There's an excellent piece today in the NY Times by Jason Stanley on how some forms of speech are not about making substantive claims, ones that are answerable, but rather are about silencing a point of view with which one is not willing to engage.
A perfect example of such speech is the recent response of the Roman Catholic bishops of New York to the passing of the Marriage Equality bill here in NY. The silencing here is multiple, from the suggestion that in its words and actions the church has upheld its charge to treat gay persons with 'respect, dignity, and love,' to the idea that marriage has always been between one man and one women. The silencing of the Holy Scriptures here is rather obvious, and that it does not even give them pause is all too telling.
This is not to say that silencing only comes from the right. As Rowan Williams has cogently argued in his remarkable essay, "Theological Integrity", such silencing is no political partisan. And yet it is undeniably the case that those arguing against full equality for glbt persons are most resolute in not being willing to listen to the voices of glbt people in making their own arguments. One look at Robert George's response to Eduardo Penalver's recent piece on Archbishop Dolan's silencing techniques is a case in point. When one moves beyond 'the pot calling the kettle black' defense, and examines carefully George's writings on marriage, one sees it for what it is: an attempt to silence glbt voices by suggesting that tyranny and polymorphous perversity are not far behind.
One searches in vain for evidence that George has taken up the reasoned arguments of the many philosophers and theologians on marriage equality for glbt persons. (Admittedly, Bishop Spong is an easy target! But has he read Marilyn McCord Adams, Eugene Rogers, James Alison, just to name a few). Instead, his definition for marriage, like Archbishop Dolan's, works by abstraction and inattentiveness. To suggest as the New York State Bishops have, that 'Marriage has always been, is now, and always will be the union of one man and one woman in a lifelong, life-giving union" is not reasoned speech, but a plugging up of the ears, a denial of the scriptures, and just not true.
George's favorite 'argument' is to pull out the spectre of polymorphous perversity, when he loudly hints that same-sex marriage is a slippery slope that will lead to polygamy. Knowing that this is in fact a biblical arrangement for marriage is irrelevant: politically, this scare tactic, it is hoped, will silence his opponents. Marriage is what the Roman Catholic Church says it is, even if the Church avoids the uncomfortable stories of its own scriptures in order to keep saying this.
George suggests that his own arguments are being silenced by his progressive opponents when he writes, in response to Penalver, that his worthiest opponents have not "even attempted" to respond to his challenge for progressives to give a 'principled' defense for the legal expansion of marriage to include same-sex couples. Why not multiple partners? he asks. Why not couples who share a common interest in tennis and who do not have a sexual relationship? Why not brothers or sisters for that matter?
In fact, these questions are answerable, even if a number of them seem so silly as not to warrant response. (is it really worth arguing that tennis-playing or baseball are adequate analogies for mutually faithful, ascetically disciplined same-sex love?) The silencing occurs when, in a footnote, George lays down this rather dogmatic claim: "Note that only sound arguments based on true principles can be inherently decisive." (p.269)
But of course, one can have quite an argument about what such true principles are. Pragmatic views of the law can be held, such that the state need not make the (rather odd) kind of argument George does, that only penetrative vaginal sex between a man and a woman counts for the 'organic bodily union' upon which marriage (again in his oddly idiosyncratic view) rests. The state has long allowed legal marriages between not only infertile couples (his argument here is, as Koppelman has noted, especially troubling) but impotent ones, or couples otherwise unable to have sex (think of couples who marry at the end of a terminal illness). A pragmatic approach to marriage law might well agree with George about the interest the state has in stable families, monogamy and child-rearing, without needing to swallow the 'principle' of 'organic bodily union' in George's sense.
Marriage has a multiple of goods, and the state need not accept any one set of principles for its defense, especially such a narrow one as George's. And should the state ever decide to revisit the question of polygamous marriages? A principled and pragmatic view of the law could handle this as arguable, rather than rule it out through a silencing rhetoric of perversity and fear-mongering.
All that said, I think it fair to be concerned about the religious freedoms of those who will not accept the recent revisions in marriage law in NY State. If the Catholic Church through its bishops wants to continue to hold to a view that many (even the majority in its own pews) no longer hold, then as an institution, they need to be protected so to do. Silencing through the law is as bad as silencing through false speech. In the end, I suspect that a pragmatic and principled approach to marriage, one that listens to the experiences of families with gay children, will win the day. Thanks be to God.