A few weeks ago, Dr. Perry Cahall delivered the 2015 Hillenbrand Lecture on his new book The Mystery of Marriage: A Theology of the Body and Sacrament. He covered the complementarity not only of man and woman but of marriage and the consecrated life and the crucial importance of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He said something that has stayed with me and has deepened its significance when read in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling. When asked why he focused on the crisis of marriage when the greater crisis is the shortage of consecrated virgins and celibates (i.e. priests), Dr. Cahall said that consecrated life and celibacy will only flourish when the true nature of marriage is supported. The vocations crisis, in part, is a marriage crisis. But what is the crisis in marriage? Right now it is not simply a crisis in numbers but a crisis in meaning. The meaning of marriage is at stake, and if there is a relationship of complementarity between the two states of life how does changing the meaning of one state of life – which builds on the natural state – effect the meaning of the other? The very notion of changing the nature of marriage, as opposed understanding its true nature, or understanding marriage to be something it is not has huge implications for vocation. In the following, I hope elaborate what I mean and why the meaning of the Christian State of Life is at stake.
While the Church has rightly claimed the recent Supreme Court’s ruling does not change the Church’s understanding of marriage, we cannot deny the cultural influence upon most Catholic’s understanding of marriage. Today’s assertive understanding of marriage, enshrined by the Supreme Court, bombards Catholics almost daily, so it is no wonder why Catholics may think of marriage in the terms set by the culture. Even if one does not support the idea of gay marriage, there is nothing in the popular idea of marriage that inherently resists gay marriage. In fact, gay marriage is fitting. The popular idea of marriage is a “committed”, intimate relationship not grounded in the sexual difference of the spouses and by nature not ordered to the child. Accordingly, most people can only conclude that those who oppose gay marriage are bigots because they are incoherent, causing the defenders of traditional marriage to run through their arguments even more loudly. In such a situation of irreconcilability, one must assume that different notions of truth and rationality are operative; hence, the yelling.
A good analysis as to why this is happening is found in an article by David S. Crawford of the John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America. He looks at the unexamined presuppositions shaping our understanding of marriage, truth, the body, etc. – everything that goes into the debate on marriage, claiming that the public debate has been rigged, favoring a certain understanding of reason and meaning. But what notion of reason are we dealing with?
Crawford says we are dealing with technical or instrumental rationality. He points out that to be free in such a world entails both draining the world of its “inherent meaningfulness” and conquering anything that seemingly sets limits to freedom’s expression. Servais Pinckaers called this “freedom of indifference” as opposed to “freedom for excellence.” If there is nothing objectively within oneself or outside oneself to grow into, then all we are left with is where we currently stand, and any movement in any direction (i.e. good or bad) is the sheer force of will. In such a context, will and desire become ends in themselves. The will is not ordered to reason and the good, hence love is impossible. In Love in Responsibility, Wojtyla says “love is first of all a principle or an idea, which people must live up to…” The current meaninglessness and lack of principles makes love impossible because there is no principles people must live up to. The Good has been abandoned and forgotten.
Such a world picture creates a crisis not only for marriage but also for consecrated life and celibacy. In the Christian State of Life, one discerns the meaning God has for one’s life even through the body. One’s mission is to live up to it, thereby being fruitful within their state of life. Without meaning – which includes the meaning of the body, concretely expressed as male or female – there is no mission and no fruit. The river no longer flows but stagnates and dries up, resulting in massive death. Such an environment is the rocky soil that cannot receive the Word of God in its fullness. As Christians, we should be concerned not just about marriage but vocations in general because the culture implicitly tells us that it is impossible to hear and receive the Word of God (Otherness) and the body has nothing to say about vocation. We are locked in on ourselves. Such an anthropology makes gift impossible, the condition of the vow. And since the Christian State of Life depends on the self-gift expressed in the vow (i.e. the concrete form of love), a culture that places marriage solely in the act of the will and says that meaning is up to the individual to decide, irrespective of anything else, is a culture of death. Such a culture will not support vocations but collapse in the sorry state of “men without chests.”
Beyond problems with the Court’s presupposed notion of freedom, there is an anthropological problem. Dr. Crawford says that the Court assumes an anthropology of orientation (in other places he calls it an “androgynous anthropology”). An anthropology that views the person as intimately linked to his/her body and its meaning, expressed in the male/female polarity, has been replaced by a conception of the person as “no longer grounded in either masculinity or femininity as naturally and personally ordained to each other as expressed by the body.” The body is now sub-personal. Against this mechanistic view of the body, a Christian can say that he/she is his/her body. This is not to say that the “I” is reduced to the parts of a machine. But it does mean that the body is not accidental to the person. The body reveals the person.
Pertinent to this issue, Crawford says:
“The problem with this developing anthropology, and its codification in law, is that it is impoverished as a human form . The identity of the person is no longer grounded in his masculinity or her femininity understood as a personal-somatic ordination of love; it is, rather, grounded in his or her “orientation” and thereby removed from the body as an expression of the person. Hence, the extinction of the sexual difference is also an extinction of the personal-somatic ordination of man and woman. Rather, if “orientations” really are conceived as equivalent and parallel, if the difference of the sexes has been lost to an underlying androgynous sameness, then the unavoidable fact of the sexually differentiated body has been reduced in its significance to being merely the biological and material conditions and circumstances of sexual acts of whatever kind.”
Androgynous anthropology assumes that the body does not reveal the person with masculinity or femininity. If this anthropology is assumed as normative, what are we to make of the Church’s reservation of the ministerial priesthood to men? When Christ “chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry” (CCC 1577) are we to say that Christ was assuming the wrong anthropology? In a culture, and now a legal tradition, that assumes such an anthropology, such a reservation is seen as discrimination. In such a situation, people will force the Church to “develop” its teaching so as to accord with its anthropology. But the Church cannot because, as Sara Bulter says, “the ministry is a gift which the Lord ‘entrusted to the Apostles’ and which she is bound to preserve.” By losing the understanding of marriage based in sexual complementarity we have lost our understanding of the priesthood which is based in the nuptial symbolism of the priest who acts in the person of the Bridegroom (male) with respect to the Bride-Church (female). This is huge, and the Church should take the consequences of androgynous anthropology seriously.
Even though we cannot separate ourselves from the culture, we must do our best to transform it from within with the confidence that the Logos concretely revealed in Jesus of Nazareth (a man), who accomplished the great act of love for us, has transformed all death into life.