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Marriage, gender and religion

Posted: August 13, 2013 - 12:03am

I would like to respond to Bishop Edward Burns’ column on the Supreme Court’s decision finding parts of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and thereby allowing greater legal acceptance of same-sex marriages. I assume that the bishop’s views represent the official Catholic position, a position which, as a Catholic, I find untenable.

My wife and I just returned from an incredible vacation on Saint Paul Island in the Pribilofs, where the sheer ebullience of life is astounding — not just the seals and seabirds and the ubiquitous foxes, but the island’s human denizens as well, who graciously and enthusiastically welcomed us into their Independence Day celebrations.

Out there in the middle of the Bering Sea you can feel the presence of God in the wild fecundity of nature.

As a Catholic, I love the Church’s adamant defense of that fecundity as sacred — how could it not be? But in the history of human culture we have somehow gotten that fecundity and the desires that engender it all mixed up with stuff that is not sacred, stuff like power and prejudice, pornography and prostitution, misogyny and homophobia — stuff that desecrates the sanctity of creation by placing false limits on the growth and flourishing of the individual human spirit.

Indeed, the history of the Bible as a religious document, as a guide for how to live well, is the story of how readers over the ages have slowly and carefully winnowed what is timeless and universal (and hence divinely inspired) from the time-bound biases and assumptions of the ancient cultures from which the books of the Bible emerged. No one today can reasonably defend the deep misogyny or the promotion of slavery that we find fairly often in some books of the Bible. Lose the bath water, but keep the baby.

And yet the Church’s policies towards gays perpetuate such biases with the scriptural and theological sophistry by which it denies the reality of love between couples who happen to be the same gender. It is a rank false dilemma to suggest that same-sex marriage in any way compromises or detracts from the beautiful fecundity of God’s universe or that same-sex marriage “removes the basis” of traditional marriage and somehow inhibits marriage between a man and a woman and the concomitant procreation. It does not. A gay man will not go cruising for a woman to marry and impregnate simply because he can’t marry the man he loves; unable to marry the woman she loves, a lesbian will not be out there hunting down a man. And it is an insult to think so. The Church’s position privileges procreation and physiology (“complementarity”) over love. 

Moreover, in denying the sanctity of love between same-sex couples, the Church privileges its own institutional traditions over the lives of real people trying to find meaning in their most intimate relationships. Legitimizing same-sex marriage enlarges the concept of marriage without negating the prior meaning. It makes marriage more like the Church, open to all people regardless of gender preference. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 

As Bishop Burns notes, the Church defines marriage as “a sexual union.” No one who has ever been married would define marriage that way. As the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid writes of marriage, “All’s far from done when pleasure’s over.” And the task of marriage isn’t just to create babies; all living things reproduce. Marriage is a mutual commitment of two people to create themselves — to forge in their love and loyalty to each other an atmosphere where each can discover all the inchoate power of his or her own soul. It’s demanding, to be sure; it asks of us a certain largeness of heart that we may not always be comfortable with or even capable of. But that’s love — and in the end that’s the only thing that makes a marriage sacred. The God that I believe in cares all about love — all love, the fecundity of the spirit as much as that of the body — and doesn’t really give a damn about the shape of a couple’s genitals.

Jim Hale is a writer who has lived in Juneau for almost 18 years.

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