before discussing the former we must discuss the latter. Yes, Marrazzo is free to bypass the more fundamental discussion but then on what basis does he campaign against the criminalization of homosexual acts and discrimination against those who have homosexual lifestyles? It may be that the position taken by the Church will in many countries leave her in the minority on the question of gay rights but that is no argument against the Church’s position, unless the true and the good are determined by a majority vote.

    Contrary to Marrazzo’s claim, Benedict XVI never “blessed” the legal effort in Uganda to use the death penalty against those who engage in homosexual acts. Marrazzo is referring to the fact that Rebecca Kadaga, speaker of the Ugandan parliament and a promoter of the legislation in question, together with a group of Ugandan MPs, greeted the pope during a weekly general audience on December 12. Ms. Kadaga presented the pope with a picture of the Uganda Martyrs’ shrine, kissed his ring, and exchanged a few words with him. Here are some reports on the event if you would like to find out the particulars for yourself: New Vision, Il Fatto Quotidiano, Vatican Insider (La Stampa), Examiner.

    (Franco Grillini, who informed us of the pope’s project of reinforcing male dominance over women, must certainly have been struck by the irony of Benedict’s polite encounter with Ms. Kadaga, who, after all, is the first woman in the history of the Ugandan parliament to occupy the post of speaker of that body and is a formidable champion of women’s rights.)

    It may be unfair of me, as I have done in this post, to pick on quotes from a newspaper article. Who can say all that they would like in such a forum? This objection has some merit. But we must be prepared for our public statements to be subjected to public scrutiny. Furthermore, I am open to a more calibrated response to the pope’s remarks from those who feel so inclined.

    Let’s not forget that the Church is not only a critic of homosexual lifestyles but also urges a compassionate approach to those who are caught up in them. As the Archbishop of Kampala, Cyrprian Lwanga, spokesman of the Ugandan Catholic bishops’ conference, puts it in a 2009 statement against the bill promoted by Ms. Kadaga: “Homosexuals have the need of conversion and repentance. They also need support, understanding and love as all strive to be members of the Kingdom of God.” Pope Benedict would agree. But for most gay rights activists the attitude expressed in these words of Archbishop Lwanga is insufficient since it falls short of complete moral and social acceptance of homosexual lifestyles.