A friend quips on his Twitter profile: “Help, I’m being ruled by Anthony Kennedy!”
I understand the feeling. After all, Justice Kennedy is the so-called “swing vote” on the Supreme Court. And so often, it seems, on the biggest constitutional issues roiling our nation, we are forced to tread the carpet and pick at the coverlet as we anxiously await his deciding vote.
And no more so than when it comes to the Supreme Court’s current deliberations on the constitutionality of same-sex “marriage.” What will Justice Kennedy’s decision be come June? Will he join the conservative justices in refusing to make the re-definition of marriage a constitutional right? Or will he cast us further into the darkness?
Time will tell. But consider: at best, what the Supreme Court will do next month is what it didn’t do in Roe v. Wade – i.e., send the issue back to the voters in the individual states. How is that democratic process working out so far? Last time I checked, same-sex marriage was the law of the land in 37 of our 50 states.
So no matter what decision the Supreme Court makes next month, defenders of traditional marriage will have a tremendous political and cultural battle in front of them. And the bigger of the battles is the cultural one.
What do I mean by cultural battle? I mean the struggle to reform – and, for us Catholics, to evangelize – the hearts and minds, the habits and practices, of our fellow citizens.
Using a military metaphor to describe this work is inspiring, but also tricky. To speak of cultural “battles” and culture “wars” is to conjure images of protest and outrage. But while protest and outrage, prudently executed, are certainly needed in defense of traditional marriage, we have to admit that they are typically not the means by which hearts and minds are won.
That doesn’t mean the military metaphor of cultural “battle” isn’t useful. But it may be that we have to think of our cultural battlefield in a somewhat different way. Think of Pope Francis’s image of the Church as a field hospital after battle. In this take on the military metaphor, the Church plays the role of physician to the victims of our secular culture’s unremitting onslaught against anything that would resist it. Great damage has been endured, and the time has come for triage and surgery.
This is an appropriate image of our culture when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. It is a battlefield strewn with wounded souls desperate for a healing they don’t even know they need. And this is an appropriate image of the Catholic’s primary role in this aftermath: our charge is to set up a field hospital and to perform the merciful work of healing.
But how do we heal these wounds? How even begin a conversation with someone entrenched in the ideology of the gay rights movement?
This is a question we would do well to contemplate. We need to think more deeply about how we address our culture on this issue.
I do not mean that we have to develop better theological and philosophical arguments. When it comes to the major and minor premises of the arguments found in the Catechism and among those deployed by public intellectuals doing yeoman’s work defending traditional marriage on natural grounds, I don’t think much change, if any, is needed.
What I think we need to work on, rather, is what might be called the rhetorical aspect of our arguments. That is, we need to think about the persuasive “languages” we use – and not only the verbal ones – when we attempt to reach someone who doesn’t yet have the ears to hear abstract arguments.
Just think, for a moment, of some of the popular rhetoric used by defenders of gay rights, such as the slogan Love is Love, and the nearly radioactive term “bigot” now being used more and more of opponents of same-sex marriage. Think, too, of the persuasive power that beautiful or funny celebrities have, especially over the young, when they portray gays on television and in the movies, or when they simply come out in defense of the ideology. And keeping in mind again that persuasive speech is not always verbal, think of those little blue bumper stickers with the yellow equal signs that reveal the driver’s adherence to “marriage equality.”
This is rhetoric. And such persuasive speech is something that the gay rights movement does alarmingly well. So we have to ask ourselves: what’s our rhetoric? What are we doing to make our arguments not just logically compelling, but also attractive?
If you’re expecting me to deliver a brilliant response to this question, I am sorry to disappoint. It is a question I’ve just begun to think about, and it calls for much more careful thought.
But for one thing, I’m skeptical that the phrase “traditional marriage” is a winner, at least when addressed to young people, who usually aren’t looking for ways to become “traditional.”
How to speak pithily and persuasively that marriage is about complementarity, that sex is about kids and flourishes with gender difference, that kids need both a mommy and daddy, that the social fabric frays when marriage becomes an “open concept”? These are the rhetorical challenges we need to work on.
In talking about NFP to couples in our diocese, my wife takes the angle that NFP is the “natural,” call it the “granola” approach to having kids. It’s an attempt to lure unformed young people toward the truth of Catholic teaching by way of something – “getting back to nature” – that they’re already probably attracted to. If I may express pride in my spouse, that’s a great use of rhetoric.
And that’s exactly the kind of speech we need to develop more of when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
So I put the question, which will require the work of many minds, to everyone concerned: What are your ideas?