Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"Suffer the little children" Part II

This is the second of three posts in a series.

In “Suffer the little children,” Part I, I offered an overview of the report to General Convention [of The Episcopal Church] of its Task Force on the Study of Marriage. I included an annotated table of contents of Appendix I of that report, which provides seven essays on marriage. I distinguished between two forms of marriage equality defended in those essays, the first of which is a good thing and has been achieved, though tentatively for now, the second of which would be unfortunate. 

In this Part II, I focus on a mistake in the argument of Essay 1, found especially on pp. 21-27, and I offer brief comments on pp. 37-38 and p. 42. That mistake made in Essay 1 is evident in the following claim:

The emphasis on procreation and children – however important the former and however crucial the welfare of the latter to human society – primarily as a purpose or end, relies on an ethic at odds with the principle outlined above, which is that people are to be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as means to another end, however good that end might be. (p. 22)

The authors of Essay 1 suggest and apparently suppose that there is only one alternative to a Kantian, deontological ethic, which among other things urges respect for individuals as “ends in themselves” (introduced on p. 21). That alternative is a utilitarian ethic (see p. 24, para. 4). In utilitarianism, the greatest good is to be pursued sometimes, notoriously, at the cost of individuals who – from the perspective of a Kantian ethic – are used as mere means to the happiness of the greatest number of people.

But this is a mistake. The authors omit the alternative on which much catholic moral theology has been based for centuries: an Aristotelian, teleological account of human flourishing (from the 4th century before the common era) and its Christian elaboration by St. Thomas Aquinas (from the 13th century). The authors of Essay 1 seem to think, or at least to suggest, that the only real alternative ethical theories for understanding the purposes of marriage are from 18th and 19th century northern Europe during and after the Enlightenment. 

* * *

The principal practical question for now is whether to eliminate the statement of purposes from the marriage canon, including reference to procreation and the nurture of children, next presumably to eliminate them from the marriage rite itself, and perhaps finally altogether from the conversation. The first of two resolutions proposed by the Task Force would revise the marriage canon, dropping the statement of purposes of marriage (Title I Canon 18, Section 3.f., and see BCP p. 423).

I will focus on the nurture of children, because same-sex couples as well as mixed-sex couples may nurture children. Nonetheless, when a woman commits to a long pregnancy and postpartum recovery, this is a substantial commitment and should not be discounted, not least because some normal activities and enjoyments must be foregone or slowed during that 12-18 month period. I do not intend in any way to dishonor such a commitment. All of us, including Jesus, owe a profound debt of gratitude to our mothers for making this sacrifice for us.

In Essay 1, Section 3, “The Ethics of Marriage,” the authors cite the Kantian ethic as a way of understanding what we pledge in the Baptismal Covenant (BCP, p. 305), when we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. And Kant’s notion of treating others as ends in themselves rather than simply as means to one’s own or others’ ends might be a good fit here. No one is to be used for the sake of others. Everyone is treated with respect and dignity.

But the authors recommit to their mistake noted earlier in another subsection of Essay 1, Section 3, “Union of heart, body, and mind” (p. 22). They claim that there is “significant tension” between the statement in the prologue about procreation and other purposes of marriage (BCP, p. 423), on the one hand, and the vows the couple make orally in the service itself (BCP, p. 427), on the other hand. The former concerns products of the marriage, according to the authors, while the latter concerns the living out of marriage itself. It’s a distinction between goods extrinsic to the marriage and those intrinsic to it (p. 24). The vows relate to the couple themselves (p. 25).

We can leave aside that, according to Canon I.18.3, subsections d. - g., the couple must sign a written declaration of their agreement with the words uttered during the rite in the prologue. The vows the couple make orally to each other in the ritual have been prefaced by, or will be followed by, written agreement to the statement of purposes, of which the couple and the body assembled are reminded in the prologue.

Is there in fact “significant tension” between the statement of purposes of marriage and the vows themselves? We could answer “yes” if the only way to understand the statement of purposes is according to a utilitarian ethic, set at odds against a Kantian understanding of the vows.

On one, perhaps the most plausible understanding of the utilitarian perspective, the goal to be achieved by moral conduct, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, may well be extrinsic to the means for achieving the pleasures that are to be summed up to equal that happiness. Think of the way prize money is extrinsic to a contest, or the way an object purchased is extrinsic to the means used to earn the money for it, say, during a summer lawn care job or by waiting tables.

