|Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well|
by R. R. Reno
FIRST THINGS, November, 2013
A friend confides to me that he’s having an adulterous affair. I sigh inwardly over our sin-saturated condition as I remind him that the Ten Commandments are pretty clear about adultery. I counsel, but perhaps too sympathetically. I exhort, though often too gently. And even though he responds with self-justifying sophistries, it doesn’t affect our friendship very much. We go on as before, though maybe with a little more distance between us.
I have to a certain extent soft-pedaled moral truth because I’m weak and want to get along. Swimming against the current is exhausting and can be lonely. I reassure myself that at least I haven’t really condoned his transgression, haven’t affirmed as right that which is wrong. It’s an easy, thin, cowardly consolation, yes, but it’s also a crucial line of defense against the debilitating interior corruption of willingly and self-consciously betraying the truth.
Most of us who dissent from the sexual revolution do something similar, not just with friends but with society as a whole. We go to work, socialize, and share public space with many people who reject the moral law’s authority over their lives, people who regard abortion as a fundamental right or who think sexual liberation an imperative. We do so in large part with civility and an appreciation for their good qualities. We accommodate ourselves to the moral realities of our time but don’t condone them. We do this because we can look away, not fixing on what is wrong because we are not forced to do so.
We can’t so easily accommodate when circumstances force the issue. If my married friend were to insist on bringing his mistress to a dinner party, I’d be under tremendous social pressure to smile, shake her hand, and make her welcome, all of which would erode my defense against betraying the moral truth. I’ve done just that, or something similar. They are painful occasions. I feel myself bearing false witness, all but affirming out loud what I know to be wrong. As I struggle for moral survival, I try to reserve some moral space, deep within the privacy of my consciousness, where I’m saying “no” even as I’m socially saying “yes.”
In this and moments like it, I find myself wishing I prized politeness less and had the interior freedom to kick out my friend and his mistress—or in some way to give the moral truth that has been jammed into a far corner of my conscience some purchase on reality, some public expression. For a purely internal commitment, a moral conviction that never emerges out in the open when confronted by its negation, can easily, perhaps inevitably, become spectral, inconsequential, and eventually lifeless.
Same-sex marriage forces the issue, which is why it has been and will continue to be a point of conflict in our culture wars. Marriage is a fundamental social institution that by its nature seeks to be visible and demands public acknowledgment. We invite guests, register with the state, and wear gold wedding bands that announce to the world our married status. It’s this public reality, this claim to social recognition—not some desire to “impose our morals” on others or “homophobic” bigotry—that makes the redefinition of marriage so indigestible for anyone committed to the moral truth of the matter.
The pews are full of sinners, and as a hospital for souls the Church is set up to minister to us, even in our tedious, enduring vices, even in our twisted impenitence. A priest can say contraception is wrong while communing parishioners who use contraception and do so without contradicting himself or betraying the Church’s moral witness. He can do so because they’re not making a public statement. On this moral issue, along with many others, he may well know that some transgress—it has always been so—but for the most part, transgression remains fugitive and not public. It doesn’t openly contradict his message. Thus has the Church navigated the sexual revolution.
As an institution, marriage is ordered toward public recognition, which makes its redefinition something different and more threatening than the general attitude of license. As gay-rights advocates have recognized, same-sex marriage is a very large placard, a clear, frank public statement that broadcasts their cause: What we do in the bedroom must be affirmed, not condemned. This public character is why a priest can’t say that God intends marriage to be between a man and a woman and welcome the married gay couple onto the parish school board. Their marriage announces, in a very public way, the exact opposite of what he teaches.
Until now, the sexual revolution achieved its political goals by way of a supposed right to privacy, a legal artifice that says, in effect, that we are free to do as we please behind closed doors—use contraception, engage in sodomy, and so forth. The imperative of “marriage equality” is very different, because marriage is the very opposite of private. It will require us to affirm same-sex couples as couples, pairs that rightfully and without any shame or legal disability do what married couples do: have sex, form households, have and raise children.
Thus the difficulty of tactical retreat and accommodation on the question of marriage. The public reality of same-sex marriage disrupts our usual modes of getting along in a society where what we know to be wrong is widely practiced. When Jim introduces me to his husband, I can entertain no palliating illusions. My moral convictions are exposed; the issue is forced. Will I respond in the usual ways of polite social relations, knowing that doing so is one form of affirming? To give ground in these circumstances—to act as though everything is normal and fine—bears a false witness, and over time becomes equivalent to denying the moral truth of the matter.