April 2005

First published April 28, 2005, in Between the Lines.

Although some people would describe me as a fallen Catholic, they’re wrong: I didn’t fall; I leapt. Still, after John Paul II’s death, I followed the papal candidates with an enthusiasm normally reserved for American Idol contestants. Eagerly I scrutinized their biographies on interactive websites, trying to guess who would be picked.

“Do you think it will be Ratzinger?” my friends asked.

“No way,” I answered. “Too divisive.”

“Habemus papam,” came the announcement (which is Latin for, “He’s changing into something white — hang on”). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI.

I knew Ratzinger’s name well. Back in the late 1980s when I was a philosophy and theology student at St. John’s University (NY), I studied his “Letter to the Catholic Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” There Ratzinger described homosexuality as “an objective disorder” towards “an intrinsic moral evil.” Incidentally, at the time I was a candidate for the priesthood and had recently come out of the closet as a gay man.

The letter was not without its “pastoral” moments. Ratzinger (as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which enforces Church orthodoxy) wrote that “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society.”

But he followed this admirable admonition with a more equivocal one: “But…when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

In other words, when gays demand civil rights, we should expect people to beat them up. While Ratzinger’s wording was more nuanced than many critics admit, it is hard not to detect a “blame the victim” element in it. Similar blame-shifting appeared in some of his comments on the priestly sex-abuse scandal.

But what worries me even more about Ratzinger/Benedict is the false dilemma he erects between fundamentalism and relativism. In a homily before the papal conclave, the soon-to-be pope stated:

“Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

Relativism is the view that truth is dependent on, or relative to, a person’s or culture’s perspective. Contra Ratzinger/Benedict, it need not have “as its highest goal one’s own ego,” since not everyone’s perspective is egoistic.

Granted, relativism often results in moral wishy-washiness (to use the technical philosophical term). Relativists believe that any moral view is ultimately as good as any other. And that belief is not only false, it’s pernicious, since it demotes moral commitments into matters of mere personal taste.

But the proper alternative to relativism is not fundamentalism, which closes itself off from the world and brooks no dissent. The proper alternative is a healthy — and thus humble — regard for truth.

Can truth tolerate dissent? Absolutely. Pope Benedict (along with the rest of us) would do well to recall the words of the philosopher John Stuart Mill on this point. In his 1859 classic On Liberty Mill argued that those who silence opinions — even false ones — rob the world of great gifts:

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Mill understood that we should embrace diversity of opinion, not because there is no objective truth, but because history shows us to be imperfect in its pursuit. We should welcome other perspectives, not because we necessarily lack confidence in our own, but because a confident perspective need not fear dialogue.

Upon his election as pope, Benedict described himself as “a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.” It is hard to recognize humility in a man who insists that anyone who rejects his particular religious worldview must therefore endorse relativism and egoism. It is still harder to recognize it in someone who now claims to speak directly for God.

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First published April 14, 2005, in Between the Lines.

In recent weeks I have been traveling the country doing lectures and debates on gay marriage. The first was at Texas A&M University, a school I hadn’t visited since 1992. At that time I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, where we tended to view the “Aggies” as — well, a bit backward.

The rivalry between the schools has not abated, and “Aggie jokes” remain a popular pastime. For example:

Q: What’s the difference between Aggie cheerleaders and sheep?

A: If you get lonely, you can always find good-looking sheep.

A&M was founded as an all-male military college, and it currently boasts the largest uniformed body of (now co-ed) students in the U.S. outside of service academies. Unsurprisingly, it is not known for being liberal or diverse. Indeed, its provincialism manifests itself in interesting ways. When being given directions to campus I was told — I am not making this up — “Turn left on Texas, right on George Bush, right on Houston.”

Needless to say, I got lost, although I’m not sure whether that was because all the street names sounded the same or because I was distracted by hoards of handsome cadets in uniform (who very courteously gave me additional directions).

The day before my event, the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCTs), a student group, hosted “YCT’s Big Fat Obnoxious Wedding” to protest gay awareness week. The flier for their event read:

“Free weddings…Homosexual, Polygamous, Bestial, Incestuous — or even marry yourself!”

In light of the Aggie jokes I knew, I found it ironic that these guys were encouraging incestuous and bestial marriage. Indeed, just a few weeks ago at the UT-A&M basketball game, one UT student dressed as a sheep and held up a sign that read “Baaah means No.” (As their guest, however, I kept my amusement to myself.)

At the YCT wedding, one guy “married” his dog. Another married a poster of Reagan. A woman married her cell phone.

Now, I’m a liberal, but I draw the line at posters of Reagan. (Clinton, maybe, but never Reagan.)

The slippery-slope argument motivating the YCT event is not new. If we make one change in the definition of marriage, it says, what’s to stop us from making any other change? I often call this argument the “PIB” argument (for Polygamy, Incest, and Bestiality — the most common examples), but it works equally well (or I should say, equally poorly) with cell phones, bicycles, and Reagan posters.

The PIB argument assumes that gays want the right to marry anyone (or thing) they love. But love is only part of the case for gay marriage. Marriage is a social institution: public recognition is part of its essence. (If it were not, then you could indeed marry whomever or whatever you happen to love.) Therefore, in considering whether marriage should be extended to same-sex relationships, we cannot simply ask whether same-sex partners love each other. We must ask whether recognizing that love in marriage is good for society.

I don’t think the latter question is terribly difficult to answer. Committed gay relationships, like committed straight relationships, are typically a source of support and stability in people’s lives. Happy, stable individuals make for a happy, stable society. That’s one reason we recognize heterosexual marriage, even when the couple has no intention of having children and everyone knows it. We believe that marriage is good for people (at least for most), and we have a stake in the well being of those around us.

Contrast this with marrying cell-phones and farm animals, and the facetiousness of these suggestions is readily apparent. Everyone agrees that such “marriages” provide no social benefit, and so the question of whether to recognize them is off the table.

Which is precisely what I told my audience (including the front row, occupied by the YCTs) at A&M: The question before us is whether recognizing same-sex marriage would be good for society. We get no further toward answering that question by considering the merits of polygamous, incestuous, or bestial marriage (any of which can be heterosexual or homosexual), or by staging mock marriages to cell phones and bicycles.

That said, I found the Aggies to be a thoughtful and friendly bunch. I was especially surprised the next morning at breakfast, when I approached the cash register at the campus coffee shop and discovered that my meal had been surreptitiously paid for. I scanned the room, and a cadet I recognized from the previous night’s audience smiled and nodded. I thank him and all the Aggies for their gracious hospitality.

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