For those who are familiar with my logic, you might not be surprised that I am in agreement with the Civil Unions Bill including its elements which regulate parenting. My defense for marriage equality is not in spite of my Christian faith but because of it. However, for this article I want to focus on the reasons why I believe the discussion about marriage for gay couples is a gift for both the Church and society at large.
When I am invited to publically discuss gay issues, Civil Unions and Christianity I teasingly point out (especially if religious persons are participating within that discussion), that the gay community has given both the hierarchy of the Church and the Church at large a great gift, that of reminding Catholics of the sacredness of marriage, sexuality and sexual relationships. That marriage (heterosexual) is also a path for holiness. Though I say this teasingly, there is an element of seriousness in that statement. The institution of marriage is a long standing tradition within the Church and Society (not necessarily in the shape that we know it today) and one might argue that it has been neglected for many years. Of course it has always been considered as a Sacrament within the Roman Catholic Church but on a popular level it may have been perceived as unequal to the other sacraments such as ordination or the religious form of life, often because sexuality and sex may create some discomfort. In these past years, this has changed. Unfortunately it seems to me that this has changed as a reaction to oppose unions for people of the same-sex. I personally feel that thanks to the gay community, society has been forced to have a serious look at marriage again, and of course a myriad of views emerge.
The gay community, in non-violent ways has challenged society including the Church (which also includes baptized persons who are gay and believers) to re-visit that which is important and essential for human beings – nurturing human intimate relationships. In fact, the terms gay community, Church and hierarchy of the Church are being used here in a very general way to simplify complex realities because these are not necessarily separate realities either. And this is why we should approach this matter sensitively, prudently and with wisdom because a number of gay persons who desire to get married are also baptized Catholics or Christians themselves, as already pointed out.
During discussions about marriage people arguing against marriage for gay couples say that a Christian marriage is between a man and a woman and this is so in the natural and secular world as well. I personally find this argument weak because reality, both from historical and global perspectives show that things are little bit more complicated than that. To grapple with these issues I ask myself, what makes a marriage, marriage? What makes a Christian marriage, Christian? It is by struggling with these questions that I arrived at a place of defending marriage equality. I think that a man-woman sexual relationship alone does not suffice to define marriage, as marriage – even more so as a Christian marriage. Neither is a heterosexual marriage by default healthy and conducive to the well-being of the couple and their children. There are other important elements, as the Church herself teaches us that need to be present. On the other hand when arguing in defense of marriage for gay couples, we are not saying that it will replace heterosexual marriage, that would be absurd. We are saying that heterosexual marriage is beautiful, important and needs to be protected and nurtured. It can also be opened up to become inclusive of a minority group found within all societies in the world. I find Sister Jeannine Gramick’s statement to the Times of Malta in 2008 very interesting, “Our problem as human beings is that we think only one thing is natural and anything beyond that is unnatural. We think that what is natural for most has to be natural for everybody and that’s not true. These arguments are based on plumbing… one sexual organ fits in another… that’s ridiculous! This is a very male-based theology.”
I believe that if we genuinely struggle with these questions we might come to an understanding that the Christian understanding of marriage in actual fact opens up the possibility to think about marriage for gay couples. I also think that when discussing marriage, including that of heterosexual couples we should include friendship in that equation; the Christian understanding of friendship as Jesus presents it to us, as the highest form of love. We might find that re-visiting friendship might open up further possibilities and not only for gay couples, but also for heterosexual couples themselves. I believe that we should re-visit friendship from an Eros perspective as well and not only from a sterile Agape perspective.
The argument that a man and a woman who produce babies constitute a marriage does not satisfy me, as discussed earlier on. This form of relationship is not necessarily equal to non-violent relationships but actually could also be fertile ground for violence, often but not exclusively male violence were woman and children are victimized. I am worried when I hear the argument that a man and a woman naturally constitute a family. I always ask myself, but what exactly are we talking about here? If we had to unpack this argument, what do we find there? Intimate relationships can also be oppressive relationships with various family members experiencing violence by another family member be it physical, emotional and/or psychological. When discussing and ‘defending’ marriage we are not just discussing male-female committed sexual relationships but much more than that. It is the ‘much more than that’ which I believe opens up the possibility to re-think marriage and makes it inclusive of gay couples.
I think its time we start talking about the quality of sexual relationships when discussing marriage rather than merely its form. As Sister Margaret Farley argues justice should be our main criteria and framework when formulating and presenting Christian sexual ethics. As a Christian who values chastity, as given to us by Jesus through the gospels, I re-interpret and propose chastity as the way forward to re-thinking Christian marriage, that is of cultivating non-violent, non-oppressive intimate relationships; physically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually and spiritually. For me Chastity is a non-violent way of relating to the other at all levels and not just the sexual. Some people may consider themselves ‘chaste’ as they do not engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage or because of their religious way of life but may be emotionally or spiritually violent, aggressive and/or abusive. This falls short of what Jesus presents to us through the gospels.
Re-visiting our Christian faith
As Christians, we need to remember that Jesus teaches us that all relationship forms are sacred ground and that his Temple is found within all of these relationships. Jesus dislocates the temple completely locating it within the human person and his or her relationships; with each other, earth, the cosmos and God himself-herself. He further states that where two are together in his name, he is there (Mt 18, 19-20). Interestingly he does not specify the gender, gender identity or sexual orientation of those two or three. I love this openness of Jesus and enjoy believing in this life-giving-God who opens up immense possibilities for his-her own beloved children.
In conclusion, my hope is that whilst the discussion about Civil Unions is unfolding, it helps us to grow and mature further as a Society and to remember that we are brothers and sisters first, beyond our own differences. I hope that these discussions expressing our different perspectives help us grow further into adopting a non-violent frame of mind within these discussions themselves – that is, relating to the other, including our opponent with love and respect because after all we are called to love one another and never to reduce any human being into an enemy. May we also find joy in these discussions as they push us into searching deeper for the Truth which is always beyond the human grasp.