Integral Equality

In his pastorally tone-deaf response to Friday's Supreme Court decision to recognize same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the USCCB, struck a tone that Michael Sean Winters rightly described as "petulant." Kurtz also made a rather dubious reference to the "unambiguous" teaching of Jesus on marriage -- Is that the one where we're told those worthy of the resurrection "neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Luke 20: 35)? -- and an equally strained analogy to Roe v. Wade. What struck me as the strangest citation, though, was the reference to Pope Francis's concept of "integral ecology" as recently articulated in Laudato Si.

At first glance, it is difficult to see what a document that never uses the word "marriage" might have to do with the question of same-sex marriage. 

Of course, Francis does have a lot to say about family as "the basic cell of society" (para. 157) and, quoting John Paul II, as "the place in which life -- the gift of God -- can be properly welcomed" (para. 213), but he never specifies that "family" must be defined by heterosexual love. Indeed, Francis says that "the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together" (para. 13), and he has a beautiful paragraph toward the end of the encyclical on the importance of "social love" for encouraging a "culture of care which permeates all of society" (para. 231), a good part of which, I assume, shares the same sex. It also seems to me that the Supreme Court's ruling seeks to create more families open to welcoming life, not fewer, and that it also contributes to encouraging a "culture of care" by "restoring dignity to the excluded" (para. 139).

Even if one were to squint, as Winters does, and connect the endorsement of "individual autonomy" in the majority's decision with Francis's worries about "rampant individualism" (para. 162), this still falls far short of taking a stance on the question of same-sex marriage as such. More than this, though, there is quite a distance between the rather banal recognition that some moral questions should be left to the discernment of individual consciences and the more radical claim that each individual's choice should be celebrated as morally right simply because she or he made it. Furthermore, Justice Kennedy's affirmation of marriage as making of two people "something greater than they once were" and embodying a love "that may endure past death" strikes me as anything but a celebration of the self-governing power of the solitary, self-sufficient individual. Rather, it would seem to be a recognition that human persons are made to live in communities bound by a love that moves us beyond our own interests and commits us to place the needs of others above ourselves.

The most likely place that Kurtz could go to connect Francis's concept of "integral ecology" to same-sex marriage is paragraph 155, which begins: "Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment." In this section, Francis rightly argues that "our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings," which serves to further affirm that "we are part of nature" (para. 139) and, as such, "we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities" (para. 140). This reality includes, as Francis notes, our "sexual difference," which most people, gay or straight, would agree is something that has "previously been given." Thus, while this paragraph does link sexuality with a "moral law ... inscribed in our nature," it also could be read as affirming the multiple expressions of sexuality that exist within nature, requiring the discernment of a moral law intrinsic to their expression. Thus, we might be invited to look upon all that has been created, as it has been created, and affirm with the creator that "it is good." At the very least, nothing in this paragraph requires the condemnation of same-sex marriage as "a tragic error that harms the common good," as Kurtz rather mendaciously implies.

All of this is not to say that connections between same-sex love and ecology cannot be drawn, but the arguments have tended to run in the opposite direction from the one that Kurtz attempts. As I pointed out in a previous post, if the revolution in our relationship to nature is going to be as radical as the ecological crisis requires, it is going to involve establishing a new intimacy with the earth. This is reflected in the language of St. Francis, who speaks as one who has "fallen in love" with creation (para. 11), and in the eco-mysticism of John of the Cross, for whom the mountains and the valleys "are what my Beloved is to me" (para. 234). There is a danger in these metaphors of romantic love, however, that they will remain, as Pope Francis says, "nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb" (para. 119). This is to say that our love for nature might still only be one-sided insofar as it remains focused on our actions vis-a-vis the environment and the relative risks or rewards that we might derive from them.

This concern was voiced by Jacob Erickson in a post for Religion Dispatches, even as he expressed admiration for Francis's "connecting the affective themes of love or beauty, the integrally human and ecological, and passion for our common home." Erickson continued, "I've come to believe that our climate crises are crises of planetary intimacy. I don't mean that we've lost a romantic relationship that we need to recover. (That kind of imagination is just another anthropocentric misconstrual of creaturely life.) What I do mean is that everything of our contemporary crisis also occurs in the intimate and risky relations of everyday life." This everyday riskiness of ecological love is something that is denied in the traditional paradigm that stresses the "dominion" or "stewardship" that human beings have over creation, which is often coded in the gendered language of the paternalistic care that "Man" has for his "Mother Earth." There is, however, as Elizabeth Johnson argues in Ask the Beasts, another paradigm that affirms the mutuality of the love that obtains between human beings and non-human nature, which is affirmed by the theological insight that they share in a common creation buttressed by the scientific understanding that "all life results from the same biological processes." For Johnson, this suggests that "human beings belong to this community and need other species profoundly, in some ways more than other species need them."

