Carlo sent me a PDF of David Schindler’s current essay in Communio (which another reader had sent to me earlier — many thanks). Schindler, a prominent Catholic philosopher, is arguing against a New York Times editorial harshly criticizing the Catholic Church for the stand it takes on government-mandated contraception. Here’s a key passage:
What I mean to suggest, then, is that Catholics make a grave mistake if they approach the current controversy on the assumption that all sides agree in principle about the nature and universality of rights, and if they thus think that what is at stake is simply a matter of a failure to apply this commonly held principle of universal rights with consistency. On the contrary, the liberal understanding of rights presupposed by the Times stands in deep tension with a Catholic understanding, on grounds of both reason and faith: the two notions of rights rest upon and are informed by significantly different ideas of human nature and dignity. Indeed, the rights assumed by the Times of their inner logic trump the rights claimed by Catholics, whenever, and insofar as, these differently conceived rights come into conflict.
The point, then, is that, if we fail to understand that the present crisis is at root one regarding the nature of the human being, our political strategies, however effective in the short term, will over the long term serve to strengthen the very assumptions that have generated the crisis in the first place. This does not mean that strategies that speak of rights in the liberal idiom cannot be justified for prudential reasons—even for a prudence that is Gospel-inspired. It means simply that even these strategies must be integrated as far as possible, from the beginning, into a more adequate sense of rights based on a fuller vision of the human person, if and insofar as such strategies are not themselves to reinforce the deeper terms of the crisis.
My purpose in what follows is to show the warrant for these judgments.
I begin by citing a striking claim by Pierre Manent, the contemporary French scholar and historian of liberalism, who, after clearly acknowledging the influence of Christianity on the liberal tradition, states the following:
The logic to which liberalism tends is to dismiss [the] moral content [of its Christian roots] and replace [the] “objective” morality, held as valid by the different Christian churches, by a formal morality of “reciprocity” or “respect” by all of the “individuality” of all. To choose a crucial illustration, it isimpossible for a society claiming to be in the Christian tradition to admit that the right to abortion be written into law, and it is impossible for a liberal society to refuse members this right.
[Schindler continues:] Manent does not explain fully why he makes this judgment, but it does not seem to me difficult to show that it is well-founded.
The article is written in fairly dense, philosophical terms, but if I have understood it on first reading, Schindler’s point is that the “neutral” position for universal rights claimed by liberalism (whether in its conservative, liberal, or radical forms) is by no means neutral. Both the liberal view and the Christian view presuppose a definition of human nature — and these definitions are irreconcilable. This is the fundamental problem we face when we argue over gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and so forth. It’s not about rights, not really; it’s about what it means to be a person, and what is the ultimate source of morality.
This is the point so many people on both sides of this debate miss — and why Carlo brought it to my attention. Schindler concedes that Christians may have to frame their arguments in liberal terms — as a matter of competing rights — as a matter of prudence. But if they don’t understand the true nature of this conflict, any victory they have will be extremely insecure.
I believe this is true, and as someone who finds Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism persuasive, Schindler’s claim is not new to me. The main reason for my despair on the gay marriage question is not that I lie awake in bed at night worrying that somewhere, some same-sex couple is going to be happy. That has not the least thing to do with it. What makes me despair is not same-sex marriage itself, but rather two things: 1) that it marks a major milestone in the loss of Christian truth, as expressed in culture, which I believe means a deep turning away from the Truth of the human person — a turning away that will have grave consequences; and 2) under the US Constitutional order, the freedom of Christians (and other religious believers) to live out what we believe to be true about the human person will not be tolerated, with grave consequences for our own liberties, and ultimately our souls.
The reason gay marriage is so widely accepted by young Americans is not because the media have propagandized them (though it is certainly the case that the media have played a significant role in normalizing it), but because same-sex marriage follows naturally from what young Americans already believe about sex, intimacy, love, liberty, and the nature of the human person. Same-sex marriage logically follows from these convictions, which are ubiquitous in contemporary American culture. This is what it means to live in a post-Christian world.
To be perfectly clear: I think the mainstream is very wrong about these things! But I don’t see any prospect that the Christian view is going to prevail anytime soon. Many Christians don’t even believe it anymore. This cultural — indeed civilizational — moment has been a long time coming. Again, I commend to you Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman’s prophetic 1947 work of historical comparative sociology, “Family and Civilization,” which examines the various types of families that have dominated in different eras in the West, and what that had to do with the strength and weakness of civilization. Same-sex marriage isn’t in the book, of course, but nobody who has read that book and absorbed Zimmerman’s argument can be the least surprised that we have same-sex marriage now.
If I thought there was nothing to be done but surrender, I wouldn’t even bring this stuff up. My sense is that we Christians and other traditionalists had better plan for resistance in the long run. My fear is that by focusing so many of our resources on fighting for ground we’ve already lost, we will have left ourselves unprepared to build the structures and strategies we are going to need to pass on what we know to be true to future generations in a culture, legal and otherwise, that is going to be ever more hostile to those beliefs.
Remember, hope is not the same thing as optimism. I am not even slightly optimistic about any of this. I am trying to find reasons to be hopeful. God knows I am grateful for any political victories these days, but until and unless orthodox Christians and other traditionalists start winning more fundamental hearts-and-minds victories, any political wins will evaporate very quickly. The first thing to do is to understand the nature of the fight. Schindler gets it — but diagnosing the challenge is a lot easier than prescribing a cure.
(To commenters: I’m not going to let this thread turn into yet another Marriage Debate 101 session. We’ve had a thousand of those, and I’m pretty sure we all know where each other stands on the main arguments. Keep your comments closely tied to the particular themes discussed in this post, please.)