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Taking Rites Seriously: Political Liberalism and the Problem of Marriage Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 06 January 2012

Political Liberalism, as we know it today, is not even three decades old. It began to develop in the early 1980s in the writings of several well-known philosophers that included Thomas Nagel, Ronald Dworkin, and John Rawls. The purpose of their project was to offer the political culture an intellectually respectable way to sequester the policy goals of the fledgling movement of religious conservatives while at the same time claiming that their project is consistent with an older liberalism that allows for full political participation by all citizens.

The Political Liberal correctly observes that the differences between citizens on the culture-owar issues – e.g., abortion, marriage, euthanasia – stem from their contrary, though reasonable, worldviews or comprehensive doctrines (as Rawls would put it). Rawls concedes that his understanding of “reasonable” is “deliberately loose.”

“We avoid excluding doctrines as unreasonable,” writes Rawls, “without strong grounds based on clear aspects of the reasonable itself. Otherwise our account runs the danger of being arbitrary and exclusive. Political liberalism counts many familiar and traditional doctrines – religious, philosophical, and moral – as reasonable, even though we could not seriously entertain them for ourselves. . . .” (Emphasis added)

So, for example, the prolifer opposes abortion because he believes that all human beings, including the unborn, are by nature persons and thus have intrinsic dignity regardless of their size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependency.

The typical prochoicer, on the other hand, maintains that not all human beings are persons, because a person is a being who has the present capacity to exercise certain person-making functions like self-consciousness, rationality, the ability to communicate and have desires, and so forth. Because the fetus for most of its gestation lacks these functions, it is not a person and thus it is permissible to abort it.

Both positions, according to the Political Liberal, are reasonable, for they are derived from reasonable comprehensive doctrines and neither is unassailable. Thus, it would be as equally unjust for the government to coerce a prochoice citizen to carry a pregnancy to term as it would be for it to coerce a prolife citizen to procure an abortion. This is because a citizen cannot be coerced on a matter of fundamental rights based on reasons he is reasonable to reject.

Political Liberalism’s sole purpose, we are told, is to accommodate citizen diversity on these contested questions while nurturing a political culture of respect and tolerance, the latter of which would be reflected in the government’s restraint in coercing and marginalizing citizens based on where they stand on these contested questions.

The question lurking in the debate over whether or not marriage law should recognize same-sex couples seems almost like a paradigm case of the sort of dispute for which Political Liberalism was invented: what is the proper function of our sexual powers and its relationship to the nature of marriage?

How one answers this question is inexorably tied to what one understands to be true about the nature of men and women, the conjugal act, and the permanence of the marital bond. Such understandings, to conscript Rawls, are informed by those “many familiar and traditional doctrines – religious, philosophical, and moral” that Political Liberalism counts “as reasonable.”

Thus, it would seem to be inconsistent with Political Liberalism to allow any government coercion and marginalization of citizens who, as a matter of conscience (often grounded in religious conviction), cannot acquiesce to the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.

Consider just one example. In Massachusetts, soon after the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in 2003 required that the state issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Catholic Charities, which was at the time in the child adoption business, was told by the state that it could no longer exclude same-sex couples as adoptive parents, even though the Catholic Church maintains that same-sex unions are deeply disordered and sinful. Because it could not as a matter of conscience compromise its moral theology, Catholic Charities ceased putting children up for adoption.

Catholic Charities believes that its mission is to find for each child under its care an adequate replacement for her mother and father. This is grounded in the belief that a human child is the sort of being that has by nature a mother and a father, just as it is the sort of being that has the essential property to exercise rational thought (even if it never acquires the ability to exercise it).

Thus, if we have an obligation not to interrupt a child’s ability to exercise rational thought, we also have an obligation not to deny unjustly a child her mother and father. Because Catholic Charities believes it is morally required to treat all children with equal dignity and respect, this means that no child should be denied a mother and a father or a replacement for each if it is in fact possible to do so.

Including same-sex couples as adoptive parents, according to Catholic Charities, violates the equal dignity and respect of the children who have been placed in its care. Although everyone does not share this perspective, it is certainly just the sort of reasonable comprehensive doctrine that Political Liberalism is supposed to protect.

But as we have seen since 2003, everything from public education, to rental law, to employment law, to family law, to government funding and to the tax-exempt status of religious academic institutions falls within the orbit of a state’s interest in making sure that same-sex marriage dissenters are coerced, punished, or marginalized if they refuse to treat same-sex marriage as licit as male-female marriage.

Thus, the Political Liberal, if he wants to remain consistent, should stand in solidarity with those who dissent from same-sex marriage.


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is one of four primary contributors to the forthcoming Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism (Zondervan, 2012).

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Comments (7)Add Comment
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written by Dan, January 06, 2012
As described here, "loose reasonableness" translates into nothing more than relativism, which as Joseph Ratzinger has so brilliantly pointed out, tends to give rise to its own "dictatorship."
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written by Dave, January 06, 2012
Professor Beckwith's paragraph on pro-choicers is remarkably helpful for pointing to a chilling fact, the Political Left's definition of personhood. This definition leads inexorably not only to abortion, but to the death panels and euthanization -- murder -- of the elderly the Left swore was not part of Obamacare. But the logic is there: for once the elderly no longer possess the present capacity to exercise person-making functions, they cease to be persons and they fall outside of the laws protecting persons; and since one of the stated goals of the Act was to contain health care costs, and since the lion's share of those costs are incurred in the last twelve to twenty-four months of life, what is to stop the euthanization -- murder -- of "non-persons" and the diversion of resources to persons, i.e. those who can render a return on the "investment" society makes in their health? Already are being told the stories in Holland of elderly being pressured to say they want euthanasia, when their loved ones know they do not; already we have the case, from Oregon, of a patient being denied coverage for a rare cancer expensive to treat, with, however, the helpful notice that when the pain becomes unbearable, the state can assist with euthanasia. It's that much cheaper, you see.

