Thursday, March 12, 2009

The costs of engineering "gay marriage": silencing critics?

This letter from Sean Murphy of the Catholic Civil Rights League in today's Vancouver Sun has me thinking a little about social engineering: Social engineering spawns long-term consequences

The letter is responding to yesterday's opinion piece by the naive Leonard Stern who argued
With almost four years having passed since we resolved the same-sex marriage question, it's hard to remember there was controversy in the first place.

The debate wrapped up without drama. Parliament passed the Civil Marriage Act on June 28, 2005, Canadians said okay, and the country went back to its business.

It's amusing, in a been-there-done-that sort of way, to see our American neighbours in the throes of internecine battle. A number of states have passed divisive declarations banning gay marriage. For all his supposed liberalism, even Barack Obama is conflicted about gay marriage. Many Americans seem to feel that gay marriage is a radical and dangerous proposition.

The Canadian experience shows that those anxieties are misplaced. Our social fabric hasn't unravelled...
I call this naive for the idea that the social consequences of gay marriage can somehow be known in a mere four years. But what about the Catholic, Murphy's claims regarding social engineering?
Leonard Stern appears to lead a sheltered life. His smug and condescending reflections about "the Canadian experience" are superficial and highly selective.

He overlooks attacks on freedom of expression, like efforts by the Alberta human rights inquisition to punish and silence a Christian pastor. He trivializes the head tax levied on the Knights of Columbus by its B.C. counterpart as the cost of exercising religious freedom. He ignores the fact that B.C. teachers opposed to the "new order" dare not speak publicly, lest they be suspended, fined or (like Chris Kempling) driven out of the state school system. He fails to notice the Corren Agreement, a private contract between the B.C. government and two homosexual activists to suppress parental authority in education.

Man inhabits a moral environment that is every bit as complex as the physical environment, and just as susceptible to significant damage as a result of ill-considered human activity. Four years is hardly sufficient to evaluate the long-term consequences of an unprecedented experiment in social engineering. But even four years is enough to recognize that the interests of a free people are not served by repressive measures hitherto characteristic of totalitarian regimes.
After living through or remembering the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century, for most people today I think our first assumption when hearing the term "social engineering" is that it is bad, for it leads to horror stories like that of artist Maureen Mullarkey who writes of having been the target of a homosexual hate campaign, aiming to ruin her career and shut her up, merely because at one point in her career she represented gay culture in her art and then recently had the temerity to donate money to the side opposing gay marriage in California's bitterly-fought referendum on the issue. To some, that's the ultimate in homophobic hypocrisy, and reason for a frenzy of character assassination.

But, I might ask, can the Catholic and the Gay activist not see any common ground, despite their differences? Don't they see that, in the longer historical perspective, both the Catholic family and the nascent gay family are the fruit of the same Western tradition and while it is a tradition that has evolved, it has not been without its social engineering. "Gay marriage", whatever the many varieties of sexual partnership in the human past, would be something unimaginable in any traditional society where marriage is fundamentally a question of how the production of children, and their place in the social order, is to be recognized, organized, and licensed.

What's more, the nuclear family that is one of the distinctive features of Western civilization is the product of the church's long war to substitute the extended family, clan, and tribe, with a new kind of symbolic family in the church. By outlawing things like cousin marriage, by making priests officially celibate (i.e. without recognizable heirs), by promoting the idea that the church was a corporate family with a claim on inheriting personal or family wealth, the strength of the extended family of traditional society was over time diminished in favour of the nuclear family. And, as the resources or insularity of the clan were diminished, the nuclear family's dependence on interacting in all kinds of ways with other nuclear families to build a social safety net along with a productive economy grew. The nuclear family is weak and thus pressured to create the kind of free individuals who can interact with other free individuals in taking care of the weak family in interaction with the larger "family" once conceived in terms of the church and then in terms of the nation. Western society is built around a culture of mutual trust in strangers, as free individuals consecrated, during much of our history, by sharing in communion in the life, death, and rebirth of Jesus. And ultimately it is the Western idea of a sacred personhood that makes gay marriage possible. Homosexuality is surely common throughout human history, but homosexual marriage would be and is something inconceivable in the minds of those rooted in traditional societies. In other words, gay marriage requires the kind of secular culture that is specifically a secularized form of Christianity, a secularized form of the Christian eucharist that makes each individual into a divine, free, person. That many a Western homosexual conceives of his or her gay family in opposition to the church is only a sign of the two "families'" close historical connection, of their rivalry for common ground. As we never tire of noting, many Western homosexuals are much more anti-Christian, in general, than they are, say, anti-Islam even though the latter faith constitutes a culture arguably much less tolerant of gay rights.

