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?”