A Plumbline in the Wind

The world is going to the dogs, but I refuse to learn to bark

Psalm 119:39 Turn away the reproach which I dread; for thy ordinances are good.

A Plumbline in the Wind Paris: Jardin des Tuileries

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

14 April 2015 · Comments Off

On same-sex marriage

I am a Catholic, and as such I have certain beliefs about marriage and sexuality that would be, I think, sufficiently well known, but not shared, perhaps, by many of my fellow citizens. However, I am presently undertaking to write on the subject of same-sex marriage not as a Catholic or a Christian, but as a historian with some knowledge about human societies.

It appears to me that the arguments advanced on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate are faulty, and faulty in such a way that the arguments advanced by the opponents of same-sex marriage fail to meet those advanced by its proponents. There are three main lines of argument raised against same-sex marriage: first, that homosexual acts are immoral, unhealthy, or both; that children are best raised by two parents of different sexes; and that having same-sex marriage is the first step on a slippery slope to polygamy and incestuous unions. The proponents argue in their turn that their opponents are motivated by an unreasoning animus toward homosexuality or homosexual persons (which may be a reaction, if not a reasoned response, to the first objection); that not allowing same-sex marriage is discrimination against a class of persons; and that “the government should not tell us whom we can love.”

We can dispose of the last easily. Anyone who thinks that love and marriage “go together like a horse and carriage” in the sense that they are inseparable, and that “you won’t find one without the other” has more faith in Sammy Cahn than in the evidence of his own eyes. Inseparability is not, of course, even a feature of horses and carriages; I have seen many more horses without carriages than with them in the course of my life. While one might argue that love in marriage is a good thing, experience teaches us that there are marriages without love. Indeed, it is only in the last few centuries that love, in particular romantic love, has been considered a good basis for marriage. If love in marriage were automatic, St. Paul would not have needed to tell husbands to love their wives any more than he needed to tell them to swallow their food. Nor does a person always marry the person he or she loves. History—indeed daily life—provides many examples of persons who enjoyed romantic love, and even sexual relations, without marrying or demanding to be married. While many societies have or have had strong regulations against sexual activity, if not love, outside of marriage, the modern West is not one of them.

Many opponents of same-sex marriage conflate their opposition to it with their opposition to sexual activity outside of a lifelong, exclusive marriage commitment. They contend that marriage is “one man and one woman for life” and that any deviation from that standard is roughly equal in wrongness. One violation in a society might lead to another; thus stopping same-sex marriage is essential for stopping the progress to polygamy. They have it backwards. When marriage is considered as a social institution apart from any religious definition, polygamy partakes of the essential nature of marriage in a way that same-sex marriage does not. That is, polygamy does not change the definition of marriage; same-sex marriage does.

Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. Different cultures have regulated it in different ways. These differences include how closely the man and woman may be related to one another by blood, with how many women a man (or how many men a woman) may be in this relationship at the same time; the degree to which the relationship is sexually exclusive; and whether the relationship is permanent or temporary. There have also been restrictions on which social groups, be they racial or ethnic groups, social classes, or clans, may intermarry with one another. But a man and a woman are always the parties to this relationship.

In the case of polygamy (when we use the term, we generally mean polygyny—a man with multiple wives—although there are societies where polyandry occurs and a woman may have more than one husband), it is not the case that there are more than two persons in a marriage, but rather that the man has entered into marriage with more than one woman. Solomon’s seven hundred wives were not married to one another; Solomon had entered into seven hundred marriages.

Similarly, there may be limits on whom one can marry. In the state of Michigan, I cannot marry my mother, my daughter, my sister, my niece, or my first cousin. However—except perhaps in the case of my mother or my daughter—there have been societies in which none of these restrictions applied. The pharoahs of ancient Egypt regularly married their sisters; uncle-niece and first-cousin marriages are not uncommon in many societies today. On the other hand, some societies have restricted marriage partners more strictly; in traditional China, two persons of the same surname, even if no blood relation could be discovered, could not marry.