The authors suggest that the goals of procreation and the nurture of children are in this way extrinsic to the marriage of the couple. This seems a stretch.

In the three sections that follow, I will describe how some goods of activities or practices, such as married life, can be intrinsic to them, how we should think of marriage as a foundational part of a multi-level set of circles of affection and mutual support, and how the Kantian idea of treating people as ends in themselves is less suitable to a Christian ethic of marriage than an Aristotelian idea of true friendship.

The overall point is that the authors of Essay 1 have omitted the ethical perspective that is best or at least much better suited to our understanding of Christian marriage, as if it doesn’t exist, and thus their argument for why we should eliminate the purposes of marriage from our marriage canon and/or rite is unpersuasive.

* * *

On the Aristotelian, teleological understanding of purposes, though some goods are extrinsic to the activities that achieve them, some are intrinsic. Instead of the relation between prize money and the contest, think of the fulfillment made possible in an intimate conversation in which two people make themselves vulnerable to each other and support each other. Or consider the enjoyment of activities like playing cards or chess or basketball, or gardening, or playing a guitar – any activity you find challenging but absorbing, and that draws on your strengths.

Those enjoyments are intrinsic to their activities. They are not a product, really. They are parts of the activities themselves, completing them, as Aristotle says (see esp. Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, Ch. 4, Sec. 5). The enjoyment and fulfillment those activities provide are not separable, not extrinsic. The prize money and the object purchased could be got some other way, but these particular enjoyments could not. The nurture of children, the enjoyments and fulfillments it provides, can be part of and “complete” the practice of marriage. Of course there are frustrations. Of course some people are better at it than others, given their temperaments and their own childhood experiences. Of course marriage does not necessarily involve the nurture of children.

But the nurture of children is not essentially extrinsic to the activities that make Christian marriage a Christian practice – whether children are nurtured by same-sex or mixed-sex couples, or by those whose spouses are deceased or have left. The nurture of children is not a merely coincidental byproduct of the practice of Christian marriage, the way prize money might be.

There is a bigger picture as well. In the next section I describe briefly what a teleological understanding of the purposes of marriage might involve, taking that bigger picture into account.

* * *

The statement of purposes currently in our marriage rite and marriage canon is an amended form of the 1949 declaration of intent signed by the couple (then in Canon I.17.3). No American Book of Common Prayer had included a statement of purposes until the 1979 Book. But revisions to the canons in 1949 yielded a statement of the purposes of marriage that read as follows (quoting from Marion J. Hatchett, 1995, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, p. 433):

We believe it [marriage] is for the purpose of mutual fellowship, encouragement, and understanding, for the procreation (if it may be) of children, and their physical and spiritual nurture, for the safeguarding and benefit of society.

In Essay 5 on the history of the marriage canon, the only 1949 revisions discussed concern divorce and remarriage. This is part of an argument that marriage has changed even in The Episcopal Church. But Essay 5 leaves unmentioned the 1949 revisions involving inserting a declaration of agreement to such a statement of the purposes of marriage.

Our current, 1979 version dropped “for the safeguarding and benefit of society.” That safeguarding and benefit of society frame the bigger picture, the larger context. They foster the common good, the mutual flourishing of an entire society that is a goal or telos of the moral and ethical life, on an Aristotelian account (see Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Ch. 7, Secs. 15-16 and Book X, Ch. 9, Secs. 6-11).

An ordering of goods, very roughly stated, picking up on the 1949 canon, would go something like this: (5) the safeguarding and benefit of society and the mutual flourishing it promotes are to be fostered through the cooperative activities (4) of communities such as cities and villages, (3) of civic associations and clubs and of religious congregations and groups of congregations, (2) of clans related by birth or other affiliation and extended family groups, and (1) of nuclear families. Nuclear families are a primary or the basic unit of social organization in this set of circles of affection and mutual support. They are 1 within 2 within 3 within 4 within 5. Separate out 1 as isolable and independent, and the whole thing falls apart – and then we look out for our own, and not for others.

