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.


  1. Astute commentary on the ethical framework, Don. I would argue that what's at play in the essays is neither classical Kantianism nor utilitarianism but an odd hodgepodge of neo-Kantianism heavily informed by a Niebuhrian pragmatism (as Hauerwas develops it in his Gifford lectures). I think you've named the antidote rightly, though I'd also argue that a subtle qualification of your claim regarding Aristotle is needed --> the Church rightly discerns with not merely a teleological ethic, but with an eschatological ethic. (Sam Wells develops this in his "Improvisation"). Moreover, regarding some of the classification disputes on the listserv about doctrine vs discipline vs theology: my suggestion is that we would be aided once again by Aristotle there, as well. As Hooker recognized, the categories are not properly doctrine and discipline, but episteme and phronesis. What is at stake, pace some of my conservative colleagues, is a matter of action (in the Aristotelian sense). We are not debating a question of knowing the Person (Theo-logos) (whether the divine revealed in Christ or the authentic anthropology revealed in Christ) which can be no other way (episteme). We are debating instead a question that follows from such communally mediated concepts: given these concepts which we receive as givens, how are we to act such that we manifest the good? And as soon as you recognize that the question is one of action, you can easily recognize, with Aristotle, that we've entered the realm of art: as Hooker channeled Aristotle in making this point, "many ways are consonant." Communal norms regarding marriage (and any number of matters of Church order), are matters of prudential action, and they can always be otherwise than we have ordered them. Our prudential actions are always malleable proposals, grounded in a context, regarding how to manifest the good. It is not a matter of discerning the binary of right and wrong (an often unspoken premise), but rather of locating ourselves on a spectrum between the good (teleologically understood) and the privation of the good. The question is not properly framed in terms of dogma, doctrine, and discipline, but in terms of our efforts to receive and manifest the good: what means through which God seeks to bless us are we rejecting in our current prudentially discerned ordering? How can better manifest the good given what we've discerned along the way? Is it possible that that ordering, though well-intended, here and now fails to receive fully the means by which God seeks to sustain God's Church? Here's the ethical question as I see it: do we believe it is possible that God blesses God's Church through the unitive friendship of same sex couples who seek to live their lives in such a way that their union is characterized by a covenantal relationship grounded in forgiveness and forgiven-ness in a way analogous to the Covenant of grace? If no, then we probably are imprudential in naming it sacramental; if yes, then we probably are rejecting a means of grace, just as we did when we excluded the full ministry of women, and prudence calls us to discover a way to receive that blessing. And that then begets all sorts of questions about how best to receive the forms of blessings we've ignored heretofore. And, as you note, all of that takes place within a complex matrix of communal interdependencies in which the good is communally understood. If we reform, we must discover the means to achieve it that preserves the fellowship through which the Spirit is reconciling us to God and the created order.

  2. Don, once again you are reading into the report not only what isn't there, but concepts that are actually contradicted by what it says. In this light, Craig Uffman is both more accurate and more helpful, though I think he too misses a few of the important distinctions being made.

    The report does not say that "children are extrinsic to marriage." In fact it says that such a view is to be avoided (see page 23 of the report, which contains the only two uses of the word "extrinsic" in the essay.)

    What we were saying is actually along the lines Craig suggests, though with a safeguard against an over-idealized conception of marriage that attributes universals to the actual instances. This is, as he recognizes, a pragmatic approach. So what we were getting at is that procreation ought not be seen as an "end" of marriage in and of itself -- which would suggest that a marriage that does not achieve this "end" has somehow failed; but rather that it is a "good" with which some marriages are blessed. The position of this "good" in the preface to the marriage liturgy, placed in the context of the loving relationship of the spouses, and under God's blessing (when so intended by God, a notable proviso), demonstrates this point.

    As to tension with the vows: this only arises IF procreation is misunderstood in the way some appear to misunderstand it (as the sine qua non of marriage, without which a marriage is less than a marriage). The true "end" of marriage is the fellowship of the couple with each other and with God (which mirrors the language of the "mission" of the Church from the Catechism, and thus provides another means by which the marriage reflects that "wonderful and sacred mystery." Procreation, "when it is God's will," is an outgrowth or development, and in itself not truly a "telos" because it is the beginning of a process of nurture "in the love of God." Please not the very important role the community plays in the social contextualization of marriage in this essay.(See in particular page 20).

    And it is our contention that this imaging and life and mission can be and is evident in the lives of same-sex couples.

    1. Thank you, Tobias+. I have waited so that you could see the completion of my argument. I'm confident you will disagree with Part III, but perhaps I'll be in a better position to know you see what I'm getting at by the time you've had a chance to read Part III.