Societies have also differed on the permanence of the relationship. In the contemporary Western world, it is fairly easy for either party to dissolve the bond; in imperial Rome it was almost as easy. In many places, it is not difficult for a man to divorce his wife, but not the reverse. Likewise, many societies have tolerated a man’s keeping concubines or otherwise engaging in sexual relations with women other than his wife. Generally the same liberty was not allowed to a married woman; but one hears of places where a man’s hospitality includes access to his wife as well as to his table.

Despite the great variety in customs and regulations regarding marriage, there is always one essential: it involves a man and a woman.

This description of marriage holds regardless of the attitude of a society regarding attraction between persons of the same sex or homosexual relations. In the history of the West, the most striking example of a society that approved homosexual relations is ancient Greece, specifically Athens. The Athenian gentleman’s boy lover was a standard feature of his life, and the relationship was presumed to be good for both the adult and the youth. In theory, sexual acts were considered demeaning and impure, but we have sufficient evidence, including the visual evidence of vase-paintings that could not be shown on family television, that they were not uncommon. (We might note in passing that, given the age of the boys involved, these acts would, in modern America, get the adult male thrown in jail, but times have changed.) Most or all of the men involved in these relationships had wives with whom they also had sexual relations, and we know that many of them had sexual involvement with other women as well. Nevertheless, literary evidence suggests that love for a beautiful boy was considered more ennobling and spiritual (especially if kept on a spiritual level) than love for a mere woman, since women were generally of low status in ancient Athens, and assumed to be incapable of higher thought and sentiment. But the most dedicated pederast in Athens, even if he might prefer boys to women for his satisfaction, ever confused the relation with his lover and that with his wife. Love was one thing; marriage, perhaps, was another.

Marriage is a feature of human societies created first by custom and only later by law. To regulate marriage by law characteristic of settled cultures; in some of those it is also a religious institution. In the Western tradition, laws involving marriage in the secular sphere have recognized marriage and defined its effects on such issues as property rather than creating it. Until the beginning of the modern era, the formation of marriages was the work of the Church (or synagogue, in Jewish communities). The notion of a marriage created under state auspices has only been part of the civil order in the United States over about the last 150 years, and partially to some other countries over the last 225 years. Before the late nineteenth century in the United States, and before 1789 anywhere else, there was no such thing as civil marriage. All marriages were carried out under the auspices of a church or other religious body, or were common-law marriages, entered into privately. Marriage licenses were first introduced in the Church of England to avoid the need for posting banns of marriage for three weeks before the wedding, so that the wedding could take place quickly. State-issued marriage licenses were introduced in the United States largely to enforce laws against cousins marrying, to control sexually transmitted disease by requiring a medical exam, and, in some places, to prevent miscegenation. In continental Europe, civil marriage was introduced after the French Revolution as a way of having the state take over the functions of the Church.

Before there were marriage licenses, the state only defined what the legal and economic implications were to a man’s and a woman’s being in the state of marriage. With the civil regulation of marriage, the state also took on the task of defining the restrictions on the formation of marriage. The prohibition of bigamy was a feature of common law deriving from cultural traditions as well as from Church law. The advent of polygamy among the early Mormons strengthened this prohibition with statutory measures. In many jurisdictions, there were prohibitions of the contraction of marriage between persons defined to be members of different racial groups. These prohibitions would not have been considered necessary if the marriages in question would not have otherwise been possible: indeed, in other contemporary societies, even in the Americas, marriages that would have been forbidden in the United States were recognized.

We now see the state not only regulating marriage, and not only forming marriages, but actually defining what the relationship is. This is a different matter from regulating the contractual relationship of marriage. The state could easily pass laws stating that the marriage relationship had no effect at all on the property relations or other legal actions of the parties: for example, providing that in case of intestacy, the decedent’s property would pass to his or her blood relatives or to the state, with the spouse having no claim on it. This would not change the nature of marriage at all. Similarly the state could define other contractual relationships that would have exactly the same terms as marriage; indeed, the state could define some other contractual relationship in that very way. To define marriage as a relation between members of the same sex, however, is to redefine fundamentally a feature, not of the legal system, but of human culture.

