From the Supreme Court to St. Paul: thoughts on the DOMA aftermath

June 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

I fell behind writing about the JSEA colloquium, as the schedule of events and long socializing allowed meager moments to crack the knuckles and spend QT with the Mac. But I also withdrew into more-than-usual brooding after the Supreme Court published its decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

It was noteworthy, I thought, that the Court released the decision during the middle of a conference dedicated to the intellectual and spiritual life of the next generation. As hundreds of educators discussed how to adapt to popular technologies and evolving methods of pedagogy, as we shared strategies for preparing minds for a Christ-led navigation of post-high school terrain, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on a question that also involves the future, that also involves a grappling with evolving understandings of the human person and life in society.

In the brief moments I had to read about the decision, I resorted to my Facebook feed and a few news sites, where I saw the just-add-water commentary that is so predictable in the wake of major events. As expected, reactions clashed. Some treated the Supreme Court’s decision with the excitement of a father bursting from the delivery room, newborn in hand; others reacted as if their car had blown a tire and there was no tow truck available. They sat, they stewed, they blogged.

Both sides had their overreactions, but among opponents of the decision there was particular alarm. In much of the criticism there was a hopelessness, a despair, an angry gloom. Someone I don’t know, writing on a friend’s timeline, said that the United States had “officially” become Sodom and Gomorrah. Another person, commenting on a post at America magazine’s blog, wrote, “We’re all Gay Mormons now.”

Not honorable disagreement over an important moral issue; not the understandable disappointment of those committed to traditional marriage; not the respectful summons to additional advocacy: this was not what I was seeing. With few exceptions, what I saw was a breakdown in thoughtfulness, a retreat into catastrophic thinking and, at times, viciousness. In mainstream magazines and from mainstream (or so I’ve always thought) people, I saw the use of a language and tone so hyperbolic you’d think we were living in World War Z.

It was especially bad on places like Facebook and Twitter. Since people “friend” and “follow” the like-minded, few voices exist to offer any cooling, humanizing perspective. People transform their impulses into letters and type away into a virtual gated community. Their online neighbors await to echo the same response.

As I read the comments and compared them to the judicious dialogue underway at the colloquium, I realized what lie before us. It wasn’t the merits of the decision itself that first captivated me; it was the aftermath. The reactions revealed the attraction of extremes, the allure of affirmation, and the ease with which our virtual gated communities can corrode our empathy for those outside the walls.

It reminded me of the debate over immigration. How often does the national conversation turn persons into issues and seclude us from the noble human longings at stake? The population we call “illegals” are moms and dads, wives and husbands, caretakers and protectors. They want what we want. We can affirm the importance of secure borders and also acknowledge the dignity of those men and women. Men and women who, born imago dei, strive for a stable job, a reliable government, and the conditions to flourish and feel fulfilled; men and women who, through no choice of their own, were born into a place that leaves them little chance to enjoy the lifestyle that many of us take for granted.

Ignatian education, all of Catholic education, has its task. As social media lures us to customize friends and news on the criteria of “likes” or “shares,” our schools must introduce young men and women to people and stories that broaden and deepen their worldview. As the Internet dares students to ridicule, to vent from afar, Catholic schools must encourage students to cross into the territory of the designated “other,” to see the person before the issue. Catholic schools must insist, as St. Ignatius and the early Jesuits did, on conversation or, as St. Ignatius put it, “colloquy.”

This does not mean we abandon the Gospel, the teachings of the Church, or the truths of divine revelation. We carry forth with our Catholic faith. It does mean, however, that we honor the full spiritual dignity of those with whom we disagree. The gay couples I know well simply want their love to be celebrated and affirmed in the way that heterosexuals want. Their motivations arise from a wholesome place, and they should not be cheapened.

This is difficult. Really difficult. It is easy to denounce and condemn, much harder to discern. It is easy to dish sneering asides before an audience of flatterers, much harder to navigate competing moral, legal, and theological claims and then articulate a view, in a spirit of charity, to those who vehemently disagree.

It is easy, in other words, to eliminate tension. But that is not the Ignatian mission. It is within what Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., once called “constructive tension” where we ask students and faculty to dwell. In doing so, we draw on the essence of Ignatian identity. As Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., once wrote, “In the Spiritual Exercises themselves there seems to be an inbuilt tension between immediacy and mediation, between personal freedom and obedience, between universalism and ecclesiocentrism, between horizontal openness to the world and reverence for the sacred and the divine.”

To those tensions, we can add many others, including the tensions that surround the way human societies honor love and commitment, and the tensions we especially feel when our moral convictions cause wounds for family or friends, coworkers or fellow citizens.

We will not solve these tensions. There will be tough conversations. But we do have the choice to work through the tensions constructively, with a preference for persons over issues, with humility, and with a spirit charged by the words of St. Paul: “For I long to see you, that I may share with you some spiritual gift so that you may be strengthened, that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by one another’s faith, yours and mine.” (Romans 1:11-12)

Posted by Matt Emerson.


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