Same-sex marriage and the breakdown of moral argument

| Father Robert Barron | April 25, 2013 | 6 Comments

In his classic text “After Virtue,” the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre lamented, not so much the immorality that runs rampant in our contemporary society, but something more fundamental and in the long run more dangerous — namely, that we are no longer even capable of having a real argument about moral matters.

The assumptions that once undergirded any coherent conversation about ethics, he said, are no longer taken for granted or universally shared. The result is that, in regard to questions of what is right and wrong, we simply talk past one another, or more often, scream at each other.

Appeals to morality

I thought of MacIntyre’s observation when I read a recent article on the Supreme Court’s consideration of the much-vexed issue of same-sex marriage. It was reported that, in the wake of the oral arguments, Justice Elena Kagan remarked, “Whenever someone expresses moral disapproval in a legal context, the red flag of discrimination goes up for me.”

Notice that the justice did not say that discrimination is the result of a bad moral argument, but simply that any appeal to morality is, ipso facto, tantamount to discrimination.

Or to state it in MacIntyre’s terms, since even attempting to make a moral argument is an exercise in futility, doing so can only be construed as an act of aggression.

I will leave to the side the radical inconsistency involved in saying that one has an ethical objection (discrimination!) to the making of an ethical objection, but I would indeed like to draw attention to a very dangerous implication of this incoherent position.

If argument is indeed a non-starter, the only recourse we have in the adjudication of our disputes is violence, either direct or indirect. This is precisely why a number of Christian leaders and theorists, especially in the West, have been expressing a deep concern about this manner of thinking. Any preacher or writer who ventures to make a moral argument against same-sex marriage is automatically condemned as a purveyor of “hate speech” or excoriated as a bigot, and in extreme cases, he can be subject to legal sanction.

This visceral, violent reaction is a consequence of the breakdown of the rational framework for moral discourse that MacIntyre so lamented.

Obsession with polls

A telltale sign of this collapse is our preoccupation, even obsession, with poll numbers in regard to this question.

We are incessantly told that ever-increasing numbers of Americans — especially among the young — approve of same-sex marriage or are open to same-sex relationships. This is undoubtedly of great interest sociologically or politically, but in itself, it has nothing to do with the question of right or wrong. Lots of people can approve of something that is in fact morally repugnant, and a tiny minority can support something that is in fact morally splendid.

For example, if polls were taken in 1945 concerning the rectitude of dropping atomic bombs on Japan in order to bring the war to a rapid conclusion, I am quite sure that overwhelming majorities would have approved.

And, if a poll had been taken in, say, 1825, concerning the legitimacy of slavery, I would bet that only a small minority of Americans would have come out for eliminating the practice.

But finally, in either case, so what? Finally, an argument has to be made. In the absence of this, the citation of poll numbers in regard to a moral issue is nothing but a form of bullying: we’ve got you outnumbered.

Another issue

Still another indication of the breakdown in moral argumentation is the sentimentalizing of the same-sex marriage issue.

Over roughly the past 25 years, many gay people have “come out of the closet,” and this is indeed welcome. Repression, deception and morbid self-reproach are never good things. The result of this coming out is that millions have recognized their brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, uncles, and dear friends as having same-sex attraction.

The homosexual person is no longer, accordingly, some strange and shadowy “other,” but someone I know to be a decent human being. This development, too, is nothing but positive. The man or woman with a homosexual orientation must always be loved and treated, in all circumstances, with the respect due to a child of God.

Nevertheless, it does not follow that everything a decent person does or wants is necessarily decent. Without a convincing argument, we cannot simply say that whatever a generally kind and loving person chooses to do is, by the very nature of the thing, right.

This is why I am never impressed when a politician says that he is now in favor of same-sex marriage because he has discovered that his son, whom he deeply loves, is gay. Please don’t misunderstand me: I am sincerely delighted whenever a father loves and cherishes his gay son. However, that love in itself does not constitute an argument.

The attentive reader will have noticed that I have not proffered such an argument in the course of this article. That will have to be matter for another day. What I have tried to do is clear away some of the fog that obfuscates this issue, in the hopes that we might eventually see, with some clarity and objectivity, what the Catholic Church teaches in regard to sexuality in general and the question of same-sex marriage in particular.