I oppose the redefinition of marriage, therefore, not because it will lead to other bad things, or because homosexual acts are immoral, much less because I think I can tell people whether they can love one another or not. Marriage between a man and a woman, regardless of its terms, is a foundation of human culture. To redefine it fundamentally is to remove the most essential cornerstone of human society. It is not social change; it is social suicide. There is no wrong that demands so fundamental a disruption in order to right it.

Comments OffTags: Politics and society

Is it all about the rules?

16 April 2013 · No Comments

I have many friends whom I have loved in my life who have either never known Christ, or, having once known Him, have separated themselves from Him. As I pray daily for them, my heart longs that they should come to Him, and I know that it is His longing as well. Many of them, I think, when they consider Christianity, see only a lot of rules, which they consider arbitrary, unjust, or simply difficult. All those who preach Christ are doing is trying to force me and other people to follow their rules—at least that is what I once thought. Certainly it would appear that the Church teaches a great many rules, but is that what it is all about? Is it all about the rules?

When I am teaching people who are entering the Church about the faith, I begin with God’s plan, which is summarized in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: to unite all things in Christ. This plan reveals, to begin with, the nature of God as an interpersonal Being, a loving union of three Persons, in whom is all being, all life, all truth, and all love. This God freely chose to share His being with creation, causing all things to be. He chose to share His life with living things, that contain within them some image of His creative life. He chose to share His personal nature by creating human beings in His image, male and female, that they might, by coming together in a union of love, continue His creative work. To them He gave the ability to love, which can come only by a free choice, which raises them above the animals and above inanimate being.

Even when man and woman abused the gift of freedom by choosing not to love Him, but to love something else, God was not deterred from His plan. He left them with a mark of Himself within them, the mark of conscience, though it was weakened and often distorted by their separation from Him. He began to prepare a people for Himself by revealing to them His nature, and how to live in accordance with that nature. These are what we might call the rules, hidden in the conscience of every human being, but revealed by God to one people. He revealed what it meant to live in accordance with His nature, with the image of God that He had created them for in the beginning, and hedged them around with other rules, that this people might preserve them. He revealed it even though He knew that they would not be capable, on their own power, to follow them, but at least they could know and love them.

To overcome at last the separation from God that could not be overcome by any human act, He Himself took on human nature and underwent human death, in order that those who accepted Him might at last share the divine nature and be restored to the union with God for which they were created. It was for this union, that these free created beings might be united with Him, that the whole of creation was brought into being. It was that God’s interpersonal love might be shared with other persons, that they might be incorporated into it and thus enjoy complete happiness, love, life, and truth, that the universe exists. The divine Person of Christ, who took on human nature and brought it beyond death into a new life, is now the leader and source of life for a new humanity; as St. Paul writes, “he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.” To be joined to Christ is to share the divine nature; to share the divine nature means to live by virtue of that nature; and that way of life is what God has revealed.

Therefore, it is really about union, about sharing the nature of God, about living in that love. The rules are not the goal; they are the description of how a human being lives the way human beings are created to live in union with God. We are still wounded in our nature and easily confused; we can lose sight of God and be pulled away by our selfish wills. We can still break that union with God by departing in serious ways from the nature that He has placed within us. He has provided, however, the means to be restored to this union. Departing from union with God leads to the loss of all good, a loss that can be permanent in death. No matter how we have departed, however, we can always be reunited with God by embracing the cross of Christ, on which He underwent our death in order to give us His life; and here we can receive that love again and again, and the ability to live in that union until it becomes the eternal union beyond this world.

He is constantly calling, and no one is beyond that call. He is calling the man who, from anger or greed or whatever other motive, unjustly deprived another human being of life. He is calling the woman who, after promising to give herself completely to one man, gave herself to another. He is calling the man who unjustly deprived others of the fruits of their labors. He is calling the man who has used women as objects of selfish pleasure rather than making the total gift of himself to one. He is calling the woman who, out of confusion or fear, killed the child growing in the sanctuary of her womb. He is calling the man who, out of disordered desire, rather than giving himself to a woman in creative union, sought similar pleasure with other men or with children. God’s fierce love for these and for all his beloved children blazes against the things that have separated them from Him, not because He wants to punish them, but because He wants to cherish them and heal them and unite them to Himself forever, where true love and true pleasure and true life are to be found. The rules are just the signposts that tell us to turn back home to where our great Lover awaits.

