Durable Goods, Durable Evils

Perhaps it’s only the current financial crisis, but lately I find myself looking at economic terms for insight into our situation. One such term often catches my eye: durable goods, which usually means anything that will retain its usefulness for at least three years. Three years as a test that something is durable, of course, would have seemed silly to any thoughtful person until quite recently. But let’s take it at face value that our culture and economy are so oriented towards immediate gratification that being willing to invest in an appliance, an automobile, or a home indicates something that at least resembles people thinking prudently over a significant time frame.

What rarely enters into economic calculations is what someone thinking on a different plane might call durable evils. But these too exist. In fact, a good chunk of the ills we suffer comes from our inability to appreciate the long-term harm that things we do today may cause tomorrow. Deficit spending is going to teach this lesson in short order, though not everyone will be an apt pupil. But even the economically austere often just don’t get certain human truths. A libertarian economist once told me that he couldn’t understand the Christian idea of “weakness of will.” People simply make a rational calculation, he said, of whether something is better or worse, and then choose accordingly. His wife, it seems, was always arguing the opposite to him: “It’s like knowing you need to lose weight for your health, but can’t resist the chocolate cake.” A wise woman. But he persisted in his ideological slumbers.

These may seem like trivialities, but they’re not always so. You may have seen that Professor Ken Howell was recently fired from the University of Illinois for teaching Catholic views about homosexuality in a course on Catholicism. In an email to the students in class, he laid out why Catholics believe homosexual acts are wrong – which some students and later the university said constituted “hate speech.” You can read the memo and judge for yourself. In my view, it’s a quite able presentation of why the Church prohibits not only homosexual acts but all sex outside of marriage. Every sexual temptation seems powerful and natural at the time, but as figures from King David to Bill Clinton demonstrate, train wrecks often follow.

Marriage is one of those durable goods whose failure or deformation produces durable evils. For most of human history, that was obvious, though human weakness and sinfulness often lead to choosing short-term pleasure over long-term happiness. There is simply nothing like the human pairing that continues the race – and it is recognized as such everywhere from Babylon to India, in Genesis and the Old Norse sagas, and by just about everyone else. In our time, however, two otherwise respectable democratic principles have been wrongly applied to the detriment of marriage: equality and tolerance.

It’s a Christian spinoff to believe “all men are created equal.” And that good societies respect that fact. But it is not immediately clear what this equality means since it is obvious that Stephen Hawking and I have unequal capacities for physics, Warren Buffet and Mother Teresa different abilities in making money, Alex Rodriguez and almost anyone else disproportionate athletic skills. The law can only protect us from unequal treatment in matters where we should be treated equally.

Heterosexual marriage has no equals in other pairings and therefore falls outside the equality rule. In the vast majority of cases, marriage is the institution that produces the next generation and is capable of raising them. It’s no good saying modern technologies can replace the natural male/female nexus. Technology only does so by in some fashion mimicking the basic biology. And the effect on children is clear: massive evidence shows that children do best in households where a mother and father are married. These inconvenient truths limit the kind of individualism that has had many benefits in our society. The notion that a marriage is simply treating any two individuals of whatever sex equally as possible marriage partners – and that such individualism and equality trump all other truths – is a gross abuse of otherwise good principles and will have bad social effects.

As is the argument for gay marriage based in tolerance. When I was a young pup at the university, some of my more unstable fellow students were obsessed with the idea of “repressive tolerance.” This crazy notion came into America from Herbert Marcuse, a German Marxist refugee from Nazism. Marcuse argued that the democratic tolerance of non-capitalist and non-democratic views was actually repression, because we allow them to be expressed without taking them seriously. The great irony, of course, is that we allowed them to be expressed and they have indeed had a large influence in parts of our culture despite the slaughters carried out by non-democratic anti-capitalist societies in the twentieth century. Marcuse was also an early advocate of the sexual revolution, which wreaked havoc on long-term human happiness.

If there is a kind of repressive tolerance today, it’s in the ways that governments, corporations, schools, and universities have strangely excluded certain views – in the name of openness. It’s no mystery why our Catholic friend at the University of Illinois was fired. If he had been, like many professors, spouting Marxism or Palestinian anti-Semitism or teaching a course in lesbian or queer studies that mocked Biblical teachings, he would not have been accused of hate speech, but defended in the name of tolerance. He was literally – not metaphorically – suppressed in the name of tolerance for calmly laying out a point of view, with full respect for other views, about a subject – Catholicism – that he had been asked to explain.

In its immediate effects, some think of this kind of tolerance as an absolute good. But in the long-term, it portends a durable evil that has begun with Catholics and other traditional Christians, but will without doubt not stop there.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.