Chaput on the Significance of Gay Marriage

Yesterday, Jon Master and I headed north to New York to hear Roman Catholic  Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, deliver the 2014 Erasmus Lecture, ‘Strangers in a Strange Land.’  As a Protestant, I was interested to hear first-hand a Roman Catholic assessment of the de-Christianization of North American society.

The lecture was rich in analysis. Central to Chaput's argument was the assumption that the civic Protestant consensus which had supported the American project for so long has collapsed in the last fifty years and that Roman Catholicism has failed to rise to the challenge of filling that vacuum.  

Among other things, it was interesting to hear the Archbishop delineate the RCC’s loss of influence over recent decades and to express the same concern about the lack of commitment among the younger generation that is often voiced in the evangelical Protestant world.

One comment in particular caught my attention: the Archbishop stated that the decision of the Supreme Court to refuse to hear state appeals regarding same-sex marriage was the ‘tipping point’ which marked, to use his memorable phrase, ‘the dismemberment of faith’s privilege in the public square.’   In the Q and A, one gentleman challenged him on this: was Roe versus Wade not the key moment?   Abp. Chaput responded that, yes, that too was a ‘tipping point’ but the legitimizing of gay marriage represented not simply a sin within a legitimate reality but a fundamental rejection of human nature.

At the banquet afterwards, I had the pleasure of sitting between a Roman Catholic Old Testament professor from Notre Dame and a young Reformed student from Yale Divinity School.   The professor observed that no sin could ultimately be regarded as worse than the murder of innocent children.  The student commented that he wished that older leaders had more confidence in the rising generation (despite, I could not resist asking, the desperate state of that generation's rock music compared to that of the 70s?).   These were sobering reminders that some of our pessimism can actually be generated by a nostalgia for the past and by the assumption that the evils of our day are so much greater than ever before. Both can simply be a function of growing old. As I commented to the two gentlemen, we have at least not seen genocide on the systematic and sustained level of the Holocaust in recent decades.   That has to be an improvement.

Yet I think the Archbishop’s point on gay marriage is sound.   This is not because it is especially sinful compared to abortion.  Murder is arguably the ultimate desecration of God's image, after all.  Rather it is because it represents perhaps a much later and more radical stage in the redefinition of what constitutes a person.  In the 70s, a child in the womb ceased to be a legal person (though, strange to tell, you can be prosecuted on two counts of murder if you kill a pregnant woman).  That demanded a redefinition of personhood along developmental/chronological lines.  But the new politics of sexual identity are erasing all biological or, to use a more philosophical/theological term, substantial factors in what constitutes personhood.  That may not be any more sinful but it is a whole lot more politically, socially, and culturally radical.