→ No CommentsTags: Spirituality · Theology and scripture

A chronicle of the last days

14 November 2012 · No Comments

I have decided to revive this blog after about four years of inactivity. I guess it was President Obama’s first election that knocked the stuffing out of me. Now that he has been reelected, and the direction of the country and of our civilization is clear, I have returned to chronicle the end. My online publishing has been limited to excessively verbose comments on Facebook, with the occasional post of my own, and several well-meaning people who have read these comments have suggested that, if I posted to the blog, I might gain a wider audience. We’ll see if that happens. For now I am leaving the format the same, but I will probably make some changes when I feel up to it. Comments are still moderated, and, especially if your comment is hostile, I reserve the right to reject or edit it. I still will not tolerate abusive or obscene language.

My motto is the same, and gains greater and greater force with every day and every disaster: The world is going to the dogs, but I refuse to learn to bark.

It appears to me that the recent election was no ordinary one. Not only has it renewed the mandate of a President whose values are opposed to those held by believing Catholics and those that informed the United States Constitution, it has also revealed that such a President is what the citizens of this country want, and that the values of this country have fundamentally changed from the kind that can sustain republican liberty. The end of the American experiment is at hand, and financial bankruptcy will be the least of its consequences.

The was the last election in which there could be any hope of Catholics, as such, influencing the political life of the country. We had our chance, this time, if not to arrest the progress of the moral decline of our society, at least to preserve the liberty of those who desire to escape it. We had our chance, and we blew it. Whether is was the failure of nerve on the part of the Republican campaigns, or the scruples of some who thought Mr. Romney’s positions were not pure enough, or simply the inexorable weight of the media elite on Mr. Obama’s side, we failed to eject from office a President whose own supporters, even while they called for his reelection, admitted he was incompetent. We will not have another chance. It is not merely that the current administration supports morally repugnant practices such as abortion, recognition of same-sex “marriages,” and so on; even more significant will be the extension of executive power contained in the control of the health-care system, which will affect not only the behavior of doctors and hospitals, but every part of the lives of every citizen. This extension of power will mean that conformity with the policies favored by the executive branch of government will be increasingly required of private citizens and businesses in order to conduct the most mundane aspects of their lives. Those who cannot in conscience accept the practices promoted by the government will be increasingly marginalized, and their ability even to make their views known will be jeopardized.

A second development that will affect the world more than it will America is the inclination of the administration to defer to the United Nations and to Europe rather than to assert American interests, and in particular, its apparent withdrawal from America’s sixty-year policy of support for the state of Israel. An attitude of hostility to the West and to America, a fashionable tiermondisme that exploits post-colonial guilt, and a naive belief in plebiscitary democracy are now entrenched in the highest councils of the United States. Totalitarian regimes will now be tolerated, provided they wear a democratic mask.

What should be our response? I cannot say. We could simply withdraw from political activity, at least at the national level, abandoning the claim to be citizens of a Republic that does not recognize the legitimacy of our values, and adopt the position of the subjects of a totalitarian state beyond our control. In a frank tyranny we should have no other choice. But a democratic regime that has abandoned the guarantees of individual liberty of conscience is just as much a tyranny as an absolute monarchy. I am not sure that is the only course, however. There may be ways that the more clever among us may be able to bring some influence to bear, and salvage little scraps of freedom here and there. All in all, I believe that the way out of our situation does not lie in politics, but in conversion of hearts and transformation of the culture by conversion to Christ, something which we can try to promote and to participate in as the Holy Spirit leads us, but over which we have, ultimately no control. The battle at this point belongs to God. The most effective thing we can do is to pray.

On the morrow of the election, I was led to focus on three intentions, which I believe would be a good start to the only campaign that will make a difference now:

1. The long life and health of the justices of the Supreme Court, especially of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy. If President Obama is allowed to appoint anyone to take their places, his regime will continue forever.

2. Christians in the Middle East. We always needed to pray for them, but even more now. President Obama’s reelection will guarantee the establishment of Islamist regimes from Pakistan to Syria and Egypt, and put extreme pressure on Lebanon and Israel. They will try to eliminate the ancient Christian communities within their borders.

