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No, the Church does not regard ‘same-sex marriage’ and divorce as simply variations on the distressing theme of marriage woes

April 11, 2013

Update, 15 April 2013: Michael Sean Winters replies to my post below. There’s not much follow-up needed, but scroll down to see it.

Original post:

In commenting on Catholics, holy Communion, and “gay marriage”, Michael Sean Winters is uncharacteristically mean-spirited in his remarks about me (I have, in fact, published many sound replies over the years to his complaints about how I explain canon law), but let’s keep this post on topic and go after the substance of just a few of Winters’ most recent misstatements in this area. Unraveling errors takes time, so bear with me.

Winters complains: “How many times do I have to point this out—the principal threat to our Catholic teaching about traditional marriage is not gay marriage. The principal threat is divorce. Gay men and women constitute maybe five percent of the population. Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce.

Well, okay, How many times do I have to point this out—the differences between “same-sex marriage” and “divorce” are categorical in nature not pragmatic and they turn on matters of principle not prudence. Let’s explain.

Re “same-sex marriage”.

There is no precedent whatsoever for “same-sex marriage” in the Catholic tradition and there is no possibility that such a recognition can ever develop. Frankly, the only question in this area is whether the denial of these assertions is technically “heresy” (cc. 750 § 1, 751, and 1364 § 1) or is only “opposition to the doctrine of the Catholic Church” (cc. 750 § 2, 1371, 1º), a question that goes beyond what I can treat here.

Contrast divorce.

Preliminarily, when Winters says divorce, I assume he means divorce, and not divorce-and-remarriage. The Church’s approach to “divorce” and her approach to “divorce-and-remarriage” differ markedly. Because Winters is talking about divorce, so must we.

There are millions of “divorced” people in the world who are divorced through no fault of their own; their status is imposed on them. But, there are no people in a “same-sex marriage” who did not choose to be there; their status is willed. Now, anytime the difference between two states is measured in millions-to-zero, and is imposed vs. willed, one suspects that the differences between the two states turn on something besides percentages.

Indeed it does here, for the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which rejects divorce as the term is used in ¶ 2382 and 2384) permits divorce (not divorce-and-remarriage) in ¶ 2383 in certain cases (to protect legal rights, to care for children, or—huh?—to protect an inheritance). So, the question for Winters is simple: can he point to a single shred of magisterial Church teaching that permits “same-sex marriage” under any conditions whatsoever? Of course he cannot, and as he cannot, he should not be describing divorce and “same-sex marriage” as threats to marriage whose only difference lies in the number of people involved. That is disingenuous.  Would one really argue that malnutrition is a greater threat to human dignity than is murder, because many more people are malnourished than are murdered? I think the truth is better served by recognizing the categorical differences between the two distressing situations and approaching them differently.

Winters manages to lob several more confusion bombs into the paragraph I have cited from above but it would be tedious to parse them all. For example, yes, “the Church teaches that marriage is forever”, but she also teaches (with Jesus I might add) that not everything that looks like a marriage is a marriage and (with St. Paul) that even some things that are marriages can be dissolved for other things that are marriages—but these points require more background than Winters acknowledges or than I can offer here. Likewise, the Catholic moral tradition on legislative responsibility and the duties of lawyers and judges working under flawed legal systems has long dealt with problems that Winters seems to think are unique to our age, but, again, explaining that tradition makes demands on readers that do not suit a blog post.

So I close by hoping that the above suffices at least to show the flaws in Winters’ attempt to paint the serious pastoral problems that divorce represents in society as a greater threat to marriage than are the grave principle problems raised by legislating for “same-sex marriage”.

Update, 15 April 2013: Yes, I saw Michael Sean Winters’ reply to my post above. There’s not much follow-up needed.

MSW concedes “So far as the canon law of the Church goes, Peters is undoubtedly correct.” As my main goal is to accurately explain the law of the Church to those who want-to/need-to know what it is in times when such knowledge seems in very short supply, MSW and I seem to be in agreement. What people will do with a better knowledge of the law is, of course, up to them; my focus is on helping them to know what it is.

So, the rest of MSW’s post seems basically about what he thinks people’s attitude to law ought to be. I fear he’s frequently wrong, but it’s not my responsibility to address every error about law made out there—I can only get to the ones I can reasonably get to, offer a quick prayer for those mislead by the others, and go on to the next project. MSW speculates several times about my motives for my views (amateur psychoanalysis being much in vogue these days, though it’s just a new form of ad hominem argumentation); well, I can only say, I try to avoid guessing at MSW’s motives for his views and would further suggest that public admonitions to an intellectual adversary and his confessor are quite inappropriate. Finally, as for MSW’s invocation of Eastern Orthodoxy’s practice of admitting to holy Communion persons in marriages-after-divorce, I’m tempted to argue that such practices among those not enjoying the fullness of Communion with the Catholic Church set no precedent for the Catholic admission to holy Communion, and certainly not a precedent for those in “same-sex marriages”—but then I’d risk sounding like a lawyer again, no?

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