Thursday, June 07, 2007

Authenticity, Changing Norms, and Life-long Monogamy

My friend Paula recently shared with me her thoughts on authenticity, changing norms, and life-long monogamy. As you’ll see, Paula offers erudite and thought-provoking reflections on these important realities.

She has also given me permission to share her thoughts and insights via The Wild Reed, so please feel free to join the conversation by leaving a comment.


Do same-gender couples dissolve their partnerships more readily than opposite-gender couples do? Perhaps they do. I do not have statistics to answer this question. Whether justified or not, the charge of instability is used to argue against legal status for same-gender unions. Rather than settling that question, this particular charge raises the broader question of why life-long monogamous relationships should be the norm.

Is there a rationale for life-long monogamy for people of either orientation? The question is about norms or ideals. In practice, people of both orientations do what they do. For many reasons they do not live up to moral ideals. But are there good reasons for our saying that people should form and maintain life-long partnerships? Are they better for the individuals and for society?

The ideal of life-long marriage has its grounding in a view of the world and human life as static, enclosed lifetime by lifetime. Generation after generation people lived within their cultures, their geographical area, their religious traditions, maintaining the stability and smooth functioning of the society. In the cyclical, diurnal life of an agricultural/ village society or even an industrial society with rigid class divisions the task of each generation was to keep the universe intact for the next generation. Life-long monogamy was the norm because first of all the children needed formation, and then the young parental generation needed role models and the help of grandparents, and then the whole cycle began again. Male and female He created them. Till death do part them. The goal was stability.

To put that static worldview in Catholic religious language, sanctifying grace, delivered through the sacraments, including life-long marriage, administered by duly ordained men under the authority of bishops who are in turn under the authority of Rome, transforms the individual and community life of the local church. This cyclical life, measured by the events of the liturgical year, repeats generation after generation until God decides it's a wrap.

For a couple of centuries now, that cyclical worldview has been morphing into an evolutionary one in the West. In this view, the cycles are still rotating but they are rotating in expanding spirals moving forward.

Socio-economic circumstances have changed and so have norms of behavior. The focus has shifted from a stable community of individuals to the individual contributing to many overlapping and less stable communities during a lifetime. Transformation occurs in individuals, in their interior lives, and in communities through them. The interior life of one individual, his/her consciousness, is expanded through interaction with many various communities, including past communities, through vastly expanded technologies of communication. Individual interior lives evolve or they remain stagnant. Intimate relationships, partnerships evolve together or they dissolve. Individuals are responsible for their own integration and authenticity and for that of the communities that support their lives.

Part of integration and authenticity is responsibility for commitments to others, particularly children, and for the well-being of all. Each person has to choose the associations to continue and the ones to dissolve. This means that the predominant value has moved from life-long stability to life-long individual and communal growth to which stability, though still important, is subordinate. Couplings and communities are either conducive to growth or they are not. Some people grow through life-long commitment; for some the responsible move is dissolution.

Ethical understandings evolve. We have faculties to help us steer a course, imagination, desire, reason, and we humbly depend on dialogue with our religious traditions, the best thinking of communities of inquiry, and our fellow citizens to guide us in discerning norms of human behavior.

In this view, same-gender partners in whose judgment the stability of civil marriage would be conducive to their growth together, should be allowed to enjoy its rights and responsibilities. There is no life-long contract requirement to qualify for civil marriage.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”
Naming and Confronting Bigotry
The Real Gay Agenda
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
Gay Adoption: A Catholic Lawyer’s Perspective
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex


Winnipeg Catholic said...

OK is this a catholic or secular blog?

If it is a catholic blog, then i would argue that your arguments are completely off base. Would I marry and raise children with a partner that would take the option of leaving me in a few years or even in a decade? No! why? it would hurt my damned feelings that's why? And it would hurt my kids too, who want a stable loving relationship amongst their beloved parents!

If you want a secular union, great. Have serial monogamy, or swinging, or whatever you want. But if you want to call yourself catholic, that involves not hurting other people. And if you want to enter into a binding, committed relationship that's not going to hurt anyone, then it needs to be lifelong monogamy or you have no reason to consecrate it.

And if you can't do any of those things, you have no business being 'married' in any catholic sense of the word, and you're only going to undermine the whole thing and embarass catholic gays who can make such a committment.

More and more I think that Catholic gays need to stand up and kick the promiscuous idiots out of their midsts.

Or maybe the Courage folks are right.

