When the Supreme Court handed down its recent decisions supporting the cause of same-sex marriage, I was watching the proceedings unfold on the news at my summer ministry site alongside a room full of the guests we served. The mood was entirely subdued. Most murmured sentiments of ambivalent support: “Why not?” “To each his own, after all.” “It was only a matter of time.” One older gentleman was the exception. A working class Italian-American, he brought his usual brio in expressing his disapproval: “This is just horrible. It isn’t right, I tell you—it’s just disgusting!” His statement was all the more memorable for the fact that he was wearing a bright pink t-shirt with “Support LGBTQQA Rights” emblazoned across the front.
The entire scene was exemplary of a wider shift in the roiling debate about marriage, sexuality, and the family. Poll after poll shows that more Americans support redefining marriage with each passing year, and, in cosmopolitan circles, it is increasingly unacceptable to oppose the gay rights agenda. The change brought home to me this summer, though, is that ordinary Americans of every class are reconciling themselves to the new state of affairs. What President Nixon famously described as the “great silent majority,” that working and middle class bastion of good sense and traditional values, is no more.
What accounts for this remarkable change in perspective? It seems to be a case of trickle-down morality. We are only now beginning the dénouement of the drama that was the sexual revolution. What began as the idle fancy of the well-to-do has now permeated the whole of society. There has been a systematic hollowing-out of sexual morality that has led us to this point. The idea of gay marriage would be risible but for the fact that we began redefining marriage long ago.
The redefinition started not in terms of gender, mind you, but in equally foundational ways. A life-long union? Not with no-fault divorce, which makes marriage into a contract far more easily broken than most others in this country. Ordered to the creation of new life? Not with contraception, which detaches the essential end (that is, purpose) of marriage from our understanding of it. A faithful and exclusive relationship? Not in our culture of the therapeutic, where even the worst violations of trust can be explained away on the basis of our emotional needs. Given all that redefining, it’s surprising that the ‘man and woman’ part lasted as long as it did.
Gradually, the truths that a virtuous society should reinforce with its customs and conventions have become obscure. All that remains for many are habits and dispositions learned from a now-vanished consensus. The connection of these habits with objective truths based on our end as human beings is lost, and it becomes difficult to explain how they lead to genuine happiness. Instead, one is left sounding like that gentleman in the pink t-shirt—old-fashioned at best, bigoted and prejudiced at worst.
Losing sight of the truths that undergirded the traditional morality makes speaking out in the public square immensely more difficult. The reasons for opposing same-sex marriage depend on an understanding of marriage and sex that excludes all of society’s questionable practices—like contraception and no-fault divorce—in these areas. Because of this, one who takes a stand today is liable to be charged not only as a bigot but as a hypocrite as well. Far better to sit down and murmur, “To each his own,” or, “Well, who can argue against love?” The quick turnover of moral opinions by so many ordinary Americans implicates us all. The Catholic vision of what constitutes true happiness in relationships is now remote and distant from the lived reality. Why should someone risk committing today’s unforgivable sins—being judgmental and intolerant?
What, then, are we to do? The temptation to capitulate will be powerful. In recent months, we have witnessed several former stalwarts of defending marriage lose heart—and the will to carry on in such a lonely opposition. The strategic aim of those on the other side is increasingly clear. They wish to drive the traditional view from the public square and make it as socially unacceptable as racism now is. The new morality must be reinforced by every institution that operates in the public sphere: the “Support LGBTQQA Rights” t-shirt described above, for example, was part of a giveaway from a non-profit helping the needy around town.
The Christian response to all this must be informed by a renewed commitment to understanding and practicing the truths we profess. The true meaning of marriage must still be defended, in every corner of the public square, using arguments from the natural law. At the same time, we must present the Gospel as the fullest answer to our vexed questions, and our surest means of pursuing happiness. It is all for naught if we cannot both explain and show how our understanding of relationships and sexuality fulfills who we are meant to be as humans and leads to authentic flourishing. Instead of simply repeating that homosexual activity is disordered, we should better articulate what we are ordered towards, what our ends truly are. This cannot be another list of dos-and-don’ts, but rather an explanation that starts with our ultimate end: friendship and union with God, our Creator. We can no longer take for granted a great silent majority that implicitly or unthinkingly holds traditional views of marriage and sexuality. All the better to present anew friendship with Jesus Christ as the radical, consensus-challenging life it is.
Image: A Village Wedding, Jan Steen