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Ross Douthat on the Ideal of Marriage: Male-Female Complementarity and “The Order of Creation”

Ross Douthat in today’s New York Times admits that most of the arguments on which American neocon-style opposition to same-sex marriage is based are flat wrong: our definition of “traditional” marriage is hardly universal, as the religious and political right wishes to claim; polygamy, not monogamy, is the default setting for marriage in many cultures; and far from being raised by one man and one woman, many children around the world have historically been reared by a village.

Even so, Douthat wants to continue the drumbeat against same-sex marriage.  And it’s interesting to see where he goes as he tries to retrieve a foundation for his opposition.  He goes to the same place that other Catholic neocon thinkers like Robert P. George go, the place to which evangelicals and other groups with little else in common with Catholic natural-law thinking are now also going as they seek to craft a compelling argument, any compelling argument, against gay marriage.

He goes to John Paul II’s theology of the body with its insistence on the complementarity of the sexes.  In other words, he grounds his opposition to same-sex marriage on the assertion that the genders are, in some essential, irreducible, “natural” and divinely “ordered” way, inherently opposite to each other.  And that marriage exists to tame and order the natural opposition of the genders.  Without that opposition all you can have is a simulation of real marriage.

It is essential to marriage that the spouses be different, Douthat proposes—and different in a way that surpasses any of the differences that same-sex partners may bring to the table.  The difference that is all-important for a real marriage is gender difference, and that difference is grounded in an essentialist understanding of the nature of man and woman which makes the two into irreducible opposites.  Men sleep around.  Women want to sleep with the highest-status male possible.

Marriage throws these two ravenous tigers—promiscuous daddy, cunning, designing mommy seeking higher status—together and makes them work at living together.  Grimly and for all they are worth.  For the sake of the salvation of the world.  And for the sake of the children.

On this arrangement alone, on this social institution uniquely, depends the salvation—the order—of the world.  Let men avoid being yoked to a woman who tames their promiscuity, and let women keep shopping around for the male mate of highest status, and who knows what discord might ensue at a cosmic level?

Only this sort of marriage can create, Douthat proposes, the unique kind of domestic life in which children can best be brought to well-developed maturity.  Children need to see the tiger of Daddy’s whoring and of Mommy’s sly unstinting search for a higher-standing male caught and tamed, in order to turn into psychologically healthy adults with an edge on those poor unfortunates deprived of that drama in their households as they grow up.

What lurks at the murky bottom of this new (since it began with John Paul II) gender-complementarity argument about divine “order” and “nature” is precisely the thing that Judge Walker wanted to point out about most arguments for traditional marriage: they rest on the insupportable belief that there is something inherently fixed and unchangeable about gender roles due to the biological difference in the sexes.  The gender-complementarity argument seeks to find a way around the obvious fact that we accept the marriage of a non-procreative man and a woman as a real and “traditional” marriage, while we kick and scream against the thought of two people of the same gender marrying because, we claim, they cannot procreate.

It wants to move around that marriage-is-for-procreation argument because marriage is clearly not for procreation if we permit a man and a woman who cannot or will not have children to marry.  The justification for traditional marriage grounded in John Paul II’s theology of the body imagines that it has discovered an irrefutable argument to counter those who, like Judge Walker, note that marriage, as a social institution, has moved away from state-decreed gender roles, and that marriage as it now exists has long since departed from the notion that the two spouses must agree to play the role of mutually opposing opposites, each with an assigned task.  Because one is male and one is female.

The neocon application of John Paul II’s theology of the body believes it has discovered an unanswerable argument for the superiority of “traditional” marriage when it maintains that masculinity and femininity are encoded in the “order of creation,” and that we tamper with that order (and the marital arrangement it implies) at our peril.

From a theological standpoint, the most important question to ask about this argument is where in scripture and tradition one finds it written that the order of the cosmos and of social institutions depends on identifying and maintaining an essential difference in the sexes that goes beyond biological difference?  Where is it written that men have male souls and women have female souls?

