A friend of mine wrote me yesterday and asked if I could say something about how to speak to fellow Catholics and others about same sex marriage in light of yesterday’s Supreme Court rulings. This, of course, is one of the most divisive issues in our nation and in our Church. It is very difficult for me personally to write about. The reason for that is quite simple: there are many gay and lesbian persons who are very dear to me. I love them and value them, like other friends and family members, more than words can say. And, honestly, part of me wants to celebrate with them, at the very least their feeling of being honored and respected by the Court’s decisions. But I also believe that marriage is a natural institution that is ordered to the procreation of children and so requires a man and a woman. This natural institution is prior to the state and as such cannot be redefined by the state or any of its powers. I’m not going to argue that case here.
What I want to talk about is this: we are a Church who holds both of these things (the inherent dignity of every person and our obligation/opportunity to love them; and that sex and marriage have a fundamental relationship to the procreation of children). Yes, most of us seem to give one priority over the other. Many of us, in fact, are almost completely dismissive of one or the other. And, what is worse, many of us are completely dismissive of our brothers and sisters who prioritize these two important ideas differently than we do. I believe that just about all of us can do better at being community with those who carry these commitments differently than we do.
This morning, Dorothy Day’s line, where she committed the Catholic Worker not to be “carping in our criticism” was on my mind, so I looked up the essay (available in its entirety here). It was amazing to me how pertinent it seems this week. Day published the essay in January 1942, as the US passed from undeclared war to declared war with Japan, Germany, and Italy. Of course, many Catholics of good will believed that it was part of their duty both as Catholics and as citizens to join in the nation’s war efforts. Day and others believed that their Christian faith called them to pacifism and to a rejection of those same war efforts. I think Catholics who are serious about the moral questions of war and peace (even just war folks who reject pacifism), looking back over the 70 years that separate us from that essay, have to be grateful for the witness of Day’s pacifism and for the ways that it makes serious engagement of the just war tradition possible.
Up to the declaration of war, Day had been unrelenting, perhaps even carping, in her arguments against going to war. But after that declaration, she said:
Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts. But neither will we be carping in our criticism. We love our country and we love our President. We have been the only country in the world where men of all nations have taken refuge from oppression. We recognize that while in the order of intention we have tried to stand for peace, for love of our brother, in the order of execution we have failed as Americans in living up to our principles.
What would it mean if Catholics on all sides of the same sex marriage issue took seriously the call live the Sermon on the Mount, especially the call to be peacemakers? “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes His sun to rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the just and unjust.” What if we led with love, and made a commitment to criticize with love, and never carpingly? What if we also took seriously that, despite our good intentions, we have failed to come up with truly peaceful means to address the concerns of everyone around this crucial issue? What if we found a way to turn to one another and really listen to what others believe is at stake here, and to look together for solutions that make sense? What if, at the very least, Catholics were able to get on the same page about how and why definitions of civil marriage matter to us?
One of the things that makes Dorothy Day’s witness so timeless is her quiet, constant commitment to love, usually in the concrete terms laid out by the works of mercy (both corporal and spiritual). Her commitment to the least of these, in the wake of the war, included many displaced veterans. She never hesitated to offer them whatever care they needed, despite the apparent differences between her and them, between her commitments and theirs. She managed to show, in concrete ways, that, argue as she would for the truth as she saw it, she would never let her “positions” stand in the way of love, even love of enemies.
If Day is to be a model for us, let me summarize some key lessons. Day was uncompromising in stating her position, in explaining its basis in Scripture and in the Tradition, and in doing so without carping. If we are to follow her example, we should be willing to state our own positions and our reasons for holding them truthfully, simply, and humbly. We also need to live lives that make it evident that we love and value all people, regardless of their convictions on this or any other issue. (Think of Day: this isn’t just lip-service, but concrete, committed service to and engagement with those who think differently than we do.) We need to really listen to those that come at these matters differently than we do, especially when they believe they are also being faithful to the Catholic Christian tradition in holding the position they hold. I suspect that doing this well will mean being willing to forgive everyone, on all sides, who tries but fails, who does it poorly, but who tries again.
One of the great truths of our faith is that God is both truth and love. And this very concept, I think, often turns into one of the great tests of our faithfulness. When we are tempted to hide or change a difficult truth (even a truth-as-I-see-it) in the name of love, we are guilty of a failure to believe that God is who God has revealed himself to be. Likewise, when we get so committed to certain truths that we ignore the hurt done to those we are called to love, we fail in faith. Our faithfulness demands that we speak the truth in love, that we live as though the Truth is true, that we stay committed to loving one another as Christ has loved us, and that in doing all these things, we will be drawn into the fullness of the God who is both Truth and Love.