Thursday, 15 October 2009

A small sign of hope

This blog has often bemoaned the decline of liberal, engaged Catholicism - and its replacement by a strident, reactionary anti-modernism - so it gladdens the heart to come across signs that all may not be lost. This pro-gay marriage ad from Maine features the Catholic mother of a gay man. Key quote: "I've been a Catholic all my life. My faith means a lot to me. Marriage to me is a great institution that works, and it's what I want for my children, too."

Predictably, conservative Catholics are outraged and, in a move that demonstrates their utter lack of understanding of contemporary, pluralist democracy, have demanded that the ad be removed from the airwaves and from Youtube.


Martin Meenagh said...

Marriage in the proper sense, and not the secularised version, is a sacrament, not a utiltarian institution. However, I'd suggest that people shouting loudly and acting militantly have more to do with how to get attention in America's plural culture than the church per se. There is a long tradition in that republic of creating comnmunity 'wiggle room' with fighting bishops, and not all of it is particularly savoury, especially when it devolved into cover-ups that should never have happened in the late twentieth century. I've blogged about that before.

I'm not sure that a Liberal Catholicism is possible, Martin. The logical structure is clear; people are fallen but the church should identify what is good and hold people to it.

When they fall, as they will, they may have advanced a little further, and will know the way. A compromise between that model of truth and quotidien reality is not possible, and is akin to the Marxist idea of 'false consciousness'.

Martin Meenagh said...

Sorry for multiple posts--there were other things I wanted to write.

Nor, I think, will the church accept that a man or woman's moral identity can be hung on an adjectival practice, even if bigots want to and others adopt the name of their persecution as a badge of proud identity. Pride, after all, is a sin, though not one Americans have ever quite 'got', especially these days.

I would like to think that the position the church takes--and I am barely qualified to judge--is because sex ultimately makes fools of all of us, and is something that links intimately to the way we view others. I note that it is a mortal sin to hate gay people, and that some in the church have worked themselves up over one class of sinners over others. I think that they are wrong.

A catholic mind, though, won't compromise on what is true, just on whether it is too much for people to bear, and it is right to be honest about that. One thing that did go wrong in the past was that, under the perfectly laudable aim of leading people away from what they saw as error through ecumenical structures and social effort, catholics politicised catholicism as though it were some electable quality.

Some also adopted misleading tergiversations or silence rather than just saying what the faith was, to please or seduce people. Again, I think that is wrong.

The over-reaching imperative to love and to be charitable does not make deluding oneself right, and people deserve honesty. You do, my friend, which is why I am writing as I do.

I would also note that the church means it when it mentions 'sacraments', at least to many within it; to view secular versions thereof as just 'useful or utilitarian' as the people in the video do is fine, but not Liberal and materialist, not catholic.

I think what you mourn is maybe what a part of me mourns too--the way it is impossible amongst community-minded people of goodwill to get over the things that grew from the wreck of the left, and the change in the global economy, after 1968 and to work together in a disciplined, rich society.

Cultural conservatism and well-stocked minds that think, rather than which cleave to a modern form of doctrine that hasn't been matured seem to be pushed 'rightward' automatically, but what's there except the market liberalism that despises true faith? I know people of goodwill on all sides, and the telling thing is that all feel alienated.

I think that is also why populism is so cheap on the right these days too--people aren't strong enough, haven't experienced the reality of loss and the edge of real struggle in places like America in the ways others once did. Or, at least, the ones on all sides who shout and assert their rights haven't. Plenty, of course, have.

Why was it, though, that Mike Huckabee could be anti-bank, pro-society, pro-charity, and pro-community last year, and yet was an outsider in either party? Why is a Labour Party invented by municipal irish catholics and methodists in the towns now a sort of market narcissist cult? Why is it that people don't get why a woman celebrating her freedom from abuse in multiple abortions, on the covers of the papers the other day, was not a morally neutral figure but a maimed one, mostly by men? How is it that sex can be an identity to people of goodwill? It is for bullies--but for men and women in full? How is it that children, and the privilege of life and education can be rights?
What are they, things that arise from enclosure?

Something has changed.

In the middle of that, the logic of the church is reasserting itself, and it won't really compromise too much. Times are going to get much harder soon, and my worry would be that if it were too leftward to start with, the reaction would poison it as it may do to what's left of English and American society as things get tougher.

Please accept in writing this my genuine good faith in your good will, and my fondness for your blog.

Martin said...

Martin -

Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I really appreciate your willingness to take part in serious dialogue with people whose views are in many ways so different from your own. That, in itself, is another of the signs of hope that I was celebrating in this post.

It would be good to have a longer online conversation about the issues you raise, when there's more time, etc. In the meantime, a couple of brief (?) responses...