And if gender difference and marriage revolving around this difference are the key to the gospels, why did Jesus not marry?  Why did he not marry a woman?  Why did he almost never speak of the centrality of marriage, and why did he even appear to disdain marriage and family when he told us that following him and seeking the reign of God takes precedence over the claims of family?  Why did he transgress the taken-for-granted gender roles of his day (which mandated female subordination) by permitting women to follow and touch him, by eating with impure women as well as with men?

If maintaining a natural, God-given, established order of creation (and of society, based on the divine order of creation) was so central to Jesus’s message, why do the writers of the Christian scriptures so constantly and vehemently insist that those joined to Christ become a new creation, and that the old creation has passed away?  And that in Christ there is no male nor female, because the new creation abolishes such non-essential differences, with the opposition (and subordination) we have long sought to ground in our perception of such differences?

With its appeal to an immutable “divine order” encoded into creation by the Creator, and with its curiously obtuse insistence on the irreducible difference of masculinity and femininity (a difference that goes well beyond biological difference), the theology of the body and its adherents want to do two primary things.  They want, first, to ground fixed gender roles in nature.

And they want then to assure that no matter what other cultural renegotiations take place, what it means to be a man remains constant.  Constant and grounded in nature and divine order.

The theology of the body is all about maintaining the domination of the world by heterosexual men in the name of God and divine order.  No matter how wildly novel its arguments become as each straw-man argument of patriarchy and homophobia is demolished in the debate about same-sex marriage, that assertion will continue to dominate the male-female complementarity argument appealing to the theology of the body.

Because that is what this theology is designed to do.  And what it is all about.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 9 August 2010.


16 Responses

  1. In addition to making the essentialist argument about gender, Douthat also engages in something equally specious about the psychology of identity: basically it is the argument that if you, the person unlike me, is my equal, then I am damaged because I am no longer superior and special. (He says that heterosexual marriage as a cradle for the rearing of biological children will lose something if it is not differentially supported by the law.) By this reasoning, perhaps we should say that adopted children shouldn’t have inheritance rights, because allowing them equality under the law will damage the standing of biological offspring in a way that undermines biological parents bearing and rearing their biological children. It is specious psychology to say that granting equality to diverse parties causes harm to those who can no longer be superior. Disparate equals can happily coexist, and the fear that this is not possible is first of all a fantasy, and second of all a fantasy that we cannot bend public policy to meet, because it causes real harm, as Judge Walker points out, to those who must be accorded second-class status.

    • Extremely well put, rshoffman, and extremely insightful.

      You’re absolutely right: lurking behind this fear of uncontrolled difference is the assumption that if those I’ve viewed as inferior become my equals, I lost my own superiority. The theology of the body and its application to issues of sexual orientation is driven by fear–fear of the loss of male domination and male control, fear of the female if it is unfettered and outside male control, fear of males who do not mirror to the dominant male his dominant self image, and so forth.

      It seems to me so much energy that could be so constructive in many areas of life is tied up in this quest to assure male superiority and male dominance. I also wonder why religious groups, many of them, don’t see this and work to stop the siphoning off of creative energy necessary to deal with the really significant challenges in our world.

  2. Bill,

    “The theology of the body is all about maintaining the domination of world by heterosexual men in the name of God and divine order.”

    C’mon. Do you have any evidence to suggest that is true?

    Douthat is simply suggesting that we have seeing a brave new world, which may be better in some ways, but is also causing some confusion about values. One of the consequences of “marriage equality” is the scandals it helps perpetrate regarding the value of commitment and loving relationships.

    • David, thank you for your response. I’m not sure I take the point of the final paragraph, so I’ll address the question in the second paragraph.

      Yes, I have evidence to back up my assertion about the theology of the body. For the theological basis of that claim, I invite you to visit my blog Bilgrimage, and read all the postings that have tags “theology of the body” and “male-female complementarity.”

