In the Pauline Year, we were likely to have heard commentary on Paul as a writer, an evangelist and a preacher. We might not have heard much about the apostle as a judge, and yet he is this too. The silence on Paul as a judge is surely not owing to any defect in his judging. It is probably due to our tendency to avoid making judgments.
We live in tolerant times. We can and do tolerate all kinds of things now because we are afraid to make judgments. This fear arises from the oft-heard criticism that we are just being judgmental.
Paul is not coy about making judgments. He makes them all the time. He recounts in the Letter to the Galatians, for example, the time he opposed Peter to his face “because he clearly was wrong” (Gal 2:11). Paul makes a judgment that a fellow apostle is in error and does not hold back. A few verses later, Paul explains himself in this way: “I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the Gospel” (Gal 2:14). The apostle’s judgment is not arbitrary. Rather, it is a reasoned assessment that his faith supports.
The tendency to avoid making judgments does not, in fact, remove this characteristically human conduct from our lives altogether. And so when we find ourselves needing to make judgments, how should we go about making them? Perhaps Paul can help us here too.
As the incident with Peter indicates, judgment involves evaluations concerning right and wrong. These are conclusions that we draw. Before we arrive at conclusions, though, we undertake what the apostle calls a discernment. In Paul’s most important doctrinal epistle, Romans, he considers God’s just judgment, how we are judged by the interior law and by the Mosaic law. He writes in this part of the letter that we “are able to discern what is important” (Rom 2:18).
Later in the same epistle, the apostle urges the Roman Christians not to be conformed to the spirit of the age. Rather, they should be transformed by the renewal of their minds so that they may “discern what is the will of God” (Rom 12:2). The discernment that Paul exhorts the Roman Christians to practice, he likewise commends to the attention of the Philippian Christians. Praying for the Christians at Philippi, Paul advises that they “discern what is of value” as a way of preparing for the day of judgment (Phil 1:10).
The link between judgment and discernment in Paul’s mind is also found in the apostle’s treatment of eucharistic communion. Writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul warns that anyone eating and drinking without discerning the Lord’s body and blood brings judgment upon himself (cf. 1 Cor 11:29). The apostle here joins together the sacramental realism of the Eucharist with evaluative decisions made in the Christian conscience.
Paul introduces us to some important but frequently overlooked considerations about how we ought to think about moral matters. He shows us, for instance, how judgment is a necessary exercise and that we need not be afraid of engaging in it on the way to living well. Along with the indispensability of judgment, Paul stresses, too, the centrality of discernment. Let us look briefly at what this human act requires of us.
Discernment and Conscience
Discernment is essentially a cognitive act, not a mystical one. It is principally an intellectual operation and, as we saw above, it is also a spiritual exercise. It is an incontrovertibly human endeavor, a project always dependent on the capacity to reason rightly. It is, in the end, a habit and aptitude whereby we can judge correctly in matters of how to live.
How we live, obviously, is of no small consequence. And that we live differently from person to person is plain enough to see. All of us make different choices, honoring different scales of values, and yet we all claim to judge rightly. How is this possible?
Many invoke conscience, saying that a decision made there automatically insures that it is right. The idea that conscience is an ipso facto infallible guide to right judgment is widespread and often goes unchallenged today. Conscience, we know, can be formed erroneously, and we know further that poor formation of it results in faulty judgment. Moreover, the notion that every appeal to conscience yields a right judgment suggests a dubious understanding of truth. Joseph Ratzinger explains that “[s]ince verdicts of conscience contradict one another, there would exist only a truth of the subject, which would then be reduced to the truthfulness of that subject. No door or window would look out of the individual subject into the totality or into that which is shared with other subjects.” 1
What is Truth?
What we share with other knowing subjects, of course, is an acknowledgement of things outside of ourselves — an external reality, if you will. The fact that my subjective perception may not be in accord with the reality outside of me and that other perceiving subjects understand reality differently than I do, suggests that I may be mistaken at times. The objectivity of truth forces me to put aside my perception and accept things not as I want them to be but as they really are.
