As one would expect, the recent election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, the new head of the Catholic Church, has triggered a flurry of criticism in reaction to his unabashed anti-gay marriage views. I understand where these criticisms come from. I also understand my community's frustration and occasional anger. And in many respects, I actually agree. Yet ... here I would like to dissect the different parts of a debate -- the support of same-sex marriage by religious institutions -- that have become too predictable not to hide something far more interesting underneath its surface.
The controversy is not unique to homosexual marriage. Observe however that rare are those today who rant because the Catholic Church refuses to accept another major modification of the marital institution: divorce. According to the Catholic Church millions of divorcees across the world live in sin for having abandoned their spouse. And if in addition they have remarried, they also commit the sin of adultery (a situation that can prove quite disconcerting, if not painful, for divorced Catholics).
In fact, when pushed a bit further, a comparison between same-sex marriage and divorce can prove particularly enlightening. Why is it infinitely easier for us today to accept that the Church still refuses to validate divorce while on the other hand we demand that it recognizes same-sex marriage? From a Roman Catholic perspective, both issues are equally unsettled, so why? The answer to this question is twofold. The first reason is obvious: while divorce is forbidden by the Catholic Church, it is allowed and recognized today by most states, even in countries that are predominantly Roman Catholic. This has yet to be the case of same-sex marriage. But however important the recognition of same-sex unions by the secular state might be, this should not hide from view the other reason, equally important in my opinion, that compels us to seek recognition from religious figures.
While marriage is a social institution, it is also a highly symbolic ritual, and as such it is deeply imbued with meaning. But the meaning of a ritual as paramount as marriage goes far beyond its definition(s) and the many rights and duties that it entails. The vast works of remarkable scholars, such as Claude Levis-Strauss, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, teach us that rituals find their roots -- their meaning and their purpose -- in the myths of the particular culture that practices them.
Rituals fulfill a double function. First, by codifying meticulously a particular domain of human life, rituals help make life more predictable. Repeated identically over generations, they have provided a little bit of certainty and security in a world that desperately lacks both. And since prehistory, rituals have been the best antidote human societies have found to cope with the unbearable chaos of their existence.
Second, rituals relate all key moments in human life to a time of perfection -- the Golden Age, the Garden of Eden, Heaven, you name it... They reiterate a primordial deed or moment that occurred at the beginning (or new beginning) of time when the human and divine plans were one. They connect human life to the sacred. They make human life sacred. And by sacred I mean both divine and quintessentially human, ever-present, eternal and universal; I mean perfect, or according to Platonic thought, true, good, and beautiful.
I concede that marriage was not always and everywhere viewed as sacred; its meaning and importance vary among human cultures. But marriage as we know it here in the West, which emerged first as a secular institution in the early years of the Roman Empire, survived and flourished in the West thanks to the Church. It is by and large the Church that made marriage the centerpiece of Western society. One consequence of this is that the symbolic meaning of our Roman-Judeo-Christian version of marriage is solidly attached to the Judaic myth of Adam and Eve. "Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said: 'This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.' That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Genesis 2:22-24).
Despite the split of marriage into a secular institution on the one hand and religious institution on the other, marriage today remains anchored to the same symbolic image: the procreative union of one man and one woman. If the symbolic correspondence is clearly acknowledged (if not imposed) by the Church, it subsists at the subliminal level in the secular discourse on marriage. Why? Because while the institution and ethic of marriage have evolved significantly since the so-called separation of the State and the church, no solid symbolic alternative has ever succeeded in displacing, let alone erasing, the old Judeo-Christian myth. Even denied, the myth remains alive, consciously or sub-consciously, including among non religious people. (Interestingly evolutionary biologists found it "natural" to call the most distant male and female ancestors of the modern human lineage by the same names: Adam and Eve.)
The battle for the acceptance of same-sex marriage has often been compared to the painful history of interracial marriage. I find the comparison limited and ultimately misleading. There is nothing in the Judeo-Christian symbolism of marriage that inherently prohibits the union of a man and a woman of different skin colors. Same-sex marriage, however, represents a serious departure from the original model depicted in the myth of Adam and Eve. I believe the issue is better understood when we compare gay marriage to divorce.
Jesus's teaching regarding divorce leaves no doubt: "What God has joined together, let no one separate" (Mark 10:9). Yet, despite Jesus's unequivocal injunction, the Reformation movement and later Modernity helped divorce become progressively legal in most of the Christian world. Divorce offers a clear example of a mismatch between secular laws and the sacred texts and a great template to help us find a resolution to the current conflict: Divorce is recognized by the State and some Christian Churches but not by the Catholic Church. For the Catholic Church, the operation remains simply invisible. Yet, pressures on the Catholic Church to recognize it have become marginal today.
In the end, I suggest we leave the Pope alone because he and his Church are not exactly the problem, and even less the solution. A hypothetical acceptance of same-sex marriage by the Roman Catholic Church will fail to provide what same-sex lovers need from spiritual leaders: not only the acceptance of their relationships by society at large, but first and foremost a testimony of the sacredness of their unions. But the myths of Judeo-Christianity are completely silent about homosexual love as we mean it today: the explicitly sexual love between two adults of the same sex. In fact the Judeo-Christian cosmogony is fundamentally inconsistent with concepts such as modern homosexuality and gender equality. In this respect gay people live in a symbolic desert: Who we are and how we love is nowhere represented in the myths of our modern/postmodern culture. And it might be time for us to see this as a problem -- as our problem. (If you are interested in reading more about this, I would like to redirect you to my recently released book The Missing Myth: A New Vision of Same Sex Love)
We cannot blame the pope for being consistent with his own worldview. We can blame him even less for the deficiencies in our own worldview. "To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete" said Buckminster Fuller. Anti homosexual prejudice strives on a lack of a powerful alternative. Social acceptance has a structure to it, and like any structure it has a foundation: the connection to the sacred. We have yet to create a worldview that is consistent with the love we bear in our hearts. We have yet to write the stories that will demonstrate--to all--the normality, purpose, and beauty of same-sex relationships. We have yet to invent a vision of the universe that celebrates who we are.