So, for instance, nuclear families, religious congregations, and villages and cities ideally work together so that everyone is supported, everyone is treated with dignity, everyone is brought through healthy development in childhood to a flourishing adulthood. This involves safe neighborhoods and/or associations in which children may explore relationships with others, learning to get along with different people. It involves positive adult role models for children beyond their own parents or care-givers. And it involves the social institutions that support children and their families, such as recreational leagues, religious congregations, and stores and shops that provide staples for daily living (see, e.g., William Julius Wilson, 1987, The Truly Disadvantaged).

Cooperation on a very large scale is required for everyone to be treated with dignity, for everyone to flourish. Give up that large-scale cooperative network, and you consign those children who are left out, through no fault of their own, to less than what those of us who are included have – actually, to far less than is needed for the healthy development of the least advantaged, most vulnerable children.

In a multi-level organization of cooperative mutual support, marriages are crucial. And so is the nurture of children, which for the most part is left primarily or exclusively to nuclear and extended families (prior to public kindergarten in the U.S.). Children and the nurture of children are not extrinsic to marriage understood in this way, as part of the bigger picture. Children and the nurture of children are an essential part of social flourishing – “for the safeguarding and benefit of society” – because it is through healthy families that many individuals flourish and children are nurtured to become healthy adults who can and will contribute to large-scale cooperation for mutual support.

* * *

Finally, we don’t need a Kantian idea of treating others as ends in themselves, which is after all rather impersonal even if respectful. On Aristotle’s account of true friendship, the true friend is “like another oneself” (see esp. Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, Ch. 4, Sec. 5 and Book VIII, Ch. 12, Sec. 3). True friends care for each other for their own sake; they enjoy spending time together; they value similar things; and they make similar choices. Spouses can be true friends in this sense, according to Aristotle (see esp. Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, Ch. 12, Sec. 7). The Christian hope is that spouses are true friends in this sense, and with them and the networks of friendship beyond marriage, bonds of affection can be fostered from which ideally no one is excluded, so that everyone is supported and enabled to thrive.

The alternative apparently endorsed by the Task Force is to make married couples a fundamental and independent unit and to make the nurture of children extrinsic, a merely coincidental byproduct. But – as I will discuss in Part III – when nuclear families are independent units, rather than parts of a larger whole (not, as noted earlier, 1 within 2 within 3 and so on), it is far less likely that a society can achieve the kinds of large-scale network of mutual support from which no one is excluded and in which the dignity of every human being is respected.

It is not a question of whether procreation is mandatory or the capacity for procreation is essential to marriageability; it is rather a question of whether in marriage and in other aspects of our lives we are as Christians obliged to contribute to the larger common good beyond our marriages and extended families.

It is also not that marriage and the nurture of children are to be mandatory, in service of larger community. There are non-marital and non-procreative and/or non-child-rearing ways to serve the larger community. But serving the larger community is not optional for Christians. We are not to pursue only the aims of our own couple, or even our own clan. We are to serve the larger community and all humans, if not through the nurture of children, then in other ways.

Marriage and the nurture of children are not mandatory and they do not have to go together. But they are an essential part of a large-scale, multi-level network of circles of affection and mutual support. We should not fail to remind ourselves of that, even in the interest of simplifying our ideals or of leveling our estimate of the contributions of different people and couples, so that not participating in the nurture of children is thought to be no real loss.

* * *

Two Final Comments:

In Essay 2, the Task Force reflects on the concept of “complementarity” in marriage (pp. 37-38). There is no need to reject this concept, since the relationship it identifies simply does not require “binary-sex-difference.” Two people complement each other when their different strengths support each other, when their different needs are met by each other, so that, together, cooperating, they can adapt and thrive better than they could apart. As such, complementarity is to be sought in marriage, whether by mixed-sex or same-sex couples. It need not be thought of as altogether sexual.

But also in Essay 2, the Task Force offers the following peculiar claim:

Ultimately, for those who do raise children within the context of marriage – regardless of whether the parents and children are biologically related – parental procreativity is fundamentally adoptive. (p. 42)

This seems to be the or a conclusion of a curious argument on pp. 40-42. In that argument, the “be fruitful and multiply” command in Genesis 1:28 is morphed into the injunction to grow in Christ. This is growth we Christians are all to seek. Furthermore, being in Christ is interpreted through St. Paul’s metaphor of the grafting of wild olive branches onto the cultivated olive tree, which St. Paul likens to adoption of children. So, we can be fruitful by growing in Christ only because we were adopted into Christ’s body. Then it is acknowledged that being fruitful can indeed sometimes take the form of procreation and the nurture of children. But it is observed that not all marriages involve procreation and the nurture of children. Then the conclusion quoted above is stated.