3. Revival of faith in the Catholic Church in the Western world. We are on our own now, in a culture that will not support us and with a government that will attack us. We need to be prepared to maintain the Church without the secular benefits we have enjoyed, such as tax exemptions. We will need to stand firm when persecution comes over our defense of marriage and of life.

Blessed Virgin Mary, conceived without sin, Patroness of the United States, pray for us and for our prodigal nation!

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The unity election

16 November 2008 · 2 Comments

Here’s a story that demonstrates just how tolerant good liberals are:

Catherine Vogt, 14, is an Illinois 8th grader, the daughter of a liberal mom and a conservative dad. She wanted to conduct an experiment in political tolerance and diversity of opinion at her school in the liberal suburb of Oak Park.

She noticed that fellow students at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama for president. His campaign kept preaching “inclusion,” and she decided to see how included she could be.

So just before the election, Catherine consulted with her history teacher, then bravely wore a unique T-shirt to school and recorded the comments of teachers and students in her journal. The T-shirt bore the simple yet quite subversive words drawn with a red marker: “McCain Girl.” [Read more →]

→ 2 CommentsTags: Politics and society · Uncategorized

Causes of human laughter

9 November 2008 · 1 Comment

Nothing like making a mistake to provoke comments, I guess. My last post but one has aroused a remarkable amount of comment, including a reply from the author of the original Facebook comment that stimulated the post in the first place. Whether my error is to be attributed to purity of heart, as Julie charitably suggests, or to gross naïveté, as is more likely, it leads to some interesting observations. [Read more →]

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Some predictions

7 November 2008 · 2 Comments

So, the election has been held, and Mr. Obama is President-elect (well, technically not until the electors have voted next month, but I have been enjoined not to be technical). For whatever reason, in some cases deceived by “an engine called the Press,” the American people have made what I would call a very bad decision. I will now venture a few predictions. I will confess to being a pessimist, so if you want you can argue with me. I will class my predictions under three headings: moral and religious (the most important), foreign affairs, and domestic affairs. [Read more →]

→ 2 CommentsTags: Politics and society

But it’s not fun!

5 October 2008 · 5 Comments

One of my Facebook friends, who is definitely not a supporter of Senator McCain, joined, for what reason I cannot guess, a Facebook group in favor of the McCain-Palin ticket. Perhaps it was in order to leave this comment:

This is the most pitiful group in the world…you people are being screwed…and it’s not even fun! Vote OBAMA and get a real life!

Every clause of this could bear some comment, but the one that caught my attention was the one about “not even fun.”

There is first of all the question of whether politics should be fun. Politics is, after all, the use or restraint of the state’s monopoly of force in pursuit of one’s goals or principles. The thought of someone doing this to me for fun is a bit disturbing. It’s a bit like the thought of a surgeon operating on me, or a policeman throwing me in jail, or a broker investing my money, for fun.

I have vague recollection of a time when being fun was not the ultimate test of all activities. [Read more →]

→ 5 CommentsTags: Politics and society

A class traitor

1 October 2008 · 3 Comments

These days I feel like Yeats’s Irish airman:

Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love

Actually I wouldn’t go so far as to say I don’t love them, but the ones I fight are not those I hate. They are my own people. In all likelihood, the elections will bring to power a regime that will put in place measures that will deprive Catholics and conservatives of freedom of speech and probably result in outright persecution, at least by exclusion from certain kinds of work and inability to carry on institutional existence. And those who are going to be putting that regime in power are my own people. They are my family, who taught me to hate everything I now am. They are my old friends, with whom I still feel the deepest affinity–some of them even friends with whom I have shared the faith. They are those with whom I share an education. I am a traitor to my class of educated, literate people. Those I guard are those with whom I share faith in God and commitment to His truth, and yet among them I feel like one in exile, speaking every day a foreign language, however fluent I may be in it. Like one who longs for the sight of a country to which he can never return, because the revolutionaries who have seized control there will put him to death, l remain a stranger and an alien in my new home, alienated from my old home.