Since the Christian nuclear family is the product of a long history of what one might call "social engineering", one wonders what it means for the Catholic to now attack the social engineering or thought control that is part of the movement for same sex marriages today. What, in other words, allows one to speak negatively of certain social engineering while accepting the fruits of other engineering as the proven results of a successful "evolution"?

While I think it's clear that the Western nuclear family has proven a historical success, at least up until now (when its inherent fragility is exposed in a society that no longer reproduces its numbers from generation to generation) how do we know that "gay marriage" is not the social engineering equivalent of, say, the hippie commune, or perhaps something yet more dangerous? Will homosexual partnerships lead to families somehow reproducing themselves with children and raising these to be the kind of individuals who can succeed in a free society premised on the mutual interaction of strangers? Or will homosexual marriage prove itself an attractive, socially acceptable alternative to the hard work of the nuclear family's child rearing? Will gay marriage lead to people making valuable contributions to our society that outweigh any effects of developing an attractive alternative to the child-rearing family? In other words, might gay families become some rough equivalent of the celibate priesthoods of old?

At this point in time, we all have our own intuitions and desires in respect to such questions, but the lessons from the laboratory of history are far from known; these will take decades and quite possibly centuries to become widely recognized. I have my own prejudices but of one thing I'm sure enough to state boldly: "social engineering" can only work to the extent it is grounded in a true revelation into human nature. And consequently it is incumbent on those on both sides of this issue to be open to free debate that we may reveal our unfolding human reality to each other. Those who would silence opposition to gay marriage are simply giving us reason to doubt the long-term viability of gay marriage. Those who would outlaw gay marriage are trying to cancel an experiment, but on what rational forecast of the potential risks? Only a serious engagement in elucidating our shared reality can help us answer these questions.

To my mind, both Catholic families and gay families are today products of the Christian revelation into the nature of the person and his or her relationship to the means by which human societies generate themselves through sacrificial (and anti-sacrificial) processes. The manifold truths and revelations of the Judeo-Christian tradition cannot be discussed in this post, truths I believe can be largely demonstrated in purely anthropological and historical terms, while bracketing the question of God's existence (a question that, in today's lame debates over atheism, tends to sidetrack many from recognizing the larger anthropological issues at stake - why do we have a God concept in the first place?).

What those defending gay marriage need to do is show, in the years to come, either how the same-sex marriage is a way of extending and renewing the productive tradition of Judeo-Christian revelation into the possibilities of a free, individualized, personhood and its ability to work with millions of strangers and other nuclear families in insuring the continuing strength and fertility (i.e. faith in the future) of Western societies, or how the idea of gay marriage is rooted in some fundamentally new revelation that will allow for the kind of success in "social engineering" that the Christian nuclear family, in opposition to the extended clan, has had. On the latter possibility, I, for one, see yet no evidence of any great new revelation into our common humanity propelling the calls for gay marriage, and so I fear that the purely anti-Judeo-Christian stream of "gay" thought will not lead to success and will maybe only revisit the kind of failed, totalitarian, social engineering that characterized, for example, the Nazi and Communist movements.

One either interacts with other free individuals and families in ways that build covenants for the future growth and security of our shared society, or one indulges in destructive fantasies premised on some kind of narcissistic detachment from a larger social purpose. In overcoming the traditional society and clan, we have learned the dangers of imposing any settled understanding of life's purpose on the free individual (we can all benefit from his or her freedom to further our understanding of our shared reality and its possibilities, not least when this freedom leads to failure, and especially when failure can be freely admitted); but we should not give up the idea that our lives have a purpose beyond ourselves, one that is rooted in a shared human reality. Let Catholic brothers and gay sisters fight an honest fight, frank, honest, but sportsmanlike, to discover and further articulate the shared human truth behind our differences. Shutting people up is for losers.

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