Pages Navigation Menu

Symposium on Same Sex Marriage: Evolution?

When President Obama made public his support for same sex marriage, he spoke of conversations with his daughters and about interactions with staff members and friends who are in same sex relationships.  Like the President, many Catholics (who support same sex marriage in growing numbers), are finding that their experience leads them to affirm the goodness of same sex unions and to question the validity of Christian teaching on marriage.

My friend and fellow blogger, David Cloutier suggests that ultimately, arguments about same sex marriage must rest on “the irreducibility of the male/female distinction” which is part of the “grammar of creation.”  I think he’s right.  But that’s precisely where experience is making this whole problem “more complicated than you think.”

When the couple sitting across from you at the soccer game, the dinner table, or church strikes you as just as loving, parental, socially concerned, and committed to Christian discipleship as any other Catholic couple, that is, just as able to live out the four-fold mission of the family as described by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio, it becomes difficult to see the import of the male/female distinction.

At the very least, experience calls into question the CDF‘s 2003 claim that, “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (no. 4).  In fact, many Catholics now see strong similarities between their marriages and the unions of their gay friends, and they wonder if discerning God’s plan might be more complicated than they first thought.

Of course, experience alone never solves a problem in Catholic moral theology.  As believers in the gift of revelation and the  power of reason to discern “the truly human,” we are obligated to carefully consider our experience and test it against the weight of scripture, tradition, and the natural order.  But we also have to acknowledge that our tradition of marriage has already evolved in response to experience. Contemporary affirmations of the mutuality of men and women in marriage, women’s important roles in public life, and the goodness of sexuality even when procreation is not sought, all owe a great deal to experience.  It is not impossible that such a tradition could further evolve.

Yet, the centrality of male-female partnership from Genesis forward cannot be denied. Essentially, the biblical argument is the natural law argument; what God wants for us is inscribed in our bodies and our natures.  This is what Catholics whose experience suggests the validity of same sex marriage must confront.

The question then becomes, “Does our experience of the profound goodness of same sex relationships challenge this fundamental claim of our tradition and point toward further evolution?”




  1. Thanks for this post, Julie – I think you’re highlighting very important tension, and one that I continually struggle with in all this – Genesis in relation to experience.

    I wonder about our evolution though – are we perhaps devolving? One thing I’ve often wondered is whether we highlight heterosexual marriage in our contemporary culture to far greater degree than in past, Christian cultures. Not just heterosexual marriage, but a very very particular view of family, which is of course detrimental to all manner of other families/households – the particularity of husband, wife and children,with only two generations, is detrimental to, and unrepresentative of, for example, multigenerational families, widowers with children, adoptive families, households of people not related by blood ties – i.e. my great aunt and her non-biologically related caretaker, in her last stages of Alzheimer’s disease. So that now, our conceptions of households have become so truncated that we only see households in terms of sexual relationships. I don’t think that household relationships necessitated that move in the past.

    I recognize that my point here doesn’t really solve some of the crucial questions of gay marriage but sometimes I wonder if we weren’t so quick to jump to sexual activity in relation to families/households, whether the arguments in gay marriage would have taken on quite the tone they have? So many of the questions regarding legalization of gay marriage involve crucial other legal questions, like power of attorney, distribution of inheritance in case of partner’s death, sharing of health care. Might there be some common ground between “conservatives’ and “liberals” on these kinds of questions, if we began thinking about family/household in broader ways? Ways, I would even argue, that are more faithful to past generations than the currently held view (on both sides)….. Again, I recognize that this doesn’t “solve” the precise issue of marriage.


    A rather long but excellent addition to the experience conversation. In the first essay, Luke Timothy Johnson argues powerfully for the normative role of experience in deciding how to evaluate same-sex relations. However, Eve Tushnet writes in response:

    Experience is itself a kind of text, and texts need interpreters. How often have we thought that we understood our experiences, only to realize later that we had only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses? We all know how flexible memory can be, how easy it is to give an overly gentle account of our own motivations, how hard it is to step outside our lifelong cultural training and see with the eyes of another time or place. To my mind, Johnson’s approach places far too much trust in personal experience. He views our experience as both more transparent and less fallible than it is. To take personal experience as our best and sturdiest guide seems like a good way to replicate all of our personal preferences and cultural blind spots. Scripture is weird and tangly and anything but obvious—but at least it wasn’t written by someone who shared all our desires, preferences, and cultural background. At least it wasn’t written by us. And so it’s necessary to turn at least as much skepticism on “the voice of experience” as Johnson turns on the voice of Scripture. It’s necessary to look at least as hard for alternative understandings of our experience as for alternative understandings of Scripture.

    I like this approach, which strikes a via media between assuming experience is completely normative and ignoring it altogether.

  3. I loved this website and I’m writing to you all just to pose a question and ask your opinion: I’m a lawyer in Brazil and a friend of mine, also a lawyer herself, presented me the following case: a cross-dresser man is interested in changing his first name into a female first name. He didn’t take the sex reasignment surgery, but feels very vexed when his first name is pronounced. I was asked to file a case in civil court asking the judge to authorize such change. According to Brazilian law, it’s possible to change someone’s name if that name imposes a disconfort.(Brazilians are very, very creative concerning first names and funny names appear all the time)
    So, I’d like to ask you, according to catholic moral theology, from a normative point of view, is it possible to file such a case without affronting a moral principle? What’s your opinion?
    Personally, I think I won’t be infringing any moral principle, because I’m not going to ask the court to change the sex informed in his civil documents, but only to change his first name into a female name or maybe to add a female name to his name, something like John Bella Smith and then he can sign Bella Smith…

  4. Julie,
    This is a helpful set of observations about a interminable and vexing subject. But, for myself, I’m not sure that the CDF is incorrect about there being no analogous characteristics between homosexual unions and marriage, traditionally defined. Just on the procreative aspect alone, marriage is completely different because it is teleologically different.

    As for your question at the end: “Does our experience of the profound goodness of same sex relationships challenge this fundamental claim of our tradition and point toward further evolution?” I would point out that what we are experiencing may not the goodness of the relationship per se but rather the goodness of the persons who, like alll of us in any and all relationships, fail to grasp the significance of the many moral tasks in front of them/us. Hence the question is better put thus: “Does our experience of the profound goodness of the persons involved in same sex relationships challenge this fundamental claim of our tradition and point toward further evolution?”

    If anything, I would only grant an evolution that allows for an approach of complete charity coupled (sorry…!) with an unswerving moral approach that has some tangible links with the natural law. The problem with same-sex marraige debates is that they are completely politicized – the left cannot imagine genuine charity toward homosexuals on the part of its political opponents and the right cannot imagine charity towards homosexuals without an entailed compromise with its political opponents on an issue of moral importance.

Leave a Comment