2012-10-01

Riding Turtles Down Slippery Slopes

Marriage used to be a five-part package deal: creation of a household of two adults; sexual exclusivity to within that household; production of babies; raising of the children; and perpetuation of the parents’ genetic lines. The package deal, however, has come undone. I understand how unnerving that can be -- as exemplified when TV commentator Bill O’Reilly almost nine years ago said:
“This is the slippery slope. If you legalize gay marriage, then. . . . you could marry a turtle.”
Our backyard gopher tortoise looking incredulous.
Now, I happen to have a good friend of the reptilian persuasion – the big gopher tortoise that has made her home in our back yard. When I told our gopher tortoise that, a few years back, Bill O’Reilly was worried about humans marrying turtles, she gave me a look which I could only interpret as incredulous.

I think O’Reilly was giving expression to how lost a lot of people felt. If marriage can’t be counted on to have a fixed meaning, what can? Is there anything we can count on? Where is the terra firma of shared understanding that civil society depends upon? It was unsettling for a lot of people; I get that. It felt like solid ground had been replaced by, well, slippery slopes. Where will it end?

As time passed, what once seemed unfathomably radical has been gotten used to. Years went by, and we couldn't help but notice that civilization did not collapse. So when, last May 9, President Obama became the first President to declare publicly that he supported same-sex marriage, the talking heads on the most conservative network had nothing at all to say about turtles. Instead, they criticized the President for making a political move, just trying to get re-elected. If that network can be taken as indicative, in the space of a decade, it has gone from, “Same-sex marriage will destroy society,” to, “Of course, the President is supporting it. It’s popular and he just wants to get re-elected.” That’s a substantial shift from nine years ago.

At the root of the original opposition, though -- back behind that weird turtle talk -- there was a legitimate question. Everything in me, and in you, and in the social discourse of our nation comes from a legitimate place, worthy of attention – even if it comes out warped and out of proportion. Loving our enemy means understanding the legitimate place that their disagreeable qualities come from. They are asking: what is the principled way to say what's OK, and what isn't? That’s a fair question.

We see that we are not sliding down a slippery slope into an abyss of decadence, but why aren't we? What stops us? What is the new sexual ethic that recognizes the legitimacy of same-sex committed relationships yet also recognizes that sexuality is a powerful force that can be abused and misused, and that offers guidelines for recognizing misuse?

On this question, I have been impressed by the work of Margaret Farley. She’s a Nun, a member of the Sisters of Mercy. Maybe that’s not normally where one would look for advice about sex. She’s also a professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School. The Vatican has sharply criticized her work. Last June, the Vatican’s orthodoxy office blasted Farley’s book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. The Vatican said Farley's work, “contained erroneous propositions, the dissemination of which risks grave harm to the faithful.” So I thought, maybe there’s something good here. Worth a look...

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This is part 3 of 5 of "Just Love: Sexual Ethics Today"
Next: Part 4: "Our Bodies Our Selves"
Previous: Part 2: "The Package Deal"
Beginning: Part 1: "Radical Inclusivity"