In observation of the Rules for Commenting, I desist from writing more at this point.
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written by Kevin Walker, January 06, 2012
I don't really think you can hold gay marriage advocates to the standards of political liberalism. Rawls' achievement was not any sort of great advance for Western thought, but a defensive measure; it is the last attempt to prevent an inevitable turn to a new progressive will to power. It is, of course, a hopeless defense, and it is only a matter of time before it is bulldozed by progressivism.

You can see this in the famous "mystery passage" in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Justice Kennedy asserts the new definition of liberty as the right to define your own existence and the "mystery of human life," etc., but then he says: "Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State." He seems well aware of what progress means for civilization: it's the power of government to engineer society, and force all to adhere to the agenda and values of the ruling class -- and the only thing standing in the way of that is Kennedy himself, and his judicial assertion of "rights." It is, once again, a thin, whimpy attempt to hold back a tidal wave.

In terms of gay marriage, it's not about political liberalism, but the intentional deconstruction of marriage as a foundational institution, leaving individuals more subject to the State. In this, the whole "how does gay marrage affect me" crowd are the supreme dupes, the fools of the world.
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written by Chris, January 06, 2012
Dr. Beckwith, I have tremendous respect for you and your knowledge of political philosophy, so I can't believe the observation I'm about to make isn't already obvious to you. For all I know, this may be the direction you're planning to take in future essays. But here goes...

Isn't it true that the entire goal of the last decade of attacks on religious belief - especially when the particular religion is based primarily on revelation - is to "prove" that such belief is UNREASONABLE? What we're seeing from the Political Liberal is entirely consistent (sadly, I might add) if we take this as a given. The "dissent from same-sex marriage" (and every other contested question) is basically deemed to be unreasonable because THEY define what is and is not reasonable. Am I missing something?
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written by Other Joe, January 06, 2012
Dave - the actual percentage of health care costs in the last year of life is very close to 90%, close enough that people in the health industry use that number. The new financial method for pushing the progressive agenda is to spend and promise to spend into crisis and then tax and withhold services to "balance" the budget. It is working brilliantly. Spend and tax has replaced tax and spend. Given such a world view, it is not only not reasonable to spend now scarce health care monies to "extend" life during the last year of existence, it is insane to suggest otherwise. The problems are many with such a view, including the fact that a diagnosis is essentially a guess and that individuals respond differently to treatment. However the biggest problem is the view of an individual as a social unit with no more inherent dignity that a curb stone and possibly less "useful". Since withholding of medical in the "last year" of life is a self-fulfilling prophecy, the practitioners believe they have "proven" scientific results and the money saved is real money. Without a view of human dignity based on a higher (non-material) standard there is literally no escape from euthanasia once health care is politicized. All of this has come to pass so...
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, January 06, 2012
Chris, you are correct that that is the only way out of the "reasonable comprehensive doctrine" argument. And I have no doubt that that is the way the PL will go to get out of this dilemma. However, if an issue so basic to every reasonable comprehensive doctrine--the proper end of our sexual powers and their relation to conjugal love--can be discarded as permanently out of bounds unless it conforms to only one reasonable comprehensive doctrine's account, then political liberalism is a sham. In other words, if it can't accommodate THAT disagreement, it was a bait and switch from the start. And, I suspect, that it in fact has been the case.
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written by Tony Esolen, January 06, 2012
Thank you for this fine article, Dr. Beckwith!

I have one recommendation. I do wish that orthodox Christians would cease using the phrase "same-sex marriage". There is no such thing. There can never be any such thing.

A man -- to speak with frank biological precision -- cannot have sexual intercourse with another man. The requisite organs are lacking. A woman cannot have sexual intercourse with another woman. Again, the requisite organs are lacking. What they can do is to mimic sexual intercourse, by means of non-sexual organs, or by supplying the lack by means of foolish things picked up at a porno shop.

I do not believe in same-sex marriage, as I do not believe in four-sided triangles. Unicorns happen not to exist, but they could conceivably exist. Elves happen not to exist, but they could conceivably exist. A same-sex marriage cannot conceivably exist, just as any self-contradictory proposition cannot be true. Oh, we can pretend -- though our pretending must be even more foolish than pretending that there's a unicorn in the woods out there.

Our first response to the question, "Do you believe in same-sex marriage?" should be, "It is not a question of belief. Same-sex marriage is a flat impossibility. It is a contradiction in terms." Therefore I reserve the terms "pseudogamy" and "pseudogamous" for these relationships.

I'll add that polygamy is an example of genuine but defective marriage. That is, a man can conceivably have two wives; but it is a falling away from what marriage truly is. This is why drawing an analogy between anti-miscegenation laws and the "prohibition" of same-sex pseudogamy is absurd. Even the racists never denied that a black man could conceivably marry a white woman. They just didn't want that marriage to be allowed.


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