If I have understood this peculiar chain of reasoning, it seems quite a stretch. It appears to me to be a piece of contorted rationalization designed to level all marriages, so that none are seen to be more central to the larger social project of cooperative pursuit of mutual flourishing through, for instance, the nurture of children.

But I acknowledge that I may have failed to follow this bit of reasoning offered by the Task Force in Essay 2.

* * *

Should we eliminate the statement of purposes from the prologue of our marriage rite and from the declaration of intent couples sign? Perhaps, if there were “significant tension” between the vows and the statement of purposes which the couple signs. Is there? No, not unless we ignore the basis of much catholic moral theology for centuries in preference for Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment moral theory.

* * *

In “Suffer the little children,” Part III, I will offer reflections on how the mistaken reasoning in Essay 1 seems to block recognition of evidence offered in Essays 4 & 7. That evidence, I will suggest, reveals the kind of social disintegration we find in some liberal cultures, which should provide a cautionary tale about moving away from stating and teaching about the purposes of marriage as including the nurture of children “for the safeguarding and benefit of society.” I will also offer reflections on the common ground that we might find between traditionalists and progressives.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"Suffer the little children" Part I

This is the first of three posts in a series.

The (Episcopal Church) Task Force on the Study of Marriage has submitted its report to General Convention. The report includes proposal of two resolutions. One resolution would amend the “marriage canon,” Canon I.18, the formal definition of marriage and rules for its celebration. The other resolution would provide for the expansion and continuation of the Task Force. 

The report, direct link:
The omnibus page of reports, see at the bottom:

The Task Force offers this video introduction to the report (HD, 18 min.).

The report also includes two appendices. One appendix contains seven essays on marriage, which provide background information, framing, and argument supporting the proposed changes. The other appendix contains a “toolkit” for the study of marriage, titled “Dearly Beloved,” released several months earlier, which offers ways to structure conversations with congregations or other groups about these issues.

I have concerns about the proposed amendments to the marriage canon and about part of the argument for them presented in the essays, not because they move us too fast but because they take us off in the wrong direction. The essays on marriage reveal what is wrong, in some specific places in some of the essays.

* * *

The term “marriage equality” has become a frequently used phrase. We can distinguish two types of equality that might fall under that term, one good, one not:

  • ME2 = Marriage equality is a leveling of our assessment of the contributions of married couples through both the elimination of recognition of the special value and gift of the nurture of children by any couple and also the elimination or diminution of reference to the larger common good, beyond the married couple, promoted by holy unions.

ME (marriage equality in the first sense) is a good thing. ME2 (marriage equality in the second sense) is not. The essays in the Task Force report support and defend ME but also ME2. (In the Introduction, the argument of Essays 1 & 2 is described as if it defends ME alone, whereas in fact it defends ME2 as well.) The arguments for ME do not commit us to, and are not sufficient for supporting, ME2. ME has been achieved, though tentatively at this point. ME2 would be something quite different.

Bottom line: Children and the nurture children, by same-sex as well as mixed-sex couples, are sidelined in the Task Force report in the interest of elevating to equal contribution all same-sex couples. Also, too few reflections are offered on the role of marriage and families in promoting common flourishing. But both children and the nurture of children should be priorities, in light of the essential role they play in the flourishing of religious communities and civil societies.

The point is not that the nurture of children should be mandatory for membership or recognition in our communities. Some couples choose not to raise children.

The point is rather that the nurture of children should be invited, honored, and privileged, because it is essential to the flourishing of communities – not least because so many children are not now receiving the nurture they need for healthy development, who then become adult members of our communities with understandable dysfunction. Those dysfunctions cause them and our communities far more suffering than good nurture of young children would have cost to begin with.

