Before reviewing the major “events” of 2012 in moral theology, I would hasten to point out that the most important challenges faced may not be any of these. In the long run, the economic and environmental challenges faced by the largest-consuming nation in history are grave and deep. Further, we continue to struggle with a culture of violence – in our cities every day (I am home in Chiacago, which painfully saw its 500th homicide before year’s end), in massacre events, in the ongoing recourse to abortion, in drone strikes, and in many other ways. We should remember that ultimately, we name Him “Prince of Peace.”
That said, 3 stories dominated American Catholic moral thought this year. This blog and many others have seen plenty of reflection on these issues, so what lens could be used to consider them anew? I’ve been reading Archbishop Rowan Williams a lot recently, and, in a brilliant essay on “judgment,” he remarks that Christian theological reflection properly is neither outside “the world” judging it freom its own space, nor simply a partisan in the world, pressing an agenda like others. Rather, theology
Is more importantly exercised in the discernment of what contemporary conflicts are actually about and in an effort both to clarify this and to decide where the Christian should find his or her identity in a conflict.
In considering the major stories, I’m trying to think through not so much “who’s right?” as “what is this conflict really about?”
The nuns versus the bishops. To me, as a layperson, this conflict is particularly painful. I am grateful for the selfless devotion of so many in both groups. I have been personally touched by such service, and continue to be. So it is hard to watch two groups engaged in a conflict that too often looks like an ecclesial power struggle – and worse, a struggle on which I, as a lay theologian, am supposed to take sides. My hope is that both groups, with different charisms, can find ways to cooperate for shared ends, even while maintaining a certain critical conversation that rightly challenges complacency.
The HHS mandate and contraception. Much ink was spilled this year on religious freedom. But I think it is important to recognize that this conflict is about Humanae Vitae and contraception, not about some other teachings. Thus, it may be seen as another episode in a long-standing ecclesial question: how long can a teaching which commands so little practical support from Catholics be maintained as an essential identity mark of Catholic faith? Again, this isn’t to take sides, as much as to prompt more sustained reflection on where the problem really lies. There are certainly many areas of Catholic teaching, such as economic ones, where practical support is minimal (e.g. eschewing economic excess!), so the very fact that a teaching is not practiced is not a sign that the teaching is a problem. However, contraception has long held a special place – both honored and derided. Now, there are politics in play here, too – would it really be so hard to grant an exemption for any religiously-sponsored organization? And (perhaps this is what the issue is really about) is it really proper for the government to offer a fine-grained definition of what counts as a “religious organization”? But in rightly attending to this issue, and resisting the privatization of religion, it is also important for the Church to consider the problem of the lack of support for the underlying teaching.
Same-sex marriage at the ballot box. A year-end article in the New York Review of Books noted that the public swing in favor of same-sex marriage is by far the fastest development in the history of civil rights. Such an understanding belies two misunderstandings about this issue. One is that the support has suddenly “swung” – given that 48% of the population of an extremely liberal state like Maryland voted directly against same-sex marriage suggests that this issue is far from decided. In fact, while the demographics certainly favor a shift on the issue, it is likely to remain an issue that is dividing. The second is the common framing of the issue as one of civil rights. Certainly this is the publicly most powerful way to frame the issue, since the vast majority of people respond well to arguments for equality and against discrimination.
But really, this issue is just another chapter in marriage not being about children or the social order, but being about self-fulfillment. Ever since the liberalization of divorce laws and the pervasive diffusion of a certain understanding of romantic love, the link between marriage and sexual attraction has become central, supplanting the dominance of the social functions of the practice. Such an evolution has always been Janus-faced: on the one hand, it has made real the idea that it is in giving ourselves freely in love that we find our greatest fulfillment. Particularly for women, this has been a massive advance. On the other hand, it becomes easy to imagine such a relationship as ultimately instrumental to the ends of the self – if a person is no longer “getting anything out” of the marriage, then they should leave.
Ultimately, I fear that focusing on same-sex marriage overlooks the real, festering social problem of this overall shift: the rapid increase of children born outside of marriage. That number has now topped 40%, and this does not count the thousands of abortions. I personally do not see how a society can sustain adequate child-rearing, economically or emotionally, with this kind of number. While the sociological evidence for the “harm” of same-sex parenting is highly contestable, the data for children of divorce, of single parents is much clearer. Without demeaning the heroic and truly loving work that many divorced and single parents do, we need to have a conversation about how to make this situation an “exceptional” one, rather than one which is so prevalent.
Here at catholicmoraltheology.com, we exist to sustain deeper and more involved reflection on key issues, and to encourage each other and our readers to attend to social and ecclesial challenges in ways that get beyond the typical frames of the secular (and often Catholic!) press. In 2013 and beyond, we will continue to confront the above issues, and let’s hope we are able to do so with these deeper issues in mind.