Catholic ethics and moral leadership on marriage

It’s an odd quirk of my upbringing that one of my babysitters as a young child was the future Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Anthony Fisher OP, back when he was a Dominican brother at our local parish. He was a great babysitter — a very gentle man. My mother studied with him at the local theological college. She jokingly relates that when they met in their first week of classes, she thought he was alright, because he was the only Dominican brother not wearing robes; of course, it turned out they just hadn’t arrived yet.

Fisher later completed his PhD in bioethics at Oxford, looking at IVF issues. I read the book published from his thesis when I was studying undergraduate bioethics and wondered if, perhaps, wanting to reach a wider audience, he had omitted key aspects of his argument. In hindsight I recognise it had Catholic belief as a hidden premise. As a gay kid I grew up in constant exposure to the hypocrisy of the Church’s teachings on love, and thus I cannot supply the hidden premise that makes Fisher’s analysis work.

This problem affects the Catholic doctrine on same-sex marriage as well. It poses a question: why should the Catholic position on marriage apply to all people in Australian society, including those who don’t believe in Catholicism? (Or who believe in different faiths, or don’t believe at all?) The church would claim it has a special expertise on marriage and child-rearing, and that it plays a role of moral leadership on behalf of the nation. But here, the way its arguments are premised on faith becomes a huge problem, because they cannot be reasonably accepted by people who don’t accept that premise. And so we see two things happening.

One is an appeal to the harm that will be suffered by children if same-sex marriage is permitted — an argument tailored for liberal democracy, which uses the harm principle to mediate between incommensurable systems of belief. But again, particular aspects of Catholic teaching strongly inflect the harm perceived in same-sex relationships, such as the role the complementarity of gender plays in Catholic ideas of ‘natural law’. If you don’t hold with those ideas, you probably don’t perceive that harm, except as a vestige of a more generalised homophobia which descends from those teachings.

The other is just the naked use of power — what Foucault calls ‘non-discursive relations’. (You read that correctly: Foucault never held that there is nothing outside of discourse; that’s an invention of film and cultural studies.) We see this in the threat to sack anyone who marries a same-sex partner or even expresses support for same-sex marriage — and that’s no idle threat, given that Catholic agencies are, all-up, one of Australia’s largest non-government employers. We see it as well in the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney threatening to breach its contracts with any corporation that comes out in support of same-sex marriage. This approach exposes the weakness of its teachings, if it can’t persuade rational observers to its position and must instead threaten their ability to put bread on the table.

But even if we concede, for a moment, that there is something to Catholic ethics, it isn’t at all clear that its position on marriage is justified. The one thing Catholicism is known for is a principled objection to utilitarian ethics — which suggests that the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the largest number of people. A criticism of utilitarianism, from its earliest days, is that it can be used to justify majoritarian abuse of minorities: for instance, experimentation on a small number of people if it benefits a much larger number, or torture of people accused of terrorism if it might ensure the security of the population. Utilitarians have developed different forms of their approach that don’t suffer from these problems. But there’s something quite valuable in the Catholic insistence on human dignity — that even the most benighted human life has inherent dignity and, as a consequence, nobody’s wellbeing should be sacrificed, even if it leads to the benefit of the majority.

This focus on human dignity is the basis of the Catholic claim to moral leadership in modern society. And it’s what gets the Catholic church into trouble on marriage. Their position is that a small minority — queer people — should be denied marriage rights, because society as a whole is better off if marriage is restricted to male-female couples for the purposes of reproduction. This is a plainly utilitarian argument. It is no different from saying torture is acceptable if it leads to national security.

If you think the analogy there is inflammatory, you are probably not exposed to the kind of suffering the plebiscite is causing queer people. (Either not exposed, or aware and not taking it seriously.) This distress is an acute form of the chronic fear and insecurity that families with same-sex parents experience in the absence of marriage rights. For example, my friend who rides home from work knowing that if she gets hit by a car and killed, her biological family have presumed custody over her adopted son, rather than her de facto wife.

And the Catholic church position on marriage reflects an acute theological error: It protects a particular image of what a dignified life looks like, rather than protecting the dignity of actually-existing humans in all their diversity, notwithstanding the beliefs or the interests of the majority.