President Obama’s recent interview, in which he comes out in favor of same-sex marriage (SSM), provides the occasion for much reflection by Catholic moral theologians. This post will inaugurate a week-long series of posts by our bloggers, treating the issue from many angles. The issue deserves careful thought – if anything should be clear, it is that this issue is a complicated one. I often say it is the single most difficult issue to teach, because of both the many levels of argument involved and the emotional responses it receives.

These complexities were evident to me as I graded my student finals in my marriage class. The students had read Fr. Ed Vacek’s article on the “two meanings of marriage,” and one of their essay questions was to identify which mindset was theirs. In the article, Fr. Vacek contrasts the “essentialist mindset,” which believes in clear categories and an ordered universe, with the “postmodern mindset,” which is more tentative and is willing to tolerate some “fuzzy logic.” My question was not aimed at eliciting student views of SSM, but because this is one of Fr. Vacek’s prime examples, many students used it as their example, too.

Their responses were quite striking in illuminating the complexity of the issue. Some foes of SSM (and some students) identify the issue as an example of rampant relativism. But students who favored SSM did not use relativistic arguments at all. Almost to a person, they made principled moral arguments – in particular, they argued that legalizing SSM was a matter of showing respect and equality for all persons and that SSM was a good because the relationships could embody genuine love and care. Even more strikingly, both principles were ones students believed they learned from Christianity itself – indeed, many class periods displayed how marriage theology developed based on these principles. One student wrote, “The Church is supposed to represent love, and so should love everyone God has made.” So it seems to me a grave mistake to accuse the pro-SSM position of relativism – this grossly misunderstands what is going on. In effect, this creates a caricature of SSM supporters, and such caricatures cannot promote understanding or even effective proclamation.

However, the caricature problem goes both ways. At one point in one section of the class, SSM came up (we were reading Familiaris Consortio 19 on natural complementarity) and I tried to elicit sober dialogue, and several students stated that they really thought SSM was not right. These were not ultra-conservatives who simply wanted to impose the magisterium. But they commented about how difficult it was to state their position, since they feared others would regard them as bigots and quasi-racists. And so the bishops are sometimes portrayed – which is also a caricature. The hierarchy’s position here is no more based on prejudice and discrimination than their opponents’ position is based on a careless relativism. Above all, this discrimination-versus-relativism meme should be rejected if the issue is to be engaged well.

But one of the difficulties in eliciting genuine dialogue is that the students who oppose SSM often have difficulty articulating their “side.” In my exam responses, in contrast to the clear moral statements about respect and love from pro-SSM students, the students who sided more with the essentialist mindset tended toward mere assertion, saying things like, “God has established it and we can’t change it” or simply stating that marriage “can only be done” between a man and a woman. The inarticulacy on the part of SSM opponents makes it easy to caricature this position.

So, how might this other position be more lucidly explained? Often, SSM opponents fall back on “social disorder” arguments – that somehow SSM, particularly in the raising of children, will be a terrible thing for society, which is why we should not give legal endorsement to it. Quite frankly, these arguments tend to be easily dismissed. They are not convincing. Not only are they consequentialist, but also they are constantly in danger of being proven wrong. Moreover, the social disorder arguments conjure up memories of bigoted fears about “race mixing” and the like, which make caricaturing the anti-SSM position easier.

Catholic opposition to SSM, it seems to me, cannot be based on arguments about social order. It is ultimately an argument about natural order. The argument is ultimately a metaphysical one, which rests on the irreducibility of the male/female distinction. It is fundamentally different from, say, the interracial arguments, because race is a constructed, non-ontological category – but maleness and femaleness are not. The problem with SSM is, so the magisterial position goes, not different in kind from the problems with our environmental-destructive society: in both cases, we ignore the existence of an intrinsic order or “grammar of creation.” We pretend there is no limit to what we can do, if it seems to “benefit” us.

Our society is not particularly suited in its politics to handle metaphysical arguments well. Perhaps this is part of its genius – say, in granting religious freedom! But our society is generally unwilling to acknowledge any kind of ordered limits, any kind of “grammar of creation,” especially in its economic life and its use of resources. One might be surprised by this link of economics, environment, and sexuality. Yet if we want an example of the “fuzzy logic,” we should look at our economic life! If the Church really wanted to explain its position on SSM clearly, it would have to begin to live by the full connectedness of Benedict XVI’s teaching about the grammar of creation – this is real “love in truth,” most especially in economics, where the lack of love and truth creates “disorder” that is grave and constantly damaging to others.

As it is, SSM is rarely put in such a larger context – we end up in a distorting, single-issue debate. Perhaps there is a way, yet unseen, to acknowledge and honor the genuine and deep moral arguments on both sides of this issue… instead of descending into caricatures and attacks. At least I am sure that will be our aim in this symposium here at CMT.