* * *

An annotated table of contents of Appendix I

APPENDIX 1: Essays on Marriage

(pp. 9-12; 4pp)

1. A Biblical and Theological Framework for Thinking about Marriage (pp. 13-31; 29pp) Flawed: Though much of the essay defends ME, there is little or no attention to the role of marriage in the common good, and a discounting or elimination of the importance any society must place on children and the nurture of children, toward a defense of ME2.
2. Christian Marriage as Vocation (pp. 32-44; 13pp) Curious: Beginning in section 3, the essay has a metaphor-rich, quotation-heavy rhetorical style, unlike typical scholarly prose, and yet it is footnote-heavy; it is not completely clear why this essay is separate from Essay 1, though they are quite different stylistically; and there are some moments of brilliance, e.g., in “Mystery of new humanity,” pp. 38-39.
3. A History of Christian Marriage 
(pp. 45-63; 19pp) Important but curious: The essay offers a sweeping, broad brushstroke history with no footnotes for checking sources, unlike scholarly history, but with study questions at the end.
4. Marriage as a Rite of Passage
 (pp. 64-69; 6pp) Missed opportunity: The role of marriage in social flourishing is glimpsed but missed or simply ignored and passed by.
5. The Marriage Canon: History and Critique 
(pp. 70-84; 15pp) Very helpful: Especially valuable as a companion to Essay 3
6. Agents of the State: A Question for Discernment
 (pp. 85-87; 3pp) For later reflection: This is a brief and helpful look at a question some are raising about whether the church should cease offering to perform the civil function in its marriage or blessing rites.
7. Changing Trends and Norms in Marriage (pp. 88-98; 11pp) Very important but curious: An overview of opinion polls and demographic data on marriages in the US, with anecdotal reflections from beyond the US, but there are no observations on or conclusions drawn about the role of promoting good marriages and families as a or the essential environment of the nurture of children.

Essays 2, 5, & 6 have footnotes; Essay 3 includes study questions; each essay includes a bibliography.

* * *

The Task Force members have put in many hours of work, informed by the wonderful variety of expertise offered by the members to the group. And there is much to be valued and appreciated in the essays on marriage included in the Task Force report. Here are two examples:
1. A combination of Essays 3 and 5, and parts of Essay 1, dispels the idea that there is a “traditional marriage” and a “traditional family” that go back maybe to creation, or at least to Christ. In fact, so-called “traditional marriage” may go back to some of our great-grandparents, or perhaps a bit further back, but marriage has changed substantially over the centuries, even within the Christian church. “Traditional marriage” is not one thing. 

2. Throughout the essays we find welcome affirmations and apt descriptions of ways in which same-sex unions can offer uplifting signs (outward and visible) of the fruits of the Spirit working in the lives of LGBT individuals and couples (inward and spiritual).

On the other hand, the Task Force, in its essays on marriage, advances an argument apparently aimed at elevating all same-sex couples to equal contribution with all couples who nurture children, whether their own biological children or children they have adopted. It does this by removing any suggestion that a married couple might through the nurture of children contribute more to the common good of its congregation and larger society, all other things being equal, than a married couple that does not do the work of nurturing children. In fact, the Task Force eliminates any substantial discussion or consideration of social flourishing as the larger good to which the flourishing of couples in their marriages contributes.

Instead of lifting up the nurture of children as a service to the larger community and not only to the children and for the personal fulfillment of the couple, the Task Force emphasizes the optionality of voluntary associations and their related duties and of the choice or “vocation” to care for children.

So we can see in the perspective defended by the Task Force a rejection of the common-good-centered idea of the moral and ethical life. Such a rejection has long been characteristic of liberal individualism and what Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) has famously called “the Enlightenment project of justifying morality” (see After Virtue, Ch. 5). According to the Task Force, the good to be achieved is – primarily or only – the flourishing of the couple. The couple’s well being is not subordinate to, not even described as a constituent part of, that of the congregation, or of the larger society, or of the body of Christ.

The immediate practical question, from my point of view, is whether to remove the statement of purposes of marriage from the so-called marriage canon, as the Task Force proposes in its first resolution, removing the statement eventually from the marriage rite itself, and perhaps altogether from the conversation. Another important question is whether we are officially to consider marriage not to be a sacrament. The issue behind the first or both of those practical questions is whether our understanding of marriage is based on liberal individualism or on a more traditional account of human flourishing.

* * *

In “Suffer the little children” Part II, I will describe in more detail what is problematic in the argument of the Task Force in Essays 1 and 2, esp. pp. 21-27, pp. 37-38, and p. 42.

In “Suffer the little children” Part III, I will reflect on how opportunities are missed in some of the essays in the Task Force report to explore common ground between the traditionalist and progressive perspectives.