The Truth of Social Teaching
The objectivity of truth, though, is distrusted by many of our contemporaries, thus allowing for only a seemingly endless succession of perspectives. It appears, at times, that all we are left with are partial or fragmentary apprehensions. Are we ever going to be able to approach what then-Cardinal Ratzinger calls the totality or that which is shared with other subjects?
We find totality or that which is shared with other subjects by looking at what Popes have argued in their social teaching. Papal social teaching, found in encyclicals and other texts, is based upon a unified vision of the person and human nature. It offers guidance in the form of unchanging principles, which can then be applied to the variable circumstances that characterize the social context today.
The social teaching of the Popes attests to a remarkable consistency of approach, that is, the papal authors and their magisterial collaborators show a pattern of sustained thinking that rises above what is in vogue at any given place and time, inoculating us against the enthusiasms of the moment. This body of teaching constitutes a perennial wisdom for meeting the contingencies of the day, including movements that threaten society’s moral order.
Such is the case with so-called same-sex marriage. Acceptance of the idea of two men wedded to each other or two women wedded to each other is widespread, even where it is not yet legal.
The Problem of Same-Sex Unions
Opponents of the idea cite the Bible in their rejection of the re-definition of marriage. The Bible is always a good place to begin a defense of traditional marriage. Often, however, the argument over the right definition of marriage is not with those who are animated by faith — although, admittedly, it can be. In the main, the argument is with those of a pervasively secular mind-set. Secularists, not surprisingly, dismiss religiously informed arguments against so-called same-sex marriage. Men and women of faith, then, must be able to argue the matter along different lines. They must be able to appeal beyond what is given in revelation. They must have access to wider and deeper wellsprings to offset the dangerous attempt at re-defining marriage.
Early on in our development, it is clear that we are not here by ourselves. Our parents raise us to respect others and to be considerate of the welfare of those around us. We attend schools and work at jobs that continue this kind of socialization. Many are fortunate to be given a religious training that inculcates this notion too. We think here of the golden rule “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you” or the command of Jesus “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39).
The Common Good
Self-love and love of neighbor are critical to human flourishing. Without them, there does not exist the possibility of personal or social advancement. Self-love and love of neighbor are implied in the preeminent principle of the dignity of the person. And it is precisely because persons are not alone but live together in community that they must have a due regard for the common good. This principle — the common good — is crucial to why the traditional understanding of marriage must prevail culturally and legally.
The idea of the common good is present from the beginning of the Church’s social teaching. Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI implicitly acknowledge the concept in their encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), respectively. The Pope who gives it the most precise formulation is John XXIII, in his encyclicals Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963). Describing it in these two works as the sum total of social conditions that allow people to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily, John XXIII makes key stipulations beyond a definition. 2 He observes in Pacem in Terris that the common good is intimately bound up with human nature. 3 He states in Mater et Magistra that the government is justified to act on behalf of the common good. 4
The dignity of persons is a principle grounded in nature. Persons are to be treated in a certain way, we understand, because their natures differ from other living things. This fact is apprehended by reason and does not come to us by virtue of an exceptional revelation. It is universally accessible and is demonstrably not a special favor of faith.
John XXIII claims in Pacem in Terris that the principle of the common good, like the principle of the dignity of the person, has a grounding that transcends particularities and idiosyncratic features. It is rooted in something universal, and that something is the nature of the person. That nature is to be social, to be in relation with other persons. This fact, too, is not an endowment of faith. Reason apprehends this datum of human existence; it is not an exclusive illumination of faith.
The recognition in Mater et Magistra that the government is justified to act on behalf of the common good signals that the assertion’s antithesis is true too. The government relinquishes its legitimacy when it deliberately and willfully acts against the common good. This transgression has important consequences in our time, as we witness governments here and there bestow approval on so-called same-sex marriage. But we get ahead of ourselves now, for we must first contend with the practical applications of the common good.
