One hundred sixty years ago, representatives from nine states met in Nashville, for what historians call the Nashville Convention, to discuss the gathering storm over slavery in the country.
While the U.S. Constitution guaranteed slavery, more and more states, on their own, were beginning to outlaw it. The emerging question was whether or not new territories in the West, when organized under American jurisdiction, would permit slavery.
Sam Houston, former Tennessee governor, and hero in the effort by Texas to be independent of Mexico, appealed at this convention for a compromise. Another delegate, Jefferson Davis, who in 11 years would be the Confederate president, argued that compromise was impossible.
By advocating for slavery, a grossly immoral practice, Davis was dreadfully wrong. He, however, was right when it came to the possibility of compromise. The issue of slavery, when viewed in its essence, was either–or. It fundamentally was right, or it fundamentally was wrong.
The point is that some matters are so serious and so basic, with intrinsic considerations, as moral theologians would say, that they cannot be compromised or set aside. Some things cannot be compromised. (Perhaps this stress on basic standards was learned from Davis’ studies at the feet of Dominican friars in Kentucky.)
Fifty-six years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, was issued.
Thirty-eight years ago, the U. S. Supreme Court issued another historic decision, Roe v. Wade, that in effect legalized abortion on demand in this country.
On some future day, maybe not that long in the future, the Supreme Court will decide whether or not marriage is defined in the United States as being only between one man and one woman — or is the legal definition of marriage to be a union between two persons of the same gender?
In all these major questions, over the years, in how our country officially decides — ultimately on the grounds of what is right and wrong — what is acceptable or not in this society, voices have been raised urging compromise, and usually the compromise has been that one person can be able to do as he or she chooses, and if another person does not like it, then the other person simply acts otherwise personally and keeps his or her peace.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many Americans opposed the Civil Rights Movement, insisting that the majority will should prevail, no matter what, and that a restaurant owner, for example, if so inclined, could deny service to any would-be customer simply because of the customer’s race.
It took time, but rare would be the American today who would accept any restriction of rights based on ethnicity.
Time has not yet come when this same reasoning of the universality of certain moral principles covers abortion on demand. The old logic boldly has been presented by Church leaders and individual right-thinking Americans alike to support efforts to protect innocent human life by calling for an end to abortion on demand.
As a society, we have not universally reached this basic judgment about this evil. Live and let live regarding legalized abortion seems to fit the “American way.” It seems to connect with our values of individual human rights, and of our preference for as little governmental interference as possible in our lives. If a woman wishes to abort her pregnancy, it is her business, so this thinking goes.
Priests now will have to face the question of “same-sex marriage” and in the process consider, and promulgate, the moral thought of the Church. (Even now priests should be facing it, in their homilies, in their conversations, and at any opportunity available to them as teachers of the Gospel.)
Some Catholics will have to be convinced that such intimacy between persons of the same sex is wrong.
Others, even if they are in accord with traditional Christian teaching on homosexual activity, will have to be convinced that the live-and-let-live philosophy cannot apply in this discussion.
So, as they are, and will be, called to speak for the Church when it comes to “same-sex marriages,” priests will have the advantage of being able to use as examples the national experiences of forming collective moral opinions with respect to slavery and civil rights, but at the same time they will have to qualify this live and let live philosophy.
Basically at stake is respect for a transcendent, universal standard by which all humans must live in the society, and the belief that this standard is not of human invention but rather of the human essence itself, set within the very definition of what it means to be human, as presented in what theologians traditionally have called the Natural Law.
There are pragmatic reasons for insisting that intimate relationships be solely between one man and one woman. While the mutual support and positive assistance that should come in such intimate relationships are good, the very fact of nature is that such relationships, of their very essence, lead to procreation and the extension of the human race. It is not just an effort to populate or to continue the existence of the species; it is that in new generations, if all comes together, the development and expression of human skills and incentives will continue to uplift the quality of life.
Of course, it sadly is true that not every act of procreation brings into this world a life that can be assured of developing to the attainment of great skills and of contributing to the uplifting of the human race. The ghastly sight of want and oppression all over the world, the deprivation even of people in this country, is a distressing reminder that very many children indeed will not have the chance to reach their full capacity as persons or to fully enjoy the possibilities that life already possesses at this time in human development. The answer here is to work for better circumstances for all, and hope that in this effort the negative, obstructive factors will be overcome.
Remaining is the fact that procreation is of the essence of human nature, and it must be a basic component in intimate relationships. This potential of creating new life, and of leading new life to adulthood and the full achievement of human accomplishment, is no byproduct, or unintended consequence, of intimate relationships, but the essence.
For Christians, all this has a much loftier and much more meaningful aspect. All of the above pertains, but also vital is that intimate relationships rise far above mere human inclinations and are revealed as majestically grace-filled opportunities to draw more closely to God and to support others in finding, and in living with, God.
Christians live their lives in the example, and according to the teaching, of Christ Jesus. He was, even to death on the cross, obedient to the Father. In all things, the Lord’s focus was upon drawing people to God, so that God’s peace and joy might be in their hearts, that order might be in their communities, and that finally that they might fulfill their supreme destiny as human beings, namely to be with God in everlasting life.
This having been said, the doctrine of Christian marriage is given in Christ’s teachings as the setting by which partners in marriage, one man and one woman, can find for themselves, and for each other, a closer bond with God and a surer path to eternity with God.
However, this Christian understanding of marriage, considered in the light of present American popular opinion, builds upon, but splendidly enriches, the Natural Law. Before any of this can be asserted, the first step to take is to instruct people that they are not solitary, or supreme, in themselves.
Each person is God’s creature. This fact leads to quite sublime implications. It is upon this fact that respect for life and the pursuit of rights stand. However, despite the wonder of the origin of each human, it unveils that each person is limited, and is subject to God, to God’s Revelation in Christ, as understood in the tradition of the Church, and to the basic formula in creation that is the Natural Law.
In these days drunk with the wine of the Me Generation, and so disinclined to respect anything as having in itself some final authority, even institutional religion, troubled as it is by divisions and wrongful actions of some, it will be a difficult message to sell as priests attempt to call people to honor what the Church teaches, in this discussion regarding “same sex marriages.” But it must be done.
Looking back to history, live and let live in our society has been an idea spoken again and again. In many cases, noticeably slavery and racial segregation, and surely abortion in this time, following this idea has led our national community to reap the whirlwind. Lives have been burdened and tormented. Lives unjustly have been ended. Our society has been the poorer because of it.
There is a standard. It is revealed by God. We must follow it. We must insist upon it. TP
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.