In a piece at Public Discourse, Serena Sigillito offers a crucial reminder to anyone who ever engages in a conversation or debate about any political issue, but particularly those, like marriage, that involve the most intimate of issues:
Beware of talking points and strategies that “can obscure the fact that, when it comes down to the essentials, what you’re really dealing with is individual human beings, with their own intellectual backgrounds, emotional attachments, personal histories, and—most importantly—souls.”
She implores a loving patience (something Pope Francis talked about in his homily today):
Coming to comprehend truth intellectually takes time and effort. But even once that comprehension has been established, other barriers to acceptance often remain. Mustering the strength to make concrete, repeated, public choices to live in accordance with the truths one has accepted—especially truths as countercultural as opposing birth control or gay marriage—takes even more time.
A teacher of mine used to speak of the two intertwined conversions narrated by St. Augustine: the conversion of the intellect and the conversion of the will. This twofold conversion process is deeply personal, but it also takes place within community, gaining momentum through relationships that challenge, inspire, and support a person along the way. And all of this is both motivated and enabled by love—love of truth, yes, but also the love of persons for each other.
Dante’s Divine Comedy provides an exceptionally rich illustration of this process of gradual conversion through truth and love. Throughout the course of the Divine Comedy, as Dante narrates his journey through hell, and purgatory, and into the upper realms of heaven, he is steadily journeying toward a mystical encounter with God in the beatific vision. But in order to reach this union with God, Dante must first discover the nature of love. This discovery initially occurs on the level of reason and will. In the Inferno, Dante encounters the faulty understandings of love that lead to damnation, with all their devilishly appropriate gore. Hell, Dante tells us, is for those who have “lost the good of the intellect.” Although, as Aristotle would say, happiness is what all human action aims toward, these souls misunderstood what love really is, chasing after false, sinful conceptions of happiness. In the Purgatorio, Dante must reject all such falsehoods, training his will and desires to be in conformity with his new understanding of love’s right ordering.
Canadian journalist Michael Coren (whom I interviewed for NRO here in recent months on his book on The Future of Catholicism) puts it another way:
No compromise on truth but no compromise on love. This is not about winning but about carving out the best possible, most moral solution in a world often clouded in darkness.
Do not fall back on insults and stupidity. Otherwise what is the point? What is the damned — I use the word advisedly – point?
In my syndicated column this week, I mention, not for the first time, Austen Ivereigh’s book How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. In it he proposes ten principles of civil communications that are at the heart of Catholic Voices, a media apostolate he co-founded in England (I’m a founding director of a U.S. project, Catholic Voices USA, inspired by them). This isn’t about mere niceties. It’s about real love in public discourse. When we’re talking about or debating issues, we’re talking about people’s lives!
Among those civil-communications principles, the one I think about the most is compassion. “Sometimes we simply need to be good listeners, ready to absorb . . . anger and hurt,” Ivereigh writes. That’s not merely for a work of mercy during volunteer time (though, as Pope Francis would certainly remind us — and Archbishop Chaput, also, among others — that too!).
There’s a great deal of upside-downness in the world today. Wrongs aren’t going to be righted and words like life and freedom, men and women, marriage and love aren’t going to have meaning without some deep healing and penance, too. And much love. Generous, gratuitious, self-sacrificial, tender, dedicated love. People of faith haven’t always been faithful — we aren’t always. We need to be up front and contrite about this.
And we better examine our consciences, too. Do we talk about the definition of marriage – out of love? Do we want love for others and reach out to those we have disagreements with — in love?
Ryan Anderson reflected on this in a speech last year:
America is the only country that is founded on a proposition, on a proposition about rights and liberties, not only of Americans but of all people. About rights that all people are endowed with by their Creator; about rights that governments are instituted to protect. If America—the last, best hope—can’t get this right, what does that mean for the rest of the world?
It isn’t surprising that we’re not getting it right. Part of the blame lies with us. If government doesn’t respect religious liberty and the rights of conscience, perhaps it’s because I don’t exercise my religious liberty as I ought, that I don’t follow my conscience as I should. If I don’t take my faith and conscience seriously, it’s no wonder that the government doesn’t either.
I’ve never killed anyone physically, but I know I have spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, when I am short-tempered with colleagues or belittle opponents. It isn’t surprising that the government fails to respect the dignity of life when I fail to respect it.
The same is true for marriage. Long before there was a debate about same-sex anything, far too many people bought into a liberal ideology about sexuality that makes a mess of marriage: Cohabitation, no-fault divorce, extra-marital sex, non-marital childbearing, massive consumption of pornography and the hook-up culture all contributed to the breakdown of our marriage culture. And Jesus tells us that these all begin with the silent, interior act of simply looking with lust.
At one point in American life, virtually every child was given the great gift of being raised to adulthood in the marital bond of the man and the woman—the mom and the dad—whose union gave them life. Today, that number is under 50 percent in some communities, and the consequences are tragic. Same-sex marriage didn’t cause this, but it does nothing to help it, and will only make things worse. Indeed, it will lock in the distorted view of marriage as an institution primarily concerned with adult romantic desires, and make the rebuilding of the marriage culture much more difficult.
After all, redefining marriage to make it simply about emotional companionship sends the signal that moms and dads are interchangeable. Redefining marriage directly undercuts the rational foundations for the marital norms of permanence, exclusivity and monogamy. It places the principle into law that if justice requires redefining marriage to include the same-sex couple, so too it could one day demand recognizing the “throuple” and quartet.
But the marriage debate is just one earthly battle, one among many that the people of God must wage. It is not ours to determine when we will succeed in it, or how. And ultimately, it is of secondary concern. For the only success of ultimate importance is holiness. The only real tragedy in life is not to have been a saint.
When Time and The Advocate and Rolling Stone put the pope on their covers — whether it is fully realized or not — it is because they are attracted to something of this pope. Do not mistake this for St. Peter’s Idol though. He’s reminding people that we can be saints, holy ones of God. This is what we were made for.
It’s not progressive or conservative. It’s counter-cultural. It’s radical. And there’s an ecumenical embrace: Stick with God in truth and love and mercy and we’ll be headed in the right direction. Discern truth in our wild world with me. Live the examined life with me. Live in love and mercy with me, as God lives with and in us. (There’s a little more in my “Pope of Media Miracles” column.)