Responses to my reflections last week on “Chicago values” fell into two camps. There were almost universal plaudits for recognizing that the government should be concerned about actions and not about thoughts and values. The media, of course, are in this camp, because they are concerned about the free speech that is at the heart of their profession.
More complicated, on the other hand, was the reaction to the “value” that was the case in point: same-sex “marriage.” Some who are comfortably in the first camp deserted the field of argument on gay marriage. An argument is always made in a context that determines what can be considered sensible, and it seems to me that some of us are arguing out of different contexts.
There are three contexts for discussing “gay marriage”: 1) the arena of individual rights and their protection in civil law, 2) the field of activities defined by nature and its laws, and 3) the realm of faith as a response to God’s self-revelation in history. Unfortunately, when the only permissible context for discussing public values is that of individual rights protected by civil law, then it is the government alone that determines how it is acceptable to act. Every public actor (including faith communities) then becomes the government’s agent. This is a formula for tyranny.
We can see how appeals to pluralism and toleration gradually become tyrannical in the development of how we are now expected to regard the killing of unborn children. When the individual civil right to abort a living child was discovered in the Constitution, its justification began as a “necessary evil” for the sake of a woman’s health; it was then applauded in nobler terms as a positive symbol of a woman’s freedom; it is now part of the value system of our society and everyone must be involved in paying for it, either through taxes or insurance. It is mainstream medicine and settled social policy. Its opponents are relegated to a quirky fringe, outside of the American consensus not only on what it is legal to do but also on what it is good to support. When the government, the media and the entertainment industries agree to agree on how to use words and shape the argument, society itself is deliberately transformed in ways that bring academics, judges, legislators, lawyers, law enforcement officers, newspaper editors, actors, psychiatrists, doctors and every other public professional into public agreement, all portraying themselves as original thinkers. Anyone opposed to the new consensus, no matter the reason, is dismissed as a throwback to an earlier age, to be tolerated, perhaps, but removed from public life and, eventually, punished. It’s a very old story.
Getting people to think outside the context of “civil rights” is difficult. It’s as if Americans were forbidden to think beyond politics. What is singularly peculiar about the “gay marriage” argument is the way its proponents dismiss the field of nature itself as in any way normative for human actions. We would think it odd if the government, in order to please those who desire to fly without an airplane, were to repeal the law of gravity. If nature gets in the way of a new civil right to “gay marriage,” however, that’s too bad for nature. This strikes me as bizarre.
Entering into the context of faith, the believer looks to how God has intervened in history through the calling of the Jewish people to a particular vocation, through inspiring the Hebrew prophets, by the incarnation of the eternal Son of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and the founding of the Church that speaks in Jesus’ name until he returns in glory. The God who created order in nature also reveals his plan for us in history; and the religious teaching on the nature of marriage is eminently clear. Those who dismiss any religiously based argument as simply private and therefore not publicly normative are at least consistent with the secularism that makes protection of individual “civil rights” entirely determinative of public life.
What is puzzling is the case of those who, while claiming to be believers, ignore the history of salvation and reduce God to a cosmic wimp who smiles and blesses whatever comes down the track, as if God were without intelligence or the ability to discern right from wrong. Jesus is certainly “inclusive” as the savior of the whole world who invites all to follow him. But Jesus calls us to convert to his ways, which are not ours. Among the sayings of Jesus, there are about as many that start “Woe to you…” as there are those that begin “Blessed are they…” A Jesus reduced to our wishful thinking is useless.
What remains a Gospel imperative, of course, is a respectful and loving concern for those who identify themselves as gay or lesbian, including them in the community of faith and accompanying them in their quest for holiness of life. The Archdiocese attempts this response, in part, through AGLO and Courage groups.
Thanks to all who responded to last week’s blog; apologies to anyone who feels unfairly judged. I’ve tried to keep it at the level of ideas and social trends that seem to me to be dangerous to us all, Chicagoans or others.
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago