Marriage and MacIntyre

In my previous post, I insisted that marriage was an idea that deserved its own term: that is, among human relationships, there were certain relationships that could be distinguished as married, and I would like to think that I left the door open for any number of emotionally intimate or financially interdependent relationships to be recognized as good and valuable without calling them marriages.

It was perhaps not sufficiently clear that, although I am confident that marriage that marriage is a particular kind of  relationship, I am not at this point prepared to discuss what sorts of policies ought to be set up around the institution. Therefore, I cannot neither affirm nor deny most of what Rachel put forward in her comment on the last post. My argument was that “marriage” is the name we assign to a particular kind of human relationship, rather than the name we assign to the most emotionally validating and/or financially interdependent relationship which we may happen to have (or at least that the sort of relationship historically known as marriage is  differentiable-enough from the latter concept to warrant a unique term).

I can see no clear line from that assertion to the assertion that the government only has an interest in protecting the former category or the opposite assertion that government should get out of the marriage business altogether and leave religious matters to religious institutions. The former assertion doesn’t sufficiently examine the values of other relationships, and the latter wrongly treats marriage as a sectarian institution; although marriage is indeed counted among the Catholic Sacraments, it does not find its genesis (pun intended) in Catholic sacramental theology, and it is therefore possible to defend marriage as a public institution without making it explicitly sectarian. In short, I am not ready to  jump from the linguistic question to the legal one. This is a conversation that we have to walk through from start to finish rather than leaping from first premises to final conclusions.

One important step along this route is the recognition that marriage is not “just” a consensual and emotionally fulfilling relationship nor “just” a legal contract for the sharing of property; neither “relationship” nor “contract” seems to quite have the necessary scope to adequately describe marriage. It has too many explicit rules and expectations to be a casual relationship, and too many implicit expectations to be a contract. I think that it will be helpful to understand marriage as a “practice,” as famously defined by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue:

“[a practice is] any coherent and complex form of socially-established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended” (MacIntyre 187).

This does not directly answer the question of what role the government has in promoting or defending a given definition of marriage, but it does give us a better idea of what questions to ask: What are the goods internal to marriage as traditionally understood? What are the standards of excellence? How do the standards of excellence, both individually and in combination, contribute to the realization of those goods? To what extent can these goods be realized apart from the institution of marriage? Each of these questions must be answered in turn before we can ask what interest the state has, and the answers to these questions will (probably) be explored in an upcoming blog post.


Defense of Marriage: Not Bigoted But Pedantic

It goes without saying that a word can have multiple definitions, and that the definition of a term can change based on common usage. There are currently two definitions of marriage in common use, and the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act seems to be based on one definition rather than the other.

The definition of marriage behind the Supreme Court decision on DOMA reads something like this: marriage is the public affirmation of an exclusive and loving commitment between two individuals. This is how our culture has come to treat the institution, and it is this common social understanding of marriage that has motivated recent attempts to change the legal institution. Indeed, under this definition, there is no compelling reason to limit the institution to opposite-sex couples. If we say that marriage is about recognizing the value of human relationality, then we cannot discriminate based on sex. As Justice Kennedy’s opinion suggests, asserting that genuinely human and fulfilling relationships can only occur between one man and one woman wrongly demeans every other kind of fulfilling interpersonal relationship.

Anyone who, having accepted this definition of marriage, refuses to expand the legal institution beyond the limitations of one man and one woman can rightly be called arbitrary or even bigoted. However, neither I nor other defenders of traditional marriage oppose expanding the legal definition of marriage on these untenable grounds. Rather, it is clear to me that, as valuable as human relationships are, the particular kind of relationship traditionally referred to as marriage serves a particular and necessary social function that we cannot afford to put aside.

Marriage, under a more traditional usage, is a loving and exclusive sexual relationship between a man and a woman that is both open to the creation of new life and ready to take responsibility for that new life. This definition of marriage involves the public acknowledgement of an exclusive and loving relationship between individuals, but its limitation to opposite-sex couples is justified in that marriage is understood as a way of harnessing both sexuality and emotional attachment as a means for creating families: through marriage, children can not only be created, but brought up with their biological parents as their primary caregivers. Defenders of traditional marriage are not arguing that loving relationships between adults have no value, but rather, that the difference between a generic publicly-affirmed loving relationship and one that exists between a man and the woman for the purpose of creating a family is significant enough for the latter idea to have its own exclusive term.

It is not that words cannot have more than one meaning or that the primary meaning we assign to a word cannot change, but that there are certain concepts -such as traditional marriage- that demand a term of their own if for no other reason than conceptual clarity. The actual choice of word might be arbitrary, but the recognition that this choice must be made can hardly be called bigoted.

John the Baptist and Thomas More on Marriage

June 22nd is the feast of St. Thomas More; June 24th is the feast of the nativity of John the Baptist. Today, June 23rd, is smack-dab right-in-the-middle of these saints’ feast days, so it’s an appropriate day for me to publish a blog post about these two saints, both of whom I have long considered to be among my special patrons. However, it took me a long time to realize that, not only were both of these saints martyred, but they were martyred for reasons related to their views on marriage.

John the Baptist incurred the wrath of Herod’s wife Herodias (who had previously been married to Herod’s brother Philip) by insisting to King Herod that “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). After some intrigue, Herodias gets John beheaded. Thomas More was killed by King Henry VIII because of his refusal to recognize Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. Thomas stood by the judgment of the Pope, who had refused to grant Henry an annulment and whom Henry in turn had rejected as having authority over the church in England. After a prolonged imprisonment and a joke of a trial, Thomas was sentenced to death and beheaded.

Knowing what happened to each of these men should probably make me less eager to stick out my own neck on the issue of marriage, but these days, I think it may be more likely for me to be said to have lost my mind than told that I must lose my head for holding an opinion that challenges the mainstream.

Neither John the Baptist nor Thomas More can offer much directly to the question of same-sex marriage; it would be easy for an opponent to say that, because both were endorsing religious interpretations of marriage, neither More’s beliefs nor John the Baptist’s teachings can be of much help for the modern apologist for traditional marriage: we are working in an ostensibly secular society in which religious beliefs are (rightly or wrongly) excluded from discussions of public policy, and even with that aside, they seem to stand against divorce rather than against same-sex marriage. However, there are still lessons to be learned from their perspectives. The main lesson I want to draw from these patrons is encouragement, but more specific lessons are detailed below.

In Robert Bolt’s play and film A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More recognizes that the institution of marriage had integrity that the political concerns of Henry VIII could not overrule (I limit this to Bolt’s version because I haven’t had occasion to study real history, and so, like so many of my contemporaries, I rely instead on a combination of pop culture and my own presuppositions). Henry’s lust for Anne Boleyn is not adequate excuse to invalidate the marriage, nor is his claim that Catherine had become sterile and that England needed a male heir in order to avoid a bloody war of succession (like the one that had given rise to the House of Tudor) sufficient for his purpose. Henry’s final argument seems to lie (pun intended) in the assertion that his marriage to Catherine was adulterous in the first instance since she had been his brother’s wife, and I don’t see the need to provide further refutation than, under Levitical law as acknowledged by 1st-century Judaism and presumably for a long time before, if a man died before his wife bore a son, his younger brother was supposed to marry his widow. The objection to which I’d like to pay the most attention to the second argument, the one from political necessity: in the film, More says that he is ready to recognize Henry’s children through Anne as legitimate heirs to the throne if they are recognized by Parliament as such, but even at the cost of his life, “would not assent to the marriage.” Marriage, we learn from St. Thomas, is an institution with a certain meaning that cannot be changed based on the way the political wind is blowing.

As for John the Baptist, he landed in hot water for stubbornly pointing out that Herod’s marriage to the wife of his still-living brother Philip was no marriage at all. Herodias, apparently quite incensed by this suggestion, nurses a grudge against John for so long that, when her daughter comes to her and tells her that she had earned a favor from her uncle foster-father, Herodias decides immediately on revenge. One could easily contend that John’s statements were rash or otherwise un-compassionate, but John did not say that a friendship between Herod and Herodias was unlawful (one might even say that it would be politically astute): he said that they could not be married, and that it was against the Law for them to act as if they were. St. John shows us that marriage is not an institution that bends to our emotions. It is an institution with its own integrity.

Again, both of these lessons could be answered by the objection that these are appeals to religious definitions of marriage, and that both notions are from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but I think it is nonetheless sane to conclude that, even in our day and age, it is prudent to ensure that meaningful words such as marriage retain their essential meanings. Marriage cannot be enslaved to the “need” to produce a male heir to the throne any more than it can be brought to heel by someone who feels that the definition of the word stands in the way of their emotional fulfillment.

Why Obama is Right about Catholic Schools (in Ireland, anyway)

Obama went to Ireland and said something that has the right-wing Catholic blogosphere (that’s a word, right?) in an uproar.

Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity — symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others — these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it.  If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division.  It discourages cooperation.

Obama’s point is that schools that are segregated based on religious identity tend to reinforce those religious identities. He is not regarding these schools primarily as religious institutions, but as institutions that reinforce religious identity. Given the way in which the conflict in Northern Ireland was characterized by differences of religious identity that were only reinforced by the school structures, Obama’s suggestion makes sense. At the very least, if one disagrees with his proposed solution, one must concede that the role sectarian schools can play in the formation of harmful conceptions of identity needs to be counteracted.

This line of reasoning does not imply that sectarian schools must be utterly abolished, but that successful interdenominational educational efforts, even in a few neighborhoods, could do much to overcome the distrust between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Lest we forget, schools are not just places where kids go during the day to be indoctrinated: a school is a project of the neighborhood, and not only will the friendships children form across religious divides help to fortify the peace for the next generation, but the cooperation between parents in that project can help to fortify the peace in the more immediate future.

ETA: I am no expert on Irish politics, nor on educational policy, no more than Obama or most of the other people commenting on this issue as if Obama was expressing the wish that Catholic education everywhere ought to be abolished or even devaluing it generally, and insisting on seeing his remarks in the worst possible light serves to discredit the interpreters rather than the speaker. We have plenty of reasons to criticize Obama without manufacturing one.

I’d like to reiterate that the formation of a religious identity can be a very good thing; it was only in the context of a strong Catholic identity that my faith was able to mature. However, the formation of a Catholic identity cannot be achieved at the cost of making of one’s Protestant neighbor an existential threat, (which seems to be the perennial problem in Northern Ireland). It is not that instilling religious identity is a bad thing, but that it can be done badly, and to horrific effect.

Finally, I need to admit for honesty’s sake that at least part of the reason I’m so intrigued by the idea of integrated schools is that I would be very interested in the wider ecumenical implications if such a cooperation were successful.

Guest Post: An Atheist’s Challenge to Catholics

I had a reason in my last post for focusing on the role of the Internet and going out of my way to discuss Catholic Answers as a resource primarily for Catholic-Protestant discussions: I wanted to set up this message from a friend whom I met later in my career as an Internet apologist. I’d really like to see some discussion about this issues and questions he raises. Are there online resources that he hasn’t discovered? If not, is there anyone interested in this sort of project?


I’m a undergraduate studying for my degree in physics. I used to be a Christian once but I lost my faith during college. I didn’t become a raving new atheist and I was never satisfied, I only knew that I didn’t believe in God anymore. So lately I’ve begun to really examine the rationale I have for that, and what sorts of arguments there is for Christianity in general, and even Catholicism in particular. Needless to say I started out as a protestant. When I go around the web, and look up resources on whether God exists, its always been easy to find a plethora of apologetic articles about the existence of God and the resurrection. But most of the articles that I come across have mostly been from protestants. I have never used protestant as a search term to find them, there simple seems to be more websites by protestants that deals with these things. That’s not to say that Catholics haven’t written anything on the existence of God. However I’ve noticed that there’s a lack of an apologetics website by apologists who reach out to atheists. In comparison its very easy to find a Catholic website dedicated to arguing why protestantism is false. Yet not one that tries to convince an atheist, or even just secular minded people in general. I’ve gottten some respect for the amount of work that Catholics can put into their theology. A lot of the apologetics websites I’ve found have been a bit superficial in their approach in comparison.
So I’ve considered that catholic theology students might be in an excellent position to join forces and make a website that makes the case for God’s existence, and Christ’s ressurection. I asked a Catholic friend about this (in an accusation about evangelistic laziness that got a bit ungracious on my part), and his response was “That would mean writing a new Summa Theologica, I’m too humble for that.” I am definitely not asking you to outdo Thomas Aquinas. The articles can deal with any argument, as long as they stick within the confinement of arguing for the basic truthes of Christianity. I think the internet could use something like that. I would love to see it done.
Another blog about how a certain opera displays a particular character quality, or an analysis of a literary work, or another blog dedicated to showing how Catholicism-is-not-like-Protestantism, won’t help my quest. However a website with articles dedicated to demonstrating the basic truths of Catholicism (not just why Sola Scripture is insufficient and Tradition is important): Why we know that God exists; Why he is this particular God; How we can be confident that Christ was raised from the dead; How we know that God is triune, etc.. The basics of the Christian belief, but by catholic apologists.
The type of arguments can range from trancendental, to arguments from experience and evidence based approaches, but they ought to be discussed rationally. The format of the website is not important. In principle it could be a blog, as long as the blog is made easy to navigate, so that you don’t have to fish backwards in the archive section to dig out articles.

Do you think something like this is a good idea? Does something like this already exist, but I’ve simple not been able to find it?

I’ll finish on a provocative note. As big as the Catholic church is supposed to be, its presence on the web, when it comes to apologetics doesn’t seem proportionate. Unless I’ve been missing something, it seems protestants are far better at explaining why anyone should be a Christian in the first place, putting the arguments out there to be easily accessible, where to go for more indepth information, books to read.. I have never come across anything like that from Catholics except a few scant blogs dedicated to writing to other catholics, and a few apologetic sites dedicated to either arguing for sedevantism, or against sedevacantism, or why Catholicism isn’t Protestantism, how Catholicism is superior to Protestantism, why protestants ought to become Catholics and why Protestantism is a bad idea. If Catholics are doing any missionary work, it seems to be dedicated either to people in foreign countries, their children, or protestants.

What about us atheists?

Anyone can contact me at:

Atheism and the Internet Generation

I was highly intrigued when this article came up on my Facebook newsfeed a while ago. Go ahead. Read it. In case you didn’t, though, here are the things that many self-identified atheists of my generation apparently have in common:

  1. They had attended church
  2. The mission and message of their churches was vague
  3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions
  4. They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously
  5. Ages 14-17 were decisive
  6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one
  7. The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism

I think that the Second Vatican Council can be helpful in further illuminating the way in which these young atheists’ experiences with church services may contribute to their atheism:

Gaudium et Spes 19

Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame; yet believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation. For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.

Vatican II anticipates every single factor except 5 and 7, which are themselves unique to this generation, but which are not for that reason unworthy of consideration. I know that I started getting seriously involved in the Internet at about that same age. So why am I still Catholic? It may have something to do with the fact that I first started involving myself in online debates as a Catholic apologist: I started out with a Catholic identity that I was determined to explore and defend. If I had encountered in my fellow Catholic apologists a refusal to confront facts, I may well have gone away discouraged, but instead, I encountered mentors who knew the faith well and who encouraged me to learn more about Catholicism and to defend my beliefs.

Of course, if Catholic apologetics has an “easy mode,” it would have to be arguing with people who get their arguments from Jack Chick. Resources for arguments against such such forms of Christianity were readily available to me through sites like Catholic Answers. As time went on, though, I found myself confronting more difficult arguments and more rational interlocutors (which is really just another way of saying that I finally started paying more attention to people who weren’t easy targets), and I could rely less and less on what I could glean from my old resources. However, by that time, I had integrated my Catholic beliefs more fully into my personal and intellectual identity; Catholicism was not just something I had grown up around and embraced just because my family did, but something that I had come to recognize as worthwhile in its own right.

But again, that was on easy mode. It seems as though many people of my generation encounter more difficult arguments earlier on, and so have not had the chance to build up an intellectual understanding of Christianity to go along with the identity with which they were raised. They encountered a church that was not prepared to help them address difficult questions, that did not have the intellectual or pastoral resources to lead these young people into a mature faith that is not ultimately dependent on charismatic pastors or welcoming communities (as helpful as those things can be), but on Christ. I am Catholic today not primarily because it has brought me into community with good people, or because understanding Catholicism makes me feel smart, but because I know that there is more to the Church than the people I can see.

This leads us at last back to Vatican II: it is declared in Lumen Gentium 48 that “the Church already on this earth is signed with a sanctity which is real although imperfect.” Christ is made only imperfectly present through the Church, through its communities and intellectual traditions, and a faith that is placed either in a feel-good community or intellectual pursuits is a faith ultimately misplaced. It is necessary to convince people that faith in Christ Himself is worthwhile even when we are left alone and without answers.

This faith in Christ is not and cannot be an excuse to stop seeking answers to problems that confound us (if I thought that were the case, I would have no business as a Theology major). Rather, this faith ought to give us the confidence to proceed even if we cannot see the answer immediately. Faith assures us that that there is a divine Reason which (or, rather, Who) is drawing us into ever-greater communion with God.

More on The Sign of Peace

I came across another blog post about the sign of peace, and I think it offers a helpful but rather different perspective:

After citing GIRM 82, the passage relevant to this matter, the writer explains:

There is no need for walking around and socializing, or even for waving across the parish to another person. If someone is not right nearby, there should be no pressure for anyone to seek out others. It should be quiet, contain, and short. It should not involving anything other than saying “peace be with you” or responding “amen.” It is possible to do this with dignity.

The Roman Missal itself makes it clear that the ritual is fully accomplished when the priest says: “The peace of the Lord be with you always” and the people respond: “And with your spirit.” There is no necessary need for anything else. In fact, the Missal says that the celebrant “may add, when appropriate: Let us offer each other the sign of peace.”

In other words, the congregational peace exchange can be eliminated completely — and I’m quite certain that many people will feel a sense of relief over this. I am among them.

While there is certainly a danger in taking the sign of peace as an opportunity for conversation, I think that there is an opposite danger in putting too much effort into seeming “dignified.”

There are two possible ways we can understand “dignity” in the context of the liturgy. The first definition of dignity is composure and self-control. If I were feeling particularly uncharitable, I would further suggest that this definition of dignity is really a sort of stoicism masquerading as reverence. This false perception of dignity is more likely to lead to the idolatrous love of one’s own piety than true and deep love of God.

The notion with which I would like to contrast this obvious strawman is the notion of dignity as inherent worth. A dignified liturgy is one in which the dignity of Christ is recognized, in which Christ, particularly present in the Eucharist, is recognized for who He is and treated with the appropriate respect, and I’ll be damned (quite literally) if the best response I can muster to Christ’s presence is stoic indifference or forced piety. Christ as present in our neighbor, however, is not to be neglected, either. The inherent dignity of each of our fellow Christians must be recognized, and the Sign of Peace seems like the most natural place to affirm that in an explicit and liturgical fashion.

The presence of Christ ought to prompt in us the deepest kind of vulnerability. For some of us, this vulnerability will manifest itself most often in a reverent silence. For others, it may more often than not involve a recognition of God’s presence in others, as I have elsewhere suggested. The order of the Mass, as it is currently set up, gives us time for both and recognizes the place of both in the worldwide Church as well as in each individual soul.

Love of God (as particularly evident in silent reverence) and love of neighbor (as made evident through actual participation (cf Vatican II) in the sign of peace) are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the fact that Jesus gave us both of these as commandments tells me that both are necessary for the Christian. I should hope that we do not lightly reject opportunities to step outside of our comfort zones in living out our mission as Christians.

Does the practice of love of neighbor mean treating the church at Mass like the parish hall at coffee hour? By no means! I agree with the suggestions I’ve seen that priority in the sign of peace ought to be exchange it with those in the immediate area rather than one person on the other side of the chapel that you happen to know instead of any of the 50 other people between you, but I get the definite feeling that most of the people who complain about any abuses in the sign of peace are preaching to the choir at best.

Further proof of concept: #3 on this list, from the same author as the blog post cited above:

The rite of peace has a long tradition in the Roman Rite dating to the earliest centuries. It was mostly restricted to the clergy. There are arguments and disputes about whether extending it to the congregation is a revival of a lost tradition or an innovation. Regardless, this much we do know: it is not supposed to be a micro-social hour that encourages people to mill around as if at a cocktail party.


In general, this whole part of the Mass invites confusion and awkwardness, and no matter how much we try to solemnize it, it still has more of the feeling of a civic or social activity than a truly liturgical one. At best it is a distraction. At worst, it can result in hurt feelings and all around confusion.

I don’t doubt that the people who criticize the Sign of Peace do so because they want to see a greater reverence for Christ, truly present in the Eucharist. However, the solution to any seeming abuse in the sign of peace is not to remove the activity, but to make it more clearly liturgical in nature. This involves a more pastoral approach than the one Mr. Tucker seems to favor, which looks for any excuse to omit or otherwise downplay the Sign of Peace. I would like to think that the more theological exploration of the practice which I have laid out is slightly more pastoral, but that is not for me to judge. It seems to me, however, that a positive framing of the sign of peace might lead to the diminishing of the apparent abuses without losing the good that can come out of the practice.