Sunday, December 1, 2013

Marriage and social change

As progressive causes – like feminism and gay rights – progress, the victories often become less significant.

Why, for example, would a woman want to be a priest or a bishop? Why would anyone want to be a priest or a bishop?

Well, to be serious, I do understand why devout Catholics or Episcopalians (whether they be men or women and whatever their sexual orientation) might aspire to leadership roles within their respective churches, but the question of who gets to be priests etc. is (or should be) of concern only to the members of the churches involved. And, of course, that membership base is much depleted – and shrinking.

The issue of same-sex marriage, however, is both more complicated and more significant. You could ask similar questions to the questions I asked above, but the parallel with ordination breaks down. It's readily understandable and widely understood that – and why – (many) couples want to wed. The cynical take on marriage [cue Eddie Cantor routine (see below)] is – as it always was – a minority position.

However, I think it's fair to say that a personal or theoretical lack of commitment to the institution of marriage in general does not necessarily entail either sexism or cynicism. But I'll save my arguments on this for another day and make do with an anecdote.

A lawyer who lived with and had children with and eventually married (a non-event in the scheme of things) a favorite cousin of mine used to say to her, "Let's not bring the law into our relationship." (He also used to say, "The law is an ass." But I won't go there...)

Clearly, she wanted more security. And he had been through a very messy (and I suspect expensive) divorce as a younger man. Anyway, they stayed together, if you want to know, even after my cousin was struck down with a terrible illness. Faithfulness (or the lack of it) is what defines a relationship in the end.

The only other comment I want to make on this issue is that allowing same-sex couples to marry (which I am not arguing against) does change the meaning of the institution of marriage. This is an obvious fact which some advocates of reform don't seem to acknowledge. Exactly how it changes it is difficult to define precisely. But, clearly, it would make the institution less appealing to those with conservative views.

It is quite possible that many non-religious conservatives who might under the old system have quite liked the idea of marrying their girlfriend (I can only really speak from a male point of view here) may henceforth be put off the idea because marriage no longer sends the same (mildly socially conservative) signal it once did.

Some may detect homophobia in this general line of thought – along the lines that gays and lesbians have somehow contaminated the institution. But this would be stretching the concept of homophobia much too far and distorting some relatively simple semantic and social truths.

In fact, one would have to say that anyone who could interpret a man's choosing not to marry his female partner as a sign of homophobia is living in a quite different linguistic universe from the rest of us.

I am reluctant to talk about liberty or freedom in a political sense, as such talk often rings hollow to me. But, for what it's worth, I do discern within myself a deep psychological – and, perhaps, ideological – commitment to personal freedom. Freedom to love or not to love. Freedom to devise and live by one's own values, whether they be progressive or conservative or something altogether different.

The problem and the paradox of such a view is that we can fully realize these freedoms only in the context of a society in which our particular personal values find widespread expression.