On the marriage question. As I've written before, I can't see why some conservative Christians get worked up about the liberal republic sanctioning same sex partnerships - even if the church doesn't wish to do so itself. A healthy separation of church and state should allow the state to recognise a variety of forms of partnership, if that's what the democratic will dictates, without it threatening the sacramental nature of Christian, church-adminstered marriage. Christians of this stripe should give up trying to make the institutions of the pluralist modern republic reflect the dictates of their particular religion, and focus on making Christian sacramental marriage an example that others will want to follow.

At the same time, we all know that the idea of marriage as a sacrament is a comparatively late historical development. If the church functioned happily without the sacrament of marriage for (what was it?) 1,000 years, then doesn't that suggest the institution of marriage might be mutable, adaptable, able to change to reflect changing (and I would argue more generous) notions of human sexuality?

As for the broader question of Catholicism and Liberalism. I did hesitate before using the words 'Liberal Catholic' - it's not quite what I meant. I was mourning the decline of the kind of thoughtful, open, engaged Catholicism that first attracted me in the late 70s...a Catholicism, mostly coming out of Vatican 2, that regarded modernity not as a threat (as it had 50 years before) but as a partner with which to hold a dialogue - a dialogue in which both sides could admit mistakes, learn from each other. Of course, you could argue that 'modernity' has changed since then, and is now more hostile to religion - but is it, really? Shouldn't the church be open to the insights of those fighting for the rights of women, gay people, and for human rights such as freedom of expression and religion - just as it was open in the 60s and 70s to the civil rights movements, the struggle for development in the Third World, etc...rather than writing off the 'secular' world as the enemy and turning its back on what's good about modernity? As I've written on the blog before, such militant anti-secularism and anti-modernism (of the kind that I find in the utterances of the present pope, the last Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, and many others) seems to be to stem from feelings of defensiveness and reflects weakness rather than strength.

Yours, in the hope of further dialogue
The Other Martin

Martin Meenagh said...

I am posting from work, and seem to have committed the cardinal sin of using another person's account unknowingly. For an element of true comedy, I would point out that the last comment marked 'jennifer' was from me. That made me laugh, anyway--you see, God does have a sense of humour!

Martin Meenagh said...

On point one, I agree with you for a variety of reasons. A state should follow what is right; but such are people, and human institutions, what we think should happen, even if it is logical, is flawed. It may be wrong.

So certainty can only subsist in our lack of ultimate and objective agreement; so state structures, with the potential violence or repression they entail should proceed on the basis that we should argue, and debate, and seek to establish what should be done, but compromise on not forcing that which is not a mortal threat.

Moreover, the rule in a liberal republic, which most would accept benefits all, is that matters of belief and of sexuality are best left unlegislated, unless they involve the abuse of power.

There's an argument against sado-masochism, for instance, in that it might insulate and breed aggression and that there are some things people really shouldn't consent to for their own and our good, which is also the argument against euthanasia, which is different from the argument from universal morality.

Frankly, if a state accepts civil unions between citizens it should allow them for all citizens. I think that the family is a basis of society and I think the best family is a mother and father and children and cousins and is composed of different generations, but to say that the best should be the enemy of the good would be naive.

A state can call a registry wedding a marriage and it can call a property arrangement a family--we can agree on that. I however would disagree about the meaning of the words, and should be allowed to do so. So should you.

Children are not assets and no-one has a right to them, or to the construction of identities which must be given weight just because they are invested with emotional weight by the people who claim them. So no-one has a 'right to a family', just because others have them. Would I rather have adoptions than abortions? Of course? Should anyone who wants to adopt do so? No. It's a privilege, not a right. They should be decided on the basis of people's behaviour.

How can a state make these choices better than a private group?

I'd also acknowledge that granting adoptions on the basis of behaviour rather than identity works against me. If I wanted to stop two well-balanced people from adoting rather than two awful people of different sexes, would I be more or less wrong than if I didn't?

Lurking behind all of this are the limits of rights and narcissism which America has reached before the rest of us. Our states are machines and technology as much as our material things are, we forget. They are at the moment so good at producing food and defence that we don't connect systemic failures like crime, and narcissism, and overconsumption, and intolerance, with the software elaborations that stemmed, like any cancer, from too great an extension of a chain of thought.

Just like this. Why can't people stop being shouty and self righteous, and recognise that secularism has its strengths if you truly believe in your views?

Perhaps I am ultimately too catholic, in that I tend to think of hypocrisy as a civilised vice and almost a virtue. Flawed people need to reach better things and not justify their own folly. That involves agreeing where possible and understanding that you might be the one at fault. Can secularists and my coreligionists learn that?

You don't have to accord me respect because I am a catholic, I don't have to accord people respect because they buy into an identity built around doing sexual things; we should give each other respect as men and citizens.

On a different note, I deeply admire Pope Benedict, and his mind. Anti-modernism is justifiable if you live in a modern society in headlong moral collapse which has deliberately forgotten or misled itself about its history, tradition, or bearnings. freedom in the sixties did not involve giving up on society and doing whatever you wanted--Martin King was a Preacher who believed in the law and providence, after all. How far would he get, these days?