Friday, June 30, 2006

Catholic marriage rules debate fallout

(One of the advantages of being the blogmaster is that you can “front page” something instead of being relegated to the comments sections. This a reply to App Crit, but I felt it was important (and lengthy) enough that it should have its own post.)

Hey App Crit, sorry you feel you have to say “Adieu”. (“Goodbye” has equally theistic origins, and I’m fine with the relics of religion sprinkled throughout our language). In any case, even if you’re going, I’ll reply to some of the things in your farewell comment, for my own edification and that of my other readers (Site meter tells me there’s at least one or two).

I didn’t know that Catholics could get their outside marriages blessed within the church, and that is a pleasing concession to reality. But in a way it just reinforces the notion that the institution of the Church controls what is and is not a marriage. And I believe that what transpires between two people, their families, and society (i.e. what happens in the world) is what determines what is and is not a marriage. I understand that the Catholic Church has a “right” to determine what is and is not a marriage within its own institution. But I think I also have a “right” to criticize their rules.

I disagree with your statement that “all institutions operate on similar exclusive standards.” Certainly, all institutions must operate according to some standard, but those standards needn’t be similar to the Catholic Church’s in exclusivity. Example: My mother and father were married in a Catholic ceremony, and my father’s Presbyterian church seemed to recognize the marriage just fine. They would probably have preferred a Presbyterian wedding, but a Catholic one seemed good enough to “count”. They probably wouldn’t have recognized a marriage ceremony that consisted solely of my mother and father exchanging plastic decoder rings in front of a portrait of Elvis and devoid of any further religious, social, or legal backing. They did have a standard of some kind; it wasn’t “anything goes”. It just wasn’t as exclusive a standard as that of the Catholic Church. And I think that in this case, the Presbyterian standard was better than the Catholic standard, because it better accommodates the reality of what existed between my mother and father.

I’m sorry you think that this thread is Catholic bashing. Perhaps I should launch into some screeds against other beliefs and organizations to show that it’s not just the Catholic Church that bugs me. (I attacked Dobson, a Protestant, does that count?) I know that there is a long history of Protestant-based anti-Catholic prejudice in this country. And I don’t want to participate in that ugly tradition of bigotry. But I do not think this should prevent me from pointing out what I think are real dysfunctions within that institution. I think these dysfunctions cause real harm to real people, and they need to be pointed out at the very least, and corrected if at all possible.

For example, I have a Catholic friend who got married in a ceremony that wasn’t “Catholic enough”, and because of this certain people very close to this friend refused to attend the ceremony. This caused real pain and anguish. I have family members who have had similar difficult experiences. Now I think part of the blame lies with these no-shows for valuing the institutional control of the Church above the connections of blood, marriage, and friendship. But part of the blame lies with the institution itself, for insisting on this level of control over its members and over the definition of what a valid marriage is. I know that if the Catholic Church wasn’t so hung up on these rules, there would have been more family and love and community and support and joy, more God, if that’s how you see it, at these ceremonies. This is why I attack these ridiculous rules. Not just to demonstrate how much smarter and more in touch with reality I am (though that is certainly a part of it), but because people suffer real pain because of these rules I’m mocking.

And I must take issue with you when you say, “I respect the truly devout of any religion”. First of all, even if we respect someone, that does not mean we must respect every idea that they have. Wonderful people can believe ridiculous things, even awful things. The goodness or intelligence of a person does not transfer automatically to the beliefs they hold. If Gandhi thought the world was flat, then Gandhi was wrong, despite his goodness in other areas. (I don’t think Gandhi actually thought this.)

Secondly, I want to challenge the notion that devotion to religion deserves respect in and of itself. I think we can all come up with examples of people who are unquestionably “devout”, but not really worthy of our respect (any more than all humans deserve a certain amount of respect). The Heaven’s Gate cultists leap to mind. They strike us as weird, but one can’t question how “devout” they were. They were willing to commit suicide on the strength of their beliefs, which is more “devout” than I will ever be. Do they deserve respect? Compassion, pity, sadness, yes (and maybe a bit of condescension and ridicule, too), but not respect. Not from me. How about the Puritans who conducted witch hunts (more Protestant bashing, see?) and had innocent people killed in frighteningly large numbers? They were “devout”, but their devotion was to a twisted version of Christianity infected with supernaturalist paranoia. Let’s check Zac’s respect-o-meter reading…not very high.

