Archbishop Dolan’s blog refused to take Father’s Day off from the crusade against gay marriage. I applaud Dolan’s embrace of blogging, and Dolan’s posts have attracted a great deal of media attention, but I wish he would put more thought into his posts on this topic. I think it would be a much more powerful use of the medium, and would be helpful for those of us struggling to understand the Church’s state of panic in the face of gay marriage, if he would engage in a more detailed way with the arguments on both sides of this issue. One searches his posts in vain for reasoned argument, finding instead a series of conclusory zingers like the one with which he finished up his most recent post. “Government presumes to redefine these sacred words at the peril of the common good.” How does expanding the definition of the family to encompass same sex couples threaten the common good? Dolan doesn’t tell us. His post simply ends.
I looked back at his earlier post, and it also fails to adequately explain his views, except to tell us that the family is the foundation of our civilization and that tinkering with its definition is dangerous. I suppose I agree with both of those points, but neither one rules out same sex marriage. After all, the definition of marriage varies across time. Polygamy is approved in the Bible, though it is now illegal. Dolan doesn’t discuss that, despite a reference to the authority of Genesis in his most recent post. Divorce used to be prohibited but no-fault divorce is now ubiquitous. Interracial marriage was legally forbidden in many US jurisdictions until just a generation ago. Now it is constitutionally protected. Telling us that revising the definition of the family is dangerous either means that all of these past changes were wrong or that, more likely, some were better than others. But if it means the latter, it adds nothing but a cautionary note to the present debate. It cannot be decisive.
Indeed, Dolan himself can hardly make up his mind on the subject of marriage’s meaning. In his two posts on the issue, he tells us that traditional definition of marriage is “timeless” and “as old as human reason and ordered good.” And, yet, in these same two posts, separated by a mere four days, Dolan himself actually gives us, not one, but THREE different definitions of marriage. In his first post, he says that marriage is “one man, one woman, united in lifelong love and fidelity, hoping for children.” His second definition, in the same post, is similar but not identical: “a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children.” Finally, in his Father’s Day post, he says that marriage is a “loving, faithful union between one man and one woman leading to a family.”
Of course, marriage has not been “lifelong” or “permanent” by law for a long time, and yet no blog posts urging NY legislators to (re)prohibit no-fault divorce as a grave threat to the common good have yet appeared on Dolan’s blog. [UPDATE: By the way, no-fault divorce is actually a recent innovation in NY family law. While the Church opposed the change, during the debate, the director of the New York State Catholic Conference (which bills itself as the "official public policy voice of the Catholic Church") noted that “[c]learly, not every marriage can be permanent.”] Perhaps someone pointed this out after Dolan’s first post, which might explain why he dropped any reference to duration in his most recent, timeless definition.
As for procreation, “hoping for children” and “to pro-create children” are far from identical. Both might be read to rule out marriages among the non-fertile, though the “hoping for children” formulation is less exclusive on that front. But this leads to the question — which is it to be? Does the marriage of two 80-year-olds threaten the timeless definition of marriage or undermine the common good? If not, why not? In his most recent definition, the reference to procreation is replaced by “leading to a family.” This is circular, since legal recognition of same-sex couples as “families” would allow their unions to also “lead to a family.” That’s the whole point.
These blog posts were useful opportunities for some thoughtful reflection on these questions, but the Archbishop chose instead to write unconvincing little screeds aimed at producing nice sound-bites for the press. Those who agree with him will no doubt take heart from his vocal opposition to New York’s proposed legislation. For the rest of us, we are no better able to understand the foundation for his fears than we were before.