The Catholic Archbishop of St Paul and Minneapolis, John Nienstedt, has written a newspaper column
defending the traditional family. He wants state legislators to pass a marriage amendment which would define marriage by law as a union between one man and one woman. This would rule out same sex marriages.
The column has been criticised
by P.Z. Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota. He describes himself on his website as a godless liberal.
So which man made the best arguments? I'm happy for readers to make their own judgement in the comments, but it seems clear to me that Professor Myer's rebuttal of the archbishop was a weak one. In fact, Myers makes a couple of extraordinary arguments which illustrate some of the worst tendencies within modern liberalism.
Here's round one. The archbishop wrote:
We might learn caution from experience. Back in the early 1970s, the experts told us that no-fault divorce would liberate women from bad marriages without affecting anyone else. We now know that as many as one-third of women fall into poverty with their children as a result of divorce. Social science caught up late with the common-sense wisdom that children need a mom and a dad working together to protect them.
The professor replies:
Why do women fall into poverty after a divorce? Because they are discriminated against in the workplace, because they get the bulk of the financial obligation in caring for any children, and because many men (and, I suspect, especially the men women want to divorce) fail to meet their responsibilities in contributing to child care. The problem isn't divorce, the problem is a patriarchal culture, which the church does nothing to reverse and actually promotes, and the male privilege that allows fathers to escape with diminished responsibility.
Proponents of same sex marriage often argue that it won't affect anyone else. The archbishop replies that the same claim was made about no-fault divorce in the early 1970s. But no-fault divorce did end up having wider consequences, including leaving up to a third of women in conditions of poverty. This, argues the archbishop, is a result of families no longer having both a father and a mother working together to protect the children.
Not so, replies the professor. If single mother families are less well off it's because of a patriarchal culture which discriminates against women and which privileges men.
The professor seems to think that a man who finds himself kicked out of the family by his wife for no good reason will be as keen a provider as a man who keeps a secure and respected place within it. It's an unreasonable position to take.
It could, in fact, be argued that the professor has things the wrong way around. It is not a patriarchal culture which leads to men having "diminished responsibility" in the family. Think back even to the 1950s. Whatever the faults of that period, men worked hard to support their families.
It is the more recent shift to a kind of matriarchal culture within certain social classes which is leaving women vulnerable to poverty. Matriarchal cultures give women sexual autonomy but they fail to bring men into a stable and productive role within the family. (There's a lengthy but interesting work on this here
OK, here is the archbishop's next argument:
it has long been acknowledged that marriage is not just about the happiness of adults but concerns the well-being of society -- that is, the common good. Marriage exists in civil law primarily in order to provide communal support for bringing mothers and fathers together to care for their children.
The professor's response? He concedes that marriage is one method for sharing the task of child-rearing. But it's not a method that impresses him:
so does this priest support the idea of communes? That's even more efficient, and I can tell you that just two people, separated from other family support by the demands of their jobs, really have to struggle to keep their sanity. This is hard work, not that a celibate bureaucrat would know.
And I think that if you look back over history, most cultures have seen it as the responsibility of a whole tribe to help raise children, not just two people. This convention of assigning all responsibility to just two and only two, who are necessarily in a heterosexual relationship, is new and weird.
We are supposed to believe that two biological parents being the primary caregivers is a "new and weird" idea. It's not. The father and the mother have been central throughout the Western tradition. From wikipedia
The organization of the pre-industrial family is now believed to be similar to modern types of family ...
Family types of pre-industrial Europe belonged to two basic groups, the simple household system (the nuclear family) and the joint family system (the extended family).
I doubt if too many women today would want to opt for the extended family system. It meant living under your father-in-law's roof. Most women, I expect, would prefer their own separate house, and to have their mothers visit them for support, i.e. the simple household system, which has existed for a long time in the West.
As for communes, they might be more efficient in some kind of abstract theoretical way, but they have never proven to be a realistic or desirable option in practice. It's a castles in the sky kind of argument. The archbishop sounds more grounded in comparison.
Finally, there's this argument from the archbishop:
What will happen to children growing up in a world where the law teaches them that moms and dads are interchangeable and therefore unnecessary, and that marriage has nothing intrinsically to do with the bearing and raising of children? Do we really want first-graders to be taught that gay marriage is OK, or that the influence of a mother and a father on the development of a child somehow doesn't matter?
Which drew this reply from the professor:
I think a world where moms and dads are interchangeable in their roles and responsibilities in child-raising would be a fine place to live. Aside from nursing (and again, biologists will fix that someday, too), men and women can change diapers, attend PTA meetings, play ball, give hugs, cook, and read bedtime stories equally well, with individual variation. Interchangeability does not imply that they are unnecessary. I grew up with a mom and dad who could both read to me; that did not imply to my mind that they were therefore both superfluous ...
Well, you can see from this that the professor takes his liberalism seriously. He looks forward to the day when gender is made not to matter. He even wants biologists to one day "fix" things so that men are able to breastfeed. He can accept individual variation but not sex variation and so he welcomes the idea of the interchangeability of men and women and of a unisex parental role.
But the professor doesn't understand the point that the archbishop is making. The archbishop writes later in his column that, "gay marriage would certainly be a declaration by the government that we have officially abandoned the ideal that children need both a mom and dad."
And this is certainly the case. If the state gives its approval to gay marriage, then it is making official the idea that children do not need both a mother and a father. This then reinforces the message that men are unnecessary to family life. Men who accepted this would not be as strongly committed to their role within the family. Women who accepted this would not be as strongly committed to keeping their husband within the family.
It's an important point as few marriages are idyllic the whole way through. Most married couples would admit to having gone through "rough patches". If a woman believes that fathers are dispensable within family life, then there won't be the same active effort to hold things together. Family stability will take another blow. So there's a reason for society to insist that the paternal role has unique value.
You cannot at the same time hold that the paternal role has unique value and then give official sanction to same sex marriage. That would be a mixed message.
I'm not suggesting that the archbishop has made the best case possible - I thought he could have developed his key points further. But the professor's arguments sound crude in comparison. As for the professor's suggestion that men be "fixed" so that they can breastfeed and be truly interchangeable, that suggests a mind made unhealthy by ideology.
So I award the points in this bout to the archbishop.