Get Comfortable with Absurdity: Catholics and the Civil Order
In our continuing discussions of the future of Christian politics, we may differ over the likelihood of being able to stem the legal breakdown of marriage. The latest cause for alarm is a federal judge’s decision that the marriage amendment to the Oklahoma State Constitution is unconstitutional according to the higher Constitution of the United States. Judge Terence Kern ruled that the restriction of marriage to a man and a woman is (wait for it) “an arbitrary, irrational exclusion of just one class of Oklahoma citizens from a governmental benefit.”
This is not the first time that the restriction of marriage to one man and one woman has been ruled irrational by a federal judge, nor is it likely to be the last. In 2010, Judge Vaughn Walker overturned California’s Proposition 8 with the statement that it created an “irrational classification on the basis of sexual orientation.” Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court could find no other motive for the Defense of Marriage Act than “to disparage and to injure” homosexuals. As with the abortion issue before it, the Supreme Court will likely issue a final verdict on gay marriage overall. If faced in the end with the need for a federal constitutional amendment, it is painfully clear that all the people’s horses and all of their men will have too few votes to put marriage together again.
This should come as no surprise. Like Humpty Dumpty in unparalleled hubris, the modern secular state usurps authority even over the meaning of words, in fact over meaning itself. Judge Kern regards marriage as a construct of the State, ruling that it is in essence nothing but a government benefit and that any other view is irrational. Well, of course. In a dominant political culture which holds it irrational to regard an unborn child as a human person with a right to life, why should we expect anything else? Moreover, there is an enormous cultural interest in this development. To recover a sense of the objective reality of marriage, it is ultimately necessary to roll back not only gay marriage, but both easy divorce and contraception. Marriage depends on lifelong fidelity in a deep and generous commitment to new life. You can’t have one without the other.
Since this rather obviously cannot be accomplished politically, we need other ways to change the culture. Our strategies must clearly broaden and deepen away from concerns about power and toward genuine conversion. But before we can develop such strategies, we Catholics need to reevaluate our entire relationship to the civil order. Specifically, we need to decouple our Catholicism from our instinctive identification with our own country’s civil rectitude and public power.
Most of us have grown up patriotic. We almost instinctively desire to align ourselves with the civil order, often more than we align ourselves with the ecclesiastical order. We yearn to trust the fundamental rightness of our own civil order; we are profoundly influenced by its moral culture; we are quick to understand and excuse its deficiencies; and we like to maintain a sort of pious civic fiction—the illusion that we are always on the verge of making the few adjustments necessary to fix those deficiencies. We do not take seriously enough the more fundamental reality that Christians are always sojourners in a strange land, that we ought to live like pilgrims passing through to our true home. We have trouble grasping that while our desires for the Earthly City may run high, our expectations for it ought to run very low. Above all, we must avoid making the civil order the locus of our Christian hope.
Now it is true that we are enjoined by Jeremiah to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” and to “pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (29:7). This is rather pragmatic and even self-serving counsel, but we must also remember the admonition of St. Paul: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good.” Paul concludes: “Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Rom 13:1-5).
So we must be exemplary citizens, in the deepest sense of accepting lawful authority and always doing good. But even in this passage St. Paul makes his context clear. He is referring to rulers who are “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” He does not mean to undermine Our Lord’s insistence that we “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s” (Mt 21:22; Mk 12:17; Lk 20:25). For as the Letter to the Hebrews makes clear, “Jesus also suffered outside the gate [outside the normal confines of the community] in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:12-14).
Catholics, indeed all Christians, absolutely must recognize themselves as a people dispossessed. If we are to be truly comfortable, we must become comfortable with the vast gulf between the City of God and the City of Man, understanding that the civil order will never represent Christ adequately, not even in an age of “Christendom”. The world ever pursues courses conceived by intellects severely darkened by sin. As such, these powers will frequently act in ways that are not only wrong but even objectively absurd. This must not surprise Catholics.
As Catholics we must alter our habits of thinking, so that the horizons of this world never limit the horizons of our faith. We need to learn again, and make sure our children learn, what it means to be in the world but not of it. As in Chesterton’s famous image of a picture of Our Lady hanging on the wall, sometimes everything we see around us will make the image of God we hold in our hearts seem off-kilter and askew. When this happens, the world will call us irrational. We may be half-persuaded of our folly, tempted to adjust the picture. But it is not the picture that is crooked; it is the wall of the world. The Christian challenge is to recognize this. We need to acquire the habit of remaining sane by becoming fools for Christ (1 Cor 4:10).
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Posted by: nix898049 -
Jan. 21, 2014 12:12 PM ET USA
"The world ever pursues courses perceived by intellects severely darkened by sin." Thank you, Dr. Mirus for this essay and summing up this mess so clearly.
Posted by: jgdiamond25716 -
Jan. 20, 2014 3:34 PM ET USA
It would be helpful for some of us to have a review this issue of civil order relative to our historical preference for religion as evidenced by the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This really is not "separation of church and state" but rather a one-way safeguard to keep the state out of religion. So how do our judges now hijack the term marriage from us, dictate who gets a wedding cake, etc?
Posted by: jg23753479 -
Jan. 17, 2014 3:50 PM ET USA
Oops! I just reread what I wrote last night. Make that "...et cum gaudio maximo! Apologies to my Latin teacher from many decades back! I am sure she is looking down on me with a scowl of disbelief, just as she frequently did in class.
Posted by: koinonia -
Jan. 17, 2014 11:03 AM ET USA
Very well done, Dr. Mirus.
Posted by: jg23753479 -
Jan. 16, 2014 6:03 PM ET USA
"We need to decouple our Catholicism from our instinctive identification with our own country’s civil rectitude and public power." I am sure this sentence may unsettle more than one reader at this site, but not me. (I read it at least three times et cum maximum gaudium!) I am a patriot; I love where I was born. But its government...well, it has never terribly impressed me, despite all the huzzahs I've heard for it since I was young. Pure force, not love, underwrites what assent I give to it.
Posted by: jamesbell431857 -
Jan. 16, 2014 3:22 PM ET USA
This can be really good advice if you are talking about avoiding strategic political reasoning such as opposing the evil of abortion and supporting authentic marriage while being silent on the issue of contraception and same-sex sexual behavior (long the policy of the American hierarchy). We need to proclaim the fullness of the truth -- on faith and on morals. When we do that publicly, that will be inherently political since this is a democracy. Too often politics has limited our Gospel pitch.