This is the deeper point that underlies the whole thrust of my criticism of Catholic marriage rules: I don’t think beliefs should be shielded from criticism, just because they are part of a religion or are believed religiously. There are too many bad ideas sulking behind the cross (“George Bush was chosen by God to lead our country”), the crescent (“Martyrdom bombers go to heaven and are attended by virgins”), the Star of David (“God said we can kick everyone else off this land”), and the symbols of other religions for us to allow them to become “no criticism allowed” signs. (See? I can bash other religions, too). Now, I suspect that the majority of adherents of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism wouldn’t agree with these bad ideas (at least I hope not). But that doesn’t change the fact that those who do believe those bad ideas believe them religiously and devoutly. I seek to peel pack this “shield of automatic deference” that surrounds religious ideas. I think that this deference is a particularly bad an idea, as it allows other bad ideas to fester unexamined. There is much that is good in religion, too. But how can we tell the good stuff from the bad stuff if we don’t examine it, criticize it, argue about it? That is my objective, not to single out Catholicism in particular.

So App Crit, I’m sorry if in my zeal to ferret out nonsense and hold it up to ridicule, I have offended you. I don’t want to hurt feelings. I don’t want to single out a particular group of people as a target for hatred. Sorry you feel you have to bow out of the thread (or of this blog, I’m not sure which you meant). I love your blog and have enjoyed your contributions here greatly. But I will not stop calling something a bad idea unless someone convinces me it’s a good idea. (Or maybe pays me a whole lot of money. And I worked at Microsoft in the mid-to-late 90’s, so when I say a lot I mean A LOT.)


Blogger grishnash said...

If nothing else, you've given a great opportunity to your readers to prove that they're not just a bunch of mindless sycophants willing to parrot every word you say. (So feel free to sic the Kossack Thought Police on us.)

Again, though, I think the objections that have been raised have merit. I find it a bit strange that I've come down to supporting the Catholic Church in these topics. Of course, this isn't too much weirder, I suppose than having you come down to an alliance with the Scientologists. I totally see where you're coming from on this one, I just think you've picked an awfully strange and roundabout example in the Kidman (re)marriage.

It's clear to me that what's truly going on here (and what has caused a lot of the gay marriage uproar) is a wide gulf in the concepts of "marriage" that exist. You've made it clear that you believe in an expansive Protestant/secular/Unitarian version, which is amenable to a "full faith and credit" solution of reciprocality. You may be underestimating how different the Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament that needs to be controlled and protected really is. We're talking about one of the basic foundational beliefs of the Church, and not just a day-to-day housekeeping rule, such as when you're supposed to kneel or stand during a ceremony. The resistance to change here is going to be that much stronger. It's as if you're not trying to change one little thing about how the Church operates, but attack the entire authority of the Church.

Not that you're wrong to do so, or that people haven't been fighting this concept and others since the Reformation, but it's easy to get tripped up in the historical contexts that you've acknowledged. I'm not as familiar with the basis of the arguments, but I know there's something of an analogous argument of the validity of marriages between the branches of Judaism. I think if you'd devoted several extensive entries to how wrong and lame the beliefs of Orthodox Jews are, you'd see a similar backlash.

One of the biggest boogeymen that was trotted out here when Oregon decided to once and for all to smack down all those annoying gays getting married in Portland was the idea that non-discrimination laws would force local government monitors into churches to control the content of ceremonies, and force churches to marry people in contravention of that church's beliefs. I think it's easily possible that some of your arguments come off sounding a bit close to this boogeyman, especially because, yes, you're an outsider in this case, and people often have an instinctive defense mechanism to attack the outsider.