The common good is inexorably applicable to marriage and the family. That these realities — marriage and the family — originate with a man and a woman being and acting not against each other but for each other makes the common good of marriage and the family patently clear. A man and a woman orient themselves in their wills and arrange their lives so that personal goods become merged. And to the degree necessary, personal goods in marriage are submerged and a common good is the consequence. This sacrificing of personal goods in favor of a common good occurs all over the social landscape, and thus it is easy to understand why the government has a compelling interest here. One example of the interest is the issuance of licenses to marry. But having an interest is not the same as determining the nature of the good inherent in marriage and the family.
Under John Paul II, the Pontifical Council for the Family produced a document on family, marriage, and “de facto unions.” 5 This document considers the demand to grant “marital” status to unions between persons of the same sex. 6 It judges the common good of society compromised when this demand is acceded to and so-called same-sex unions are sanctioned.
The Common Good and Children
An undeniable good of marriage is the children whom parents have together and raise, thus establishing an especially important element of social posterity. Social posterity is affected favorably and adversely by parents and the children they rear. The document of the Pontifical Council on the Family recognizes this social fact. It holds that the only origin that adequately safeguards children’s identity is the necessary, intimate, integral, mutual and permanent union of spouses. 7 The document observes further that “marriage . . . constitutes the most basic human and humanizing context for welcoming children, the context which most readily provides emotional security and guarantees greater unity and continuity in the process of social integration.” 8
On the face of it, this claim would not seem to be contentious. But, owing to the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s and the countenance given to alternative lifestyles then, many came to dispute the superiority of traditional marriage over other “lifestyle choices” as they have come to be termed. These other lifestyle choices — cohabitation, single-parenting and divorce and re-marriage — were thought, in some circles, to be socially neutral and certainly not detrimental. This appraisal has been shown decisively to be untrue, however. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, in The Atlantic Monthly in 1993, sums up the social science evidence and concludes that “growing up in an intact two-parent family is an important source of advantage for American children. . . . [T]he intact family offers children greater security and better outcomes than its fast-growing alternatives. . . . Not only does the intact family protect the child from poverty and economic insecurity; it also provides greater non-economic investments of parental time, attention and emotional support over the entire life course.” 9
When it comes to same-sex unions and children, we note, first, the biologically obvious: Nature does not permit it. Two men or two women are physically precluded from having their own children. This impossibility, I would argue, says something in itself. If nature does not allow a certain condition to exist, it probably means that an “end-around” nature will not prove salutary.
The end-around nature in this instance refers to how two men or two women can take advantage of technology and make their own children by in vitro fertilization and gestational surrogacy or, failing that, adopt children. Both scenarios are found in the social ecology now. The question remains then: How do the children of same-sex unions fare?
Maggie Gallagher and Joshua Baker, of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, have examined the relevant data and find that even though there are studies on the effects of same-sex parenting, these studies are methodologically flawed. 10 The limitations notwithstanding, Gallagher and Baker are still confident the children raised by a married mother and father fare better than children raised by same-sex partners. What matters, they insist, is family structure. Children do best when raised by their own married mother and father. 11
The fact that the studies on same-sex parenting are deficient methodologically and that they lack a firm basis for comparison with studies of parenting done by a true mother and a true father does not postpone an answer. What it does is return us to the question of what is marriage anyway. Recall that the document from the Pontifical Council on the Family cited earlier referred to the demand to grant marital status to unions between persons of the same sex. Unions between persons of the same sex have never been called marriage until recently in our history. Before the recent shift, these unions could have qualified in the law only as domestic partnerships.
Gallagher and Baker, I noted previously, use the term “family structure” in maintaining that children do best when raised by a married mother and father. W. Bradford Wilcox and his colleagues use the term in Why Marriage Matters and argue that children do better psychologically and in terms of social welfare when rearing is done by a married mother and father. 12 The expression “family structure” is used often and not just in the literature on family studies. It is used by specialists and non-specialists alike in reference to the configuration or arrangement of persons in the family.
Complementarity as Diversity
A man and a woman marry because of the differences between them. Differences as much as similarities bring a husband and wife together and keep them united. Marriage is not a break from complementarity but an important embrace of it. Marriage preserves the differences that are there at the outset, those that are given in nature.
It is ironic to hear, as we often do these days, the complaints from the advocates of diversity, including those who campaign for diversity in family structure, that we do not have any. We really do and it is right there in marriage itself, that is, in the coming together of a man and a woman in their essential differences. This diversity, however, is not the kind we can choose. It is already present in nature, and it must be accepted or else we must attempt to re-define marriage.
Re-defining marriage is exactly what is sought by the advocates of same-sex unions. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2003 notes that “[t]he inevitable consequence of legal recognition of homosexual unions would be the re-definition of marriage.” 13 Therefore, the only diversity of family structure that is possible is the one proposed for it by nature.
The acceptance of complementarity is anthropologically necessary. Not to accept it is tantamount to being at war with nature. This situation is the bitter predicament of radical feminists whose aspirations are not satisfied by barring discrimination based on sex. Nature, though, does not discriminate; what it does is show us the true structure of the good. We don’t have to invent the true structure of the good; we just have to know how to discern it accurately in nature. Gay activists and their allies promoting same-sex unions as the equivalent of marriage are in much the same position. Nature is not something we choose for self-empowerment; rather, it is given to us for personal flourishing in the service of the common good.
This returns us almost to where we started. In the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cited before, we are reminded that the state cannot grant legal standing to same-sex unions without failing in its duty to promote and defend marriage as an institution essential to the common good. 14 Law has an educative function, and it shapes the younger generation’s perception and evaluation of forms of behavior, the document continues. 15 Knowing this, we cannot afford a weak response to the burgeoning campaign to alter the meaning of marriage.
What to Do
The common good of society needs to be protected, and the first line of defense is education. An educated citizenry is one unbeholden to the false conception that marriage is merely a private, emotional relationship. 16 Unfortunately, this misconception about marriage — that it is merely a private, emotional relationship — has lodged itself firmly in the social fabric today, and probably accounts for the indifference in many quarters to the real threat posed by same-sex unions now.
Educators must not overlook the need to hold elected public officials accountable for undermining the common good. Compromising the common good is a serious breach of the public trust, and whether it is done by legislative vote or judicial decision, it is deserving of civic opprobrium. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith judges that the legal recognition
of homosexual unions or the placing of them on par with marriage is an approval of deviant behavior, making it something worth imitating and thus obscuring basic values that belong to the common inheritance of humanity. 17
This brings us, finally, to St. Paul, with whom we started. Paul corrected Peter for not being on the right road in line with the truth (cf. Gal 2:14). Paul knew something about the right way. But it wasn’t until his conversion that he began taking the right path. Once he did undergo that conversion, though, he could see again (cf. Acts 9:8,18). Using right reason, we can regain our footing in the light of the truth and pull back from a darkened course before it is too late.
1 Joseph A. Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval. Trans. Brian McNeil. (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006), p. 76.
2 Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris. Ed. William J. Gibbons. (Glen Rock, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1963), p. 23.
3 Ibid., p. 22.
4 Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra. Ed. William J. Gibbons. (Glen Rock, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1961), p. 51.
5 Pontifical Council for the Family, “Family, Marriage, and De Facto Unions,” Origins . Vol. 30, No. 30, pp. 475-488.
6 Ibid., p. 481.
9 Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 271, No. 4, (April, 1993), p. 80.
10 Maggie Gallagher and Joshua Baker, “Do Moms and Dads Matter? Evidence From the Social Sciences on Family Structure and the Best Interests of the Child,” Margins Law Journal. Vol. 4, No. 161, (2004), p. 180.
11 Ibid., p. 174.
12 W. Bradford Wilcox et al, Why Marriage Matters. Second Edition. (New York: Institute for American Values, 2005), p. 9.
13 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” L’Osservatore Romano. No. 32, (August 6, 2003), p. 3.
14 Ibid., p. 2.
15 Ibid., p. 3.
16 W. Bradford Wilcox et al, p. 32.
17 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, p. 3.
MSGR. BATULE is a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. He is on the faculty of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Lloyd Harbor, New York, where he teaches systematic theology.