*Christopher said...

C and I initially committed to one another early in our relationship in the sense that we vowed to one another stay together. We are both quite conservative in the regard of monogamy and commitment. And we've been through a lot of worse, sickness, and poorer--hard times. When we commmitted last June to each other in public and final vows at our union ceremony, we took vows of stability, obedience, and lifelong conversion--the Benedictine vows. I wonder if a return of the betrothal as novitiate period wouldn't be helpful, but the goal is to ask "where is this going?" My answer would be vocation and discipleship.

The Benedictine sister who officiated gave a knock-out sermon on the vows. For example, stability as radical fidelity.

I disagree that committed monogamy is simply static. It gives the space and time for two persons to work out so much in themselves with the mirror of the other (conversion ove a lifetime) and when children are involved provides the container in which bounds and love .

Sure. Some committed relationships, be they gay or married should be ended, and sometimes getting out is important if abuse occurs, and we shouldn't be too quick to judge or stigmatize as divorce often is quite painful and difficult and needs embrace, care, and love not our pointing fingers. But to my mind we often give up to quickly, don't do the hard work of working through. We don't want to be converted.

These dissolutions, however, shouldn't necessarily lead us to think committed monogamy itself is the problem or not the norm when sexual relations are involved--it seems to me that is the underlying sensus fidelium in this regard irrespective of orientation. I've said it again and again that such are not simply for our fulfillment, or sexual satisfaction, but for our discipleship. Committed monogamy is in that respect of the same type of commitment that a religious makes to a community, which is itself a marriage to God through that community. Ideally, it's for a lifetime through thick and thin, ups and downs.

Eileen said...

Interesting. I need to think on this a bit.

I hear what B is saying - and I agree that folks with children need to think very carefully about providing stability.

However, I also don't think marriage guarantees stability, even with a religious context.

I'm gonna cogitate on this more.

Winnipeg Catholic said...

Wow, very well said Christopher.

Paula said...

Hi, Winnipeg Catholic, Christopher, and Eileen.

Thanks for responding to my argument that Michael posted on his blog. You have helped me to clarify my thinking.

We in the US (probably Canada too) have the task of sifting out ethical standards from the different ethical communities we belong to or are exposed to in a pluralistic society. It isn't a matter of just Catholic or Secular as Winnipeg Catholic suggests.

There are many groups with more or less consistent ethical standards. Just sticking with the group that identifies itself as Catholic for a moment, I wonder if it is the "sensus fidelium" that marriage should be a life-long commitment.

Is this an empirical question? By that I mean do we need sociological data to determine the validity of the claim that Catholics as a group hold to the rightness of life-long monogamy?

No doubt the hierarchy holds that view and presumably people who take the Vatican teaching without question hold that view. Does that constitute "sensus fidelium"?

But now looking over the ethical practices of the broad spectrum of ethical groups in the US, doesn't it seem that personal integrity (authenticity) is more valued than life-long commitment to one marriage partner?

I don't have much empirical data for my hypothesis that it is, just personal experience of all the serial monogamous unions that I see and writings of others who may or may not have empirical data.

As to the value of stability and also the personal growth that can occur within a life-long marriage I have no doubt. My one marriage ended in the death of my husband.

I also agree with Winnipeg Catholic that under no set of ethical norms is hurting people without sufficient reason a good thing. We are all in the position of having to be attentive to the world around us, be intelligent in perceiving it, reasonable in judging what is true and right, and responsible in acting accordingly. An adventure in which we all need loving support.


eileen said...

Secularly, I do believe that there is a strong inclination to value personal authenticity above lifelong committment. I agree, in practice, among the RC's I know, this tends to be the case - I don't see less divorce among RC's, nor less cohabitating before marriage, etc.

I think that the general prosperity in this country, as well as living longer, may have something to do with divorce rates. Spending 40-50 years in one relationship can be a daunting prospect, especially when things don't work out as you thought or hoped.

There are some people who have legitimate reasons to get divorced - abusive or negligent relationships come to mind.

So many other people though...I think they get bored, or buy into movieland romance. Secularly, there is much less stigma attached to this behavior then in prior times, when secular and religious life were far more intertwined.

I have very mixed feelings about this. Perhaps marriage is entered into too lightly, leading to the view that it's expendable.

However, I do also think it's possible to grow away from someone, to such an extent that real damage can be done by staying married - resentment, hostility, abuse. Not good for kids either.

So...I have no easy answers. Thought provoking though...