Robert George makes an interesting observation this week over at Mirror of Justice: http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2012/01/which-side-are-you-on-boys-which-side-are-you-on.html. He notes that it is 'Catholic politicians---mostly Democrats---who are leading the charge to abolish the conjugal understanding of marriage as a one-flesh union of sexually complementary spouses and replace it with a revisionist understanding of marriage as a romantic-sexual domestic partnership.'
Robby finds that this reveals something significant - namely, that 'the philosophical tradition that shapes the reasoning and actions of these people is expressive individualism, or what is sometimes called "life-style liberalism"; it is not Catholicism, or the Judaeo-Christian ethic, or the natural law tradition. Whatever is to be said for and against that tradition,' Robby continues, 'it is deeply alien (and hostile) to the Catholic tradition's commitments to the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions and the dignity of marriage as a conjugal partnership.'
I've a good deal of sympathy with Robby's concerns. And I've no doubt that he is right about at least some Catholic politicians, in surmising that their views and voting behavior might be shaped and guided by some form of expressive individualism. I've also little doubt that some forms of the latter are, at a minimum, in tension with the Catholic and natural law traditions, as well as with some widely accepted understandings of the Jewish and Christian, not to mention Islamic, ethical traditions. I wonder, though, whether a somewhat more charitable interpretation - in a 'giving the benefit of interpretive doubt' understanding of 'charity' here - might not be available to us in the case of some Catholic or otherwise religiously committed government officials.
What I have in mind is this: Perhaps some religiously committed political figures attempt in good faith, how ever successfully or otherwise as an analytic or conceptual matter, to draw a sharp distinction between matters of church (or temple or mosque or ...) on the one hand, and matters of state on the other hand. (Perhaps they've not read, or not read and yet found persuasive, the 'communitarian' literature challenging the distinction.) Marriage these people might in turn find to constitute a strictly sacramental or ecclesial category, while finding something like 'domestic partnership' to constitute all that there is by way of analogue in the realm of state categories.
These people might then also firmly subscribe and commit to, and with sincere hearts defend and act in accordance with, their congregations' understandings of marriage, while at the same time believing that state functionaries would be abusing state office were they to employ identical criteria in framing the conditions of domestic partnership as they do in framing the conditions of marriage within their ecclesial traditions. One such criterion that they might then in good faith find legitimate in the first case but not in the second case might be the genders of the would-be spouses or partners. So far as legitimate state interests are concerned, they might reason, dyadic partnership is what deserves state recognition and favor of various sorts, while sameness of flesh, sexual complementarity, and like matters of profound metaphysical significance are matters of ecclesial but not state competence.
It is true, of course, that the word 'marriage' is used, at least in the U.S., in respect of both of the categories I mention - ecclesial and state. In that sense, our legal terminology perhaps regrettably conflates the two categories. It seems to me, however, that a, say, Catholic legislator might prefer globally to change the legal terminology where state-recognized domestic partnership is concerned, while at the same time being willing, until some such thing happens, to approve legislation that ends the state's making what amount to ecclesial decisions concerning the substantive criteria upon which state-recognized and -encouraged dyadic domestic partnership is to be determined.
Assuming that the charitable interpretation of at least some tradition-faithful state functionaries' decisions and actions in respect of 'same sex unions' here offered is plausible, it should go without saying that it does not carry over, at least absent further elaboration and argumentation, to the case of such functionaries' decisions or actions in respect of abortion. For that latter, of course, involves not only two acting partners of one sort or another, but innocent third parties as well - or at the very least critically implicates precisely that fateful question.