Sex is too central to human life to avoid as an issue or to stand outside and describe objectively, and it touches us too closely for people to discuss calmly. Those qualities make it an ideal issue to settle through authoritative traditions. Functional societies do so and life goes on.
If such traditions are lacking, or their authority is rejected, then sex becomes an ideal topic for disputes that go on endlessly and lead to nothing but rancor. That is why people today try to pretend it doesn’t make any difference, or each can make up its meaning for himself.
That has become pretty much the official view. Ignore sex, or at least the functional aspects that make it important, and maybe we won’t have to worry about it. It’ll become an amusement, or maybe a wonderful, rewarding something-or-other. The one thing it won’t be allowed to be is an issue, because if it’s an issue it’s one that current ways of thinking can’t deal with sensibly.
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Still, it’s hard to get people to ignore something so basic, so gay marriage and women priests are big issues in Church and State just now. The view that now seems official tells us that both are unproblematic. Why, in the analysis of National Catholic Reporter, should anatomy matter so much? And why, in the words of Jimmy Carter, shouldn’t we take to heart “the admonition of the Apostle Paul [!] that Christians should not be divided over seemingly important, but tangential issues, including sexual preferences and the role of women in the church”?
I’ll agree with those prominent commentators that such issues shouldn’t divide us, but not because sex doesn’t matter. The reason they shouldn’t be issues is that the official view is absurdly misconceived, and gay marriage and women priests are evidently impossible.
The official view has nothing to do with general patterns of human life, and everything to do with the imperialism of institutions like global markets and neutral expert bureaucracies. Such institutions have nothing intelligent to say about a variety of basic human concerns, including sex, so they’d rather they all just disappeared. Get rid of sex, family, religion, nationality, particular culture, and so on, and there would be nothing in human life that falls outside the jurisdiction of bureaucrats, managers, marketers, and the half-educated. What could be better, if you’re a J-school, B-school, or law school graduate, and you want to get on in the world?
The Case of Same-Sex Marriage
Marriage is worth arguing about because it’s important. The reason it’s important is that it’s a natural institution that fits basic human needs. It’s an enduring physical, personal, and social union of man and woman that by the identity and natural functioning of the parties is ordered toward the creation and sustenance of new life. Nothing can replace it in that role, so by the constitution of human life it has a status and authority that precede and limit that of the state.
If a relationship between two men can constitute a marriage, then none of that’s true any more. Marriage becomes a self-defined arrangement of self-help and mutual support. But if that’s what it is, why should anyone other than the parties have anything to say about it? Under such circumstances, the claim that social recognition of marriage is a basic right would no longer make sense. What would the recognition consist in, and how could the recognition of something so nebulous become a basic right? Hence the view that the state should get out of the marriage business, which is the natural outcome of the view of marriage that makes gay marriage seem possible. The dispute over abortion gave us the view that the state has no business defining human life, and the dispute over marriage has given us the same with regard to marriage. As always, liberal progress means that the state becomes unable or unwilling to recognize the most basic human realities.
Naturally, given the interests at stake, there’s a whole industry constructing arguments to show that there’s nothing natural about marriage. Some people are sterile, for example, and they can get married, so it’s said that marriage can’t really have an essential relation to the possibility of having children.
That’s a good argument for technocrats, but most people don’t think of human relations as technology. Marriage, like other close human connections, is a matter of identity and orientation—who the parties are and the nature of their connection—rather than factual consequences in particular cases. Friends help each other, and that’s a basic feature of friendship, but the relationship is not a technique for bringing about practical benefits. As long as the proper dispositions are there, it can exist even if the parties are unable to offer each other assistance because of some chance event like distance or illness. What applies to friendship and help applies equally to marriage and children. If the basic nature or orientation of the parties eliminates the connection between their relationship and new life, it’s not marriage. The case is otherwise when a secondary factor like physical defect prevents the union of man and woman from attaining its characteristic outcome.
The Case of Women Priests
So much for gay marriage. As to women priests, the obvious reason women can’t be priests is that the priest’s most important function is sacramental. He serves as a symbolic figure in the ritual drama whereby God becomes concretely present among us. But male and female just don’t work the same way symbolically and dramatically. Putting on a production of Julia Caesar or switching the roles of Mr. and Mrs. MacBeth might result in an interesting variation on Shakespeare, but the plays would be quite different. In the case of the mass, though, a different play means a different religion, and that’s just what has happened among those groups that have accepted female priests.
There are, of course, other considerations. In addition to their sacramental role, the clergy teach and rule. The problem is that a group of men, a group of women, and a mixed group don’t act or view things the same way. Men are more interested in theory, function, and structure, women in personal relationships and concrete experience. So if you want clerics and the hierarchy to maintain a definite position that they mostly don’t overstep, and you want that position to reflect doctrine that’s stable and authoritative but limited in what it says, you’re much more likely to get it if it’s a group of men who are involved. For evidence, consider the effect of women’s suffrage on the growth of the state, and of women’s ordination (where that has occurred) on the definition, stability, and authority of doctrine.
It is, of course, heretical to say such things in an age that wants all human beings to become interchangeable careerists and consumers for the global economy, so there’s another subsidized industry producing and propagating arguments to the contrary. Women can in fact rule and teach, many have pointed out, and some women do so better than most men. The statements are true, but they prove less than is thought. Some laymen are wiser, holier, and more learned than most clerics, and some fortunetellers give better advice than most psychologists. So if we want to abolish distinctions because they don’t attain their goals perfectly we have a lot of abolishing to do. We need institutions, though, so in the real world it makes sense to ask what works best overall and act accordingly. Why not do that in this case?