It’s been a busy week for opponents of same-sex marriage at Ethika Politika.
Michael Bradley has argued that talking about a ban on gay marriage “indicates a fundamentally flawed grasp on what is really being argued” in the marriage debate, simply because “no such bans exist.” Meanwhile, Carlos Flores argued that the “marriage equality” slogan is a form of “question-begging” because it assumes that heterosexual and homosexual relationships are relevantly similar with respect to the public purposes of marriage—the very question that forms the subject of controversy.
Both of these arguments were eloquently made, and neither is entirely without validity, but they strike me less as useful contributions to the marriage debate and more as clever ways of trying to avoid confronting the problems to which gay marriage purports to be a solution. If we deny that bans on same-sex marriage exist (even when they clearly do) we can avoid debating whether those bans are appropriate. If we assert that the purpose of marriage is procreative and label the demand for equal treatment of non-procreative gay unions as “false” or “question-begging,” we avoid confronting the fact that we live in a contraceptive culture in which the sex lives of many married couples are not much more “procreative” than homosexual relationships. Gay marriage may be a false solution, but it’s a false solution to a real problem. Scholastic word-games don’t even begin to address that problem.
It’s no coincidence that the movement for same-sex marriage in the West began after the AIDS crisis. One suggested way of reining in the sexually libertine gay subculture borne of the Stonewall riots was to expand the notion of “family” in order to foster stability and fidelity within same-sex relationships by including them within existing social structures designed for that purpose. Whereas speaking of “the institution of the family” traditionally conjures up notions of the monolithic 1950s nuclear model—breadwinner dad, homemaker mom, and their smiling brood—the focus in recent years has shifted to pluralities of family models including single-parent families, divorced and remarried parents with step-children, and same-sex couples raising adopted or surrogate offspring. Expanding our notion of family is argued to be a way to provide a social support system for the humanization and socialization of same-sex love which was previously lacking.
The standard conservative Christian reaction to the expansion of the “nuclear family” to include gay families has been to redouble the defense of the 1950s hetero-patriarchal model, as if this model were of Divine institution. Modern “traditional marriage” apologists wax lyrical about the nuclear family as the fundamental cell-unit of the political community and above all as the healthiest environment for raising children.
Yet this argument is circular and unconvincing to anyone outside the conservative Christian subculture because it relies on precisely the social constructs called into question by the gay marriage debate. Naturally, if you live in a society that values the heterosexual nuclear family as the ideal, children raised within this structure will be ideally situated for participation in that structure, and social science will “prove” that this is the best environment for raising children, just as, had it existed in the thirteenth century, social science would have “proved” that the best way to raise a child was to send him to a monastery at 7 or 8-years-old.
The reality—as every social historian acknowledges—is that the "nuclear family" is an anomaly that arose after the industrial revolution, a revolution which eviscerated centuries-old community networks and forced mass migration to cities where people knew no-one except immediate family members. For most of Western, Christian history the “family” was a more sprawling and extended group consisting of mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, uncles, and friends. The male-female reproductive unit was its nucleus, but the point at which the “family” ended and the “village” or wider community began was virtually non-existent. The fact that the institution of the family in the West collapsed very shortly after “nuclear families” replaced the traditional model makes it difficult to take seriously the assertion that the 1950s nuclear model is essential to a healthy Christian polity. The collapse of the family is intimately related to—indeed is a result of—its reduction to the nuclear model, which has placed a weight on the nucleus that it was never designed to bear. Tying the defense of Christian marriage to the defense of the nuclear model is like tying a healthy living body to a corpse – eventually the putrefaction spreads.
Earlier generations of lesbian and gay activists were not clamoring to be allowed to participate in the nuclear family model, either. Radical lesbian feminist Julie Bindel describes gay life in England during the 1980s thus:
20 years ago … most out lesbians and gays chose to live in self-made communities, such as housing cooperatives or squats. Over the river from my north London household, the lesbian and gay anarchists had taken over a row of neglected houses in Brixton. They produced a newsletter and grew weed … we were not aiming for a version of married life; we built up friendship groups and communities instead. The housing co-op Wild Lavender was formed in 1980 by a group of gay men interested in living together in the country, with ideals of “nurturing each other and living cooperatively”. Its members set up houses in Leeds, and the men lived communally.
As Bindel—who opposes gay marriage for queer reasons—laments, gays “are now more likely to be living in replicas of the nuclear family and hanging out with other couples rather than at gay bars.” As the imitation of the 1950s nuclear model has become more and more the norm for same-sex couples, the queer communities that once existed have—like the villages of early modern Christendom—been eviscerated as those couples retreat behind their picket fences.
Queer critiques of gay marriage argue that the repetition of the nuclear family model by gay couples perpetuates and reinforces the system of hetero-patriarchy which was responsible for the oppression of queer people in the first place. The fact that large swathes of the queer community have internalized the desire to participate in the nuclear model constitutes, for queer critics, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome en masse.
These kinds of critiques may, at first glance, be shocking to the sensibilities of certain Catholics. Yet they need not be, when we consider that the 1950s nuclear family is, as I have already suggested, quite different from the historic Christian model. When one reads the Scriptures, one doesn’t find much about the family as a utopia unto itself or as “a haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch famously put it.
Instead, we see Jesus telling people that they must value their status as his disciples above their inborn family status (Luke 14:26) and that the most important “family” relationships in our life—even within our own biological family—are constituted by our shared relatedness to God established through membership of the Christian community (Matt 12:46-50). We read that all of the members of that community, “the believers”—both individuals and families—owned everything in common (Acts 2:44). Early Christian families did not retreat behind picket fences but functioned as integral parts of a communal whole whose dynamism was such that within only a few centuries it had engulfed and evangelized the entire Roman Empire. They sound much more like Bindel’s communes—“nurturing each other and living cooperatively”—than they do like a disconnected neighborhood full of modern nuclear households. Albeit not entirely for the same reasons, both radical queer activists and Christian ethics properly constituted reject the idea that the nuclear family is the primary locus of social belonging, in favor of a thicker, more robust notion of community.
I don’t want to suggest, of course, that Christian concerns about the family can simply be conflated with the concerns of radical queer activists. But they do intersect at certain points, and there is no reason why exploring the intersections between Catholicism and queerdom on this subject should be inherently scandalous. We’re unlikely to agree with most queer activists about Catholic teaching on homosexuality, but then—as Andrew Prizzi has incisively pointed out here at Ethika Politika—most Protestants with whom Catholics happily co-operate have long disagreed with Catholic beliefs on divorce and birth control, and both of these issues, Catholics believe, like homosexuality, pertain to the natural law (CCC, 2370; 2384).
It may be a queer proposal (pun intended), but it is perhaps worth considering whether those genuinely interested in defending the historic teaching of the churches on Christian marriage and on the family do not currently have the wrong bedfellows. Instead of focusing on the defense of the “nuclear family”—a 1950s cultural meme that has very little support from Scripture or Christian tradition—perhaps Christians should be concerning themselves with exactly the sorts of themes that radical queer opponents of gay marriage like Julie Bindel emphasize—with “nurturing each other and living cooperatively,” and with “friendship groups and communities.” Real problems need real solutions.