      I can also point you to quite a few theologians who make a critique of the theology of the body similar to mine–in particular, feminist theologians.

      Finally, I’d note the commitment of the pope who developed the theology of the body to a patriarchal understanding of church and society, which is written right into his documents on the theology of the body. That pope suppressed, by papal fiat, all discussion of women’s ordination, and informed women that their role in church and world is rooted in their biological nature, and has to do with serving men.

      The Catholic church is not known for the wide latitude it gives women to serve in leadership roles in the church. Women are excluded from the clerical state, and therefore from governing power in the church. The pope who developed the theology of the body developed that theology in part to remind women that their role in the church is not to govern or rule, but to serve–to serve in a way that goes well beyond the call of men to be servants as well.

    • Bill,

      I understand that there might be a fair bit of criticism of the theology of the body. That hardly proves an intent by heterosexual men to dominate the world.

      Douthat was making the point that there is an order to creation that is getting lost in the discussion. The ideality of men and women raising children in a loving, caring environment is being lumped together with other relationships as if they were the same.

      • David, I didn’t (and wouldn’t) write that there’s “an intent by heterosexual men to dominate the world.”

        The words to which you objected said,

        “The theology of the body is all about maintaining the domination of world by heterosexual men in the name of God and divine order.”

        And I certainly understand Douthat’s point. But I’m contesting it. If he himself admits that the majority of children all around the world have always been raised not by a man and a woman in our middle-class family unit, but by various configurations of people (often involving aunts, uncles, grandparents, and neighbors), then the facts themselves undercut the “ideality” of the marital arrangement to which you point.

        And if one study after another shows not only that children are not harmed by being raised by same-sex parents, but often thrive in same-sex households when those households are compared to opposite-sex ones, then how can you and others maintain that language of the “ideal” without discussing the facts that are on the table?

        It really is all about some symbolism revolving around male and female that seems essential to the order of the world, isn’t it? And isn’t it interesting (and noteworthy) that that symbolism always predictably shores up the claims of heterosexual men to some primacy in the order of the universe, and the subjection of women and gay men to heterosexual men?

      • Bill,

        It’s hard to tell from your words if you really understood Douthat’s points.

        His main point is that a lifelong, committed heterosexual relationship in which children are raised to adulthood is a unique and worthwhile ideal to preserve and honor.

        Douthat’s second point is more interesting – as we drift away toward a more open and understanding community, will we understand why the Western world has, for so many years, preserved and honored the husband/wife relationship as a unique and worthwhile institution?

        • David, thank you for offering to help me understand Douthat. But I believe it is you who are not quite grasping some of his points.

          You state,

          His main point is that a lifelong, committed heterosexual relationship in which children are raised to adulthood is a unique and worthwhile ideal to preserve and honor.

          But Douthat writes plainly,

          What we think of as “traditional marriage” is not universal. The default family arrangement in many cultures, modern as well as ancient, has been polygamy, not monogamy. The default mode of child-rearing is often communal, rather than two parents nurturing their biological children.

          Douthat is willing to give up the point you are stressing in your summary of what you take to be his main point. Have you read his essay? How can you summarize his main point as you do, given the statements I have just excerpted from his article. Ditto for your second point.

          You seem not to be hearing Douthat clearly. He is jettisoning the primary arguments on which the case vs. same-sex marriage has been grounded, because–as he plainly and clearly notes–they are wrong.

  3. Bill, the neo-cons sure have a way of spinning things in such a way to support their vision of reality. The theology of the body has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

    If Jesus had believed in a theology of the body, he would have preached about it. He did not. That is proof enough for me that the theology of the body was written by men and for men and really is not theological, but illogical. It should really be called Theology of the Illogical.

    I’ve said it before: marriage is only going to be as good, divine, healthy as the couple decide with their own Free Will.

