Commonweal is a fine periodical, filled with closely-reasoned and finely-nuanced essays. Jo McGowan’s essay “Simplifying Sex” is another instance of this thoughtfulness.
The argument is simply that sex and sexuality can be life-promoting and life-enhancing– and therefore in harmony with the God revealed in Christian Scripture– without requiring the sexual act necessarily to lead to procreation. Earlier in his career, Rowan Williams, the soon-to-become-former Archbishop of Canterbury, used similar reasoning to offer a broader theological context for homosexuality. (A treatment of Williams’ thinking on homosexuality is here: https://religioninthebalance.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/beholding-and-beheld-mutual-vulnerability-in-the-divine-image/)
Jo McGowan’s essay is a defense of contraceptive use, within the context of marriage, written by a Roman Catholic. While Roman Catholicism helpfully reminds us that sex and sexuality is a gift of God, the restrictions that the Church places on sexual expression need revision. Roman Catholic teaching does not as yet encompass many of the ways that sexual relations can be redemptive and sacramental.
Here is a piece of McGowan’s essay:
To defend contraception within marriage is not to defend sexual license. Married couples who have pledged a lifetime of commitment to each other and their families have the right and the duty to make their own decisions about contraception. The church’s role is to help them arrive at the decision that is right for their lives. It is not to dictate one-size-fits-all rules that have no foundation in practical experience.
via Simplifying Sex | Commonweal magazine.
In previous posts I traced the strong version of the conservative argument against gay marriage, and also pointed to where the serious, conservative, theologically grounded argument for gay marriage needs to go. In this post, we’ll lift up one thoughtful reflection– on God, desire, humanity, and sexuality– that leads, at the very least, to the possibility that God’s nature as Creator and Source of Life can manifest in human sexuality in ways other than begetting children. The author of that reflection is Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury.
In a piece entitled “The Body’s Grace” (composed over a decade before becoming archbishop), Williams identifies God’s enlivening, life-affirming nature as present in human sexuality itself. He helps us see human sexual intimacy in terms of the grace of reciprocated desire and delight– a grace and a delight that are in the very image of the trinitarian God, whose nature is love-in-relationship. By that grace we learn to inhabit the fullness of the lives we have been given.
From this perspective, the moral goodness of a sexual relationship is not whether it is homosexual or heterosexual, but whether it is characterized by mutual nurture and care, surrender and vulnerability, and a faithfulness over time that can lead to delight, joy, and an enlarged sense of life. The essential nature of human sexuality is not procreation, but beholding and being beheld. This is not to divorce human sexuality from the divine life, but to ground it in a theology of grace wherein we receive the fullness of ourselves as a gift from another, and from an Other.
A January 2010 Newsweek article by Ted Olson makes what is entitled “the conservative case for gay marriage.” You can read his case here. His attempt is good, but he doesn’t go far enough. A truly conservative case for (that’s right, for) gay marriage is actually stronger than what Mr. Olson proffers.
He makes a two-pronged argument. First, since (as conservatives maintain) marriage is the foundation of a stable society, so all the more should marriage be extended to those people (homosexual couples) who want to be married. The more marriages, the better. Second, he identifies equality before the law as a bedrock American principle; marriage equality must inevitably follow.
As I pointed out in a recent post here, the deeper conservative argument on this question has to do with God’s nature as Creator, and humanity’s special relationship with that God. While nodding in that direction, Olson doesn’t go there.
What the conservative case for gay marriage needs to show, is that the union of two committed, loving, same-sexed humans has a place in the divine life: that there are ways to manifest the life of God in and through homosexual unions, and that those ways are life-producing and life-affirming, even if they don’t include begetting children. Rowan Williams, currently the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects theologically on sexuality in a piece called “The Body’s Grace.” His reflections are directly relevant to a truly conservative case for gay marriage. We’ll look at “The Body’s Grace” next time.
Two arguments against the recognition of same-sex marriage are: 1. that it goes against the tradition that marriage is between one man and one woman; and 2. that homosexual sex is contrary to natural moral law. Neither argument is trifling. The second argument– that homosexual sex is contrary to natural moral law– is the one that so-called “conservatives” need to trace more finely.
If they did trace it more finely, it would go something like this: Humanity has a special relationship to God. God is our Creator; we are God’s creatures. Our purpose on Earth is to praise and glorify God, which means to show forth– in thought, word, and deed– the divine image in which we are made, and to manifest the life of God in our lives. One of God’s most powerful attributes is that God creates; God brings forth life– in a profound way, God’s very essence is Life itself. Therefore, to create– and especially to create life– is a sacred power in the human being, precisely because of its closeness to God’s own creating, creative nature. Homosexual sex is against natural moral law because such sex does not– cannot– produce life, and is therefore contrary to humanity’s purpose in life– which, again, is to manifest the life of God in our lives. (Please bear in mind that I am not owning this argument. I am merely setting it forth).
Most conservative arguments against same-sex marriage stop at moralizing (heterosexual sex is good; homosexual sex is bad– it says so in the Bible), and don’t reveal the moral and theological reasoning behind the conclusion. Liberals are rightly critical this kind of peremptory moral judgment.
For their part, liberals have largely failed to engage the questions that this strong version of the conservative argument raises, namely, What is humanity’s relationship to God?; and How does sexuality relate to the purpose of human life?
If you haven’t followed recent court rulings on same-sex marriage in California, a helpful summary of the action surrounding that state’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative is here.
In any potentially helpful public conversation about marriage equality, strong conservative arguments– arguments that would, at the very least, invite reflection on the purpose of human life– exist. It’s too bad that so-called conservatives are not making those arguments. In future posts, I will attempt to.