Gay Marriage Harms the Environment. Wha?
In his widely reported remarks taking Vatican ambassadors to task for their countries’ failure to reach a climate change agreement in Copenhagen, the Pope had this to say about gay marriage:
Creatures differ from one another and can be protected, or endangered, in different ways, as we know from daily experience. One such attack comes from laws or proposals which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes,” he said.
If you’re like me, you don’t see much of a connection between gay marriage and the problem of climate change or species extinction. But this isn’t the first time this Pope has linked environmental harm, such as climate change, with sexual mores. In Caritas in Veritate (at 51), he said the following:
Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature. In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.
I have to confess that my first reaction to this sort of talk is to simply guffaw and move on. My second, and equally unedifying, reaction is to chortle about the reference to the unity of the virtues when, in the American context, those who are most likely to subscribe to the socially conservative sexual views the Pope endorses frequently seem least likely to express any concern about, say, climate change. But, once I get past those first reactions, there is a kernel here that I also find somewhat compelling.
The truth in this does not operate (for me) at the level of specific moral norms. I don’t, for example, see any essential link between favorable attitudes towards contraception and ecological awareness. What I agree with in this is the identification of a link (which is more explicit elsewhere in the document) between our inability to address environmental problems and our preoccupation with “rights,” understood as negative freedom. As the Pope says, “[a]n overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties. Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become license.” Or, put another way, an excessive focus on rights seems to undermine social solidarity in ways that are likely to hinder our ability, collectively, to address the sorts of environmental problems that are increasingly threatening our species on a global scale. Where I tend to see this playing out more obviously is in the connection between the pursuit of individual gain and an unwillingness to support shared sacrifices and collective action that will be necessary to address our environmental challenges. But, at the same time, narrowly autonomy-based defenses of sexual license and economic libertarianism are simply two sides of the same liberal coin.
But this recognition points towards a deeper problem I see in the Pope’s discussion. In Caritas in Veritate and elsewhere, untethered concern for individual autonomy is asserted as the sole normative foundation underlying modern views on the permissibility of homosexuality and contraception. In his comments the other day linking sexuality and the environment, the Pope made the same suggestion: “freedom cannot be absolute,” he said, “since man is not God, but the image of God, God’s creation. For man, the path to be taken cannot be determined by caprice or willfulness, but must rather correspond to the structure willed by the Creator.”
There seems to me to be a consistent failure here to acknowledge the existence of a point of view that largely accepts the Pope’s suspicion of liberal rights and autonomy talk, but that nonetheless supports gay marriage (and contraception) on grounds rooted in the same traditional beliefs in duty, the family and public morality on which the Pope relies. I don’t support gay marriage because of a radical conception of individual autonomy, but because I don’t think homosexuality is immoral. And, because I don’t think it is immoral, I think the law should encourage and assist gay couples, as it does for heterosexual couples, to root their sexual lives in the stability of legally sanctioned marriage.