Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sharing a Good Thing

There’s a great line in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple that’s been on my mind lately. It’s spoken by Shug who, upon observing a field of flowers, remarks to Celie that “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it. . . . [God is always] just wanting to share a good thing.”

Lately, I’ve been feeling the same way about the ocean. It feels somehow wrong of me to live so close to such beauty and not make the effort, at least once a day, to go and appreciate and enjoy it - especially since I’ll be returning to wintry Minnesota in less than a week!

And so spending time by the ocean at least once a day is exactly what I’ve been doing. I even have a favourite spot: a rock platform that juts into the sea, and upon which I often go to simply be still and as fully present as I can be to myself, to God, and to the natural beauty that surrounds me.

Sometimes, when the tide is coming in, walking on this platform feels like walking on the sea!

And once I sat on the platform's spongy wet green edge as the ocean’s waves came gently rolling in, submerging my legs and waist. I felt like a merman of ancient lore!

I like this “somewhere in between” place, this wondrous place that’s both land and sea, so much so that I’ve decided that I’d like to be married here!

Actually, I thought it was marriage I had in mind – until, that is, I read chapter 6 of Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler’s The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, and realized that it’s actually my wedding that I’d like to see take place at this special place I’ve just described.

Marriage, you see, as understood in the Christian tradition before the Council of Trent (1559-1563), is actually a process – a four step process, with the wedding of a couple being but one step in this process.

I’m reading Salzman and Lawler’s book as part of
a work/study group on sexual orientation and gender identity. This group is actually one of a number of work/study groups that since last April have been preparing the content of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform’s Synod of the Baptized, scheduled to take place back in my “other home” of Minnesota on September 18.

Chapter six of The Sexual Person is entitled “Cohabitation and the Process of Marrying,” and aims to do two things: 1) to discuss and explore both cohabitation and marriage, and their possible connectedness; and 2) to propose that an option for the process of marrying in the Roman Catholic Church revert to a four-step process accepted in the Church before the Council of Trent.

So what exactly were the four steps of this process once embraced by the Church? As outlined by Salzman and Lawler they’re as follows.

1. Betrothal or, in the pre-Tridentine language, sponsalia – a ritual, witnessed and blessed on behalf of the church community, highlighting free consent to wed in the future. Betrothal would confer on the couple the status of committed spouses with all the rights that the Church grants to spouses, including the right to sexual intercourse.

2. Nuptial cohabitation. This is a pre-wedding period of time in which a couple live together as spouses in a community-approved, stable environment; and continue the life-long process of establishing the marital relationship as a relationship of love, justice, equality, intimacy, and mutual fulfillment. During this time the Church community assists the couple in honing both their relationship and their faith with an ongoing marriage preparation program aimed precisely at this maturation.

3.Fertility. This is not so much a step as a growing awareness that interpersonal relationship is at the core of all spousal and parental success in marriage and family. Within this context, “fertility” includes and goes beyond procreation leading to the biological birth of children. It also includes two other dimensions of sexual activity – personal (and not just bodily) intercourse and mutual pleasure.

4. Wedding, i.e., the ceremonializing of a couple’s loving, just, and symmetrical relationship in the company of families, friends, and Christian community. At their wedding, the members of a couple “renew their consent de praesenti and celebrate their union for what it has inchoately become, namely, a symbol or sacrament of the loving union between God and God’s people, between Christ and Christ’s Church. Their wedding can then be considered the consummation of their marriage, the consummation of a relationship that they have sought to make as human and as Christian as possible.”

Of course, the above process could readily apply to gay couples, and I have absolutely no doubt that one day the Church will ensure that it can and does.

Salzman and Lawler’s perspective on the Church’s current teaching on homosexuality and homosexual relationships is worth noting. In chapter seven of The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, they write:

In light of contemporary human knowledge about homosexual orientation, we have examined in this chapter the threefold bases on which the Catholic Church rests its judgment that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and gravely immoral, namely, the teaching of scripture, the teaching of the Magisterium, and the moral sense of the Christian people. On all three bases . . . the Church’s teaching needs serious reevaluation.

. . . Nothing we have argued in this chapter proves that homosexual acts are ipso facto morally right. We have argued only that the arguments advanced by the Church’s Magisterium to sustain the judgment that all homosexual acts are ipso facto morally wrong are unsound and need to be revisited. Our present judgment endorses [Catholic theologian Margaret] Farley’s judgment: “At this point, . . . it is difficult to see how on the basis of sheer rationality alone, and all of its disciplines [including theology], an absolute prohibition of same-sex relationships or activities can be maintained.” She goes on to point out that “we are still pressed to the task of discerning what must characterize same-sex relationships if they are to conduce to human flourishing.” Again we agree, though we also believe we have developed criteria in previous chapters for the judgment that some homosexual acts may be morally right. We content ourselves here by repeating the criteria with which we concluded a previous chapter. Some homosexual and some heterosexual acts, those that meet the requirements of complementary, just, and loving sexual relations, are truly human and moral; and some homosexual and some heterosexual acts, those that do not meet the requirements of complementary, just, and loving sexual relations, are immoral. This judgment, we believe, stands in spite of the rhetorical assertions of the [Roman] Catholic Magisterium, and it stands for the good of the whole Church.

Here’s something else that caught my attention: in chapter six, Salzman and Lawler note that “premarital cohabitation tends to be associated with a heightened risk of divorce, a fact on which there is a consensus from a large variety of different researchers, samples, methodologies, and measures.”

The authors observe that “this fact has become beloved of Catholic commentators on unmarried heterosexual cohabitation and its implications for subsequent marriage, which leaves both them and their pastoral responses at risk of being uninformed and outdated.” Why? Well, according to Salzman and Lawler, “more recent studies on more recent cohorts report more nuanced data about the relationship of cohabitation and marital instability.”

After presenting the findings of these “more recent studies,” Salzman and Lawler conclude that: “Recent social scientific research suggests that the generalization that cohabitation, without distinction [between those uncommitted to marriage and those already committed to marriage, perhaps even engaged], is linked to subsequent marital instability is far too unnuanced to be accepted uncritically. Careful consideration of these data should precede any pastoral considerations. . . . Not all cohabitations are alike.”

Then, drawing on the insights of Scott M. Stanley, the authors note that commitment as dedication is twofold: “commitment to the partner and commitment to the relationship.” The former entails characteristics that Pope John Paul II lists (or implies) as essential for conjugal love: fidelity, loyalty, and fortitude.

Write Salzman and Lawler: “The members of a couple with such a double commitment report that they feel comfortable revealing their deepest desires, failings, and hurts to one another. They do not think about possible alternatives to their partner, they are more satisfied with their married life in general and their sex life in particular, and they have no need to consider adultery. They are more willing to give up things important to them for the sake of their relationship, and they report higher levels of happiness and stability than do partners who do not regularly sacrifice for the sake of the relationship. These couples have a strong sense of their future together and are more likely to speak of that future and of their dreams for it than of their past conflicts, failures, and disappointments.”

Again, such commitment and dedication is not beyond the capacity and experience of gay couples, as recent studies have shown.

And why should anyone be surprised by this? For as Shug in The Color Purple wisely reminds us: God is always urging us to take notice of the good and beautiful things around us. And the loving relationships of gay people are good and beautiful, and certainly around us.

Personally, I think not recognizing and appreciating the love, commitment and dedication of human relationships – be they embodied by straight or gay couples within or beyond “traditional marriage” – pisses God off just as much as walking unmindfully and ungratefully past the color purple . . . or the ocean.

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
On the Rocks . . .

Images: Michael Bayly.

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