There’s a post by Michael Austin over at By Common Consent on the subject of same-sex marriage, the thesis of which is the heterodox but increasingly fashionable idea that the church should not discipline members who have legally married someone of the same sex.
I’ll briefly disagree before getting to the deeper issue. Michael argues that this change would not require any alteration in theology, and maybe not in fundamental doctrine either. The “line” of Latter-day Saint sexual ethics, he says, is drawn, or at least has historically often been drawn, by the phrase “legally and lawfully wedded”. Thus, a change in secular law (US law?) is a change in Mormon religious teaching. But while the phrase he refers to is part of our body of revelation, so are hundreds of instances where prophets and apostles have gone to the trouble of teaching explicitly that marriage is between a man and a woman and, of course, that sexual contact is only permissible within marriage. Let’s take them at their word, if only out of respect for their time.
The question then is whether the venerable doctrine is incorrect; or alternatively, whether an exception to church disciplinary policy should be made for people who have legally committed to repeatedly violate the doctrine. (I don’t mean to be flippant; just plain.)
Michael is right on one point: to Latter-day Saints who embrace the church’s doctrine of sexuality, the answer to the question above is easy, and hardly needs to be stated. This is also true of the opposite answer for members who don’t embrace the doctrine. As a result, we necessarily talk past each other when discussing whether discipline is appropriate for those within a civil same-sex marriage. To those with the traditional view, utilitarian reasoning is out of place in the face of fundamental doctrine to the contrary. To the more postmodern types, the concerns of dogma are irrelevant when dogma is causing real suffering. Incompatible non-negotiables are rarely productively debated.
Sex as a linchpin
And maybe that’s the bigger problem—and this is what I’m really interested in: the existence of deep philosophical differences amongst church members on the issue of sexuality. It wouldn’t be a unique phenomenon. Disagreement over same-sex marriage led to schism for American Lutherans, and ordination of openly gay priests led to widespread abandonment of the Episcopal Church in the early 2000s. In 1998, United Methodist pastor William J. Abraham expressed concern that the unbridgeable doctrinal chasm on homosexuality between conservatives and liberals in the United Methodist Church would lead to schism, and recent events have begun to validate his fear. The question of homosexuality is, historically speaking, a church-breaker. Why? Is sexuality really that important?
Well, it might be. Rod Dreher thinks so, naming sex the “linchpin” of the Christian cultural order. The general idea is that no sex-related issue is isolated. Someone who accepts that marriage (or the marital act) can be understood without reference to concepts of “man” or “woman”, to the point of believing church policy should be changed accordingly, has already accepted an alternative philosophy of sexuality and marriage—and perhaps of humanity—that entails a number of other alternative ideas. Accordingly, I’m fairly confident that church members divided by Michael’s proposition will also find themselves divided by their answers to the questions below:
- Can a relationship between people of the same sex coherently be called a marriage? Can it be called a marriage without discarding the teleological properties of marriage?
- Is the function of the marriage institution to place a structure around procreative sexuality? Alternatively, is its function to formalize or dignify a person’s identity (sexual orientation)?
- Are “mothering” and “fathering” distinct phenomena? As a corollary, is a child deprived of anything by not having a father, or by not having a mother (or is the presence of exactly two adults what counts)?
- If husbands are interchangeable with wives and mothers with fathers, are men more generally interchangeable with women? What is the meaning or purpose of a person’s sex?
- Does a husband preside over his family?
- Is surrogacy acceptable? Specifically, is it acceptable to arrange the sale of an egg or sperm, or to rent a uterus, in order to create a child for someone other than the biological parents?
- Similarly, does a child deserve to be raised by his or her biological parents wherever possible, or not?
- Do humans have a calling to procreate, or is it a matter of preference?
My purpose at the moment isn’t to defend the orthodox answers to these questions—rather, I’m pointing out that they are questions of eternal significance to which two classes of Mormons, identifiable by their stance on discipline for civil homogamous marriage, now have different answers. There are other questions which highlight not just the difference between the two sides, but the philosophical problems with the one:
- What is the link in principle between romantic love and raising children, if not the biological reality of procreation? (Applied practically, why prevent mother-daughter pairs raising the daughter’s children—the most common adult same-sex household in the US—from “marrying”?)
- What about two people in the context of marriage is meaningful, if not the one-man-one-woman biological reality of procreation?
- The procreative character of marriage gives us secular justifications for premarital virginity, sexual exclusivity and permanence in marriage. If marriage can be understood in principle apart from procreation, and if it is “about intimacy, closeness, tenderness, mutual support, and the transformative power of loving somebody else”, as Michael suggests, do we have any reasons besides traditional doctrine for keeping these norms? (And if not, how long before bloggers advise changing them?)
Finally, I think it’s worth illustrating the philosophical differences I’ve mentioned, as well an error on the one side, by making reference to a few passages from Michael’s essay.
The only two options now available for gay people who want to remain part of the LDS Church are 1) a commitment to lifelong celibacy; or 2) a mixed-orientation marriage.
To those who believe the Latter-day Saint vision of marriage, there are two options for everyone: celibacy and marriage. Heterosexual, asexual, polyamorous and gay members make the same choice. The deep philosophical difference (no one denies the practical difficulty) is whether the function of marriage is to formalize orientation, or not.
Committed, long-term, monogamous relationships are about intimacy, closeness, tenderness, mutual support, and the transformative power of loving somebody else on the same terms that one loves oneself.
Marriage is classically seen as ordered toward procreation, where man and woman are actually made “one flesh” through the marital act, which in turn fulfills romance in the deepest sense. Michael’s is the alternative philosophical view that marriage is ordered toward romance itself (a view that very quickly makes itself incoherent).
Committed monogamy is a good thing, and its goodness does not depend on its configuration of genders. … some kinds of relationships are spiritually superior to others—independent of the sexual orientation of the partners.
Unfortunately, the argument defeats itself here. Hundreds of thousands of real people consider themselves non-monogamous by orientation. In the sense Michael is attempting to use the word “orientation”, monogamy cannot be independent of it. The argument is analogous to an argument that sexually complementary relationships are superior to others, regardless of orientation.
If there are deep philosophical differences underlying the various policy disagreements of vocal Mormons, how does it all end? When William J. Abraham addressed a similar question in his letter to United Methodism in 1998, he concluded pessimistically:
However this important conversation continues, and it surely will continue, it must be informed by the very real possibility that the Liberal Protestant project exemplified by United Methodism was flawed from the start. Perhaps the very idea of theological pluralism was bound to self-destruct in time. These are the ominous questions now engaged.
I’m not as pessimistic about the Latter-day Saints as Pastor Abraham was about the Methodists. The Lord’s church will continue teaching and practicing the truth, and it will not ultimately surrender to the cultural forces pressing against it. However, as with the Methodists, our conversation “surely will continue” in the presence of the possibility that our differences are irreconcilable. If in fact they are, then it remains for all of us to choose a side.