Thursday, June 06, 2013

Our Opportunity

On November 6th, 2012, the citizens of my home state of Minnesota voted down a proposed amendment to the constitution that defined marriage as an act between a man and a woman. Six months later, the Minnesota state house and senate passed a bill legalizing gay marriage, which Governor Mark Dayton signed into law. As a Catholic who tries to live in accordance with the teachings of the Church, it's clear where I side, but I find it hard to get too worked up over something that was going to be embraced, sooner or later, by the denizens of what philosopher Charles Taylor rightly calls a secular age.

No doubt some of my passivity has to do with my comparative youth. Older readers can recall a time in which the love that dare not speak its name was actually quiet. I can't. I'm 27, and for as long as I can remember, gay marriage has been a Very Important Issue.

From a purely statistical point of view, this has always struck me as odd. There are probably more cat ladies who wish to marry but cannot find a husband than gays who wish to marry but are legally prohibited from doing so. But enough about Maureen Dowd. Ignoring the oft-cited and utterly preposterous 10% figure of Kinsey's, perhaps 1-3% of the population is homosexual. Since not all of them are clamoring to embrace the mostly respectable institution of marriage, the amount of energy devoted to this minute portion of the population strikes me as disproportionate, which it is, unless one considers gay marriage as a symbol—of which more, later.

Not only has gay marriage been seen as the next big civil rights issue, most of my contemporaries have either accepted it or supported it passionately. This is especially disconcerting considering that for the first thirteen years of my education, I attended Catholic schools. I recall one incident in particular. It was my junior year of high school, and I was in a class called Christian Controversies.

If our school aimed for orthodoxy, the class could have examined various heresies throughout human history—Arianism, Manichaeism, Protestantism, Modernism, etc.—as well at the corresponding teaching of the Church. Instead, we took topics that interested us and discussed how we felt about them. This is reasonable shorthand for what passes for education these days outside of, say, the math department, which hasn't yet displaced reality with paroxysms of emotion.

No one in the class had the foggiest clue why the Church taught what She did. So when someone brought up gay marriage, it was incumbent on me, the world's worst apologist, to cobble together a defense of Church teaching. Although I wasn't a mature Catholic, I felt instinctively that: 1) it wasn't in the least bit obvious that homosexual acts were ethical; and 2) there had to be something to the Church's teaching, even if I didn't quite know what that was. It wasn't until later that I would discover Chesterton, and my faith, but I like to think that I grasped his points about tradition being the democracy of the dead and defending the cardinal virtues having all the exhilaration of a good vice.

I made a mess of things, and I can't conceive that I convinced anyone. Since then, I've found my way back home, and could now offer a much better defense of the Church's teaching on sexuality. I keep in touch with some of my friends from high school. Two of them remain committed Catholics. The rest have apostatized, rejecting a faith I know they understood no more—and probably a good deal less—than I did more than a decade ago.

Granted, this is mere anecdote; all I've demonstrated is that my particular high school could reliably produce ignorant apostates. Georgetown has been doing that for years. My observations comport with the data, though. In a recent piece in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher cited the work of sociologists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell in their book, American Grace. He noted that:

“They found that young Americans coming into adulthood at that time began to accept homosexuality as morally licit in larger numbers. They also observed that younger Americans began more and more to fall away from organized religion... Nones [nonreligious individuals who do not identify as agnostic or atheist] comprise one out of three Americans under 30.”

What I was seeing with my friends was playing out on a generational scale all across the fruited plain. We rejected the traditional ethic of restraint in sexual matters—and then we just sort of drifted away from religion altogether. Barring another great awakening, when my generation has children, a significant portion of them will grow up in a completely secular environment. The lucky ones will at least have a mother and a father.

The salient point here is that even if the forces of tradition were to make a brilliant case for marriage and find a way to sneak this message passed the gatekeepers, it would do little good. When it comes to sex, our minds are made up. We have decided, a priori, that sex is good, only to be abstained from if consent is lacking, or perhaps for those in “committed relationships”, whatever that may mean. Appeals to the Natural Law were unpersuasive to a generation that ought to have been familiar with the concept. They'll become even less effective as society becomes more secular.

Earlier, I mentioned that gay marriage was a symbol, by which I mean that it possesses a significance which far outweighs the immediate ramifications of its adoption. It's doubtful, for instance, if a small number of gays marrying could possibly be more disastrous than the epidemic of illegitimacy. But as a symbol, gay marriage is the apotheosis of the sexual mores that very precariously hold our society together: temporary commitment in a relationship that is as fertile as the couple and their doctor want it to be.

There are two points I wish to make about the symbolism of gay marriage. First, it provides nascent Nones a way to distinguish themselves from the superstitious proles who watch NASCAR and believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old. This requires surprisingly little effort, and almost no discomfort. One can update one's Facebook profile to display an equals sign, or wear a pro gay marriage t-shirt. This marks one as a member of the elect, while failing to make such a gesture renders one suspect.

The key point here is that once gay marriage is accepted, another symbol will be needed. If I read the tea leaves right, the next move could involve the transgendered. Someone, probably an idiot academic, has even created a term, cisgender, for those of us who know whether we are male or female. I was going to joke that those of us don't happen to think that we're dinosaurs may also be cisspecies, but then I looked it up, and apparently that's a thing, too. One of the drags of a civilization's collapse is that it makes satire all but impossible.

Second, gay marriage serves as an excuse for the majority to rub the noses of traditionalists in their failure. Most supporters, like my apostate friends, are uninterested in this, but this is immaterial since: 1) as Lenin discovered, it only takes a committed minority to make a revolution; and 2) moderate supporters aren't bound to be any better at defending the claims of benighted bigots than the moderate forces of Islam have been at stemming the tide of Jihad. Sooner or later, all of our institutions will be compelled to go along with gay marriage. Magnanimity will not be reserved for those who are regarded as hateful.

In the midst of all the gloom, the silliness, and the evil, there is hope. We will not return to a sensible definition of marriage in the foreseeable future, but if our opponents press us to accept their nonsense, we may have our opportunity. For while our arguments will continue to fall on deaf ears, if we set an example of peaceful defiance, we may stand as a stern rebuke to the spirit of the age. As Hilaire Belloc put it: "But if I be asked what sign we may look for to show that the advance of the faith is at hand I would answer by a word the modern world has forgotten: Persecution. When that shall once more be at work it will be morning." That is our opportunity.

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