In summary:
1. Yes, I believe in secular marriage.
2. I believe it should be fair game to criticise religious ideas.
3. I believe a lot of backwards, bigoted discrimination goes on under the cover of religious belief.
4. I believe in separation of church and state and instantly reject any use of church law as a basis for civil law.
5. I recognize religion as a huge force in society, and as I believe in separation of church and state, I'm willing to compromise to allow people to believe whatever silly thing they want to within their religious life as long as they respect #4.
6. In religion it is a lot easier than politics to "vote with your feet". Thus I believe the most effective reforms of religious institutions will come from inside those institutions, either through devout members taking charge, or simply fleeing to found new institutions. Attacking an institution as a whole from the outside rarely has the desired effect to aid this.

5:41 PM, June 30, 2006  
Blogger Anthony said...

I also believe that if you procrastinate long enough, people will make all your good arguments for you.

One more thing to add - criticism of an institution is usually best done by pointing out internal inconsistencies rather than pointing out how how their belief system does not gel with objective reality.

Also, what if "objective reality" of the time is absolutely wrong? I can think of some examples offhand - slavery and "seperate but equal" and the civil rights movement being the easiest that comes to mind. Heliocentricity is another good example, but against the church of the time.

I'm not saying that the RC is right on this one. What I am trying to do is to create the hypothetical "best defense" given that the RC church isn't exactly here to debate its POV.

7:43 PM, June 30, 2006  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

Darn, my Kos-issued orbital mind control laser has failed to convert all my readers into docile, godless secularists! They keep...arguing back! Maybe a solar flare is interfering with the beam or something.

Then again, the whole point of a blog is to have people tell you their point of view. (Unless you're a lame-ass blogger who can't take the heat, like a lot of conservative blogs out there. Wusses.)

I agree that I am not the best voice to reform the Catholic Church. Those voices, if they are ever heard (I know for a fact they are there) will come from within. By the way, I want to assure everyone out there that I don't think that I or the government have any right to control what your church does. The black helicopters are not coming to force your church to perform gay marriages. They only appear when you read Internal Monologue, and they just sort of hover there and use their megaphones to attempt to point out where I you've gone particularly wrong.

Yes, the Kidman-Cruise marriage is a pretty strange starting point for all of this. And yes, it's pretty strange that I am arguing that a marriage that began with a Scientology wedding ceremony should be recognized.

I agree that people can "vote with their feet" when it comes to religion, and I encourage them to do so. For some "cultural Catholics", I think this is hard, just as it would be hard for me to walk away from Americanism, no matter how disgusting this administration becomes.

Anyway, on to other topics, for now. Let's see how far the "Bush is a War Criminal" meme goes!

11:57 AM, July 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe you are right.


2:25 PM, April 20, 2007  
Anonymous willottica said...

Interesting, your blog reflects my own beliefs and current struggles as a former-Catholic marrying a lapsed Catholic, both of us attending a Presbyterian Church and trying to figure out what the heck we need to do in order for the Catholic Church (which runs half the schools in our city) to acknowledge the marriage and thus have no problem with my fiancee teaching Catholic children.

10:27 AM, October 13, 2007  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

Glad you've found some common ground here, willottica. Best of luck getting the Catholic Church to recognize your marriage. I didn't realize that these issues could affect hiring of teachers, but of course if the schools are Catholic it would make sense that they would.

This raises another point: No decision by an institution, family, or person is really completely "private". All actions affect the public sphere. In this case, the rules about recognition of Catholic marriages are affecting the hiring decisions for teachers in a city.

For purposes of the law and of day to day societal interactions, we divide actions into private (not subject to outsider or state interference) and public (subject to regulation, laws, and social sanctions). And I wholeheartedly support such divisions as a practical matter. But ultimately, there is no sharp border, and there will always be actions that could be interpreted either way.

8:40 PM, October 24, 2007  
Blogger Christopher said...

Thanks Zach, we had little trouble getting a "convalidation" of our marriage.

1:52 AM, April 08, 2009  

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