This latter paradigm is incompatible with an understanding of our intimacy with the earth that casts human beings in the role of "husbanding" nature so as to continue to exploit a reproductive labor that goes uncompensated. It is here, then, in looking for an appropriate image of romantic love that eschews the instrumentality of a procreation that, whatever its joys, cannot help but produce more consumers, we might come to consider the "human ecology" of same-sex love. (Of course, as Jamie Manson has noted, we proceed here in spite of Pope Francis's "woefully underdeveloped" thoughts on overpopulation.)

In her recent book, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement, Catherine Keller invites us to consider the ways in which "'the mandate of the sexual closet' remains strangely parallel to the mandate of the climate change closet." In both, it would seem, what is at issue is the license to take the pleasures of embodied natural relations as ends in themselves, unshackled from the economy of production and consumption. On our hyper-capitalized globe, the greatest sin, it would seem, would be to allow any of the earth's pleasures to go unmonetized, and by this logic, any body not conscripted to maximize its productive capacity is a body luxuriating in wasteful and potentially vicious, lust-filled sloth. And, yet, Francis insists that ecosystems "have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness" and that "each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself" (para. 140).

For Keller, because "sex outside of heterosexuality lacks reproductive justification," same-sex love "exposes sexual pleasure as an end in itself" and "thus reveals the inherent vitality of our bodied relations." It is for these reasons that she wonders "might a certain queer register -- across all our practices -- not be key to our evolution as earthlings in our own century? The affirmation of queer love, along with other nonprocreative practices and systemically mindful reproduction, might -- in tandem with the sustainable economics that good sex (which is free) can nourish -- make us eligible to unfold beyond this century." Far from tearing the bonds of an integral ecology asunder, then, Keller would have us consider the Supreme Court's decision as further encouragement of a promising ecological alternative to the reigning anthropocentric paradigm of procreative love, which now paradoxically finds itself in the position of undermining the survival of future generations by the very act of their unfettered reproduction.

Before dismissing Keller's sanctification of "queer love" as a lot of theoretical nonsense, we would do well to recognize that it is not something that is only relevant to same-sex couplings nor is it completely at odds with the tradition. In an essay entitled "Resisting Capitalism: On Marriage and Homosexuality" collected in his book A Better Hope, Stanley Hauerwas considers the need for the church to develop "some understanding of when exceptions might be made for marriages that will not or cannot be biologically procreative." He goes on to say that doing so "might help us better understand in what manner all parenting is a form of adoption, and how even 'childless marriages' in the Christian community must provide a space for children." In this, I think, Hauerwas is acknowledging the simple fact that most of the sex that takes place among Christians, whether same or opposite sexed, is "queer" insofar as it fails and, in some cases, must fail to produce children. And, thus, the Christian account of marriage was already sorely in need of a theology of the "queer love" expressed in non-biologically procreative sex before the question of same-sex marriage ever made its way through the courts.

As for the long tradition of Christianity, as a vowed celibate, Archbishop Kurtz might be considered by some to belong to the "queerest" group of all, and it could be argued that it is precisely the "queer" nature of the celibate that makes him or her such a powerful sacrament of both the risk and the hope that the life of faith requires. In any case, the litany of gender-bending saints is long and distinguished. They include Bernard of Clairvaux, who, as an abbot, invited his community to suckle at his breasts as our mother Christ fed the faithful from his; Bernard's adversary Peter Abelard, whose family jewels became the price by which he, like so many made eunuchs for Christ, was able to move from the shadows of illicit lust into the light of true love; and Hildegard of Bingen, who placed her fellow consecrated virgins above the male clerics in her celestial hierarchy, since the latter were corrupted by that unholy alliance of ecclesiastical power, heterosexism, and capital known as simony, and who saw her virgins as the only ones man enough to take up the sword and shield in defense of the church in what she decried as an "effeminate age."

In the end, perhaps an integral ecology calls each of us to recognize our integral equality as belonging to a natural world teeming with "queer" creatures caught up in a mysterious multiplicity of sexual expression somehow brought into being and supported by that one Love that, as Dante said, "moves the sun and the other stars" in all their strange wonder.

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Also by this author
Civility is a Rational Idol

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Books