I have become a stranger to my brethren,
an alien to my mother’s sons.
For zeal for thy house has consumed me,
and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me. (Ps 69:8-9)

It is not an enemy who taunts me–
then I could bear it;
It is not an adversary who deals insolently with me–
then I could hide from him.
But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to hold sweet converse together;
within God’s house we walked in fellowship. (Ps 55:12-14)

→ 3 CommentsTags: My Life · Politics and society

Full human beings

22 September 2008 · 2 Comments

In a column today, Robert Tracinski faintly praises Governor Palin by informing his presumably liberal audience that she isn’t as bad as she seems. She is not a religious fanatic, he says, however:

The one clear indication we have as to the degree of her religious commitment is the fact that she is opposed to abortion in all cases, making an exception only to protect the life of the mother. And we know she means it because she chose to give birth to her youngest child even though she knew from genetic testing that it would have Down Syndrome, a severe form of mental retardation.

This fact does reveal a profoundly faith-driven outlook, because it illuminates Palin’s implicit attitude toward reason and the intellect. The joy of having a child is watching it grow and develop on its way to becoming an independent adult capable of enjoying a full human life. This is why parents rejoice in every new discovery the child makes along the way–his first steps, his first words, the first time he figures out how to open up and rifle through your filing cabinets while you’re trying to work (but I digress). The tragedy of giving birth to a mentally disabled child is that he will never complete this journey. He will never become an independent adult or develop a full use of the faculty that is man’s essential characteristic: his reasoning mind. To knowingly choose to bring such a child into the world is evidence that the precepts of her faith take precedence over the value of the mind in Palin’s view of the world.

In other words, Mr. Tracinski believes that anyone who values the human intellect will make sure that anyone who might not have the “full use” of that faculty is killed before birth. The value of a human being is in what he can do, not who he is–excuse me, who it is: doubtless the Palins knew from the same genetic tests that Trig would be a boy, but to Mr. Tracinski “such a child” is just a thing.

Mr. Tracinski’s assessment is wrong in so many ways, but it is enlightening to see for a moment this revelation of the underlying worldview of the secular elite. All their talk about compassion hides a brutal calculation of value: if you can’t make it intellectually, you ought not to live. Anyone who values human life for any other reason insults the intellect. If this is intelligence, give me stupidity any day.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Politics and society

A real hero

13 September 2008 · 2 Comments

Elinor Dashwood posts a link to a newspaper story about an old acquaintance who died saving the life of his son. The young man, who has Down’s Syndrome, fell into a septic tank, and the father, just home from Sunday Mass, went in to save him. The son is now in the hospital; the father was taken out unconscious and died soon after. From the story, it appears Mr. Vander Woude died as he lived: his was a life of service to God, to his family, to his neighbors, and to his country. He put the rest of us whiners to shame, and, I hope, has inspired many to live as he did. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed by the mercy of God rest in peace.

I wonder how many readers of the Washington Post, where this article appeared, shook their heads and said to themselves, “What a waste! A healthy man sacrificing his life to save a…” whatever the word is now for someone whom the wise in this age think should have been killed before birth. I hear that some of the defenders of abortion are saying that Governor Palin’s failure to kill her son Trig in the womb will set a bad example and encourage other mothers to bring children with Down’s Syndrome to birth. A few evenings ago I was talking to a friend, a man from my parish who is soon to be ordained as a permanent deacon. His son is a college athlete and aspiring teacher. As part of his education, he was taking a class on special education from a woman who works with the state headquarters of the Special Olympics, which is located in the same town as the college. She told him that they have hardly any Down’s children any more, because so many are aborted. This means, she said, that discrimination against those with this disability will only grow worse, because they will be so much rarer.

My friend knows what he is talking about. His youngest daughter, born a few years ago, has Down’s Syndrome. When she was born, he said, he was bitterly angry with God. “We’ve done the right thing; we’ve been open to life; we’ve had seven kids: and now you give me damaged goods!” He said he struggled with this. Then one day he laid his hand on the child to pray that she be healed, and he heard God say to him, “I’m not going to heal her; I’m going to heal you.” He says the change in him was instantaneous. He no longer saw damaged goods; he saw his daughter. She has been, he says, the greatest blessing in his life. He would die for her, too, I am sure.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Politics and society · Spirituality