Friday, July 16, 2010

Stuart Koehl, in FT: Same Stuff, Different Day

In the last two posts, to my thinking, we've been having a conversation about the nature of Catholic faith.  Some have argued that the Church is so damaged that we need to withdraw from the institution to practice our faith in the integrity of our individual selves (see my previous two entries, on Charles Pierce's recent essay in the Boston Globe magazine).  I have disagreed, saying that no matter how damaged the institution, it is vital to the very nature of Catholic faith; that Catholic faith is inherently sacramental, communal and "ordered."  In this sacramentality, I'd like to further argue, it is also profoundly "public."

Here comes another way of thinking about the same principle, from a different quarter.  In today's "On the Square" entry at the First Things blog, Stuart Koehl suggests, in "An Independent Witness to Marriage," that, to solve the problem of the state increasingly favoring same-sex marriage, the church should stop co-operating with the state as a partner in the process of marriage.  Marriage by the state and marriage by the church would simply be separate things.

Koehl argues that this would free the Church to hold fast to its belief that marriage is to be reserved for heterosexual unions.   It would be free to "witness" to a specific understanding of Catholic marriage that is counter, perhaps in many ways, to the understanding of civil marriage.  It would be free to set its own standards, and -- though he doesn't say this -- it would make sacramental marriage a much more freely (though perhaps even less frequently chosen) sacrament.   All that freedom, what American could object?

Indeed, a version of this argument was floated before, by Paul Griffiths in Commonweal magazine, in 2003 ("Legalize Same-Sex Marriage:  why law and morality can part company" [subscription required]).  Let me quote the from the conclusion to his essay, though the whole elegant argument merits reading (and is well worth a subscription to Commonweal):
"What is this alternative scenario? It is one in which the church’s practice of marriage gets increasingly disentangled from the legal regulation of civil unions by the state. It is very likely that the present deep entanglement of the two has acted as a solvent upon Catholic marriage practices. ... When, as is now the case, civil marriage is acknowledged by the church and sacramental marriage is recognized by the state, it is difficult to see how things could be otherwise. Civil marriage is pagan, and this has increasingly meant that American Catholic marriage practices have become pagan as well.

Progressive disentanglement of the two, to the point, finally and ideally, where they have nothing to do with one another, is what Catholics may-and in my view should-now advocate. ...  There are many advantages to this way of thinking for orthodox Catholics.

First, the picture just sketched might permit the presentation and appropriation of the church’s understanding of marriage with renewed vigor. The distinctiveness and difficulty of this understanding-for it is both distinctive and difficult-would become clearer to Catholics and others if its contrast with the dissolvable-contract model were institutionally evident...

Second, increasing disentanglement might help more Catholics than is now the case to understand and attempt to live by what I’ve called the orthodox view. It might also make the seductive beauty of this view increasingly attractive to non-Catholics. These things are made difficult or impossible by the current union of incompatibles which is the intermingling of Catholic marriage practice with state practice. These results, should they happen, would be real moral and social goods...
 In response to Griffiths, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels writes an essay with a title that says it all:  "From Sex to Sect," concluding thus:  
It is a big church, and we may well diverge on matters involving political prudence and public policy. Good people may be tempted by the sectarian view underlying Griffiths’s proposal, but I do not think it is catholic or Catholic. The Incarnation is one of Catholicism’s essential teachings; indeed, a sacramental understanding of marriage rests upon it (an understanding oddly wanting in Griffiths’s argument). Such an understanding requires an engagement with the world that we live in, not the one we wished we lived in.

The noble idea of Catholic marriage should be lived out by all of us called to that state-lived out in public and private, in political debate and cultural representation. Furthermore, we should see in our fellow Christians, in Jews, Muslims, and Hindus as well as many who call themselves secular, people striving to fulfill “a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of offspring.” This covenant may be difficult to carry out, but it is not rare that many strive to meet its conditions.
Bottom line:  Peggy Steinfels recognizes that Griffiths' understanding of the Church is finally sectarian.  She finds the beauty of the sacrament of marriage is enhanced, not polluted, by its lived practice in a complex and grace-filled world.  She doesn't think that Catholic marriage is damaged by the fact that Hindus are also legally married by the same state system -- and I'm guessing that this would be the start for her analysis of state-administered gay unions as well.

Nevertheless, same-sex marriage poses serious questions for the Catholic faith, and its sanction by the state may push these questions in unhelpful ways, which all three writers recognize.  What Steinfels sees, though, is that these questions cannot  -- and should not -- be distentangled from the fact that these are deeply Catholic questions about the sacramentality of our most intimate stories as part of the public story, in this case, played out in an American key.  And I think our job today is to, somehow, wrestle with "being Catholic" -- on the left and on the right -- without retreating to privatized visions of faith or church.

I'm also guessing that Stuart Koehl and Charles Pierce are not drinking buddies.  But they could be.