    People who believe men are essentially just animals with animal instincts to be tamed, and women who are just after money or to be taken care of, seems to imply they are not living in the reality of our times in which males and females are a very diverse group of people with varying male and female characteristics evolving within us. I sense Ross does not have any sense of the spiritual aspects within people that transcend biological and material urges.

    • Butterfly,

      I agree that marriages will only be as good as people make them. That argues more for a dismantling of the institution of marriage than for the expansion. Or, less drastically, it argues that same sex unions cannot be given anything by the government or the Church if they don’t already have it. It’s similar to the ’60’s argument that marriage was just a piece of paper.

      • David, what I said in no way is an argument against marriage or the dismantling of the institution of marriage. How you came up with that, I have no clue. It does not argue anything. I did not mention whether the couple was gay or heterosexual either.

        btw, to some, for better or worse, marriage is just a piece of paper, and that is very unfortunate. To some it is all about the pre-nuptial agreement & property. For some it is really about just one thing: love. They can’t live without each other and government or religion really should not interfere but should support such unions. A happy, loving, intelligent nation of people is a very productive one. It’s really in our own best interest to support gay marriage.

    • Butterfly, I very much agree. It is difficult, indeed, to show how the theology of the body (which takes Genesis as its primary text but focuses very little on the gospels) is rooted in the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus–for the reasons that the final paragraphs of my postings lays out.

      Jesus himself was unmarried, and the gospels are in key respects antithetical to marriage. They subordinate marriage to the reign of God. In his behavior, Jesus persistently challenges the taboos of his faith community and culture, which made contact between a rabbi and women well-nigh impossible.

      The strange claim of contemporary Christians concerned that the patriarchal symbols around which they’ve constructed their worlds are slipping–the strange claim that all scripture and tradition revolve around the notion of male-female complementarity–is not deeply rooted in tradition at all. And certainly not in what we know of Jesus’s life and ministry and teachings from the gospels.

  4. […] Yesterday, I wrote, “The theology of the body is all about maintaining the domination of the world by heterosexual men in the name of God and divine order.” […]

  5. I appreciate your views in this post and the one you wrote after it. I am wary of the Theology of the Body for the reasons you have listed, but I cannot help but appreciate the good it may do in the long run. For so long the Catholic Church focused on the heavenly and spiritual as being ideal and neglected the body and the physical, even seeing them as sinful. The Theology of the Body asserts the beauty of the body and human sexuality. If we are going to see an aceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in the Church, then it is going to have to start with viewing physical creation as holy. Until theologicans can work out a systematic theology that incorporates this view with a historical-critical reading of scripture (something the Thooelogy of the Body lacks), then the Church is going to continue to teach the dualist theology that has been passed down throughout the centuries.

    I am willing to assert that in this sense, the Theology of the Body is a step in the right direction despite the patriarchical framework in which it was created.

    • Lovingrace, thanks for these insightful comments. And I agree with them.

      The Catholic tradition would do well to move back beyond the neo-Platonic disdain for the flesh, and to reappropriate the Jewish roots from which Christianity originated, which do not share that disdain. It seems particularly ironic for a sacramental religion, one which sees the earthly world embodying the divine, to have taken that neo-Platonic turn.

      The one thing that seems essential to me, though, if the theology of the body is used as a step in the direction I’ve just described, is this: it has to do an honest, astute sociological examination of the power dynamics that exist all through the relationship of the genders to each other, and of straight people to gay people. To be useful, this theology needs a level of sociological awareness that is just not there in its appeal to natural law.

      And so, under the guise of rediscovering the embodied dimension of theology and of the Christian life, this theology imports into itself social designations of power that give privilege to men and rob women of privilege, and that accord privileged status to straight folks at the expense of gay ones.

  6. […] my reply to this reader’s response links to what I have posted at Open Tabernacle (and here) on this subject, I’m cross-posting to Open Tabernace what I say on Bilgrimage in reply to my […]

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