Father Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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Category: Commentary, Word on Fire

  • As a same-sex attracted Catholic man, I find Father Barron’s arguments quite compelling. At various times in my life, including even after my return to the Church in 2005 after many years away, I have struggled with this issue, not so much on a personal level but in regard to how best the Church can and should be dealing with it, and with actively LGBT members–ones who may never join Courage or who have not yet decided to become celibate.
    I finally came to realize though that the bottom line is, and always will be, the clear teaching of the Church on the matter. And that, if the Lord truly has called me back to Catholicism after 35 years away, He can and will see me through in at least attempting to follow the teachings as laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And it makes me no less a compassionate person towards those who disagree–I get the disagreeing part, having spent 15 years in the LGBT forefront. And I did so with a clear conscience, thinking, as many do, that being against same-sex marriage was discrimination and wondering why the Church fought so hard against it.
    Ultimately I found I needed to trust our Mother, the Church, and our Father, who established it through God the Son Jesus and St Peter, the Rock. Compassion does not always mean agreement. And rights do not always equate with marriage. There are ways for both sides to work this through.

  • Rich

    As the western world increasingly embraces raw personal desire as compelling argument, society starts to break down to that lowest common denominator. But how can a civilization long survive like that? It cannot. As the levy weakens, its small cracks become large cracks at an exponentially increasing rate, and soon there is total breakdown and the whole town floods. In a possibly related matter, has anyone else noticed how many people run red lights these days?

    And we should not confuse allowance with acceptance. We must keep those two things straight both in regard to our personal desires/behaviors/choices and in our views of others’ desires/behaviors/choices. The fact that we allow two people of the same sex to live together is no more an argument for same-sex marriage than allowing people to smoke is an argument that smoking is good for you. But having watched my mother try to quit smoking for years — and eventually succumbing to lung cancer — I have the utmost sympathy and compassion to those who struggle with immediately and ultimately unhealthy things.

    • LoganM-C

      Same sex cohabitation = smoking? Let’s keep the analogies a bit more tethered to verisimilitude.

  • LoganM-C

    Fog ought not be fought with fog.

    Polling is a snapshot, yes, but I think that much of the argumentation surrounding the polling data is not about a majority liking it, but rather about a long and sustained shift in what people deem to be acceptable. And it is that shift that matters, because it is a longstanding debate about morals.

    I think also that comparing opinions on gay marriage to the attitudes towards atomic warfare or slavery is besides the point, because the atom bomb and slavery each had a large and kinetic event that changed their social landscapes–Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the Civil War, respectively.

  • LoganM-C

    “Nevertheless, it does not follow that everything a decent person does or wants is necessarily decent. Without a convincing argument, we cannot simply say that whatever a generally kind and loving person chooses to do is, by the very nature of the thing, right.”

    I feel this, but I also could never bring myself to SAY this to a gay friend. “Hello, Chelsea, I think you are a very decent person, but I really don’t think the same about your sexuality or desires.”

  • Agree. However, I feel the only framework in which debates on morality are effective and transform others are in the context of moral excellence, a continuum of moral excellence, which is how God, in His willingness to be merciful to us, transforms us. He compels us, draws us, calls us. Moral transformation only happens successfully when one feels called and invited as opposed to chastised or mocked – which is why “love the sinner, hate the sin,” while true, is not an effective path to transformation – and certainly hate should never be at the root of our desire to call others…the motivation should always be love and calling others to God. If the motivation in any moral argument is to tell somebody they are bad or morally repugnant – or even their actions – I cannot imagine they will listen, much less have a transformational impact on them. If it does, it will not hold for long. If it does last, it’s likely there will be repercussions in the future as that person is likely masking an immoral behavior as opposed to truly expelling it and transforming. God knows we will all fall very short of what He calls us to in leading a moral life. That’s why He entered this world as man to save us. That’s why we have moral teachings at all, because moral excellence is tough to achieve! If it weren’t, we’d all be Saints, Jesus would never have needed to suffer the passion, and so on. If we care at all about calling people to a moral life, our deepest desire must be calling people to the joy that moral wholeness brings…and to be deeply moved enough to the point where you feel compelled to call people joyfully to wholeness, we must understand and desire wholeness with God from a place of deep joy and love and not one of fear or condemnation. And to get there requires immense prayer. I think the topmost commentator, Richard, seems to exude that in his writings. That he was called to celibacy through prayer. And furthermore, if people do not accept our invitation or belief in moral wholeness, then do not feel fear for them, or anger. Trust God. He’s got it figured out…He will catch them when they fall, all He asks of us is to love, pray, and to speak and live the truth out of love…not fear! Joy/Peace/Invitation=God. Anger/Hate/Fear=Not God.
    I pray for the person who, out of fear of the damnation of someone’s eternal soul, turns away a sinner through words of chastisement who was on the verge of coming home, on the verge of repenting because something in the Church, something about the wholeness of a holy life called to them, appealed to them, drew them. Once they feel called and they approach, invite them in the door, let them worship. Trust in God that the priest, the Saints and the Sacraments will take it from there. Simply put, our role continues to be to love, to pray, and to live it.